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Chasing the Black Pearl

ANDREW MCCARTHY HEADS TO INDIA’S VERDANT NORTHERN HILLS TO INDULGE IN THE CHAMPAGNE OF TEAS

From National Geographic Traveler October 2010 (Photography by Aaron Huey)

From National Geographic Traveler October 2010 (Photography by Aaron Huey)

By Andrew McCarthy

The dock I leap-off juts out a few hundred feet over turquoise water. The hammerhead and black-tip sharks that patrol this lagoon at sunset won’t arrive for a few hours—by then I should be safely back on land. The quest that has led me to the fabled South Pacific will be complete.

I can hear my breathing steady and deep through my snorkel, my fins propel me past the parrotfish, out to where the water grows a richer blue. Shafts of light from the heavy hanging sun cut deep. Then there they are. Twenty feet below the surface, I see hundreds of encrusted oysters, secured to a rope anchored to the bottom and kept suspended by buoys pulling them toward the surface. These gnarly looking shells house one of the oceans finest treasures—the black pearl.

At last.

I dive down, but I haven’t taken enough air. Fearing that my prize will be lost if I retreat for even a moment, I go deeper, ignoring my body’s demands. Pressure screams in my ears. I clutch the algae covered rope and grab for a shell.

You see, my mother has a big birthday this year, and when I asked what she would like, she paused, got the look in her eye I see only occasionally, and coyly confessed, “Years ago, I saw a single black pearl hanging from a simple chain, I’ve never forgotten it.” That was all I needed to hear. I spent the next uninspiring day traipsing from one jewelry shop to the next, finding only a few (highly priced) black pearls. Then I asked an innocent question, “Where do these things come from?”

“Tahiti,” came the response.

Images of white sand and cool breezes swam into my mind. Instantly, a plan was hatched. I would go and get my mother’s pearl from the source—as it was plucked from the sea, still soaking wet if possible. So I have come to French Polynesia, a loose collection of more than a hundred islands splattered over an area nearly the size of Europe—roughly halfway between California and Australia—to the epicenter of the black pearl universe.

Ever since word filtered back from navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville to Paris in 1768 that the local women possessed the “celestial form of that goddess Venus,” the islands of Tahiti, as French Polynesia is commonly know, have been synonymous with dusky skinned women with alluring glances and mysterious ways, a land of earthly delights often dubbed—“the islands of love.” But I am here on family business, and after just a few minutes of gazing at so many identical looking small dark marbles I am paralyzed by options and realize—I need guidance.

“The pearls sell themselves, I just educate,” Ron Hall assures me, leaning in across the glass display case. His blue eyes are locked on mine as he leads me through “Fifteen-minute-Pearl-School” at his unpretentious lagoon-side shop on the island of Moorea in the Society Islands, the most visited of the five archipelagos that comprise French Polynesia. Moorea sits like a down pointing triangle, dominated by two deep bays that cut into its northern side. With a rugged, nearly impenetrable mountainous interior, white beaches, and famous blue lagoon created by an offshore coral reef, Moorea is often used in stock footage to depict the ultimate South Seas paradise, and with good reason—it is. From his well-chosen lookout at the eastern entrance to Cook’s Bay, Ron, a gregarious American who greets patrons with what he calls “John Wayne French” he learned locally, has found his spot. He first came to Tahiti via Maui in 1974 to crew on actor Peter Fonda’s yacht, and like so many I meet here—he stayed. Ron, balding now and not unformidable, met and married a local woman, a traditional Tahitian dancer (whose likeness was embossed on a Tahitian postage stamp), and raised two kids from his perch by the water with a sunset view. “Living the dream,” Ron shrugs modestly, his eyes conceding to the reality that tags along with any dream. “It’s the way I wanted Hawaii to be,” he explains of why he lingered, and it takes only a cursory look around Moorea to see it has been a long time since Hawaii was anything like this. Beyond the underdeveloped shoreline, it’s the people—where are they? Tahiti hosts only about 200,000 visitors annually—that’s just one day’s worth of tourists in Hawaii.

