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Raiatea

Mo’orea–>Raiatea and Taha’a.

Which was a great time, but before we get there I want to relay the essential differences between airport regulations in the US versus those in the South Pacific, and here they are: Locals go barefoot in the airport, and feral cats mosey freely in and out of the open doors and beg for a piece of your lagoon fish sandwich. I’m trying to imagine what Newark Airport would look like with the travelers free-footing it all hakuna matata, at customs and everywhere else in the building, while expertly swerving their Samsonite Tri-Core spinners to avoid hitting some 25 well-fed, roaming tortoiseshells.*

To put an even finer point on the no-shoe thing, the guy who picked us up from the airport and took us to Sunset Beach Motel sported a sun-bleached ponytail, equally sun-bleached tank and board shorts and chic French accent, but he wore no shoes the entire time we stayed. That includes driving and walking us into the local grocery store. I think it’s safe to assume that right now, this exact minute, he’s barefoot. On these islands you’re in flip flops, worn until the soles are translucent, or you’re barefoot. It’s awesome.

The above is offered to give you an idea of just how remote Raiatea is, and let me know if it did the job. Next to Mo’orea—which is pretty far-flung, I’ll grant; the locals cook their dinner in the ground as often as in the oven—Raiatea feels like the tropical outback. Yes, there’s a bit of civilization, but I felt more isolated on this island than anywhere I’ve ever been. It was a usually exhilarating, oftentimes uneasy feeling of being quite literally Nowhere. I love the feeling of being detached from what I know well; I love seeing vegetation and landscapes unlike anything I’ve seen before. Here I felt pushed to the teetering edge, to the razor-thin sliver, of that feeling. Which is good for a girl now and again.

Back to the food in the grocery store, because you knew I wasn’t going to let that slide. I love food shopping in foreign places. Here (as well as in Scotland and on the Caribbean islands I’ve visited) eggs are left out on the counter. Produce is exotic and spiny. And the vanilla yogurt wasn’t like any vanilla yogurt I have tasted, and believe you me, I live on Stonyfield. The stuff doesn’t even taste like vanilla, to tell you the truth. It’s not mellow and sweet; it’s tangy, sharp and floral. We ate cups of this every morning for breakfast and liked it more every day.

That was our cottage below; our living room strewn with freshly picked hibiscus (the bedroom and bathroom were, too); and the view of the ocean from our porch.

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Sunset Beach Motel, Raiatea

The dock was ours alone to use. The tiny island of Taha’a was visible on the horizon, as was Bora Bora. Snorkelling was terrific off the dock. Floating with fins and a mask, arms at my side, it was very easy to feel like one of the fish—a dreamy and exquisitely peaceful feeling. At night we lay on our backs and looked up at the stars. In so very remote a place, with so little electricity being used, they looked like rock salt thrown across black velvet.

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Twice we had dinner at The Sea Horse restaurant in town. When we first made the reservation, the guy on the phone said he’d come pick us up and bring us back. A little weird, but the lady at the front desk said that was a courtesy the restaurant typically gives, and not to worry about it.**

So we’re in the car with this guy and he casually tells us he’s not just the driver but the owner of the restaurant. We were speechless—can you imagine Eric Ripert chauffeuring you back and forth to dinner? It was normal here. We got there without incident, and dinner was great. Michael’s fried rice with salty dried fish was especially incredible. I’m hitting up my Asian friends to help me find that fish here so I can replicate it. Dessert was profiteroles—puffs filled with local vanilla ice cream in a very, very thick chocolate sauce and served in a banana split bowl. Num.***

Raiatea is called ‘the sacred island’ because it features so many maraes (ma-REYES), ancient areas of worship marked with stones, much like Stonehenge and similar edifices throughout the UK. They’re humble and at the same time magnificent. In the US, if former President McKinley once hiccuped near a building, we put up a sign commemorating that heartfelt event. But something nice about this area of the world: You more or less happen upon places. Or you ask a local and they’ll point in a direction. And there are very few signs saying what’s what. Stuff is what it is, and that sort of lends dignity.

Here are two maraes on the water.

