Death on the Zero Horizon


Le Meridien Hotel Resort Bora Bora, French Polynesia South Pacific

Subject: Death on the Zero Horizon


A fatality introduced me to Niko and Chad a few days ago in Papeete, Tahiti. I had just arrived from Auckland and was settled in by the pool at my hotel, sneaking spikes of rum into my Coke because I couldn’t afford both the three-star hotel room and the $10 drinks from the pool bar. The hotel was a splurge, a little gift to myself to celebrate the fact that I was finally heading north instead of sliding down the global drain toward Antarctica. Niko and Chad were sitting a few chaise lounges away from me by the pool, a splendid affair with a natural sand bottom and a “zero horizon” edge that allowed one to gaze out at the South Pacific while remaining thoroughly chlorinated. I’d been admiring this view when I saw a 50ish guy at the pool’s edge slip underwater. I thought he’d just ducked his head to cool off, but when my eyes drifted back to where he’d been, he was still under.

I leaned over to ask Niko and Chad — still strangers at that point — if they’d seen the guy come up when a lady sitting under an umbrella started shrieking. I hate to report that my lifesaving instincts didn’t kick in right away, but before I’d even stood up, Chad and one of the pool waiters had charged into the water and were swimming for the spot where the older guy had gone down. Through the clear water, I could see a ribbon of diluted blood floating to the surface. The woman—obviously the man’s wife—dashed to the edge of the water, howling.

Chad and the hotel waiter dove to the bottom and hooked the man by his elbows to drag him back to the pool’s sandy beach, but by the way his head was lolling and the color of his skin, I was pretty sure the vacationer was dead. There was a cut on his forehead where he’d banged against the ledge before sinking. The waiter started CPR while some one yelled for an ambulance. The woman knelt in the sand, her big sun hat knocked askew and her shrieks reduced to desperate sobs.

The waiter gave up trying to revive the swimmer after five minutes and a group of us stood in a wide circle around the body, not knowing what to say or do. I finally laid my towel over the man, but it only covered his head, torso and thighs. His feet, coated with pure white sand, stuck out grotesquely. His wife sat next to the body, clutching a lifeless hand.

The paramedics arrived ten minutes later, and all of us who had been standing around the body drifted away. As we dispersed I could hear the wife telling the paramedics that her husband had heart problems. Niko, Chad and I went to the pool bar. Chad, who had helped pulled the man from the water, was shaken.

Having nothing else to say, I told him he’d done all he could do.

Niko nodded assent and, while waiting for the bartender to make our drinks, we introduced ourselves.

“Dying on vacation,” Niko said, glancing at the zero horizon. “Shit.”

I proposed that it was better than kicking the bucket in, say, Cleveland, or wherever the man had come from.

“I guess so,” Chad said, taking a long pull of his double Chivas and Coke. “At least he was looking at something pretty when he died. I suppose he had a heart attack and just sank. Knocked his head on the edge before he went under.”

“Shit,” Niko said.

The three of us stayed at the bar for a few hours, and I suppose it was the fact that we’d witnessed the death together that made it seem like we’d know each other a long time. Niko and Chad were both corporate bankers in their late 30s from Los Angeles, freshly divorced and taking a tropical vacation from making money back in the States. Their next stop was the Le Meridien in Bora Bora, a short flight and a boat transfer out to the hotel’s private island. When the drinks were on top of us and the sun was setting and we’d recounted the death for the tenth time, they suggested I join them. A Le Meridien anywhere (let alone Bora Bora) is dollar-dollar-bill, and I explained that my travel funds were coming to an end. While I appreciated the offer, it wasn’t in my budget.

“To hell with that,” Chad said. “We’ve got two of those over-the-water bungalows. Crash on one of the sofas. And the island hopper is only a hundred bucks. You buy us some beers while we’re out there and we’re square.”

It would’ve taken 100 cases of beer to get me up to square with Chad and Niko for the invite to the island. Both rooms had large Plexiglas panes set into the floors that allowed you to watch the tropical fish gliding through the Windex blue waters under the bungalows and each had a deck off the back, so you could get out of bed and tumble directly into the sea. The water was the same temperature as the air, so it was sometimes difficult to remember if you were swimming or not. Especially with all the prescription painkillers we were gobbling. The guys from L.A. were augmenting their massive Scotch intake with internet opiates, and the combination of Vicodins, booze and warm saltwater made each day seem like it was being experienced from within a supermodel’s womb — a uterus equipped with skylights.