With the aid of props, Ron informs me that Tahitian “black” pearls come in shades from silver, to peacock to midnight black. He bombards me with facts and statistics, history and hints on what to look for when selecting the perfect pearl. “But really, it’s all about the way the pearl reflects light. Pay attention now, you don’t want to fail pearl school,” Ron chides me when he sees my eyes beginning to reflect some light of their own at all this information. He thrusts a particularly radiant pellet at me, “Take this outside, have a look in the sun,” (try that at Tiffany), and when I do, the little black beauty shimmers like a mirror.

The black pearl, so rare in the rest of the world, is everywhere in Tahiti. No one I talk with is exactly sure, but there appear to be more than two-dozen venders selling pearls on Moorea at any given time. In contrast, I see less than a hand-full of places to buy a gallon of milk. And while Ron has cornered the laid-back, “why not surprise the Mrs.” segment, a few miles further on, past Opunohu bay, Tahia Collins, a native and former Miss Moorea who speaks with a delicate accent, proudly admits to “Selling romance,” often to the cruise ship crowd from her posh shop on the leeward side of the Island. And over on the far slope of Mt. Mouaroa, Moorea’s trademark “shark tooth” mountain which stars on local coins and countless postcards, Dominique Seybald, a slender, dark haired transplant from France, is operating out of her home. She extracts several large zip-lock bags filled with hundreds of loose dark pearls from behind the sofa in her living room and hauls them onto her front porch where she sells her wares, “I like them black, the blacker the better” she confides, to which the long strand around her neck attests. And around the southern tip of the island, her son Pierrick offers pearls knotted into leather straps for the surfer set— “Quick Perles,” his roadside banner boasts.

But all this shopping, circling Moorea’s thirty-seven mile ring road—virtually the only road on the island—and gazing out at the tempting aqua blue lagoon is finally too much to bear. So the next morning I am tearing across the water with Dr. Michael Poole in his 34 ft. open hulled speedboat. Poole is head of the Marine Mammal Research Program on Moorea. A “Full time scientist, part time eco-tour operator” who landed on the islands in 1987, he’s an eager, sandy-haired army brat who “dreamed of moving to Tahiti” since he was twelve and he’s been running spinner dolphin and whale watching tours to help finance his research since ’92. His passion is infectious.

Poole is a born teacher (he has three doctorate candidates under his supervision at present), and never content to simply offer up information, but basks in the art of the leading question. When we come upon a group of more than fifty sleek, gray dolphins that begin to leap out of the water and surf the bow of our boat, he starts in, “Why will you find the dolphins near the mouth of a pass, with easy access to the shallow water of the lagoon?” (Answer: protection from sharks that infest the waters off Tahiti) “Why do dolphins leap?” (For speed and to dislodge parasites). Poole constantly interrupts his own discourse at the sight of dolphins coming out of the water, “There’s a triple spin from a young female at three o’clock!” he exclaims, finger outstretched to the right. Spinner dolphins—which do just that as they leap from the water—exist in a complex, egalitarian system with no hierarchy in ever changing schools and can dive to depths of nearly one thousand feet and travel up to thirty miles a day. “Double tail slap from a mature male at nine o’clock,” Poole shouts.

“Why do they do that?”

“Can’t answer that—need context—Why do you scratch your head?”

“Uhh…”

“Quadruple spin from a young male at one o’clock!”

Eventually the dolphins move on, we glide back across the lagoon and my eye is drawn to Mt. Rotui, crumbling down to Cook’s Bay on one side and the even more tranquil Opunohu Bay on the other. Unlike the swollen conicals of Hawaii, the volcanoes that created the Tahitian islands seem to have spent themselves utterly. Boney, jagged cliffs with plunging drop-offs remain against the hard blue sky. We pass an outrigger canoe, local men fishing from its hull. Poole and I look on in silence, eventually he speaks, “It’s the nicest thing about Moorea, there’s still authentic culture here.”

