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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Am I crazy or is my bell curve just a little twisted?

I don't usually contribute to the blog - Kat is doing a great job, but regularly I get the urge to share more than I can on Face Book. Now there is a backlog of these themes and I suppose care must be taken to avoid a shotgun essay trying to lightly touch on far too many topics. I'll just talk about where we are and see where it goes; it's akin to seeing which way the wind is blowing when deciding where to sail to next.

So we're sitting in our first anchorage in Raiatea deep in a cove midway up the western shore. Already it is an interesting place to be. It's like a combination of a Marquesan island and a Tuamotuan atoll. The Marquesan Islands were generally high volcanic islands with lush vegetation. The Tuamotus were atolls which are a ring of reefs and little islands called motu.

The current theory which was proposed by Darwin is that the volcano creates the island. It gets sub ducted overtime; which means it sinks back into the earth slowly in a geologic time scale. When it is a young volcanic island then coral grows on its edges. As it sinks the coral continues to grow in this ring along its edges. Eventually the volcano is below water and the ring of coral is all that is left. Raiatea and Taha'a are two sister islands both volcanic that are in the process of sinking. They are well along the way and have a atoll-like reef surrounding them with a big lagoon between them and the reef.

The Marquesas have a reef along the edge but no lagoons yet. Tahiti has a reef and a small lagoon filled with coral heads between it and its reef. However; Raiatea & Taha'a like Bora Bora have a huge lagoon between them and their reef.
The motu on the atolls and the reefs around Raiatea are just sand without much at all in the way of organic material. So they can grow coconuts and a few salt tolerant trees and shrubs. But the volcanic islands are amazingly lush and most people have a little plot of land the size of a city lot which grows all the fruit they need. All they need is fish to supplement their diet with protein; which makes the islands like Raiatea perfect. They are the best of both worlds.

Where did that lead us? Not very far I suppose, but many things in the world have lifecycles like islands. Cruisers seem to have their own maturing process. Our process starts before we even own a boat normally. You see that only a small minority of cruisers grew up sailing their whole lives. Most of us came to this rather late. Most cruisers seem to be on second marriages and are in their 60 and 70s. There are younger couples often with kids but they are clearly a minority like single-handers.
For some reason the future cruisers step out of the normal bell curve and start thinking of traveling. Some fantasize their whole life before taking the plunge while others get the bug and buy a boat and take off in a matter of weeks or months. Some are born to this life with fathers who were fishermen or boat delivery guys. Most of us however took years of thinking about it and dabbling with coastal cruising for a while.

Then there is the common experience of unloading from our prior life. We sold or rented our old houses which were the center of our prior lives. We sold most or all of our material belongs to downsize enough to fit into a boat. Then we needed to retire or quit our jobs - a huge step. We were walking away for one of the biggest parts or our identities. I was a manager for 20 years at Boeing which is the largest exporter in the States. It was who I was, now I'm just an old man who is sailing around.
Anyway - we mostly seem to do the coastal thing for a while. There are exceptions, people who never sailed or owned a boat who buy one and just leave for the south pacific and learn along the way. We were a bit different. We spend a half dozen years in the great northwest sailing around Seattle, British Columbia, and Alaska. It is some of the best cruising in the world and we were able to incrementally improve our skills and confidence levels.

I should digress a bit here and talk about leaving. It turns out that the marinas and yacht clubs are filled with aspiring cruisers. They, like cruisers, come from all walks of life and all socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet for every hundred people who wish they could go cruising only a few percent take the step of getting a blue water boat. And for every hundred blue water boats, only a few go coastal cruising; not vacations but extended cruising up and down the coast, like from the Puget Sound to Alaska. You already know the rest, for every hundred coastal cruisers only a few head offshore. And finally for every hundred blue water sailors only a few go for protracted voyages of years or more.
What is it that holds us back at each stage? Many of you are already cruising or have been thinking about it or at least daydreaming about it. The think that holds most of us back are responsibilities; responsibilities to our futures, our families, our communities, and our jobs. We are herd animals and when we wonder too far from the herd they call us back to where we are comfortable. I always considered a good job was like being a farm animal. The company took pretty good care of us animals living inside the fence; then just walking out the gate made life much more uncertain. Where would the money come from? And families - there are aging parents, spouses, and kids all depending on us to be normal. Our communities also conspire to have us and the other inmates behave normally. Surely you need to keep your yard mowed and tidy. You need a good looking car in the drive. The community is filled with rules that allow the inmates to coexist. All of this turns out to be a huge deck stacked against the would- be cruiser.

