This is the view from my hotel room in Bora-Bora: I am facing south, and the sun, already settled below the gentle arc of horzon to my right, is now barely touching a pink-tipped brush to the flat-bottomed clouds that have been passing in procession all day. A ribbony ripple flutters across the line where sky and sea meet; waves slapping against the island's coral reef a mile or so out. Beyond that, a merchant ship slides east, headed for Tahiti, no doubt.
I think of the men on that ship, and wonder if they take a moment to stand at portside and contemplate the Eden-like island to my back, a pillar of extinct lava jutting 900 feet into the sky, encircled by encroaching jungle, scatterings of shops and inns, narrow barrier islands, and, on one spit of sand, me.
Well, not me me. But those centuries of refugees who, fed up with the rat race, have dreamed of escaping to these very islands of French Polynesia. Some of them made the trip and stayed forever: Paul Gauguin, Jacques Brel, and Fletcher Christian of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. Plus Marlon Brando who, after filming his Bounty remake, bought his own island here.
And then, of course, there's Howard Cunningham. He was Richie Cunningham's father on Happy Days, who in one of the later, "very special" episodes decided to throw over his family and the hardware business and escape to Bora-Bora. Thank goodness Fonzie talked him out of it. I remember watching that show and thinkng, "What an artificial plot device. What man in his right mind would seriously consider chucking everything and taking off for Tahiti?"
Thirty years and four thousand miles later, I found out.
Not that I'd ever actually pull a Gaugin (He left his wife and kids in Paris and flew into such a frenzy of tropical hedonism he died of syphilis at 55). After all, I have a family that I love, a job to die for (Hi, Boss!), and friends who would probably say they'd miss me. But I am a Baby Boomer, and you know, by definition I want to have it all. So, I wondered, is it possible to hold onto my life, run off to French Polynesia to tick off a quick midlife crisis checklist, and be back at my desk all in two weeks?
Two rules: 1) Bring my wife along. As I recall, Fonzie hit the nail on the head when he observed that there would be no more Happy Days for Howard if he left Marian at home.
2) Return financially solvent. No sense spending two weeks in a hut in Paradise only to find myself later living in a hut in suburban Maryland.
Rule one was easy--convincing a spouse that Tahiti is a desireable vacation spot is considerably easier than gettting her to, say, accompany you to every major league ballpark in North America (But, Honey, think about it!).
Rule two at first seemed a challenge.
But while there's no way to travel halfway round the globe and nestle near the South Pacific on the cheap, it can be less than you'd expect. Especially in February, when we went. That's the middle of the summer (Southern Hemisphere, remember), when most of the Islands' predominantly Australian and Asian clientele are looking for someplace to cool off, not sizzle. Think of all those rock-bottom bargains we can find traveling in the Caribbean during our summer.
So, shopping around on the Internet a few weeks after New Year's, I discovered that bargain airfares from Los Angeles to Papeetee, Tahiti, were generally less than those to Honolulu. And several travel companies were offering combination cruise/hotel packages for less than $1,500.
And so here we are, wedging our way through the crowds at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, managing to get through security without a strip search, and winging our way south…way south…to Tahiti.
My midlife adventure begins even before we land. In nearly a half-century of traveling, I had somehow managed to stay north of the Equator, and now I am on the verge of my first intersection.
"I'm…um…gonna go to the bathroom," I tell my wife Cynthia after I'm sure the Equator is good and gone. She rolls her eyes, knowing what I'm up to to. I've always heard, you see, that because of the Earth's rotation, water in a pan drains clockwise in the Northern Hemispehre and counterclockwise in the southern Hemisphere. Or wait. Was it the other way around? Drat. I should have done my "control" drain before we were too far south. Well, no mind. I'll just make a note of it now, then observe the Northern efffect when I get back home. I fill the little sink (You have to hold the lever down to accomplish this), push the drain plunger, then wait for the water to run out. Of course, I should have known: THWWWWWOCK! The water is sucked out, as it is in all airline sinks, with nuclear industrial Wet-Vac force.
Dejected, I return to my seat. I don't tell the other guys lined up at the lavatory waiting to test the theory on their own.
It is dark when our transfer van pulls up to the side of the Tahitian Princess, the ship we'll be on for the next week or so. It's one of three ships that serve the islands all year—the sail/cruise ship Wind Star, with white lights strung along its four masts, floats right across the pier from us.
We are on the Island of Tahiti, but we will never see it in broad daylight. The next morning we awake anchored at Morea, a mountain-rumpled island just a few miles across a broad channel from Tahiti. I disembark full of anticipation: Today I'd swim with a dolphin. Lots of people say pshaw, or even harrumph, when it comes to dolphin swims. The dolphins don't like it, they say. That smile on their face is just a congenital upturn built in by nature to accommodate their sophisiticated natural echolocation equipment. Well, I don't buy it. Sure, Rangi the dolphin lives in a closed-in lagoon at the Intercontinental Beachcomber Resort, and sure, Rangi responds to being fed. But when Rangi lies back to be cradled in our arms, I'm sure that's a smile of enchantment I'm seeing.
