Breakfast on our first morning at sea was at six, since all us passengers were leaving the ship at 7:30 for a quick two-hour trip to the atoll of Fakarava. This was our first stop on our two-week trip around the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. We’d left Tahiti yesterday for our freighter’s journey to supply remote islands with household goods and food.
I'd read about atolls in the book, Sex Lives of Cannibals, but I didn't really understand what one was until I was looking at the Lonely Planet map of Fakarava. It's the top of a doughnut-shaped bit of land with water in the middle-hole. Only the doughnut is really, really skinny in comparison to the hole, which is really the inside of an extinct, underwater volcano full of seawater instead of lava. Now imagine people living on the rim, as if it were an island with a doughnut hole in the middle of it. The people are sprinkles. And not all of the doughnut is visible – some of it is below the water, and that section is called a pass.
We crossed over into the doughnut hole across one of these passes, and then our ship, the Aranui 3, was inside the water-filled doughnut. You can call it a lagoon if you prefer that – or if you don't like doughnuts, or if you're dieting.
The harbour wasn’t deep enough for us to pull up to shore at Fakarava, so the Aranui 3 anchored in the lagoon and off-loaded passenger barges. These were lifted off the ship by cranes and splashed gently into the water. Pilots who were sitting on the barges then started up their motors and took them, one at a time, to the bottom of the stairs on the side of the ship.
I headed down to reception and clocked out with a little magnetic fob, left my dorm key, and lined up to disembark.
When my turn arrived, I walked down the stairs over wide-open turquoise water – it wasn't scary though I did wonder what would happen if I slipped and lost a sandal – and stepped into one of the flat metal barges. When this filled up with about 35 people, we roared off to the dock of the main town of Fakarava, and a second barge pulled around to take on the next batch of passengers.
Fakarava only has 701 inhabitants, and 690 of them were asleep at 7:30 on a Saturday morning. But a few handicraft sellers had lined up to meet us. I walked around them to the post office. That's where you get wifi on Fakarava when you come in off the Aranui. But you need to already have a prepaid code or card for the ManaSpot hotspot, since the post office is closed on weekends. No problem, I thought. I'd loaded up on wifi time before leaving Tahiti.
I wasn't really desperate for internet access, having just left Papeete 21 hours ago, plus I’d had SMS ability for the last hour and still would until 2:30 in the afternoon, long after our 10am departure from Fakarava. But nevertheless, I signed on and sent the mail I’d typed out yesterday during the long hours at sea, then draped my scarf over my head and shoulders for a shore-side walk in the sun.
Fakarava has a single paved road that runs along the lagoon-side of the island from the airport past the town. I walked down the shore, where other passengers were snorkelling in the astonishingly clear lagoon. I regretted not bringing snorkel gear. Time on-shore was so short, I’d thought it would be pointless. I regretted this decision a little now.
Shore time ended all too quickly, though. I needed to head back, I realised shortly after I'd gone for a walk under the coconut trees, past the snorkellers, along the paved road.
I realised I’d gone too far and was pushing it as the final barge back to the ship was due to leave at 10. But then, I thought, it’s not like they’ll leave me here, abandoned on this lovely atoll, one month from the end of my trip around the world.
ARRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! The sound of the Aranui's horn blasted through the harbour.
Oops. That was obviously last call.
I scuttled back to the barge.
Back to the ship. Back to a day-and-a-half on the open ocean until our first landfall in the distant Marquesas.
The next morning, I awoke in my top bunk in the ten-person dorm and stared at the ceiling for a while.
'What the hell am I doing?' I thought. 15 days in a dorm, stuck in a shallow top bunk with no privacy retreat on the whole ship! I live alone back in New York. What made me think I could do this? I didn't even want to go to breakfast. There would be (gasp) other people at breakfast, all crowding around the buffet table for dibs on salami, weak coffee and cheese.
I stayed there as long as I could, but eventually, my body rebelled against lying prone in the top bunk – I'd taken my Kindle to bed early last night, coincidentally reading the first of Jack London's South Sea Tales the night we'd gone to Fakarava, setting for his hurricane and pearl story, and there's only so much time you can lie down in a confined space. I scrunched my way to the bottom of the bed where the ladder lived.
I peeked out of the curtain, waiting for a moment when I wouldn't stick my foot in someone's face in the aisle.
There, I thought. Now's my chance.
I stuck one foot on the ladder. My other foot was curled up underneath me and wasn't going to be able to swing around to get on the ladder. I couldn't lift my body to move my head due to being hindered by something immoveable above me. I pushed it – oh, the ceiling. I needed a new plan.
Pulling my foot back in, I tried again, this time realising I could leverage my weight against my locker across the narrow passage to lift my body out of the bunk and onto the ladder.
At least I'd stayed in bed long enough that the other dorm inhabitants had already gotten up and left. I showered, changed clothes quickly while others were out, left my laundry bag on the bed for collection for free laundry day ("We don't do socks or underwear") and headed late to breakfast.
Almost all the food was gone, but we still had yogurt, muesli, fruit, and bowls. I had this with a few schooners of the watery coffee and headed down below-deck to Polynesian drumming school.
Four tourists were banging on drums in the video room. Six more watched. The drummers made a loud, pounding racket, smiling with delight as everyone thumped the drums, in this, the first of several sea-day social activities on offer.
Now I was in a much better mood. Happy drummers had the side effect of making the day that stretched out ahead of me more appealing.
At 9:30, the instructor, Manarii, announced it was time to go upstairs and make hats. We passengers dutifully followed him up to poolside, though no one was quite sure what he had in mind.
Hats made of leaves was what he had in mind. He showed the group how to weave reeds into matted hats. People who just happened by also stopped in, curious about weaving a hat out of reeds.
"Marie, did you see how he did that?" One of the women who had been staying at Fare-Suisse in Tahiti was struggling with her hat.
"Over under over," I said. This was like a kid's project, like making a hot pad on a toy loom in fourth grade.
Then it was time for our first lecture on the history of the Marquesas. The woman who had struggled brought along her hat, dismantled it and started over, ending up with a perfectly acceptable plant-hat.
After lunch, we had a bridge tour followed by a lecture on tomorrow's activities. I wanted to nap after, but the thought of climbing back into my top berth kept me active.
But I was in a better mood now. The Aranui crew had done a great job of filling up our first sea day. I was still apprehensive, but today had worked out well and I hadn't lost it over the dorm yet.
This morning, I'd woken up knowing I didn't want to sit in a dorm on a ship for two weeks. But today, after the staff activities, I thought that maybe I could pull this off.
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