2001

FIJI

CHRISTMAS DAY, 2000. I am on a flight from Los Angeles to Nadi, Fiji. I had arrived at San Francisco airport at 5:10am for a 6am flight to LA, but I missed it because the lines were so long. The people at DELTA AIRLINES really didn’t care much about that – they had plenty of other problems to deal with. So I walked over to Alaska Airlines, bought a ticket, and made it to LA in time to catch my international flight to Fiji.

On the flight, I started reading a book called The Island of Lost Maps, by Miles Harvey. It’s not incredibly well written, but it tells the true story of a man who went to many public and university research libraries’ rare book rooms, checked out books from the 16th and 17th centuries, cut the maps out, and sold them as a dealer. This is one of those little history books, like The Professor and the Madman or Longitude, that are very popular these days and that I really enjoy. I had just finished one called Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife, and really loved it. So I was well occupied on the 10.5-hour flight. Eventually, I gave the little book to Holly, the naturalist at the Cousteau Resort.

The owners of all the hotels in Nadi (pronounced “Nandy”) have carefully arranged that no international flights connect with any domestic flights, so you have to spend the night in Nadi on the way in, and usually on the way out, of Fiji. Thus, I spent my first night in Fiji at a completely nondescript Sheraton I hope never to see again. The next day I took a breathtaking flight to Fiji’s third-largest island, Taveuni (see the map at http://www.lib.utexas.edu/Libs/PCL/Map_collection/islands_oceans_poles/Fiji.jpg ). Fiji covers quite a lot of area, and the islands are all stunning.

As with most Pacific islands, there are no sand beaches. Most islands have rocky beaches or mangrove swamps at the shore. Almost all islands are surrounded by a lagoon – a calm shallow between the shore and the reef that encircles the island some hundreds of meters away. The ocean crashes into the reef, leaving the lagoon a tranquil refuge for reef fish and snorkelers. If the reef sticks up enough to walk on, it’s called a Motu, and that’s where the sand is. Most motus are uninhabitable unless you’re a coconut palm or a hermit crab. A ring of motus without an island in the middle is called an atoll.

Taveuni

I was taken to a place called Dive Taveuni, a spectacular resort on a beautiful island. The bures (bungalows) are exquisite, the main lodge is great, and the pool is spectacular. This was, without question, the place with the best food of my entire trip. The cook, Olive, went out of her way to prepare unbelievable food for me, and every day was a surprise. The only other guests were two Japanese divers who spoke little English. It didn’t matter. It was great to just hang out here and write, and read, and relax. The sunsets during dinner were only interrupted by the tens of thousands of mosquitoes hovering like a phalanx of enemy helicopter gun ships. We burned scented candles, covered ourselves with bug spray, and tried to ignore the buzzing. We enjoyed our fantastic meal and the fact that it was the middle of summer and practically the longest day of the year.

Because of the coup a few months ago, most of the places were deserted. You could get a room in a guest house for $20, or you can stay at resorts, as I did. But Fiji on $40 a day or even less is certainly possible.

The next morning, I was on the boat with Swiss Fiji Divers, aiming to explore the famous Somosomo Strait. There were about 8 divers on board, two from Australia who knew the waters. Not more than 20 minutes into the trip, someone pointed and we saw splashing. Here they came – the bottlenose dolphin bow-riding demonstration team, leaping four abreast out of the water to come play with us. There were about eight of them, and they clearly enjoyed riding just ahead of the boat on the pressure waves coming off the front of the boat. They cris-crossed in front of the bow, playing and jumping and demonstrating that they could clearly outswim us with one fin tied behind their backs. As quickly as they appeared, they vanished, as though we’d exited their home range. I recently learned (and saw on TV) that these dolphins also like to ride ahead of sperm whales as they swim in pods. They must love being pushed forward by the pressure wave in the water.

Next, we saw flocks of birds descending on the water. It’s a sign that schools of tuna surround schools of smaller fish and chase them up to the surface, where they can easily feast on them. The birds show up for a free lunch. In three minutes, it’s all over, and the birds follow the big fish to the next location.

