Saturday, August 05, 2006

Tahitian Dreaming

“I’m having a dream…I must be having a dream,” I can’t stop thinking. I’m in a world I once knew but had since forgotten…a world disconnected from its natural rhythm and out of touch with its very essence; full of whiny, possessive East Coast locals who threaten to fight visiting surfers over their sad two-foot waves. High-strung businessmen who check their watches, pagers, and email incessantly. Reports of hatred, war, and death on the news each night. A constant barrage of high-pitched cell phone ringing at every turn. The noise, pollution, and collective hubbub of cities, the artificiality and hypocrisy of undying materialism, and – most irksome of all – the fact that a shirt and shoes are “required attire.” But, alas, I am awake, and – though I did in fact find my paradise on earth – I can return to it now only by dreaming…only by dreaming those sweet island dreams of yesterday…those sweet dreams of Tahiti…

Sadly, I’m once again writing from the US as I take some time to rehash great stories from my last trip and prepare for my next. It’s been a tough couple weeks not only because of the adjustments I’ve had to make but also because I’ve been dealing with some fairly serious and very nagging illnesses. As if I needed to be reminded that I was no longer in Tahiti and eating the truly unearthly poisson cru, I had some raw tuna on my second night home and was soon beset by a fabulous case of food poisoning. Even more annoying, though, the bronchitis I developed in Senegal – which never totally went away – started bothering me again, and I reached the point where I was coughing nearly continuously. Further, I acquired yet another ear infection as well as a damaged eardrum from scuba diving (details to follow). All in all, my time at home so far has seen me be bounced around among doctors, lab technicians, and specialists; waste away in front of the TV watching all the movies I’ve missed in the last 3 months and the entire first season of 24; and completely lose my tan. So maybe you can understand why I’m dreaming those sweet dreams of Tahiti. Nevertheless, I’m persevering as always, starting to feel better thanks to a host of medications, and, for the time being, enjoying a little East Coast surf trip to stay in shape for the 20+ ft. typhoon waves Taiwan has been seeing and should continue to see throughout typhoon season. I’ve traded out my LP French Polynesia guidebook for the LP Taiwan guidebook, my French dictionary for my Chinese one, and my Tahitian wave-forecasting models for my Taiwanese ones. I’ve memorized all the key dates and events in Taiwanese history, have reviewed the seemingly endless list of social gaffes present in Chinese culture, have attempted to relearn the 2,000 Chinese characters I’m supposed to know, and have begun my search for that perfect Taipei apartment I’ll call home. But I’m getting ahead of myself…because what I’ve really been doing since I returned home has nothing to do with the future and everything to do with the past. I dream not of what I hope to find in Taiwan but of what I did find in Tahiti: unforgettable, beautiful people; heavenly landscapes and lagoons; and a door to adventure and knowledge which remained always open. If you’ll permit me to do so, I’d like to lead you now on a brief journey through that door…

