Celebrate Your Life – Experience the World
by J “Kat” Loren : :
We met in a Pearl Grading class at the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, CA. He, a young, blond, quintessential California surfer with a single giant green pearl slung on a leather band around his neck and I, the aging beach bum with a penchant for South Pacific Pearls. “Sometimes there are cheap, last-minute fares from LA to Papeete,” he let me know on the last day of class. “Let me know when you are coming. My girlfriend and I will meet up with you and introduce you to her father, the pearl farmer I work for.”
The following week, a $600 round-trip airfare popped up and I hopped on a flight for Tahiti, armed with my new found knowledge of what to look for in a pearl and eagerly awaiting a close-up glimpse of those spectacular mountain peaks and sandy beaches of the South Pacific archipelago. This trip was so spontaneous that I had no time to book reservations. But who needs reservations in an off-season? Also, I knew I might miss out on meeting my surfer who was on some remote beach surfing but he agreed to meet up towards the end of my week. Meanwhile, he suggested I go directly from the airport to the waterfront, catch a ferry to Moorea, rent a scooter and pearl around the island.
So I did.
Ferries run frequently between the Papeete waterfront and Vaiare, a small bay on Moorea’s east coast. It just so happened that the next ferry was the Aremiti V – a larger, faster, and more comfortable catamaran, which takes 30 minutes to cover the 19km (12 miles) between the islands.
Short of tourists, the bronzed locals, statuesque and adorned with the occasional pearl, sauntered up the gangway and settled onto the upper deck for the ride across surreal blue choppy waters. A perfect breeze cut the heat to a comfortable level. I felt instantly relaxed. Any boat on any water makes me feel at peace. The sultry air played with my long, blond hair as if the islands were already embracing me into their fold.
Disembarking, I spied a scooter rental and a tourist information kiosk. Taking advantage of both, I soon found the Hotel Hibiscus, a local-owned, budget resort that had an available bungalow. I stowed my bag between my knees and the floor of the scooter I rented for the week and roared off to the northern part of the island. The long and windy road swept around stupendous bays that called me to swim. But I had many miles to go and don’t like to drive alone in the dark so I resisted the impulse and made it to the resort just as sunset peaked.
Located on the northwest corner of Moorea, Hotel Hibiscus is surrounded by a lush coconut grove and a beautiful white sand beach. Although slightly farther from the airport and ferry dock than the other resorts on the island, it provided a nice budget friendly option with traditional island charm and the utmost seclusion. It was also a locals’ Sunday lunch hangout complete with musicians strumming guitars after the Sunday church hat and pearl parade of Polynesian beauties fanning themselves in singing their soulful harmonies. It was the perfect place for full immersion in island culture.
“Alone, ma’dam? No one is joining you?” the Tahitian man behind the check in desk raised one eyebrow.
Of course no one travels to these romantic islands alone.
“I’m on a pearl buying trip,” I explained.
Ah. A satisfying answer, apparently. He pointed out my bungalow and suggested the beer and poisson cru in the restaurant that overlooked the water or a short walk into Le Petite Village. A few crab scuttled along the sand trail as I walked to my thatched roof burre (as they call it in Fiji). The bed was a little warped and musty with fumes of salt and sea but comfortable. I wandered quickly back to the restaurant to catch the last of the reds and bursts of orange on blue and sample the Poisson Cru of some unknown raw fish marinated with coconut milk, lime, and bits of onion and tomato. And I fell in love with Tahiti immediately and forever as I sipped a beer and stared at the sun plunging into the outer reef.
The next week was full of serious pearling around.
Every little store on the island boasted some large shell containing dozens of loose, low-grade pearls probably snatched up by young nephews in obscure coves and brought to Aunty’s store. I combed through the dishes, examining each pearl, seeking the ones with high luster and beautiful color and shape, whose blemishes could be hidden in a setting or drilled out and strung along a leather cord. The shopkeepers watched me. They knew that I knew what to look for in a budget pearl that could be transformed from Grade D to Grade A by the skillful placement of a defect in a setting, and pulled out the hidden loot they kept near their cash registers. Ca Va Bien. I discovered many $10 pearls that I could sell to jewelers at home for $200. This trip was sure to pay for itself.
Driving around on my scooter, I met jewelers who would drill holes and create settings that no mainlander could master or later reproduce for me as intricately as the 18 karat gold settings that cradled a few of my newly bought Tahitian pearls. I met beautifully tattooed locals who ever-so-tactfully offered to keep me company in any way I desired. I met ex-pats who took me to private beach party with local musicians and fire dancers twirling around flinging sparks like stars into the night sky. I dined with French couples who lived on the island, spoke limited English and acted as if everyone knows everyone there – and they likely do. Traveling alone is not so bad. It forces you to interact with locals on a more personal level. Unshielded by your significant other or travel partner, you become closer to the heart of the land and the people. I was one step away from falling into the lure of Paradise and becoming a local, never to return to California but I knew I must. Paradise is a vacation mentality. The reality of living on an island is very, very different.
On the final day of pearling around Moorea I drove back to the ferry and returned to Papeete. My surfer boy greeted me at the dock with his beat up, rusty island car. No girlfriend in tow. In a bit of a rush he said they had just harvested and sorted a new crop of pearls and would like to show me their base of operations in Papeete. But of course!
We drove into a seedy part of town and pulled up in front of a white, two-story apartment building, built of concrete decaying at the edges, the stairs revealing a rusting rebar where cement had crumbled away under the strain of salt and sun. Mid-way along the apartment block he stopped at a door that had no doorknob and knocked. “It’s me, “ he half-whispered.
A peephole slid open from the inside and a brown eye peered out.
“I brought the woman I told you about.” He seemed nervous.
But the locks snapped open one after another, clunk, snap, clink, clunk and clunk again. A beautiful Tahitian woman stood on the other side, all smiles, and invited me in. An equally gorgeous half-French, half-Tahitian man about my age sat at an ordinary kitchen table working with a gold chain he was creating for a series of pearls. He nodded at me without looking up from his work.
Within moments, another man appeared from a back room where he unlocked a safe and pulled tray after tray of freshly graded pearls, placed them on the kitchen table before me in the sparsely furnished apartment and said, “Feel free to look and choose the ones you wish.”
Ooppss…they must think I am a big buyer. That explains my nervous friend who knows I’m cash poor but adventure rich. I explained that I am more of a student than a buyer but I wished to purchase a few for myself. They all seemed to relax and embraced the moment and proudly shifted into instructor mode, explaining the pearl farm’s inner workings, the various grades of pearls they set before me, the nuances within the grades as if we had hours to spend together talking about gold and pearls and sun and the bounty of life in paradise. And we did.
All too soon, it was time to leave to catch my flight home.
Although I flew home with a pocket full of pearls and a heart serene, my desire to live in the South Pacific for the rest of my life has never left me and I know it’s a matter of time before I pearl around Tahiti once again. Hopefully, next time, I’ll write about more about romancing that pearling and bring a significant other in tow.
J “Kat” Loren is a Pacific NW-based journalist and author of more than a dozen books. She currently focuses on writing health, fitness, and travel articles. Her blog “Crazi Culture” is a popular read among those who like eclectic topics and travelogues about odd places and adventures. http://www.craziculture.com Jloren.firstname.lastname@example.org
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