land of coconut milk and honey, huntress sisters unite | Maupihaa

We set sail from Raiatea after provisioning at the supermarket with stinky French cheese, frozen wakame salad for poke bowls and bags of frozen meat gifts for friends. Morgan and Eric met gregarious Hio in Raiatea who invited them to visit his home island, the outer French Polynesian atoll Maupihaa, where his parents and sisters live. He suggested we bring them frozen meat since the supply ship only stops in Maupihaa every eight months or so. We checked out with the gendarme (customs) in Raiatea, and I felt relieved. I’d spent exactly 90 days in the country, the limit for US citizens. Technically, we would still be in French Polynesia in Maupihaa, but it is so remote that the gendarme rarely monitors the area.

After a few days of mellow sailing, we entered the atoll’s narrow pass and anchored inside the protected lagoon near a beachside thatched lean-to. It was tranquil inside the lagoon, one half of our view was palm trees and white sand beaches, the other half showcased waves crashing on the outer reef like a Las Vegas fountain show. There were only two other sailboats anchored near us so it was quiet. Just the breeze, bird calls and at night the sparkly stars.

After living on land for three weeks it felt luxurious to be on the sea again, with no roads, cars or building lights. Your mind can relax into stretchy time, with no internet to shorten your attention span.

We went ashore to meet Hio’s family and give them our gifts. Adrienne and Marcelo, Hio’s parents, and Faimano and Karina, his sisters, welcomed us with open arms.  

Faimano is my age, and she glows with contentment and intelligence. She has dark caramel skin, shiny black curly hair and rounded cheeks that rise high when she smiles. Her back is broad and strong and she carries herself with a relaxed feminine grace.

Her mom, Adrienne is shorter than her daughters but no less energetic. Her eyes sparkle with vitality and she is quick to laugh . She learns that I’m a farmer and offers to show me their garden. It’s a difficult place to grow, a coral atoll with no soil, but they’ve managed to coax watermelon, eggplant, tomatoes, bok choy and herbs to life. “What do you use for fertilizer?” I ask and Karina answers “Sharks! We bury them and their bodies feeds the plants.”

Karina is in her early 20s, sassy, confident and strong bodied. Her eyes always flicker with a bit of mischievous play. She loves to fish and make her family laugh. 

The garden rests near their rustic two story house that doesn’t look like it could withstand a cyclone.  20 yards closer to the beach is an outdoor sink and a plastic barrel filled with water that we use to wash dishes. Platters, plates and silverware dry on a long table topped with wire mesh next to the sink. 

Marcelo’s 25 foot long wooden motorboat lives across from the dish station, in front of the house. It’s painted white with a thick red stripe around the top. All colors and features properly faded by the intense tropical sun and worn by constant exposure to salty air.

Marcelo is the concerned and gentle patriarch, looks to be in his 60s with frizzy grey black hair, a button nose and kind glossy round brown eyes. His belly is rounded out, but apparently not from beer, the family doesn’t drink alcohol. Come to find out the government threatened to evict all 20 families from the atoll because of drunk men fighting. One wound up with a spearfishing spear in his arm. 

Right on the beach stands the center of life for the family and their guests. Dried palm fronds woven together provide a wind break and roof for the lean to. On the side protected from the wind lives a camp stove with assorted seasoning and condiment bottles clustered round. Low day beds with faded tropical print cushions lay on either side of the long wood plank table and benches. Big low wooden chairs move where the conversation does. Here we’d have the honor and pleasure of getting to know the family over countless, epic, feasts.

Our immersion in Polynesian hospitality began with the next morning’s breakfast. We drove the dinghy the two minute ride to shore, dragged it up the sand and were greeted by two little black dogs announcing our arrival. We gathered around the set table, our bare feet in the cool sand. Adrienne brought out a plate loaded with fresh fried golden coconut milk doughnuts. Coconut milk that she’d made that morning by grating the flesh and squeezing it through the natural mesh material that grows between the coconut palm fronds.

She passed a bowl of fresh squeezed coconut milk alongside a chestnut brown syrup in a tall glass bottle. It’s coconut honey, Faimano explained. Honey made by bees that feed only on the coconut palm blossoms. I didn’t even know coconut palms had blossoms. I took a straight spoonful—slightly bitter, complex, caramelized, rich. It was a fine fine honey. 

Adrienne poured the honey right into the coconut milk and dipped her doughnut in the elixir, lifting her chin at us to do the same. The doughnuts were soft, with that satisfying chew from a proper yeast rise. Not greasy and barely sweet, making them a perfect candidate for dipping.

Platters of pan-fried reef fish, like mullet and dart, were steaming hot, their flesh slashed to the bone, skin extra crispy. We tore off succulent pieces of white, oily flesh, leaving just fish bones by the end of breakfast.

Coffee drinkers mixed the ubiquitous instant coffee granules with hot water from the kettle. Upon learning that I don’t drink coffee, Marcelo brought me fresh kaffir lime leaves to make an infusion. 

That was just breakfast. On day one.

Eric and I went fishing early the following morning with Marcelo and another cruiser. We motored 10 minutes in a metal skiff with a sputtering outboard to the inside of the pass. After trolling back and forth for a long while we finally found a spot where the reef fish started to bite our hermit crab bait.

For reference, if you want to use a hermit crab as bait, hold its shell between your forefingers, wait til the crab emerges, then pull it from its home, rip off and discard the hard part with the legs and use the soft end meat full of smelly organs. Fish love it.

Sharks got wise too. They arced around our lures then chomped on newly hooked fish, sometimes breaking the line. So we had to be quick. The water was so clear we could see the whole scene, when a fish was approaching the bait we’d ready ourselves to flick the fish into the boat before the sharks descended. Our shiny diamond shaped dart fish would become a delicious breakfast. 

This is how we lived for a few weeks. Fishing, eating, relaxing, eating, laughing. In a mellow easiness that was only interrupted once in a while by our stomachs upset from too much coconut fat.

Early on, Eric asked if the family needed any of his electrical engineering expertise.  They mentioned a light wasn’t working on Marcelo’s wooden boat. Eric came over with all of his tools and wires, he rewired the whole boat over the course of a day. A huge help to folks who live far away from mechanics and electricians. 

In celebration, we helped Adrienne stuff pillowy white uncooked bread dough with barbecue chicken. She steamed the buns and we bit into their glossy softness gleaming in the midday tropical sun.

Most days Morgan, Eric and I would go snorkel the atoll pass. Eric always took his speargun and float to try and catch a dogtooth tuna, a group of them hung out right outside the pass.

Every time Eric speared a fish he was surrounded by twenty to thirty reef sharks. Swirling around him in a sharknado, trying to take the fish from his hands and nipping at his fins. Once he had the fish out of the water, or the sharks had their catch, sharks spun off from the silent ballet in all directions, coming towards me in an aggravated mood. I never got used to that. 

When they were in their calmer state, the reef sharks cruised through the narrow coral gullies, like a high school gang, patrolling their section of the yard. A turtle surprised me once, and I them—it jetted off into the crystal clear distance with a few waves of its flippers. An eagle ray glided over the shallow reef and headed into the deep periwinkle blue beyond. A giant barracuda glinted silver and menacing.

I always felt unsettled out there, exposed to the wide open ocean. But the beauty and spectacle kept me coming back. One early morning, I looked up to the water’s surface after diving down. Each trough of each tiny dimple in the sea sparkled with its own diamond, creating a vast web of exquisite undulations.

We’d head to dinner with stories from the pass—fish stories or reasons-why-there-wasn’t-a-fish stories.  We started bringing the boom box and traded off dj duties between us and the sisters. The table was always set with a drinking coconut for each person atop a glossy green leaf. It was usually just Zephyr and our hosts, but sometimes there’d be other cruisers too. All were welcome.  A dinner spread would include poisson cru (Tahitian or Chinese style), grilled or pan-fried fish, steamed or curried coconut crab, garlicky land crabs, rice, fresh heart of palm salad, plus whatever sashimi or dish we’d bring.  

To be in a remote place and to eat like this with such loving company felt special, every time. And we tried to always surprise each other with new dishes and treats. It was a never ending, delicious battle.

Adrienne made the most perfect dessert one night—chilled fresh fruit cocktail with two kinds of papaya, pamplemousse, banana and a bit of sugar with a splash of rum. It was the perfect cool balance of tart and sweet, a dream. I almost cried from the pleasure. From the honor. She shared her limited supply of home grown, perfectly ripe fruit with us. Other nights she brought out a cool, crisp watermelon from the garden. We found out the girls adored chocolate so we brought a different fresh baked chocolate cake, brownie or plate of cookies each night. Their eyes widened with glee and it was satisfying to see them content.

After breakfast one day, Faimano and I walked across the skinny atoll to the beach that faces the open ocean. She offered to show me where a monohull sailboat had wrecked on the reef a month ago.

We felt a growing friendship between us—we recognized in each other our appreciation for the natural world, for languages (we spoke Spanish together), for silliness and for quiet.

She told me stories of her home as we walked through the coconut groves. How migratory birds nest here and they sometimes harvest their rich eggs. How the wrecked sailboat was captained by a friend who fell asleep.  The de-masted hull sat askew on the reef, waves crashing around it, surprised, as if it were a whale that thought it could walk on land for the day.

Without speaking, we both understood that we’d walk along the beach, both collecting what we wished. The dogs followed along, gingerly bounding through the sharp coral and exposed reef.

Faimano found a two by four with nails in it, a jerry can, tamanu fruits (for infusing in skincare oil), and shells. I offered to help her carry her finds, admiring her eye for things that’d be useful back home. Things the universe washed up just for her on this remote atoll. I kept some bits of branching coral and delicate shells. She rested the wood beam across her broad shoulders, her relaxed arms bent at the elbows with her hands over the top of the beam. As natural and at peace as could be.

Our chill was only momentarily broken when a lone older sailor came walking toward us from afar. He’d made inappropriate jokes at mealtime and sat a little too close, trying to flirt with the sisters. He started to talk to us on the beach and we both gave one word answers and continued on our way, never breaking stride. Both recognizing that neither of us wanted to give him any of our good energy.

After the family found out that we loved crabs and lobster, the sisters went hunting. We walked the few minutes from their home to watch dinner plate sized coconut crabs climb over fallen palm fronds in the coconut groves.  Faimano explained they leave the fronds instead of clearing them so the coconut crabs have a better habitat. This method worked to great success, we feasted on coconut crabs often, like royalty.

But of all the dishes we ate, Faimano’s coconut curried reef lobster was the standout for me. At low tide, the sisters went to the reef facing the ocean to grab the lightning fast lobsters with their hands. Faimano split the lobsters lengthwise and steamed them in a pan with a bit of water, garlic and soy sauce. She let them finish cooking in a fresh squeezed coconut milk curry sauce. Gently spiced and luxurious with the sweet succulent lobster flesh. Masterful.

One morning, we heard reports from other cruisers that humpback whales were hanging out just outside the pass. We scooted the dinghy into the open sea, luckily it was a calm, sunny day. We were ready with snorkels and fins to see if we could swim with the giants. After an hour searching and listening underwater for their calls, Eric asked if I wanted to try driving. Sure thing. 

I headed along the outer reef at a good pace then all of a sudden, without warning, a massive humpback breached 50 yards in front of us. My heart stopped. The whale filled my entire field of vision. Time stopped. I saw all the white, foamy water running like rivers off it’s wrinkled belly, it’s pectoral fins out to each side accentuating this exuberant leap. Time began again, the whale crashed into the sea, geysers of water shooting up from its massive heft. Morgan and I screamed with fear and awe. Eric wanted to get closer, I handed over the reins, shaking. I realized then that the world is more than enough for me, to be loved and to love it back.

We followed along with the three whales and our new cruiser friends from the Netherlands, Hans and Roos. A young couple with a fun, striped cat named Bo aboard. No one got in to swim with the whales, we gave them a respectful distance.

That night the family made a special feast. When we arrived, Marcelo was at the grill, a cut in half lengthwise metal barrel with a screen on top. He jostled burning coconut husks around to increase the heat. Marcelo beckoned me over to check out his next trick, a super hot black volcanic stone on the grate. Adrienne poured fresh coconut milk into a bowl, then watched as Marcelo placed the hot rock into the milk. It steamed and sputtered, and caramelized the natural sugars in the milk. Adrienne dipped her finger in every 30 seconds or so to monitor the cooking and then she and Marcelo agreed it was done, so he removed the stone.

We dunked chunks of whole roasted breadfruit into the sweet, smokey caramelized milk. The warm, starchy nuggets soaked up the sauce like a sponge. I love breadfruit. It is an important staple in Polynesia, breadfruit leaves and fruit designs adorn stained glass windows in churches and are carved alongside baby Jesus and the Virgin. Breadfruit fruit looks like a neon yellow green nerf ball, with pebbled skin, the size of a couple grapefruits. When roasted whole, it is slightly sweet, like a cross between a new potato and a sweet potato. 

We cozied up around a bursting table, full of heaping plates of steamed white rice, bowls of grated heart of palm and raw orange-fleshed squash salad, fresh drinking coconuts, curried coconut crab in coconut milk, plates piled high with coconut milk doughnuts, tuna sashimi made by Eric, curried coconut milk clams from Karina and dogfish tuna fish pate. We’d told the family we were leaving the atoll for Tonga soon, so the feasts became an ever more dazzling and surreal experience.

I danced a few steps from the jovial table to the calmer beach alongside kind waves. Under the full moon, hermit crabs scuttled in halting, mysterious paths. I sat down in the cool sand to breathe, a respite after the feeding frenzy. Faimano, then Karina and Adrienne joined me. I started doing a few mellow yoga stretches, then they wanted to learn too so we circled up under the stars, bossa nova in the background and stretched and laughed. In French, Tahitian, English and Spanish. Adrienne let her hair down for the first time, the breeze wafted the roasted coconut scent from the copra drying nearby. Their little black puppy played with us in the sand. Flopping against my thigh with her soft, silky coat.

One afternoon, Faimano offered to help me make a bracelet with black pearls gifted to me in Apataki. Her wrists were already adorned with woven waxed brown string interspersed with shells. Delicate and strong. We sat in the shade, she concentrated on knitting the string around itself.

She told me she loves to windsurf, anytime sailors come with a board and sail she asks to use it. Her dad is always terrified of her getting hurt doing the sport, but she goes anyhow.

I ask if she is happy here, if it’s hard being isolated from friends who live far away. She says she is happy here, especially now that her sister came back to live here a few years ago. They sometimes take a break from making copra and go camping on the far side of the atoll. They hunt coconut crabs and build bonfires. “You should come!” she invited enthusiastically, with her signature twinkly eyes.

The next afternoon we dinghyed over to the far side of the atoll. Karina and Faimano putt-putted behind us in their metal dinghy, one person always bailing out water.

Hans and Roos were kite surfing on the far side, Roos was taking her turn kiting while Hans followed alongside in their dinghy, its motor cover painted in thick bands of red, white and blue for the Netherlands flag. Roos’ freckled high cheekbones raised even higher into a smile when we passed by. Her athletic legs flexed under the pressure of sliding a board over the wind chop. She sped along the turquoise water, her kite full, wind in her curly red hair.

We rolled the dinghy up the white sand beach and began to walk. This part of the atoll is completely wild, there are no lean tos or houses, and the multi-tufted pandanus trees, like skinny white barked Cerberuses, clustered together to form an atoll forest. Underneath the trees, atop the coral sand, blue footed booby birds nested. Lucky us, this was the season for booby babies. Milk carton sized snowy white feathered baby birds looked at us with a mix of embarrassment and incredulity. As if they expected no one to ever see them in this phase of life, let alone strange mammals. 

Faimano took a left turn from the shore and we followed her into the forest. Hans and Roos joined in too. We spotted a nest of eggs and went to peer at it. Queue Jurassic Park music because one of the eggs began to hatch before our eyes. Of course this process for such a small creature can take a long time, and we had coconut crabs to hunt. Off we went.

“How do we find the crabs?” we asked Faimano, as we surveyed the forest floor full of dry serrated edged fronds from those tufted trees. “Look for shredded coconut husks,” she directed. The crabs can break through a coconut with their claws, but they have to meticulously shred through the fibrous outer husk first. 

We fanned out in the surreal dappled shade, strange birds called out like velociraptors above us, a bit ominously. A few coconut palms appeared, mixed into the forest. Faimano showed us under a tree root where a blue shell coconut crab lived, but she could see it was still too small to eat. A few minutes later we began to gather round her, she found another den, this time with a big crab inside.

These crabs can Faimano put her bare hand and arm up to her shoulder, into a dark hole. Full of a giant coconut crab. She had a peaceful smile on her face, the one she usually has. She patiently tucked and folded the crab’s legs, over the course of 20 minutes until finally she could pull the crab out of its hole. It was a magnificent success, we all applauded, amazed. Karina handed her a length of twine and Faimano easily bound up the resigned crab for safe transit.

She inspired a hunting zeal, we all understood now what a den looked like. We yelped if we saw a coconut crab and Faimano would come over to investigate, letting us know no we can’t take that one, it’s female, or no that one is too small. Eric and Karina were stung by wasps. Another coconut crab was caught. It was a good, sweaty hunt.

We exited the forest through thick shrubs onto the outer side of the atoll, facing open ocean. The late afternoon light meant it was time to walk back towards the dinghys and head home.

On the way, Karina and Faimano stopped to lay out a long fishing net with floats along the top edge and weights along the bottom. They’d spotted a brilliant school of technicolor parrotfish in the shallows.

The sisters worked together to herd the fish into the net, and all of a sudden Karina made a surprise belly flop to scare the fish into their doom. She flopped and laughed at the same time, Faimano joined in peals of laughter. They’d succeeded just barely in keeping the fish from escaping.

Of course, reef sharks arrived on the scene and started picking off fish through the net. Karina lunged at them with a machete yelling “Shitty sharks!” in her thick island accented English. We all laughed, shitty sharks is her catch phrase, said with no fear, as if the sharks are just harmless street dogs.

Faimano and Karina waded back to shore together, each holding half of the wadded up blue net studded with wet, gleaming fish. Their toasted brown skin glowed in the late sunrays, Karina’s long curly black hair in its full salt water mane glory. They appeared whole, as they truly are, island huntress queens. 

They dropped their net to the beach and unrolled it, piling 18 gasping fish into our insulated cool bag. Faimano explained they are both still learning this fishing technique and admitted they almost blew it. Their brother Hio, she said admiringly, is an expert, and can toss the net casually, no belly flop required. 

Eric, meanwhile, chucked rocks at crabs to kill them, always keen to provide food for the table. However, Faimano’s method of spearing them with her machete tip gleaned more appetizing results.

We rode back through choppy seas under a glowing sunset, clouds lit rose and orange. Content with our day full of surprise, potential injury, fresh meat and camaraderie.

Adrienne and Marcelo were tired when we arrived for dinner, we should’ve been back earlier and they looked like they’d been worrying about their daughters. After a supper of fresh mullet poisson cru with shredded green papaya we rested on the day beds. This was our last night together, the weather was good to set sail for Tonga. 

Faimano brought out her guitar and French song book. She played softly, her sister and mom laid like tired puppies alongside her, and sang when they felt like it. Marcelo and his heft took up a bed and his snores joined the chorus now and again. I sat next to Faimano, then laid down next to her too, enjoying the cool breeze and sisterhood. Eric and Morgan fell asleep on the dinner benches together, I put a blanket over them because it was getting chilly. After a time of coziness we returned to Zephyr.

We arrived on a sunny morning for our last breakfast together. As Eric walked up the beach Adrienne greeted him with jewelry she’d made him, a large black pearl necklace adorned with shark vertebrae and beads, and a matching black pearl bracelet. Morgan helped him clasp the necklace, worn close to his neck, he looked like a king.

She presented Morgan and I with gorgeous earrings she made from purple sea urchin spins, tiny shark vertebra and beads. They were stylish and lightweight, she beamed, radiant to see how much we loved her gift.

Since we had stayed a couple weeks longer than we had provisioned for, we were out of fresh produce. Marcelo and the sisters beckoned us to the counter next to the dining table, it was full of fresh foods for Zephyr: orange squash, a giant heart of palm, a cooked coconut crab, green papayas, bok choy, coconuts, fresh coconut bread and coconut doughnuts. We’d continue to eat like royalty even after we were hundreds of miles away from Maupihaa.

We gave them our humble gifts: books, three pounds of chocolate, soy sauce, crispy seaweed snacks, nail polish and recipes. I gave Faimano shells from Mexico that she could use to make jewelry. Eric hatched a secret plan to return to Maupihaa next season to bring Marcelo a navigation unit for his boat.

