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TROUBLE IN PARADISE

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By Bill Lundquist

Pilot Staff Writer

For a comparatively bad day, it started out nice. I decided this was the day to select my wife's black pearl, her 29th anniversary present.

Like most hotels in French Polynesia, the Sofitel Ia Ora had its own black pearl shop. Grown in the Tuamotu Islands, black pearls are not necessarily black, but come from black-lipped oysters.

The pearls can be white, blue, green, gray or black. They are also quite expensive, and the collar of pearls worn by our saleswoman must have been worth $30,000. It had also been an anniversary present. I was trying to figure out how to afford just one pearl.

Tahitian black pearls actually cost just as much there as they do in Brookings. Still, there is something special about buying them where they are grown.

The mistake we made, however, was buying a gold chain for the pearl pendant there. It cost three times what it would have cost in Brookings.

We were having a great time, however. The tall and elegant saleswoman was one of the most helpful and friendly Tahitians we were to meet.

She showed us several trays of pearl pendants, and told us one would stand out. Pearls seek their owners in French Polynesia.

That turned out to be the case. My wife chose a heart-shaped pendent of white gold with a gray keshi in the center.

A keshi is basically a pearl without a nucleus. My wife preferred the more natural shape.

I tried to talk her into a larger, more expensive pearl, but she would have none of it. As if to seal the deal, a mo'o, one of the small yellow geckos that inhabit every building in French Polynesia, dropped out of the rafters and lay stone dead next to our pearl.

We believe the spirit of the mo'o entered the pearl and came back to Brookings to live with us. Sure, it sounds crazy here, but such things happen in the South Pacific.

I'd read that black pearls are the only thing that you can bargain over in French Polynesia, but our saleswoman just smiled and said there is no bargaining.

We were, however, promised a refund would be mailed to us for the $40 in customs duty we paid on the pearl.

We had to fill out a complicated form, get it stamped by officers at the airport, and mail it from Papeete to Paris.

When the refund didn't show up by August, we figured it was just another one of those things that doesn't happen in Tahiti.

When it showed up in the middle of October, we realized it was just one of those things that happens slowly.

I later discovered some of the best bargains on black pearls are in the airport shops, which open about an hour before an international flight departs.

Still, ours came with the spirit of a mo'o, and you can't beat that.

Our next obligatory tourist activity was to try to learn how to paddle an outrigger canoe.

The folks at the aquatics center on the beach at our hotel were, to the last person, friendly, enthusiastic and helpful. This is what we'd expected all of French Polynesia to be like. Even the French were warm and charming.

Like most tourists, however, we had no idea how to steer a boat without a rudder. We weren't the only ones just going around in circles.

We worked up a sweat paddling, so I walked through the swimming pool on the way to the restaurant for lunch. There is no dress code, wet or dry, in Tahiti.

Tahitians do fish better than anything else, but all of it is similar to our albacore tuna.

I was getting so tired of swordfish in coconut sauce that I ordered a fishburger, thinking it might be deep-fried white fish. It turned out to be swordfish in coconut sauce, on a bun.

I should have steered clear of the room-temperature mayonnaise. French cooks believe chilling anything kills the flavor.

It was the best homemade mayonnaise I'd ever tasted, which was fortunate, because we were to have a long-lasting relationship.

After lunch, we stepped down off the deck of our overwater bungalow for a little snorkeling.

The current in the warm lagoon was a bit strong that afternoon, so we decided to let it carry us under the bungalows to the other side of the lagoon where we thought we could swim easily to the beach.

The water, however, was shallow, and full of fire coral. All coral can cut you, and is best avoided, but fire coral has evolved stingers to defend itself against parrot fish.

The shallow water was also full of black sea cucumbers, which can burn you, and sea urchins, which can poke through diving fins.

We couldn't walk through this mine field of stinging, biting, burning creatures, and it was too shallow to swim over. After failing to find a passage through the coral, I began to curse the ocean.

Our only choice was to swim back against the current, and we were already exhausted.

We stood up to rest, but the waves kept pushing us toward the fire coral and sea cucumbers.

We finally made it back to our bungalow. My wife was so focused that she swam right past and would have kept going if I hadn't stopped her. Wiser, we stayed in the deeper side of the lagoon from then on.

We sat out on our deck, watching the sunset. The shimmering lights of Papeete soon twinkled across the northwest face of Tahiti, nine miles away from us across the Sea of Moons. A more romantic scene does not exist in this world.

Dinner was rather odd. We were seated at one table, then moved to another, even though the place wasn't half full.

My wife ordered a New Zealand steak, which was legendary, but the French chefs refused to cook it.

She ordered it medium well done, and it looked like they had passed it briefly over the flame of a candle.

She sent it back, but it returned in the same pool of blood, looking like it might get up and moo. We learned to stick with the fish and chicken.

We also had trouble getting the attention of our waiter, who was a strange little old French gnome.

People just sort of show up in the South Pacific. The bartender owned the yacht anchored near our bungalow. He sailed in, liked the place and stayed for a few months.

But back to our waiter, who never seemed to show up with the dessert we'd ordered.

When he did show up, it was not with what we'd ordered, but with a heart-shaped cake with two candles in it.

While we tried to ask what was going on, he made a windbreak out of the menus, lit the candles, and everyone in the restaurant began to sing happy birthday in French.

We began to protest that it wasn't our birthday when we realized that they must be singing happy anniversary to us.

The French Polynesians had arranged a special treat for us in the most confusing way possible. We were grateful and annoyed. That's Tahiti for you.

That was also the night I was struck with what I named "Marama's Revenge" after our tour company.

To be fair, Marama Tours had nothing to do with my affliction, I just liked the ring of the name.

It appeared that someone had spliced an open fire hydrant into my intestines. It wasn't as bad as it sounds, but I couldn't leave our bathroom.

Guidebooks warned us that tropical fruit can cause traveler's diarrhea for those unaccustomed to it, so I had spent the previous four months nearly subsisting on every tropical fruit available in Brookings. Then I dialed back when I got to Tahiti.

No, I blame Marama's revenge on untreated drinking water, and unrefrigerated and undercooked food.

I should not have even brushed my teeth in the tap water, but our hotel's store had run out of bottled water the first day we were there, and never got any more. Just finding enough bottled water to drink was a constant struggle.

I would advise tourists going to French Polynesia to pack more bottled water than anything else, or some water purification tablets or filters.

I had packed a big package of Immodium AD, which is so strong I had previously believed one tablet could plug a hole in the Hoover Dam. Now, however, I was popping them like candy, with little effect.

Staying up all night, however, let me take advantage of the glass viewing port in the floor of our bungalow.

By day, every sea urchin near the island seemed to congregate under our bungalow.

At night, however, needle-beaked trumpet fish dominated the scene. An islander told us they are a small type of barracuda.

They are rarely more than a foot long, but their large, sinister eyes made me uncomfortable. They also hunted in organized packs. I think I preferred the sharks.

Next time: I do what any sicker-than-a-dog tourist would do. I go for a walk on the bottom of the lagoon, in a storm.

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