I did four dives in the Strait. The marine life is spectacular. The only disappointment is that the seawater temperature has risen about two degrees in the last few years, practically wiping out tons of coral animals, leading to coral bleaching and a broken “boneyard” appearance on the sea floor. Obviously, the entire reef ecosystem is affected, and there are far fewer fish than there were just five years ago. Most of the diving is drift diving, which requires more alertness than down-and-up diving. Because I’d only dived a few times before in my life, I had to get used to my new equipment and learn how to drift dive at the same time. Fortunately, it worked out well and I learned a lot.

One day, I learned not to go with the cheapest dive operator in the area. As we were heading home from our dives, we came across two people in their sixties who were floating, drifting away from their boatman, who’d lost sight of them. We gave them a ride about one kilometer back to their boat, where the guy had been looking for them in the other direction!

One afternoon I took a hike to a waterfall and saw lots of flying foxes. These fruit bats are the largest bats in the world. Most tourists think they are birds, because their flight pattern is quite ballistic. They actually soar, the way hawks do, rather than fluttering. They weigh several pounds, which gives them the momentum to soar in a straight line. They have a wingspan of about 2-3 feet, making them look more like hawks than anything else, but large fruit bats can have wingspans up to six feet! They are of the order megachiroptera – big bats. The large fruit bats I saw were undoubtedly of the species Pteropus Vampirus – the common fruit bat. They use their eyes to see; they are not capable of echolocation, as are their fluttering relatives the microchiroptera. They have sharp teeth for piercing fruit casings (not jugular veins!). They stay near the tops of trees, especially coconut palms. They are common throughout the South Pacific but hunters and farmers have shot (and eaten) so many that they are now threatened in several areas. They are considered sacred only in Tonga, where they are making a comeback. Unfortunately, people in Guam like to eat them so much that they pay to have them brought in from all over the South Pacific, causing their numbers to decrease dramatically.

After my third silent dinner with the Japanese guys, I was ready to move on to my next destination. I flew to Savu Savu, a short 30-minute flight in which I was the only passenger, so I asked to sit next to the pilot up front. I arrived at the Jean Michel Cousteau dive resort (www.fijiresort.com/ ) and was happy to see my friend John there waiting for me with a tropical drink in his hand (whenever you check into a hotel in Fiji, you get a tropical fruit drink to start your stay). John and I spent about a week at this wonderful resort. Because of the name and its reputation, it was completely booked for the holidays. We met such great people there! Many were Americans, mostly families, and it was like one big group of people who’d already known each other for years. The diving was spectacular, the food mediocre at best, the insects numbered in the hundreds of thousands (they look like mosquitoes but don’t bite), and the location was incredible.

Under Water

We did a lot of diving. John got certified and he got his Nitrox certification. I got my Nitrox and advanced open-water certifications (Nitrox has a higher percentage of Oxygen than the usual 20% found in air – it lets you stay down longer and feel better after diving because it has less Nitrogen). One day, we went to a site called Alice in Wonderland, and it truly was. There were huge mushroom-shaped coral heads and strange sea life everywhere. We saw a turtle, a sea snake, a huge Napoleon wrasse, an enormous lobster, and lots of beautiful fish everywhere. Another day we went to a site called Grand Central Station and saw grouper, sharks, and other large species. But my favorite was The Pinnacles, which were two 60-foot-tall salt shakers sitting in the ocean, and you swam your way around and around them looking for all kinds of interesting things. Fiji is special because it has soft corals – one of the few places in the world that does. Because I never touch anything, it’s hard for me to know what’s soft and what’s hard! But something touched me at The Pinnacles. We had heard about this, but we didn’t quite believe it.

All over the reefs, there are fish that make a living by cleaning debris (mostly algae and bacteria) off other fish. You see them swirling alongside other fish, cleaning them as they swim. But there is a species of shrimp that does this as well. The cleaner shrimp establish themselves in pairs (male and female, though even experts can’t tell them apart by sight) in a natural alcove in the reef, where other fish can swim up and position themselves out of the current. When a fish does this, the cleaner shrimp team jumps on and starts removing parasites, dead skin, bacteria — you name it. Some cleaner shrimp have powerful pincers for removing embedded parasites, others are so small they can clean gills of larger fish.

We saw a pair of scarlet cleaner shrimp, and our divemaster, whose name was Bait, went into their little alcove. He took out his regulator and smiled at the shrimp. Sure enough, they jumped right on his lips and started cleaning his teeth! We all had to try it. And they cleaned all our teeth. John and I were amazed. Unfortunately, these little shrimp are so territorial that as soon as you turn to show your friends there’s a shrimp on their lips, they jump right back to their garage, so you can’t get the perfect photo. But they were very tickly and tame and we all had a peak experience that day.

