Tuesday, May 26, 2015

All Around the World: Moorea and Tahiti

Wanderlust: A very strong and irresistible impulse or desire to travel the world.
Photo Credit: Fun4Blog
Hi Friends -  I have a busy week ahead of me and I'm already a day behind with this, so I'm bringing back I post I did about two years ago, before I started the "Around the World" series. This is from my trip to French Polynesia, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, and one of the best experiences I ever had. I hope you too will one day experience your own adventures in this magical place.

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Belvedere Lookout
Moorea, French Polynesia
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Close your eyes and think of the place you've always longed to go to.  Is is windy, warm, sunny? Is there sand under your toes or snow? Do you smell the flowers blossoming, feel the rain on your skin, hear the birds calling?

Where are you?

My place had always been French Polynesia. I had wanted to go ever since I saw a little bungalow over some beautiful blue water in a travel pamphlet years back. That was all it took, that was all I needed. Back in April I made my dream come true. Back in April I went to the island of Moorea, the closest place to paradise that you can possibly get. 

I went alone and in doing so, made friends I might not have made had I traveled with company. I say this because going alone made me do things I wouldn't have done normally and actually wasn't planning on doing. I ate dinner with a cute older couple on vacation, hung out with a bunch of honeymooners and anniversary celebrators, hugged a complete stranger in shark infested waters, got hugged by a complete stranger at an outdoor market after he sang me a song about why I should date him, and became known across the island as the Eat, Pray, Love Girl. It's amazing how many things can happen when you say yes to the unknown adventures that lie ahead. 

French Polynesia is typically a place for couples. This is why I got my nickname, being on my own in the land of honeymooners. While I may have seemed awkward and out of place at times, people were kind, understanding, and actually quite complimentary of me and my solo travels. Each person I met made me feel more and more welcome and by the end, I was certainly not alone.

My first day there I met Brian, the tour guide. Over the course of the week I would see Brian almost daily. I'd pass him on a walk and he'd offer me a ride or he'd offer to grab some food for me from the market. Within my first few minutes on the island, I knew I had someone I could count on for anything I needed.

My first day there it also rained. Not a soul was out swimming, but I couldn't stand it. I had come all this way, waited all these years, and couldn't handle being locked up in my bungalow. I went out into the rain and I swam, and swam, and swam. Then (in traditional custom of me being me) I beat myself up on accident. What the travel pamphlets don't tell you is that there are crabs all over the island, sometimes on the steps to your bungalow. If you don't want to touch them - and I surely did not - then you have to somehow hoist yourself up the step and avoid them. I am not a good hoister, but I am an excellent slip-off-the-step-and-bang-yourself-up-er.

That night I had dinner at the French restaurant, Le Martinez, down the street. There I met Gabby, the waitress who was sweet and would come talk to me on and off throughout the night. She offered to spend a whole day with me, driving me around the island and showing me the sites. If I'd had more time I would've taken her up on it because I could tell she really wanted a friend and I would've loved a day with someone as nice as her.

The next day I went on an off-roading adventure with a bunch of the honeymooners and a nice, elderly Italian gentleman who I believe was celebrating his anniversary with his wife. Neither one of us knew what the other was saying, but he would smile everywhere we went, point at the scenery in front of us and say, "Bella." I would nod and we would each share a quite moment looking at the view in front of us.

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That evening I went to the Polynesian dance show and for the dinner afterwards I ended up sitting with Joanne and Dick, an older couple who had traveled the world and were willing to share their stories with me. That night in particular I was feeling a little out of place. Sitting there with the two of them though, I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be. They made me feel welcome and at home at their table. At the end of the night, when we hugged and went to part our ways, Joanne looked at me and said, "You'll be successful because you're not afraid." I didn't know I needed to hear that, but I did. I went back to my bungalow and sat under the stars, silently thanking her for her kind, reassuring words.

Day three of my trip was unexpected. It rained morning to night, to the point where everything was cancelled and everyone stayed indoors. At first, I had not the slightest clue what to do with myself. I'm not good at not doing things. I have to be doing something, anything.

So, I danced.