You hear the word authentic a lot in travel magazines and from tour operators, and it always makes me suspect, but the longer I’m on Moorea the more images of a thriving Polynesian culture that I hadn’t expected—all-be-it one heavily influenced by their French colonizers—start to become lodged in my minds eye. I see a young boy peddling barefoot a rusted bicycle too big for him, two baguettes tucked under his arm, I see three women and their small children taking shade from the midday heat under the bow of a boat that has been hauled ashore beside Opunohu Bay, I see an old man with deeply creased skin, hanging his catch from a hook at his roadside stand as the day fades, and I see an impossibly beautiful woman crossing the street—oblivious to her beauty. It’s the kind of beauty that makes men want to mutiny (those aboard the HMS Bounty did just that in Tahiti). And always people stopping to greet one another, kissing both cheeks, shaking hands, conversation often shifting unconsciously between French and Tahitian, seemingly everyone adorned with at least one tattoo (Tahiti is the birthplace of the tattoo). Even at the tourist pitched traditional dance show I take in at the old Club Bali Hai, the performers seem to be dancing more for each other than the touts, glances and secret smiles exchanged. I yearn to linger—but I’ve got a blind date with a pearl farmer.

I met Cyril Rosenthal over the phone, by accident. I had been trying to call a hotel, got one of the six local digits wrong, and dialed Cyril’s home instead. After apologizing, we got to talking and it turns out that Cyril owns and runs the oldest pearl farm in French Polynesia. After explaining my quest, he invites me out to see his operation on the atoll of Manihi in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Concluding that fate has intervened on my mother’s behalf, I hop a plane.

The Tuamotu’s are an hour flight to the northeast; they’re a collection of seventy-six wispy atolls, small necklaces of islets encircling crystal-clear lagoons. And whereas Moorea and the rest of the Society Islands have been dubbed the “high islands” for their mountainous terrain, the Tuamotu’s never rise more than a few feet above sea level, they’re all white sandy crescents and palm tress, clinging to life in the center of the Pacific, they’re a rarely visited outpost of French Polynesia—Robinson Caruso time.

A warren of buildings linked together by a series of wooden planks built on stilts in the middle of Manihi’s 16 X 4 mile lagoon—boat the only way on or off—Cyril’s farm has been producing pearls since the late sixties. A rangy, deeply tanned man with wild blond hair, he takes me through his entire operation. If I’d had a field trip like this back on Moorea I never would have failed Ron Hall’s pearl school.

Cyril is a in constant state of efficient movement, gently wedging open the “relaxed” oysters, prepping them for the grafter (who with surgical precision inserts a small mother of pearl pellet into the oyster that the pearl forms around), making coffee for his workers, sifting through rejected oysters, and driving the 27 ft. outboard that takes us deep into the lagoon (“My bank” Cyril calls the lagoon) where some of the 65,000 oysters he is working must be hauled out for their semi-monthly cleaning. Kangaroo pouches that house the oysters for twenty-four months until they are ready for harvesting are hauled up on deck and the boat lists perilously. Cyril, perched in the stern, legs folded Indian style, is laughing and calling out orders to his men, locals all, utterly at home as his hand feathers the outboard, keeping the boat hovering in the rolling water. With the wind ripping and a gleam in his piercing blue eyes he reminds me of nothing so much as a wet, French, Lawrence of Arabia. The men continue their haul and the boat sits lower and lower in the water—it is backbreaking work. Cyril looks over and reads my mind, “You think the pearls just get around your neck by miracle?” he shouts through the trades.

Later, during a lunch of lentils, baguette and imported pate in his over water office, it dawns on me that I’ve seen thousands of pearls and gotten quite an education, but I’m really not much closer to getting what I came to get, and my mother’s big day is closing in. I ask Cyril if people ever try and buy pearls directly from him. “Of course, I had two guys waiting all day at the end of my dock last week.”