I did 22 dives in 3 weeks, the best of which were in Fiji. I made two night dives, which were really cool. The parrot fish blow a bubble of mucous around themselves to stay anchored while they sleep at night. On one of the night dives, we saw a five-foot-long white-tip reef shark who really didn’t like our lights in its eyes. It darted back and forth between us, heading at each diver and then turning sharply away just before getting to each of us. It may have been a female with young nearby, but it was a very agitated shark, we were in her environment, and we had no choice but to hope she’d go away (taking our lights off her was not an option). And she did. Or he did. But afterward, the divemaster said he’s never seen a reef shark that agitated before. Still, it really wasn’t anything to worry about. Reef sharks almost never attack people.

Sharks

I saw tons of sharks on my dives. Almost all of them were reef sharks, and reef sharks are harmless. They’re used to eating little reef fishes, not big mammals. Even if they’re six feet long, they won’t hurt you unless they have to. One time, my instructor and I were circled by a six-foot-long shark at fairly close range. We took that as a sign that we were in its territory and should retreat (yes, I thought of many “buddy” jokes as we were being circled). We went back the way we came and the shark left us alone.

When you really study anything, you learn that most of the stereotypes don’t hold very well. The same is true for sharks. On land, most predators go after weak or sick prey, for a good reason. The prey has usually evolved to elude the predator when healthy! When you watch wolves or lionesses or hyenas hunt, you can see that they can run right up to a healthy prey animal and the prey animal usually isn’t too worried, because with enough warning it has no problem getting away. It’s only when predators gang up on a weakling or use the element of surprise that they have a chance of success, and that chance is rarely fifty percent. It takes a lot of work to make a kill, and your basic predator is pretty well trained to go for the low-hanging fruit.

What you learn about sharks when you spend time with them is that they’re not interested in a fight. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not in the fight business. Even though the average shark goes through 30,000 teeth in its lifetime, it’s not hunting most of the time. Sharks live 20 – 50 years, and they often hunt at night. Of the hundreds of shark species, only about half a dozen prey on large marine mammals like seals and turtles, and only those species are really of any worry to humans. In 2000 (the latest year for which statistics are available) there were 79 unprovoked shark attacks on humans worldwide. Of those, ten were fatal. It’s thought that almost every one of these attacks was an instance of a shark thinking the human was one of its natural prey species (virtually all shark attacks are single-bite incidents). Put simply: sharks don’t eat people. If ten deaths worldwide sounds like a lot, keep in mind that 50 people were killed by bee stings last year in the United States alone.

According to the National Audubon Society, people kill 40 to 150 million sharks each year. Many scientists think the number is between 100 and 200 million, because of the lack of reporting from so many subsistence and small fishing operations. I probably saw 300 sharks on my trip to Fiji, some of which were over 14 feet long, and I’ll be happy to go back and see these beautiful, gentle, fascinating creatures in their environment any time. I would also like to find a way to help stop the unsustainable practice of killing tens of millions of sharks every year, just because some people think shark’s fin soup will make them strong and powerful. I’d like to think people will wake up to the fact that we are running a huge deficit in the oceans, one that we’ll pay for just a few years from now, in ways we can’t even predict today.

Adventures in Fiji

The Cousteau Resort is associated with a nearby Fijian village. One day, we went to the village for a ceremony, where we met the chief, gave him a present, and drank kava with them. Kava is a drink that tastes like paint stripper and feels like it has novocaine in it. It’s the pharmaceutical equivalent of a large rubber mallet. I only drank it ceremonially (asking for “low tide” ensures they don’t fill your bowl very much). We had a great day with the villagers, and I took some excellent photographs, which I later lost. The people at the Cousteau Resort really became like a big family – all the children played together and all the grownups drank bad Australian wine together after dinner. One night we all sat out on the pier on a beautiful warm summer night, with kids around and fish and frogs splashing in the lagoon, and then a bunch of people came out with a big cake and candles and we all sang happy birthday to Donna and sat eating cake and telling stories until the children fell asleep and we carried them back to the bungalows.

