It Reef

Chasing hearsay and chewing betel nut in Oceania.

Light / Dark

A successful and principled clothing mogul told me about the wave. We were yakking about travel, wolfing sashimi, and drinking beer on a yacht in French Polynesia. Throughout his life, he’d glimpsed much Pacific esoterica while surfing, sailing, and bonefishing, but he remained mystified by the island of topic.

“It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to see,” he confessed. “Untouched nature. Lots of reef passes. No surfers. Good surf. I’ve heard all you need is a local fisherman to take you out.”

“Why haven’t you been there?”

“Probably because there aren’t any bonefish.”

Chuck Corbett of Tabuaeran, where the mogul once sailed, later confirmed the claim to me through email. A longtime merchantman and an expatriate American on his own atoll of idyll, Corbett has seen and surfed more Pacific obscurity than anyone.

“Would you like an insider’s tip?” he wrote. “Buy a small truck for around a grand or less, then buy a 10-foot aluminum boat with a 15-horsepower outboard. Ship it from San Francisco. You will find epic, world-class surf—up to giant sizes, too. When you’re finished, you can sell the car and boat. Nobody knows the island sits with Tahiti in wave quality because the surf is a minimum of a few miles out, on a barrier reef.”

I was on island at 3 a.m. after four flights. The terminal was a dim concrete room with flaky paint and a foul restroom, where a small sign was glued above the sink: Please keep our airport environment clean and fit to work in, especially our restrooms.

At the curb was an old brown sedan with an orange taxi light on its roof. Its driver was asleep, as was a very pregnant woman in the back seat. Both of their jaws bulged with betel nut, a natural sedative enjoyed with great vigor on the equator.

I tapped on the driver’s window, startling him.

“Taxi?” I said and grinned, showing him some cash. He was red-eyed but coherent. I lowered the passenger seat for my surfboards, then squeezed into the back with the woman. She turned her head slowly and looked at me.

“I am Gina.”

She was wearing a pretty purple floral dress and an elaborate shell necklace. Her head was a mass of short, kinky black hair, her teeth kernels of red.

“You want chew?”

“I’d love some.”

The driver stared blankly through the windshield.

“Sir, where you going?”

“Palm Hotel.”

He started the car.

About a mile on, he pulled over in front of a small store festooned with cheery but faded beer posters and advertisements for the latest shipment from Hawaii: New York Steak just in! and Now Fresh California Iceberg Lettuce! I, too, was a US import, but was not feeling particularly fresh, or even cheery, and I asked why we were stopped there. The driver eyed me in his rearview mirror, his face sweaty and fretful, like he was about to faint.

“Sir, I stop here.”

“Do you need to buy something? The shop looks closed.”

“No. But I not drive you to hotel.” He put a finger on his cheek. “Very tired. I call you new taxi.”

We sat in the car and waited. I was too tired to care. The road was dark. Nothing moved. The air was thick and muggy. I was grimy. Gina snored softly, both hands on her belly. The driver lowered his head, tilted the seat back, and dozed off. Rain began to fall. I closed my eyes, listened to the jungle crickets, and thought, Two days ago I was in a parka and driving 80 mph on a Los Angeles freeway.

Then came bizarre color visions of a rodeo I’d never seen, cowboys I’d never met, cowgirls in tight jeans, bull riding, steer wrestling, sunglasses, tobacco, bourbon, paper plates and fatty meat, pickup trucks, aluminum folding chairs, green hills, bright lights, dirty fingers clutching pink ticket stubs. 

I was dreaming. The visions were so lucid, I shot upright and yelped when the driver slapped my left knee.

“Sir, you taxi here!”

An hour had passed. Dazed, I loaded my boards into the other car. 

At last, I was deposited in the rainy darkness outside my hotel in the middle of the forest. The air wafted the scents of plumeria and moss, rain, and ripe fruit. The silence was deep. A clerk led me along a ferny path to my room, actually an old wooden bungalow full of insects and geckos, where I showered and slept till noon the next day, when an errant rooster and croaking toads awakened me. Riffling somewhere within range was the mogul’s “it.”

[Feature image: photo by Michael H. Kew]