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Marae, Raiatea

One day we visited a family-run black pearl operation called Tahi. A sweet, energetic Polynesian girl, married to a Frenchman, was our guide. With a heavy French accent, she asked us if we could come back at 1 o’clock. We did, and I rolled down the window to call out to her, ‘Tu es pret (are you ready)?’ We had just met her and I should have used the more formal ‘vous,’ but I didn’t. And even though it’s five years later, even though I’m on the other side of this big blue ball and will likely never meet her again, I am still kicking myself for speaking to her in the informal.****

The girl took us along with three grinning young Frenchmen by speedboat out to the black pearl ‘farm’, the small, enclosed wooden hut on stilts a half mile or so out into the Pacific. There she and her family do the delicate, labor-intensive work of cultivating black pearls.

A pearl nuclei (they get them from Mississippi) will be placed into each of the oysters below, which are about the size of a bagel and quite flat and scaly. Then they’ll be put back into the water for something like three years.

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Here is a pearl, still rough, being extracted from its host oyster.

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And now polished.

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The shade a pearl becomes depends on the unique colors of its host. Below is an example of the variety of colors available, along with a white pearl nuclei, held by one of the grinning young Frenchmen. He spoke a little English and I spoke a little French. It was cool.

Black pearls, Raiatea

One night for dinner we went to a local pizza restaurant called Le Napoli. The wood burning stove was smoky and the place was enclosed, but it was loud and fun, and the Quatre Saisons, Four Seasons, pizza was yummy. It was divided into quarters and each had a different topping. Une famille with two cute little kids sat at the counter, and the cook gave them each a little piece of dough and plastic rollers, and they goofed with them and had a good time. For dessert we shared a scoop of local vanilla ice cream—we ate vanilla shamelessly and in every conceivable guise throughout this trip—and a scoop of taro, brownish/purplish, musky sweet.

We took another trip into town to get a highly recommended coconut milk at a highly recommended place, but the store hours we were given were wrong, plus the place didn’t sell it anyway, so curse you, Frommer’s Guide. Returned our car to the Avis dealership, where the proprietor’s daughter was sitting on the sofa with her bottle watching Dora the Explorer in French, which still sort of freaks me a little.

It was time to pack up and leave Raiatea. We’d board the next puddle jumper to Bora Bora right after a day trip to Taha’a, one of the ‘vanilla islands.’

I’d read that there were places in the South Seas in which the very air smelled like vanilla. So entranced were we with this notion that we had to find out. And okay, Taha’a was not one of those places, but despite its very small population and drizzly weather, that island was such an adventure that it didn’t matter what it smelled like.

We met the tour group on a dock; the director, Edwin, was a cross between Don Juan and Buddy Hackett, if both of them spoke French. He assured us that once we got to Taha’a his son would take over in English for those of us who hadn’t spoken a word of French since college. (Cough.) In the meantime, I translated what he said to Michael, which was not missed by Edwin, who got quite the bang out of it.

Once we arrived on the island we got into 4x4s and headed to a vanilla plantation, where we toured the fields…

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…learned that vanilla, an orchid varietal, must be hand pollinated and sun dried…

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…and saw vanilla pods in various stages of curing. Below are unripe pods in a muslin sack with ripened pods. The smell of vanilla inside the little building was almost intoxicating, and we wouldn’t have minded getting drunk on it. Tahitian vanilla is quite different from Madagascar’s, which may be more prevalent in the US, and which might explain why the vanilla yogurt I was eating in French Polynesia was a completely different animal from what I’d eaten at home all of my life. Not to knock Madagascar vanilla, but they’re slimmer and have less going on. Tahitian pods are large, moist, soft, plump as raisins, and intensely aromatic. (When I got home and started eating garden-variety US vanilla yogurt again, it tasted kind of lackluster, vanilla-wise. I had gotten used to being clobbered with that Tahitian flavor.)