Adrienne handed us the thick guestbook, chock full of cruiser photos, drawings, flags, stickers and embroidery. Like us, many sailors were grateful and astounded by this family’s genuine, boundless, warm hospitality. After asking for input from Eric and Morgan, I’d written an entry that we all took turns transcribing pieces of into the book:

Dearest Adrienne, Marcelo, Faimano and Karina,
Thank you for giving us a life changing experience.  We voyage the oceans searching for moments like those we’ve shared with you.  Your generous, self sufficient, close to nature way of life opened our minds to how we’d like to live someday. With a garden and wildlands so bountiful that we could always invite everyone to dinner. 
Thank you for welcoming us into your home and daily life, for sharing information about your farm, your sea and your culture. You’ve helped us fulfill dreams we’ve had for a long time—to spear a dogfish tuna and to catch a coconut crab!
Faimano and Karina—it was awesome to watch you hunt, fish and play together, to see your fearless and joyful sisterhood in action. Adrienne—your kindness, work ethic and connection to natural rhythms shines through in you and your daughters. Marcelo—your supportive and educational spirit creates a safe and comfortable environment for your family to grow and explore together.  You are all role models and we will think of you always as examples of how to live fully. 
Thank you for sharing your favorite recipes with us—curried lobster, brûléed coconut milk with a lava rock, firifiri! We had so much fun sharing our recipes with you too—making breakfast crepes, sushi and a Mexican fiesta.  We feel a true friendship with you and are grateful to have new friends as sweet, happy and kind as you all. 
Sending you hugs and kisses from wherever we are in the oceans! We hope to laugh and share stories with you all again someday.

After adorning our entry with the final heart sticker (yes, I travel with stickers), we were all quiet and looked at eachother with tears in our eyes. Rain began to fall from nowhere, it was time to go.

We all hugged and when I looked into Adrienne’s eyes they were shining and happy like mine. We both silently expressed our mutual love for eachother and the knowledge that goodbyes are part of life.

We lifted anchor and motored away. Adrienne, Faimano and Karina started doing exaggerated yoga poses on the beach and Morgan and I responded with our own high kicks and dance moves. We echoed eachother until we were spent and waved our last waves as we headed out into the open sea.

gecko sex, roadside beauty queens, abalone starlight | Rarotonga

French customs officers checked my passport in Papeete International Airport and eyed me curiously. My entry stamp was from Nuku Hiva, a Marquesan island, from almost three months prior, indicating I was not your average tourist. “You only have three days left on your visa,” the hunky tattooed officer informed me, “Yes, I know.” “Are you planning on coming back to French Polynesia anytime soon?” he inquired, “Yes, in a few weeks, I am sailing from here onwards to Tonga and New Zealand, with friends” I responded, calmly.  After a few more questions he let me leave French Polynesia to board my flight to Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Island group.

I gazed at Moorea outside the Air Tahiti airplane window. She looked surreal, an imagined paradise, her peaks jutted skyward like water jumping up in spires when you place an extra strong bass speaker nearby. Deep emerald green ringed with white sand, luminous turquoise shallow water and crashing waves on the outer reef, all surrounded by endless sea, in all directions, dimpled like a hammered copper pot.

It was strange flying over the sea instead of sailing it, in just a few hours I crossed ocean that would take over a week to sail later on.

I hand’t researched Rarotonga more than the bare necessities—where to stay, what language to speak, tourist visa length.  I needed to pause my French Polynesia visa so I could rejoin my friends on SV Zephyr in a few weeks and sail with them from Tahiti to Tonga. Rarotonga was recommended to me by Captain Liz Clark, a badass lady sailor who I trusted to give me good advice.

Cozy tropical air welcomed me as I walked down the airplane steps to the tarmac. Rarotonga is a few miles around, with one main road circling the perimeter, the center dominated by lush rugged mountain ridges. That much I could tell from the air.

A solo ukulele performer crooned to folks as we waited in the customs line in the clean but aged terminal. The customs officer spoke in New Zealand accented English, asked for my proof of a plane ticket off the island and stamped my passport.  Outside the airport, I took out New Zealand cash from the ATM. I came to learn that the Cook Islands form a sovereign nation, but have a close relationship with New Zealand.  They use New Zealand currency and Cook Island citizens are allowed to work and live in New Zealand without applying for a visa. However, New Zealand citizens still need to apply to live and work in the Cook Islands.

I booked a fourteen night stay at Rarotonga Backpacker’s, a fifteen minute taxi ride from the airport, going counter clockwise on the main road. The taxi driver explained that city buses run clockwise and counter clockwise, seven days a week, there are no stop lights, you just wave down the bus and they pull over to pick you up. Oh also, it is a left side driving country, the opposite of the US.  I love surprises!

The hostel was a series of beach cabins centered around a raised pool, surrounded by a wood deck that joined a central building with co-ed dorms, bathrooms and a shared kitchen.  It wasn’t cozy, but more or less clean, save the odd mouse running under the refrigerator. I flip flop stomped one and tossed it outside for the cats, my co-backpackers were a mix of horrified and impressed at my can-do mouse extermination attitude.  You can take the girl off the farm…

Hammocks hung below the raised beachside cottages and looked out over the inner lagoon reef and the crashing waves on the nearby outer reef. It was lovely, and for $15 USD a night for the dorm, an excellent deal.  

Most of my hostel-mates were visiting from New Zealand. Many were originally from other countries—Canada, Chile, Argentina, Spain, Israel, the US, the UK, Ireland—and were on vacation from their working holiday visa life in New Zealand. It was an unexpected bonus—I learned a ton from talking with them about New Zealand life, two women worked in an apple orchard and pack house, another in a kiwi picking operation. 

Also, friendship! A group of young British women doctors-in-training were placed at the Rarotonga hospital for the summer and lived at the hostel. Then there was a friendly Kiwi family made up of a mom and her three sons from 18 to 25 years old. The boys were usually bouncing off the walls, or doing flips, and always invited everyone to come along on a hike or any kind of “mish” aka mission.  They were an incredible resource to dive into Kiwi slang.  They also had a rental car, which was a faster way to get around versus hitchhiking or waiting for the bus that didn’t follow a schedule.

Tessa, a recent undergrad from Colorado, found a soft spot in my heart. She was quiet, a writer I found out, and doing some soul searching. I fed her nourishing food and listened to her when she wanted to talk. I love growing the sisterhood. 

We all hiked up the Raemaru trail behind the hostel, which tucked into thick tropical forest after well-kept family plots ended at the mountain’s feet. The path opened onto steep crest line paths, red velvet soil cushioned our feet and ferns cascaded down the thousand foot precipice face to one side.  I try to find a high point when exploring a new place, it makes me feel settled, able to internalize where I am more fully.  Like a cat exploring every inch of their new house.

A rock wall stopped our progress. Thick ropes hung down from above and U shaped metal rods sprinkled the face. I secured my backpack and started up, my heart pounding, but encouraged on by the rambunctious Kiwi boys who hadn’t missed a beat. There was no room for mistakes, the mountain edge fell off into the lush abyss. Tiny homes clustered at Rarotonga’s skirt edge with the ocean filling in the dance floor in all directions, meeting the blue sky stamped with puffy white clouds. 

After the ropes ended, I tiptoed along the foot-wide path and grabbed onto tree trunks and roots to clamber up to the slanted mountaintop clearing. We took pictures along the expansive lookouts and walked up to the highest point on the large, fern covered meadow.  Delicate wild purple orchids popped up along the path and led us to a bare spot, we felt the wind all around us and gazed on the neighboring architectural peaks glowing in the late afternoon sun. This was a special place, one I promised myself I’d return to alone later on.

As a crew we did two other hikes, the Cross Island and the Ikurangi trails. Both were full of red mud slippery steep butt slides, white knuckle rope climbs, ridge walking with thousand foot drops on either side and lush tropical beauty. The Kiwi boys hid in the trees ahead of us, making realistic monkey noises and kept up their funny slang banter the whole time.  It was awesome to have friends encourage me to adventure where I’d be too afraid to go on my own.

Of course, everyone wanted to check out the bars and clubs in town. I’d gone out a sum total of one time in the last few months, to a club in Papeete, and was not eager to join.  In the name of team spirit though, I dug out a skirt from the bottom of my backpack and hitchhiked with the hostel crew to start at the Hula Bar, across from the airport. It was mellow, with some danceable music, and cute local guys, super groomed and wearing beautiful tailored tropical shirts and linen shorts. I felt entirely underdressed and less than groomed, but danced well enough to catch a few glances.  More importantly, I made my new Canadian lady friends cry-laugh with my non-stop Polynesian style hip moves.

We walked towards another club and hitched a ride with local folks who were just starting a 24 hour celebration for their friend’s 21st birthday.  This club had a big fog filled stage and sloppy drunk Australians. I danced half-heartedly and longingly looked next door at the neighboring bar, where the locals had recommended we go, but due to group logistics we didn’t.  All in all, not a bad night and it was fun to dance with new friends.  I’m still getting used to sober club-going. 

Back at the hostel though, I jumped into the pool naked, scaring the very polite and very British doctor women. The Kiwi guys didn’t seem to mind—I’d given up caring about being naked in front of strangers after my carefree time on the rainbow boat in the Tuamotus.  Why deal with a wet bathing suit when you don’t have to?

More fun, by leagues, was the night when all the women hung around the dining table and chatted for hours, snacking on chocolate and fruit. We were honored to witness geckos mating on the ceiling above us and we live narrated the event, crying from belly laughter.

I got into my healthy routines, cooking vegetables, working out or doing yoga daily, hiking. I spent hours each day in the beach hammocks reading Blue Latitudes, a great book that Eric lent me about Captain Cook’s voyages through the South Pacific and beyond. It was perfect reading about places I’d been and about places I would visit, learning about their history in a way that sticks for me.

On Saturday, I woke up at sunrise to catch the bus and shop the weekly farmers’ market in town. Mostly women vendors displayed their farm harvests: giant taro leaves and roots, drinking coconuts, glowing orange turmeric root, ginger root, white and green bok choys, nubby bitter melon, okra, pumpkins, bulging star fruit, avocados, oranges, mandarins, limes, all sizes of papaya, long beans, small bananas, large bananas, tomatoes, lettuce, passionfruit and soursop.  Alongside the fresh produce they displayed stacks of plastic to-go containers filled with local delicacies: purple and orange banana and pumpkin poke (sweet tapioca cake cubes smothered in fresh coconut cream), banana tapioca pancakes, curry chicken filled roti, boiled taro with steamed river shrimp, ike mata (raw fish ceviche with coconut milk), braised pork neck with rice, pineapple lemon meringue pie, sea snails in fermented grated coconut and onion (mitiore ariri) and slow roasted taro leaf packets full of unctuous coconut cream.

I walked to the corner shack where local folks dug their fingers into hot grilled whole flying fish swimming in fresh coconut milk, lime juice and chilies, with steaming golden cassava root to soak all the goodness up. We tried to harpoon flying fish on two unsuccessful hunting missions in the Tuamotus and I was excited to finally taste this elusive treat. “We don’t have any left,” said the man at the grill, who was turning fifteen fat fish in front of him. He pointed at the man in front of me and said that he had ordered a lot. “What time do I need to come next time?” I asked, “5:30 in the morning,” he replied. I put it in my mental calendar for next week.

The main town near the market has a mix of local and tourist necessities, law firms and newspaper headquarters next to souvenir and scooter rental shops.  I beelined for the internet provider customer service desk—I’d already blown through way too many gigs on my phone and it was expensive here. Come to find out, all the internet comes through satellite—no wonder.  I hardly used it for the rest of my trip, which helped me be more present anyhow. 

When I did use the internet, I used it well. After two weeks at the hostel, I was ready to explore another part of the island and ideally with locals. Backpackers are fun and interesting, but then your friends leave and new people come—a similar get to know you cycle repeats.

Luckily, Sam responded to my CouchSurfing request. I’ve had decent luck with the online community network of international hosts, staying with folks across the US on my solo road trips. Sam happened to be the captain of the local traditional voyaging canoe in Rarotonga. I told him about my sailing trip and he welcomed me to stay with him and his black cat Biggie for a week and to sail with his crew!

Sam is of mixed Polynesian ancestry, including Samoan, New Zealand Maori and Cook Islander. He is classic Polynesian big too, tall and strong thick, with dark brown skin and straight shiny black hair pulled back into a ponytail or twisted into a bun.  He is a trained chef, worked in kitchens for many years in Europe and the UK and is an expert in traditional Polynesian cuisine.  I’d say he is around middle aged, his face shows the hard earned wisdom gained about the difficult and beautiful ways of the world. Biggie, his mink-pelted, British blue black cat, is sassy and curious, rarely cuddly, a good cat. Even when she jumped on me at night from the window ledge in my upstairs loft room. Still a good cat.

Marumaru Atua is a 72 foot long fiberglass hulled and wood everything else traditional voyaging canoe or vaka. Remember the boats in Moana? Like that. She is a catamaran with two identical hulls and triangular sails painted with a round bold Polynesian design. She elegantly floated at her mooring in a calm nook in the turquoise Muri lagoon on the southern edge of Rarotonga. Turns out this is the very lagoon that ancient Polynesians gathered in to sail together to the new frontier of Aotearoa (New Zealand).  Boats from across greater Polynesia met here and brought giant rocks from their islands as gifts to Rarotonga islanders. Those rocks still sit up in the hills.  And voyaging canoes still travel with special rocks from their home islands to give as gifts to islands they visit.

Sam invited me to join the weekly crew training day, so I sat on the fancy wood dock in the lagoon to wait for my ride out to Marumaru Atua. The dock displayed a small shiny plaque indicating that it was a gift from the government of Japan. Japan fills local government coffers and plies that influence to, among other things, secure fishing rights in Cook Islands waters.  Their industrial fishing operations have already depleted stocks in the region, local fishermen explained to me as they set off from the dock. They invited me to fish with them the next morning.

A tall, athletic and affable young guy walked up to greet me in rugby shorts and a tank top, or singlets as folks call them here.  His traditional Cook Islander intricate necklace tattoo balanced his masculine stature with its fierce femininity.  He took off his sporty sunglasses to reveal handsome diamond blue eyes, the old soul kind. Meet Alex, a Cook Islander, voyaging canoe sailor, dad and kind hearted jokester. We walked over to the shore and Sam dinghyed over to pick us up.

Up close, Marumaru Atua glowed. She had freshly oiled dark wood decks, shiny varnished wood mast and booms, wood railings inlaid with abalone shell and intricate carvings on the bowsprits and across the helm platform.  All of the rigging is made from line (rope) with no steel shrouds to keep the two masts up. A net spans the distance between the two front hulls, and a round central cabin pops up from the otherwise exposed deck. Inside the cabin is a shiny new stove, electronic navigational equipment and a chart table. She looks brand new, and that’s because she is, more or less.

An arsonist set fire to this beautiful vaka in 2017 while she was docked in Rarotonga’s main town.  The Cook Islands Voyaging Society rallied together and secured a quarter of a million dollar donation from the Cook Islands government and a donation from the shipping company Matson to ship the boat to New Zealand for a complete restoration.  Only a few months ago, she sailed back to Rarotonga. So it was a huge honor to be invited to sail with the crew who’d just switched from fundraising and rebuilding mode to sailing her again.

I stood back and observed the crew getting the boat ready to sail—they hoisted the booms, pulled the sails out laterally and closed the boom vertically to touch the mast.  Totally different than how modern sailboats work.  The sailors pulled all the lines by hand, with no mechanical winches, no mechanical advantage, just human powered.

Sam divided the ten odd crew into teams to rotate through tasks.  I tied a few proper knots so they let me on a team. I watched, learned and stepped in when I was asked to help.

This vaka has an engine, which makes the difficult exit through the narrow lagoon pass achievable even when a large swell crashes over each side of the natural coral break.  Crew members posted themselves along both hulls to point at the reef edge so the navigator could give directional hand signals to the person at the tiller. Right, so there is no steering wheel, instead there’s a large wood tiller—you use your whole body to lean against it at times to stay on course. At the end of the tiller is a paddle that you can shift up or down into the sea depending on what you want the boat to do. And what the sea and your body will let you do.

After we cleared the pass and headed into open ocean they gave me a chance to steer.  I tried it for a while and my face couldn’t hide the effort involved, captain Sam asked “Is it hard to steer?” looking at me surprised, because the seas were calm and the wind light. “It is for me,” I answered, and crew came over to teach me how to better position my body and how you can sit down on the tiller at times to lift it out of the water, only getting up again to correct the course.

Charlie, a smiley, twinkly blue green eyed schoolteacher and lady sailor hung out with me while we crewed. She moved back to Rarotonga after working for a time in New Zealand, a common story for Cook Islanders who can make more money abroad.  We sailed past her school which hugged the beach, lush mountains behind it and crashing sea beyond. She explained that the lifestyle here is rich, even if the wages aren’t.

After a few hours of sailing and practicing tacking, we headed home and made it through the pass again. Crystal waves magnified the reef below right before they crashed, it was like looking into an ephemeral aquarium. After we stowed the sails and tidied the lines, Numa, an artist and activist gathered us into a seated circle by the tiller to share kava, a traditional beverage made from the dried root of a pepper shrub.  Intricate swirling tattoos adorned his shoulders, he smiled through freckles and his sensitive green gold eyes listened to each person as they shared their thoughts about today’s sail. We passed coconut shell bowls full of the brown drink around the seated circle. Each person drank all the bowl’s contents in one go and then passed the bowl back to Numa, who refilled it for the next person from a large wood bowl. You clap twice before you drink.  My mouth tingled and went numb for a few minutes, then I felt extra mellow and chatty after a few servings. This was the right drink to encourage community building.

I sailed with the crew as many times as I could before my departure. One day, a New Zealand Maori film crew visited to shoot an episode about traditional Polynesian celestial navigation. Navigators train for years to memorize over 600 constellations and to understand how to use them in relation to the swells and weather patterns to find small islands in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean.  Two of the young film crew had intricate Maori face tattoos, striking blueish black scroll line patterns, under and around the woman’s lips and where a full beard would be on the man.  They expressed their gratitude to the Marumaru Atua crew for welcoming them back to the place where their ancestors originally departed from to discover New Zealand.  This was not just a shoot for them, it was deeply meaningful for their personal and community stories.

It was a still day, with zero wind, so we snacked on massive platters of tropical fruit as they filmed on the bow. I learned that abalone shells inlaid along the railings reflect moonlight at night, straight back to the navigator’s chairs next to the tiller. There is also a large carved star compass on deck near the navigator chair. With these tools, the Marumaru Atua navigators successfully find their way, and if they get extremely off course, captain Sam tells them because he monitors the route with the boat’s modern mapping instruments.

Numa blew the pink conch shell—it sounded out like a proud, mournful, ancient animal across the sea. Magically, a few minutes later, humpback whales puffed their fishy breath skyward near the boat. Then Numa went back and forth, calling them with the shell. The film crew was ecstatic, and it was the first time for many of them to see a whale in the wild.

Per Maori tradition, the film crew gave the Marumaru Atua voyagers a gift, this time in the form of a delicious lunch at the fish restaurant on the lagoon’s edge. The crew thanked everyone individually and when the man with the Maori face tattoo came to Alex, he thanked him in the traditional Polynesian way, where both people smush their noses together, look into each other’s eyes and share each other’s breath. In that moment, I felt I’d time traveled. Alex’s smile lines deepened around his eyes, there was mutual understanding, love and brotherhood between these two men who had only known each other a few hours.  It was an honor to witness.

On another sail, I met Kura, a fellow lady voyager. She is a Cook Islander, professional musician and leads reef walking tours. Her loyal black and white dog Mahi is always at her heels. She’s voyaged far and wide on this vaka and it was awesome to see her strong, feminine self at the tiller, like an old pro. Intricate, traditional tattoos swirled up her from her foot along her entire bronzed leg. We were on the same team together, and bonded as we hung onto lines, using our full combined body weight to backwind the mainsail.

Every so often on my travels I meet a woman who has an inner fire, a playfulness, who laughs, dances, and is unabashedly herself.  Who speaks her truth and demands respect. Kura is one of those women and it was a total joy hanging out with her and supporting her at one of her weekly music gigs. 

I walked out to the same fancy Japan funded dock one morning to meet up with Tupalea and Alfred on their snazzy 25 foot long metal fishing boat, the Vahine Koca.  They invited me to join this chartered trip for free, one of many instances of classic Polynesian hospitality I’ve experienced on this adventure.  Two tourist fishermen fellows joined us, and we sped out the pass, the Marumaru Atua disappeared into the distance at her protected mooring. 

