It’s easy to ignore scale on Google Earth. Long before I arrived in French Polynesia’s Tuamotu islands, I’d imagined sailing in and out of their lagoon passes, bouncing from one island to another on a whim. From above, they appear as a brilliant wash of white-edged turquoise rings amid the vast, uniform blue of the Pacific Ocean. In all, there are 78 low-lying coral atolls spanning more than 900 miles. Some are inhabited; others are not. Some have entrances as wide as football fields; some are completely enclosed. My boyfriend, Matt, and I couldn’t wait to island-hop from deserted motu to fishing village to world-class dive spot. This would be the quintessential South Pacific sailing adventure.
We arrived in Makemo, an island in the central Tuamotus, in early June, allowing ourselves 10 days there before working our way northwest. Six and a half weeks later, we sailed back out of the pass on a heading for Tahiti. We hadn’t visited any other islands and were running out of time on our French Polynesian visas. Procrastination is a skill of mine, but this was different. The longer we stayed, the stronger the pull to stay became. The little things sucked us in: the woman at the boulangerie knowing me by name and helping me with my French; eating dinner with a local fisherman; learning about the local arts, foods and legends. And bigger things kept us there: meeting friends it felt too soon to say goodbye to and establishing strong connections to the natural landscape. We raced va’as (outrigger canoes), harpooned mahimahi and gathered coconuts. We dived the pass again and again, always astounded at the incredible quality and complexity of life in that dreamy underwater world.
It turned out that geographic scale wasn’t the issue; it was a question of depth. We’d gently sunk into the daily rhythm of Makemo. Only by staying for nearly two months as opportunities to go elsewhere passed did we understand that seeing as many atolls as we could wasn’t the kind of South Pacific experience we wanted to have. Is that really the point? Does that constant bouncing around leave any room for pleasure — or more important, understanding?
As a sailor, and more generally, a traveler, I don’t want simply to tick off destinations. Instead, I hope there will always be times when I’m completely immersed in foreign situations because the experiences I remember best are not ones I set out to have but ones I get sucked into. Getting to know one place deeply proved to be such a revealing and rewarding experience. I’m not going to claim to have become a meaningful part of Makemo after only six weeks, but Makemo is certainly meaningful to me. By lingering there, I was able to gain the kind of perspective I yearn to have when traveling: Even while I stood apart, as someone from afar, I was still a part of it all. And although we might have overstayed, in a sense, we were always welcome.