"I think she likes us," I say to the attendant.
"Actually, Rangi is a boy," she replied.
"Really?" I ask. Since Rangi is on his/her back, I'm checking out the landscape, and all the visual evidence points to a female identity.
"Well, yes," says the attendant, speaking slowly now. "The, um, car is in the garage."
I stare stupidly at her.
"And I can tell you on behalf of the women here," she continues, "that you don't want Rangi taking that thing out for a drive."
Well, I'm doing great on my checklist. Crossed the equator and swam with a dolphin. Life-affirming events both. But in a day or two, after crossing a thousand miles or so of ocean, I'll be setting foot on Ground Zero of the world's most celebrated midlife crisis: the island of Hiva Oa. Here, in the Marquesas Islands, you are as far away from a continental land mass as you can possibly be while standing on dry land. We are officially at the end of the world.
There is just one original Gauguin on Hiva Oa, the locals say, and that is the body buried in Gauguin's grave. It was here that Gauguin spent his last years, painting women and flowers—their colors and beauty almost interchangable—and built his final home. The tour directors will tell you he christened the little two-story building the House of Bliss. But the name, in French, more accurately translates as the House of Orgasm. Yes, Gauguin knew what he was here for, and it wasn't the fresh tuna.
He's buried in Calvary Cemetery, a short walk from his house. It's rough-hewn, a sloppy monument to a sloppy life. Nearby is the grave of Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer who abandoned his family and fled here with his mistress, a beautiful actress named Maddly Bami. His monument bears a bronze relief double portrait of the pair. I'm told that when his family comes down to visit from Europe, the locals pry the portrait off the stone beforehand.
I'm sitting under a thatched roof at the center of the island's small town, watching a few dozen island girls sway seductively, in unison to island music. Their grass skirts are traditional; their coconut bras are a romanticized concession to modern times. In Gauguin's day, they would have gone without. I find myself fascinated by the coconuts, and at first I'm afraid that it's in some creepy Humbert Humbert way (Although to be fair, Cynthia is paying lots of attention to the flimsy grass flimsy skirts worn by the men).
To my relief, I realize it's the coconut phenomenon that fascinate me. How do the girls pick them out? How do they size them? When they try them on, do they judge the fit by how scratchy they are? Is there lining in there? Is there such a thing as training coconuts?
The dancing of the girls is something akin to the Hawaiian hula, but it's somehow more urgent than the dainty every-gesture-tells-a-story style up north. The guys are postively brutish in their dance. They grunt, they stomp, they hurl themselves at each other the way over-psyched football players sometimes do. If not for the soothing presence of those girls in their coconuts, these guys would be scary.
Near the end, the dancers wander into the crowd of onlookers, looking for volunteers. They grab Cynthia by the hand and pull her out. I watch her, a blonde blossom floating in a churning sea of dark, gyrating hair and bodies. I watch her, and I remember Gauguin, and the family he left behind, and I think a) Cynthia would look good in coconuts, and b) I will never, ever tell Cynthia she would look good in coconuts.
We sail on back to the south. We visit Rangiroa, one of the world's largest atolls. It's nothing more than a ribbon of sand that stretches to the horizon at both sides—and, beyond the horizon, arcs around to form a huge, thin circle 46 miles across. An inland sea defined by the mere hint of land around it.
The captain of the Tahitian Princess lets me join him on the bridge as we needle the gleaming white ship through a thin opening to the sea. A dolphin rides our bow wave as the captain sounds our horn. "I don't usually do that," he says, "But we won't be back until October."
Seven months. In that time, only one or two other passenger ships will visit this outpost of humanity.
The grand finale of the cruise--and the place we will stay a few extra nights--is the island of Bora-Bora. James Michener called it the world's most beautiful lagoon. You may think you've never seen Bora-Bora, but you have. It's the Mysterious Island of Dr. Moreau; it's the cloud-shrouded home of King Kong; it's the painted "Bali Hai" backdrop used for every high school production of South Pacific.
A water taxi brings us to our hotel, the Sheraton Bora-Bora Nui, located on one of the lagoon's outlying islands. It's one of the newest hotels there, and it follows closely a model set by the venerable TK-year-old Bora-Bora Lagoon Hotel and Spa across the lagoon: A large scattering of above-water huts, accessible by boardwalk. These huts are, of course, air conditioned, and our hotel has little glass windows on the floor, so you can see the fish swimming by down below (and they can presumably look up at you).
The hut-over-water motif is echoed all through French Polynesia. Those are always the most expensive rooms, of course. But most places also have traditional hotel wings, usually perched on hillsides. They're remarkably cheaper—approaching half the price—and usually closer to the restaurant.
But I'm not about to skimp on my fun-packed midlife crisis. And so here we are sitting on the porch, watching the ships slide past beyond the reef. As we gaze into the dusk, a name from the past slips into my brain and passes across my lips: "Lloyd Bridges".
