Oh Mo'orea. I don't even know where to begin...
... Actually, I do. It all began with a little poster pasted outside the Herbarium. I was in my second semester of college when I saw it. A picture of students underneath a waterfall with a short blurb below on the class, which was titled "Biology and Geomorphology of Tropical Islands".
Needless to say, I was immediately sold. I won't go into details, but 2.5 years later, I was on my way to one of the most amazing yet challenging (it is for a pretty research intensive class!) experience in my life.
It's So Blue!
Mo'orea is one of the islands in the Society Island Group in French Polynesia, which also contains other famous islands which rapstars sing about, like Bora Bora and Tahiti. Like the rest of the islands, it was formed by an oceanic hotspot and subsequent subsidence of the island leaves a fringing reef around the island. What this means to the layman like us is - there is a lagoon, and the shallow lagoon water is freaking blue.
I lived on the second floor of our dorm, where rats run happily on the rafters (the dorm was built in an open concept style), my bed was a little flat, and my mosquito net required a lot of patching with duct tape. Oh, and the cat Ma'o, which means Shark in Tahitian, liked to crash on my bed. I don't know why, but I heard from previous classes that our room and the opposite room were his favorite haunts. Nonetheless, living conditions were okay -- I think I still got more room here than my previous dorm room back in Berkeley!
The hardest part for me was perhaps sleeping early. Many of my classmates slept late, and since the whole place was open concept style, I could hear everything. I'm a light sleeper, so this was a bit of a challenge sometimes. Luckily, almost everyday was tiring enough for me to just collapse on bed and sleep soundly. The second hardest part for me was that I' an extremely unhealthy and picky eater. Fortunately, we had the best cook in class, and my only kitchen skill (cleaning) was put to good use. I did lose a lot of weight though!
Spider Hunting... Otherwise Known as My Research Project
I wouldn't bore everyone with the details of my project. If you would like to find out more about it, please click here. For the fieldwork component of the project, I would go to 3 Pines Trail 4-6 times a week to measure webs of the native uloborid spider Tangaroa tahitiensis. Usually a bunch of us go in to the forest together but we usually part ways to work on our own. Sometimes I pass old ruins and carved rocks. Most times, the stillness of the forest is very therapeutic, but some times, it can be a bit eerie if I let it get to me. Unfortunately, I am never really alone in the forest, as about 10 mosquitoes will "accompany" me. I will wear a long sleeved tshirt and long pants, but if I forget to put repellant on the rest of my body, they will attack my fingers, face, and even ears. The worst part is when my hands are busy measuring an inconveniently placed web, and I can hear the buggers buzzing around me but can't do anything about it.
When it rains, I can't work at all. I'll sit around in my huge poncho (the poncho is used to protect my stuff, not me from the rain), try not to get bitten by relentness mosquitoes while waiting for my ride back to the field station. Some times, the view makes it worth it.
Blue but Dangerous
Even though I did a terrestrial project, I spent a lot of time in the water, whether for class trips or for leisure. I definitely built a lot of confidence with open water snorkeling and free diving, even after nearly drowning once when a current nearly swept me towards fire coral. Luckily my GSI grabbed me, but he was also pushed by the current. In the end, a chain of people grabbed on to me until I managed to reach safer waters. It was pretty funny... once I was out of danger, that is!
I managed to see many fantastic creatures, such as the Tahitian Ray pictured above (which makes me shamelessly drool because one local Singaporean dish is barbequed stingray). I also managed to spot an octopus, moray eels, and even a sea turtle during one of my leisure snorkeling trips. However, I make it a point to wear extremely thick booties. This is because I am afraid of some things underwater, such as stonefish and sea urchins. One of my classmate's was "spined" by Diadema urchins near our field station, and her foot turned black for a week.
Another mishap happened while we were doing our fore reef swim. We were in open sea, having a ball of a time being pushed reefwards by the waves (even the fish were being pushed back and forth by the waves). By then, I had a lot more confidence with my snorkeling and I was trying to chase reef sharks around and free diving. Unfortunately, some of my friends were stung by the Polynesian Man of War (not the Portugeuse one, but it still stings pretty badly). The result was huge welts across affected parts of their skin, and pain which was described to me like a knife slicing through your skin. In the end, we had to get our professor's wife to pee in a cup and slosh the urine on their wounds to ease the pain before transporting them back to shore.
Despite the dampened spirits by jellyfish, we were greeted by spinner dolphins, who were absolutely adorable. They swam to us in a somewhat synchronized fashion, and they even "spun" under water. They hung around our boats for a while before moving on. I've never seen dolphins in the wild before, so this was a truly wonderful experience for me.
There is one other way that the big blue can be "dangerous". When we went whale watching, I got severely sea sick. Now I rarely get sea sick, but when you are out in the open sea lolling around with the waves trying to look for whales, it really gets to you. I spent a lot of time nauseous over the side of the boat, unable to puke. Worse. Feeling. Ever. I felt so sick that I was shivering very badly in the cold. After hours of searching, we found one mother whale and her baby. We all jumped off the boat to try to get closer to the pair, and surprisingly, swimming in the sea was a welcome relief to being on the boat. In my half hazy state, I was lagging behind the others, but the baby whale came right under me. I nearly panicked for a second, because the baby was HUGE. It looked like a big black submarine under me. It was only under me for 30 seconds or so, but those 30 seconds was definitely worth the 4 hour seasickness.
We had Tahitian dancing lessons once a week. Even though I had experience in hiphop, Tahitian dancing was difficult for me. Yes, I picked up the moves quickly, but I could never get my hips to twirl and shake like they were supposed to. It also hurt my knees a lot, but I can imagine that it burns a lot of calories. We would come back from lessons extremely sweaty and jump straight into the sea to cool off. For a friend's birthday, I once jumped into the sea with all my clothes on.
I have to admit I did dread dancing lessons some times, but performing it was really fun (and amusing since our dog "Chicken" nearly tripped me while I was dancing). Making the grass skirts were a bit tedious (I'm no good with my hands), but I guess they really made us look more the part. I can still remember our instructor yelling at us to lift our chests up and telling us to pretend that we are the most beautiful girls in the world...
Solo Bike Ride
One of my friends and I co-shared a bike. It was a pretty crappy mountain bike with gears that did not work. Luckily, most of the road in Mo'orea is flat ground. On one of my last days around the island, I did a solo bike ride around the island. It was 67km with about 67 stops for pictures and ice cold drinks. After 3 months of living here, I was mistaken for a local!
It was also my way of saying goodbye to the whole island. It was a fun 3 months here, but it was also stressful as we had to rush a research project out in a short time frame. I had never worked so hard on any assignment in my entire life (so far). In addtion, I was missing my friends and food back in Berkeley, and getting tired of being bitten by mosquitoes and abandoned Skype sessions with one of my best friends. This bike ride reminded me that despite all the mental and physical trials and tribulations of this trip, overall, the whole Mo'orea experience was worth it and I would definitely do it all over again.