Though I continued to surf almost daily during the second part of my trip to Tahiti (the days following the second broken board), I also managed to fit into my busy schedule a few additional adventures. The first – and perhaps most exciting – was an ascent of Mt. Aorai, at 6,818 ft. the third tallest mountain in French Polynesia and one of the tallest in Oceana. Aorai, unlike peaks in the southeastern US, is a steep, jagged volcano with just one potential summit route: the Northwest Ridge. Additionally, unlike peaks in the American West whose base elevation is often 8,000 ft. or higher, Aorai begins at sea level. Because of these factors, as well as the atrocious weather which engulfs the peak’s upper reaches everyday by 10:00 AM or sometimes earlier, Aorai turned back countless summit attempts by experienced climbers until well into the twentieth century. Today, a via ferrata, or “iron way” – a system developed in the Alps which uses ropes and cables bolted into the mountain to aid climbers – exists on some of the most treacherous sections and makes the climb significantly safer. Nevertheless, nearly everyone who heard of my plans to solo the mountain tried to discourage me, and Papa Teva simply let out a low whistle and shook his head with dismay. Undeterred, I took a bus from Teahupo’o to Pape’ete and began my approach to the mountain. I had some trouble finding the correct road leading to Tahiti’s interior and ended up hiking several steep miles only to realize my error and have to start all over again. Eventually, through a combination of hiking and a bit of hitchhiking, I found myself at Le Belvedere – basecamp per se – at 1,980 ft. By this time, the weather had already moved in, and a steady rain was falling. I put on my raingear and covered my pack with a trashbag and marched steadily onwards. I passed some soldiers at the army base who stared at me curiously, wondering what a solo climber was doing on this challenging peak which they use for mountain warfare training. A bit later, I reached the Hamuta Col at 2,970 ft., where I picked up the approach trail and began heading towards Camp 1. The trail was easy to follow and, with the exception of the wet conditions and horrific stretches of mud, not too difficult. About halfway up this section, I was joined by two friends – two canine friends, that is. To this day, I have no idea where those dogs came from or where they live, but they seemed to know the mountain well and led me excitedly up the trail. I spent the afternoon making my way steadily up the trail and arrived at Fare Mato/Camp 1 (4,620 ft.) and the start of the Northwest Ridge by dusk. The clouds had cleared a bit, and I could just barely make out the beginning of the obstacle I would have to tackle in the following morning’s darkness and for which I had been mentally preparing myself for days: Rocher du Diable - Devil’s Rock. A tightrope walk over an abyss, stretching into the clouds ahead, Devil’s Rock and its staggering cliffs held my attention for minutes. Finally, I forced myself to turn away and begin preparations for the night and for the next morning’s climb.

By 6:00 PM it was already becoming cold, and in my rain-drenched clothes I knew I was in for a tough night. The shelter perched precariously on the ridge at Camp 1 is nothing more than four walls and roof and, though it blocked the wind, it could keep me only so warm. After eating a quick dinner of crackers and an energy bar, setting my alarm for 3:45 AM, and putting on all my warm clothes, I curled up in my bivy sack to get some sleep before my alpine start the next morning. Originally, I had thought I’d overpacked with my polypropylene layers, a fleece, a fleece hat, and wool socks – I mean, I was in Tahiti for crying out loud! – but, as the night wore on, I realized I was definitely not prepared. Trying to be as minimalist as possible, I had sacrificed my thermarest and sleeping bag for just a thin bivy sack which would protect me from rain in the case of an unexpected or emergency bivouac on the mountain. The bivy sack provided no insulation from the hard wood floor of the shelter, though, and before long I was shivering uncontrollably. I considered sleeping on the grass outside, but fierce winds were tearing across the ridge, so I ruled out that option. Desperate for sleep, I was forced to improvise. I emptied my pack of every single item I’d brought and studied each for any possible use it might have. Ultimately, I ended up using a water-filled Camelbac, two guidebooks, my shoes, a trashbag, and the empty pack itself as a groundpad. It was about the most uncomfortable thing I’d ever slept on in my life, but it did provide some much needed insulation. I then put socks on my hands, tucked my head into my fleece, and zipped myself inside my condensation-lined bivy sack for a restless night. The ungodly wake-up time was more of a relief than a nuisance, and I quickly prepared to resume the climb. Having realized also that I had not brought enough food, I ate just a small snack and headed out into the darkness. I was quite nervous about taking on Devil’s Rock in the dark but knew that an alpine start was the only way I could reach the summit and begin my descent with a reasonable margin of safety before the late morning weather arrived. I turned on my headlamp, shouldered my pack, and left the relative safety of Camp 1 and the lower mountain. Immediately, the trail narrowed to just a few feet in width, and my pace slowed to a crawl. By the time I hit the first via ferrata section, vertical precipices plunged downward on either side of me. I moved slowly through the via, trying to maintain three points of contact whenever possible and testing each bolt before committing any weight to it. I arrived at the crux of the first via ferrata section and could only shake my head as I looked up at a fifteen foot vertical climb. The trail had withered to nothing more than a few footholds carved into the cliff, so a slip would mean falling thousands of feet. I found a solid handhold and leaned back over the abyss, feeling my pulse and breathing quicken and reveling in the moment. Curious about the extent of the drop beneath me, I grabbed a nearby rock and tossed it off the cliff, waiting expectantly for a sound of impact several seconds later. But the rock seemed to be swallowed by gravity itself, and the only sound which answered was a low moan of wind and the rustling of my rope against the cliff. For all intents and purposes, I was alone in the world, and my survival would depend entirely upon my decisions and judgment. Every ounce of intellect I possessed was telling me to turn back and wait for daylight, but some more deep-rooted instinct required that I press on. Stars were beginning to poke through the clouds, a cold breeze was blowing at my back, and a silence so thick it seemed almost tangible enshrouded the mountain like a cloak. I was completely engrossed by my every action, climbing in rhythm to my breathing, contemplating each hold and each step without ever really thinking, knowing that to think was to doubt and to doubt was to die. I was hyperaware of the abyss and of the consequences of any mistake, but my conscious thought would not veer from the beam of my headlamp and the path directly in front of me which it illuminated. I pressed on in the darkness…

