What Do You Mean Pearls Aren’t 100% Natural?

The Matangi skiff revved its single engine and we began our journey due west toward Tavenui. Our first stop – a Fijian pearl farm. I grew up riding horses, so of course I’ve been to plenty of farms ‘on land.’ But, a farm in the ocean? This is a first for me.

Montreal native. Once advertising agency owner turned round the world sailor turned pearl cultivator. His name: Claude. His goal – to raise, harvest and sell Fiji’s most desirable pearls. From leather-clad board room hosting conference calls to a elevated wooden-plank hut sprinkled with wasps and oyster guts. Oh, and zero cell phone reception.

The process of pearl-making is in a way similar to wine or champagne making. It requires patience, timing, and a lot of TLC. First the mature oyster spawns creating thousands of black larvae. These larvae fight their way through the rolling waves and the strong attach themselves to a man-made line of rope covered with netted sponges. These vertical sponge lines act as a shelter for the delicate larvae to grow. After about 6 months the larvae develop into 1-2 inch baby oysters. These immature oysters continue to grow on their spongy lines until they reach the age of a year. This is the stage where the TLC begins. Each oyster (approximately 4-5 inches) is removed from their first home and are plunked down onto the wooden deck of the oyster house and have their first appointments at the Oyster Spa. Each side of the shell is scraped clean of debris, barnacles, and seaweed. An oyster facial.

Teenage oysters are eager to run off on their own, so oyster master Claude ‘grounds them’ until their adult life, by drilling part of their hard shell and tying them to a new vertical roped nest to continue their development into adulthood.

Just before the oysters’ 18 month birthday, the process of nucleation begins. I am a pearl virgin, because I thought that the oyster was able to grow its own pearl naturally. Less than 1% of pearls sold (and declining) are from the natural birth process. Nearly 100% of pearls are due to the nucleation process. Just like wine and champagne-making, pearl making is under the control of the human touch.

Claude flies in a world-renown (or at least to pearl enthusiasts) pearl cultivator from Japan. Claude claimed that Japanese pearl makers are ‘better’ than Chinese pearl makers.

The first thing the master of the pearl does is find a donor pearl. This is a mature pearl that has a wow factor ring of color (black, green, pinks and golds) inside its shell. A small piece of mantle tissue is taken (grafted) from the donor oyster.

Second, all the prepped oysters are nucleated using a ‘bead’ prepared from mother-of-pearl (the inside of a mature oyster’s shell). Just a side note, a bead the size of 1 carat diamond ring is about $100, but a bead the size of a marble is around $800!

The bead is now surrounded by a small piece of mantle tissue taken from the donor oyster. The bead and tissue are then implanted into the oyster’s gonad – yes you heard it right. Ouch. The bead serves as a mold, or nucleus around which the pearl develops. The resulting pearl will contain the bead as its center and will tend to develop in the same genera shape as the original bead.

After nucleating, the oysters are given a few weeks to recover from the surgery. During the time, some of the oysters may reject and expel the implanted nuclei; others may become sick or even die. Most however, will fully recover. The knocked up oysters are now moved to cages or nets and transferred to oyster beds (yes, the knocked up oysters are bed ridden for the duration of their pregnancy). The animals will continue receiving their TLC and spa treatments as their pearls develop around the bead. Depending on the ambition of the oyster, this process can require anywhere from a few additional months to several more years!

After the pearls have received many facials (the scraping of the outer ocean debris) and given the time and patience to develop fully, they must be harvested. After the pearls are extracted from the oysters, they are washed, dried, and sorted into general categories based on their color, size, and shape. Finally, Claude’s pearls are sold to hotels in the Northern island group of Fiji as well as local jewelers.

As for the knocked up, spa treated, bed ridden oysters, they begin their process all over again. Each additional nucleation produces larger and larger pearls. Talk about brood-mare.

Claude’s CIVA pearls are sold out each year. This is his fifth year in business and he predicts the next harvest (February 2012) to produce 1800 new pearls. Claude and his wife don’t have a website (they left the stresses of click through rates and banner ads behind when they sold their advertising agency), but check out their Facebook page. Claude loves to see how his hand-raised pearls end up in life. Rings, necklaces, bracelets, or earings.

Randy and I were able to snorkel around the oyster farm and while we were underwater saw this AMAZING lion fish chillin’ near the NICU.


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10 Hour Flight. 1.5 Hour Island Hopper. 30 Minute Boat Ride. We’ve Arrived.

Our travel agent told us that there would be a ‘water landing’ when we arrived at Matangi Resort. Good thing I didn’t wear my linen pants! The water was so clear that I didn’t realize just how deep the water was that I jumped right into. Water to my knees, a tropical lei and drink welcomed me to our island retreat.