Tahitian vanilla beans, Taha'a

Next was the trek to lunch through the interior of the island. Driving along the bumps in the road (and please apply that term in the loosest possible way—imagine strapping old car batteries, Progresso soup cans, and empty 1-gallon plastic bottles of Tide to your car tires, and now drive) took about an hour. But it was a veritable jungle, Rudyard Kipling on his best day, with dense palms, fruit bearing trees, and tiny, vibrantly colored wild orchids wound around tree trunks. Again, it was breathtaking to be in an entirely new environment, even if it required shaking loose a few molar fillings to enjoy it.

Edwin pulled over to a little clearing and with a long knife stripped a branch from a wild hibiscus tree, cut off and reinserted a portion of it, notched it and had made a flute. His son jumped out another time and said, ‘I’m just going to get an anaconda,’ which we (okay, I) half believed; he came back holding an oddly shaped fruit. He split it in half and held it out to me, saying how sweet it smelled. Then he almost wet his board shorts laughing at me when I bought it, because it smelled like bleu cheese that had been left overnight in the trunk of a Plymouth. Now I see noni fruit everywhere in the US, at exorbitant prices. Marketers tout it as a cure-all, and so did he, deadpanning, ‘I’m actually 89 years old, not 30.’

Edwin stopped now and then to cut down ripe papayas and other fruits with his groovy knife (see him and groovy knife below with a coconut). Lunch was at his house, and his wife prepared it all: poisson cru (very popular Tahitian dish; it’s like tuna ceviche, made with coconut milk and lime juice), mahi mahi with a vanilla cream sauce (I loved how locals used vanilla in savory dishes as well as sweet ones), coconut bread, sashimi, fish balls and rice. The fruit Edwin had collected was our dessert. Papaya, pineapple, banana and guava, chopped up into fruit salad and all so meltingly ripe that it was half fruit and half juice. Never saw the inside of a refrigerator, either; and without the distraction of being cold we could taste the nuances of every sweet, floral, succulent, crazy-beyond-organic fruit. He joked that it was Del Monte. They wish.

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French Polynesia, and especially Raiatea, has one more charm, and that’s its gecko population. These little dudes are everywhere, including in your hotel room, including including in your bathroom, making me think twice about leaving the light off to sit on the toilet in the middle of the night (and once there WAS one on the toilet seat, and I shooed him away because he was way too tiny and cute to die in such a horrifying way). Geckos can be anywhere from an inch to maybe a foot long. When they crawl they sashay their little hips from side to side. We kept our carry-ons tightly zippered the whole time we were on Raiatea just in case any had delusions of adventure.

Gecko, Raiatea

There it is, on the horizon: Next stop, last stop…

Bora Bora.

Bora Bora, from Raiatea

*Kind of sounds like a gas. Not that our overburdened health system could handle it.

**It’s amazing how much trust we gave the people on this trip. I’m not kidding. First the sharks and then this. We’d seen the Indiana Jones trilogy countless times, plus are from the NY metropolitan tri-state area, and freely admit, ‘AAAAAH he says he’s from the restaurant but it’s really his shifty brother-in-law and he’s going to spear us or whatever they kill you with out here and leave us to be eaten by pythons and feral cats’ was the first thing that went through our minds. But if you think about it, what do we know about stateside taxi drivers, or car service guys? We jump in their cars without thinking. We trust them. Why, in God’s name? Do you ever wonder?

(To my newest readers, this is exactly the brand of lunacy I find myself paddling around in from time to time. Friendly heads up. Welcome to me.)

***The island kept surprising me. When we rented a car (a citron-colored Citroen, in the land of citron, no less!), the woman who dropped it off to us was brought back to the Avis office in a Rolls-Royce.

****Another fine example to illustrate the parenthetical statement, above.

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January’s been typecast as cold, gloomy and bleak as a dungeon. Well, it earns every adjective. Time for an imagination vacation.

In 2008, after several years of being almost totally debilitated from stress, images of Bora Bora kept popping into my head. To put an even finer point on it, I was dreaming of the color I imagined the water to be—turquoise blue, impossibly beautiful. This color became a nearly all-encompassing obsession; I didn’t just need to see it, I needed to rub it into my skin like lotion, I needed to let its essence sink into and saturate my very bones. Lucky for me, at the time I was married to Michael, a guy who was game for anything. We figured we were exhausted already—me from being sick and him from taking care of me—and in need a change of scenery, so why not travel halfway across the world?