If you can overcome all of that then you have to overcome the fear of being self-sufficient. Out here we are truly alone. Boats get wrecked pretty regularly and everyone tries very hard to help. But the distances are often too great and time too short for help to be effective. Many reefs have visible wrecks and many cruisers have had near misses. When you commission your boat it will become your space capsule and Houston will be very far away. But the good news is that regular folks are doing this all the time.

If you overcome all of that then you end up like we were in Mexico. We were like high volcanic islands; we were just beginning to grow our fringing reefs. We found the local people wonderful and embracing. We found the cruisers even more embracing and have forged many relationships that will last our lifetime. We also honed our seamanship skills, weathering several of Baja's crazy local weather phenomena. Kat developed a reputation for a great potluck chef and a mean Farkle player. But Mexico was cruising light, as we proved several times where we traveled or had friends who traveled to the state and were our mules carrying back much needed equipment.

When we left Mexico for the South Pacific there was no guarantee that we would make it. This was a whole different ball game. You cross the Sea of Cortez in a day up north and two days down south. It's between 100 and 250 miles depending on where you cross. The first leg of this trip from Puerto Vallarta to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas was nearly 3000 miles. It took 23 days and was filled with wild wind and rough seas. But we were up to it. We'd been maturing and building our skills and conditioning ourselves to the so called hardships at sea.
Many of the values from our old life are still in tack, but many have been revised. For example we are proud of the fact that our carbon foot print from April through June, or three months, was 42 gallons of diesel. That is all except for food which mostly was fish we caught and fruit. So environmentally this is a good lifestyle.

We also like living small or simple. It's one of the things that attract us to cruising. There is a boat we met in Mexico call "Willful Simplicity" which is a great name and part of what this has become. We reject consumption for consumptions sake. We don't need much at all beyond the boat, shorts and tee-shirts. Most Americans are exposed to 250 advertisements per day between TV, internet, and print. We haven't had TV in years and rarely get the internet and never get a current paper or magazine. We've essentially escaped the marketing groups and now we find like most cruisers that we spend around $1000 per month or less. The exception is when we put the boat in a marina which doubles that. No marketing group is compelling us to consume.

Occasionally a newbie will show up who hasn't had time to purge the consumer from themselves. You can see them agitate with their new predicament. They will go spend time in resort hotels or high end restaurants and malls. Eventually the marketing wears off or they simply leave the lifestyle all together. But mostly we all independently see simplicity as a freeing element of our lives to one degree or another. Those with more complex boats spend more time keeping them in repair and those with more basic boats have more time to snorkel.

Another dimension of our lives that got restructured is our comfort dimension. Our physical comfort was very important in our old life. We had central heat, nice riding cars, upholstered furniture, air conditioning, nice dining room tables, ergonomically designed workstations, fat bicycle seats, orthopedic inserts, tailored suits, and on and on. In our new life we realized that comfort is overrated. As I type this the wind is blowing through the anchorage at 15 to 20 knots and noticeably rocking the boat around. The halyards are banging and it's been raining so when I go outside it will be wet and the dinghy will be sloppy with water. It's just a normal day.

On a rough passage you will experience zero or near zero G's at the bow or stern of the boat. In large seas the 30,000 pounds of boat with you in it will be tossed up and down and side to side tens of feet every few seconds. The ocean can open lockers and empty them in a heartbeat. It will throw a thousand pounds of water right in your face and literally knock you down hard. But all of that is rather easy to deal with. The truly difficult aspect is if you can do so nonstop for days or weeks at a time. When you sleep, you are constantly being jostled rather roughly about. No land lubber can actually sleep until they get exhausted by several days of this treatment.

But you get used to it and you learn to like it. It's a beautiful thing the ocean. After a tough blow you feel happy and satisfied. You learn to move with the ocean. You use the movement to enable your movements. Standing up or sitting down or moving in the right direction in a graceful (or what passes for graceful) is a matter of becoming in tune with the motion. It turns out that picture or videos of sailing are generally inadequate for describing what it's like. It's more about motion and about the forces of the water and wind and the boats ability to harness these. It's about the relentlessness of the swells and waves and winds. In a sense we are becoming amphibians.