The guys set out eight fishing lines, all precariously close together behind the boat.  Some lines dragged whole flying fish for lures, with lead weights attached to each head.  It was a relatively calm day at sea, Rarotonga was still within sight, a gorgeous island alone in the vast Pacific, clouds cozied up to her peaks.  After a couple of hours without a bite, all of a sudden three lines zinged out. One line crossed over the other and melted it due to friction. Alfred’s line was the only still with a fish, he slowly reeled in the giant beast over 45 minutes.  Glimmering silver skin flashed near the boat, it was a yellowfin tuna. I’ve never been near a fish this big. Tupalea gaffed it and it took both strong men to haul the fish over the side of the boat.  It looked to be around 130 pounds, a fat beautiful tuna. My mouth watered as they put the fish into the cooler.

Tupalea asked if I wanted to drive while they all set about putting new lures on the lines and fixing the damaged ones. He instructed me to retrace the track that we came in on and to troll under 9 knots. It was fun to drive a power boat, and it felt good to be given a responsibility.

Alfred cut up bonito they’d caught yesterday for a sashimi snack. It was silky and perfect, he explained if you rest the fish, whole, for a day it lets the muscle fibers relax. We came through a flock of seabirds and the lines started zinging. Tupalea hollered at me to get on a line and I started reeling in my fish. It was difficult! I hadn’t reeled in a fish in forever. And when I saw how small it was, maybe an arm’s length sized bonito, I laughed. I had much more appreciation for how hard Alfred had worked to bring in his giant.

The guys graciously gifted me the fish to take home, and I luckily crossed paths with Sam in the wharf parking lot. I hopped on his scooter and held the fish tail sticking out of the garbage bag on my lap, with my hair in the breeze, like a proud cat bringing home the bacon.  Biggie, the actual cat, was enthused with my catch, she looked expectantly up at Sam while he filleted the fish, and got her luscious scraps in the end.

We collaborated on dinners over a few nights, making different versions of poke, coleslaws and other island veg. Then lounged on bean bags, ate chocolate and watched movies. Cats, fish, chocolate, great company, movies AND bean bags?! Thank you Sam for being the best CouchSurf host ever.

Luckily, my trip to Rarotonga coincided with their annual cultural performance week called the Maeva Nui. After watching a dance extravaganza in Papeete, I was curious to see how this performance would compare. Sam and I attended two nights, and there were excellent performances throughout both. The difference between here and Papeete was the performers had more authentic energy and talent in Rarotonga, and their friends and family were nearby cheering them on in the audience.  Some of the dances brought me to tears, especially the one where the dancers told the story of how burning plastics pollutes their village’s air.  Their costumes, movements and song all wove together to tell this story and at the end they rolled out a modern trash can as a way to move beyond trash pile burning. It was a heartfelt, effective way to continue the traditional art form’s purpose—to share important stories among the community.  And of course there were sexy costumes, war dances and the like. But these weren’t for tourists, these were by and for the local people, who practice all year for this show.

Sam and I hitched home afterwards because he lost his scooter keys. Luckily, gorgeous Miss Cook Islands picked us up in her shiny pick up truck. It was Sam’s first time hitchhiking, and I told him its not usually beauty queens who pull over. But alas, we were in beautiful Rarotonga. Thanks Reihana!  

I filled my last few days on the island with hiking, snorkeling and premium New Zealand ice cream.  On a few early mornings, I hitchhiked or caught the bus to the Raemaru trailhead.  Sam looked at me like I was a bit out of my mind as he made coffee and fed Biggie while I tromped off through dewy morning grass.  I felt comfortable now going alone because I knew the route and the rock climb. After one night’s heavy rain, the trail was full of tiny white moths.  With each step they rose around my feet, the whole way through the forest.  Red spotted blue and black butterflies sucked nectar from purple flowers on the sun dappled cliffside.

There are a couple excellent snorkeling spots inside the reef in Rarotonga, with interesting coral structures and clouds of unafraid fish. One day I saw a giant clam! It’s psychadelic patterned flesh and tendrils poked out through its opened wavy white shell, the entire creature was the size of a microwave oven.

Oh and Tip Top scooped ice cream from New Zealand is all over the island. It is affordable, and so good. I went for the passionfruit most times, real passionfruit seeds gave it a fun crunch.

Sam’s house is across the street from the beach, so in the mornings I did yoga on my towel in the sand. In the evenings, I went for long solo walks at sunset. Sometimes I felt lonely, but inevitably nature’s beauty comforted me.  And being alone helped me experience her magic in a quiet, intimate way.  As the last light faded, tiny mirror surfaced waves lapped on the shore, like mercury chiffon skirts, slow motion twirling against the sand.  I felt at peace. 

On a mellow, sunny afternoon, Sam drove me to the airport in his grey truck.  We daydreamed out loud about what kind of sorbet flavors we could make with the fancy Paco Jet machine hiding in the culinary school’s cupboards.  I knew I wanted it to be something that could go with fried cassava root. It was fun nerding out with a fellow cook. 

When he got out to hug me goodbye, he rested a delicate, yellow shell lei necklace around my neck, and gave me a pink dyed woven palm bracelet. It was such a sweet and kind gesture, we’d grown a true friendship.   “Message me when you figure out the sorbet!” he called out, and I said I would.

After a harrowing half hour waiting at the check in desk, I finally got the go ahead to enter the security line.  French Polynesian customs officers didn’t want to allow me back into Tahiti without a plane ticket to leave the country. Even though I was going to sail out of the country, and had a letter to prove it, they weren’t satisfied because the letter wasn’t printed on letter head. I stayed calm and the Rarotongan airline worker saved me by printing a temporary ticket to appease French customs. Bless her.

Captain Liz Clark was spot on, Rarotonga was a dream place to unexpectedly visit. Thanks Liz!

I texted Sam later: “local honey sweetened, island chestnut coconut sorbet on top of fried cassava with salted caramel sauce and toasted cashews.” 

belly laughs, boats with toilets, new shorts oh my | Tuamotus to Tahiti

It was surreal speaking English with peers from the US again. Eric and Morgan of SV Zephyr, a 55’ Outremer performance catamaran, welcomed me aboard with open arms and lots of good food. I first met the young couple when we were resting in La Paz, Baja Mexico after the Baja Ha-Ha rally.  We were a few of the handful of younger sailors in the 150 boat race. We met up later in La Cruz, north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico when we were getting ready to cross the Pacific. They invited me to help race Zephyr in a four day regatta, which we won! We had a ton of fun racing together, it was my first time on a large catamaran, it was an incredibly smooth ride even at high speeds and didn’t heel to one side like monohull sailboats do. I’d already committed to crossing the Pacific with SV Rapture, so Eric and Morgan said I could join them later in French Polynesia, if I wanted to, and continue on with them to New Zealand.

Their gregarious friend John was onboard when they picked me up in Apataki.  He flew in to visit for two weeks to enjoy a much needed break from his fast-paced Silicon Valley life. It was a stark contrast to my solitude and quiet life on the rainbow boat, and a much needed change of pace. I had my own cabin for a few days before I happily gave it up to CJ and River. They are a sailboat cruiser couple who I’d met in Mexico too. CJ is always joking around, a lioness foil to River’s calm, quiet nature.  They bought Eric’s first boat, a monohull, and have been friends with him ever since.  At night, I cozied up happily on the couch like a cat rejuvenating after a time out in the wild.  If felt relaxing to sleep on a boat in the ocean again.

We arrived in Rangiroa, a popular tourist atoll and the last main jumping off point to sail from the Tuamoto island group to Tahiti.  We provisioned, spied on the folks staying in luxe over ocean bungalows and snorkeled in the aquatic park. The park had underwater signs explaining how coral grows and what type of fish live in the area, just like signs in a land park.  It was unique, but also shows how many people visit the area regularly.  I was ready to leave after two days.

On a windless morning, we motored stealthily across the mirror surfaced inner sea heading for the Blue Lagoon, on the other side of the oblong Rangiroa atoll. Reef sharks circled Zephyr as we cruised over crystal water revealing coral heads below. The Blue Lagoon was incredibly beautiful, a mile across and shallow, connected on one edge to the inner sea we were motoring through, like a small bubble adjoined to its parent bubble atoll.  Island chunks bordered the turquoise lagoon, protecting it from the open ocean and hosting all kinds of palm trees and birds. These palms weren’t cultivated for coconut production so it had a more natural, wild feel.

We explored the lagoon over a couple days—rode paddle boards behind the dinghy, tromped around the tiny islands to chase fish in the shallows, listened to tropical birds sing and laughed our faces off joking around with each other.  John had a plane to catch so we dropped him off at the Rangiroa airport and sailed on towards Moorea.

It was a rough multi-day passage with large swells and stormy skies. I felt sick and got into my grin and bear it mode. Finally, we came into a beautiful long bay in Moorea, the neighbor island next to Tahiti.  We went on an all day hike up to Belvedere point, through lush tropical rainforests, past pineapple fields and rushing rivers. It always feels good to walk on land again after time at sea, your muscles have to remember what to do. We visited an an archeological site in the jungle to learn about the traditional culture before French colonization.  Tahitian men used to compete in archery competitions in narrow cleared areas in the forest. Boys sat up in the trees and hollered as the arrows went by them so a winner could be determined.  We walked back down the mountain amongst the free-range tropical chickens, and knew we should eat soon since Eric was contemplating taking a bird home for dinner. We ate at a cozy French restaurant called Rudy’s—lettuce (!) salad with baked goat cheese, tuna tartare with fries, papaya and pineapple tart.

Morgan and I felt pure bliss shopping at the supermarket near the anchorage—they had reasonable prices for fresh vegetables and a huge selection of stinky French cheese.  In the Tuamotus, one cabbage went for $12, now we could buy apples, zuchinni, carrots, spinach, bok choy and more without blowing our travel budgets.  My body could finally get the vegetables and fruits it wanted.

One day winds gusted at 40 mph so we stayed on the boat.  We took the opportunity to cozy up and bake a chipotle chicken casserole, read and rest.  Then it was time to say goodbye to CJ and River for a few days, we needed to pick up Eric’s sister and her husband in Papeete. It was a different style, cruising on a schedule, but it was fun to be social again and meet new people. Plus, I hadn’t been to a “big city” in a few months. Papeete promised tantalizing treats like restaurants, clothes shopping and the specific pleasure of walking unknown streets.

We crossed stomach churning mixed seas for a few hours to get to Papeete in time. I just focused on the horizon and couldn’t even turn to look at Eric in the captain’s chair while we were talking. Tahiti’s voluptuous green hills filled our field of vision, it reminded me of the big island of Hawaii’s topography. We passed women and men paddling outrigger canoes, freighter ships loaded down with containers and fancy hundred foot long glossy yachts.  Eric parallel parked in the last free spot at the marina’s guest dock and we went ashore.

Papeete is not a beautiful city. It is a jumble of concrete block buildings, rushing traffic along the ocean front and as you wander to the lush jungly outskirts, poverty shows its fangs.  It’s saving graces are the large airy central market, gorgeous murals and generally kind people, who come from all over French Polynesia. Men wear intricate basketweave style tattoos on their forearms and calves that follow their muscle arcs. Women wear airbrushed large flower pins behind their ears, one side indicates you are single, the other that you are coupled (I can never remember which side is which). Black pearl jewelry drips from their necks, adorns their fingers and earlobes.

I peeled off to wander alone and enjoy the city night sounds and sights. Past the packed well-lit McDonalds, I found an old-school French style food wagon in a shadowy park. Two older women proprietors looked at me suspiciously, but I disarmed them by ordering a giant serving of chocolate ice cream and an iced pineapple juice.  We all silently watched a disco musical theatre performance on a small TV hung inside the dollhouse-like wagon.

Morgan and I went clothes hunting in the well-stocked, high priced surf stores on Papeete’s main shopping street the next morning. I’d worn the same pair of board shorts everyday for three months and was motivated by the fear of what would happen if I lost them and didn’t have a backup.  After a few hours of trying on ridiculous too short women’s shorts, some made from crushed velvet (why), Morgan said I should try on the men’s board shorts. Brilliant! They were the right length to move around it, super stretchy and had amazing artwork. I bought a pair of Billabong wonders with a neon rainbow serpent head on one thigh and an all-seeing radiant eye on the other. A perfect 30th birthday present to myself.

We picked up Eric’s sister and her extra tall South African husband. They were both lovely to hang out with, funny and relaxed, intelligent and humble.  Plus, they brought suitcases full of chocolate for the boat.  Hearing about life back home reminded me how lucky I was to have so much free time to adventure. They were in the daily Silicon Valley grind which I didn’t envy at all.

Our visit coincided with the annual Heiva festival, a multi-day cultural dance and song competition that showcases artists from across French Polynesia.  We went to the opening night and the energy in the outdoor arena made my heart pound.  The dancers wore incredible costumes made from natural materials—shells, fresh and dried palm fronds, flowers, leaves. One dance story was about a man and a woman’s friendship being interrupted by the man’s selfishness which he eventually overcame and learned to respect her.  The dancers were not that compelling talent-wise, but the costumes, storyline and pageantry made up for it.

Zephyr scooted back over to Moorea, this time with easy seas and sunny skies. We went on the long hike again, hung out with the plump cat at the Bali High Club then cruised over to a neighboring anchorage that brimmed with sailboats.  It was gorgeous—volcanic spires covered in tropical green, with elegant milkwood trees casting their delicate shadows across the steep cliffsides.  A totally different environment than the flat atolls in the Tuamotus.  I met a great, sandy colored boat cat named Duna and her French young couple parents. I like most cats, and boat cats are an especially fun surprise.

In the morning, we dinghyed through a dredged passage along the outer reef to the InterContinental Hotel.  Tour operators come to this area to feed large stingrays and sharks, it felt like Disneyland by the time we arrived, crowded with tourists and GoPro cameras. The rays were three to four feet across with thick wings and a prominent stinger. I didn’t feel comfortable hand feeding them fish and even more uncomfortable around sharks in hunting mode, so I stayed on the periphery.  As I snorkeled through the reef, rays and sharks came by and surprised me, it felt better to see them fly through the water, away from the hubbub.

After the group feeding, we tied up at the hotel to poke around. It was luxurious, especially the lobby, strung with rustic elegant shell chandeliers, queenly bent cane chairs and dark wood paneled everything, even the bathrooms were air conditioned and full of fresh cut flowers!  But they also had a caged off dolphin area where three dolphins swam in circles, pacing.  Not magical at all.

That night I stayed at CJ and River’s AirBnb cottage because I needed to catch the ferry early in the morning to Papeete. I was flying to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands to pause my French Polynesia visa.  US citizens get 90 days in French Polynesia, and since Zephyr arrived a few weeks after me, I needed to leave and come back to join them onwards for New Zealand.

I took my first hot land shower in months.  We decided it was a perfect rainy movie night, and drove to the corner store to buy all kinds of cookies and gummies.  I fell asleep on the couch, grateful to be in the company of good friends with a full belly, nourished in body and spirit, ready again for a new solo adventure to a place that I had hardly researched. A tropical island with a backpacker’s hostel? Let’s go.

sweet exile | dreaming on stilts | fish blood brothers

The rainbow boat felt like a music box without her ballerinas. We’d just returned to the Carenage shipyard after dropping off the boat’s owners and crew, the four French doctors, at the Arutua airport.  So now I was captain of this ship. I climbed up the 12 foot tall ladder to my new home, a rainbow painted black steel sailboat resting on stilts in a remote atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

There was space to lay down now in the small cockpit, without the four beautiful guys lounging about, smoking cigarettes and joking. I tucked a pillow behind my back and stared out at my new backyard—a coconut grove and pond. Thankfully, Tahai came by after sunset and extended Tony’s invitation to join them for family dinner. My heavy ennui was softened by the tiny Carenage community’s kindness. 

Tony’s grandparents and parents live in humble, airy, brightly painted homes along the waterfront next to the shipyard. Tahai and Tamatoa, the two young Carenage workers from other atolls, live above the big shared kitchen near the small office set back from the sea. A coral gravel path connects all the homes, office, kitchen and shipyard—everything is tidy, beautiful tropical plants are well cared for, the coconut copra drying area is organized.

 When I walked over, the guys were all relaxing and watching YouTube after the long day of motoring back and forth to Arutua.  I brought extra guitar strings for Tony, a gift the doctor’s asked me to pass along to the new caretaker of their rainbow boat.  His face lit up, his black pearl earring jumping happily on its gold hoop. He brought out his guitar and began to restring it. I felt grateful to the doctors for shepherding me into this new friend group.

Tamatoa has a strong square jaw, hefty muscular build, and a handsome stoic face, like it was carved out of caramel ebony stone. He is 18 and came to work at the Carenage last year, which is many miles away from his home atoll in the Austral islands to the south.  Despite his serious expression and strength, he has a tenderness in his motions.  He rarely speaks—when he does his voice is quiet.  When he smiles it beams through but then he catches himself and pulls his face back into its resting state.  He is a good cook, and prepared a lovely dinner that night, an array of raw and cooked fish dishes, chicken, salad, rice and fresh bread. I felt welcomed and thankful, the blow of my friends and lover leaving was mercifully softened.

“Do you want to come with us to Toau?” asked Tony, as sleepiness set in after dinner.  Toau is a neighboring atoll where his aunt and uncle live. I’d mentioned that I liked fishing, and Tony said we would fish on the way there.  A few days of adventure sounded perfect to distract me from my heartache.

In the morning, Tamatoa and Tahai loaded Tony’s red motorboat with a giant ice chest and filled the fuel tank. The boat is 22 feet long, with the controls and wheel in the bow (front), the middle is open space, and at the stern (back) sits a wooden bench against the engine compartment. Holes in the stern wall allow ocean water to slosh in, but when you go fast enough, its perfect to wash fish blood out. Tahai placed two heavy duty fishing rods and reels into holsters on each side of the steering wheel, and secured a multi-pronged harpoon with a retrieval lanyard to one side of the helm.

As we jetted through the turquoise water away from the Carenage, I pulled up my bandana over my nose, just as the guys did. We’d be out in the beating sun all day, and the reflection from the water on your skin is searing. Normally, I limit my sun exposure during the day in the tropics because it is so intense, but today we wouldn’t have access to any shade. Anyhow, it felt like the beginning of a proper adventure, all of us fully covered, in sunglasses and hats, fishing gear at the ready, going into the open ocean to hunt big fish.

We blasted out the atoll pass towards Arutua to buy ice, on the way we did arcing doughnuts through a flock of birds that were diving on a large bait ball, a cloud of small fish that attracts larger predators. The lines started zinging and we pulled in a few arm length, rainbow shimmery bonito. Tamatoa and Tahai quickly pierced the blue mercury skin behind each pectoral fin with a sharp knife.  Scarlet blood ran down the white painted floor to the holes.  Tony explained that you have to bleed the fish fast here otherwise the flesh will taste like dust.  Tamatoa dunked a bucket over the side of the boat to fill it with sea water, then splashed the whole boat down. Blood dries quickly in this climate, so you have to clean the boat and your knife immediately, after every fish. Fish also needs to be cooled quickly to preserve quality, the high water and air temperature meant we needed to get ice soon.

We tucked into a side channel inside the Arutua atoll and tied up the boat, which didn’t want to stay put in the strong outgoing current. Kids played soccer in the street next to an abandoned looking cement building, we found a shady spot to wait for the ice man.  The kids pulled back a bit of chain link fence around the building and laughed their way into the central atrium, on their own adventure.  A moped straining under the weight of its jelly shoed driver pulled up next to us. The ice man led us to the back of the cement building to a modern, well maintained industrial ice machine inside a large chilled room.  He shoveled gravel sized ice from a snowy mountain into large poly sacks, Tony paid and the guys heaved the sacks into the ice chest.  The chilled air on my face reminded me of snow, of that refreshing chill on your skin, the crisp mountain air, that I hadn’t felt in a while now.  I wanted to leap into the ice pile and be truly cold for a few minutes.

We passed by the bait ball again on our way back towards Apataki and Toau, but Tony didn’t stop this time. He was after big fish—marlin, wahoo, tuna. Fresh caught bonito is as common as chicken is in the US.  Depending on our location, ocean conditions and speed, Tony changed out the lures—some fish liked red, others sparkles, each has its own motion in the water, its own intended target.  This is his passion, he watches fishing videos on the internet most days to learn how to improve.

Alongside an underwater mount along Apataki’s outer reef, both lines zinged. The guys lept to reel in the fish, but one had already escaped. Tahai brought in a silvery wahoo, its streamlined, elongated bullet shaped body gleaming in the midday sun.  It’s sharp teeth jutted out halfhazardly from its stunned mouth, Tamatoa hit its head with a blunt stick before bringing it aboard so it couldn’t bite anyone. They opened the ice chest and nestled the fish into its new bunk.

