Now with the advantage of a little hindsight, the most memorable impression of our cruise of the Polynesian South Pacific was not the extravagantly luxurious meals, not the personal service always at hand, not even the bantering with fellow passengers. It was the vast expanse of the Pacific that could only be fully comprehended by experience.
The Pacific, our professor explained, is the world’s largest desert, as barren as the Sahara, with no more than an occasional fish swimming through the huge expanse. Only near the shorelines are there enough nutrients from the land’s effluvia to support significant marine life. Sailing across the Pacific is as bleak as crossing the Sahara by camel.
The ship moved rapidly through the water, surprisingly rapid for such a large object. The wind from the ship’s speed was so strong I removed my hearing aids before going on deck for fear they would blow off. Leaning over the railing into the roar, I could see the bow waves violently thrown to the side and quickly sliding past the stern. Huge, broad swells generated thousands of miles away approached off the port bow, slowly rolling the ship first to one side and then the other. As the ship returned to center, it would briefly shudder—jung, jung, jung—then smooth out as it rolled to the other side. It did this day and night, night and day, jung, jung, jung . . . jung, jung, jung . . . jung, jung, jung. Eating, reading, sleeping, we could always feel the vibrations counting off the distance.
I would awake about three in the morning, still adjusting to the time change, and would go out on deck and look over the black water. I had to lean into the wind and hold tightly to the railing, the violent bow wave still roaring past the stern, the ship still shuddering with every roll, still charging through the water with awesome strength.
The ship continued on without change for days on end as we traveled from Honolulu to Moorea, below the equator. (MOE-oh-ray-a. In Polynesian, every vowel is pronounced individually.) The horizon formed a constant, impenetrable platter around the ship of deep cobalt blue with flecks of whitecaps. We never saw another ship, or airplane, or any sign of other humanity. Our tiny chunk of isolated civilization was racing through eternity on our own mahayana.
This was the expanse of the South Pacific.
Then, suddenly without warning, the volcanic mountains of of Moorea are suddenly there, jumping out of the water. We call out excitedly to others, leaning over the railing, straining to see the unfamiliar land, pointing, laughing, and cheering like sailors of long ago. Break out the grog, someone.
The sight was beautiful. You have seen it, too. Moorea is the island used to represent Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific, the island Bloody Mary dreamily points to in the distance (cue music), the island the servicemen long to visit, the metaphor for all of our desires. And we are there.
If you try, you’ll find me,
Where the sky meets the sea.
Here am I, your special island.
Come to me. Come to me.