Well back to something I like to call a theme or the whole point of telling the story. Right about now we're in the windward islands of French Polynesia and I'd like to think we're like Raiatea in maturity. We've sunk down a bit and have a nice reef and lagoon. We've got the lush volcanic vegetation in the middle and surrounded by a lagoon rich in sea life. We sail into rough weather not with fear but in the search for better winds. We expect the local people to be fascinating and they are. We love the social aspect of the cruiser community -where we've made more friends in a shorter amount of time than any other time of our lives. We're like adolescents who are not fully formed but feel like we are adults. Our confidence is high but if you talk to us you'll find we've not been in are bad storm and they still worry us.

In our community there are more mature sailors - people who sailed their whole lives, who've gone around the world several times, who've been and lived everywhere, who've sailed in hurricanes and around the horn. They look normal and act normal; but they are the true sailors, the gurus or the community, the old salts (though some are young).

Since I started this note we've sailed on to the Cook Islands. We're in Suwarrow (which has a number of different spellings - all seem to be valid). Cruising is not only taking us on a journey in the physical world it's taking us on another internal journey - an internal journey where we grow and mature, although you'd think that at some age one would stop this maturing process. If you can't tell I'm groping for a way to end this in a profound manner that would justify you having spent your time reading it. We may be out of luck.

We arrived at Suwarrow the sun went down early; either that or they placed the island about 30 miles too far west. Otherwise; how do you explain our poor timing? You see it is foolhardy to enter an atoll at night; especially when there are no lighted aids to navigation and especially if you've never been there before. So somebody screwed up and caused us to heave to for 10 hours waiting for the sun that set too early the day before to grace us with its presents again.

Heaving- to, that's this trick they do with sailboats that's almost like parking them. You backwind a head sail and sort of point the boat into the wind. It still moves at about a knot and everything settles down to be relatively quiet. Often in a storm it's the only way to get some sleep. Well that's what we did; we heaved to and got some sleep outside of the Suwarrow reef pass. But this is not the kind of heaving to that we did in the Puget Sound when we were learning to sail, this heaving to involved 10 foot waves. In the Puget Sound we never even saw 10 foot waves but here in the pacific they are routine. We've seen far larger now but the 10 footers are rather routine. Routine enough that you can go to sleep on what amounts to a carnival ride.

You see you just park your boat (heave to) and the ocean lifts all 30,000 lb of it up and down every 8 to 10 seconds. Sounds like a roller coaster and often feels like one. Maybe a better description is a 30,000 lb maraca and you are the pea rattling around inside and this huge maraca is being wielded by a ginormous toddler who is throwing a huge tantrum . It's become our world - familiar enough that we gladly go to sleep, eager to catch as many Z's as possible before the next watch.

In the morning we headed for the channel, made our way in and put the anchor down. An hour later another boat s crew who spent a similar night came in. Come evening a dozen cruisers spent another social night on the beach entertaining each other and the two Kiwi park ranger/caretakers. IN the morning several boats departed for Samoa or Nui or Tonga.

Well I did I succeed in disguising the fact that there is no theme or plot or moral or message to this little digression? Darn - well I tried. I better run, Kat is making plans to dive with the manta rays tomorrow morning. The sharks are far more aggressive here than in French Polynesia. Diving with rays has become normal, but the aggressive sharks are pushing the envelope again. Guess we're still on that change and growth theme after all.

This is a special case of growth and change. This is a case where you just walk away from the bell curve of your contemporaries, but it's harder than that. You don't really just walk away from your bell curve of normalcy. You grow and as you grow, you redefine what your normal is. You end up changing your bell curve and usually you change social groups. You only look like you're outside your bell curve to your old friends and associates, "the old herd". You are completely normal to those in your new herd.

We are all accustomed to making change where the herd sees that we've improved. People do it all the time, get a promotion, get married, go to school. What we're not so accustomed to is when people change what their normal is; because they usually disappear in the process. They left our herd for another where normal is something completely crazy if you ask anyone in the old herd.
When you exchange your bell curve, then everyone starts asking you whether you're crazy or something. Why would you leave such a great job, or spouse, or country club? You don't look right when viewed from the old bell curve you are crazy.

