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FAREWELL TO PARADISE

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Mo'o – or Bill and Turi's excellent adventure

Pilot vacation series by Bill Lundquist

"Just how much time did you spend in Tahiti anyway?"

I hear that a lot lately. Some readers think I am still there, e-mailing these stories.

We actually spent only five days and four nights in French Polynesia, but by the end, we were almost as weary of the experience as my publisher and editor are of hearing about it.

Just when you think Tahiti has beaten you down, however, it picks you back up. Our last day there was the second best of all of them.

For one thing, my affliction, whether caused by bad water, unsanitary conditions, undercooked food, or one those viruses currently rampaging through cruise ships, was lifting.

I could once again enjoy a glass of heavenly Rotui pineapple juice with breakfast.

The cloud cover came off, and so did a lot of bathing suit tops when the sun came out.

The Polynesians are modest, but no Frenchwoman, of any age, would be caught with a top on while enjoying a sunny day at the beach.

For the first time, we ventured up the beach beyond our hotel. Here was the Polynesia of the postcards: sugary white sand under swaying coconut palms beside a warm, shimmering blue lagoon.

We were a bit wary of the local guys drinking Hinano beer on the beach, but they smiled and said "Ia Orana" as if they meant it. We returned the favor.

We watched a pretty young vahine (one of the few topless Polynesians on the beach) playing with her infant in the surf.

We strolled out into the lagoon and let the gentle current float us back down the beach.

When we got out to dry off, a French family laid out their blanket nearby. The middle-aged father and mother, along with their three daughters, ranging from about 15 to 5, proceeded to strip buck naked, put on their swimsuits (bottoms only, of course) and enter the lagoon.

Culture is funny. Americans accept the scantiest of string bikinis on the beach, but are shocked by the topless French, who in turn would be shocked by totally nude sunbathing.

Back at the hotel, we let the friendly French at the nautical center talk us into renting an Oxoon.

An Oxoon is something like a giant inner-tube topped by a plastic shell that covers a small engine and provides two molded seats.

A hard plastic disk provides protection from the tropical sun, and gives the whole contraption a slight flying-saucer appearance.

From the designs painted on the bodywork, we guessed that Oxoon must mean turtle in French Polynesia.

We never did figure out how to steer a rudderless outrigger canoe, but our turtle was controlled with a joystick that allowed us to turn on a dime, or just spin in circles.

It wouldn't go faster than 5 mph, but that was enough to splash plenty of lagoon water over the rim of the inner-tube.

We cruised up and down the coast and got our first look at our hotel from the water. We could at last see the mountains and waterfalls behind it.

All too soon, it was time to check out and head for the airport. We were told we had already paid for the night, but we explained Air Tahiti Nui had changed our flights and we had to check out in the afternoon to make our connecting flight and get back to work in Brookings.

For the first time, there was no problem with our all-inclusive deal. We were charged only for bottled water, items from our mini-bar fridge, and water toy rentals.

We were given traditional shell leis that mean we will somehow, someday return to Tahiti. The ones we were given at our hotel were much nicer than the ones we received from our tour company, but we appreciated them all.

The five-minute flight from Moorea across the Sea of Moons to Tahiti was an experience.

Think of those third-world buses you see in the movies loaded with villagers and their kids and animals. Now picture it with wings. Our plane was sort of like that.

I hate boats, but we'd been told the ferry was a much more romantic way to travel between the two islands, and we found that to be true.

Once back at Faaa International, we parked ourselves in the air-conditioned comfort of the cafeteria and munched on open-faced sandwiches.

We listened to the horror stories of a group of American honeymooners who had gone to Bora-Bora. Our tales of mistreatment by the locals paled in comparison.

For the first time on our trip, however, we found these Americans to be even more loud and rude than the French tourists.

Most of the shops in the airport remained closed until about an hour before the night flight, when everything suddenly opened.

We learned that this is the time to shop in Tahiti. Both the prices and selection were good.

When we finally entered our plane, the air conditioning system condensed the humid tropical air into something like dry-ice vapor.

The couple in front of us didn't even wait until take-off to recline their seats squarely into our chests.

They even eked out a couple more inches of room by bracing their feet against the seats in front of them and pushing hard.

We, on the other hand, did not want to recline too far back, because two huge, but uncomplaining, Polynesians were sitting behind us, and we tried to give them as much space as possible.

It was a miserable all-night flight back to Los Angeles, with the flight attendants waking us for meals every time we'd nod off.

We were so glad to get back to America, we nearly kissed the floor at LAX. The folks in customs and the airport spoke with Spanish and street-black accents, but they welcomed us in English, and with smiles. God bless America.

I took one drink out of an airport drinking fountain and dumped the rest of my $4 a bottle Tahitian spring water. Los Angeles city water now tasted like the best I'd ever had.

We were exhausted, and every seat in the airport seemed to be taken, so we went into a restaurant where they sold $10 cheeseburgers.

But what cheeseburgers, and fries, and quesadillas, and fresh lemonade, all with superb service. We had forgotten how much we love this country.

The beauty of Tahiti remains with us to this day, however. Paradise awakened our senses, and everything we encounter appears more beautiful than it once did, even Medford.

At the same time, our every thought is of Tahiti. Now we know what it feels like to be cast out of Eden.

Other visitors have written that Tahiti calls to them constantly, and it's true. Don't go there if you want to be happy anywhere else ever again.

We say to Tahiti, "But you sneered at us, made us sick, even cheated us to a certain extent."

Tahiti raises her haughty chin and says, "What are your petty American concerns to me. Come to me. Behold my wondrous beauty. Inhale my flower-kissed fragrance. Feel the warm caresses of my gentle seas and breezes."

And like the proverbial slack-jawed yokels, we go weak-kneed and can't think of an answer.

We may not see Tahiti again in our lifetimes. Should we ever be fortunate enough to make it through the pearly gates, however, I know we'll take one look around and say, "Ah, Tahiti. It figures."

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