Bora Bora, I Adore Ya

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 6, 2001

As I bathed in Pacific waters the color of Cameron Diaz's eyes, dozens of rambunctious stingrays fanned their smooth flesh against me. Like overeager puppies, they playfully sucked on arms, legs and any other body part not covered by a swimsuit. Suddenly, a particularly large one leapt toward my face in search of a kiss.

Or was that hunger I saw in those watery little eyes?

I froze, freaked, and thought: What the heck am I doing in this vat of slithering beasts? I'm just another overgrown tuna to them. Get me outta here!

Tommy, our guide, who had taken me and several friends to this teeming aquamarine spot in Bora Bora, laughed. "They like fish better than humans," he said in his French-accented English. "Remember, you're in paradise. Not even the sharks bite here."

Paradise. It is the French Polynesian cliche, perpetuated for centuries by wide-eyed European explorers such as Samuel Wallis and James Cook, and heightened by the canvases of Gauguin and the musings of Melville. Even the crew of the HMS Bounty mutinied when faced with a return trip to drab, foggy London. I remember, as a kid, studying my cherished picture atlas, tracing a finger around the South Seas and wondering if it were true -- if the Earth still had a Garden of Eden, and if it lay in French Polynesia.

From the moment we first touched ground in Papeete -- the exotic capital of Tahiti, 40 minutes by prop plane from smaller Bora Bora -- everyone from flight attendants to customs agents pitched the cliche. But I was older, wiser and, these days, brimming with journalistic cynicism. I held on to it, too -- for a good five minutes, until we strolled out of the airport and a gorgeous Polynesian couple from our tour agency draped shell leis around our necks. Watching their big, toothy smiles glow preternaturally against the jade-colored hills, I became a child again, this time with more than a dream and an atlas.

"Oh, look," I said to a friend, nodding toward the pair as the expression of a dumb, happy animal formed on my face.

Once you succumb to the paradise cliche, it's hard to avoid becoming a dopey Gilligan, tripping merrily over the beauty of the South Seas. There are countless things to do here, though the most entertaining of all is simply sitting on the beach, feasting on the natural splendor.

During our first three days -- spent in the territory's largest and most developed island, Tahiti -- we explored the capital, Papeete. Amid the stands of shocking green breadfruit and the tables of dyed sarongs and wood carvings, we found a modern echo of the local color that once welcomed Gauguin. Males here find nothing emasculating about slipping a flower behind their ear or wearing wild-colored sarongs. Smiles abound, and my natural, East Coast mistrust of overly friendly people quickly evaporated into the Tahitian air. Polynesians tend to be kind, rarely with strings attached. The only pushy merchants we encountered were a few recently transplanted French.

It didn't take us long to discover a basic truism: Paradise costs, big time. After you've already mortgaged the house and pawned any and all valuable family heirlooms for the airline ticket and hotel stay, you've got alluring food and goods to contend with. One of our cheapest lunches, a plate of poisson cru (lime-coated sashimi), cost $15 apiece at a tiny food stand. Throw in a bottle of Orangina or a can of Diet Coke for another $4 a pop. Taxis were so outlandishly expensive that the $80 daily rate we paid to rent a Fiat roughly the size of my big toe turned out to be a major bargain.

But let's face it. If you came to Tahiti to count pennies -- or, more accurately, hundred-dollar bills -- you probably shouldn't have come at all. We just bought what we couldn't resist, vowing to cry over our Visa bills later.

Immediately striking are Polynesia's renowned, cultured black pearls. Price tags range from $50 for a Quasimodo to well over $5,000 for a large, well-formed and glistening Belle de Jour. The pearls are farmed largely at the nearby Tuamotu Islands and Gambier Archipelago east of Tahiti and flown in for distribution abroad, and Papeete is among the best places in the world to buy them.

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