At last, first light. I had made solid progress and no serious mistakes. With my headlamp now turned off, I pulled myself up yet another muddy pitch using a pre-anchored rope. As I reached the top of the pitch, I saw it: Fare Ata/Camp 2. At 5,940 ft., the sunrise was spectacular. The sky was mostly clear, and Tahiti’s lagoon sparkled a brilliant blue far below. The island of Mo’orea and its own beautiful lagoon were visible in the distance. Even the green knife-edge of Devil’s Rock radiated splendor in the morning light. I paused for a few minutes of rest at Camp 2 but knew better than to ignore the puffy cumulus clouds visible to the east. I was tired, dirty, and hungry, but I forced myself to continue the climb; even from my current vantage point, the summit ridge ahead did not look conducive to a rapid, weather-forced descent. It was obvious that the summit receives daily rain, as the trail was nothing more than a long stretch of mud. I used any roots or rocks I could find for leverage, but the going was tough. The trail also narrowed much more than I had expected, in many ways topping even Devil’s Rock in terms of danger. Here, a slip would mean falling at least a vertical mile. Though I had eaten an energy gel during my rest at Camp 2, I was becoming increasingly malnourished from being forced to ration my meager supply of food. I had my sights set on the summit, and my adrenaline was pumping, but I began to lose my focus. With the increasing altitude, the sleep deprivation, the prolonged exertion, and – most of all – the continuous exposure, my insufficient calorie intake began to affect my climbing. My breathing was coming in quick bursts as opposed to the steady rhythm of the early morning, and my head was simply swimming. Though I had enjoyed tremendously the challenge of exposed climbing thus far, I was beginning to have my fill of it. Certain sections of the trail were so narrow that I had to take a deep breath, hold out both arms for balance, and walk quickly across, one foot in front of the other; on other sections, I crawled. The power of gravity was overtaking me and filling my thoughts; I just couldn’t stop looking down. All around me sheer cliffs plunged to the verdant valley floor; I felt myself being pulled to the edge. Just when I thought I couldn’t go on, it appeared – the summit. Powered by adrenaline alone, I scrambled over a few last boulders and emerged to a stunning 6,818 ft. high panoramic view of green volcanoes, puffy clouds, blue sky, crystal-clear lagoons, distant islands, offshore reefs, and brilliant sunshine. In the time it took to shoot my summit photos, though, clouds began to envelop the peak from the east. Clearly, I had arrived not a minute too late. I scrambled off the summit and began my descent; it was a race against the weather, and losing would entail serious consequences. About halfway down the summit ridge, however, my adrenaline high wore off, and my nausea returned. I struggled to stay focused on the three-foot-wide muddy ski slope of a trail ahead of me, and I knew I was in trouble. I slipped several times and self-arrested only just before sliding off the edge. My legs had turned to gel and were quivering uncontrollably like a sewing machine. Finally, I knew I’d reached the end of my luck, and sheer will and determination alone were not going to get me off that summit ridge alive. Disregarding the strict rations I had established for myself and the incoming weather, I sat down in the middle of the trail – my feet hanging off a cliff six and half thousand vertical feet above the valley floor below me – and ate the remainder of my food. I realized that I still had half a day of climbing left ahead of me – including Devil’s Rock – and that the descent would be even more treacherous than the ascent because of the slippery conditions. But I also knew that I had to face the reality of my situation; I would deal with the consequences later. Ten minutes after beginning to eat, I was feeling better and continued making my way down the dangerous summit ridge. By the time I reached Camp 2 again, the summit was completely covered in white-out, and the wind was steadily increasing. I started for the trail down to Camp 1 but, as an after-thought, backtracked to the shelter at Camp 2 and peeked in. There, in the corner, were stashed two small cans of beans. I immediately reached for my Swiss army knife, popped out the can-opener, and devoured the cold beans straight from the cans. Reenergized by this stroke of good luck, I headed down from Camp 2, followed closely by the clouds and rain. The downclimb, as I had expected, was far more dangerous than the climb had been, and I simply could not stay on my feet as I lowered myself down muddy pitches and over slippery ledges. Soon I was covered from head to toe in mud, and my hands were cut and burned from rappelling sans ATC down the via ferrata sections. When I finally reached Devil’s Rock, the clouds had caught up to me, so, once again, I couldn’t actually see the extent of the drop on either side of me. I pondered whether this was for better or for worse as I made my way gingerly through the section. At last, Camp 1 came into view and, beside it, my two canine pals waiting expectantly for me and yelping with glee as I emerged. Despite being great climbers, they had been unable to continue past Camp 1 with me due to the technical nature of Devil’s Rock, but they had nevertheless waited patiently so they could accompany me back down to basecamp. I was exhausted at this point but so happy to be off those two insane ridges that I was temporarily impervious to fatigue. I cranked up the volume of my ipod and made solid time down the switchbacks of the lower mountain with the dogs. Just before reaching Le Belvedere, the dogs came to me for one last behind-the-ear scratching and then disappeared into the woods as mysteriously as they had appeared. I questioned a few of the soldiers at the army base, but they said they had never seen any dogs on the mountain. I didn’t visit any marae in Tahiti so I’m not exactly sure what the mana which many people profess is emitted by these ancient Polynesian religious sites feels like, but I must admit that I felt a strange sense of protection being with those two dogs. Mt. Aorai is located in the heart of the Tahitian interior, towering over the volcanic crater from which the island itself once emerged. In its remoteness and inaccessibility, it remained mostly protected from the foreign traders and missionaries who did so much damage to Polynesian culture and to the sanctity of the Polynesian way of life. As with my unforgettable encounter with the apes on the holy Buddhist mountain of Emei Shan in China, I can’t help but wonder if I connected with this mysterious place in more ways than one. Whether I was being watched over by some ancient mystical energy force or I was just being used as a source of amusement for two frisky pups, though, ultimately I survived one of the most intense climbs of my life, overcame serious mental and physical challenges, and gazed down upon Tahiti and all her glory from high above in the South Pacific heavens.