Maybe I didn't just trade bell curves, maybe I am crazy. I spent years walking around with a cell phone in my ear to disguise the craziness of me talking to the voices in my head. Thank goodness someone finally invented the blue tooth, because my arm was killing me. Nowadays I just use my blue tooth ear piece as I trip through my own dimension which happens to intersect yours outside the shopping mall. You see I threw away the bell curve and I am really certifiably Loony-Toons so put some damn money in the cup or I'll put a curse on you.

Just kidding - cruising is way more fun than being crazy. I've done them both so I know…. Bill

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Monday, July 16, 2012

7/11/2012 Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea and Taha'a

7/11/2012 Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea and Taha'a

We remained at anchor near the Village of Papetoai, Moorea for several nights after the Puddle Jump gathering then made a quick jump around the corner to Cooks Bay. There nestled below the spire of Mont Mouaputa there were fewer boats and less traffic and we were closer to the conveniences of the villages of both Paopao and Maharepa. We stayed three nights just relaxing and enjoying a few lazy days before we set off for the leeward Society Islands. The next few passages were to be short day trips -Moorea to Huahine to Raiatea to Taha'a to Bora Bora with lots to see and do between. My only real worry was working out how we could even begin to experience the new islands without driving ourselves crazy in a frenzy while also finding time to do a few buckets of laundry, fix our Si-Tex radar (acquired new just over a year ago) and trouble shoot the Engel freezer that died after only two months of use. Oh and service the winches, fix a leaky port light and provision and clean for our upcoming passage to the Cook Islands.

The Island of Huahine was one of our stops eight years ago and is still enchanting today. We anchored in the lagoon near the village of Fara. There in the center of town is the quay -their large community dock- and around it bubbles the life of the town. Early each morning the town wakes up. Local women sit chatting around a few simple tables or one of the handful of permanent booths scattered around the quay selling their wares: taro and tapioca roots, fresh greens, papaya, watermelon, pineapples and bananas, homemade sweets, coconut milk and the ever present baguette sandwich filled with ham and cheese. By 10:30 or 11:00 the close up shop and head home for the day.

It has been typical throughout French Polynesia for the merchants to close their doors for a few hours around noon an then reopen for the evening essentially shutting down a town for several hours in the heat of the day. Progress has arrived in Huahine, they now have a large well stocked grocery that stays open from seven to seven. If you need it they have it. Or maybe more precisely if they don't have it you don't need it!

We were well stocked up so only perused the isles for goodies like baguettes, imported cheese and our new addiction, Tim Tams. They are an Australian cookie (we think since one of our Aussie friends was overjoyed on finding them again in Tahiti after a many year absence) made by Arnott that has a double layer of crispy not to sweet cookie sandwiching yummy filling and then coated in chocolate. They come in a wide variety of flavors but our current favorite flavor is the double dipped chocolate: ah, the simple joys in life!

At anchor in front of the village of Fare we could hear the sound of drums in the air as we fell asleep after our passage from Moorea. The next day we discovered that we had missed the previous evenings performance but that we should be able to watch a practice session sometime in the next day or two. So when evening came we simply followed the sound of the drums to the local community center where a practice was in full swing. There we met a man who had recently turned over the job of director to new younger blood. He generously took the time to explained what we were seeing and gave us some history of the dancing. He said that on Huahine the Heava dance and drum groups only practice for a couple of months a year rather than the year round practice sessions held on the larger islands.

Another interesting thing we learned was that each island has their own dances that are not danced anywhere else in French Polynesia and that those are often danced differently on one end of the island from the other. The movements of the women dancers come from a history of welcoming visitors to their islands, the flowers and trees and winds of the sea. The men's moves come from the movements of paddling or fishing, the islands traditional contests and games and from their ancestor warriors. The movements of the women are very feminine, sexual and provocative and the men's are full of island machismo and a feeling of protection and strength. Brimming with laughter and smiles the "kids" proudly sang, danced and drummed away for several hours while their families and neighbors watched from their places around the edge of the community center.