We left the security of the reef and headed out into the ocean towards Toau. A large marlin cruised underneath the boat, its swordlike nose and muscular striped body easily identifiable in this crystal clear water. Tony gasped and hoped that the behemoth wouldn’t bite the lure, we didn’t have strong enough gear to land a fish that big. Luckily, the marlin didn’t take the bait and we trolled on in the heavy, hot late afternoon sun.

After a few hours, Tony asked the guys, who’d turned quiet, if they’d had enough fishing. They were ready to get to our destination, which we could barely see on the distant horizon.  I felt fatigued and sunned out, but happy and relaxed, my mind at ease after a physical day on the sea.  You have to be vigilant on a small motorboat like this, always aware of the waves, ready to brace yourself or shift weight or grip to avoid falling over or hurting someone else. Plus we had a big wahoo, it was a good housewarming present.

We reeled in the lines and Tony doubled the boat speed. He zoomed into Toau’s channel and skirted the handful of sailboats anchored in the pass. It is unusual to see boats in an atoll pass, but that is the safest place for them to be in Toau because there are fields of coral heads further inside, ready to gouge holes into boat hulls.

I recognized a catamaran, a monohull and a luxury sailboat I’d seen in the Marquesas and another sailboat from Mexico. It still surprised me to see folks you know in such remote places, but we were all following the same wind.

Tony gracefully arced his boat to rest at a small wooden dock right inside the pass. An open air kitchen under a thatched palm roof supported by polished hewn wood posts hugged the lagoon edge. A few small plywood cabins with colorful tropical printed fabric blowing in the windows were tucked further back into the airy, atoll style coconut forest.  Next to the outdoor kitchen was an open air dining room, wallpapered with yacht club flags, nautical charts, sun faded family photos and giant polished pearlescent shells.

Valentine gave Tony a bear hug. She is always put together, with a short pareo wrapped around her joyful belly and tight bright colored tank top, a substantial necklace worn proudly over her light yet toasty tanned skin.  Her wavy light brown hair streaked with grey was wound into a claw clip, adorned with fresh picked tiare flowers. She laughs throatily throughout the day and into the night, her broad smile full of worn teeth. Valentine’s face is quick to change from content and sparkly to stormy and drawn, shifting like the passing squalls over the atoll. She stands her ground with thick strong hairy legs and her solid arms give her a gravity, in contrast to Gaston’s lithe and sinewy floating nature. He wears a large glossy shark tooth on a leather cord around his neck, elegantly flanked by carved beads. His light-skinned face reminds me of a meerkat—alert, mischievous, with a pointed chin and round shiny eyes. He is sweet, happy, energetic and always watchful to do as Valentine needs. I only saw him wear a shirt once when tourist sailboat cruisers came to dinner. Otherwise his strong, tan torso was always in the fresh breeze.

They both beamed, happy to see their nephew Tony. Inter-atoll visits for locals are infrequent and each one is special. You have to have a sea-worthy boat, money for gas, time to travel and good weather. I felt lucky that Tony invited me to tag along. I’d unfortunately almost completely lost my voice, a difficult thing to lose when meeting new people. So I wrote notes on my phone and showed it to Tony’s family to communicate.

Tahai and Tamatoa set about to prepare the bonito on the deck joined to the outdoor kitchen. Tahai tied the fish tail to a cord and wrapped it around a beam so the fish hung at his eye level. He ran a knife down the spine and freed the two side fillets for Tony to turn into sashimi. Tony methodically sliced even pieces from the fresh flesh—the setting sun shone through the meat making it glow like rosy roasted beets. He gave the scraps to two cute black kittens hiding under the dining room near the beach.

Sailboat cruiser families came ashore and slowly filled up the dining room with their broods. Tamatoa put more coconut husks on the grill, sending white smoke into the night sky. Gaston encouraged me to eat with the cruisers but I decided to wait and eat at the end of the party with the locals. But I was really hungry, tired and now properly sick, so I collapsed on my bed in the beach hut nearby. Tony came to wake me up just before midnight saying I should eat. They were all singing and drinking, making merry.  I loaded my plate with coconut breaded parrot fish nuggets, teriyaki sauce, coconut bread and coconut cake. In a haze, I scarfed it down and stumbled back to bed, soft waves lapped at the coral gravel a few steps away.

In the morning, I decided I had to learn how to party the local way. My voice was coming back a bit, I walked to the outdoor kitchen and sat amongst aunts and cousins, listening to them catch up in French, with not a clue as to what they were saying. Eventually, they asked who I was and why I was there, reasonable questions as to why I was part of their intimate gathering.  They were a bit incredulous at my answers but gradually accepted me and let me help with cooking and cleaning.

The grill was already going, so I hung out nearby as the guys filleted the silver wahoo.  They put the head and skeleton on the grill then sliced raw flesh thinly for carpaccio. I learned their secret: snacking! Folks snacked all day in preparation for the evening festivities, no wonder they could last until late at night to eat dinner. We dunked silky wahoo pieces into olive oil then sprinkled the pale pink hunks with sea salt.  It was the finest raw fish I’ve ever tasted, clean clean clean, silky and alive, as if all other fish were imitating the grandeur of this wahoo.

Later on, I asked to try one of the small smoked fish peeking out from under green palm fronds on the grill. The guys looked at me as if I was ridiculous, of course I could have a fish. I took my fish like a greedy cat and sat down on the dock to watch the sun go down, throwing bones and skin into the lagoon below my dangling feet.  Little black and white striped fish splashed, fighting over my discards.

A young cousin gave us the excuse to eat earlier because he had a bedtime to make. We sat at a long table in the outdoor kitchen, set grandly with a table cloth and crowded with food: beef ragu, wahoo carpaccio with herbs de Provence/olive oil/fresh garlic and ginger, grilled leg of lamb, small hot smoked fish and a few kinds of homemade pizza. After eating plain food for a couple weeks, this spread felt like a gift from the universe. It was Valentine’s offering, she is a trained chef and kept surprising us over the next few days with more divine treats. That night she brought out a chocolate tart topped with a delicate meringue layer. The slippery chocolate custard pudding was sweet and slinky next to the crisp, crumbly melt in your mouth butter crust, just barely thick enough to contain its fillings.

In the morning, we feasted again on leftovers and new delights. A fisherman cousin sat at the head of the table, his impressive heft and profession clued me in that he knew what to eat, so I followed his lead.  One by one he pulled a hand-sized raw fish from a large blue glass bowl, the fish glistened in their lime juice, salt and oil marinade. Each fish was newly without its head and guts, its silvery blue skin intact but slashed diagonally down to the bone.  He cracked the fish backbone in half then sucked the tender meat off the skeleton in a barely contained ravenous fulfillment.  Although I was hesitant to go for whole raw fish first thing in the morning, it was perfect. The meat was tender, fatty and sweet. My voice was healing.

I helped wash the dishes, we first tossed them in the shallow sea so lagoon fish could pick off leftover food pieces. Tamatoa stood knee deep in the water, the wood deck at chest level, a soapy water bowl on one side. He took each plate, pot, fork and knife from the fish, soaped them up and passed them to us on the deck where we rinsed them with fresh water and ferried them into the dining room to dry. We got into a rhythm, us three, and it was a beautiful place to do daily chores.

Afterwards, I asked Gaston if I could borrow his mask, snorkel and fins to explore the coral heads. I’d heard Toau was excellent for snorkeling and did not want to miss this opportunity. He said of course but to be careful of the current jetting through the channel and into the open sea. I walked along the beach, past other cute beach cabins hung with driftwood and shell wind chimes, family members rent these out over holiday weeks to tourists. I put on the gear and slid into the water from a neighbor’s deck.

Immediately upon entering this new world I saw a huge green blue green Napoleon fish, the size of a labrador, its massive lips regurgitated sand clouds into the crystal turquoise water. Turns out Valentin and Gaston feed these giants, there are about 100 in the area, and harvest them as needed like a herd of cattle. I swam against the strong current across the narrow channel to the reef. Gorgeous architectural coral structures started to cluster and close around me. I tucked and swam through the openings, all kinds of colorful fish going about their daily duties surrounded me. I came to a point where the coral was too close to pass through so I turned around and let the current pull me back through the reef. I flew through the coral, arcing my body to change direction and didn’t need to swim at all for propulsion, the current was so fast! A large dark magenta moray eel opened and closed its mouth full of jagged teeth at me from a coral arch below. A five foot long black tip reef shark cruised by me, making its rounds.  It felt like a theme park ride, a fantasy world full of coral castles, fish drama, villains, royalty. A rainbow civilization little noticed by the other world above.

A jarring sound broke my quiet dream, it was the fisherman cousin motoring nearby in his panga to check a fish trap.  I followed at a safe distance and came closer after he turned off the engine next to fish cage that extended above and below water, like a curved fence. Cherry red fish with glassy marble eyes clustered in one corner of the trap, awaiting their fate with a blank bored expression.

The current could’ve easily swept me out to sea, so I cut back across the channel to Valentine and Gaston’s beach. Valentine mixed up a batch of icy cold tropical pink grenadine juice in a bucket for the guys working in the copra fields. She poured us each a glass. A few days prior she was distant, eyeing this outsider with wariness and formal politeness. Now, she confided in me about family drama with tears in her eyes, happy to have someone to listen to her, I gave her a bear hug. Over many years traveling alone in rural places, I’ve learned that matriarchs like Valentine are to be respected and catered to, but not feared. They test you, try to scare you with rough talk or by ignoring you, and if you continue on, unafraid, helping in the right ways and staying close to the daily rhythms, the matriarch will slowly bring you into her world.

We feasted and partied together again that night. After a few beers, Tony, Tamatoa and Tahai decided it was time to try hunting for flying fish again. We’d come up with nothing a few days ago when we tried to harpoon the silvery flying wonders outside Apataki with the French doctors. Maybe we’d have more luck here in Toau? Drunken nighttime harpooning still seemed on the edge of what I consider safe, but that boundary is slowly expanding the longer I’m at sea.

The guys were a bit stumbly getting the ice chest back into the boat. They rarely make any mistakes sober—each movement on the boat and while working with any knife or tool is considered, graceful and strong.  We zoomed outside the pass and Tahai waved the spotlight over the black sea chop, hunting for sleepy flying fish near the surface. Fish jumped around us, slithering underwater, but none were flying fish. “There!” yelled Tony, and we pulled alongside a tiny nine inch long marara (flying fish). Tahai threw the multi pronged steel tipped wooden spear at the creature and pulled the retrieval line back into the boat. He caught it! Right through the middle. They all laughed because the fish was so small.

Tony spotted a larger fish nearby, a foot long dozing marara. “Spear it Roxy!” he said, so I braced myself against the rocking boat and took the spear in my hand. The blurry fish was a few feet underwater, it seemed impossible and I threw the spear to where I thought the fish was but missed it.  No worries, the guys said smiling, we were just having fun. My brief embarrassment was eclipsed by Tahai’s antics. He somehow slipped into the inky water while moving the fishing rod from its holster. I was closest to him and instinctively grabbed the rod before it fell into the water, he grabbed onto the side of the boat and heaved himself back inside lightning quick, now sobered up.  The guys were in fits of laughter as Tony revved fast and slow, trying to throw Tahai back into the sea.  We tied up back at Valentin and Gaston’s and presented our giant haul of one tiny marara to the uncles, aunties and cousins relaxing in their post feast glow.

On our final morning, we feasted again for breakfast—wahoo carpaccio and leftover lemon merenguine pie were the standouts. I went for another glorious snorkel and came back to find the guys scaling large bins of small red and silver reef fish. The grill smoked beside them, piled with green palm fronds. Tamatoa mixed up a sweet soy marinade that he basted on the tiny fish as they smoked, sandwiched between layers of fronds. Valentin asked me to make a pasta sauce, she was finally cooked out. I happily obliged and we all sat together for a final meal: spaghetti, hot smoked fish, the final plate of wahoo carpaccio and coconut bread. After a few rounds of bocce ball, we said our goodbyes and headed out into the sea towards Apataki.

I cozied up into my rainbow boat home, now well fed and content, ready to enjoy this time to myself. Storms passed overhead for a few days, washing the boat and the dishes I left outside in a bucket (the doctors always joked they’d wait for the rain to wash the dishes, and now I saw their wisdom at work).

Do you ever have that curious compulsion to go through drawers and closets in someone’s home where you are visiting? Well, now I could explore the eccentric intricacies and treasures inside the rainbow boat and feel no shame about it.  To give me a proper excuse though, I gradually cleaned each area of the cabin, galley and V-berth and organized the books, clothes, food and giant plastic polar bear head. I wiped away a bachelor pad level of grime from all nooks that I could reach. We didn’t have fresh water onboard, so I ferried a big plastic jug back and forth to the spigot near the beach to use for cleaning. I sorted all the errant nuts, bolts, screws, medicine, receipts, rope pieces, baseball caps, charts and polaroid photos into a peaceful but still homey style, close to where they’d be expected to live. I turned the topless Tahitian woman swimsuit calendar to the proper month over the chart table. I was going to live here after all, for an unknown length of time, and it felt good to live in a clean place. It also felt nourishing to take care of the boat, to redirect my love and attention to something tangible.

One evening the storms eased and I strolled along the coral sand beach at sunset. It is a classic pristine tropical beach, the kind you see on postcards, undulating beyond you with semi horizontal coconut palms reaching out into your path, inviting you to play on them like a balancing beam.  It was low tide, so I walked out onto a broad sand spit, ankle deep in periwinkle grey mauve water. A small black tip reef shark caught me by surprise as she wove through the shallows, hunting for dinner. It was surreal to see her, her velvet grey skin caught between pearlescent sea and skies, all blended into eachother along with the storm clouds.

Come to find out though, you don’t walk on the beach during sunset because you will get eaten by no-nos here, a sand speck sized insect that sneakily bites you and leaves you itching for the next 10 days. Live and learn folks.

A few sailors were staying on their boats in the Carenage too—a handsome ex-luxury boat yachtie with his own fancy catamaran, various older European couples getting their catamarans ready to cruise the South Pacific and solo older male sailors who I tried to avoid. All the boats were arranged in a large circle and thankfully I had no one living even within a few boats of me on either side, so I had relaxing privacy. That allowed me to pee in a bucket in the cockpit and throw it overboard onto the gravel. If I walked to the bathroom near the beach every time I needed to pee it would’ve been a hilarious all day back and forth. So bucket it was.

One of Tony’s American friends arrived to ready his sailboat for South Pacific cruising.  He was an old man-child, acutely annoying, but I was invited to his welcome feast, and for that I endured his loud blathering.

Tony, Tahai and I went out fishing to try and catch the guest’s favorite fish—wahoo.  By this time, the guys were comfortable being themselves around me, drinking Tabu (canned beer and flavored vodka) in the boat, sharing their coconut sandwich cookies and beloved Doritos (more delicious than fresh fish they raved).  They looked out for me like brothers and touched my shoulder gently to bring my attention to something dangerous—waves, eye-level hooks, fillet knives underfoot, giant moving ice chests. It was a bright mixed sunny and squally weekend day so the guys let loose and enjoyed the adventure, they were off the clock.

We caught a small yellowtail first then many bonito. Each time they brought a fish aboard I was entranced with the vibrant colors. The bonito have a bright glowing periwinkle blue line pattern along their backs that fades within a minute of them leaving the water. But during that minute they are still molten silver prisms, magical creatures, like Avatar animals from another planet. Then they die and become something you eat, into the ice chest sloshing around with beer cans.

Tony names his lures, as some fishermen do, and the most successful one that day was a pink plastic squid specimen called le petit rose, which I learned is also a name you can call your girlfriend. Tahai got a chance to steer the boat, Tony is training him to take on more roles and responsibilities in his business. Their camaraderie was relaxing and fun to be around. We ducked around some squalls and took our shirts off before others rained down on us.

We came back without a wahoo, but luckily the guest also loves coconut crabs and land crabs, so we shifted to a land-based hunt. I rested on the rainbow boat while the guys picked up the giant coconut crabs then joined at dusk for the land crab search.  We walked along the dirt path behind the rainbow boat that leads into the coconut grove. Shrubs and wild plants form an understory, with some areas cleared enough to walk through, strewn with dried palm fronds. Golfball sized hermit crabs scuttled everywhere, their bright orange red armored bodies tucked inside their shells as our feet came within inches of their exposed limbs.

I shined my headlamp beam across the shadowy dried palm fronds searching for land crabs.  They appeared, their bluish outfits glared against the dark— one by one or two by two they went into Tahai’s backpack.  He laughed as they tried to pinch his back through the fabric, I laughed too as I thwarted the crabs continuous escape efforts.

Back in the kitchen, Tony filled a giant bowl with the land crabs and walked down to the sea. There he split the bodies in half and rinsed them a few times in the sea water. His two nurse sharks came up to his toes, nibbling on the crab entrails. These sweet, seven foot long beautiful sharks enjoy head scratches.  They are like the neighborhood stray dogs who come by knowing you will feed them treats.

Tony’s dad is head chef in the family kitchen. He is tall and serious, with a rotund belly, classic for a long time cook. I stood on the edge of the kitchen, not wanting to get in the way, but also wanting to learn how to make his recipes. First he mixed a luscious soft dough—flour, fresh coconut milk, sugar. He dunked his large hands into a bowl of flour then pinched off pillowy chunks of sticky dough, formed them into rounds and plopped them into boiling coconut water. Dumplings.

Meanwhile, he super heated a giant wok.  He added oil and the split land crabs, frying them with mushroom soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine vinegar, sweet chili sauce and in the last few minutes silky fresh coconut milk.  Tahai hand shredded the four coconuts needed to make the milk with a rasp mounted on a wooden board. You sit on the board and rotate the split coconut quickly over the curved grater, in short repetitive motions, until you have a snowy mound of shredded coconut caught in a bowl, and sweat on your brow.  Then you mound the shreds into a cheesecloth and squeeze out the fatty milk.

Tahai filleted the yellowtail we caught and passed the skeleton and head to Tony, who split it into chunks and passed it to his dad, who panfried the meat covered bones and topped them with simmered soy sauced onions. Rain pelted down outside obscuring the full glowing moon. The guys drank beer and rum punch, I sipped on a chilled fizzy coconut, island electronic pop music blasted through it all. 

We sat around the long set table, the guest at one head, Tony at the other. Tahai and Tamatoa brought out the huge bowl of wok fried land crabs smothered in coconut sauce, hot coconut dumplings and the steamed giant coconut crab with its backside upturned to sop up the bitter buttery entrails.  We loaded our plates with the pan fried yellowtail, white rice and crabs, then dunked dumplings into savory spicy crab sauce. Tony’s mom brought out a mallet so we could crush the coconut crab legs and pull out the sweet meat from inside.  Between the sucking and crunching, we spoke in English, Spanish and French only to exclaim how delicious the food was, to ask someone to pass more crab their way and to say thank you to the chefs.

As I continued cleaning the rainbow boat up, I relished discovering her quirky, homemade details. A few steep wooden steps lead from the cockpit down into the cabin. A French world map titled “Le Monde Physique” (fun to say, try it) covers the dining table and is protected by thick bolted down plastic.  Pivot ninety degrees from the steps to your right to find the tiny galley (kitchen) with its two tiny stainless steel sinks and faucets next to a small stove, wood cabinet fronts adorned with painted red cherry fruits, repurposed coffee cans in custom sized holsters containing sugar, rusty salt and pastas. A four shelf spice rack is built into the divider between the steps and the galley with a transparent curved corner red plastic window protecting the spices from the steps. Very 1970’s.

Duck your head and lean forward a bit, both the ceiling and floor are angled, shuffle sideways towards the stern two feet and you find a few open shelves and a big plastic tub. Eggs, onions and carrots rest on the dark shelves alongside a few ragtag mugs and bowls. The bin hosts a large stainless steel bread mixing bowl and pots and pans.

Side step back out into the cabin and your head brushes stretchy rectangular nets along the baby blue painted ceiling. They are stuffed with coconuts and clothes. Old school fluorescent glass tube lights run along the center between a dangling dreamcatcher, a tiny teddy bear and an angel ornament—the more luck the better.