A second non-surfing adventure I enjoyed during the latter half of my journey to Tahiti takes us back to the water…for scuba diving! Now, I earned my open water diving license in high school and since then had done a couple simple dives in a local rock quarry/scuba park, but – to be entirely honest – I never really “got” scuba diving. I enjoyed being in the water and swimming around and thought it was pretty cool to be able to breathe underwater, but I never really understood how so many people (my instructors, for instance) become addicted to diving in the way that I am addicted to surfing. Well, in Tahiti, that all changed… I made a last minute reservation with Iti Diving International in nearby Vaira’o and showed up with my gear ready to do my first tropical (and therefore, by default, my first “real”) scuba dive. I’m not sure about the whole “International” thing, but the company seemed to be pretty low-key – run by a single divemaster on a when-he-feels-like-it basis out of a wooden shack. I was made slightly more uneasy when he told me that we’d be diving to 97 feet, well below my recommended depth limit as an open-water diver of 60 feet and only just barely within my absolute depth limit of 100 feet. Even crazier is the fact that I had never dived below 33 feet, and, even at that depth, had once had a slightly traumatic experience (though this was due primarily to cold water). Nevertheless, the divemaster did seem knowledgeable, so I put my equipment together, threw on my wetsuit, and hopped in his boat with four other divers. We motored out of the lagoon and along the reef until we came to Le Vavi, a famous wall dive. Tahiti-Iti is known worldwide for its wall dives, and I was going to be treated to one of its best in perfect conditions with near unlimited visibility. Our divemaster was the quintessential Frenchman if I ever saw one, and his heavily accented (I requested English due to the technical vocabulary of diving) pre-dive briefing was a bit difficult to follow. The two things he clearly emphasized, however, proved to be important points. First, he went on and on about the incredible eels at Le Vavi and instructed us to stay well aware of our appendages in the case of a sighting, lecturing, “Zee eels…zey like zee armz…” He said that the eels can be aggressive if they feel threatened and will pursue a diver who remains over the reef; thus, it is necessary to swim towards the open ocean if pursued. Next, he reviewed out-of-air procedures, and made sure I understood how to read my SPG. After the talk, I put on my BCD and tank, sat on the side of the boat for a moment admiring the beautiful green mountains on the other side of the reef, and then somersaulted backwards into the ocean. We dropped down to a ledge at 18 feet, and – sure enough – the very first thing to come into sight was an eight-foot-long (yes, eight!) eel, slithering gracefully through the water like a snake with those menacing yet beautiful fangs. I tucked my legs in and moved quickly into deeper water, chuckling to myself at the thought of the divemaster trying to say “The eel.” After the eel sighting we angled downward and headed for our maximum depth. As we swam gradually deeper in an out-and-back route along the wall, we encountered two other especially memorable sea creatures: first, a five foot long shark (which was the first time I had ever seen a shark from underwater) and, then, a gigantic sea turtle (which reminded me way too much of Finding Nemo and had me mouthing into my regulator, “Dude, watch the shell…just waxed it”). Of course, we also saw an incredible number of fish, amazingly colorful coral, and some interesting caves in the wall. I think the point when I realized just how quickly I was falling in love with scuba diving, though, was when the divemaster motioned for me to swim up next to him by the wall. He was holding out his finger to an itty-bitty little orange fish who was nibbling away at it. The curious little fish couldn’t seem to decide whether it should stay hidden in the psychedelic looking plant it apparently calls home or come out and play with the strange visitors making bubbles outside its front door. I looked up almost 100 feet through the clearest water I’d ever seen, took advantage of my weightless condition to do a backflip, and then regulated my lung volume to hover motionless while sitting indian-style an inch or two over some coral. This was scuba diving! …After we finished our route at 97 feet, we ascended back to the ledge at 18 feet for a mandatory safety stop (to allow the nitrogen gas our bodies had accumulated to decrease to an acceptable level). The pressure at 97 feet is 4 times what it is at the surface, so proceeding directly to the surface would be extremely dangerous and life-threatening. Anyway, none of this would have been a problem except for the fact that my air supply was becoming dangerously low. Because I was a less experienced diver than the others, I was less adept at maximizing the efficiency of my breathing, and I was quite a bit ahead of them in terms of consumption. I signaled to the divemaster several times, and he assured me that he was aware of the situation, but I was becoming increasingly worried as the needle on my SPG ventured farther and farther into the red zone. The divemaster just didn’t seem concerned and instructed me to relax and continue my safety stop at 18 feet. I was beginning to wonder how legitimate a diving outfit run out of a dilapidated shack could be anyway when, at last, he signaled us to make the final ascent. Just as I approached the surface I felt my breathing become more strained, and, when I looked at my SPG after surfacing, I noticed that I was indeed out of air. I climbed back into the boat a bit disconcerted by the sketchiness of the dive, but that feeling only lasted about 30 seconds…after which, I could remember only the incredible sense of awe I felt as I played with a tiny orange fish and did weightless somersaults a hundred feet under the ocean in the middle of the Pacific. I had already decided that I want surfing to be an integral part of my life no matter what I eventually do…well, now I think diving is going to have to be a part of that plan, too.

