It Reef

By Michael Kew

YVON CHOUINARD TOLD ME ABOUT IT. We were yakking about travel, eating sashimi, drinking beer astern on a yacht in the Tuamotus. Founder of Patagonia, Inc., Chouinard saw much of the tropics—surfing, sailing, exploring, bonefishing—but he hadn’t surfed the wave we discussed.

"Somewhere I've always wanted to see," he said. "Untouched nature, lots of reef passes, no surfers, good surf. All you need is a local fisherman to take you out."

"Why haven't you been there?"

"Probably because there aren’t any bonefish."

Chuck Corbett of Tabuaeran, to where Chouinard once sailed, later confirmed the claim to me through email. A longtime merchantman and an expatriated American on his own atoll of idyll, Corbett had seen and surfed more Pacific obscurity than anyone.

“Would you like an insiders tip?” he wrote. “Buy a small Jap truck for around a grand or less, then buy a 10-foot aluminum boat with a 15-horsepower outboard. Ship from San Francisco. You will find epic, world-class surf—up to giant sizes, too. When you’re finished, you can sell the car and boat. Nobody knows the island sits with Tahiti in waves because the surf is a minimum of a few miles out, on a barrier reef.”

I was on-island at 3 a.m. after four flights, with two bags, two surfboards, and no expectations, not even for sun. The terminal was a dim concrete room with flaky paint and a foul restroom, a small sign glued above the sink: Please keep our airport environment clean and fit to work in, especially our restrooms.

At the curb outside was an old brown sedan, an orange light on its roof, which made me think it was a taxi. It was, though its driver was asleep, as was the pregnant middle-aged woman in the back seat. Both of their jaws bulged with betel nut, a natural sedative enjoyed with great vigor on the equator.

I tapped on the driver's window, startling him.

"Taxi?" I grinned, showing him some cash. He was red-eyed but coherent; I lowered the passenger seat for my surfboards, and squeezed into the back with the woman, who reeked of garlic and sweat. She turned her head slowly and looked at me.

"I am Gina."

She was pregnant but obese, with a pretty purple floral dress and an elaborate shell necklace. Her head was a mass of short, kinky black hair, her teeth kernels of red.

"You want chew?"

"Betel nut?"

She nodded. "Yes. Betel nut."

"Sure, I'd love some."

She plucked three small green nuts from a pouch she kept in a hidden dress pocket and handed them to me with a wilted pepper leaf and a dirty vial of lime. Lime is baked coral, a fine white powder resembling cocaine, sprinkled on betel nut for an effect unknown to me; by trip's end, nobody else I asked knew why all their lives they put lime on their betel nut.

I was 30 minutes off the plane and already with a cheekful. On other islands I had used a slice of an actual lime, which made the experience putrid and unforgettable.

The driver stared blankly through the windshield.

"Where you going?"

"Palm Hotel."

"Palm Hotel? Okay. We go Palm Motel." He started the car.

About a mile on, he pulled over in front of a small store festooned with cheery but faded beer posters and advertisements for the latest food shipment from Hawai’i (New York Steak just in! and Now Fresh California Iceberg Lettuce!). I too was a U.S. import but was not feeling particularly fresh, or even cheery, and I asked why we were stopped here. The driver eyed me in his rearview mirror, his face sweaty and fretful, like he was going to faint.

"Sir, I stop here."

"Do you need to buy something? The store looks closed."

"No. But I not drive you to hotel." He put a finger on his cheek. "Very tired."

"So you're dropping me here?"

"Yes. I call new taxi."

We sat in the car and waited. I was too tired to care. The road was dark. Nothing moved. The air was thick and muggy. I was grimy. Gina snored softly, both hands on her belly. The driver lowered his head, tilted the seat back, and dozed off. Rain began to fall. I closed my eyes, listened to the jungle crickets, and thought: Two days ago I was in a down parka and driving 80 mph on a Los Angeles freeway.

Then came bizarre color visions of a rodeo I'd never seen, cowboys I'd never met, cowgirls in tight jeans, bull-riding, steer-wrestling, sunglasses, tobacco, bourbon, paper plates and fatty meat, pickup trucks, aluminum folding chairs, green hills, bright lights, dirty fingers clutching pink ticket stubs. So lucid it was, I shot upright and yelped when the driver slapped my left knee.

"Sir, you taxi here!"

An hour had passed. Dazed, I loaded my bags into the other car which was smellier, with damp cloth seats. The driver made a futile attempt at conversation.

At last he deposited me in the rainy darkness outside my hotel, in the middle of the forest, several miles from the nearest village. The air smelled of plumeria and moss, rain and ripe fruit. The silence was deep. Eventually a clerk led me along a ferny path to my room—actually an old wooden bungalow, full of insects and geckos—where I showered and slept till noon the next day, awakened by an errant rooster and croaking toads. And, in the distance—Chouinard’s “it.”