In the giant bungalow that I called home, I put my iPod on and danced until I was completely exhausted, collapsing into one of the best naps I've ever had. That is until Georgina, the cleaning lady, came to check on me. Georgina and I had talked for an hour earlier that day, and I had learned all about her life. Being in paradise you don't imagine that the people who live there are struggling. You don't see the roughness they face, the challenges. In India everything was front and center, the good and the bad. Here, everything that surrounds you is beauty beyond compare, but the people behind the scenes still struggle. Georgina told me of growing up poor, eating nothing but breadfruit for weeks, and how she missed her family in Tahiti because she couldn't afford to go visit them in the 17 years since she'd left. This was hard to hear because I was going to Tahiti the next day for a tour and it was so easy for me to make it happen. So easy for me, so hard for her. I hadn't see this side until that day and it brought be back to reality.

When I woke up to sunny skies the next morning, I headed out to Tahiti for my tour, keeping Georgina in the back of my mind. I ended up being the only person to go that day, so I had a customized tour with Vai Nui, my guide. She took me to see the great waterfalls, the surf spots, an old lighthouse, and everything I could possibly hope for. Tahiti is gorgeous, but I could see the poverty finally and I understood. It was not paradise for everyone.

Vai Nui dropped me off at the ferry dock, where I had several hours to kill. I strolled about until I found myself inside the large open air market with every souvenir you could imagine, and then some. I was on the hunt for some art to take home and in my hunt was discovered by a gentleman who had decided I should be his girlfriend. Here I am, minding my business, staring intently at some art, when the next thing I know I'm being sung a song that went something along the lines of, "If you were my girlfriend, I'd get you some fish. Be my girlfriend, be my girlfriend, be my girlfriend." It was a chart topper, I tell you, which finished with him hugging me and kissing both cheeks, as is the fashion there. I was so shocked that all I could do was laugh. I guess the lady that ran the store next door felt the same way because she stood there laughing so hard I thought she might implode. I felt well accomplished that day in doing my part to make the citizens of Tahiti happy.

That night, when I got back to my home away from home, I ran into Lynn, one of the other guests on the resort who I'd seen now and then over the week. She is the one that officially gave me my nickname and also the one who told all of her 23 fellow travelers about me. This was cute and confusing, because I'd be out for my daily stroll when all of a sudden I'd hear someone call my name and ask how my excursion went, compliment me on my travels, or just stop and chat like they knew who I was. Which they did, of course, but I had no idea who they were. Once I figured out they were all with Lynn, life got a little less complicated and a lot more fun. It was nice to know I had all these friends on the island, so interested in my little adventures.

On one of my last days in Moorea, I decided to risk my life like an idiot. I decided it would be a lot of fun to swim with stingrays and sharks for reasons I'm not even aware of yet. The stingrays weren't so bad. They call them the puppies of the water because they really are like giant, fishy pups that want you to pet them. The sharks, however, were surrounding us by the dozens, which didn't freak out as many people as I thought it would have. This is where I met my fellow hug-a-stranger-and-scream friend, Fawn. She was on her honeymoon with her new hubby when a stingray decided to try and kiss her...yes, this happens. At that moment she turned to me, hugged me for dear life, and screamed. Then I screamed. Then we screamed together. We didn't know each other at all until then, but we decided the hugging and screaming was equivalent to shaking hands when you meet someone new.

That night when I returned, Lynn's group of friends were hanging out in the lounge and I filled them in on my life threatening day, as I now had come accustomed to doing after each adventure. I invited some of them to join me for my nightly walk and a gentleman named Brock took me up on my offer. Brock was retired and had joined the group on the trip, as he was an avid traveler. He had sailed around the world and had been to places I still dream of going. Talking to Brock was like having an adventure all in itself. I learned about different cultures, different points of view, and that anyone who doesn't like cats is not to be trusted. Take heed my friends and check your contact list, because this is the secret to life- or so I'm told by a very wise, well traveled gentleman.

