My Tribute to the Tahitian gods
By Judith Lazarus
The ocean looked like a tropical drink with liqueurs nestled next to each other without blending. Azures, baby blues, and shades of turquoise shared the tropical waters. I could see as far as the foamy white waves cresting the reef that rings Bora Bora and even catch a glimpse of the endless ether beyond. The windows in the floor of my high-tech hut allowed a clear vision to coral outcroppings on the sandy white ocean floor. Rainbows of tropical fish darted in and out of view while I drifted in and out of consciousness. After one day in my overwater bungalow, I felt that nothing could disturb my Zenlike meditative state.
Bora Bora is one of 118 islands and atolls that make up Tahiti and Her Islands, as French Polynesia likes to be known these days. Tahiti’s rhythm is as gentle and sweet as the aroma of the tiare flower lei I’d been given as I got off the water taxi. I’d come from the airport to the floating lobby of Hotel Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa, on a private motu (island). The small white flowers are for the taking almost everywhere, so I was enveloped in the faintly gardenia scent throughout my stay.
That first day I mused lazily, basking in hot sunbeams while balmy breezes fanned the fringes of the traditional thatched fara leaf roof overhead. Occasionally, I slipped on my fins and slid off my private dock to snorkel in the warm water.
On the second morning I awoke to a deep voice singing from the sea. At first I thought my meditation had turned to hallucination, but I saw a beautiful man and woman clad in pareus, he with a crown of leaves, she with a flower tucked behind her ear. They rowed toward me on a blossom-adorned outrigger canoe, stopped at my dock, and climbed the stairs with a tray that was my bountiful room service breakfast: poisson cru—fresh fish and vegetables marinated in coconut milk and lime, a national dish—juicy island papaya, mango, pineapple, green pebbly skinned grapefruit, fresh croissants, and, naturellement, French bread. A brisk breeze took my visor as I leaned over the balcony to wave goodbye, but I wrote if off as an offering to the island gods.
Ready for action, I contemplated the tour options organized by the concierge. Scuba-divers and surfers know these world-class waters for exceptional clarity and calm, and come for specific lagoons, oceanic drop-offs, and channel passes. Deep-sea-fishing enthusiasts find challenges in the open ocean. I opted to explore the huge lagoon, and Captain Leo and his native crew serenaded us with ukuleles as we headed out. First stop, shark-feeding: I had to be coaxed out of the boat to join the lineup holding onto the rope in the chest-high water. Apparently, Tahitian sharks are so docile that a wall of snorkelers looms large enough to keep them a few feet away, yet close enough to please underwater photographers. A sea turtle and swirls of brightly colored fish added to the experience.
Next, we anchored near a coral garden to snorkel over a wonderland of multicolored formations. The crew held our hands as we floated silently through the light and shadow, so we wouldn’t hurt ourselves or the environment. Last stop was a stingray hangout, where Captain Leo used bits of fish to make us popular with the stealthy animals. I found it surprising that the rubbery outer wings felt so different from the slimy shoulders between them. A long barbed tail whipped by me and I was glad the crew had warned us we could pet everywhere but there.
On the way back, I stretched my arms out as if to embrace the sea and sky. Oh, no. My wedding ring was gone! I cried out, and everyone searched the deck to no avail. It must have come off in the water. How would it ever be found, lying under the sand among the coral, sharks, and stingrays? I tried to stay composed, repeating the island mantra of aita pea pea, no problem. Truthfully, its magic aura had already imbued me with such a deep sense of calm that I wasn’t as hysterical as I would have expected. Another offering to the gods?
The loss hit me, though, when I went to dinner at Tamure Beach Fare Grill, named for Tahitian dance. Sadly I gazed through open walls framed by native wood trellises, from the infinity pool to the lagoon; all that water made me teary. But the sand floor was cool and soothing on my bare feet, and I dined well on sushi and salads from the buffet table that was fashioned from a canoe Mel Gibson used in the film Mutiny on the Bounty. When the tamure entertainment started, the ring slipped out of mind, replaced with the singing drums and swaying hips of the performers. Later, I saw Captain Leo on the winding path that snaked between the soft sand beach and mountainside bungalows on the way back to mine.
Even though I thought it was hopeless, I called out, “Please, find my ring.” He beamed a typically warm Tahitian smile and replied, “If it can’t be found, I’ll send you back with my heart.” At first, most Tahitians are friendly but shy. They’re proud of their home and welcome visitors who appreciate it. I felt I had stirred Leo’s poetic sympathies because I’d learned a few words, greeting the crew with ia orana (hello) and thanking them with maururu.