Our Bure (a traditional Fijian hut) was stunning. We stayed in oceanfront bure #6 or also known as “Ono.”

A morning breakfast of fried egg, grilled tomato, toast and guava juice (thick as a smoothie), followed by a short boat ride out to Horseshoe Bay for our first dip back in the South Pacific. The sky was clouded over, so the water wasn’t crystal clear until, of course, jumping in. The water temperature was perfection. The coral wasn’t as bright as the coral off the docks at Cousteau’s (Savusavu, Fiji. This was where Randy and I spent our honeymoon over 2 years ago), but a patch here and there shone brightly. We saw plenty of parrot fish (one looked like the humahumanukuku…etc fish of Hawaii), clown fish, and small neon blue fish that I haven’t seen before.

After an hour snorkel adventure, I took a dip in the pool, ordered a Lemon Squash and jumped into my young adult novel (Matched) while laying on a swinging bed overlooking the ocean. Then…The clouds unzipped their grey cottony layers and poured. Rain. Rain. Rain. Thankfully the suspended outdoor bed was underneath a covered roof, but we were stuck for an hour or so watching the rain come down in the gallons.

After lunch we met in the dining area with Ally, the resident dive master. Following a flipchart review of dive signs and safety precautions, we signed our lives away, secured our BCD’s and tanks and walked right into the water just off the resort. Instead of instant reef beds, there lied acres of sea grasses (very Cape Cod). “Shuffle your feet please. There are sea urchins scattered about,” Ally said so coolly. “Sea Urchins?” I already have a huge cut on my knee, elbow and hand from running a few days prior (Rookie mistake, but I tripped on the sidewalk and fell on my knee, elbow and hand. Perfect timing for a beach holiday). Just what I need now is with 5 o extra pounds on my back, aiding the weight of my feet coming down right on top of purple spikes. I followed right behind Ally’s trail.

Under water we got comfortable breathing again and practiced the basic dive techniques – spare air, spare air to our partner, clearing mask, checking our gauge and the hand signals of ‘Ok’, “Short on Air”, “slow down, and “go up.” After an official Ally handshake and wiggle (yes, she likes to wiggle), we were off. Immediately Ally points at a small coral formation. Two lion fish floated like Japanese paper fans, bobbing in and out of the current. It was a mother and baby lion fish – amazing. Circling around them where at least 50 clown fish. Nemos were everywhere. We decended further and next to an underwater coconut was a moray eel. Yikes! I don’t care for eel (except with unagi sauce), but underwater they almost smile at you with their big eyes and protruding mouths. The final sighting on our dive was another kind of eel. This one was much smaller and spotted. We checked our gauges and it was time to assend. I get so nervous before a dive, and then when it comes time to assend, I instantly want to go back down. Addiction.

Back at Bure Ono we showered in our outdoor shower (with a friend this time – good thing there are no poisonous spiders in Fiji).

I struggled to remember how to wrap my Cook Islands sulu (sarong). It took several tries and of course I felt self conscious walking outside in a simple brown cloth.

A mini ampitheater was created poolside. We ordered two glasses of New Zealand Sav Blanc at the bar from the bartender with the frosted pink tips and found two front row seats for the Meke (traditional Fijian dance). A Meke isn’t as grand as a Polynesian Island night in Hawaii or the Cook Islands, but there is something very special about a Meke. It’s very family oriented. The adults harmonize in the background as their children perform traditional dance using bamboo fans, stafts, and grassy arm cuffs.

The Meke is a communal dance/theater combining singing, chanting and drumming. Traditionally it is performed in a village setting on special occasions  – typically for visiting dignitaries. However, the meke is much more than a colorful dance – it is a  medium of transmission that allows important historical events, stories, legends and culture to be handed down from one generation to the next. Often the composer of the meke is unknown, but the dances are embellished and passed on by the traditional storyteller (Daunivucu) whose role is to preserve the custom.

My eyes instantly focused on a little girl (about age 12 or so) named Cheryl. She had long wavy black hair and a bright smile. I’m sure all the local boys are after her and she knows it. She owned the show with her slightly off beat dance moved and devilish smile. She’s the one in the middle below.

It was time for the audience to join in on the dance. Cheryl must have noticed my interest in her, because she came straight towards me pulling me up on the grassy stage with her. We danced like we were in an American dance club actually. I felt slightly awkward dancing with a 12 year old girl like I was at a club in Vegas. I think the Fijians have developed an American twist to their traditional dance. And they love it.