One day, John and I took plastic kayaks and rowed over to the tiny island in the lagoon. It’s the kind of place an ad agency in New York would send a team to shoot the perfect getaway photos to put in the subway cars in December and January. The kind of picture you wonder if they retouch or not, and we were in it. There were these amazing navy blue starfish just under our paddles – we had to be careful not to hit them. And thousands of immature flying fish just learning to fly. They would all fly out of the water at once as we approached, but they couldn’t go very far, so for about half a second there would be a few thousand inch-long fish in the air in front of your kayak, then they’d be gone.

After our week at the Cousteau resort, John headed back to London and I went to Tonga. I had always wanted to go to Tonga. Now I don’t. And you don’t, either.

Because there are no flights from Tonga to Tahiti, and because there are just two flights per week from Fiji to Tahiti, I had to go back to Fiji and wait four days to get a flight to Tahiti. I went to the Lautoka group of islands, where I stayed on a large island called Malolo. I was lucky – the best dive shop in Fiji is at Musket Cove, where I was staying. I went out on several dives with them. I also played golf on their short course, relaxed in the sun, wrote a lot, and took a hike. I’m going to transcribe my journal of that day here, word for word, so you can come with me on this hike.

The Mountain Adventure

My neck has really been stiff since Tonga. It’s hard to hold up when getting out of bed or moving around. Last night I slept better, except for one incident, something that’s happened to me several times in my life. I wake up in the middle of the night, unconsciously aware that something’s on my chest. So I shoo it away with a flick of my finger, and then I realize it’s bigger than a mosquito, so I flick it away hard and it hits – crack! – against the wall, slides down, and scurries off. It’s always a joy getting back to sleep after that happens.

Today, I got up early and by 7am had already left Musket Cove. I was carrying a 1.5-liter bottle of water, a pair of socks, and some granola. My goal was to hike to the top of Malolo Island — only 240 meters above the beach if you’re a seagull, which I’m not.

First, I had to get across the small strait that separates Malolo Lai Lai (“Little Malolo) from the bigger island. I waded and found that at that time of morning it was only chest deep. I had brought goggles in case I get stuck later and have to swim for it. I asked a few of the locals I saw how to get to the top, got different answers, and ended up figuring it out by myself. Big mistake.

The ordeal of the next four hours is hard to put on paper. What I did was very difficult, and more than a little foolish. I walked up the ridge to the mountain – the long way with the gentle slope, as opposed to going to the base and hiking straight up. I looked and looked and couldn’t find a trail. Every step I took was in knee-high grass. It was clear there had been trails to the top, but now the footwork was very tricky. I had been told there were no snakes or anything else that could bite or sting. Whether it’s true or not, I have no idea. But I kept putting one foot blindly after another, stepping usually on stalks, rather than ground. The ground was wet in many places anyway, and the footing was just terrible. Every time I got to a ridgetop, I’d think it would get better but I ended up bushwhacking my way through plants as tall as I was. I even found the remnants of a road, but it was worse than going straight up the ridge. It seemed every decision I made was a bad one. But I just kept tromping down grass, lifting my knees high and not stopping.

It got hot, but I was lucky – there was a pretty consistent flow of clouds that day, so the periods of intense tropical sun were brief. Without the cloud cover, I would have finished my water supply much earlier. As it was, I drank all the water in the four hours and never peed a drop because I was sweating so much.

An hour and fifteen minutes of hard hiking and I was on top with more than half my water left. The view was the best of my trip. I saw islands in all directions. It was truly spectacular. But there was still an obstacle. There had been some sort of military observation building here in World War II. The only thing left was a small grid of cement foundation blocks and a cement cell, big enough to hold a single prisoner. I guess the rest had been built of wood. This cement cell was the highest point on the island, and if you know me you know I had to figure out a way up. It had a doorway, but from inside the ceiling was ten feet up – no way to get up that way. From the outside, the only thing to grab was a tiny window about eight feet up, with small vertical iron bars of dubious integrity. I waited for a big cloud to reduce the intense heat of the sun, then I went for it. In sneakers, it would have been a lot easier, but in sandals I just had to jump, grab a bar, reach for the top, and haul myself up, trying not to get injured. I clawed my way to the top and was greeted by a very active colony of flying ants. There were ants everywhere around the central column. So I took off my shirt and hat and sat on the edge for about half an hour enjoying my hard-earned view. I spent considerable time trying to spot a better way down but couldn’t see anything resembling a path anywhere.