Around the map table is an L-shaped bench with worn flower printed cushions that we move outside whenever we need a soft place to rest.  Cane woven cabinet fronts lift up vertically by string handles, revealing canned goods, flour and medical supplies inside the trapezoidal compartments.  Underneath the tropical flower painted cabinets are stacks of French books on navigation, maps, art, philosophy, astronomy, poetry and one pocket sized old photo collection of reclining artistic nude women.  An empty glass tequila bottle and a beer tasting flight glasses fight for space amongst the books.  On top of the cabinets runs a long, narrow open shelf with movable clear acrylic panels to keep whatever is behind them somewhat in place. Faded sunlight from the porthole window illuminated a trumpet case (hiding a great plastic trumpet), threaded metal replacement rods and wood pieces. On the other side of the cabin, the port side, is the same set up, but with a single bench that doubles as a sleeping space.  Stacks of baseball caps and a Russian-style fur hat smush into the long upper shelf.  Instead of the galley, you find the slanted chart table with a weird quantity of keys hung along one side and shelves full of rickety plastic boxes bursting with electric tape, nuts and bolts, wire, batteries and usb sticks.  Back towards the stern, along a narrow passage is the engine, underneath the cockpit, and life jackets and foul weather gear in a bungeed off open stow space.  At the end a cabin is an odd shaped roundish bed next to a second steering area under the clear blue bubble window hatch.

Squeeze back into the dining table area and walk forward where a thin wall separates the forward V-berth from the cabin. It has a small trapezoidal door with a round window, hand painted with butterflies in bright and pastel colors. Memento shelves to the left of the door display black and white photos of the guys with their girlfriends, family and friends, coral pieces and select tarot cards. On the right side is a cork board with a pinned watercolor of the rainbow boat crossing through the Northwest Passage ice fields and smile filled polaroid photos.  Above the cork board is another clear acrylic protected shelf, stocked with an oil lantern, more books and a shimmery plastic polar bear head, the kind folks use to decorate their yards over Christmas.

Climb through the small door into the V-berth, which is all bed and completely paneled with wood slats. Netted shelves line either side, full of clothes, books, proper cameras and a captain’s cap. A square hatch lets light in through the ceiling. Child paintings of seagulls and flowers cover the wall facing the cabin, vestiges of the era when this boat safely floated a young family around the world. Now the guys had added a few mature touches, a sultry cartoon vixen advertising a crane company on a sticker and motivational phrases and anatomical drawings painted in body glitter on the mirror.

A Marquesan seedpod necklace hangs above the V berth, suspended, its half moon wild boar tusk clinked softly against me whenever I climbed in and out of bed. It reminded me of the wild one, and I allowed myself to remember him one moment then built up walls around my heart in the next.

When it rained, I laid on the bench by the chart table, watching the raindrops on the portholes, feeling the boat shake and shudder in the storm like a horse shivering a fly off its haunches.  I listened to music, wrote, cooked simple meals—caramelized onions, curried rice, vinegar dressed canned vegetables, sardines.  I filled a tote with shower supplies and a change of clothes, walked down the ladder and over to the shower by the beach. I used wifi in the worker’s garage, practiced French on Duolingo and chatted with Tony for a bit most days.

When it was sunny I did the same things, but lounged instead in the cockpit, watching the blue sky, reading.   This was the first time I’d had significant time alone, privacy, my own room…in years.  I would turn 30 in a few days and felt this was perfect timing, to have a protected space to reflect on the past decade and dream about the future one.

I told Tony my birthday was around the corner and he said so was Tahai’s so we’d throw a big party, plus his aunt and uncle from Toau, Valentin and Gaston, were planning to visit then too. “I’ll make you the only cake I know how to make, coconut cake,” he promised. Unfortunately, I got overconfident and refilled my water bottle with untreated rainwater. Normally, I would treat the water with a UV filter but I this time I didn’t. The next four days I spent in a fever haze, without an appetite, barely able to move. This came at the same time as rainstorms alternated with hot, stagnant mosquito filled nights. It took all my strength and humor to motivate myself to set up a mosquito net outside at night so I could rest, and to cook and eat rice even though I had no desire to do so.  I heard my sister’s voice in my head, lovingly but sternly commanding me to eat, drink water and rest.

On my birthday night, Tahai knocked on the boat hull asking me to join for family dinner. I was way too sick, and got up a little strength in my aching body to tell him I could’t come.  It was a quiet 30th birthday, full of lucid fever dreams and uninvited blood sucking guests.

Two days later my fever broke and I walked down the ladder to shower and connect to wifi. It was fun relief to open my phone to messages from friends and family— the internet feels like the elixir of life when you live alone in a remote place.

I got back into my rhythms, slowly and with care.  A French family invited me to sail with them to Papeete, and even though they were sweet and kind, I decided I didn’t want to sail on boats with strangers anymore. My friends on SV Zephyr, a fast Outremer 55’ catamaran, were a week away from Apataki and I longed to join them. I emailed them and asked if they could stop and pick me up on their way to Rangiroa.

Living off canned food was impacting my mood. As my body regained strength, my food cravings intensified. I helped relieve them by making a list of what I wanted to eat:

cacio e pepe, bitter greens radicchio treviso salad with parmesan and red wine vinegar, goat cheese, grilled chicken, clean cold crisp gold rush apples, arugula on thin crust pizza, Dizengoff lamb hummus, tongue tacos, guacamole, cold kombucha, miso marinated black cod, anything Tammy makes (homestyle Vietnamese), pistachios, pad Thai with shrimp, limeade, warm chocolate chip pecan oat cookies with vanilla ice cream, Oscar’s adobada fish tacos, citrus pavlova, kumquats from Nopalito’s trees, avocado half with good olive oil and zaatar, Royale burger with cheese and fries, chocolate milkshake, mint chip ice cream, semi sun dried tomatoes with dried oregano in good olive oil smashed on toasted baguette with grilled Japanese eggplant and goat cheese with red chili flake, shrimp and chive steamed dumplings with vinegar soy spicy dipping sauce, Vik’s Chaat everything esp lamb pakora/dosas, beef larb, Laos fried sweet jerky, fried plantains, chilled moscato grapes, chilled Concord grapes, crisp cold Persian cucumbers, water borek with powdered sugar, parsley sumac salad with slow braised lamb and soum, fresh frothy pomegranate juice, izakaya and soju esp chicken hearts/deboned wings with salt and lemon

Zephyr emailed back, they were happy to pick me up! Thank you thank you. I felt relieved and the news allowed me to enjoy my last days on Apataki and the rainbow boat because I knew it would be a distant memory soon.

Valentin and Gaston arrived a few days later than planned because of the storm. So I was on the mend by the time they walked up the gravel path from their motorboat.  Coincidentally, an international press team arrived at the same time—which included a greying French writer and his girlfriend, a middle aged Italian travel journalist lady and an ex-pat French travel blogger dude.  They sailed into the Carenage from Tahiti on a chartered catamaran run by two classically beautiful Tahitian women and a young white Tahitian captain.

It was also Tahai’s birthday party night.  Since the press team arrived with only a few hours notice, Tony, his family and workers scrambled gracefully to prepare a larger feast. Valentin went to work immediately, crafting assorted desserts and salads.  Tony’s mom decorated the dining room with fresh cut palm fronds and flowers. Tony built a fire in the grill and started slow roasting pork belly, Tahai basted it for hours with tropical barbecue sauce.

It was a joy to chat with women again. I talked with the French writer’s girlfriend about her time working in the fashion industry, about her grandchildren, about traveling. I dished with the Italian journalist about my experience with the doctors on the rainbow boat—we had quality girl talk.  Dinner was probably delicious, but I still couldn’t taste things quite right. It was a joy to see Tony’s grandma place a gorgeous fresh flower crown on Tahai’s head. After we toasted to his birthday, each person walked up to give him a warm hug, myself included.

The Tahitian women wound up their long curly black hair into big buns on top of their heads and started to sing and play guitar. It was part show for the journalists, but it was also an offering to Tony’s family for welcoming them into this intimate celebration.

In the morning, I walked to the beach to wash dishes near the marlin head hung in the tree above the sand. It’s juices slowly caramelized in the sun, by now it’s pungent scent had run its course and the flies were no longer interested. I left the clean dishes in the bucket and continued on down the beach, trying to embed the sparkling turquoise sea, swaying palms and utter quiet into my sense memory.  On my way home, a rainbow appeared over the rainbow boat, aligning so the boat looked like it was where the pot of gold usually rests.

A few hours after nightfall, I nestled into the V-berth, now rising and sleeping on the sun’s schedule. A loud “Hello!” jolted me awake and I popped my head through the ceiling hatch. Two red headlamp lights beamed at me and I couldn’t see who the visitors were. They clicked off the lights and it was Zephyr! What a lovely surprise! I didn’t know exactly when they would arrive and it felt surreal to see them here, in this remote place, just to pick me up.

They climbed up the ladder and I showed them the unusual boat and told stories about its owners and crew.  We made plans to depart the next day, I just needed to properly close up the boat for long term storage. My last night on the rainbow boat was restful and sweet.

In the morning, I turned off the gas and electricity and sealed broken windows with garbage bags and duct tape.  I took photos of the cabin and deck and sent them to the rainbow boat’s captain so he could rest easy knowing she was ready to sleep safely.  I colored the doctors a fierce mandala and left it on the chart table. Then I packed my bags and lowered each one by ropes to the ground.

I blew a kiss to the rainbow boat, my sanctuary for the last month, and walked across the shipyard towards the sea.

the rainbow boat brotherhood of the sailing puffin pants

The first time I saw the vintage black steel sailboat with a rainbow painted on its side and strange flags flying from the shrouds, it was overflowing with young, handsome, bearded men in Atuona Harbor on Hiva Oa island in the Marquesas, French Polynesia.

I’d just sailed on Rapture from the northern Marquesas, Nuku Hiva and Ua Pou and we anchored in the jam packed harbor next to this mysterious vessel. I tried not to stare, but I hadn’t been around people my age for over a month, let alone potential romantic interests, so I didn’t let my pride keep me from casual ogling.

Even without the male eye candy, the small ship turned heads. She was custom built, I came to find out later, by a French man in 1979 to sail around the world with his family. Her lines stayed true to that era with an angled transom that rose above the waterline and a 45 degree bow with thick black pipe railings fortifying the bowsprit area. She evoked the Pink Floyd rainbow prism album cover, with a thick white painted band below the toe rail that enveloped rectangular portholes covered in protective plastic, silver bolts ringing each one like punk bracelets. Rust dripped across the white band and the rainbow’s lines were weathered.

A handmade looking metal support structure perched above the tiny stern held up solar panels and doubled as a storage area for a large crab pot, natural gas cans, buoys and buckets, all covered in a tarp secured with zig zagging bungee cords. Surf boards lived along one stern rail and poked out of their repurposed sleeping bag covers. A clear blue plastic observation bubble hatch cover behind the cockpit area added to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic movie vibes.

A blue and white wind generator hid behind the giant black and white checkered flag adorned with some kind of repeating icon that reminded me of Mideival Times. Various sizes of other non-country flags were tied at different levels on the many shrouds supporting the two metal masts. One had some kind of animal on it proudly sitting atop a banner like the kind you see under I love mom tattoos.

I tried in vain to discern where the flags were from, and where the boat was from. On the transom, painted in thick white capital letters was her name with two other letters sitting below the name and to one side. Boats are supposed to fly their country flag off the stern and the country in which they are traveling’s flag at midships. These guys didn’t seem too concerned with rules.

I jumped in the water and swam closer to their boat, trying to get up the nerve to say hi. Fear held me back, so I swam away and happened to intercept a guy paddle boarding back to a different boat in the crowded harbor.

Guillome has shoulder length curly brown hair, intricate Indian style forearm tattoos and a gold hoop earring that echos the sparkle in his puppy brown eyes. After the usual which boat/where you from/where ya headed he asked “Are you coming to the barbecue tonight?” in his French accented English, sitting down on his board to chat. “I think it’s bring your own food and drink, there will be a fire,” he explained and pointed to the top of the hill near the anchorage where a metal container, the container ship kind, sat with covered picnic tables alongside. I said yes and requested a ride to the festivities with him and his two boat mates for later that night.

We walked up the dark hill together, Guillome, his Australian captain, his Israeli crewmate and me. The sailor party was calm and folks sat together in cliqueish school cafeteria groups, folks still fresh from a long crossing and perhaps not used to socializing with other people yet.

I spied the four mystical bearded men on a shadowy edge of the gathering, smoking cigarettes and huddled, discussing something amongst themselves. A tanned and least bearded member of the crew came up and introduced himself to me. Sam has curly sun streaked brown hair, a glowing boyish grin and a streamlined swimmer’s body, shorts worn as low as possible, no shirt, no shoes. Turns out they are all French doctors and friends, he explained, who sail together part of the year and work in Britanny the rest of the year. The unusual flags represent Brittany and specific towns and organizations within that region.

So they were French. Beautiful French doctors. Of course.

I mingled with other sailors, at the time putting my feelers out for the next boat I could hop on, so I networked with an agenda. Guillome’s captain decided to head back early and offered to give me a ride back to my boat. I felt tired of socializing and again too afraid and uncool to hang out with the French doctors so I headed home.

As I left the party I glanced over at the doctors devouring their barbecued meat. One locked eyes with me. He was beautiful, his gaze intense, wild, intelligent and full of vitality. We connected for a few seconds in a rare moment of wordless understanding between total strangers. And then I turned around and walked away.

A week later I became crew on Teresia and met Alex the German carpenter, my new crewmate. He had befriended the rainbow boat doctors at the sailor party and spent time adventuring with them on Hiva Oa. He regaled me with stories that made the doctors sound like Peter Pan’s lost boys, always looking to hunt, bushwhack and get dirty. “They don’t have a toilet on their boat,” he explained. “Whoa, I could never handle that,” I replied.

A few weeks later, Teresia arrived in Fakarava, a large atoll in the Tuamotu island group and a top destination for sailors. We pulled out the binoculars as we approached the anchorage to see if we knew any of the 30 boats in the harbor. “Oh cool! The rainbow boat is here!” said Alex. My heart skipped a beat.

We cruised by their boat and the doctors were all naked, jumping into the sea and doing pull ups on the bowsprit. I spotted the one who I’d locked eyes with, thanked the universe, and said to Alex “that is a present for me.” He smiled and shook his head, amused.

That night a bunch of younger sailors met up at La Paillote, the beach bar cafe near the anchorage run by a lovely ex-pat French couple. I had a scoop of coconut ice cream alongside a scoop of citron sorbet, both divine and much appreciated after many weeks without a proper ice cream fix.

Then I figured Tahitian rum and Mexican tequila would be a suitable digestif—a crutch to work up the courage to talk to the doctors. It worked, I cozied up to the rainbow boat sailors and started chatting up the wild one. His English wasn’t great and my French nonexistent, but we ended up sitting close and flirting. He has an old world nose and strong brow, a thick black beard and mustache making his profile look like a Roman warrior on a gold coin. His sea salty thick hair was rakishly tucked behind his ears. He had an air of contained physical energy, relaxed but present—ready to sing, dance, drink or fight at any moment.

My brain drifted into the haze that happens when a super attractive and intriguing stranger reciprocates your affections. I was in that euphoric state when Teresia’s captain walked up to us. I told him I’d be back on the boat in the morning because we were going to an after party on the rainbow boat. His face turned bright red and he yelled at me “If you want to have sex with this man then you need to pack your bags and leave my boat!”

Everyone in the bar was stunned and all went quiet, observing the scene. I oddly felt at peace, comfortable with the fact that I knew I was doing nothing wrong, that I would be fine leaving Teresia, even if that meant just sleeping on the beach, at least there weren’t many sand flies. But everyone else was aghast at the strange controlling behavior exhibited by a 68 year old Austrian man wearing short shorts and crocs.

The rainbow boat’s captain, Ethan, graciously took Teresia’s captain aside and sat him down to calm him. Ethan tried to invite Teresia’s captain to the after party, listened to the captain’s list of complaints about me, and eventually Teresia’s captain left without further incident.

Everyone asked if I was ok, and why the captain was like that? I realized I’d become immune to this strange man and his misogynist behavior, probably out of necessity because I lived on his boat in the middle of nowhere. This had been the first real opportunity to leave. Plus, I enjoyed my crewmates Alex, the dreadlocked German carpenter, and Lucio, the ex-accountant Brazilian surfer.

Anyhow. My wild Frenchman asked if I’d liked to swim back to the rainbow boat with him. I accepted. We kiss-walked on the road along the anchorage and then onto the shore. I’d seen reef sharks throughout the day in the water and knew this atoll was famous for its high shark population. But I figured at least there would be someone there to help or be eaten with me. We waded into the inky black water and started to swim towards the black boat.

We laughed like kids, looking up at the stars, trying not to splash too much which would attract sharks. “We don’t have a ladder, so we pull ourselves up. I can help you if you need,” he explained as we reached the boat. Thank goodness I’d been doing pull ups once in a while on Teresia. I kicked the water to grab the first rail above the bow, then grabbed the next rail, pulled myself up a ways then swung my leg up and wrapped it around the rail. It wasn’t pretty but it worked. He was impressed.

It was surreal being on this mysterious boat, finally, with the man I’d spied weeks ago. We had the boat to ourselves for a while before the whole after party arrived and smushed into the tiny cabin living area. They blasted romantic French music and made pasta for us, it felt like a gypsy party.

In the morning, French music traveled from the cockpit to the V-berth, the necessarily triangular shaped bed in the bow of monohull sailboats. We squeezed out of the ceiling hatch, jumped naked into the sea and joined the other crew in the cockpit. The guys were rolling their first of many cigarettes, laying shirtless along the three wood slat cockpit benches. But the cockpit was comically small, so the guys overlapped their legs across the center, wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders, just like a pack of dogs lying together in a shady spot. The total comfort, trust, brotherhood and love amongst them was immediately obvious. And refreshing.

Ethan offered that I could join their crew, but that they were only taking the boat back to Apataki Carenage, where I’d just sailed from, and leaving to go back to work in France. So I’d only have a week and a half until I needed to find a new boat or fly on to Papeete. It was a kind offer but I said no thanks, it would be easier to find a boat continuing on to Tahiti here in Fakarava.

We hung out for a few hours on the boat, lounging, the guys started drinking beers soon after coffee. We snacked on their homemade bread and jam. I loved the atmosphere, and thought to myself, sitting amongst these interesting people on their homemade boat, that I didn’t really need to get to Tahiti so soon. I’d been there as a kid, so I knew that Tahiti and it’s sister islands were stunning. But I found that people make your experience rich. These guys were worth giving up a secure path forward on my quest, I knew I’d work something out.

“Ethan, I changed my mind, can I come with you to Apataki?” I asked the olive skinned captain, who looked like a fox with his beautiful twinkly eyes lined with thick black lashes. “Yes,” he confirmed, direct and sincere.

And so began my official time as rainbow boat crew.

Ethan offered to accompany me to get my luggage off Teresia, but I didn’t want to deal with that yet. The rainbow boat was readying to depart soon so we went ashore to provision. Come to find out that provisioning for this refrigerator-free boat meant rice, tinned sardines and lots of beer. Seeing my food fate, I grabbed a jar of peanut butter, apples and a bar of chocolate.

The Frenchmen looked on curiously as I ripped open the jar of peanut butter and started dunking apple chunks into it. It was the afternoon already and we hadn’t eaten much breakfast or lunch.

We ambled over to La Paillote to say goodbye, the rainbow boat had become good friends with the French owners, shutting down the bar every night for many nights. We all sat around a long table and everyone started drinking, rolling cigarettes and laughing—relaxing at the leisurely pace cafe-going Europeans are famous for.

I watched and listened to try and catch something I could understand with little success. I’m used to being in situations like these, you learn to laugh at the right times, to enjoy being included in the group even if you can’t contribute conversationally. The wild Frenchman translated for me once in a while in broken English despite his crewmates’ chuckling at his language skills—I appreciated his efforts.

Finally, we went on a food mission. We climbed into the La Paillote owners’ pint sized truck bed and sped along Fakarava’s streets—coconut palms, single story bright colored homes and kids on bicycles streamed by us. We stopped at a food truck nestled into a grassy lot with a few plastic tables covered with corrugated tin roofs.

A portly and cheery French expat greeted us and said she was just closing but would of course stay open for old friends. Rainbow boat stickers were already on the food truck, they had all camped near the southern Fakarava pass and partied under the stars together.

We inhaled our burgers and fries, I was relieved to see that the guys got hungry eventually. I talked with Adam, Ethan’s co-captain, about sailing through the Northwest passage. He looks like a weathered sailor you’d see in a black and white photo from the late 1800s. With curly sun streaked tawny hair, high cheekbones and a languid litheness. He has piercing blue eyes, ones that often look far away, as if he is captaining a ship in another universe with constant vigilance. Adam doesn’t say much, but has an intelligent, dry sense of humor when he does speak. If the topic is sailing though, he opens up.

