Forty thousand dollars is a lot of money. A sensible person might save some, invest some, ultimately seeing that money grow. My mother, though, has never been the kind of person who saves and/or invests, so it was not a surprise when she told me she would be spending the last of her forty-thousand dollar-inheritance on a family vacation to French Polynesia; Bora Bora to be specific.
Never had she sounded so enthused as when she told me of the marvelous white sandy beaches and the rainbow of fish swimming in water that made the Caribbean look like the stuff that collected in puddles on the floor of your high school bathroom. “Aren’t you excited?” my mother wanted to know. I was. In fact, I became so excited that I decided to do a little research on the islands.
Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, is famous for gang violence and rabid dogs. About four years before we went to the island, an unusually long and violent rainy season killed more than 95% of all the coral and fish in the lagoon surrounding the island. Bora Bora is a young island; it has no natural beaches.
I am sitting in what is probably the least comfortable chair having a Pizza Hut pizza for breakfast at four in the morning. Two hours ago, I was snug in my bed; now I can feel the acne forming on my face as I finish my last grease-encrusted slice. It is far from my ideal way to face a new dawn, but it is the only restaurant open in the entire airport. I decide to take a nap while we wait to board.
It is now approximately five thirty in the morning. A song that the Pizza Hut employee is listening to on the radio wakes me; a song about how girls just want to have fun. I wander out of the store and find the few shops that have opened to sell mostly souvenirs. I sit back down with my family, close my eyes but I can't sleep. At nine our plane lands, refuels and we board. I feel ready to go home.
After the plane takes off, my opinion about flying changes completely. This is my first time flying international; I make a point of never flying on an American airline again. We use New Zealand Air to Tahiti; the seats are well cushioned and have built in headrests. Headphones are free, the radio device in my seat works on every channel. Two movies are shown: Shrek 2 and The Day After Tomorrow. I decide to listen to a New Zealand stand up comedy on the radio device.
The early morning air in Papeete is warmer than what I am used to; it catches me off guard. It is about 75 degrees outside at one in the morning. We go through customs and gather our luggage. It will be seven hours before we check in at our hotel; we will have spent nearly 32 hours in the airport, or on a plane when we get there – still another plane, an airport terminal and a boat ride before we reach Bora Bora.
When we arrive it is raining – warm rain like taking a shower. A friendly Samoan/Italian man greets us and summons some people to take care of our bags. He gives us breakfast, then takes us on a tour of the grounds: tennis courts, wind surfing, volley ball, snorkeling, an artificial beach, buffet. The rooms are nothing special, the rain soaks through one part of the roof and there is no bible in the room I share with my brother. I spend the remainder of the day sleeping.
It is still raining the following day. I fear some kind of hurricane or tsunami may hit us, but it clears up before breakfast is over. I wander out to the beach, decide to try my hand at windsurfing. It is easy enough to “go”, but if you want to turn, you have to drop your sail diagonally, and use it to catch the wind. You then use the wind to pull the front of the board and turn. It looks easy on paper, but it isn't, especially when you're over coral that can cut you up badly if you fall on it. I was lucky. A current picked me up and slowly carried me back towards shore.
That afternoon I decided to go snorkeling. My sources were correct; there is nothing but rocks to look at, which reminds me to watch out for stonefish. They look like rocks, but are actually among the most poisonous fish in the sea. As I am combing the bottom looking for them, I find a kind of rainbow colored free water fish, which I decide to follow. As the fish becomes aware that it is being pursued, it starts a defensive maneuver, bobbing up and down. It leads me out deeper and deeper. I almost lose it when I see a log that resembles a shark. Imagine how I feel when a sand monster pops up from under the sand, grabs the fish in its mouth, and settles back into the sand. I swim for my life back to shore, and drop my improperly attached snorkel, which lands near the monster. It is probably still there.
My mother and I discover the hotel has bikes; we cycle around the island after she convinces me. I am moved to laughter as I zoom past a group of local children trying to crack open a coconut. I am having a good time. The heat intensifes; it is easily over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. I am sweating, I tell myself to keep going, stay motivated, look at your mom; she is fine, why are you sweating so much? The island curves back around up ahead in about half a mile, then it's shady the rest of the way. You’re practically on the home stretch. I am wrong.
What will kill me first – exhaustion or hypothermia? My mother has already turned back the other way, but I am determined to go all the way around. I start to hum a song to keep my pedaling in time. I look up. There is a steep, high hill in my path; I will have to walk my bike up. When I get to the top, I realize I am not alone. On either side of me there is a gang of five, up to ten rabid dogs that begin to snarl and bark. I leap on my bike and fly down the hill. The dogs do not try to pursue; they stay there and bark, as though that would make me return. I look back. I feel a renewed vigor. I know I will make it. I do.