Finally, I was ready to head down. I jumped off the cell and headed down, trying to take the shortest route back. But I realized I’d left by glasses on top of the little cement building, so I went back. I really didn’t want to climb up and jump down again, so I found a long stick and used it to sweep the glasses off the top. It only took two sticks and 15 tries, but it was a good solution to the problem.

My goal was to head straight down the center ridge of the mountain – the steepest route from summit to shore. I was tired, not making great decisions, and aware of it. But I would have to find a way down somehow. With a pair of skis, I could have been down in minutes. But I soon found myself trying to traverse an extremely steep slope in a pair of sandals. On a 55-degree slope, you can put your hand out level to your shoulders and touch dirt. In my case, it was grass, slippery grass. Just traversing the face to reach the ridge was quite painful and exhausting. I had to pull my knees up so high to take each step that I injured my hamstring. Yet I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the ski-patrol to find me. It was clear that the locals don’t come up to the summit very often. And when they do, they probably take the PATH – the elusive path I never saw and that I knew must be nearby somewhere. Again, I said to myself, as any couple who’s ever had triplets has said to themselves: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” I stayed on the ridges, descended to the plain, finished my water, and my troubles had just begun.

From the base of the mountain to the beach is less than 500 meters, yet I hadn’t a clue how to get there. I could cross what looked like a swamp to reach what I thought might look like a trail, or I could just aim straight for the coconut palms that I knew were between me and the beach. My left knee was very sore, and my legs were so scratched I didn’t dare look at them. My soggy shirt was draped over my shoulders. My chest was covered with plant debris. I was carrying my water bottle because I didn’t want to litter. The sun was climbing steeply, soon to be overhead, and I felt the buzzards starting to turn toward my little brown spec in the grass, just to see if it was promising. I was fully capable of making a very bad decision here. I headed for the coconuts, wanting to get to the beach as directly as possible. My reasoning was that if I never found a path, the worst case would be bushwhacking to the palms and then it would get easier and I’d be out.

It took over an hour to go that last 500 meters. As I skirted the swamp, the grass got taller. Soon it was over my head. I was doing what no sane person would do – tromping injured through tall grass with almost nothing for orientation and no idea where the next step would land. Every step was blind. I had no idea whether I was in the middle or near the edge, and with the sun climbing I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t going in circles. Hoping I was going vaguely in the right directions and soon would see palm trees. It started getting wetter. Each step was a blind splosh. I couldn’t even see my knees. It was almost like floating in a dream, just going, going, going, not having any sense of what was ahead.

After half an hour, I’d gone about 200 meters. Then I saw a coconut tree, and I thought things would get easier. Wrong. I was in a mangrove swamp. There were branches and obstacles everywhere. Everywhere I turned, lots of little living things would scoot ahead in the murky water, trying to get out of my way. There were huge crabs as big as my head, and tons of coconuts. I could take twenty paces stepping on nothing but a carpet of coconuts. Ahead, there were thickets. Very thick thickets. So I skirted them to the left, hoping for a break. And then I got one. I came to a cut: a place where the thickets had been macheted and a person could get through. I was excited. I was perhaps 250 meters from the beach now. But there was no trail. No nothing, except more crabs, more coconuts, and more thickets ahead. The swamp went on and on. I was glad I’d brought the socks and that they were now on my feet!

I was exhausted, dehydrated, and didn’t trust my sense of orientation. I had a pretty good idea which way to head, but I kept wondering whether I was making a mistake. I had no choice but to continue skirting the thickets and try hard not to sprain my ankle. Finally, I came to a clearing. And I was disappointed, because from there all I could see was a ridge, and it looked like I was going to have to go over it. I started to wonder whether I was headed back up the mountain. And then I thought to myself: “It’s always when things are at their worst that you are very close to the solution but you just don’t know it. So I took a few steps in the direction I thought was the beach and the growth started thinning out. A few more steps and I said to myself “I’m out.” The swamp opened up and there was something like a creekbed leading out. Less than a minute later, I was on the beach. I was saved.

Two things happened then. One good, one bad. I walked about a kilometer back toward the strait. On the way, a woman sitting on the beach saw me and cut a coconut open for me. She offered it and I drank the water from it gladly. I felt lucky. I thanked her and walked on, carrying my empty Evian bottle.