The Northwest Passage has only recently become navigable by sailboats. Climate change contributed to significant ice melt in the Arctic Circle so during two weeks of the year, a couple dozen sailboats attempt to cross through floating ice fields. It is a treacherous route—the rainbow boat was stuck for two days in the ice field. It was just Adam and Ethan onboard, with their bags packed and rifle ready in case they needed to jump ship if ice crushed the boat. Polar bears were a significant concern. They lost lots of weight during the passage because of the stress and lack of time to eat, but they made it through. It was a honor to be on a boat with folks who had achieved such a wild feat, and helped me see the strength underneath the boat’s weathered rainbow.

We bid farewell to La Paillote’s owners and returned to the rainbow boat. In the apricot setting sun light, we spotted the boat Guillome was crewing on, Dawn Treader II, entering the harbor. “Ah, we will have to stay another day to party with those guys,” said Ethan solemnly, with the ever present twinkle in his eye.

We returned again to La Paillote for all night drinking with the local dive guides and the owners. Ti’ punch is the crew’s choice cocktail. “When you offer to make ti’ punch, you make it for everyone, and not just once, you make it all night,” directed Ethan. Sam showed me how to squeeze some lime into each glass, add a spoonfull of sugar, smash them together, add some rum, then dilute it with a bit of water, top with ice. And so I began to learn that rainbow boat goodbyes are extended, and always involve lots of beer and many rounds of ti’ punch.

Our neighbor boat in the anchorage was captained by a French woman around my age, which is super rare and for me, and obviously the guys, a treat. She has long blonde tousled mermaid hair, freckles, and petite features like a sun glow ocean fairy. She often leans her head back when she laughs, her smile wide, her laugh pure and sweet. The mermaid offered to host the second goodbye party for everyone the next day.

I settled into my new cozy boat life, observing the rhythms and unsaid rules that govern tightnit teams. “We have no rules,” the guys told me. But they did: look out for each other, say how you feel, do what brings you pleasure, don’t feel ashamed, take care of the rainbow boat.

We were swimming back to the boat again from land, the dinghy was too small for us all plus crates of beer, when Dawn Treader II’s dinghy passed by us with captain and crew. My wild Frenchman yelled to them “Where’s Roxanne?” and everyone laughed.

Come to find out, ever since the party a few weeks prior in Hiva Oa where we all met at the shipping container, the rainbow boat boys would call out to the Dawn Treader II boys asking where I was, since I went home from the party with that crew. I felt flattered that they’d been thinking about me since then, and also realized the odds were heavily in my favor for catching a cute guy. I was one of a few young single female sailors navigating this route.

We all met up at the mermaid’s sailboat in the setting sunlight. More young cruisers piled on, then the dive guides joined, spent and fulfilled after a day diving with dozens of reef sharks. La Paillote’s owners dinghyed out from their tropical pink painted bar, happy about this most extended goodbye party.

The mermaid’s tattooed Tahitian surfer boyfriend went spear fishing and cleaned his catch on Alex’s new inflatable stand up paddle board. “So much for that new car shine,” I said as Alex watched parrot fish guts being rubbed into his new ride. “It’s ok,” he said, “its better to get that first scratch over with.”

We feasted on giant platters of fish carpaccio, grilled parrotfish with a sweet ginger garlic sauce and fresh pineapple infused rum. Cruisers in the Tuamotus can be spread out and isolated throughout the atolls, so we were all excited to be together in this spontaneous community gathering.

An unfortunate mishap quieted the party’s buzz—the rainbow boat’s dinghy wasn’t tied correctly and floated away into the thick night sea. Ethan and Sam went to look for it in the mermaid’s dinghy, and not only didn’t find it, but damaged her outboard motor on a coralhead so they had to row back. Dinghys are the boat version of your car, you need it to go from your boat to land without getting wet. The mermaid was gracious but the party didn’t rebound, we all resturned to our respective vessels.

In the morning, we agreed it was time to complete the goodbye process, we needed to move towards the shipyard in Apataki, a day’s sail away. Which meant I needed to pick up my luggage from Teresia.

Ethan accompanied me to my former boat. It felt awkward to board Teresia, I kept my eyes away from the captain’s and quickly packed my clothes. I signed the immigration crew list writing that I left the boat on this date. Alex and Lucio gave me quiet hugs, I gave the captain a strong, curt handshake. He had a white fury in his eyes and his face was haggard red. Thank goodness I could escape this madness.

On the ride back to the rainbow boat I felt like I had wings again, wind in my hair, going towards an unknown future but one that I was looking forward to rather than dreading. My wild man incorporated my gear into the netted shelves in the V berth alongside French philosophy books and boxer shorts. He stowed my bag under the bed atop a massive spare traditional anchor they’d found somewhere along the way. I was lovingly folded into the rainbow boat’s eccentric world.

We returned to La Paillote the next afternoon for a final goodbye session. My brain began to pick up a few of the French words volleyed around the table. Mostly though I studied faces to understand their emotions. Deep sun leathered smile lines crinkled around the owners’ blue eyes—the handsome couple live a beautiful life together on Fakarava and are grateful. We cheek kissed, twice for French folks, and returned to the rainbow boat.

Sweet Alex paddled his board over to us with a few things I’d left on Teresia. We were both sad to say goodbye—we’d grown close playing chess together (he always won), cooking and staying up late under the stars talking about life. He would look for a new boat to sail on to Australia. We wished each other luck and hugged goodbye.

We readied the boat to set sail and the doctors hollered at the mermaid that we were finally departing. She motored over in her dinghy, Ethan had fixed it in the early morning after the party. Out of her pocket she pulled four black cord necklaces hung with one white cowrie shell each. Every man bowed his head before her in turn and she placed a necklace around their necks. They gave her misty eyed hugs and howled out her name as she rode back to her boat. All the goodbyes were satisfying and now complete.

The rainbow boat does not have a mechanical windlass, the piece of equipment that hoists the heavy anchor and chain on board. Instead they rely on the wild one, a muscly extra beautiful human windlass. He planted his feet on either side of the chain at the bow and hand over hand pulled the chain and anchor aboard.

We navigated in the last light out the pass. Large waves and strong current from tidal flow pushed the small vessel around and instead of tension rising on the boat, the guys’ eyes lit up. “Let’s get this party started!” sang the wild one. Adam steered and his faraway gaze transformed into being fully present at the helm. They all gracefully stepped over and around each other, the shrouds and other boat obstacles to raise and adjust the sails, without any hurry or stress. This wasn’t their first rodeo.

The rainbow boat doesn’t have an autopilot so everyone takes a few hours at the helm. Since I didn’t know the boat well enough yet I wasn’t in the rotation, but I stayed up with the wild one for his night watch. Dark squalls passed alongside, sending us wind gusts and gentle rain. He sang softly into the breeze as I dozed on his puffin pajama clad knee. All the guys shared one pair of pajama pants printed with cartoon puffins and the phrase “Stud Puffin” all over. If you were naked, as was commonly the case, and needed pants, these puffin pants were usually within reach. Ethan and Adam slept on the couches around the table below, and Sam tucked into the back cabin under the blue bubble hatch.

We arrived at Apataki’s South pass at sunrise, a strange feeling for me because I’d already said my goodbyes to this town. A strong outgoing current created standing waves and whirlpools in the channel. For a few minutes it felt like we just inched forward, the rainbow boat’s old motor straining under the effort. The guys became focused but there wasn’t a hint of stress onboard, just a bit of adrenaline. They work in emergency rooms day in and day out so their tolerance levels for intense situations are higher than the average person.

We successfully anchored between the pearl farm and the Niutahi town then dinghyed to shore. I was the de facto guide here because I’d spent so much time in Apataki already. We stopped by Nicolas’ house, he laughed that I was back so soon and offered the guys drinks. I ducked out of the gathering for to say hi to Chipapa and Ernest around the corner. Chipapa greeted me and we talked about the Italian we’d befriended the week before who’d been arrested. We were both surprised he was smuggling a boat load of cocaine with his friends.

I felt a different tension in town this time, a wariness from folks perhaps because of what happened with the Italian criminals. Were all sailors now suspects? The Italian said he was just a tourist, yet he went fishing, swimming and hung out with us all while secretly coordinating a giant international drug smuggling scheme. So I understood the sideways glances I got as another outsider.

The Frenchmen wandered around the quiet town—they missed La Paillote, the mermaid and wished there was a bar. Niutahi only has the Airport Bar, which is run out of an ex-pat woman’s house across from the airstrip and is only open when she wants it to be. Which was not that afternoon.

Nicolas’ son luckily invited us to go spearfishing with him and his friends in the pass. That’s where we were told not to go because of sharks. But we decided to take our chances and catch a proper dinner. The prospect of another tinned sardine meal was motivation enough.

My job was to swim a floating plastic bin between the six dispersed spearfishers so they could unload their wriggling catch before the sharks ate the bloody fish.

The water was crystal clear—coral and bright colored fish along the pass wall went from brilliant white, yellow, purple, red and turquoise to various shades of blue the deeper you looked, but you could still see the physical details forty feet away.

I snorkled along, popping my head above the surface often to see if there was a speared fish waving in the air. The guys would immediately lift the fish out of the water and swim with it above their heads so the sharks wouldn’t be attracted.

My bin shook occasionally as it filled with spotted, striped, gasping reef fish. A group of fishermen came by on their power boat and looked inside the box, shaking their heads. “Some of those fish have ciguatera,” he shouted, “this is a bad place to fish.” He reached down and rummaged through the box, throwing half back into the sea because they were likely full of the poisonous toxin. Thank goodness they checked on us, the kids we were with didn’t have enough experience yet to know the good from the bad fish.

On our walk back to the dinghy, the little girl who’d I’d danced with on the wharf the week before ran alongside me. She wore a purple princess costume, and her almond shaped brown eyes glowed up at me, then looked curiously at the different men I was with this time. “Who are they?” she asked, “New friends on a new boat,” I answered, not able to convey anything more complicated with our language barrier. She hugged me tightly and went on running and giggling with her friends in the street.

We made a proper dinner on the rainbow boat that night, fresh grilled fish, ciguatera free. Strong winds screamed through the boat’s rigging all night, accompanied by rain storms, but I didn’t mind.

Ethan and Sam padddled their surfboards out the next morning to try their luck at the break outside the pass. We snorkled through the pass to pick them up a few hours later and the wild one towed the dinghy behind him. Schools of fish glinted in the midday sun adorning the coral covered wall. We swam with our fins against the strong current while reef fish tucked in amongst protected crannies to keep from being swept away.

Turns out the surf was small and Ethan bashed his board on the reef so they were more than ready to leave. We shopped for provisions—beer, canned fish, tobacco—at the only shop in town. Most of the local women shopping there wore huge single black pearls hung on gold necklaces and an assortment of pearl stud earrings, pearl rings and bracelets. I tried not to stare at the shiny gems and grabbed a few more chocolate bars from the fridge.

The beautiful windlass pulled up the anchor again, his back muscles beading with sweat from the effort. Then we started sailing across the calm inner sea towards the Carenage, the rainbow boat’s final stop in this leg of her adventure.

I posted myself at midships, leaning out from the shrouds to see what obstacles lay in our path. The guys took turns steering, basking in the sun, happy to be sailing—the flow was set right again after a stagnant stay in Niutahi.

“There should be a reef off starboard, one mile away, let me know when you see it,” Ethan directed. I peered out onto the sea, with the same sweeping motion and intensity that I’d practiced on Ernest’s fishing boat to look for birds. I spotted the reef and let the captain know where it was. After I cautioned him about pearl buoys in our path, the captain was ready to trust me with his ship.

Ethan asked if I’d like to steer? Yes, I did. The boat was heeling a bit from a steady breeze so they showed me how to brace myself on the high side and steer with my feet so I could see the horizon in front of us. The helm was a small kid-sized wheel set near the floor of the cockpit, almost flush with the bench so you had to either have your legs on either side of it to steer with your hands or sit far to one side and steer with one hand or your foot. A wonky compass sat on a handmade pedestal in front of the wheel, they covered it with half a coconut shell when we were at anchor to protect it from the sun. More reliable was the navigation software the guys had running on their iPad in a waterproof case. Thank goodness.

I surveyed the route they had planned and saw where the next closest reef was. The guys were giddy to have someone else steer, it was rare for the four of them them to be relaxing at the same time because someone always had to be at the helm. They celebrated the occasion with beer, not a usual ritual for them while sailing. They’d crossed the entire Pacific without drinking. A lot of sailors I met dialed down or didn’t drink at all while underway, there aren’t rules about drinking and sailing so it’s left to individual discretion.

“Where is your wind gauge?” I asked, looking to the top of the mast for the arrow that I always use to find out where the wind is coming from. “We don’t have one,” Ethan said, “we use the flags tied at different places around the boat, and the feeling across our faces,” he explained.

I spotted the flags and stuck my head out further to feel the wind but wasn’t practiced at that method, so instead I kept my eyes on the sails. When they started to luff, or flap, I steered back away from the wind a bit to keep them full and didn’t overcorrect so far that the sails would need to be adjusted.

It was fun. I felt the water push along the rudder through the steering wheel’s movements against my hands. It is a feeling I loved ever since growing up on my parents’ sailboat. You can feel the sea’s power in your palms. As the sea and wind push the boat one way, you resist those forces on the helm just enough to keep yourself on the same course.

Most boats use autopilot all the time so you don’t get that visceral feeling. These guys wanted to feel the sea, wind, waves, rain, heat, cold and ice. I remembered that sailing wasn’t just a way to travel between points, the sport itself was enlivening, requiring your full attention and interaction with the elements.

The wild one mixed me up a fresh limeade since I don’t drink much these days. I focused on sailing, at once enjoying myself and also trying to do my best as the newest crew member. This was my first chance to show them I can sail and I didn’t want to blow it.

“Ok let’s tack,” said Ethan, meaning we needed to turn across the wind to get to our destination. “What do you guys say in the states to tack?” he asked. “We say, ready about, tacking!” I explained.

“Ready about!” “Tacking!” I bellowed, as we were trained to do, to make sure everyone was ready for the boom to come across the boat, a horizontal beam that can knock someone unconscious if they don’t get out of the way. The guys adjusted the sails and ducked. Once we were on the new course they all laughed at my American style call. For the rest of the trip they’d randomly yell “Ready about! Tacking!” and we’d all laugh.

Gradually the wind picked up and the guys let out more sail to go faster. “Is that ok?” asked Ethan, because the more sail they let out, the more force there was on the steering wheel. I said yes it’s fine, and they let out all the sails. We moved at a nice clip, I was in the groove with the boat, learning how she responded to my steering. The wild one crouched behind me and said sweetly “Good job, mate.”

Right then the fishing line zinged with unmistakable vigor. “Fish on!” someone yelled. “Do you want me to slow the boat down?” I asked. “Nope, stay on course,” said Ethan. I focused on the sails and listened to the guys reeling in the fish behind me on the stern. They gaffed it and brought it on deck, a beautiful silvery trevaly ridged in glowing periwinkle blue.

At the same time Adam looked up from the cabin with an amused expression while slowly operating the manual bildge pump with his foot. Someone forgot to turn off the salt water pump in the galley (kitchen) so as we sailed the water flowed through the faucet and pooled on the foor.

A few weeks prior they left the boat for a couple days to adventure in the mountains on Hiva Oa. They’d forgotten to close a through hull that allows sea water to circulate in the engine, there was a leak and they returned to a half sunken boat. There were many hours of pumping the manual bildge pump. All the guys laughed at themselves because their boat was filling with water again so soon. This was another reminder from mama ocean on their last day sailing who is boss.

I felt fully happy in this moment. In an easy, engaging merry go round of laughter, wind, fish and sweet beautiful men. After sailing the boat for a few hours I felt like a proper part of the crew and they treated me as such for the remainder of our time together.

I asked Ethan to take the wheel because I had to pee. With no toilet on board I walked to the bowsprit, took off my boarshorts and leaned my butt through the bow railings, like hanging on monkey bars over a rushing ocean below. It wasn’t so bad, peeing in front of a bunch of new friends, liberating even.

The wind calmed as we neared the protection of the Carenage. A quiet sadness overcame the rainbow boat and her crew as they took down the sails for the last time. The late afternoon rays highlighted the white canvas sail folds, rigging whipped gently in the breeze, an applause for a trip well made.

We inflated the dinghy and went ashore to check in with Tony at the Carenage. The last time we’d seen each other we were helping the Italians tie up their damaged boat in Niutahi a week ago. He recognized me and explained to the guys in French what had happened. The French SWAT team came into the Carenage to apprehend the drug smugglers and tore apart the sailboat to confiscate the 428 kilos of cocaine. Tony still looked a bit shaken and tired from the whole ordeal. Life is usually calmer in Apataki.

We bought WiFi codes and caught up, very slowly, with our friends and family across different oceans. Back on the rainbow boat, the guys began to prepare a fish feast with the trevaly as ceviche and grilled fillets, rounded out with rice and salad. They sang together as the mood struck, usually when their favorite French love songs came through the queue. We had a few more days of being together at anchor before we needed to drive the boat on land and into storage at the Carenage.

In the morning, the wild one and Sam went to Tony to explain how the Austrian captain had mistreated me and asked if I could stay on their rainbow boat while it was in storage. Tony said of course, and I felt relieved to have a home while I figured out my next steps. He invited us all to join them for a barbecue that night.

We geared up to go spear fishing so we could contribute to the barbecue. We piled into the small dinghy and headed for the coral heads near the Carenage. Ethan dove to look under coral shelves for grouper. White and black tip reef sharks slowly came to check us out. Whenever I swam apart from the group to look at something, the sharks became bold and came closer to me, so I returned to the group.

I started shivering in the water after a while, the wild one noticed and came up behind me in the water to give me a big bear hug and rubbed my back to warm me up. It felt good to be taken care of and bittersweet because I knew I’d be on my own again soon.

Ethan said the fish were scared because of all the people in the water so Adam, Sam and I left him with the wild one. We started trolling for fish with a hand line, keeping an eye out for the spearfishers who held their catch out of the water and away from sharks until we picked them up.

Adam drove the dinghy, one hand casually on the wood piece they’d fashioned as the tiller, hand carved with the boat name, like a kid’s sign for their secret treehouse. He had that faraway look in his eyes again. I noticed Ethan and the wild one standing and sitting on a coral head in the distance with a fish above their heads. We drove towards them and I burst out laughing. Ethan was delicately picking coral branch bits from the wild one’s longish hair that was half tied up in a bright blue hairtie. Like monkey friends.

Our fish contribution to the barbecue was small, but we made up for it with beer and fancy roasted nuts, which both go for high prices in this part of the world. Luckily, Tony had huge chunks of marlin collar and belly on the grill, pieces he’d frozen from a marlin he caught a few weeks ago.

Tahai, an extra bronzed and fit young Carenage worker with a sly secret smile always on his beautiful lips, took care of all the fish on the grill, basting them with homemade sauce, moving them above the smoldering coconut husks to get each piece caramelized with juices bubbling to perfection.

We sat on long benches, our bare feet rested on the coral gravel, under the stars around the grill. The particular smell of smoldering coconut husks swirled by our noses. Finally the fish was ready, Tahai loaded up platters and put them on the set table.

Here it is customary to eat at the end of the party, after you’ve drank, sang and played music for many hours. Which means the food is room temp by the time you eat it. Taking earlier tastes seemed to be alright and I couldn’t resist trying the hot marlin belly.

It was the best fish I’d ever eaten. Juicy sweet fat permeated the flaky succulent layers, infused with coconut smoke and sweet, savory caramelized sauce. I closed my eyes. When I opened them I saw the wild one sneaking a taste too, we looked at each other with the mutual understanding that this was incredible, special food. We kissed with marlin fat on our lips—just the right combination of pleasure, fulfillment and surrender.

Tony brought out his guitar and bass made from a plastic bucket, fishing line and driftwood stick. Tamatoa, another young Carenage worker started strumming his ukulele. Ethan went wild on the bass, plucking with abandon. There was ti’ punch, music until folks were half lidded from sleepiness, then dinner and a satisfied stumble back to the dinghy and the rainbow boat.

Time stretched with the rainbow boys, each day felt like a rich week. They were all soaking up their last adventurous days before returning home. So I basked in their living-in-the-present glow.

Every morning began with a naked swim in the sea. I still couldn’t get up the nerve to poop off the bow, so I’d just go in the water and swim against the current. That attracted scavenging remoras to me so it was a bit of a scene, I could only laugh at myself.

