There are places in this world where you can travel and rest assured that there will be little or no rain. Perhaps you would like to ride a camel through the ancient streets of Timbuktu or dig for opals at Coober Pedy in the Outback of Australia, diversions which I've tried and are guaranteed to keep you toasty and warm and dry.
Recently I won first place in a photography contest. The grand prize was a trip for two to Tahiti, that romantic island immortalized in art by Gauguin, in music and lyrics by Rodgers and Hammerstein and in prose by practically every writer who touched its shores. My wife and I visualized ourselves romping on sun-washed beaches and swimming in crystalline waters.
Instead, our adventure in French Polynesia was dramatically and frighteningly different. The pictures I took are not the type which fill the tourist brochures.
We started our trip from Washington, eager to escape the chilling March sleet. My cameras and film had been packed with care and we were well stocked with suntan oil. Each of us carried a wide-brimmed hat as added protection from the sun -- a totally unnecessary precaution as it turned out.
We stayed overnight in Los Angeles with friends and the following night boarded our UTA flight for Papeete at 10. Eight hours later we touched down in Tahiti.
Most visitors to French Polynesia make a circuit of several islands, usually including Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. Actually our first destination was Moorea, so after landing in Tahiti and passing through customs we had a light breakfast and boarded a twin-engine aircraft. The French pilot taxied into position and we took off for Moorea. The flight was less than 10 minutes and as we approached we could see towering clouds trailing plumes of rain along the coast. Moorea, reputed to be the prototype of Bali Hai, rose majestically, its peaks shrouded in mist. A spattering of light rain traced irregular patterns across the aircraft's windshield, which we could see over the pilot's shoulder. The landing was smooth.
Noting the troubled brow of a concerned photographer, my wife smiled brightly and said, "Don't worry -- the sun will be out in a few minutes. The island is spectacular."
The rain did stop, but the sun did not appear. We loaded ourselves and our luggage onto a small bus which was to deliver us to the Bali Hai resort. After a short drive the bus pulled into a driveway leading to a tall grove of coconut palms and a cluster of thatched huts or bungalows. The main structure housed the reception desk, restaurant and bar and overlooked a terrace facing on the lagoon. Two separate groups of thatched bungalows were built over the water, at the end of long wooden walkways. It was obviously a resort built with both charm and creative imagination.
Sidestepping puddles, we were shown to our bungalow, which was located near the swimming pool, and it more than measured up to our first impression. An old-fashioned ceiling fan stirred the warm humid air in the vault of the peaked roof. The shower area was constructed next to a bed of tropical plants and a half coconut shell suspended from a leather thong served as a soap dish.
The overhand of the thatched roof offered protection from the rain; as we looked out of the screen windows the downpour commenced once again. Holding our umbrellas, which we had fortunately remembered to bring with us, we walked barefoot through the thich wet grass to the reception area and restaurant for lunch. Pleasant young Tahitian women wearing colorful flowers in their hair and graceful pareaus served the meal, but the atmosphere was heavy as the rain beat incessantly on the terrace. A blond woman wearing pink-framed sunglasses and sitting at the table next to ours confided that she and her husband were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.
"This kind of weather would have suited us just fine 25 years ago when we were on our honeymoon," she said, "but in my opinion this much rain is for ducks." Her husband pretended to be engrossed in his fruit cocktail.
After lunch a soggy group of frustrated sunbathers gathered around the bar, staring glassy-eyed at the rain splattering on the terrace. It reminded me of Somerset Maugham's classic short story "Rain," and I half expected to see Joan Crawford stagger out of the kitchen door with a half-empty bottle of rum in her hand. Alas, I was not to learn original sin from Sadie Thompson.
When the rain finally stopped we ventured out for a walk in the verdant, dripping world of Moorea. I even managed to get a few striking color pictures of tropical flowers, red hibiscus and white orchids, glistening with fine droplets of rain. On the brief walk we were able to sense the breathtaking beauty of this remote island, its craggy peaks now lost in swirling clouds of white mist. The slender trunks of coconut palms lined the coast, framing the coves and inlets with symmetrical perfection. Gulls and other seabirds hovered over the shore as they rode the restless wind, sensing things we could not know. We were almost back to Bali Hai when the rains came once again.
We sought refuge in our comfortable bungalow, watching the rain drip from the edges of the thatched overhang with monotonous regularity. The temperature was pleasant, but the pervasive humidity invaded every aspect of our lives. We came to accept the fact that our bath towels would be damp before we used them, that our bathing suits would not dry and that our roll of toilet paper would be limp. The crystal of my digital watch was obscured by condensation. Our library copy of "Mutiny on the Bounty," transported all the way from the east coast of the United States, became our salvation from tropical madness as we took turns reading chapters to each other. We dreamt of islands in the sun.
Returning to the main building, we realized that the perpetual rain was taking its toll on disappointed guests. Some grumbled, others drank in morose silence and still others played endless games of backgammon and cards. An engineer from Canada complained that he and his wife had planned and saved for this vacation for five years and it was being washed right down the drain at the rate of $200 a day.