Some may deny it, but there's not a Boomer out there who didn't watch Lloyd's old Sea Hunt TV show back in the 1950s and early 60s. My brothers and sister and I used to run around the house, swimming through imaginary waters while making gargling noises, a fairly faithful approximation of the sound Lloyd's breathing regulator made. Here in the South Pacific, I know that if ever I am going to make that childhood fantasy a reality, it 's going to have to be right now.
I am kneeling on the ocean floor, breathing air from a tank, and I don't know where my instructor has gone. He led me down here, some 20 feet or so, as I pulled myself hand-over-hand along a rope. Then he made very serious eye contact with me, facemask-to-facemask, and bent his fore and middle fingers, simulating a kneeling position. Then he pointed to the white, grainy sand below. Kneel down here. I cocked my head. He repeated the gesture. Oh, okay, I shrugged. And so I knelt down on the ocean floor. Immediately a jagged hunk of coral cut into my knee. Just a scratch. Nothing to attract sharks. Yet I didn't move. I stared straight ahead, catching a glimpse through my facemask of the guy's flippers as they paddled upward, toward the surface. Where the air is. So now I'm 20 feet underwater, 4,000 miles from home, and obediently staring into the near distance, where a small school of tiny silver fish hover, facing me, considering the spectacle of a confused man planted in their neighborhood like an oversized sea cucumber.
The position, it occurs to me, seems all too famliar. Has my endless capacity for gullibility once again kicked in? Once more, I've blindly put myself into the hands of someone I don't even know. I'm not thinking about people like airline pilots or corner hot dog guys--I mean people who have looked me in the eye and said "trust me." The garage mechanic who cut open an a/c hose before my very eyes and insisted it had already been leaking. The real estate broker who assured me he'd lined up a second mortgage, then took me to a loan shark who charged 18 percent. The nurse who told me on the phone my mother was going to be fine, when she knew darn well she had less than a day to live.
Oh, great. Now I'm kneeling on the ocean floor contemplating my dead mother. I hate this introspective stuff. Is this guy coming back? Will I need to add to my list of lifetime betrayals the diving instructor who left me to die?
A glimpse of flipper. Thank God, he's returned. About time, too. It must have been all of, what, thirty seconds? And he's brought Cynthia. Of course, that's why he went back up. Perfectly understandable. I knew that.
Now he takes each of us by the hand, and off we glide. We are flying. That's the only way to describe it. If I inhale deeply, I find my bouyancy increases, and I float higher. I soar over coral ledges, bottom-dwelling scavenger fish, and what appear to be living, breathing rocks with toothless mouths that open and close. Exhale, and I head downward, scattering schools of fish and zooming in on crawly critters that scurry under the gravelly sand and disappear into cream-colored camouflage.
All the time, I'm holding this man's hand. I am haunted by the memory of another childhood figure. Not Lloyd Bridges. Peter Pan.
It is night. The last one. We stroll along the beach. I am a hopeless stargazer, and tonight I am looking for a dark, unlit spot. I am working on the last item on my checklist.
From the day in kindergarten when I saw Alan Shepherd squeeze into his Mercury space capsule, I knew that I, too, would someday fly into space (Come to think of it, I even envied those poor chimps we sent up before Shepherd). But I was a writer, not a test pilot, and so, incrementally, I eased myself into writing about space. By the time I was in my mid-30s, I felt I had positioned myself as well as anybody to be the first journalist in space. In fact, even a bit better, because the guys on the original list of hopefuls, collected in the 1970s, were all edging into late middle age, and here I was, still a kid.
Then came the Challenger explosion. And NASA budget cutbacks. And the greatest shock of all: The morning I looked in the mirror and realized I was as old as those geezers I figured I'd outlasted.
But tonight, here I stand on an alien shore, gazing into a sky milky with more stars than I have ever seen. Foreign stars hanging in formations invisible from my northern home, back over the hill of the Equator. Near the horizon spreads the Southern Cross, pointing navigators to the South Pole. The eastern sky lightens, and a nearly full Moon slowly reveals itself. It seems oddly mysterious and disorienting. What's wrong with that Moon? I ask myself. There's something not right. And suddenly I know: The Moon is upside-down. Every month of my life, with binoculars, telescopes, and naked eyes, I've looked to the south, toward the Equator, to see the moon with its dark "seas" blanketing the upper half of its disk. But here, in this alternate universe, I look north to the Equator, and so the Man in the Moon is seemingly standing on his head. It's like suddenly looking at an upended map of the World. Familiar, yet disquietingly foreign.
An astronomer once told me that the way to truly sense your place in the universe is to lie in an open field on a starry night. "Open your eyes," she said, "and imagine yourself not looking up…but looking out."
I am lying on a beach in Bora-Bora. I am looking out. In that starry host I can pick out yet another new constellation. I see myself, gently unfolding my checklist and quietly tearing it in half.
Photo By Bill Newcott
A considerably shorter version of this story appeared in a 2005 edition of AARP The Magazine