By Terry Ward, CNN
Ever since the movie “Moana” first hit theaters, 8-year-old Mathias Pascal from Cuxac-d’Aude, France, has dreamed of visiting the land of “Vaiana” — the name for the ebony-haired heroine of the 2016 Disney blockbuster in its French release.
“He watched the film ever since he was little, and I’d tell him, sure, one day we will go,” Mathias’ mother, Aline Pascal, told CNN during a recent phone call from Raiatea in the South Pacific. It’s one of the Society Islands in French Polynesia, where the family is wrapping up a monthlong adventure they didn’t expect to be taking so soon.
It was nearly a year ago that Pascal and her husband, Eric, received news no parent ever expects to hear.
After noticing that Mathias — an otherwise sporty and active 7-year-old at the time, who loved swimming in the pool and the Mediterranean Sea near their home — was having mobility issues, the couple, relatively unworried at first, took him to the doctor.
Days later, on December 30, 2020, they got the terrible diagnosis. Mathias had an aggressive form of brain cancer called brain stem glioma. Because of its proximity to critical structures, they were told it was inoperable and that their blond-haired boy with the sparkling eyes likely had just one year to live.
“The first thing we did was quit our work the very next day, so we could spend every minute surrounding him with love and support and making him feel as good as possible,” said Aline, who left her job as a nurse. Eric left his job as a welder.
“Then we decided we would find a way to take Mathias to the place of Vaiana,” she said.
A community bonds together to help
French Polynesia, which sprawls over 1.6 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean between Australia and South America, is famous for its otherworldly beauty across 118 islands and atolls.
The landscapes in places such as Tahiti (the island where most international visitors land), Moorea, the Marquesas and atolls such as Rangiroa and Fakarava encompass everything from verdant and vertiginous mountains and booming waterfalls to ring-shaped coral atolls that look like life preservers tossed onto the deep blue ocean. The islands are known for having some of the best scuba diving on the planet.
Famous for luring honeymooners with their hearts set on staying in an overwater bungalow someplace such as Bora Bora, the destination is an extraordinary one — and one that tends to come with an extraordinary price tag, too.
As the Pascal family moved forward with radiation and chemotherapy treatments in France for their son in early 2021, Aline said she and Eric planned to pack a backpack and a tent to explore French Polynesia on a budget in order to make their son’s big dream come true.
But when a local benevolent association in the city of Narbonne, La Bande de Copains, heard about the young boy’s plight, a plan began to take shape.
The group first met Mathias in July 2021 after a mutual friend connected them, said the organization’s president, Benoît Perez.
“Narbonne is a small city of 50,000 inhabitants where everyone knows each other,” Perez said in an email to CNN. “After we heard the news of a 8-year-old boy who was sick, it was natural for our association to come to the family’s aid.”
What ensued was an outpouring of love from the organization’s more than 300 members and the greater community in the French departments of Aude, Aveyron and beyond that spawned a slew of fundraising events throughout the summer and fall.
The organization worked to raise money for the family’s travels by selling bracelets emblazoned with the words “Vagues d’amour” (waves of love), holding a carnival for children, selling “lottery” tickets donated by local businesses and holding a Polynesian soirée for 250 people that sold out in 48 hours, Perez said, complete with a traditional performance of the Haka dance.
Ultimately, he said, 33,000 euros were raised (about $37,000). It was enough to send Mathias, his parents, his older brother, Maxime, and a cousin from the South of France to the South Pacific for a month to immerse the boy in the land of his heroine.
Mathias’ aunt and and uncle paid their own way to French Polynesia from France.
Perez said he has been buoyed not only by Mathias’ and his family’s indomitable spirits but by the outpouring of love from the greater community during what he calls a “very difficult period in France.”
Between the rise of extremism in the country and Covid-19 pitting the vaccinated and nonvaccinated against each other, Perez said, France’s mantra of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” seemed to “lose its meaning” of late.