Back on land now, we venture to the remote Grotte Vaipoiri, a water-filled, subterranean cave located on the east coast of Tahiti-Iti and accessible only by boat or on foot. This area of Tahiti-Iti is famous for hiking due to its lack of development, and I had been looking forward to exploring it since I arrived in Teahupo’o. Never doubting Lonely Planet’s claim that the cave is just 2 easy kilometers from Teahupo’o, I packed light, left in the early afternoon, and took my time walking. After I’d gone a pretty good distance, I asked a fisherman about the cave and was told “C’est luin!” (“It’s far!”). I extracted an estimate of 12 kilometers from the man – and I wasn’t even in Teahupo’o at that point – so, subsequently, my mantra for the day became “What was LP smoking?!” The hike was more difficult than I had expected, and I found myself constantly increasing my pace as the sun moved across the sky, until I realized eventually that I was going to have to break out the headlamp one way or another. Numerous river crossings – including three which required me to balance my pack on top of my head – slowed me down, as did countless aggressive dogs. I can now add “animal bite” to the long list of injuries I’ve accumulated in my travels, as a huge Doberman charged out of nowhere, leapt for my head (I sidestepped it), and then turned and clamped down on my thigh. I ended up running into the ocean, where I waited for its owner to come out. The man apologized but said also that the dog had attacked only because I had appeared afraid. I didn’t argue, though I wondered what emotion I should have conveyed as I watched the beast eye my throat while charging at full speed. Nevertheless, the next time a dog began to charge, I stared it down with my meanest Clint Eastwood face; surprisingly, this technique worked, though it may have been helped by the sturdy walking stick I’d since found and was holding in front of me like a bayonet. I did finally reach Grotte Vaipoiri and enjoyed wading into its ice-cold waters, although the cave’s darkness (which was so thick even my headlamp was rendered useless) deterred me from swimming very far from the entrance (I’m still afraid of the dark, I suppose). While the cave was technically the goal of the hike, however, I think it actually paled in comparison to the uniqueness of the journey itself. Despite the dogs the hike was one of the coolest I’ve ever done. It wasn’t exceptionally long, and, of course, there was no altitude gain, but it was as close to a lost-on-a-desert-island expedition as one could possibly get without actually marooning himself somewhere. I passed the occasional one room bungalow (most without electricity or running water and owned by families or individuals dedicated to living off the land and the sea…absolutely fascinating existences, in my opinion), but mostly it was just deserted, white-sand beaches bordered by jungle, towering mountains, and waterfalls. I sauntered along beneath the palms, contemplating what it would be like to relinquish everything and begin anew in a beautiful, remote place like this. Such freedom and purity there would be! I probably shouldn’t disclose this, but I did, as a matter of fact, take the time to scout out a few plots of land…you know…just in case…

