She dodged COVID-19 by escaping to a remote island, where harvesting pearls is the order of the day
I do the breast stroke through glass-clear, 70-degree water, from the dock of the pearl farm to a vibrant coral head 50 feet away. Below me, I spot a blacktip reef shark cruising past a school of yellow butterfly fish while a predatory jack to my left jets through a school of perch, breaking their mass into swimming, silvery ribbons.
Only weeks before, I’d been locked inside my house in Portland, Ore., going out only to get groceries, and even that had made me feel anxious. The looming risk of COVID-19 and the collective gloom of isolation made leaving the house depressing, although staying in wasn’t much better.
The days were short, I hadn’t slept a full night in months, and most days I got nothing done besides sitting on the couch wishing I would get up and be productive — anything to feel like a functioning human. I felt vaguely sick all the time.
Unlike most people, I was lucky to have a place where I could escape this living nightmare. My family owns Kamoka Pearl Farm on the tiny, remote atoll of Ahe, about 300 miles northeast of Tahiti.
My travel writing work had dried up, and I knew that a move to a faraway place might land me much needed assignments. Plus, plane tickets were cheaper than they’d ever been. I charged a round trip from SFO to Papeete, Tahiti, to my American Express card for $550. My husband was already at the farm, working as he did this time every year. By offering a helping hand, I could live there without expenses.
We like to say that an atoll isn’t an island at all. Instead, Ahe is a thin ring of raised coral reef encircling a 53-square-mile lagoon, and the maximum elevation — a pile of discarded oyster shells, perhaps — is about 30 feet.
The landmass is broken into mini islands separated by shallow waterways between the lagoon and open ocean. Only one of these passes is deep enough to be navigable by ships. Carpeted in coral gravel, sand and coconut palms, the atoll is almost a caricature of a desert island.
COVID-19 rates on Tahiti in the winter were soaring, but there wasn’t a single case on Ahe. The atoll is a mere speck on the map, and the farm is isolated on its own islet, away from the 250 or so other people who live on Ahe. For weeks on end, it’s possible to be in contact with only the eight other people living and working on the farm.
Figuring out how to get there and stay there, the multiple COVID-19 tests and the unsavory adventure of traveling during a pandemic are complicated topics for a different, more service-oriented story. I wore a double mask, a face shield and went all-in on the hand sanitizer, but I still didn’t feel safe in the airports, on the airplanes or anywhere. It was hard to interact with other humans because everyone was hidden by their protective gear. The few people I did converse with were in a rotten mood. I hope to never travel like that again, but it was worth it with a long-term goal in mind.
A rustic paradise
Now, I’m here.
At 5 a.m., my husband and I awake in our 150-square-foot hut on stilts that faces about 5,000 miles of empty ocean. We note the force and direction of the wind (usually a steady southeasterly), knowing that this dictates how rough the lagoon will be and how difficult it will be to pull in the oyster lines for the day’s work.
From our rickety deck, we walk down a rustic wooden staircase that leads to the underside of the hut, where we have what you usually find in a bathroom. We each have a quick bucket shower and brush our teeth using rainwater stored in a 5,000-gallon cistern. Our homemade self-composting toilet is a plastic chair with a hole cut in the seat that sits over a bucket filled with coconut fiber.
We walk, still sleepy, along a quarter-mile crushed-coral trail that winds through shoulder-high shrubs and past coconut palms, to a plank bridge about 500 feet long, built precariously over a coral peninsula. The bridge leads to the pearl farm, a simple plywood house on stilts with a covered work area that faces land.
The rest of our day is lost in physical work: hauling oysters in and out of the lagoon, sorting pearls from the harvest, scaling fish to eat for our midday meal. The internet goes in and out, but on a good day, I’m able to read the news or check email on my phone during lunch. On Jan. 6, the day of the insurgence, I mentioned to a workmate that crazy things were going on in Washington, D.C. He asked, “Is Washington in the U.S.?” It was irrelevant. I was the only one who cared.
Life here is simple. When the southeastern trade winds blow, our atoll is in order. Rolling whitecaps move swiftly across the lagoon, blending the bright turquoise of the shallows into the steel blues of the deep. The sun is strong, but the wind licks away the heat.
When the wind calms, we’re treated to a glassy blue lagoon, voracious mosquitoes and invisible biting no-see-ums. Dark squalls can be seen miles away across the lagoon as the wind picks up and the air cools before the impending downpour. Ten minutes later, the sun is out again.
The monotony, simplicity and lack of human interaction on the atoll used to be difficult to tolerate for more than a month or so. Now, nothing feels better. Our few modern amenities — lights, internet, a refrigerator, a freezer and some outlets for charging gadgets — run on solar electricity.
We have more than our share of rats, cockroaches and wasps, and any wound has a high risk of becoming infected with staph. Few things grow in the coral rock ground, so our diet is limited to fish, rice, arugula grown in old fishing buoys, eggs from our chickens and whatever shows up on the weekly supply ship.
Getting along with a small number of people in a confined area is the biggest challenge — even if those people are fantastic. All it takes is one person to be in a bad mood and the negativity spreads faster than the U.K. strain of the coronavirus. Still, the warm water, respite from the news cycle and connection to the elements every minute of the day make it all worth it.
After my first three weeks on the atoll, I realize my clothes are looser. In my not-perfect French, I tell one of our crew that I’d lost “the weight of the United States.” We look at each other and laugh. Yes, my waistline has whittled down, but I’ve become lighter in other ways too. I’ve been sleeping through the night, and for the first time in months my body feels strong and healthy.
I still check the news, but once a day instead of every five minutes. I’m no longer caught up on the latest TV series, but I know the exact phase of the moon, the time of low tide and that a big northern swell has just rolled in. We spend the day harvesting beautiful pearls. Most days, I forget COVID-19 exists.
Although I’m grateful for this atoll escape, I can’t stay forever. Responsibilities are building up with work, my house and my family. But is it possible to maintain this physical and mental well-being in the U.S.?
I won’t be able to swim in warm blue water, but perhaps I’ll try stand-up paddleboarding on the Willamette River. Nature won’t surround me day and night, but I can get outdoors often and drive to a wilderness area at least once a week.
I’m planning to refinish an old table for some manual labor that will get me out of the house and away from screens. Perhaps it’s not the South Seas that is entirely responsible for this sense of relief, but the step back into a lifestyle not consumed by all things virtual. Perhaps it’s possible to take these lessons and move into the post-COVID-19 era with the physical and mental space to breathe easier.
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