Mathias and his dream served as a unifier, inspiring solidarity at a time when the community needed it most.
“It’s a tough moment right now,” Perez said, but the cause has provided light during dark times and “allowed us to put things into perspective, and to prove that by being all together we can achieve superb things.”
The trip of a lifetime kicks off
Those superb things kicked off for Mathias and his family on November 26, when they embarked on a more than 24-hour journey that would ultimately land them aboard an Air Tahiti Nui flight from Paris to Papeete, on the main island of Tahiti.
When they finally left for French Polynesia, the family left their camping tents and backpacks behind.
A French public TV channel that broadcasts in French Polynesia reported the story about Mathias’ dream, said Aline. After that, hundreds of offers for everything from guest house accommodations to day trips on boats to snorkel with reef sharks rolled in from around the islands.
“We had more offers and invitations than we could possibly make happen during a month,” she said.
The family decided to visit six islands and atolls — Tahiti, Moorea, Rangiroa, Huahine and Raiatea — and plans to spend Christmas floating in Bora Bora’s famous lagoon wearing Santa hats. They’ll then return to Narbonne, where their journey started, on December 30, 2021, a year to the day when their lives changed forever.
They’ve been sharing their adventures in a Facebook group called Mathias En Polynésie for friends and supporters.
The smells, sights and sounds of the islands bring comfort
Over the past several weeks, young Mathias has been welcomed like royalty everywhere he’s been, his mother said. And despite the magnificent things they’ve seen both above and below the water’s surface, it’s the deep well of hospitality from the French Polynesian people that has left the biggest impression on the family.
A tattooed man dressed like Maui from “Moana” was among the local welcoming committee when they first landed in Papeete. There, Mathias got to show off another dream of his that came true — to be tattooed like Maui himself.
Before Matthias left France, a tattoo artist made an exception to tattoo the young boy’s arm with the depiction of a kneeling Tahitian woman wearing a flower pareu (pareo) and crown.
When the family landed on the atoll of Rangiroa on December 6, drumbeats thundered through the air. Children dressed in grass skirts, and shell necklaces danced before Mathias in a welcome fit for a president.
Crowns and flower necklaces strung with tiare (Tahitian gardenias) were piled upon the family as they pushed their boy in his wheelchair from the tarmac into the open-air airport with a thatched roof.
While the disease has affected her son’s vision and paralysis on his right side has confined him to a wheelchair, Aline said she takes photos of things on her phone to show Mathias an up close view of the beauty of the landscapes. And he can clearly feel all of the sensations and emotions surrounding them, she said.
Mathias visibly reacts to smelling plumeria and other tropical flowers, the sound of someone strumming the ukulele and the magical feeling of bathing for hours in the arms of his parents, brother and aunt and uncle in an ocean far warmer than back home.
“At first he was a little afraid to enter the ocean here since he can’t see as well as before,” Aline said. “But he’s gotten his confidence back and now it’s him who asks to go in. He’ll even take a nap in the ocean.”
After so many months of hospital appointments and treatments, she said, the trip offered the chance they all needed to recharge and disconnect from all of that — and Mathias appears to be benefiting most of all.
“He’s more active now, he spends less time sleeping, he makes jokes again that he’d stopped making before,” she said.
And while Aline said people they meet are sometimes surprised to see the family laughing and joking together, knowing Mathias likely has mere months left to live, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When he’s not here, I’ll have plenty of time to cry,” she said. “We have to keep the smiles, keep the good energy, keep the hope for this day and tomorrow, for Mathias,” Aline said.
“It’s about the quality of the days you have left, not how many days you have left.”
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Top image: Mathias Pascal and his father, Eric (at front), with his uncle and aunt (standing). Photo courtesy Aline Pascal Terry Ward is a Florida-based travel writer and scuba diver who loves French Polynesia for the warmth of its people and its incredible underwater realm.