The strait was now at very low tide. I could walk across easily. But not painlessly. Because the water was so low, it was very hot. I was scratched from head to toe with thousands of tiny scratches. And I found myself wading in hot salt water above my knees for about three hundred meters – easily the most painful part of the ordeal. Here I was, almost at civilization, and the hot saltwater felt like when you get in a hot shower after getting sunburned. I had to walk about two kilometers back to my bungalow, and the dried saltwater made every step painful. Finally, I was back, showered, and safe. Just in time for lunch. And a very long nap.

On January 10, I played a round of golf by myself on the course near my hotel. It was actually a nice little course, and I played pretty well. It was great to be up early and outside near the sea, with nothing to do but hit little white balls and watch the birds scatter. I was given five clubs and five balls, and I got off to a good start by hitting my first two shots into the rough where I never found them. On my third shot, I started to hit strait, and I managed to finish with two balls left. Then it was time to get on the fast catamaran back to the big island of Viti Levu for my flight to Raritonga.

Raritonga is an island in the middle of the South Pacific that belongs to New Zealand. The tourists who visit the island are almost all New Zealanders. Because I was only in the airport changing planes, I don’t allow myself to put a pin in my map there. It had a real Fifties Bob Hope sort of feel, but it didn’t seem like a place to come back to. I got back on the plane and arrived in Tahiti at 3am the next morning.

TAHITI

The nice thing about taking a short trip across the dateline is that you really get two full days of the same date. After flying to Tahiti on January 10, I got to spend my first day in Tahiti – January 10 number two. From the air, Tahiti looks like any other beautiful set of south-sea islands. But once you get on the ground you realize you’re in France. There are Mercedes taxis, people driving BMWs, and plenty of stores selling Louis Vuitton luggage, Chanel perfume, and Sony stereos.

Whenever you mention Tahiti, people who’ve been there say one thing: “It’s expensive.” I thought, how expensive can it be? Now, if you ask me about Tahiti, I’ll tell you one thing: “It’s expensive.”

The main city on the island of Tahiti is Papeete. it’s a mixture of bad French restaurants, bad hotels, and tourist shops.

Moorea

I quickly got onto a ferry and went to Moorea, one of the nicest islands in French Polynesia. I rented a car and soon I was cruising around this beautiful island, stopping to watch birds and look at the mountains. I stopped at Club Med and decided to have my first Club Med experience. I checked in.

I was surprised to find that the food at Club Med is quite good for me. In places like this, it’s not easy to be vegan. But with the Club Med buffet, I had plenty of choices. The rooms weren’t much, but the diving was quite good. I went for two dives the next day and enjoyed both of them.

There are two kinds of dive boats: those that have a bathroom on board, and those that don’t. I prefer the former. Even though die-hard divers don’t even think about it, I really like to be able to go to the bathroom before diving. But, because the dive sites are so nearby, it wasn’t a big factor. On both dives, there was one guest who didn’t have the use of his legs. It was great to see him in the water, floating freely and keeping up with the group easily by paddling with his arms. He loved diving, because in the water with a tank on his back and a regulator in his mouth he was completely unhandicapped.

On one dive, we watched a shark feeding. They bring a big fish carcass in a plastic bag, all the divers sit down on the bottom around the dive master, and he takes the plastic bag off. The fish already know what’s in the bag. As soon as the divers get out of the boat, a crowd of fish comes around looking for a snack. And that’s exactly what it is. There really isn’t a lot of meat on the carcass, so it’s just a chance for fish to get a free bite or two, and that’s enough to attract hundreds of fish of all sizes. Including sharks. It’s really not a big deal. The black-tip reef sharks tear of large sections of backbone and much away at it. Smaller fish pick up all the little pieces floating around. There really is no danger to divers, as even the sharks are there for the free and easy snack.

One dive, we saw two lemon sharks – about 14 feet long and at least 600 pounds. But they were very docile, like buses cruising around. One thing I saw was a kind of pilot fish that has a sucker on the top of its head. This fish attaches itself to the bottom of a shark, then hangs on for its next meal, picking up any pieces that might fly off. It’s amazing to see how well adapted they are to riding on the backs of sharks. They’re small and quite aggressive – I saw one try to take a bite out of another divers’ leg, and I was glad I had a long wetsuit on to prevent such attacks.