Watching them left me thinking about our own kids and how we try and reduce or even eliminate overt sexuality -maybe in fear- in our young people and about the controversy that continues to rage over the energy and consequences of the violence our boys especially see in popular music, TV and movies. Here in Polynesia those aspects of life are celebrated in their music and dance. The chasm of difference I felt is as clearly seen today as it was when the shocked Europeans arrived.

After original "discovery" of these islands the European churches sent in missionaries filled and fueled with all the good censorship and prudishness they could muster off to the islands to save some souls. No dancing of course and for Gods sake put on some clothes! The common sailor had different ideas altogether as they bargained with the women who happily traded their island welcome away for an iron nail or two. Eventually the ships began to literally fall to pieces nail by nail but the missionaries had made their mark. Their dress changed, their languages changed and until the late 50's even their dances and songs disappeared. The churches remain a big part of island life today but thankfully the music and dance has returned.

We stayed for a couple of hours watching the singing, dancing and drumming. Half the town it seemed had turned out to cheer them on. The center filled up with little boys running and playing, parents and grandparents setting up chairs to watch and the teenagers egging each other on and as we have seen again and again the littlest of girls stood off in the wings copying the dance moves. Even the smallest already developing that very Polynesian wiggle in their swing. In fact I think it is physically impossible for Caucasian girl hips to come even close to the inborn Polynesian wiggle.

A few days later we arrived in Raiatea in time to catch a full show complete with MC and judges, costumes, a comedy routine and packed stands. The whole area transforms with the community center tent hung with decoration, rides for the kids, food booths and a sort of carnival air. These kids on Raiatea had been practicing all year and it showed. Each of the island areas presentation of songs, drumming and dancing included several different numbers all certainly requiring countless hours of practice and hundreds of hours putting together the elaborate costumes. They utilized bits of shell and feather, flowers, leaves and grasses with yards of tropical print material and handmade grass skirts to create the hundreds of separate costumes. There were spears and torches, grass pom-pom shakers and elaborate head dresses. The crowd clearly loved it all but reserved their most sincere (and loud) approval for the men's machismo pounding and thrusting and of course the amazing wiggle and shake of some of the most beautiful and barely clothed women in the world.

We rounded out our time in Raiatea with visits with several boat crews we hadn't met yet and a jungle trip up river with a fellow we met named James. We followed him in our dinghy up river to the place he and his family have called home for generations. They have a large garden that winds along the river. They grow fruit, vegetables, vanilla and flowers and exotic plants. The flowers and plants are shipped all over the islands for making traditional flower crowns and necklaces and for the decorations used in celebrations over the course of the year. He walked us through the gardens pointing out the different flowers and shrubs and gave some history and uses for each. Some were edible many just beautiful. At the end of our trek he gave us a huge stalk of green bananas that are even now ripening on a line suspended from our radar arch along with some drinking coconuts and pamplemousse.

From Raiatea we crossed the lagoon to Taha'a for a few days of quite before our planned crossing to Bora Bora but then were surprised to find that they were ramping up for a celebration there too. Like Raiatea, Taha'a also had a community tent set up where we managed to catch some of their practice sessions and then stumbled onto a local drum practice being set up in the cement covered play area of the local grade school. There were three generations of drummers and they thumped and banged for hours. The little kids ran around playing with balloons (Island Bound always carries balloons for the kids) local families dropped in and out, moms with babies on their hip stopped to watch and the older kids posed and acted nonchalant off at a cool distance.

In Taha'a we found out a bit of news that no other cruisers seemed to know: the years final Heava competitions will take place right there in tiny Taha'a. We had been told that the main competition was to be held in Bora Bora in the days leading up to Bastilles Day but now found out instead that the best of the best will be competing in Taha'a for six days well after Bastilles Day. Bora Bora is the hub of tourism these days in Tahiti's islands and their celebration is important but it will be Taha'a where the winners of each separate island will compete for the top honors. This celebration is more for the Tahitian and less for the tourists and will also be where the final competitions will be for the outrigger races, foot races, rock carrying and tug of war fights. So weather willing our stay in Bora Bora will be cut short and we will return to Taha'a for the local excitement.