Across the bay was an undulating mountain range that brought to mind the old Marlboro advertisement, the cowboy reclining on his bedroll with his hat tipped over his face.

My only hassle was supplying the beer to pay my rent. I could no sooner afford the Heinekens at the resort than I could the room, so I had resorted to making daily trips across the bay to the main island, where I’d load up on as many tall boys of Tahitian Hinano beer I could fit into my duffel bag. The beverage runs sometimes took up the entire morning, because even though the hotel water shuttle ran on the hour, the island market’s trading schedule was unpredictable. I’d sit there on the shaded porch in my bathing suit and flip flops watching the pariah dogs listlessly hump each other until one of the Samoan clerks shuffled down the road to open shop.

Back at the resort, it had dawned on Niko and Chad that their chances of hooking up with any females were severely limited by the fact that most of the ladies were on their honeymoons. The only available women were two 911 operators from Oregon and Paul Mitchell’s teenaged daughter, who made the occasional foray to the hotel pool with a burly attendant. The famous hairdresser’s 70-foot sloop was anchored in the resort’s bay.

“Only a couple idiots would come to a place like this thinking they could score,” Niko said.

They finally settled on the emergency operators. I slept in a hammock that night, too stoned on pills to feel the mosquitoes sucking me dry.

On the final morning we were all by the pool, drinking farewell beers, courtesy of a strange Canadian, who claimed to own the largest lumber operation in North America. The Canuck had sensed our distress over the inexplicable closure of the bar for two hours, and had scared up a waitress and a case of Heinekens — an act of mercy. If I ever move to Canada, I’ll buy all my 2x4’s from him.

I was on the same flight to LAX with Niko, Chad and the 911 operators. I would fly from L.A. to Mexico City and then on to Managua, Nicaragua (I’d be on American soil for a few hours, but in “transit” and therefore not officially in the country). This en masse transfer was a blessing because dazed as I was from the humid heat, the long night in the hammock and all the intoxicants, I could have never found my way to the airport by myself. Hell, I was still wearing my bathing trunks when the hotel porters summoned us to the jitney.

We took turns kissing the lumber baron’s wife, making the kind of sincerely empty promises travelers make to keep in touch that never get fulfilled, and climbed aboard the boat. Niko’s medicine bottle, bearing the mysterious name of a prescribing physician named “Dr. Ogle,” got shaken one last time for a couple remnant pills. A 750mg fat-boy Vicodin hit the deck and there was a scrum between Niko and Chad more vicious that any rugby clash I’d seen while in New Zealand. The idea struck me of securing a note inside the empty pill bottle and tossing it overboard—Dr. Ogle, if you find this note, send more supplies.

We had three hours to kill at the terminal in Papeete and everybody wanted a pizza. Chad offered to cancel my $132 blackjack debt to him if I could lead Niko to a parlor. One of the 911operators strapped a digital watch onto my wrist and set it for a two-hour countdown.

We haggled the taxi driver’s fare in half, but still got ripped off as the pizza shop turned out to be just a couple clicks away on the main road to their airport. The restaurant was an Airstream trailer on concrete blocks in a strip mall parking lot. Locals sat on milk crates eating in the dark. We ordered a pie (the “Americano,” of course) and drank a couple warm beers while waiting for our order.

After wolfing down the pizza back at the airport, Niko and I wandered around the open-air terminal looking for a cool spot to sit and wait. We found a bench next to a pair of bandit-looking locals wearing no shirts, tattoos and drinking Hinano. Through sign language I think I figured out that they were waiting for a buddy to fly in. After a bit more sign language chit-chat (inebriates everywhere communicate in this manner and I’ll be damned if I even know what language the natives spoke in Tahiti—Tahitian?) the more pirate-looking of the two guys offered me a Sherlock Holmes pipe, which was packed with marijuana.