Ethan and Sam had left early on Tony’s motorboat to go to Niutahi for more provisions—beer, canned paté and limes for ti’ punch. So Adam, the wild one and I lounged for a while. The wild one had to stoop in the cabin while he prepared coffee, his weathered hands elegantly poured the brew from a battered aluminum pot. Adam, half awake from his hangover, wore boxer shorts that looked like they’d had multiple encounters with a cheese grater, rolled a cigarette in the cockpit and eased across half the space since the other guys were gone. The wild one gingerly placed the half moon breadloaf atop his boardshorts printed with photos of bikini babe butts. He sliced off hearty pieces, crumbs gently cascaded onto the cockpit floor.

After this most leisurely brunch we decided to go spear fishing. This time at a different, beautiful coralhead, one I’d snorkeled before. The wild one caught a grouper, we came back to the boat and ate chocolate and rested, I flopped into the dinghy in the water, it was the only shady spot I could find to escape the intense afternoon tropical sun.

When the guys returned, surprisingly with some bok choy in addition to beer and rum, the wind had calmed down so it was time to bring the boat ashore. Tony drove a backhoe connected to a special haul out trailer down a concrete ramp into the sea. The Carenage workers guided the boat to line up with the trailer, then connected lines from the boat to the hitch area. They started diving to dig out sand from underneath the rainbow boat, she was just a bit taller than what they were set up for. After thirty minutes they hauled her all the way onto the trailer and up onto land. The rainbow boat was now “on the hard.”

Tony laid a tall ladder against her so we could get up and down. He invited us to join them for lobster hunting that night and have a bonfire on the outer reef. We gladly accepted and changed into proper reef going shoes, a strange sight to see since the guys were usually barefoot.

The rainbow boat was parked next to the maintenance garage that doubled as a the worker hang out area. The guys brought out their newly stocked provisions, beer and ti’ punch fixings, and laid them out on diesel barrels to share with Tony, Tahai and Tamatoa.

I felt an overwhelming sadness fall on my chest and shoulders—the guys were leaving the next day. When I’m sad I eat, so I grabbed spoonfuls of peanut butter and leftover rice from the pot. And some chocolate. Even so I still felt like crying, so I walked out to the beach and onto the short wooden pier. Tears quietly rolled down my cheeks, the party’s distant laughter disappeared into the soft lapping waves.

I sat cross legged under the stars, took a few deep breaths and closed my eyes, resting my hands on my knees. After a while, wood creaked behind me and I felt the wild one’s chin on my forehead, his arms wrapped around my back, his hands warmed my wrists. He held me as I cried, then showed me constellations he knew. “We are still here, come have fun with us,” he said.

We rejoined the crew who were now properly juiced for a late night hunting mission. We packed up the ti’ punch materials and followed Tahai through coconut groves towards the outer reef. Part of the group stayed in a semi protected sandy area to collect driftwood and start the bonfire. The rest of us continued out towards the crashing waves to find dinner under the stars.

Tahai was in charge of making sure Adam and I didn’t hurt ourselves. The reef is made of coral layered together over many years, worn away on top by the elements. It is like walking over a razor sharp slice of Swiss cheese, in ankle to shin deep ebbing and flowing water. I joked that it made total sense to get drunk and then walk over a razor sharp reef in the middle of the night. Total sense. Adam laughed and continued to tromp through the sea in his sneakers.

Tahai showed us which golf ball sized snails to collect, we weren’t in the advanced lobster hunting party because the waves were too dangerous. I was happy to be on the snail team. Once my eyes learned to spot them in the headlamp glare I became a proficient gatherer, Tahai was impressed and smiled wide whenever I plopped handfuls into his backpack.

Adam wandered off somewhere, disappearing into the night. I focused on snails, Tahai said to follow in his footsteps so I wouldn’t fall. Little did he know this was just like hopping around tidepools, which I’d done with my family since I was a tot. I spotted baby mullet fish trapped in shallow depressions and asked Tahai if they were good for eating. Yes! So I tried to grab one with my hands but it slipped away. Tahai showed me to place my thumb and forefingers around the fish head so it couldn’t wriggle away. I caught two, into the backpack they went. This was fun, the hunt was on. Then I spied sea urchins, Tahai put on gloves and carried them all the way back to the fire.

We’d been gone awhile, the fire crew looked hungry and the lobster crew looked defeated, they’d only secured one and it was small. Alas, Tahai and I were the dinner heroes with our snails and fish. Tony placed a grate over the fire and lined up handfuls of snails. They burbled and spit, the fish sizzled, I took off my wet shoes and warmed my feet.

We sucked down briny snails, cracked reef crab shells with our teeth and stared at the fire. The wild one delicately helped me open the urchins with his bare hands but they weren’t tasty, not the right phase of the moon he said.

It started to get chilly and the guys were properly drunk so they retired to the boat. The wild one wanted to stay at the fire so I layed with him as he slept, and gathered more wood to keep us warm under the stars. After a few hours, it was cold and there was no more fuel nearby so I woke him up. I had no idea how to get back through the darkness to the rainbow boat, but he did, and guided us home.

In the glaring morning sun the boys were sluggish, not wanting to pack up their boat yet. The rainbow boat felt different out of the water, the ocean had protected her and was our naked playground. Now we were attached to land with a ladder and had to wear clothes again. We also had a still pond nearby which harbored fun mosquito neighbors.

Tony came by and told the guys to be ready by early afternoon, he would take them all to Niutahi to sleep at his house there, then wake up early the next morning to motor to the next atoll where they’d catch a flight to Papeete. He said I was welcome to join them if I’d like. I was relieved to not have to say goodbye yet and packed up a small backpack.

As the hours counted down, the guys stuffed their waterproof luggage with gear, folded up the sails, put the surfboards inside and took their flags down. Since I was going to live on the boat for a while they didn’t need to close it fully up yet. I lowered the bucket of dishes to the ground by rope. The wild one took my arm softly and said I didn’t have to do the dishes, he knew I’d prefer to do other more interesting boat tasks, but I assured him I didn’t mind.

The rainbow boat didn’t have water tanks, we’d used salt water to wash up at sea, so I carried the bucket to the nearby beach. I grabbed fistfuls of coral sand to wipe out the grease and watched the fish nibble at the rice bits I threw into the shallows. Turquoise water extended out beyond my toes, filling my field of vision with sparkling calm ocean, bordered at the edges with coconut palms and pale pink beaches. This wasn’t the worst place to be stranded for a while.

The doctors heaved their gear onto their shoulders and took a last look at the rainbow boat, now surrounded by 20 other sailboats and catamarans in a clearing amongst coconut palms. They would return to this weather protected lot in nine months to sail her onward. She was their only proper home—three of the four doctors bounce around at friends’ and relatives’ homes in Brittany to save money and hassle.

We motored across the atoll in Tony’s worn red speedboat with Tahai and Tamatoa, making our way to Niutahi in a half hour compared to the half day sail it took us a few days ago. As per rainbow boat tradition, it was time to party, a proper extended goodbye.

We dropped off luggage at Tony’s house then stocked up on beer and the local canned favorite called Tabu-beer mixed with tropical flavored vodka. I splurged on grapes, $12 for a bag of the luscious sugary globes. Then we piled back into Tony’s boat and jetted out into the dark sea for another tipsy hunting adventure—this time flying fish was the object of desire.

Tahai connected a spotlight to the boat’s battery, and readied the multiproged spear nestled into a holster alongside the steering wheel at the bow. Tony explained that the sleeping flying fish rest near the water’s surface at night so all we had to do was find them then throw the spear into them. Tahai arced the spotlight over the black sea, slender fish flashed their silver sides at us, but over and over it was the wrong species of fish.

Sam, Adam, Ethan and I sat together in the back of the boat, keeping warm and enjoying the stars. No luck with the flying fish so we returned home and Tony opened his chest freezer—it would be burgers and fries for dinner, with chilled grapes for dessert.

We were all tired from the bonfire night, I felt loopy just from fatigue. While the guys cracked beers outside I rested in the warm kitchen, with the hot oven sending out buttery potato smells. Sun faded pictures of Tony’s family blanketed the tropical print walls—photos of beautiful girls sorting through piles of black pearls, family gathered around tables laden with food, all smiles huge and warm and full of love. There were also photos of mushroom clouds over tropical atolls, a reminder of how the French military did atomic testing in the region.

The wild one brought me his warm Tunisian blanket cloak with a hood, so I could rejoin them outside and stop shivering. A few days without proper sleep and food had taken its toll on me. Tony and Tahai brought out platters of butter roasted fries and burgers with all the condiments. We devoured them and joked around the table for a few hours until each doctor dropped into sleep one by one, on the grass, in their chairs and some on the mattresses Tony had laid out for us in a large room with airy shutters.

I crunched sweet grapes in the now quiet night and woke up the wild one from his chair to cuddle with me for the last time.

Soon after dawn we loaded into Tony’s boat and headed for the neighboring atoll Arutua. We sped over the chop, slamming down in the rhythmic way motorboats do. The wild one stood near Tony at the helm, surfing the ride, smiling and taking in his last day of tropical ocean spray and wind.

After an hour and a half of open ocean, Tony swooped into the Arutua pass, waved at pearl farm workers and guided the boat into a protected area in front of the airport, no need for parking lots here. It was a beautiful wooden open air structure, small but with extravagant tall beamed ceilings with Polynesian wood carved signs. My stomach dropped. I’d had emotional airport goodbyes before, but it had been many years.

Both the wild one and I have personalities that joke through sadness, so we sat outside together for a bit, not saying the things we wanted to say. We joined the guys inside for fried chicken wings and coffee. Their plane arrived, it’s turbine engines blasted sound through the terminal, erasing the place’s tropical ease.

I hugged and double cheek kissed the doctors goodbye. I promised Ethan that I’d send him photos of the rainbow boat before I left it. Adam told me with gravity to take care of the rainbow boat, I promised him that I’d take care of his home. Sam, ever jolly, thanked me. The wild one picked me up and spun me around, kissed me firmly and smiled wide. I smiled back, aching to hear words that he didn’t say. He reached out again for a final kiss and let his hand run down my arm, our fingers connected like dance partners then separated as he walked away.

They walked out to the tarmac together and disappeared into the cheerily painted Air Tahiti plane. I breathed deeply and sat back onto the bench behind me, it felt like the strength had drained from my right leg. I sat there for a few minutes, watching people arrive from Papeete, little kids rejoined with their dads, returning sailors were excited to board their boats again in Tony’s shipyard.

I walked out to Tony’s boat and he gave me a hug, tears rolled down my cheeks, predictably. He comforted me and I climbed aboard. Tropical paradise surrounded me, azure sea and sky, endless. I sent a sneaky air kiss to the departing plane and felt alright, grateful to have met the rainbow boys and glad that I got to stay here, with the promise of fresh adventures around the next reef.

*i changed the names of the doctors and withheld their boat name to protect their privacy*

Innocent pasta with international criminals

We sailed back out the north pass and around Apataki to the south pass, looking for Lucio’s wave. We saw waves breaking outside the south pass, but they weren’t quite big enough yet. Teresia continued 10 miles past the main village of Niutahi to Totoro where the Apataki Carenage shipyard is located.

It looked improbable, a dozen masts poking out above the coconut tree line, with a few buildings tucked near the beach and a tractor lined up on a concrete ramp into the sea. We anchored nearby and hoped to refill our gasoline, propane and find some WiFi at this remote outpost.

In the morning we met Tony, the man in charge at the Carenage. He was business like and organized, in his late 20s, with a black pearl hanging from a small gold hoop earring in one ear. Gasoline, propane, WiFi. Check, check, check.

Alex and Lucio geared up for spearfishing, ready with the new knowledge from Tony about which fish were safe to eat. We anchored the dinghy near a reef and slid into the water so as not to attract too many sharks. The reef was beautiful, full of diverse fish and coral. We squeezed through a small pass in the coral to access the shallow inner pool, which brought us extra close to all the fish activity.

Lucio shot a small grouper and held the bloody fish out of the water as he swam back to the dinghy. We cooked up a spicy tomato grouper stew for dinner with fresh coconut rice and felt proud of ourselves.

The next afternoon we dinghyed over to the coral sand dunes rippling in the distance. They rose up a few feet high in large shallow areas hugging the outer reef. A seabird’s white belly glowed turquoise as it flew low over the water. Ankle high, transparent aqua waves gently broke over pink coral sand, like molten glass.

We all looked at each other and laughed. The scene was awesome, our view full of expansive natural beauty, surreal and tranquil. Alex layed down in the crystal water a few inches above the pristine sand, his tan body relaxed into the tropical splendor, unaware of the black tip reef shark cruising along nearby. Wind rippled the surface gently all around him.

I meandered further to the end of the dune, a point where tidal flow pushed the dune into ridges disappearing under the inner sea. I began to collect beautiful shells within an arms reach and started to create a shell mermaid. After a few difficult days of boat drama due to the strange, controlling captain, I needed to reconnect with my inner strength. Slowly the beautiful mermaid came to life, shell by shell. When she had a smile on her face I sat next to her, breathing and meditating, feeling the strong, fierce and wild sea goddess moving through me like a gust of wind.

A small white eel chased a school of tiny silver fish through the shallows. Black tip reef sharks swam at the water’s edge, splashing my feet as they hunted their fish prey.

We sailed back to Niutahi and tried to anchor near the pearl farm. Our anchor got stuck in a coral head, Lucio had to dive to free it, and Teresia was dangerously close to shallow water. We headed back into the channel where the current was moving fast, full of whirlpools and standing waves. I spotted a space on a dock alongside a warehouse so we tucked into a side channel and warily watched the depth get shallower as we tied up next to the rainbow painted pearl transport ship.

A stern, tattooed warehouse worker came outside, telling us we weren’t allowed to dock there. Luckily, Lucio’s fellow Brazilian surfer friend had traveled to Niutahi before and befriended a local named Tipapa who had some kind of clout. Lucio mentioned her name and the worker’s face softened, then the captain gifted him a small bottle of Abuelo Panamanian rum and his smile widened. We were allowed to stay.

It was an unusual place to tie the boat. On the dock side our neighbor was a large warehouse full of power boats in various stages of construction. On our other side was a narrow shallow channel and a pearl farm building on stilts, surrounded by water, reef and fish traps. We watched the pearl farm workers heave nets full of oysters from the water around the building and slap the nets onto tables for processing. Managers crossed the channel in a muscly looking metal speedboat throughout the day, checking on the workers and bringing more oysters from outer farms. We waved, they offered chakas back, but in a way that we knew we weren’t supposed to be there.

It was a luxury having access to land without needing the dinghy. Teresia’s dinghy was barely usable, we had to inflate it for five minutes with a foot pump before every ride. Lucio, Alex and I hopped off the boat and went walking in the strong midday sun to explore.

We meandered through the clean, orderly town with gravel streets, well kept lush tropical gardens and single story homes. Most homes had walls around their property, a big difference from the Marquesas where one person’s land melded into the other without a physical barrier. Dogs lazily looked at us, most folks were inside or on their shaded porches.

We came upon a small airport and walked across the airstrip to the outer reef. A few men and their dogs were hunting something in the shallow waters. Waves crashed on the outside edge.

Lucio and I walked back towards Teresia but via a different road, past a simple church. All of a sudden a voice from the sky asked in broken English “Do you want to drink coconut?” We looked around, behind and beside us. Through the hedges alongside a house we could see folks, they waved us and invited us inside their yard.

Nicolas has a basketball belly covered in giant skull tattoos, is missing his front and lower middle teeth and has glossy yellowed eyes. He has a jolly disposition and seemed used to welcoming outsiders, international flags were hung up in his trees. His son and friend cut us down drinking coconuts, then they offered coffee, beer and cigarettes. We communicated in choppy English and French. The boys like to spearfish and surf, Nicolas ferments his own coconut water alcohol and has a license to do so. He brought us a plastic soda bottle of his fizzy brew to try, it was delicious and strong.

We sat together for a while chatting on the concrete steps. Nicolas brought out a small box full of imperfect black pearls and offered us each one as a gift. Then he taught us how to husk coconuts with a metal stake contraption. You slam the coconut husk onto the stake and rotate the nut slightly to peel off segments of husk. “Don’t lean into it, the stake can pierce your heart,” warned Nicolas somberly, as if he’d lost loved ones that way.

We left our new friend’s house with a gifted sack of coconuts for the boat, laughing at our random luck and grateful for the unexpected hospitality. With the sun lower, the town came alive—kids, teens and adults cruised around on tricycles outfitted with baskets to transport groceries, fresh fish and small kids.

We ambled through grassy alleyways, overhung with breadfruit and plumeria trees, then past organized piles of pearl farming materials: plastic colorful globe buoys, black nets, stacked bags of mature dried shells.

Modest worker bungalows bordered the pearl farm warehouse—I peered through their fence to ogle their robust vegetable garden full of choi sum, long beans, bok choi and eggplant. With a cabbage going for $12 USD at the only store in town, this was a gold mine. We rounded the corner to see Teresia tucked into her own private nook.

The most memorable sight from French Polynesia that I remembered from visiting as a kid is how the sunset and sunrise water colors are the same range of colors as the local pearls. In Niutahi I saw this effect again—soft aquamarine, violet, pink, smoke grey, green black all swirling together above and below the horizon, shimmering off and through the clean air and water. For those moments, every day, you live in a gemstone.

Fishermen passed by Teresia in bright colored small powerboats. Their gentle wake rustled the pearl farm buoys in the water, knocking against each other in canon. Black tip and white tip reef shark fins cut through the water nearby above the reef. Nicolas told us not to swim in the main channel because that’s where big pelagic sharks pass through, like tiger sharks.

We were invited to go to Lucio’s surfer friend’s friend’s pension for dinner, just across the road from the pearl farm warehouse. We did our best to find acceptable clothes and headed with growling bellies to Tipapa’s pension. Tipapa is a strong, stately Polynesian woman with a gravitas and discerning eye that makes you want to stay on her good side. She is always put together with a flower tucked behind her ear, hair pulled back into an elegant bun and wearing a bright floral patterned blouse. Ernest, her husband, also has a royal guardedness about him, but it falls away sometimes and he sings, smiles and pets one of his eight stocky dogs underfoot.

We sat down at the long outdoor table, awaiting our fellow guests—the visiting French doctor, his wife and adopted Tahitian daughter, and an Italian tourist. Ernest and Tipapa were busy preparing the feast in their brightly painted outdoor kitchen, strung decoratively with coral, shell and driftwood garlands.

The other guests arrived at the proper time, turns out we were 30 minutes early because we hadn’t reset our watches since leaving the Marquesas. We all got acquainted—the doctor’s wife an easy conversationalist, her husband calm and quiet, speaking only when his opinion or knowledge was asked for. Their daughter a cheery, bright eyed six year old who looked at ease sitting at the head of the table. The Italian a broad shouldered fellow in his late 40s it seemed, with a buzzed head, a slight hunch from his height and muscles, with a mysterious close lipped smirk that opened into a wide smile and laugh. After spending so much time with each other as crew, we were grateful chat with new people over frosty Hinano beers.

Tipapa started to bring plates of beautiful, fresh food to the table. Whole small steamed deep water fish and red snapper with their succulent flesh slashed to the bone, sprinkled with slivered ginger and a sweet delicate sauce. Large bowls of cool poisson cru, the classic French Polynesian dish of raw fish marinated in fresh coconut milk and lime juice with sliced cucumber, tomatoes and onion. Sliced griddled fish with a lobster like texture in a rich savory sweet sauce. Plates of purple taro and potatoes alongside bowls of steaming white rice. Ernest caught all of the fish outside the atoll himself. We feasted, everything divine, even more so because we’d eaten mostly dried and canned foods for the past week, save the Marquesian pamplemousse.

After we’d eaten as much as we could, there was still food left over. Tipapa came to sit with us and relax. When the doctor’s wife translated to her that I was a farm worker, Tipapa’s expression softened toward me with approval. She said she was surprised someone who looked like me would work the land. We enjoyed the feast afterglow together for a while then conversation quieted as our thoughts turned to sleep. We paid for the meal and thanked our hosts. On our way out, I overheard the Italian say he was getting up at 5:30am the next morning to go fishing with Ernest. Always game for fishing adventures, I asked if I could come along. Sure, he said, trying to hide his surprise that I wanted to join.

Alex and I walked under the stars the next morning to the pension, ready to fish. No one was stirring, then the Italian, smoking a cigarette, came to the gate, apologizing that Ernest changed his mind and we’d go fishing later in the morning. No problem, we shuffled back to sleep.

Ernest put on gruff airs at first when his new recruits climbed into his sturdy, 20 foot long metal boat. He motioned for Alex to move a plastic drum, half full of gasoline to the other side of the boat, but without saying any words, so it took Alex a while to figure out the command. Six dogs piled in, then the Italian steered us out the pass into the open ocean.

