It is not in sorrow that I am moved to speak or act, but in the beauty of what remains. -Terry Tempest Williams
After a delayed connection followed by a frantic, sweaty run between airport terminals, Gary and I just barely caught our flight to Tahiti… only to have the plane get struck by lightening. Throughout all the turbulence and the loud flash/bang that struck the wing right outside my window, Gary remained completely unfazed, barely looking up from Keanu Reeves’ riveting performance in ‘Point Break.’ I, on the hand, squirmed and sweated while compulsively tightening my seatbelt, until the pilot announced over the loudspeaker that we would be forced to turn back. After a night in a hotel and a long day twiddling our thumbs at the Auckland airport, we finally reached Tahiti at 3am, shuffling bleary-eyed off the plane into the balmy Pape’ete breeze.
The main impetus for the trip was to visit Gary’s Aunt Linda and Uncle Chuck, who have lived full-time on a sailboat for the past 14 years. Before staying with them we decided to mix up our normal dirtbag m.o., unable to resist a night in one of those Pinterest-worthy overwater bungalows. Using my extremely rusty French 101, I was successfully able to navigate us onto the correct ferry, and then to a bus bound for “Le ‘ilton.” For two nights we very much enjoyed an upgrade from the van, and the change from New Zealand’s arctic winds.
Initially I was a little apprehensive about four people sharing a 39-foot sailboat for a week… but after living out of a mini-van for half the year, all the space felt practically luxurious. A bed with a real mattress, where we don’t have to fall asleep pressed shoulder-to-shoulder? A kitchen? The ability to sit up straight, or even STAND up?! What a treat! Another concern was the potential for sea-sickness, but I luckily had no issues, and at night the slight rocking motion actually helped lull me to sleep.
The whole trip was extremely relaxing, with the days spent rotating between eating, snorkeling and reclining around the boat, either reading, doing crosswords, chatting or playing cards. Most nights we were asleep shortly after 9pm, what Chuck explained as the equivalent of midnight for boat folks. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time life was so easy. I felt like I’d reverted back to being a child— no planning, no worrying about meals, and basically a giant cradle rocking me to sleep every night.
The ease of this South Seas dream was entirely thanks to Linda and Chuck, the most gracious hosts imaginable. Since they’ve been in the area so long, and have such a presence in the boating world, hanging with them kind of felt like being part of a celebrity entourage. It wasn’t hard to see why they decided to stay in French Polynesia, the setting is pretty unbeatable. Their home is moored on a bay of crystal clear turquoise waters honeycombed by sunlight, with verdant, volcanic hillsides and palm-lined beaches for a backdrop. On top of all the natural beauty, there are also all the French goodies I love— crusty baguettes, buttery croissants, macarons that melt on your tongue, and a whole supermarket aisle devoted to stinky cheeses.
A week on the boat gave me a nice little taste of what the “cruiser” lifestyle is all about. You’re rich in time, and while there is plenty of idleness, there always seems to be something that needs cleaning, or adjusting, or fixing. You enjoy a great deal of autonomy and must be incredibly self-sufficient, yet at the same time, you also are a part of an extended, supportive global community made up of other nomadic boat-dwellers. Most of the cruisers we met were easygoing and cheerful — I suspect years in a confined space subjected to all kinds of weather helps develop that equanimity. Cruisers know one another by their boat names, and they all moor together just offshore, the equivalent of a gypsy camp at the edge of town.
Living on a boat requires a great deal of ingenuity, with everything stored in its proper place, and no room for superfluity. Not everyone has the capacity for living together in such in close quarters, but for those that can it seems to foster a certain kind of interdependence forged by teamwork, effective communication, and plenty of patience. After watching Chuck and Linda for a week, I believe that the bonds formed in these kinds of conditions are as solid as possible for a human relationship to be.
Every day the highlight was always snorkeling. The coral on the outer edge of the reef spanned in all directions as far as I could see, gradually sloping down and disappearing into the deep, mysterious blue. Every so often this coral expanse was cut through by a little sandy trench, with all kinds of colorful fish using them as superhighways. In the inner, sheltered parts of the reef, the coral was close enough to touch, making it really easy to dive down to closely inspect wildlife. I loved having this little window to another world so accessible.
The wildlife was pretty incredible, with plenty of aloof turtles, curious eagle rays, shy moray eels, regal black-tipped reef sharks, little spiraled Christmas tree worms, colorful big-lipped clams, and countless pairs of yellow butterfly fish flitting from coral to coral… I was in heaven. On our final snorkel, just as we were about to head back to the boat, I noticed a strange cloud of sand over the reef. When I swam over to investigate, I found a giant sting ray happily feeding on the sandy bottom. He let us swim with him for the next hour as he casually snacked across the reef, totally unbothered by our presence. After much debate we had opted not to do the sting ray feeding trip popular with tourists (even though we reaaaally wanted to!) since we weren’t sure if it was upsetting the ecosystem’s natural balance, so getting to swim up close with this big ol’ sea pancake was the greatest end to our trip.
The visit to French Polynesia was like living in a dream, and I feel incredibly grateful to have spent some time there, especially with the increasing destruction of our coral reefs both in Moorea and around the world. In the thirty days prior to our arrival, 50% of the coral around Moorea suffered from bleaching due to warming ocean temperatures. This warmer water also allowed for the mass spreading of an underwater weed (we kept calling it a turd plant, I never did figure out the actual name) that is now furthering choking off light to the the corals and preventing them from photosynthesizing. While coral reefs are only found on 1% of the ocean floor, scientists estimate that they produce between 1/3 and 1/2 of our planet’s oxygen. We didn’t see a single section of the reef that wasn’t affected in some way, and it shocked me to see such an in your face example of climate change.
From the death of reefs to the wildfires raging in California, the effects of global warming are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. It’s really easy to feel completely overwhelmed and powerless, especially because most of us have very little control over the way governments or corporations operate. However, I have to believe that on a planet with 7.7 billion people, if each of us takes a critical look, we all can find individual ways to reduce our impact. We all occupy different social, economic and geographic spaces, but we can still strive to be better in whatever ways are personally attainable. In turn, all these small, individual changes can add up to create a movement, leading to a mass cultural shift in values, which would ultimately compel governments and corporations to change their behavior as well.
Please know that as I write this, the environmental toll of all my flying is not lost on me. With time I’m realizing that travel isn’t actually what I love, what I actually value is how being removed from my usual routine allows me to be really, truly present. Presence is a skill I’m continuing to cultivate while I work towards shifting my lifestyle to not include quite so much motion. In the mean time, I plan on offsetting my carbon emissions from all flights here, and I’ll continue fixing whatever else I can. For me this involves reducing meat and dairy, avoiding excess packaging, using reusable utensils and water bottles, and avoiding new purchases all together, but when necessary buying used or from companies with a good environmental track record.
I’m convinced that saving our reefs, our glaciers, our wildlife, and ultimately ourselves doesn’t require perfection. We don’t need flawless environmentalists, we need millions of us imperfectly making an attempt to do a little bit better. Collectively, we can all still try, which means that if nothing else, we all still have hope.