We packed two small rolling suitcases, a backpack full of food for the trip out, and a camera. Then we walked to the train station a couple of blocks away in our little beach town and ended up in an archipelago in the South Seas. Six and change hours from Newark Airport to LAX, then nearly 8.5 hours to Papeete, in Tahiti. From there, we would puddle jump to Mo’orea, then to Raiatea and Taha’a, then end on Bora Bora. We decided to see the other islands when we learned they offered black pearl farms, vanilla plantations, jungles and astonishing beauty. If we were going to take the trip, we wanted to see it all. Two weeks, five islands, and nearly 48 hours of that time crossing a continent and the huge bucket of water called the Pacific.

Why would anyone do this, especially in the shape I was in at the time? I can’t explain it better than this: I was desperately hungry for that blue. I still don’t really know why. I knew the whole idea sounded crazy. (Our arrival at the airport in Papeete did a lot to confirm this: We were greeted at 5a by two mildly hysterical guys playing tiny guitars.) But we did it anyway.

Very happy to report that I did find my blue; and as is so often the case, I found a lot more on the way. You know me well enough to know where I’m going with this, right? (Vague hint: Boy howdy, did I eat well.)

First…Mo’orea.

View of Moorea from plane

View from the window of the six-seat plane, a ten-minute flight from Tahiti.

The thing about culture shock is sometimes it’s a good thing. Both Tahitian men and women go about their daily lives with a little flower like the one below tucked behind one ear. No one thinks of it as a female thing. No one questions the men’s sexual orientation. It occurred to me on the first day in French Polynesia that any meaning people assign to flowers, or colors, or clothes, or anything else is subjective and arbitrary. And it also occurred to me that when offered the chance to cast off the assignations we happen to have been taught, it’s quite liberating.

Tahitian gardenia, Raiatea

Tahitian gardenia–delicate, fragrant, and tasty, too. Stay tuned.

The natives there move slowly, laugh heartily, and don’t seem to worry about anything. They also have a charming way of speaking. They don’t just say ‘Iaorana’ (ya-RAH-na, with a little roll on that r) as a hello or ‘Mauruuru’ (ma-RU-ru, same little r roll) as a thank-you. They singsong it: ‘Iao-RA-naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…mau-RU-ruuuuuuuuuuuuuu.’  It takes a long time for them to finish talking but it’s a lot of fun to listen to. And it forces you to slow down.

We stayed at Club Bali Ha’i, near Cook’s Bay. Our bungalow had the coolest 2×2 foot window in the floor so you could see fish swimming underneath. It even had a light so you could watch at night! But the camera didn’t get the full effect. Bummer.

No TV, or clock, or phone in the rooms. If you needed something from the desk, you walked there. But you had to do it before something like 10 at night because Georgina at the front desk went home.

This was the view from our deck, late one afternoon.

Late afternoon, Moorea

The little hotel restaurant, the Blue Pineapple, served fruit platters made with local bananas, pineapple, papaya and watermelon along with wonderful grilled tuna (what they call ‘lagoon fish’). But one evening we took a half mile walk along the road that encircles the island and found a little roadside place that served pizza so good that we went back every day. Yeah, I know, the idea of any pizza, let alone good pizza, in French Polynesia is a nutty idea. And let me further impress upon you that it was a shack, just a counter—no bigger than the french fry deals on the NJ boardwalk. But what a shack.

The place was called Allo Pizza, the French-speaking kid who worked there was maybe 19, they had no real refrigeration and by all rights we should have died from ingesting some evil microscopic, Pacific Island, singsonging, flower-wearing organism, but their pizza was so incredible that it nearly made me weep. I should have taken a picture—forgive me—but I’ll tell you my favorite was Le Marseillaise, topped with fresh tuna, chopped capers, tomato sauce, garlic, herbes de Provence, Parmesan and anchovy.