The sun was dressing the sky in its retirement blues, purples and pinks for the visitors of Matangi to admire. We walked over to the sand and bid farewell to our entertainment as they jumped into two boats and slowly motored back to the mainland – the bigger island of Tavenui.

Lovo – a traditional Fijian meal – pig cooked underground all day and served amongst beautiful seafoods, bread fruit, taro leaf in coconut cream, ceviche, head-on prawn squeres, twice-stuffed mussels, and more. The meal was amazing. By far the most beautiful buffet I have layed eyes on. As we ate our Lovo, Nana (the owner) grabbed the microphone and  harmonized with the local band. A perfect evening of Fijian cultural dance and culinary indulgence.

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Hosting Christmas in Pasadena. Then Jump on a Non-Stop to Fiji! It Can Be Done.

Christmas Day 2011

A semi-successful Prime rib (if you like your meat wading in its own blood, vampire style, then I succeeded). “Rare is better than overdone,” my elders say. Not in my book – I prefer disguising meat in a shower of Worcestershire sauce and a thick layer of horseradish.

The week before Christmas was spent (off work!) shopping, lunching, hiking, baking cookies and spending too much on groceries. I was cooking Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals, so I couldn’t disappoint. But an almost $500 grocery bill from a total of 4 different markets? Yikes – I need to learn to garden.

Christmas Day was a blur. Exhausted from chef-fing the day before, I went for a simpler meal – Pancetta and Leek tarts, egg nog French toast, sausages, fruit and more cookies then I have ever seen on one table. I could have had my own bake sale.

Four o-clock rolled around and the Harris clan all gathered around the Kermit-topped Christmas tree (I’ve been searching near and far for the perfect tree topper for the past two holiday seasons and no luck. My childhood Kermit stocking holder will have to do for now) to open gifts. My mind wasn’t quite focused on Christmas – I was thinking about the fight. Randy and I were leaving Christmas Day eve on the 9:30 pm flight non-stop to Nadi, Fiji.

LAX terminal 1 was silent. No Southwest commuters, Vegas-goers tonight. Terminal 2 had a few people here and there. Then turning the corner approaching Tom Bradley, the people ensued. International holiday traveler-a-la-mode. Most of which were heading to Manila, Philippines. In fact, the flight to Manila was delayed by an hour and by the time they began boarding, I jumped right out of my seat due to the concert-like screams of joy from flyers who couldn’t wait to board their sleigh. There was literally 300+ flyers cheering and clapping like they had just spotted Michael Buble doing a ditty under the tree at Rockefeller Center.

We waited about 45 minutes to check into Air Pacific flight 811. The highlight was seeing “Kiki” (Kelly Rowan), the mom from the O.C. traveling to Fiji as well.

We walked through the side gate of the 747 Air Bus and the post-Christmas winter blues turned into summer vacation. Tropical music played over the loudspeaker, the seats were printed with frangipanis and flight attendants donned their own floral hair-pieces behind their ears.

We were 10 hours away from our Ni Sa Bula! (a very warm welcome). Ten days on the private island of Matangi; part of the northern island cluster of Fiji. Now, I just need a smooth flight so I can sleep!

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L.A. Confidential – SoCal’s Best Kept Secret

Yankee Candle Company is missing a key scent in their myriad of aromas. I’m pretty sure that everyone that has visited the central coast of California would spend the $22 for a large size of Coastal Chaparral. Candle mixologists would combine sage, rosemary and ocean air. Although I wasn’t on the central coast this weekend, the same Chaparral scent filled the air over the cliffs of Rancho Palos Verdes.

Thanks to an amazing deal on HauteLook.com, I surprised the hubby with a 2nd anniversary stay-cation at a new resort in Los Angeles. Terranea Resort & Spa looked amazing online, but it is surreal in person. During our second day there, I told Randy that I didn’t feel like I was in Los Angeles at all. In fact, I couldn’t really describe where we were. We sat on a cypress wooden bench overlooking a cloudless sky and a blueish-green playground. Two blue whales sprayed geysers while tiny dolphins competed in their own game of ocean hurdles. I thought we saw several sea otters, but it was merely thick sea kelp flapping the subtle white-capped ripples. On land lizards scurried back and forth across the sandy walking trails. Terranea is a place where vacationers and local animal residents seem to happily co-exisit with one another. The physical beauty, weather and incredible hotel staff….I don’t know who could possibly visit Terranea and be upset.