My very last day there was, of course, the sunniest and prettiest day of all. I rented a car and drove all over the island to take in what last little bit of awesomeness I could. The whole trip had been great, but it had also been hard and I needed some me-and-myself time. Part of the reason was because the islands are known for their black pearls. Everywhere you go you can't help but see them, which meant everywhere I went I couldn't help but think of my grandmother. As happy as I am for her to be in a better place, sometimes it still gets me that I no longer have her to bring a gift home to from my trip, and the pearls would've been the perfect gift.
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As I drove around the tiny island, I would stop and see unbelievably beautiful bays with the clearest water and the prettiest coconut trees. I saw wild horses running around, people fishing, and views I've only dreamed about. One of those views is from Belvedere Lookout, one of the most popular lookout points in the world. Earlier in the week, Lynn had told me there was a trail over near that area that led to a waterfall and some beautiful scenery. While I was there I spotted a clearing in the woods and decided this had to be the place she had described. I went for a small walk, which turned into a long hike, which I was unprepared for in my skirt and flip flops. I was hell bent on seeing this waterfall, so I kept going and going and going. That is until I decided that I could have a 127 Hours moment at any minute, as no one knew where I was, not even Lynn. I say this because I later learned that this was not the trail she had in mind. I did get to see a lot of beautiful things, though. Trees with roots that grew as tall and wide as walls, giant flowers, paths left behind and forgotten by time. But I was also happy I hadn't been mauled by wild pigs.

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On my journey home, I came upon something I had only seen in postcards, something that I wasn't sure was real: A sideways growing palm tree. I had hoped to find it, but didn't know if it was possible. Seeing it confirmed that I was right where I needed to be all along.

On my way back, I stopped at the market and picked up a handful of the local chocolate bars. I went back and passed them out to all of my new friends, Brian and Georgina, Brock and some folks out of Lynn's group. I said my goodbyes, thanked them for their kind words and welcoming ways, and headed home.

The thing about this trip is that I thought I was going there to find quiet time, to unwind, to figure things out. What I found instead were friends I never imagined I'd have. From the gentleman at the airport who lived in El Paso and shared stories with me about his dearly departed wife, to Donna, the trainer from Australia, who kept me entertained the whole flight home. I had gone away to find something and that something was these people. These people who gave me more than good memories. These people who reminded me that anything is possible as long as you try and that no journey is one you take alone. 

If you've been wanting to go, here is some advice for you, based on my recent experience:
  • Stay somewhere that gives you a view unlike anything you've ever gotten anywhere else, like Club Bali Hai, where I stayed, which is situated in Cook's Bay. The views are unbeatable. By day two the entire staff will know you and greet you. You are in the center of most everything on the island, the car rental place is in your hotel, and the excursion spot is across the street. Plus, they host a traditional Polynesian dance show each week. 
  • Learn a little French. It's what everyone speaks and knowing how to ask where the bathroom is, is always important. Ou sont les toilette? Key phrase, my friends. Key phrase.
  • Walk to the local markets to get your food. It's way cheaper and the grapes and bananas are to die for. So is this coconut pineapple drink I got, confusingly named Ananas when there are actually no bananas in it at all.
  • Rent a car. You'll only need it for a day, because the island is incredibly small, but this way you can circle the whole thing and see absolutely everything. It's worth it. It's so, so worth it. 
  • Take a day trip to Tahiti. Personally, having spent some time in Tahiti on this trip and seeing how much of a city it is, I'm incredibly glad I stayed on Moorea instead. A day trip to Tahiti to visit the market, eat from the roulottes, see the surf areas, and check out the main sites is really all you need. 
  • Walk. Everywhere. As much as you can. You will see things you can't see in a car or on a tour. 
  • Swim in the water, even if it's raining. Even if you're the only one- do it. You may never be back here again. 
  • Take a chance. Eat dinner with some strangers. Don't be afraid to make new friends, whether or not they speak your language. 
  • If you go to Tahiti, eat at Le Restaurant-Bar du Musee Gauguin. There you will find authentic Polynesian food so good you'll never want to leave.
  • Take a day for yourself to do nothing. Dance. Nap. But do nothing else. Just be.
One view of many from Cook's Bay

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