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.