I was really quite satisfied with Club Med. I was speaking and listening in French almost exclusively, and it was nice to hang around and have all the choices of things to do. Sure, it’s kind of corny. The skits at night are second rate, you have to buy ticket books to get a drink, and there’s a lot of smoking. But it’s pleasant, and I was enjoying it. Until the problem happened.

I wanted to send e-mail. At most hotels, I can’t get a direct line from my room because the phone systems aren’t compatible with my modem, so I usually ask to use the fax line. Because there are no phones in the rooms, I tried using the phone booths, but they didn’t work. So I asked to use the fax line. I was told to come back at noon. I did. I said in French that I wanted to hook my computer to the fax line, check e-mail, and I’ll pay them for the minutes used. The guy said email was against the rules, and that I should go to the Cybercafe down the street. I said that wouldn’t work, because I need to use my own computer. I said I really just want to make a call to New Zealand and they can bill me for it. So he said okay. I hooked my computer up, made the call, and I was downloading messages when the guy came over and said in French, “Hey, you’re not faxing, you’re getting e-mail!” I said yeah, and I was only going to need about ten more minutes. But he said no, e-mail is against the rules. He said he had to stop me. He said he was going to unplug my comuter. I said if he does that, I’ll leave immediately and write a letter to Club Med with his name saying how badly I was treated. He shrugged and unplugged my cable.

I was furious. I went to the desk and said I was checking out. I went across the street, rented a car, got my stuff together, and checked out. The guy in charge said it was a misunderstanding, and that I should never have been allowed to send e-mail in the first place. It’s against the rules. It’s in the agreement I signed when I arrived (it is?). And the rules are more important than the guests, so he said I should go someplace where they have television and e-mail. I was even more furious. I said you can make phone calls all you want. You can send as many faxes as you like. And you can send and receive overnight packages. And the staff uses e-mail to run their business, communicating with all the other Club Meds. But the guests are forbidden to send e-mail. He said right. I said I’ll never stay at a Club Med again, and I’ll tell all my friends to stay away from Club Med. He said if they send e-mail, we don’t want them anyway. Ten minutes later, I was driving out of the place, never to go back — a walking billboard against Club Med.

I drove around the island to the beautiful Cook’s Bay, enjoying the sights, hiking up to a lookout point, and eventually settling at a lovely little old resort called Bali Hai Moorea, owned and run by a retired American guy who was more than happy to take me into the back office and let me use his fax line. The funny thing was that when I retrieved the rest of my messages, there was a message inviting me to give a speech to the French Senate in March. I accepted, thinking that would be a great chance to tell my story about Club Med.

Tahiti is famous for its calendars and postcards of bare-breasted women frolicking on the beach and in the sea. It’s a fantastic PR campaign, because when you get there you learn that Tahitians are very religious and modest. There are no nude beaches. There isn’t even any handholding in public! The only place you’ll see topless sunbathing is at the resorts (This is technically France — I’ve already covered the topic.) Under no circumstances can you find Tahitian women topless in public, unless they happen to be shooting next year’s calendar.

One nice touch is that in Tahiti most people are in the habit of wearing a flower behind their ear. This is not just a tourist thing. This is common all over. There are baskets of flowers that are free for anyone to pick up. I expect most people go through at least two a day. But there’s never a shortage of flowers in Tahiti.

Bora Bora

On Bora Bora I looked for a reasonably priced place to stay and it wasn’t there. All the resorts had rooms starting at $500/night, and the place I saw for $80/night I wouldn’t put my dead dog in there. The average hotel room in Bora Bora goes for about $700/night. It’s a beautiful island, but no more beautiful than any other. It has the advantage of no mosquitoes, but that’s because of the constant wind. If you’re a rich windsurfer, this is the place for you. Because the beaches are no good, they started to build the bungalows out over the water, on stilts, often with glass floors and underwater lights, so you can see the fish at night. But now the island is lousy with these overwater bungalows, the prices are extreme, and the food is expensive and bad. It’s really a honeymoon trap that American travel agencies sell with everything included, so you pay your $1200/day and then by the time you arrive you’re already committed. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Bora Bora.

Famous French People who weren’t really French:
Jacques Brel — Belgian
Pablo Picasso — Spanish
Marc Chagall — Russian
Paul Gauguin — Peruvian

Know any others? Send them to me!