While in Taha'a we also had a chance to return to the site of the best snorkeling we had every experienced in our lives. A small pass runs between two motu on Taha'a' and eight years ago we took a day tour that ended there. The guide walked us across the motu where we donned our gear and then slide into crystal clear water and weightlessly floated above a garden of gloriously colored corrals. The different types of corrals were amazing and the sea life was astounding. We both had held wonderful memories of that day. So we happy and excited when we thought we had managed to find the exact place and excitedly returned along with our friends on Panta Rhei. Sadly in just eight years the reef had taken a severe beating. The best way to imagine it is to think of the most beautiful underwater scene you can imagine then take away three quarters of the color, break off two thirds of the corral and litter the pieces across the lagoon floor and finally spread a thin film of grey sandy ash over everything.

We were stunned. It is in fact still beautiful if you don't know better and the people of Taha'a still consider it a jewel in their lagoon. But for us it was a horrible realization. To the credit of mankind we are told that most of the damage came from a cyclone that hit in 2010 that wiped out reef life, hotels, homes and roads. But a portion of the damage is a direct result of over-loving a fragile ecosystem. In fact when we were there before we were astounded how little regard the locals seemed to have for their reefs. In the US we were already into conservation in a big way. But in Tahiti the reefs had always been there and everyone it seemed thought that it always would be there. They had no restrictions or even suggestions for treatment of their beautiful corral gardens and several times we were even instructed by dive masters and tour operators to crawl our way across the corral -something that would have been unthinkable in Hawaii.

Of course we all know now that a corral reef is a very fragile thing and that they are disappearing at an astonishing rate all over the world. We keep learning that for most life on the planet trying to recover something lost always takes monumentally more time to rebuild or replace than the blink of an eye it takes to destroy. My soapbox for today is for all of us to remember that we must redouble our efforts to be good stewards of our world. Our oceans, lakes, rivers and streams flow with the life of the planet and if we disregard them we will surely loose things that are both amazingly beautiful but also vital to the existence of all life on earth. Pick up your trash, conserve, re-use, live small and pass it on. We essentially ran through Raiatea and Taha'a to make Bastille Day on Bora Bora but left with a plan to return and spend the last 10 days or so of our French Polynesia Visa discovering the smaller less used anchorages of these two beautiful and still mostly unspoiled islands.

Bora Bora is the hub of tourism for Tahiti and it's lagoon is one of the most beautiful in the world. But even Bora Bora has felt the impact of world wide decline in tourism. Many of the famous landmarks here are no longer in business but one that is still around is the Bora Bora Yacht Club and we lucked out and caught the last available mooring ball there when we arrived. The Yacht Club was built in the 50's and we were happy to see they had recovered from their own disastrous encounter with the 2010 cyclone. The club has been rebuilt and the staff was marvelous. They happily directed us to our mooring ball and then filled us in on their services and the highlights of the area. It was lovely to be treated so well and a treat to take my laundry in for a real wash and dry. They had bikes for rent, free showers, a book exchange, a free pool table and great spaces to sit and visit with the other cruisers. They can arrange just about any activity on the island and they offer a shuttle into town which came in handy for the Heava shows that ran late into the night. There is a second Yacht Club the Mai Kai and it too was full and offered a very popular Happy Hour and more upscale food. All of which came in handy for the load of boats here because as we all arrived for Heava a nasty bit of weather arrived and has kept us pinned down for days.

Bora Bora is the last island in the chain of leeward island and is the last stop in French Polynesia for many cruisers. Which left plenty of cruising boats here locked down inside the reef staying safe from the high ocean winds and 4 meter seas raging just outside the lagoon. Luckily the local Gendarmes don't seem to be worried about kicking anyone out regardless of visa dates (Maritime Law mandates that cannot deny safe harbor to a vessel in the case of bad weather or in the event a vessel is unfit to sail) so most of us are just happily hunkered down to wait out the weather. No one seems all that upset over being "stuck" in Bora Bora.

The only disappointment is that the true beauty of Bora Bora is lost in the bad weather. The lagoon famous for its many shades of blue is dark and rough and awash with wind lines. The tour boats are tied to the dock, the dive boats can't go out and the water in the lagoon is so rough that our usual mode of dinghy transportation is rather useless. The walk into town is only about thirty minutes though and the locals seem to take some pity on us happily offering rides when we stick out a thumb. When the weather finally shifts there will be a mass exodus both back to other French Polynesian islands or on west towards the Cooks and Samoa.

Fair Winds, Kat

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