Rewind to Saturday morning. Randy hadn’t a clue where we were going. I told him to get on the 110 south freeway in Pasadena and in 50 minutes we were at the gates of Terranea. Our first stop – The Links – Terranea’s 3 par golf course overlooking the ocean. Holes 1-6, my form was pretty bad – I think I forgot how to play. But on Hole 8 (Whale’s Point), I got Par! We won’t talk about the total score 🙂

The course conquered the both of us, so we walked down to the hotel to check in. Check in wasn’t until 3pm, but we got our keys and two welcome glasses of bubbly at 12:15pm. We sat out on our balcony soaking in this view…..

The remainder of the day was spent poolside, hopping from jacuzzi to pool, to waterslide (yes, they let the adults down the twisty slide!) and back to the jacuzzi.

Nelson’s was the spot for happy hour and a SoCal sunset.

I found a new favorite restaurant in LA – Mar’sel – Terranea’s French inspired cuisine. We enjoyed a sage martini (I would have never ordered this, but the bartender said it was his specialty and we had to have one. I guess he didn’t think we looked convinced, so he made us two on the house!) while sitting around an outdoor firepit (Terranea has over 200 firepits around the property). Dinner was amazing. I felt like we were in the countryside in France enjoying local ingredients. Randy ordered the sea bass and I had grilled Branzino. It was almost served traditional French style, but Mar’sel didn’t include the fish head. Dessert was just as good.

On Sunday morning we enjoyed breakfast smoothies to go on the hiking trails.

The remainder of the day was spent at the spa – lap swimming, massages, hot tub and bentoboxes.

What was MarineLand until 1987, then lied dormant for 20 years, now sits an LA resort that has the scent of Central Coast Chaparral, a playground for blue whales, dolphins and lizards and every amenity you need for a quick getaway to feel like you used a Passport to arrive.

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Au Pain Chocolat – A Tale of Chocolate Bread + Bubbles

I was running late to class, but I have a ritual every morning in Paris. I scan through the wall posts on Facebook for a sense of American news, friend happenings and whereabouts. After my fix, I closed the screen of my MacBook Pro leaving the laptop lying on top of my white duvet. I closed the door to my flat and turned sideways into the elevator built for one. The smell of Italian salami wafted a ‘good morning’ as I pushed button ‘0’ to cascade me down to street level.

I opened the 10 foot high iron door blocking my building from the street and stepped onto Rue de Poissy, mere steps from Quai Tournelle (parallels the river Seine). I reached in my hobo bag and pulled out my breakfast. My fingers thumbled through the paper towel blanket trying their best to salvage each escaping crumb. I couldn’t wait to take a bite.

The previous evening, I bought ‘au pain chocolat’, from my neighborhood Boulangerie. I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, but the moment I met this ‘crispy on the outside, half-baked chocolatey goodness on the inside’ breakfast treat, it was love.

I stuffed the paper towel back in my bag and I raised au pain chocolat up to my lips. My mouth’s myriad of porcelain chompers felt like dancing as the baked filo approached the disco.

I was about to bite down on my croissant when a man walked towards me. He was wearing a blue suit and red du-tone striped tie, slightly cock-eyed. His brown hair was in place all but one curl, curving against traffic along the side of his head just above the ear. A half drunk bottle of champagne swung carelessly from his right hand, dangling below his straight waist.

I unwillingly lowered my au pain chocolat and glanced down at my watch. 9:33am. A bit early for bubbles.

His hazel eyes met mine.

“Bon Appetit!” The shout hit me like icy winds on top of Whistler Mountain in January. His voice echoed through Rue de Poissy bouncing on top of cars, skidding across rooftops.

“Merci,” I said quietly. I was dumbfounded by his attempt of conversation, but concluded that this buzzed gentleman was being polite in a late night pub type way.

He stopped his cadence and jerked towards me, leaning forward now hovering directly above au pain chocolat.

Then it happened.

Mr. Bubbles sneezed. His sparkling wine tarnished saliva catapulted from his tongue splattering onto the top layer of innocent au pain chocolat. The crispy outer shell began to cave, trying to retreat below the surface. Bubbles wiped his mouth, and looked at me surprised I was even standing there in the first place. He walked away, bottle swinging with each step he took in the direction of the river.

I walked somberly to the green bin on the street corner and flipped au pain chocolat into the heap. Stomach growling.

So much for breakfast.

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“Au Lapin Agile” – Authentic Parisian Cabaret

I relished in the music, at the same time, I had not a clue what they were singing.

“This song is about a goat,” he said. I was surprised that one of the performers leaned over to offer an English translation.

“Merci,” I said. My right hand lifted as I spoke. Why did I flash him a thumbs up? Cheesy American.

The song ended and I clapped. A female singer entered the room from behind the crimson curtain. The man approached me again.

