About 20 years ago, my wife Carolyn and I were lazily cruising the Tuamotus in French Polynesia when we were accosted by a large group of Polynesian canoes. At the time we had little idea where we were and became totally confused when the young men in the canoes kept telling us that ‘our’ party was tonight on Kauehi and that the chief had already ordered a pig to be slaughtered.
Thus began the most magical month of our lives.
Here’s what had happened: Half a year previously, a French boat had entered Kauehi and its skipper had gone ashore to buy bread—not realizing the island was without a store. A small child of four years watched the dinghy arrive, climbed into it after the Frenchman left, pulled the cord like his daddy always did—and was horrified to have the warm engine start. The kid ran away, fearful of being punished. When the French yachtie returned, the impeller of his engine had been ruined by sucking up beach sand. He was not happy—and left immediately.
The chief heard of this unfortunate incident, rushed down, but only arrived in time to see the Frenchman’s sail growing smaller on the horizon.
The kid was punished appropriately—he was just a little tyke.
Now, every six months in the Tuamotus, there is a council of chiefs on one of the islands, and Paul, the chief of Kauehi, explained to his fellow chiefs what had happened.
“This is bad,” said the Chief of the Chiefs, “it makes us appear as if we don’t treat our yachtie visitors well. You and your island will have to make it up to the White People’s Tribe.”
“How?” asked Chief Paul.
“A lavish party in their honor, perhaps,” said the Chief of Chiefs, “where you shower the yachties with food, gifts, and pearls—and, of course, love.”
Carolyn and I knew none of this—and were thus totally flabbergasted to be welcomed into the bosom of this small Polynesian community like arriving royalty. The scene was totally over-the-top—not only did they cook us up a huge feast—they also gave us a bowl of huge pearls for just sitting down. And wove us hats. And gave us pareos. Sure, there was plenty of coconut beer. Want more pork? Mahi mahi? Tuna? Breadfruit. Mango?
The fete in our honor lasted for three solid days—and they not only made us ‘official members of the village’ but also allowed us to pick any fruit on the island and take any fish in the (palm woven) communal fish coral as well—both high honors.
At the time, Kauehi had a number of growing pearl farms and everyone was awash with money.
The only strange thing (all these details took us six weeks to fully figure out) was how many of the older residents kept apologizing about the outboard—we had not a clue why.
Eventually, of course, we had to leave to meet our daughter Roma Orion in Tahiti. When Chief Paul heard that we were preparing to depart—he came out to our vessel in a canoe crying—and attempted to talk us out of it. “Don’t be crazy, Fatty, everything you need in life is right here for the asking! Outside, life is hard. Here on Kauehi, life is a dream! We’re your family now. You will want for nothing!”
Tears rolled down his face as we hugged him goodbye.
Let’s step back a bit from our tale—and tell you what we’ve been doing for the last few decades. We’ve been circumnavigating, true, but what we’ve really been doing is searching for the magic. The magic is almost never at our destination. In fact, we don’t even care if we get to where we’re headed because the only reason we’re headed there is so that we can find the magic along the way.
That’s what we do—this is who we are. Two sailing lovers, ever ready to ride the magic whenever and wherever it appears. And, since we’re receptive to it and can now recognize the magic for what it is, we find it amazingly often.
In Kauehi, we found the magic for almost six weeks of unimaginable Polynesian bliss.
Since then, we’ve passed through the Tuamotus many times—and, wisely, never returned to Kauehi. Why? Because the magic isn’t a place—it’s a unit of time that conspires to momentary perfection. Magic is an event. It’s transitory. You can’t bottle it—can’t blister pack it and profitably hang it on a peg in a store. Yes, you can take a photograph of it—but what you are really attempting to photograph is gone forever as soon as you press the shutter.
Thus, we never intentionally return to chase the magic—for it is no longer there and therefore a fool’s errand.
Alas, we recently broke our port lower shroud between Panama and Tahiti—and needed a place to make temporary repairs in smooth water. Kauehi’s lagoon lay right on our rhumb line. Thus, we returned with great trepidation.
The once thriving pearl farming community was almost a ghost town. The bottom had fallen out the pearl industry due to Chinese over-supply—and the once wealthy and hardworking people of the island became dirt poor almost overnight—many with outstanding loans on investments that held no value. Houses that we partied in were now abandoned—a ghost wind blowing through their broken windows. Hunger is a problem—once happy couples argued over finances and divorced.
As more and more residents left for Tahiti to work—the remaining residents stole the goods left behind. One big happy family dissolved into warring factions. The communal fish pen no longer worked—as people with swollen bellies and growing families had a tendency to take more than their fair share. To top it all off—the local lads now had no money but they still had forks and knives—so the few visiting yachts started to get broken into—and thus stopped arriving.
The island and her residents were diminished. And, in a different way, we were diminished as well. For twenty years we’d sang the paradisiacal praises of Kauehi without reservation—no more. They are ashes in our mouth. Reality has reared its ugly head. Kauehi is a magic place which once was but is no longer—its only use to us now is to confirm the cruising wisdom of what we already knew.