I’ll be spending the next three weeks in French Polynesia, and I’ve decided to fire up the ole blog and do some journaling.
I have a photo assignment in Bora Bora, but I wanted to do some day-by-day narrative dispatches because it’s not well-known that French Polynesia is once again open to Americans (as of July 15, details here).
The basics of entering the fenua (that’s Tahitian for “country”, and it’s used in French language press because there are some intricacies surrounding French Polynesia’s national status that I won’t go into just now) including getting a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of flight departure, submitting details of your itinerary to the authorities, having travel insurance to pay for medical expenses should you come down with it while in fenua, and agreeing to take a followup COVID-19 test on your fourth day here.
Given that many places in the US have limited COVID-19 testing ability (in Texas, I couldn’t get a test because I wasn’t symptomatic or in contact with high risk groups, and the turnaround is averaging about 9 days), it’s really threading the needle to get test results back within the 72 hour timeframe before the departure to Tahiti, and there are no exceptions. Zero. None.
I learned this the hard way. I’m normally quite diligent about paperwork and things, and I know from much past experience traveling in French Polynesia that the bureaucracy will either be comically sloppy or maddeningly exacting—and one never knows which they’re going to get.
Understandably, with the concerns about public health, this time they’re being exacting (understandably, not maddeningly). I flew to LA three days before my departure for Tahiti to get the COVID-19 test, and everything was going pretty swimmingly.
I arrived Wednesday morning, drove to West Hollywood to take the test at a drive-thru popup in the parking lot of a shuttered night club, and received the results almost exactly within the promised 48 hours. The whole thing cost $225 with my insurance covering the cost of the test itself (the $150 for processing the test plus $75 for guaranteeing a 48 hour turnaround).
I even e-mailed the lab when I got my results because I had unwittingly put my middle name on the forms, but I wanted my full name on them to match my airline ticket just in case.
My Air Tahiti Nui flight was scheduled for 11:55PM on Saturday evening, and they suggested passengers arrive right when the ticket counter opened at 8:00PM. I arrived at the virtually deserted Tom Bradley International Terminal at 7:40 and there was a table set up at the foot of the check-in line to check paperwork.
The agent took my paperwork and frowned. Apparently, the testing company had put my test collection date as Sunday instead of Wednesday, which would be too far in advance of the flight. Sunday was the day I reserved and paid for my reservation, but the test was actually collected on Wednesday.
Time to panic.
I couldn’t possibly imagine the lab responding to e-mails at 8:00 on a Saturday evening, but I responded to the results e-mail and explained that they had got the collection date wrong and I needed it updated on the form otherwise I wouldn’t be flying to Tahiti that evening as scheduled. (I knew there was another Air Tahiti Nui flight the following day that would still allow me to make my connection to Bora Bora so all hope was not entirely lost).
I stepped out into the Southern California dusk to get everything sorted and pace while I waited for an e-mail response and began to strategize about other possibilities for demonstrating I had actually gotten the test on Wednesday, and not Sunday. I had the receipt for the $75 expedited testing fee, but I didn’t imagine that would fly.
Thankfully, after a nerve-wracking hour, I got a response from Goodlife Medical, apologizing for the mistake and providing an updated copy of my results with the correct date on. I made a mental note to more thoroughly check the paperwork in the future for dates, not just names.
The new form was acceptable, and the Air Tahiti Nui staff also checked my passport and my ETIS form (the form you fill out with your itinerary details so they can contact you if anyone from your flight ends up testing positive later). Check-in was quick, my checked bag was under the 50 pound limit, and I set off through the empty terminal toward my gate.
I had already checked the LAX website, so I knew that my options for killing time were limited to Starbucks, a Hudson news stand, a book shop (save my damn life), and a Vino Volo. I’m not always in the mood for wine, particularly when I’m hoping to sleep onboard an overnight flight, so I got a guava passionfruit drink at Starbucks (my last for three weeks, there are no Starbucks in Tahiti), a pair of bottled Diet Cokes at the news stand (Coke and Coke Zero are popular in Tahiti, Diet Coke is not), and a copy of Isak Dineson’s/Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa from the book shop, which I was thrilled to find because I thought it was long out of print.
The gate area was similar to any flight to Tahiti—Tahitians returning from trips abroad and Americans excited about cruises or resort stays.
I’ve long held there are two types of visitor to French Polynesia: those that are pleased to be there, and those that are pleased with themselves for being there. There were definitely a number of the latter in the crowd that evening.
Air Tahiti Nui’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner named “Fakarava” was my ride south for the evening, and it pushed back at the stroke of midnight, so I will end my ruminations for the evening and pick up tomorrow.