My final little mini-excursion involved a 2 day trip to Tahiti’s sister island, Mo’orea. I had considered going to Rangiro’a, but that would have been a longer and more involved trip which would have interfered with my surfing; plus, with Lonely Planet deeming Mo’orea “the island paradise you’ve been dreaming about all winter,” I figured there was no need to go anywhere else. Surprisingly, though, I was not pleased with what I found in Mo’orea, and it remains the one thing I saw in French Polynesia which I would have to give a negative review. Sure, I agree with Lonely Planet that Mo’orea is an absolutely gorgeous island with soaring green peaks and aquamarine lagoons, but it is also 100% inundated with tourism. Almost everyone I encountered there spoke English, hordes of Americans wandered around in groups, “ATV rides,” “Parasailing!” and “Boat Rentals – No License Required!” signs appeared everywhere I looked, and ridiculously artificial five star resorts lay sprawled across ridiculously artificial white-sand beaches and green lawns with their cookie-cutter bungalows almost touching one another. All in all, I was more than ready to hop the ferry back home to the authentically Polynesian culture of Tahiti-Iti. Actually, I would argue that even Tahiti-Nui is less touristy than Mo’orea. Many people assume that Tahiti is over-developed, but, from what I saw, outside of Pape’ete and a few of the more popular beach areas, much of Tahiti is actually relatively unspoiled by tourism. Regardless, Tahiti-Iti and Teahupo’o are undeniably off-the-beaten-path, and I was never more satisfied with my homestay than when I arrived in Mo’orea.