“Did you sell to them?” I ask hopefully.

“No, producers make bad salesmen,” he assures me.

I nod and come to terms with the fact that I will have to go back to the shop, any shop really, to get what I came to get. And then Cyril speaks slowly, “I know some farmers on Fakarava…”

There is something that happens every once in a while when you travel—you arrive somewhere you have never been before and somehow, for some unknowable reason, you feel instantly connected, more at home than in your home town. It happened to me the first time I set foot in Ireland. I felt at once as if I understood the place, and it, me. That might be explained away by my ancestral roots, but I wonder the reason I feel so at ease in myself here on Fakarava, nothing in its crushed corral lanes or groves of swaying palms remotely recalls my New Jersey upbringing. No one I know came from anywhere near here, but maybe that’s why I am so free to be myself—no matter, this is a strip of sand I “get.” Several hundred mostly Polynesians inhabit the atoll, which is a short hop from Manihi, and even more remote and pristine. They welcome an obvious stranger with a curious glance and a nod.

Dawn finds me peddling a bycicle left hanging around my guest house into the atoll’s only village, Rotoava, a loose collection of homes, satellite dishes attached to even the most humble, colorful fabrics hanging in the windows and doorways, waving in the breeze. Town (using that term very loosely) is quiet, un-collared dogs wander in the emerging light, I swerve to avoid crabs and massive snails crossing the only paved road on the island, and then I notice a simple white building, smoke pouring from its aluminum chimney, people coming and going by truck, scooter, bicycle and on foot. Colonialism may have it drawbacks, but getting a piping hot, moist, pain au chocolat 9,000 miles from Paris and sitting on the wall in front of the local church to watch the sun come up every morning over the deep blue of the Pacific less than a hundred yards in front of me, the crystal lagoon a few yards to my back—it really is just a narrow tongue of land I’m on—is hard to beat.

The day unfolds with an easy certitude, heavy and sudden downpours materialize and are gone in minutes, burned back by the sun. The night, lit by a dripping Milky Way, is filled with the sound of taori drums, at first ominous and then reassuring, several groups in different locations call and answer, the rhythms carried across the lagoon.

On Fakarava, the coconuts usually lay where they fall, and it easy to understand why, but I’ve work to do—there’s a man I’ve come here to see. Joachim Dariel, a Frenchman with a romantic sensibility, came to Fakarava “for love” more than twenty years ago when he married a local girl. At the time he was the only white man on the atoll, “They used to call me ‘popaa,’” which means simply—‘white.’ With a degree in economics, Joachim found himself shucking coconuts for a living until he decided to open his own small-scale pearl farm in 1990. And he agrees not only to let me select my pearl from his farm, but goes a step further and suggests I dive and select my oyster directly from the sea—harvest it myself. Which explains how I’ve come to be clutching at oysters deep in a shark-infested lagoon, my lungs feeling as if they are about to explode.

Safely back on the dock Matiata, Joachim’s right-hand-man who has been watching over my dive, frees my oyster from the rope and pries it open. I can see a lump through the fleshy tissue. With a scalpel and a small incision, suddenly, there it is, a fairly good size, oval, blue-gray pearl. He tilts the shell, it drops into my palm. I grin like an idiot. It may not be the most beautiful pearl I have ever seen, it doesn’t exactly shimmer like the midnight sun—but it’s mine.

I wouldn’t trade it.

Later, rolling my mothers gift between my fingers, I’m sitting on the same wall I sit on each morning, except now I’m facing the other direction, the lagoon is a deep purple, holding the last of the fading light, the Pacific already a dark mass behind me, and the Southern Cross is beginning to assert itself in the sky, the drumming will begin soon. I’ve often threatened to run off, to simply disappear, I haven’t done it yet, but if I ever do simply go, I’m looking over at a grove of palms that boarder a lagoon on one side and an ocean on the other…

But first, I’ve got a birthday party to attend.

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