A lady from Texas found a guitar hardly in perfect tune, and started playing old favorites for group singing. Several listless participants joined in for choruses of "Down by the Old Mill Stream" and, ironically, "Blue Skies" and "You Are My Sunshine."
My wife and I, determined to make the most of a bad situation, decided to rent a Mini-Moke Jeep (the only type of vehicle available) and explore our island of on-again, off-again rain. This Tinker-Toy-like car enjoyed the dubious protection of a canvas top, but was totally open on the sides -- allowing for cross ventilation of both wind and rain. I quickly mastered the four-on-the-floor shifting and we went chugging off in the direction of Captain Cook's Bay.
Moorea is naturally lush and green, its umbrella of foliage creating miniature rain forests, microcosms of climate. One is entranced by the carpets of delicate ferns covering the floor of the jungle, the vivid blooms of red ginger rising like fingers of fire from the mass of green.
Looking upward we were struck by the sheer walls of volcanic rock rising like the battlements of medieval castles, their tops lost in the clouds. White plums cascaded out of these walls, silver waterfalls fed by the persistent rain.
In one quiet cove we discovered an ancient shipwreck washed up on the beach. Since the rain had conveniently let up for the moment, we stopped so I could get some pictures. A graceful sailboat was anchored in the cove, its rigging festooned with colorful shorts, blouses and a bright red bikini. As I was changing a roll of film, a truck pulled to a stop and a young woman jumped out of the passenger side of the cab with two loaves of French bread and a bottle of wine, the sailboat obviously her destination.
I smiled and said, "You must certainly lead a romantic life. It would be a dream existence to live on a sailboat on the coast of Moorea." She laughed. "The dream would have a little more romance," she said with just a touch of French accent, "if only the clothes would dry." She explained that she had not seen the sun for 10 days and longed for the convience of an electric clothes dryer.
We poked and explored along the coastal road, bouncing vigorously through mud puddles and in and out of potholes. Eventually we circumnavigated the entire island and that evening returned to out base at Bali Hai in the pouring rain.
After dinner we returned to our room and "Mutiny on the Bounty," but there was a subtle difference in the cadence of the rain. It was driven against the walls of our bungalow and the thatched roof with a pelting action. When I finally drifted off to sleep, it was a fitful and filled with ominous, half-formed dreams.
The next morning we were due to leave, but the rain and increasing wind made it impossible for any aircraft to leave the island. We stood on the terrace in front of the main building and watched the towering surf pound the distant reef; white plumes of foam were carried on the powerful shoulders of the wind. A net hammock swung violently in the gust and watersurged over the wooden walkways leading to the bungalows constructed over the lagoon.
Bali Hai manager John Hogan told us for the first time that the storm had reached typhoon velocity and that the coral reef would protect us from the danger of the storm surge, but not from potential wind damage. There were a few nervous jokes as breakfast was served about lashing women and children to the tops of palm trees, but no one really laughed. The rain came again with renewed fury, dashing against the plate glass windows, and the waitresses gathered in a tight group as they watched the storm with increasing apprehension.
We stayed in the main building all morning, watching the fury of the wind and rain with faschination. Just before lunch Hogan had the staff mix up a large bowl of rum punch and free drinks were on the house. What intrigued me was that everything continued and seemed to function. There was no power failure. Meals were served on time and the food was excellent and beautifully prepared. This was an unexpected pleasure in view of the circumstances.
I'll probably never forget that afternoon's luncheon. We were seated near the plate glass windows which shook in violent protest to the wind. Sea water was driven over the terrace and under the frames of the glass doors, swirling and sloshing around our feet. We emptied the decanter of rose wine and speculated on our fate.
The rain stopped abruptly, but the horizon was a ominous slate gray. The wind continued unabated, shipping the palm fronds into a frenzied macabre dance.
"I've got to get some pictures," I said with unexpected decisiveness. I'll proably never see anything like this again." Pulling my motorized camera out of the canvas bag next to me, I stepped out of the restaurant and into the storm.
"For God's sake," protested my wife, "you'll get zapped by a coconut!" Her warning was nor farfetched because those formidable missiles were bouncing off the thatched roofs, the lawn and the beach. In spite of the danger, the light was rather nice for photography and I shot film with abandon for the first time since my arrival. Debris littered the grounds of Bali Hai; palm fronds were scattered over the garss like broken umbrellas. A large papaya tree was uprooted and tossed aside like a discarded toy. Slowly the wind died and a strange calm settled over the lagoon. A sliver of sunlight cut through the clouds and illuminated the scene in a golden haze. Then the arch of a perfect rainbow formed in the sky, seeming to touch down on the distant reef.
By the next morning the airstrip was open once again and we were packed, ready to depart. As the driver loaded out luggage into the van. I felt a pang of regret. This was our island paradise. We had seen it in an angry, turbulent mood, but we knew the tropical sun was dawning over a peaceful Pacific. There would be an abundance of marine life in the turquoise lagoon. We would miss the moonlight walks along the beach. We would be someplace else, thousands of miles away -- but in out hearts we knew we would come back to find the Bali Hai of our dreams.