“Once in a blue moon,” so the saying goes. And under such a moon, the alarm on my phone chimes. It’s three am, early on Saturday morning. My eyes rapidly open, coffee brews and a hot shower wakes my aching muscles in a modern beachfront bungalow. My first full day on the French Polynesian island of Moorea begins with this ritual, the same before any long run. Bib pinned to my shorts, shoes laced tight and I’m out the door. Moments later, I stretch before the starting line of the Tahiti / Moorea Marathon. Little did I know what adventure these islands, just a quick overnight flight from Southern California, had in store for me.
My legs began the rhythmic process of barreling 26.2 miles precisely at four. Running along the shores of Cook’s and 'Ōpūnohu Bays, the second full moon of the month, the blue moon, glittered on the water in the most of serene ways; the calmness of nature as my breath and body worked to adjust to a slight heat and humidity. Soon dawn’s first glow silhouetted jagged, misty, mountain tops toward the interior of the island. Later I would learn these, the famous peaks of Moorea, form the southern ridge of the volcanic crater that created the island perhaps 2.5 million years ago.
With each stride, like Alice, I fall deeper and deeper into a whimsical, Polynesian Wonderland, losing myself in a surreal world of endless Queen pineapple groves and crystal clear lagoons, canvases of lush greens and sparkling blues in which unassuming baby sharks and sting-rays beg for attention. These are islands with a people rich in customs, celebrations and hospitality; a people enchanted with mana, a supernatural force living in all things nature. Good or evil, all humans, animals, or objects contain mana. I’m told that what matters is how we embrace it and how we allow mana to embrace us back; it’s how and what we allow ourselves to be open to experiencing.
Out on the run that morning, a beautiful elderly woman crowned with a hei smiles at me from the side of the street. She gestures for my attention speaking no English. I can tell she’s curious to know where I’m from. “Los Angeles,” I respond. The lines on her face tell a great story of a life well-lived in peace and harmony, perhaps some heartbreak and disappointment along the way, but a balanced life in totality. She motions to my phone, nudging a picture of the moment be captured.
After the marathon, I lay relaxed on the beach, staring across the water toward Tahiti. I think of the joyous woman on the street, the local volunteers dressed in floral pareos offering hand-cut fruit at aid stations and of the tribal rhythms from traditional wooden drums known as pahus and toeres. I arrived on the islands feeling a certain satisfaction. Four years ago, on the heels of a breakup, I set out to explore the world in search of awe and wonder. I went searching for “more.” Years mostly free of dating, a relationship one of the furthest things from my mind; the Universe and my journey brings me here, one of the most beautiful islands in the world and a known honeymoon destination.
Criss-crossing Moorea on a four-by-four, hiking the inland jungles or learning how to make fresh coconut milk, I was blissful in solitude. This is an adventurer’s paradise. But, in the face of contrast, in the face of such natural beauty, I began to imagine sharing these moments with someone I love. Comfortable in who I am, yet open to all of life’s great experiences.
Some of our earliest mythologies regarding French Polynesia originate from a naturalist on board France’s first worldwide expedition. In 1769, Philibert Commerson pens he has witnessed “the state of natural man born essentially good and children of nature whose instinct has not yet degenerated into reason.” Two hundred and fifty years later, this is a place still ruled by a care-free spirit. It’s a place where the majesty of nature reminds us of what truly matters. It’s a place where the philosophy “aita pea pea,” meaning “not a worry,” reigns. So, like Alice, I learn reason and logic only get us so far. Sometimes it’s not about the pace I run, the miles I’ve crossed and the countries I pin on the map. It’s savoring poisson cru, dancing under the moonlight with friends who just minutes ago were strangers, and swimming with giant sea turtles among innumerable dolphins.
Tahitian legend says Hiro, the god of thieves, hatched a plan to steal one of Moorea’s mountains, Mount Rotui. Pai, a demigod, learned of the evil plot and kept watch high above from Point Tata on Tahiti. When Hiro and the thieves put their plan in action, Pai, using his god-like strength threw his magic spear across the water, piercing through the top of Rotui’s nearby sister peak, Mouaputa. In so doing he rose the island’s roosters and scared the bandits away. But they didn’t leave empty-handed. They managed to escape with a fractured portion of Rotui.
Sure, there are many reasons for travel; business, leisure and relaxation, curiosity, a desire to learn, or to see new places. We travel to uncover different parts of our soul or to foster a deeper compassion between seemingly uncommon cultures. But what is travel at its core?
It’s changing our internal vibration. It’s choosing to look at things, people, and locations with a new, fresh perspective. I came to Moorea, French Polynesia, to run a marathon, but like Hiro and the bandits, I feel I’ve stolen a piece of the island. I leave a changed man. Open. Ready for love. And embraced by mana.