The Most Beautiful Place I've Ever Seen, Accidentally

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The Tuamotus are an island chain of 80 or so coral reef atolls stretching halfway between South American and Australia. We had made our way down from Japan through Melanesia, and were now crossing east into French Polynesia.

Because of an airline strike, we had been stuck in Tahiti (if that’s possible, with its serious waves and food trucks serving steak-frites and poisson cru) for about a week, but were worried about making it to New Zealand in time to catch the next part of our trip.

The airport was mayhem. Honeymooners from LA were getting hammered at the bar with hibiscus flowers around their necks. Europeans were looking at their watches, packed with nowhere to go. Michael was at the ticket counter, a flurry of hand-waving and sweat. If it wasn’t for his fluency in French we would have had a problem.

"They can send us to Tikehau," he said, a good hour after negotiating.

Neither of us knew much about the tiny coral atoll, but at least we would reach the next chapter of the trip. And it would be beautiful. Everything was beautiful in the South Pacific.

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From above, Tikehau looks like the other atolls throughout the Pacific: the rim of a submerged volcano, circling a vast lagoon. But this particular lagoon stretched seventeen miles across with only one break in the reef large enough for boats to pass through. Jacques Cousteau recorded this island as having the greatest variety of fish species in all of the South Pacific, thus being one of the best places for diving.

This version of paradise, at least to the Western imagination, has stretched back over two centuries- from the Bougainvilles and Cooks to the even worse plunderers like Paul Gauguin, who have been immortalized across this “Dangerous Archipelago” in our history books and Polynesian luxury tours. But for islanders, it was home.

 Driving across Tikehau, Tuamotos, French Polynesia, South Pacific.
 Father and baby sitting in a guest house in Tikehau, Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.
 Father and baby sitting in a guest house in Tikehau, Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.
 Father and baby sitting in a guest house in Tikehau, Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.

A few girls who ran our pension picked us up at the airport and we made our way towards Tuherahera in a white van with the side door open, bantering with Michael and me trying to hang on with my 8th grade French.

Our guest house was directly on the beach. Water and electricity were luxuries, available only at night. We had visits from a few blacktop reef sharks which swam up to the sand. Later that night the three of us would cram onto one small palate of mattress, tangled in mosquito netting and sand. We wouldn’t sleep, but we didn’t care.
 People getting in a boat on Tikehau, Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.
 Tikehau mother and baby with a tourist baby sitting in a boat, Tikehau, Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.
 Two baby feet in a boat, Tikehau, Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.

The next morning we went out with a family of five who lived on the island- it was Sunday and they were also eager to cruise the open, waveless lagoon. Tina had a daughter a few months older than Sia. I unfurled my eighth grade French again, asking the important questions: how old were her kids, did she grow up on the island, would she like a graham cracker?

We crossed the cerulean lagoon to Bird Island, an overgrown motu with thousands of frigate birds and boobies nesting in the trees above. Michael photographed the flora and fauna. More reef sharks came up to our feet as we scuttled from tide pool to tide pool.

 Fisherman legs on a boat, Tikehau, Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.
 Fisherman legs on a boat, Tikehau, Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.

We talked about life on the island, population 529, and the future of fishing. Did they feel the affects of climate change? What of the coral? Tourism? They were people of the sea, this was their backyard. Unlike us, they didn’t seem worried. They were living in the present.


 Man pulling boat to shore, Tikehau Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.
 Travel photographer photographing on Bird Island, Tikehau Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.
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I thought if I’d just be swallowed up right here, and would have been fine with it.  Maybe it was the currents that day, maybe the stillness of the wind, but the water reflected a glorious mirror, clouds opening up like a snowflake cut out of construction paper.

What would happen to this place?

And that's how it happened, in an event so close to taking a turn for the worse, it became one of the biggest gifts this trip had given us. I feel so lucky. Who knows what will become of tomorrow, but for today, we take a page out of the playbook of our new friends and live for today.

 Local kids playing with baby in water, Tikehau Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.
 Baby sitting in water, Tikehau Tuamotus, French Polynesia, South Pacific.
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