Despite my disappointment with Mo’orea, I did make the most of my stay. I saw both Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay and stayed in Hauru Point. Still buzzed about my last scuba dive, my intention was to organize a dive for the next day. However, I wanted to do not just any dive but a shark dive! Mo’orea has long been famous for its shark dives, in which divers gather in a semi-circle around their divemaster, who pulls out a large chunk of fish. Sharks then rush in from all directions and devour the fish in a violent feeding frenzy just feet away from the divers. I was a little nervous but very excited about doing a shark dive and figured I would have no problem arranging one since Lonely Planet listed four companies on the island who make shark dives their specialty. However, when I arrived in Mo’orea and began calling around, I received nothing but negative answers and evasive explanations. One lady tried to tell me that my guidebook must be out of date because shark dives of that kind haven’t been done in a long time in Mo’orea. I was quick to respond that the book had been published just two months earlier, and she finally admitted that some new government legislation prohibits shark diving. She did not explain whether the new law stemmed simply from increasing support for the position that shark feeding causes sharks to associate humans with food or from some other, more serious occurrence. In the end I decided I’d rather do something else if I couldn’t do a shark dive, so I arranged to rent a kayak for a half day and spent that time exploring Mo’orea’s beautiful lagoon and the motu (small islands) within it. I took my snorkeling gear, too, and enjoyed some spectacular underwater exploration as well. Unfortunately, it was here that I injured my eardrum. Having not equalized sufficiently during my deep dive at Le Vavi, my ears were apparently already at risk. When I made a quick freedive descent from my kayak without immediately equalizing, they suddenly popped, causing moderate pain and a significant loss of hearing. Fortunately, the damage is only temporary, and, though even now I’m not yet allowed to dive, my ears will eventually heal completely.

I mentioned in my last post about Tahiti that it appeared I would be unable to surf Teahupo’o again after breaking my second board. Unfortunately, that expectation proved to be correct, as I simply couldn’t find a way to challenge the beast one last time. I contemplated paddling out on the epoxy board on my final day, but the waves were going off, and even Papa Teva warned me that I would find myself in deep “caca” if I paddled out. So, I suppose the only thing left to say about Teahupo’o is that it continues to affect me even now, even when I am halfway around the world. Because it has acquired such notoriety in the past few years, a fairly large amount of information about the wave exists online, and I have spent the past couple weeks sifting though this. Interestingly, the deeper I dig, the more fortunate I feel to have survived my tangos with death. When I was writing my descriptions of surfing Teahupo’o, I worried that I was sounding too melodramatic and that what I was saying would be assumed to be exaggerated; now, I realize that I probably downplayed the wave too much and really didn’t give it its due in terms of the sheer respect it commands in the surfing world. I also learned some things about the wave that I had noticed but not fully understood while I was there. For instance, the reason surfers’ speed often decreases suddenly at the bottom of the wave is because the wave itself – truly a mutant beast – is actually below sea level. Thus, the water being sucked off the reef and up the face of the wave is actually being sucked downwards, resulting in an incline for a surfer at the bottom of the wave traveling forward. Another interesting tidbit: the jet of water I described shooting out of the barrel at Teahupo’o is created by an actual shock wave which takes place inside the barrel when the lip of the wave crashes down on the reef. Finally, I viewed several series of pictures depicting surfers wiping out on the wave in exactly same way I wiped out when I broke my board. Below the pictures, captions relay the importance of getting down the face of the wave before the “U” shaped bowl section – otherwise, a washing machine style flip is in store. If only I had known that earlier… Coincidentally, I ended up spotting the guys I surfed with during my first successful go at Teahupo’o here at the VB 1st Street Jetty the other day and learned that one of them became very sick with a staph infection from the injuries he acquired at Teahupo’o. I also found out from doing a little research that the guy I met in the airport and surfed with during that first tow-in session is a pro who nearly beat world champion Andy Irons this year, that the guy on the jet ski who rescued me after my leash broke is also a pro and is considered the best Teahupo’o surfer in the world, and that Bobby Martinez and the Hobgood brothers enjoyed staying with “Mama Teva.”