Incidentally, when I say fresh tuna, I don’t just mean it was local. I mean the Allo Pizza shack was across the narrow street from the beach, where fishermen would hang their catch from a makeshift rack and wait. Over the course of the day, people would drive by, choose one of their enormous fish, pay and drive off. The Allo kid did this too. The distance was about the same as you going out your front door and down the driveway. Fresh tuna. Fresh fresh.

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Waiting for a buyer.

One night we tried Allo’s homemade chocolate mousse. Who would eat chocolate mousse served on a dusty road from a pizza shack on a sandy dot in the middle of the Pacific? Us. They don’t call it French Polynesia for nothing. It was perfect.

Cats have a rep for sleeping most of the day no matter where they live. But on these islands they go for the gold. The kitty below, who hung around our deck, is not dead. He is doing what he was born to do: beg for leftover bits of anchovy from my pizza, and summarily pass out for the rest of the day.

Cat, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One of the selling points of Mo’orea was their swimming-with-sharks expeditions. (This is a part of the crazy that I didn’t tell you earlier. We read that you go out for the day on a small boat and jump out–as into the water—to see reef sharks and other fish. The sharks have no history of attacking anyone. Of course no one ever asked a shark to sign an affadavit swearing he had never attacked anyone, but we took the people offering the trip at their word and signed up. The organizers have such confidence that no one will die at the viselike jaws of a shark that they don’t even call it a swimming-with-sharks expedition. They call it a ‘motu picnic’, a motu being an uninhabited island, and one on which we’d eat when we were through.)

The itinerary read, ‘it includes visit of our 2 bays, fish, shark & ray feeding, snorkelling, barbecue on one of our nicest islet of Moorea…rice & pasta salad, fish, chicken, fruits, bread, rhum maitai, beer, juice, water and a coconut show with a lot of time for snorkelling and relaxing!’ So apparently no one dies. Look at all the food you get when you’re done hyperventilating!

Actually, for some reason I was not worried at all. I was stoked, beyond excited. Saw the first dorsal fin and yelled ‘shark!’, cueing Bruno, grinning host, to open his cooler full of lagoon fish and start hacking off pieces to throw to the hungries. He threw it at a distance, while we were to jump, snorkels and cameras at the ready, maybe 10 feet away.

They suggest jumping in as soon as possible ‘before you lose your nerve,’ they said (or if you didn’t leave logic back at the hotel). Michael ducked underwater, came back up and I asked him what it was like. He said, ‘Absolutely f***ing amazing!’

It was.

Reef sharks, Moorea

Zillions of kinds of colored fish, maybe a dozen sharks—it was like being inside an aquarium. I was never afraid. Don’t know why. Sometimes a shark would swim my way, face first, and come within maybe five feet of me. Then it was a little unnerving, but that’s all. They always turned around to eat the cut-up fish.

By the way, that set of legs and fins in the photo belongs to a kid who actually swam among the frenzy, shooting the video which you could buy later. Mhm.

Next we sailed to a shallower area and jumped out to wait for the rays. Before we left we were assured that the type we’d meet were not the type that killed naturalist Steve Irwin, that these did not have stingers. (Similarly, it’s not as if they had a list of rays that had registered to stop by, but we believed them. And they were right.)

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He looks menacing, but they were very friendly—too friendly sometimes, like a yellow lab that’s just rolled in something gross and can’t wait to tell you all about it. You fed them bits of fish from your fist, but you had to be sure to tuck your thumb inside your fist or they’d try to slurp up your thumb. Enormous, some of them, several feet across.

Here I am in ray water, only about four feet deep, and clear as glass. In the travel journal I wrote, ‘It was a huge feeling of blueness.’

I found it.

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This is the view right over my head of the sky and a Pacific tern enjoying his day….

Pacific tern, Moorea

…and the view from the beautiful motu where we had our picnic.

Motu, Moorea

Here are the guys who were asked to try to crack open a coconut Polynesian style. Not too successful, but they had a good time. (Eventually Bruno got the coconuts open, shredded some of it, tossed it in the air and yelled, ‘Tahitian snow!’)

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Bali Ha’i, shot from the boat on the way back…the real deal.

Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One day we drove the circumference of the island, marvelling at the spectacular mountain peaks, turquoise and cobalt striped water, and palm trees grouped as densely as forests…

Coconut palms, Moorea

…and eating. Les Antipodes (Restaurant Creperie) served savory and sweet crepes. ‘La Chicken’ was outstanding, chicken in a white wine/bechamel sauce, as was a crepe with hot pineapple and caramel. Polynesian + French influences coming together, and it was inspired.

Carameline’s, a little bakery you’d miss if you sneezed, served banana and pineapple pastries with a buttery, buttery, tender crumb.

We passed a lot of the enlongated mailbox-looking units below and asked a passerby what they were. Can you imagine?….They’re baguette boxes. Baguette eating is such a way of life on these islands now, a ritual picked up from the French newcomers, that many have it delivered daily the way we have mail, and the way we used to have milk, delivered.

Baguette box, Haapiti, Moorea

One afternoon we hiked in the jungle at the center of Mo’orea and saw moss-covered rocks, marae (places of ancient worship), sinewy tree trunks…and chickens. I’ve noticed wild chickens love the tropics. We trekked deeper and deeper into the heart of the jungle before turning around. Here I got nervous. This wasn’t a Monmouth County, NJ park near a major highway; it was about as remote a place as you can possibly get. And the deeper you went, the darker it got. Before we left I took this shot of a leaf in a shaft of sunlight.

Leaf in sunlight, Marae site, Moorea

On our way back, we stopped at the Lycée Agricole (Farming School) where the students there make the most delicious things from what they grow, using nothing artificial. Went delirious over their homemade pineapple/soursop (cherimoya) juice and very kicky citron sorbet. Another day we went back and had (below) three scoops of the most exquisite ice cream I have ever tasted: vanilla, gardenia (yes) and banana…all from local fruits and flowers.

I’ll talk more about vanilla when I post about Raiatea and Taha’a, but in my journal I called the banana (there it is on top) ‘an avalanche of banana!’ And the gardenia is hard to describe—lovely, floral (of course), and very strange, but in a good way. What can I say. Gardenia ice cream.

Ice cream, Lycee Agricole, Moorea

Back at Club Bali Ha’i they kept us entertained. At 5:30 almost every night one of the owners, Jay, a thin, wiry, extremely friendly guy, came out for the very casual Happy Hour. Originally from from Long Island, he and his partner Muk Mc Cullum—‘The Bali Ha’i Boys’—came here in the 1950s with plans to become vanilla plantation owners. They became hoteliers instead, inventing the over-the-water bungalows and having a really, really good time. He drank two little bottles of tequila and told us about the early days, when he and Muk spent much of their time here ‘H & H’ (hammered and happy). At 77, I asked if he had any regrets. He said, ‘Regrets? Yeah, I have a few. I regret that I didn’t come out here a decade sooner.’

On Monday nights, if no one shows up to the crab races in the lobby by 6, one of the employees walks around the grounds with an empty crab bucket and bangs on it and yells, ‘Crab race-eeeees! Crab race-eeeees!’

Crab races, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

It’s raucous and silly but really fun, even though we lost every race—300 francs, about $4. The crab bucket guy goes and finds crabs for the races, which is easy because on Mo’orea they are everywhere, the way squirrels are for us—on the beach, yes, but on the grass, along the sides of the roads, everywhere. He writes numbers on their backs in chalk and people place their bets. If we spent too much time hemming and hawing, he’d call out ‘hava-TEEEEEE! hava-TEEEEEE!’ (‘hurry up!’).

I learned the way to pick up a crab and not get pinched: You put your fingers on their backs between their pincers and their back claws. They can’t turn their pincers around, so you’re set. (Full disclosure: the guy asked me to pick one up but I refused. What a chicken. I’ll swim with sharks but I won’t bloody pick up a crab? That’s it. I’m going back to do it. 🙂 )

I saw these hibiscus on a windy evening, and had to chase them to shoot them. They were really beautiful.

Fallen hibiscus, Moorea

Puddle jumper to Raiatea and Taha’a next week.

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