Ernest sat near the bow, the morning sun gleaming on his smiling bronze brown face, his dogs piled up on him and each other. His gruffness disappeared toward us newcomers when he saw our eagerness to learn and just share his company. We put sparkly, colorful squid like lures on two sturdy fishing poles and started trolling, hoping for marlin.

The trick is to follow the birds. Ernest put one big forearm over the other in front of his eyes, with a slit to see between them. Then he slowly scanned the horizon, searching for tiny flying dots. He motioned for me to do the same. I strained to look where the horizon disappeared but after 30 minutes we hadn’t found any flying creatures.

As the sun climbed higher, the stocky dogs started panting in the metal boat. A few took cover under the rear seats where fresh cool sea water sloshed in through large drainage holes. Ernest motioned for the Italian to turn the boat around, we needed to change strategies.

Ernest waved at Alex to join us at the bow, and began to ask get to know you questions to us in French. Alex translated the conversation between me and Ernest. Ernest has a sweet, open heart and it felt relaxing and refreshing to be with him in his back yard, the sea, where he’d grown up, where he fishes most days.

We arrived at the outer reef, where the shelf drops steeply into the sea, over a thousand feet down. Ernest outfitted a fishing pole with an electric reel and a weighted lure system set with fresh fish meat. He pushed a button and the rig dropped down quickly, on the screen it counted 54, 67 then 123 meters. Ernest put a tattered glove on one hand, wove the line around those fingers, then held the line leading into the water with his other hand. He made a slow swooping motion, to attract the fish deep below, then jerked quickly up, to catch the biting fish on the hooks. He stopped, waited to feel if his efforts worked, then repeated this process a few times. Another button click and the reel zipped the line back in, no fish though. After a few more tries we headed in, Ernest joked predictably that we didn’t get any fish because us newbies were on board. He invited us to fish later in the afternoon and we said yes then returned to Teresia for lunch.

I felt a deep peace in Niutahi, maybe because there was no cell service or internet. You could rest without any obligation to engage with the outside world. After lunch, I fell asleep in the cockpit with the layered turquoise, indigo, sky blue, aqua sea cake view blurring under my heavy eyelids. Pearl workers tirelessly opened shells, cleaned oyster meat, heaved buckets of sea water around the platform and splashed it across dripping floorboards to keep them clean.

The Italian, Ernest and all the dogs rounded the wharf corner in the boat and hollered at Alex and me asking if we wanted to come fishing again. We jumped out of Teresia and hopped in, that soaring hope to catch something propelled us faster than we normally move in these languid tropical climes.

Outside the pass we saw birds to the left. Ernest’s’ eyes lit up like a child’s, the hunt was on. The Italian gracefully swooped the boat in a large circle through the flock swirling around us. Birds lit black and golden in the late afternoon light dove for their fish dinner right outside the waves crashing on the reef. With a slight gesture of his hand, Ernest indicated where the Italian should steer.

We had three lures in the water, two on fishing poles and one on a hand line. Ernest guided Alex about what to do with whistling noises and few words. Alex felt a tug on his hand line and he started pulling in a catch. Pearlescent skin gleamed under the water and Ernest started singing “Bonito! Bonito!”

It was a small fish, but a fish nonetheless, breaking our newbie bad luck. Ernest motioned for Alex to clean the fish, and guided him to cut the guts and gills out first then put it into the cooler. The dogs observed his work carefully, hoping for a snack. Others kept jumping up and down from the bow seat, somehow staying on board even when we bashed up and down in the chop.

Once Alex washed the blood off the wooden work bench and the metal floor, Ernest came to sit with me again at the bow. He looked content, despite our modest haul, and had already taken to calling Alex “Bonito,” a suitable nickname for the handsome, olive skinned German.

He asked about my work and family—I showed him pictures of me driving a tractor, my parents fishing in Alaska, my sister operating on a cheetah, my brother riding his motorcycle. “Why are you traveling?” he wondered, incredulous that I jumped on boats with people I barely knew for long periods of time, far from land and family. I told him because I’m curious and want to meet people like him. Ernest looked touched that I took such risks to meet him. He replied that he doesn’t have any courage, that if his friend asked him to join for a trip to the nearby atoll of Fakarava he wouldn’t go.

He gazed onto the swaying palm trees, the coral beaches turning purple in the last light, and explained that to him this is paradise, he never wants to leave. Ernest’s children live in Tahiti, one works for Air Tahiti and offers him free flights but he always declines. He is content. Surrounded by his dogs in his fishing boat, he bursts into joyful song in his native language. I didn’t understand the words, but the feeling translated.

When we tied to the dock, Ernest gifted Alex the bonito, a huge present for us. We invited the Italian to join us later for poisson cru and proudly carried the fish back to Teresia, like happy cats. We started the long process of grating fresh coconut and squeezing it for milk, then poured it over the fresh fish chunks mixed with slivered onions.

The Italian rounded the corner riding a tricycle, we told him he was welcome to join but we didn’t have beer, so he offered to pick some up. On his way out he had to pass through a narrow spot between the edge of the wharf and a parked tractor. In the dim light he misjudged where his tricycle wheels ran and slowly tipped over into the narrow channel, tricycle and all.

I suppressed a chuckle at the circus-like mishap and ran over to help. He handed up his wet passport, drowned cell phone and soggy wallet. He asked for a mask and a flash light to retrieve his borrowed tricycle. Alex and I helped him heave the heavy bike back on land, wondering how the Italian managed to lift it from the depths by himself. He thanked us and laughed, then pedaled away dripping and smiling at his own antics.

The next morning, Ernest and the Italian rounded the wharf corner again in the fishing boat and hollered at us to join. It felt good to know they liked hanging out with us, that we were enjoyable company. We exited the calm pass, the cheery clean morning light beautiful on Ernest’s face, his pile of dogs smiling on his lap and at his feet.

He spotted birds on the horizon against a massive dark squall to the right. I strained my eyes but only as we got closer could I see them too. We trolled along the edge of the storm with our sparkly squid lures in the water and rain drizzling down on us. A small fishing boat with a father and his two teen daughters in full foul weather gear stopped to chat with us, reminding me of farmers stopping in their pickup trucks to talk when they pass each other on a two lane highway.

They’d just come through the storm and only had bonito to show for it so Ernest decided to turn back toward the village. He started to sing now and again, sitting on the boat floor, lovingly petting his dogs. There was a relaxing, happy atmosphere on his boat, with no pressure to catch fish and no sadness that we hadn’t caught anything.

Back on land Ernest showed us the addition to the pension he is building, perhaps it will be a small shop or a bar, depending on what Tipapa decides. He offered Alex, the German carpenter, a job to finish the construction but Alex politely declined. Ernest asked me for gardening tips, I gave him some, somehow remembering the French word for nitrogen, and then we parted ways.

It is bittersweet creating friendships with local people while sailing, both parties know it is a brief interaction and there is usually a slight tension, a holding back from the French Polynesians, who have interacted with so many transient sailors like us. Their way of life on the islands and atolls is deeply rooted in family and community, of relationships built over years and years. Sailors have a complicated history here, all trust we are shown I know is not easily given.

Later in the afternoon, Lucio, the captain and I hopped in the dinghy to take Lucio to the surf spot. We anchored right where the wave stopped breaking, on the edge of its shoulder, just outside the pass. We could easily see the reef and colorful fish below us through the crystal water. Lucio paddled out and we readied our cameras. The wave is a gorgeous, long tube and it was heaving. As the clear turquoise lip came closer and closer to the dinghy, my heart raced—I felt the intense energy, the danger, the crashing roar.

Lucio caught a few beauties, he came back content with new vigor and sparkle in his eyes. I cooked a whole chicken in the pressure cooker, marinated with fresh ginger, turmeric and garlic. It was succulent and a special treat for a boat without a freezer. We licked our fingers clean.

In the sunny Sunday morning, we did laundry and waited to see if we’d be summoned for fishing. Ernest’s boat never rounded the corner so Lucio, Alex and I drove the dinghy over to check out the surf. Again, long aqua 30 second ride tubes sparkled in the sun. Lucio caught a few then strangely braved the reef to paddle ashore. We picked up the dinghy anchor and motored over to him, he’d seen a huge shark nearby and decided to risk the reef over potential teeth.

We walked around the edge of the outer reef, picking up shiny shells and ogling the arcing waves. A pack of local surfers crossed the shallows towards us, hoisting a huge boom box on their shoulders to keep it dry. They motioned for us to follow them through the bushes, back towards the surf spot. One of the older guys, lean and muscly with a scorpion tattoo on his chest and kind eyes walked barefoot over the razor sharp coral path. He started talking with Alex in French and offered me cookies as we sat down under a tree overlooking the waves.

With reggaeton and electronic chill music playing, the guys smoked and sipped on grape sodas. They pulled on socks and grabbed small fins and foam body boards, with chunks missing from coral crashes. Younger kids, around 12 years old, weren’t allowed to smoke yet, and when they got cuts from falling into the reef, older guys smashed up leaves from a medicinal bush and applied the poultice to the kids’ wounds.

It was a perfect surf day—no wind and a consistent ocean swell brought in head high waves that arced cleanly into the reef. Body boarders caught the end of the ride, getting barreled and then shooting out over the shoulder and away from the reef.

Surfers started further out for longer rides and bent low to get fully barreled. One local surfer had incredible grace and control, he dipped his back hand into the wave wall to adjust his speed to stay right in the wave’s sweet spot, he made it look easy. Lucio caught a couple and the guys cheered him on.

It was a super relaxed day hanging out on the driftwood benches with the local surfer guys. They didn’t talk much with each other, just listened to music, laughed, surfed for a bit, rested, then went out again. We were grateful to be a part of the crew for a few hours.

After Lucio tired himself out, we thanked the guys and walked back to the dinghy, listening to coral pieces clink like porcelain against the shore. Natural mosaics of tiny pearl oyster shells glinted gold and opal white under our sandaled feet.

That night we played hours of the German card game called Skat and looked at charts to plan which Tuamotu atoll we’d sail to next. Afterwards, I decided to venture out into the night on my own to get a break from the tense captain dynamic and experience weekend night life in Niutahi.

Gravel crunched under my feet and crabs skittered into their holes as I walked to the tall concrete wharf. The wharf is a de facto community square, with plenty of room for bicycling, dancing and fishing, all at the same time and with all ages.

A little girl danced wildly with a transparent white scarf in the wind and ran up to me to join her. I danced with her for a while then sat down on the wharf edge to star gaze and write. A high powered flash light broke my concentration and beamed through the dark pass along the wharf. The light belonged to a fishing boat that was guiding a sailboat through to safety. A double masted sailboat that came through the abyss with a badly ripped jib sail fluttering in the wind, still wrapped around the forestay.

I figured this was the boat the Italian tourist had been waiting for, he said he was in Niutahi to meet up with friends who had sailed across the Pacific but were delayed by a storm. As the old fashioned monohull edged toward the wharf, I positioned myself to catch their stern dock line and yelled out a friendly “Buena sera!”

A shorter, curly haired Italian sailor looked surprised at my greeting and in the next moment relieved, he responded in kind and threw me the line. Tony, the Carenage ship yard boss with the pearl earring came on the wharf from his fishing boat, the Italians called him to help navigate the pass. We helped them tie up the sailboat and got a closer look at the damage. They’d be at Tony’s yard in a few days to start repairs.

The Italian tourist showed up and introduced me to his two friends, who were bone tired but their renowned effervescence and emphatic speaking style was still alive and well. They invited me to join them for dinner on the boat and apologized with many expressive hand gestures that they had minimal provisions. I accepted and boarded the vessel.

The cockpit and cabin were in a proper state of dissaray—lines tangled and in piles, clothes, gear and toothbrushes strewn across bunks and on the floor. The Italian who’d thrown me the line looked to be in his early forties, with a weathered grin and youthful bright brown eyes. His crewmate looked older and was missing his front bottom and top teeth, had bulging glassy light eyes and didn’t really address me much.

The three chatted quickly and uproariously, with the rapport of old and good friends. I sat at the cockpit table with the Italian tourist while the other two prepared pasta in the galley, one or both bounding out to us to regale the Italian with their passage stories and their landfall on Ua Puka, an outer Tuamotu atoll. They donned multiple shell necklaces and sparkly colorful plastic pendants gifted to them by a young girl from the island.

I know what it’s like to arrive on land after a long storm. You are hungry and just want a shower. So I left their boat to grab a pack of Tim Tam chocolate sandwich cookies from Teresia and gifted it to them. A small gesture, but between sailors a much appreciated one.

We sat, us four, around the cockpit table under a swinging headlamp light, with toilet paper napkins. We dined on perfect spicy tomato and canned tuna sauced spaghetti and sipped on Cabernet Savignon wine. The guys apologized for speaking in Italian, and caught the tourist up on what had happened. He translated for me rare bits and pieces, but I fully understood when he regaled them with his own story of falling into the channel on the tricycle. We laughed so hard we cried.

I felt like I was in an old movie, the Italians didn’t even look at their plates as they expertly twirled bites of pasta onto their forks. Their emotional faces and hands worked in tandem to tell each story fully. After dinner, the young Italian placed a heavy shell garland around my neck, it was double stranded cowrie shells. I thanked them all for their hospitality and retired back to Teresia.

A few days later, after we’d departed Niutahi and sailed to nearby Fakarava atoll, we heard news that an Italian sailboat had been busted for trafficking 428 kilos of cocaine in Apataki. It turns out it was the Italian tourist and his friends. They’d been intercepted by the equivalent of the French SWAT team while they were repairing their boat at Tony’s shipyard. The police ripped the boat apart and arrested the Italians.

I rolled over details from our brief friendship—he was a bit twitchy, he mentioned that he only worked for money and lots of it, he raced super fancy sailboats all over the world. After the pasta dinner, I messaged the Italian to ask if I could get a ride to Papeete with them, and now realized why he never responded.

Awestruck in the Apataki aquarium

We left Fatu Hiva and headed for Apataki, an atoll in the Tuamotu islands. Lucio heard there was going to be good surf in a few days there and his whole trip was geared toward finding that wave.

As we left the Marquesas, an almost full coconut white moon dripped coconut cream moonbeams onto tuna jumping through indigo black waves.

The passage slowly rolled along. We entered daily routines of eating pamplemousse together, where everyone took a slice then turned outwards to eat the extra juicy fruit over the side of the boat. In silence, content. We caught a bonito, Alex and I played chess. We journaled, I colored. The guys baked bread on the stovetop. We broke down fresh coconuts to make coconut rice.

Only once we experienced a squall. Lucio was at the helm and I yelled at him to turn so we would take the wind on our stern quarter instead of the beam. What I couldn’t understand is that he was trying to do that but the boat was overpowered and he couldn’t steer that way. I apologized later for yelling. I realized I didn’t trust him yet, we hadn’t sailed together much and I didn’t know his background.

We arrived at Apataki’s north pass in the morning on our sixth day sailing. There was a strong current but the wind was calm. It was surreal to see her, flat white coral beaches surrounding a massive inner sea, the land just a thin spit full of palm trees in the middle of the ocean, like a mirage. We approached the pass once then turned around, then on the second approach we made it through the pass, intensely looking out for coral heads.

We followed the chart to the anchorage a few miles to the left of the passage. It was perfect, we were the only boat in this idyllic tropical scene. Clear turquoise waters, sea birds, a calm anchorage, no buildings or cars.

The next day we snorkeled from our boat to exposed coral heads a few hundred meters away. The crystal clear water was full of life: reef sharks, violet coral, fluorescent fish, showy parrot fish, velvet black angel fish, spotted shrimp-like hermit crabs, glowing speckled aqua purple wavy lipped clams, trumpet fish, frilly spiral tube creatures, perturbed groupers, transparenf dna chain shaped tiny organisms floating thick together like a soup, snow covered orchard tree coral, coral arches and faces and mounds.

I was giddy. In all my life adventuring in the sea I’d never seen so much colorful, ornate, diverse, excited beauty. I felt fully alive, in awe, content.

We brought the dinghy ashore to explore and started to make our way through coconut groves, then thicker underbrush. I followed behind Alex who was whacking a path with a machete, but he led us in a circle after 15 mosquitoy minutes of tromping. So I decided to go my own way and find an easier route to the exterior side of the atoll.

I followed the inner beach and came to a lagoon with a coconut grove free from undergrowth. It was easy to walk through. Hundreds of land crabs sidestepped away from me in the grove, they ducked into their holes below fallen palm fronds.

A four foot tall rock cairn beside the lagoon greeted me and I felt reassured to be on a known path. I picked my way through razor sharp blackened coral, clinking like porcelain under my feet. A green parrot flew by and landed on a tufted menorah shaped tree ahead, beckoning me to go that way. I heard ocean waves crashing and over the slight ridge was the open sea. Sun glinted through plastic trash strewn along the endless coral beach. It was beautiful to be there alone, with the setting sun, a place I’d found with my own instinct, I felt whole.

The following day I waited with anticipation for the sun to get high so I could snorkel again in our private aquarium. I headed straight for the exposed coral heads where two black tip reef sharks approached me, eyeing me, trying to figure out what I was. Clouds of fish chomped on single cell organisms that were thick in the water. One reef shark had a cleaner fish attached to its belly. I focused on a small fish that was painted so intricately, very 1980s glam rock, like the purple and turquoise Dixie cups plus glowing Tron circuit board lines. A violet spotted headband arched over its eyebrows.

Adolescent striped fish were covered with bright blue spots that would dull as they aged. The whole scene felt like Finding Nemo, a happy riot, a city of different fish, corals, colors, movements, flashes, shapes—a marketplace, bustling with activity and some freeze frame fish who weren’t moving at all. A school of fat silver fish, each a foot long, chomped hungrily at the organisms in the water. All of a sudden the school dove en masse to the reef floor, chomping and spewing coral sand. They didn’t care that I was there, and swam super close to my face in their feast fervor.

Sea cucumbers, mounds of undulating cauliflower coral, violet carpets of a fuzzy coral spreading over mustard colored mossy coral brains. Layered coral fans with a yellow core and grey purple exterior hosting a bevy of fish, elegantly tucked between the folds. The misty blue deep water swallowed the fish hanging out beyond the reef, large and taciturn wrasse, ruffled triggerfish. I looked out into the abyss once in a while, over my shoulder, for the giant shark sneaking up on me but never saw one.

Fluorescent blue and yellow schools of small fish moved in and out of branched coral bushes, like a breathing lung. They were scared together then content together in a never ending loop.

Many of the fish dashed in a hurry like city people during rush hour. The homebody fish guarded their shadowed nooks, opening and closing their mouths at me, undulating their pectoral fins in never ending figure eight patterns.

Brown spotted and yellow highlighted camouflaged fish clung with their pectoral fins to the coral, with morose faces, as if they were in a constant game of freeze tag.

Triangular shaped black and white striped fish schools hung above the reef face, glinting silver in the afternoon sun. Long trumpet fishes punctuated the scene like horizontal exclamation points among their rounded brothers.

For hours I was constantly surprised no matter where I looked—a yellow trumpet fish! A blue and yellow striped fish with purple highlights! A small fluorescent parrot fish that looked like Tiffany stained glass gone Miami night club! The scene took me back to my orthodontist’s office which had floor to ceiling tropical fish decor. I spent hours in that chair, studying the wild looking creatures, as I got painful braces applied, adjusted, removed. It was a treat to see the fish in their vastly more intricate natural glory, with beautiful, magical details, like they’d been adorned to please an aesthete queen.

The water was so clear, the coral so ornate. I breathed slowly and fell into a trance, broken every few minutes by an adrenaline surge when a shark cruised by. I began to lose feeling in my fingers and toes, a sign I was getting too cold. But I didn’t want to leave this incredible, rich, alive, dynamic place that had no relation to human life.

My land body couldn’t stay longer so I swam to shore, sat on the beach made from broken down coral with my back to the warm sun and coconut palms. Slowly I warmed again, content, relaxed, coming out of the trance. I collected notable shells and coral bits from within an arms’ length and arranged them on my sunburnt knee. Violet, white, cream miniature sculptures. Striped, spotted and ridged. Turquoise blue then indigo sea stretching beyond to Teresia in the near distance played the perfect background to the shells.

After a time I got up to walk the prickly beach back. Along the way I remembered the commitment I’ve made to transformation, to think positive thoughts, and in that instant I saw a white and black banded snake eel burrowing into the pink coral sand. It wiggled vigorously, perhaps it was chasing subterranean prey. I saw this tropical sign of transformation as confirmation, celebration of my path. Rare, beautiful, perhaps dangerous, I was grateful to see her.

Back on the boat I felt an aliveness after a day in nature around potentially harmful creatures—my senses were always on, at full power. When the sun left us with the stars, I felt I’d used my body, my energy, my mind as they wanted to be used.