“This one is about a girl who lost all of her chickens in a divorce.” He whispered to me.

Of course! I was totally going to guess that, based on the six French phrases I know. (Insert sarcasm here.)

I’m not sure why he chose me, but I had befriended my own translator at the ‘French only’ Au Lapin Agile cabaret. Even if this man hadn’t picked “the American” out of the crowd of Parisians to offer his assistance, I still had a fantastic evening. According to Patricia Schultz’s 1000 Places to See Before You Die, Au Lapin Agile is “as authentic as the cabaret experience can be.”

Since its debut in 1860, the cabaret “Au Lapin Agile” has fostered generations of singers, poets and artists. At the dawn of the 20th century, reknowned cabaret artist Aristide Brunard bought a quaint cottage in the hills of the Montmartre district of Paris, directly across the street from a 300 year old vineyard. He wanted to ensure the home’s preservation and a place to discover talents in song. In the 90’s, Steve Martin used the Lapin Agile as the setting for his play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”

I saw the show “Song, Music and Poetry.” The night includes a wide variety of talented singers and artists. I was mesmerized by a female accordion player. She didn’t miss a beat, panning the room, singing, and punching the keys while stretching the complex instrument.

I sat at a carved wooden table in a dimly lit room surrounded by sculpture and 19th century paintings. Complete immersion among French culture. A waiter offered a drink on the house: a cheery cordial with four soaked cherries at the bottom of the glass. A little too sweet for me, but thankfully the waiter offered me a glass of ice water.

The soiree covers traditional French standards, love ballads, sea chanteys, and more (Including songs about goats and chickens apparently. I’m starting to think my translator was pulling my leg.). The six artists/performers encouraged everyone to sing along with some of the well-known drinking tunes – even if it is only “oui, oui, oui – non, non, non.” I nailed that part.

So although the entire evening was sung in French, the performers knew how to excite a multi-lingual audience. And if you can find a helpful translator, all the better.

Cover charge, with one drink included, 24 Euro. Students under 26 years old, 17 Euro. The show starts at 9pm and ends at 1am (you are free to leave earlier if you’d like – I left at 11:30pm).

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Slightly ‘Off’ in Paris (and a Star Wars poem, of course)

My list of Parisian loves could roll on infinitely, but I chose to keep a toned down approach. On the flip side, there are just a few things, that seem just a bit ‘off’ about this city. I dislike that….

1. Parisian dog owners do NOT pick up after their canine companions. Gutters, sidewalks, grass and street. It’s all free game. Yes, I have stepped in it. Four times in three weeks to be precise.

2. Parisian women can rock five inch heels for miles of footwork across uneven cobblestone streets and have no evidence of Neosporin and bandaids to help remedy their wounds. I don’t think they have any battle scars. Parisian feet are Olympians.

3. Parisian drivers are CRAZY! I’ve witnessed three motorcycle accidents since arriving here. In fact, I even wrote a nerdy poem inspired by the shop around the corner that sells nothing but Star Wars chotskies. WARNING: poem is quite nerdy.

In A Galaxy Far, Far Away On Boulevard Saint Germain

Boulevard Saint Germain is a Star Wars battle,

and I am R2-D2, anxious follower by night.

Easily hiding behind lampposts

avoiding kamikaze crossfire,

I shine in bright colors, unable to camouflage with new surroundings.

Robotic movements guide me blindly through this crooked street.

Florescent lights brighten, then dissolve,

descending shadows of black wasps zooming past.

A peloton of leather-clad warriors fly together frustrated

to follow the commands of their leader

flashing messages in green, yellow and red.

Some sneak through crimson signs leaving the weaker behind.

Solo zooms scream louder with each rev of the wrist.

I can hear him approaching me now.

Faster. Faster.

Trying to catch the others, he picks up more speed.

Painting patterns of zig, zag,

Smoky signatures mark territory with skids.

In every galactic battle, someone must fall.

Strike! Crash! Crunch.

The rider’s gloved hands release a dense grip.

Catapulting into a four-square battle zone,

a warrior helmet bounces and halts at my twitching feet.

Boulevard Saint Germain is breathless.

I grip tightly to the lamppost, my valiant lifesaver.

The streets feel empty except for the fallen and me.

Do I enter the battlefield? What training do I have?

My smart mobile devise is incompatible to his world.

Not able to signal someone better fit for this scene,

I want to retreat back into mulled darkness.

Like a robot, my feet slide into the severed street.

Where is C-3PO, speaker of six million tongues?

But wait! He speaks and I respond naturally.

My single language is connecting to the fallen

like we were both from a similar mother ship.

I hear sirens buzzing in the distance.

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