Since I wasn’t surfing Teahupo’o, I began surfing some of the other breaks in Tahiti during my final sessions. Papara, despite being crowded, offered up some fun waves, and I also enjoyed watching a competition there, during which the French surf commentary caused me to drift off to my contest in Senegal. Perhaps the most memorable session, though, occurred on my final day, the day the waves were going off at Teahupo’o. I hitched to Papara, planning to surf there, but the wind was sideshore and no one was out. I had been riding with this huge, jovial guy in a monster dump truck for the past half hour, and he assured me that the waves would be a solid 4 meters and clean at Pa’ea, further up the road. I asked him suspiciously if he were a surfer, and, patting his belly, he said “before I got this.” Trusting the dump truck driver’s judgment, I continued my long trip in search of waves, enjoying my new friend’s conversation and his frequent aloha waves to women walking on the side of the road and to every single truck driver who passed. When we arrived at Pa’ea, I realized he had been right and thanked him profusely for his help; huge, double overhead waves were lined up and rolling into this unique rivermouth break. The waves were breaking in a horseshoe-shaped cove and exploding against a steep concrete bulwark below a large crowd of onlookers. I didn’t like the looks of the cove because riding too far in or falling and being pushed in would mean a very hairy situation from which climbing up the concrete wall would not be a likely escape route. Despite this, the waves looked really fun – being the first waves I’d surfed in a while with really serious size yet without the killer power that waves at Teahupo’o literally possess – and I leapt with my board from the wall, having timed the jump to coincide with an incoming wave. I was a bit intimidated by the vocal crowd and the very talented surfers in the water, but I started things off with a huge right on which I aired about fifteen feet off the back as it closed out. I surfed all day long and got a ton of good waves, so, when the sun began to set, despite being sad that my surfing odyssey in Tahiti was over, I was far too stoked with the waves to be upset and far too satisfied that I had avoided breaking a third board to complain about anything.

Well, I’ve written a lot about the waves, the mountains, and the lagoons of Tahiti…but I would be remiss if I did not dedicate at least one passage to Tahiti’s most spectacular treasure: its people. When I first met the Rochette family, I think they expected me to act like the typical visiting surfer and show little interest in their culture. When they realized what my intentions really were, though, they opened up and accepted me as part of their family. When Teva’s aunt passed away towards the end of my stay, he invited me to join the family for a large lunch. We ate together under overcast skies, and he explained that Tahitian legend holds that the skies must remain dark until a funeral ceremony has been completed. Additionally, because Mama and Papa Teva’s twenty-something-year-old son is studying in Spain for the year, I think I became something of a surrogate for them. I asked Mama Teva if I would be able to find a “Teahupo’o” t-shirt at the airport in Pape’ete, and, not one hour later, she returned with two gift-wrapped shirts for me. The generosity of my family in Teahupo’o defined my stay there; no matter where I go, I don’t believe I’ll ever find another Mama and Papa Teva.

The kindness and laid-back attitude of the Tahitians were, in fact, the defining element of my experience in French Polynesia. If the grin of little Gnagna – representing strength, beauty, and courage just dying to burst out – is the single most vivid image I take from Senegal, then the aloha sign of a passing bicyclist is what I take from Tahiti. There is so much warmth contained in that simple gesture and, at the same time, so much contentment. It’s as if the passing bicyclist is saying to me, a visitor in his country, that he welcomes me with an open heart regardless of whether I have anything to offer him because he is content with life as he knows it. Poverty most definitely exists in Tahiti, but there is not the sense of a struggle to overcome it. In fact, it is often easy to overlook the fact that many Tahitians do without things that Westerners would consider basic necessities. Why is this so easy to overlook? Because of that aloha sign. Because no matter how poor a Tahitian is, he is never too reluctant to tuck a white tiare flower behind his ear. Because no matter how tough things may be, a Tahitian never fails to smile one of those great big smiles that only an islander can ever really know. Because at the core of a Tahitian’s existence lies an understanding that for every bad wipeout and for every reef cut there will be a picture-perfect tuberide. For every dog that bites there will be a dog that protects and befriends. For every crowded man-made beach there will be a real one lined with palm trees, just waiting to be explored. For every five-star resort dripping with veneer there will be a little bungalow by the lagoon and a friendly local family welcoming you to it. For every near-drowning experience there will be a cute little orange fish and a graceful sea turtle named Crush to remind you that life above water is only half the fun. Because the Tahitians, more than anyone else I’ve ever met, have discovered what it means to be stoked. Not simply stoked on surfing or stoked on diving or stoked on climbing. They’ve discovered what it means to be stoked on life. And to this I raise my glass and say “Manuia.” To good waves, to great friends, and to being stoked on this crazy thing we call life.

Back at you from Taiwan in the near future. Aloha.

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