One thing I can’t stand is mildew. I hate paying $300 for a hotel room, climbing into bed, and finding that the pillowcases smell like old socks. When traveling in the tropics, you need to set your mildew tolerance down a few notches, but I can’t do it. The cheaper the hotel room, the more likely you’ll sleep in sheets that have their own built-in penicillin. When you go to the breakfast buffet at many hotels, you get an assortment of disgusting canned juices and cut watermelon with rounded corners and the taste of having sat under the Saran Wrap for two days before being served.

Next, I wanted to go to Rangiroa, but I was told the flight the next day was booked solid. I’d have to wait three more days to get a flight that wasn’t booked. I’d heard that before, several times. I’m a seasoned enough traveler to know that if you want to get on a “booked” flight, you almost always can. Sure enough, I went to the airport in Papeete, played their standby game, and got on a flight that was just over half full. This was the fourth time on this trip that had happened. I can’t imagine why the airlines tell people the flights are booked when they aren’t, but it’s extremely common. In the Third World, it’s quite common, because they know if you give them a tip they’ll “do their best to see if they can find you a seat,” and if the tip is good you will get one. But this is Tahiti, and one of the airlines that told me a flight was booked was Air New Zealand!

Rangiroa

Rangiroa is the world’s second largest atoll. It’s a one-hour flight from Papeete, and it’s great to approach it by air. It’s a ring of sand dunes sticking out of the ocean with no central island. In fact, it is basically ocean where the island should be – the atoll measures about 40 miles by 20 miles, so you need to climb a coconut tree to see the other side on a clear day. It’s cool, because the beaches are nice on the inland side, and on the ocean side the surf crashes relentlessly into the coral reef, pounding like a sledge hammer day and night, trying to wear these thin strips of sand and palm trees down to nothing and doing a pretty good job of it.

I have learned one thing about the hotels here. If you inquire at the front desk in French, you are likely to get a much better deal than if you speak English. While not true in Bora Bora, it’s true most everywhere else. In Rangiroa, I stayed in a room for $200/night. Lucky me. The room in front of mine, which was on the beach, was $400, and the over-water units were $600. At a hotel in Papeete, I was asked in French if I’d like a “tarif resident,” to which I immediately said “oui, bien sur,” and I was given a room for half the going rate. The cool thing about asking for a discount in French is that they’ll be happy to give it to you, even if there’s an American couple standing right next to you, preparing to pay the full rate.

In Rangiroa, the thing to do is go diving. Between the motus, there are straits, and these straits run with the tides – into the huge inland sea, then out toward the oceans – twice a day. The current is severe. It draws a tremendous amount of marine life, and the marine life draws sharks. There are sharks everywhere. You notice them, but mostly you try to hang on in the current. One time I was bonked on the head by the tank of another diver, a Swiss guy named Thomas. After we laughed about it later, we got to know each other. I had dinner with him and his wife two nights in a row. One day I rented a bike and rode the length of the motu. All the houses have roofs that collect water and drain into cisterns – as in Bermuda. The town is sleepy, but this is where they cultivate many of Tahiti’s famous black pearls – a product that was introduced to the islands about 25 years ago and now seems to account for about 40% of the French Polynesian national product.

I was going to write a whole treatise here on coconuts and how I was almost knocked unconscious while walking under a palm tree, but it seems that we don’t really know much about them. Even though they’re the most abundant palm species on earth, no one is even sure how they’re pollinated! (Probably by several means, but no one knows exactly how they managed to spread around the world and keep pollinating.) The origins and subspeciation of the plant are difficult to track, and many of today’s varieties are easily wiped out because of too much overcultivation of a single type. I will spare you the details of this report, because I don’t have the information. Suffice to say that because over 200 people are killed every year by falling coconuts, I now feel safer with sharks than walking on the beach. I was near several when they fell, and they fall very hard. I now walk carefully around palm trees, especially in the morning and evening, when they are more prone to bombing. In many resorts, the signs say “Beware of falling coconuts!” – but in fact you can’t really do much about it. Just stay out of the direct line of fire and hope none of the coconuts has your name on it.

My trip ended about four weeks after it had started. I was eager to go home, mostly because I’d run out of reading material. I’d bought a new novel in Nadi, but it only took a day or so to read that one. I had already read The Economist enough to know the price of sesame oil in Sudan. It was time to go back and see my cats.

I hope your adventures in 2001 are as much fun,

David

Some excellent underwater photos from the South Pacific:

Shark facts:

www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/statistics/statistics.htm