Change of Plans: Eloping on the Remote Island of Tahiti Honored Both My Ancestors and Our Future

"There aren’t a lot of silver linings to living in the midst of a pandemic, but Blake and I found one."

change of plans

Photo by Manua Denouel/Art by Cristina Cianci

As a result of the global coronavirus pandemic, couples all over the world are having to make a very difficult, and often heartbreaking, decision to cancel, postpone, or adjust their best-laid wedding plans. To share their stories—and, hopefully, help our readers process this admittedly emotional and fluid situation, we are asking those affected to share their "Change of Plans" stories in their own words. Below, Ren West tells his story from Los Angeles.

Our love story is about as modern as it gets: Guy meets guy on a dating app and falls in love at first sight. After three years of dating, Blake and I got engaged last year at the conclusion of a weeklong trip around Australia. The last activity of our vacation was a day trip sailing out to the famed Great Barrier Reef. After a full day of sightseeing, we sailed back to the mainland and enjoyed a glass of Champagne on the deck while the sun was setting. During this magical moment, everything felt right, and we proposed to each other and said "okay, let‘s do this!"

There aren’t a lot of silver linings to living in the midst of a pandemic, but Blake and I found one when it came to tying the knot. Blake is a Los Angeles artist, one of those rare Angelenos in a city of expatriates. I am one of those said ex-pats, originally from New Zealand. We knew we were having a destination wedding; the question was where? A destination wedding was always the obvious choice thanks to the multinational makeup of our relationship—we wanted to make it easier (and fun!) for both families to meet somewhere in the middle. We started looking at options in Hawaii, Fiji, and Tahiti. The Pacific felt like a fitting option as I am a New Zealand Māori with ancestral roots in Polynesia.

A destination wedding was always the obvious choice thanks to the multinational makeup of our relationship.

Enter the pandemic. It quickly became evident that we needed to do our part to keep our families safe, which meant putting our wedding plans on hold. Even if we had wanted to move forward with something, New Zealand was pretty much closed to all visitors but essential travelers. We also became inundated with news stories about how weddings had the potential to turn into super spreader events, so we changed our plans of having a large destination wedding.

As a same-sex couple, Blake and I were also very aware of the protections and legal rights that marriage affords each other. In the last few months, there have been rumblings by the U.S. Supreme Court about rolling back marriage equality, and we decided that we needed to act quickly because the future could be very uncertain. With my family unable to leave New Zealand and Blake’s based in California, we wanted to make it official without leaving anyone out, but at the same time, we knew we needed to pursue our marriage equality while we still had the option. After assessing all the options available to us, we decided to elope, with one guest of honor: Blake’s best friend and sister, Laura.

We wanted to make it official without leaving anyone out, but at the same time, we knew we needed to pursue our marriage equality while we still had the option.

couple
Photo by Manua Denouel

Our elopement location found us when Blake was preparing lunch one day. He was researching a recipe that included vanilla and fish, and I mentioned that the best vanilla in the world is grown on the island of Taha’a in French Polynesia and how the islands had recently reopened to American travelers (with a negative COVID-19 test, of course). Our decision had been made: French Polynesia was where we needed to elope! French Polynesia also has the benefit of legally recognizing same-sex marriage, and the best part: It was a short eight-hour, non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Pape’ete.

French Polynesia is rightly considered a paradise on earth with over 118 islands, the most famous being the islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora. Inspired by the story of a master Tahitian navigator, Tupaia, we decided on his home island of Raiatea. Raiatea is considered the cradle of Polynesian civilization and the most sacred place in all the Pacific. It is also home to the UNESCO world heritage site Taputapuatea, an ancient gathering place or Marae. Basically, it was as far as you could possibly be from anyone. We felt that it was going to be a safe place to get married: outside and socially distanced, a world away from what was happening with the pandemic back home in California.

At the time of publication, visitors traveling to Tahiti are required to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test (RT-PCR) carried out within three days of departure. Once there, a second self-test is required four days after arrival. Official information can be found here

Enlisting the help of local travel Tahitian travel company, Tahiti Islands Travel, was the best decision we made, as getting around Tahiti is not as simple as getting in a car and driving. To get from place to place in Tahiti can sometimes mean multiple modes of transportation including planes and boat transfers. Our travel concierge was able to go above and beyond and was even able to help source things like our handmade wedding flower crowns and leis and a local Tahitian photographer who was just as capable of shooting above the water as under the crystal clear lagoon.

couple
Photo by Manua Denouel

I could feel my ancestors looking on in support of both of us as we exchanged vows and celebrated our commitment to each other.

ceremony
Photo by Manua Denouel

The ceremony itself was culturally inspired. Our officiant, Tahiariii, was a cultural expert who lives on Raiatea in addition to running his own tour company, Polynesian Escapes. He showed us to a local Marae (which is a sacred meeting place in Polynesian cultures), Tainuu, that has special significance for my tribe Te Arawa back in New Zealand. This was the place where they left French Polynesia before populating the North Island of New Zealand around 600 years ago. I could feel my ancestors looking on in support of both of us as we exchanged vows and celebrated our commitment to each other.

While we would have loved to have more friends and family present to celebrate our union, we feel that this was the most responsible wedding we could have pulled off in the midst of a pandemic, while still recognizing our love for each other. When borders and local restrictions are lifted, we plan on hosting festivities in both New Zealand and Los Angeles to celebrate with all our loved ones, but in the meantime, we’re enjoying married life in California and perfect memories of our Tahiti elopement.

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