Back in my cocoa-colored cocoon and surrounded by the luxury of exotic wood furniture, tapa, and batik art, I took a bath in the huge marble tub. The quiet insistence of the wind and waves helped me sleep well in my gauze-canopied Balinese mahogany bed. The next morning I would jetski to the resort’s Motu Tapu for a gourmet cookout.
Throughout the islands private motus are favorite destinations for picnicking, partying, or just enjoying a secluded beach. Chicken, fish, and meat on the grill whet my appetite, and are served with fine French wines and the local brew, Hinano. We all toasted manuia, “to your health,” but before my memory was erased, up came the subject of the ring . . . even the hotel staff had heard about my plight.
Later that afternoon, a sun-worn ex-hippie captain from San Francisco entertained us with colorful tales as we sailed past islands of verdant primeval mountains and lush palm-lined beaches. At dusk, we docked on the other side of Bora Bora for dinner at Bloody Mary’s. People I’d met the previous day asked about my ring, and I drowned my sorrows in a namesake drink at the bar. It looked like a kitschy Gilligan’s Island version of a restaurant, even a stone waterfall for a bathroom sink. There’s no regular menu; fresh catches of the day are displayed over ice and the chef recommends the best preparation methods for each. I ate every bite of my ono chargrilled with a mustard sauce, with local favorites potato salad and macaroni and cheese on the side.
To quiet recurring thoughts of my lost wedding band, I tried the resort’s Mandara Spa. Fresh flowers were strewn in a footbath and my feet were scrubbed with sea salt before my body was rubbed and wrapped with fresh coconut milk, turmeric, fine sand, ginger, and manoi oil—one of Tahiti’s beauty secrets, made from the fragrant indigenous flower. Polynesian and Balinese techniques were used in my massage. For my facial, a hibiscus flower was crushed on the spot, and mixed with fresh lime juice and ginger. My mind grew so quiet I went to sleep. I wanted to come back for a scrub with Tahitian coffee and volcanic pumice, and a lava rock hot stone massage, but I was off to other islands.
Flying over the most beautiful lagoon in the world, I waved bye-bye to my ring and Bora Bora. Hello Moorea, and a day exploring the island that inspired James Michener’s mythical Bali Hai. On a four-wheel-drive tour, I rode through a pineapple plantation, past fern forests and waterfalls, up a narrow winding road to The Belvedere lookout over Opunohu Bay. I meditated at the ruins of a maare, a sacred temple, tasted native-fruit liquor at the rum factory, and took a boat ride to watch spinner dolphins whirl. Recovering at the hotel pool/beachside bar, I was informed that I had a phone call. It was the general manager of the Bora Bora Nui. He said something incredible had happened after I’d left.
Captain Leo had taken some Japanese honeymooners out for a fishing trip, and they’d caught a shark and brought it to the hotel chef for a special dinner, and when he cut it open, there was my ring! He promised to get it to Tahiti by the night of my departure. A crowd was gathered at the hotel, where fellow travelers who’d heard about my loss happened to be waiting for the ride to Fa’a Airport. As a man stepped out with an envelope for me, applause ended with cheers as I opened it to find my wedding ring. Maybe the gods had smiled on my earlier offerings, perhaps it really was eaten by a shark; the real truth will rest forever at the bottom of the lagoon. Sometimes when you dream of a destination the reality doesn’t live up to the fantasy, but for me it was truly Judi & The Shark’s Most Excellent Adventure in Tahiti and Her Islands.
Feeling Fine with Folk Medicine
Although there are modern medical treatments, folk medicine is a natural part of health maintenance. The official word is that everyone goes to the Western doctor, but some Tahitians also see their tao a, traditional healer, to maintain their mana, power, and well-being. Massage with manoi and other oils is sometimes used to help topical potions penetrate, and bark and plants are made into teas or infused with coconut milk or nono juice for everyday ailments. Jean-Pierre Maiterai is a tao a from a family that practices Ra’u Tahiti, traditional healing. He begins his sessions with a silent prayer, then interviews his patients and uses intuition to determine what help is needed. It may be talk, tea, or touch, as the spirits guide him. This tradition is sacred and not widely offered to outsiders, although Jean-Pierre claims to have helped some with serious illness.
Rooms at Bora Bora Nui Resort are listed in French Polynesian Francs (XPF). As of press time, overwater bungalow suites start at $1234.00 a night. All 120 bungalows are one-bedroom suites measuring between 1,000 to 1,500 square feet and all offer Lagoon or Ocean views. (800) 782-9488 www.boraboranui.com