AN UNDERWATER ADVENTURE AND THEN MORE POLYNESIAN PARTYING
December 13, 2002 11:00 pm
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Pilot vacation series by Bill Lundquist

Nauseous and dehydrated from "Marama's Revenge," I followed our guide book's advice and breakfasted on weak tea, yogurt, a boiled egg, and a couple of spoons of white rice.

Thanks to our prepaid package deal, I'd already paid about $17 for this. Take my advice and skip the prepaid meal plan. You may be too sick to take advantage of what you've paid for.

Simply charge your meals to your room and sign off when you leave. It's just as easy, and cheaper in the long run.

Oddly enough, I felt better when I was out doing things, rather than laying in the room concentrating on how sick I was. Thanks to an overdose of Immodium AD, I was able to get out.

I was also determined to not miss my appointment to walk on the bottom of the sea.

The friendly, enthusiastic French (yes, French!) folks at our hotel's aquatic center had used pictures and a video to talk me into signing up for an underwater tour the day before.

I signed us both up for $65, even though my wife was adamant that she wasn't going to get stuffed into one of those hard-helmet diving suits.

I reminded her that she'd said the same thing about snorkeling, now her favorite (well, second-favorite) activity on this vacation.

Everything made this seem like a bad idea, however. Our first true South Pacific rain squall was approaching as our tour time drew near.

We could hear the rain hitting the palm trees from our overwater deck, and sure enough, as we walked to the beach, we found ourselves in a deluge.

Our guides were Thierry, French, and Tariti, Polynesian. We asked them if we should come back after the storm, and they said it wasn't raining under water.

They helped us into an inflatable boat and took us out to the diving platform, which wasn't too far off the end of our bungalow.

In the center of the pontoon platform was a device with four chairs. Hanging above them were four clear bubble helmets attached to weighted chest guards.

They explained how air would be pumped into the helmets, and the pressure would feel a little like driving up a mountain road.

Thierry, in a scuba outfit, told us he would be with us the whole time. The helmets were rated for 250-feet under water, but the bottom of our lagoon was only about 10-12 feet deep.

If anything went wrong, we could easily slip out of the helmets and bob to the surface.

Most of these type of attractions lower the 80-pound apparatus onto you on the deck of a boat, then use assistants to steady you while you try to descend a slippery ladder into the water.

This was much better. We sat down in the chairs, the helmets were lowered by cable until they rested lightly on our shoulders, and the entire chair assembly was lowered to the bottom like an elevator.

All we had to do was stand up and walk out onto the bottom of the sea, which sounds easier than it was.

The bubble helmets distorted our vision, like giant fish-eye lenses. They were so buoyant that we were afraid we would tip over and fall out of them.

We hung onto the guide ropes, but we needn't have worried. We were later told that the weighted bubble helmets are so stable that we could have leaned back and gone to sleep.

Once our ears popped, we were quite comfortable, with plenty of fresh air. The water was calm, and warmer than the air above.

An experienced scuba diver, Thierry was able to teach us a lot about the undersea life with gestures.

He brought along stale French rolls, and they attracted fish like crazy. Our lagoon's resident sting ray, Ray Charles, was unfortunately nowhere in sight, but we had seen plenty of rays the day before, and had even seen a rare eagle ray glide under the walkway to our bungalow.

Thierry picked up urchins and sea-cucumbers for our close inspection, and even took pictures of us with our disposable underwater cameras (this year's Christmas card photo).

After 20 minutes, Thierry put on a sad mime face and pointed to the chairs. When our elevator broke the surface, we were offered warm towels, juice and fresh coconut in the shell.

Tariti and Thierry chatted with us like long-lost friends who couldn't bear to see us leave. When we were ready, they took us back to shore.

Trust me, even if you can't swim, would never snorkel, and suffer from claustrophobia (like my wife), you will love walking with the fishes. Two people simply cannot buy a better time for $65.

After the storm, the sky remained leaden, but the lagoon was as flat and calm as glass.

The only thing I desired for lunch was a plate of French fries. I'd had it with grilled fish and French cooking. I was sick and wanted good-old American comfort food.

We spent a leisurely afternoon, snorkeling to the beach from our bungalow and resting on the sand.

Later, we watched an octopus, pursued by a pack of needle-nosed trumpet fish, darting from one clump of coral to the next under the walkway to our bungalow.

The octopus would make a run for a clump of corral, but was immediately surrounded by six trumpet fish, long jaws pointed straight at him.

The octopus quickly changed color to match the sand or coral, but nothing he could do shook the trumpet fish off his trail. We eventually lost sight of the hunt, and don't know how it turned out.

It was Polynesian Buffet Night, and I missed most of the best meal of our vacation. What I really wanted was soothing American chicken broth.

What I got, of course, was Polynesian fish broth, which, oddly enough, turned out to be just as soothing.

As with every meal, our companions were the various cats, dogs and chickens that always roam under the tables in the open-air Tahitian restaurants, begging for scraps.

They are fairly wild, and will try to bite anyone who tries to pick them up, but they are too well-mannered to get up on the tables. They sit politely and wait for generosity or spills.

One dog, however, committed a serious breach of etiquette by briefly chasing a cat. The other animals looked disgusted at such boorish behavior.

With the buffet came another dance show, and this troupe was even better, if possible, than the group we'd watched two nights earlier.

Once again, the charm, grace and sensual beauty of the "young gods and goddesses" mesmerized us.

It is said that Captain Bligh was really not a cruel man by the standards of his day. Who, however, on the Bounty would have wanted to return to civilization after seeing the Tahitians dance? Not me.

Historians now agree that it was Tahitian women, not Capt. Bligh's cruelty, who caused the mutiny on the Bounty.

Without the mutiny, Tahiti would be virtually unknown in the world. It was the Marlon Brando version of the mutiny that brought modern tourism to Tahiti.

With the help of the well-armed mutineers, the Pomare family came to rule all the islands.

Later, one of them paid off his dentist with the gift of Tetiaroa atoll, which was purchased by Brando when he fell in love with his Tahitian co-star.

Tourists can now visit Brando's island, and his beautiful vahine from the movie still runs the hotel.

Everything in Tahitian history is linked, and yesterday blends right into tomorrow.

Anyway, I had a fresh camera battery to record the dance show this time. Unfortunately, we didn't have the best table for viewing, and rude French tourists (that's almost redundant) popped up in front of me wherever I stood.

A few of them decided the show was interfering with their conversation and tried to shout over it. And they call Americans overbearing.

After dinner, we sat out on our overwater deck in the languid warm air, looking at the Southern Cross and the lights of Papeete blazing across the Sea of Moons.

It was our final night in paradise. Due to the last minute change in flight times by Air Tahiti Nui, and our inability to mesh that with our connecting flights back to Oregon, we had to give up one of the nights in our bungalow that we'd paid for and check out the next afternoon. We were to make the most of what time we had left.

Next time: just another day in paradise.