Under normal circumstances, this is not something you do for several obvious reasons. First, you’re sitting in an airport terminal. If you want to find a cop in any country—South Africa, Iceland, or Tahiti—you head to the airport. God knows what they do to pot smokers in French Polynesia. Mutilate their private parts with kerosene-soaked razor wire or something equally brutal. Second, we’d just met these locals. Third…well, in the third place it was just a stupid move. What can I say other than these “locs” looked like good people? (As a journalistic precaution before I took the pipe, I asked if they were gendarmes. They laughed and shook their heads, just like any U.S. cop on a tourist sting operation would).

I took a hit, passed the apparatus to Niko, and it went back around to the boys. We all nodded and smiled and expressed that if we ever happened to be in each other’s neighborhood, we’d have to drop by for a beer. Something in that vein anyway. Sitting here now safely in Nicaragua, I’m sure what we did with the smoke was about as stupid as pissing on a cop car outside a donut shop, but it felt appropriate at the time. And maybe I figured that my strip search at Customs in New Zealand had somehow cleared the “whammy” from the board. Besides, it’s not like they can run you in for being wasted.

Or can they?

At any rate, the cops didn’t pounce and the next thing we knew, the announcement was coming over the PA to board our flight.

After giving my new Polynesian friends a pound and swerving away with my head spinning, I felt the strong urge to give them some token of appreciation. The only thing I could think of was the green Lefty O’Doul’s shirt off my back. I had become quite fond of that shirt, as it represented the only tee-shirt I’d brought along on this long journey. I dropped my bag and ran back to their bench, stripping off my shirt. The garment was sweaty as hell, but I handed it over. They both smiled big and gave me the hang-loose shaka.

My only regret—besides the fact that I had to unpack my bag in search of another shirt before passing through security—is that I didn’t have a Lefty’s tee for both of them. I became unreasonably fearful that the stinking shirt would cause a rift in their weed-smoking friendship. I assuaged myself by imagining that they’d find a way to share it; one guy gets it Monday through Thursday and the other guy for the weekend. It’s out of my hands now.

On the plane, Niko and I sat several rows up from the others playing blackjack, too twisted to drop off the sleep cliff with our fellow sun-stroked vacationers. Alas, the stews were not with the program. They closed the bar, saying we couldn’t have any more beers because we were drunk. Drunk? Us? Just because I shouted, “I am Goombs, the great gambler!” every time I won a hand from Niko didn’t mean I was lit. I demanded to speak with the chief purser, get his name for the letter I was going write to the head of the airline (no mind that I was holding the notebook I intended to record the information in upside down).

The FA’s finally acquiesced, mainly to shut us up, and delivered two final Hinanos, plastic cups upside down over the tops. The lagers proved to be the final nails in our coffins of consciousness. I remember the crack of the beer can, taking forty bucks in paper chits off Niko and then…blackness. My guess—and it would be to the stews’ credit—was that they put sleeping agents in those final drinks.

I awoke when the FA slid up the window shade, rather rudely and triumphantly, I think (You wanna Hinano now, bra?), and American-style sunshine poured over me. Niko was no longer next to me and had been replaced by one of the 911 operators. The woman had her hand in my lap.

We were hustled off the plane onto a shuttle bus and then into another of those hideous fluorescent Customs corridors which have been my welcome to every country on this tour. I stopped at the point where I had to take the turn-off for transit passengers and the 911 operator disappeared into thin air—just all the sudden gone. I tried to wait for Niko and Chad to catch up so I could say farewell, but the crowd of passengers frantic to get out of the airport finally shoved me off into my lonely transit channel and I never saw the guys to say thanks.

Now I’m in the business center of Managua’s Conquistador hotel, the familiar Third World odor of fresh garbage heavy in the humid air, wishing I could be back in Bora Bora for just one more day.

In my head I can see the clouds gather around the brim of the Marlboro Man’s cowboy hat—like smoke from his unseen cigarette—before gusting out over the great gallons of the South Pacific. I can hear Niko, Chad and the 911 girls slapping damp playing cards in the background, the pool water lapping, the palm trees rustling in the breeze. A boat engine sputters to life, a ukulele plunks its junkyard tune and ice melts and settles to the bottom of someone’s $14 drink. Paradise lost.

-- Tony Perez Giese

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sean Cronin