The Most Beautiful Place I've Ever Seen, Accidentally
Air Tahiti was on strike. "STUCK IN TAHITI," I messaged a friend. As if that was actually possible- a paradise once lionized by Gauguin, with serious waves and food trucks serving steak-frites and poisson cru. If I were to be stuck anywhere, it would be Tahiti. But nobody knew how long this strike was going to last, so we needed to be on a plane out of there, TOUT DE SUITE.
The airport was mayhem. Honeymooners from LA were getting wasted at the bar with hibiscus flowers around their necks, not knowing what else to do. Stranded! Europeans looking at their watches, packed with nowhere to go. The French, always striking! You should have seen Michael at the ticket counter, a flurry of hand-waving, "Vraiment?"s and sweat.
"They can send us to Tikehau," he said.
Ok. Tikehau. Michael somehow always got us out of a near-apocalypse pickle.
Neither of us knew much about the tiny coral atoll, but at least we would reach the next chapter of the trip. And it would be beautiful. Everything was beautiful in the South Pacific. Plus, they were giving us a guesthouse.
I'm aware I'm talking about apples and oranges here. How can you compare beauty? Are Moorea's craggy black mountains less heart-stopping than the deliriously cerulean waters of Bora Bora? And who's to say an island is more beautiful than the stark wilderness of the Arctic or the eternal crevasse of the Grand Canyon? The long stretches of Iowa's corn fields? The green hills of Rwanda? Who's to say the billions of lights of New York City aren't equally as glorious, glorious as a midnight sky?
Every paradise is a home to someone.
From above, Tikehau looks like the other atolls throughout the Pacific- the rim of a submerged volcano, circling a vast lagoon. But this particular lagoon stretched 17 miles across with only one break in the reef large enough for boats to pass through. Jacques Cousteau recorded this island as having the greatest variety of fish species in all of the South Pacific. It was one giant aquarium.
Our pension was directly on the beach. Water and electricity were luxuries, available only at night. Blacktip reef sharks swam up to the sand like curious dogs looking for a handout. Later than night the three of us would cram onto one small palate of mattress, tangled in mosquito netting and sand. We wouldn't sleep, but we didn't care.
We spent the day cruising the open, waveless water with a family of five in a fishing boat. Tina had a daughter a few months older than Sia, who was enthralled, her little French sun cap flapping in the wind like Lawrence of Arabia. We talked about life on the island, population 529, and the future of fishing. Did they feel the affects of climate change? What of the coral? Tourism? They were people of the sea, this was their backyard. Whatever we did on the mainland affected them100-fold. They showed us pink sand, frigate birds mating on an overgrown motu and more reef sharks. I felt blessed.
Maybe it was the currents that day, maybe the stillness of the wind, but the water was a mirror, clouds opening up like a snowflake cut out of construction paper. And that's how it happened, in an event so close to taking a turn for the worse, it became one of the biggest gifts this trip had given us. This, right here, was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen, accidentally.
Later that night we ate a modest meal with a group of French NGO workers, who played peek-a-boo with Sia and slapped mosquitos off their necks. I noticed the stars were out. It was almost as pretty as New York City skyline, but not quite.