Tahiti: The Windward Shore of the Island of Love

One day in 1768 a bare-breasted Tahitian girl climbed from her canoe to a French ship under the hot-eyed gaze of 400 French sailors who had not seen any woman at all for over six months. she stepped to the quarterdeck where, pausing at a hatchway, she slipped the flimsy cloth pareu from her hips, and stood utterly naked and smiling at the men. Down went the anchor, and in that moment the myth of romantic Tahiti was conceived, a paradise of fruit trees, brown tits and kiddie porn. Like Venus rising from the waves - that was how the naked girl was described by the captain of the ship, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman in Tahiti, who believed he had discovered heaven on earth ("I thought I was transported into the garden of Eden"), the abode of Venus, the Island of Love.

Now I had a similar experience in Tahiti, involving stark nakedness, the lagoon, the hot-eyuedgaze, and an outrigger canoe, but in its suddenness and coloration this incident was more up to date and more representative of Tahiti today. And I was the one in the outrigger canoe. After a day or so rattling around the streets of Papeete, Tahiti's capital, I rented an outrigger from a Frenchman (he called it his "petite pirague") and paddled for a day to Tahiti-Iki - "Little Tahiti," the volcanic bulge that is attached to the eastern shore of the island. The ancient name of the island of Tahiti is Tahiti-nui-i-te-vai-uri-rau, "Great Tahiti of the Many-Coloured Waters."

The name is apt. The lagoon beneath Tahiti's dead green volcanoes is a luminous varying blue, not sea-water colored, but with glittering opalescent depths, and elsewhere shallow coral shelves, white and knobbed like bones, rippling with fish. Overall the water is limped and unexpectedly bright, like those candy-coloured liqueurs made from berries, cordials that are so pretty in the squat glass bottled in a bar that just looking at them cools you and takes away your thirst. The surface of Tahiti's lagoon was spangled with stars of sunlight. A mile or so offshore was the reef, being pounded by surf that was so heavy it had the muffled boom of distant cannon fire, and it ringed the entire island with a white flash of foam.

Tahiti has its drawbacks - it is expensive, traffic-choked, noisy, corrupt and Frenchified - but it is impossible to belittle its natural physical beauty, and in site of the car exhausts there is nearly always in the air the fragrant aroma - the noanoa - of flowers, the tiare especially, a tiny white gardenia that is Tahiti's national blossom. Visitors are full of complaints, though. Just that morning, on the public vehicle they call le truck (a cross between a mammy-wagon and a school bus, and "Tahiti's only bargain) I had fallen into conversation with a man from Maryland. His name was Don Kattwinkel - he wore a get-acquainted badge - and he was obviously a sucker for carvings, from the look of his war club and his letter-opener. He was on the three-day tour, just arrived at Faa'a a few days ago - today Tahiti, tomorrow New Zealand. And he tried to sum up Tahiti for me.

"No one smiles here," he said. "And you can't drink the water."
I broke it to him gently that both were half-truths. The locals smiled at each other, even if they didn't smile at us, and they boiled their water before drinking it. Don made no comment on that. He said, "You sound like you're from Australia."
I wanted to tell him that people have been killed for uttering an uncalled-for libel like that. "You're sure not from Mass," he went on. "I know that dialect." I was thinking about this irritating fart while I was paddling my canoe - nothing like meeting a man like that to preoccupy yourself. there was a current campaign put on by the Polynesian Tourist Board called Put On A Smile! - encouraging Polynesians to smile at tourists, mostly Japanese, none of whom smiled themselves. Is there a Japanese smile that does not seem like an expression of pain?
By mid-afternoon I had paddled halfway around this part of the island, and was nearing the village of Atimaono. It was not much of a place, but it was the setting of one of Jack London's masterpieces, his story "The Chinago." In the story some Chinese laborers - "Chinagos" - are accused of murder, and though all are innocent of the crime they are found guilty by the French magistrate and one, Ah Chow, is sentenced to hang. Another, Ah Cho, is given twenty years in a prison colony, but one morning he is taken to this village. Atimaono, and told that he is to be beheaded. He protests to the various gendarmes - it is a case of mistaken identity, because the names are so similar - and at last, pleading for his life and proving he is not the condemned man, he is believed. but the French officials confer. They have come a long way from Papeete. The guillotine is ready. Five hundred other laborers have been assembled to watch. A postponement to find the right man would mean being bawled out by the French bureaucrats for inefficiency and time-wasting. Also it is a very hot day and they are impatient.
All this time Ah Cho listens and watches. At last, but kn owing they have the wrong man, one French policeman says, "Then let's go on with it. They can't blame us. Who can tell one Chinago from another? We can say that we merely carried out instructions with the Chinago that was turned over to us ..."

And, still making excuses, the French strap down the innocent Chinese man and strike off his head. "The French, with no instinct for colonization," London writes at one point, and that is the subject of the grim story.

An hour past Atimaono was the harbour of Port Phaeton. In a lovely garden by the sea was the Gauguin Museum, but in spite of its name it contained no paintings by Gauguin, only a haunted grimacing tiki. Farther on, the village of Papearl was said to be the first settlement of the seagoing people who originally landed on Tahiti and it lay next to the piece of land, like a pinched waist, where Little Tahiti was attached to Big Tahiti. but it was all so suburban. One of the curious facts of Tahitian life was that strictly speaking there were few usable beaches on the island - the public ones were dismal and littered, the others were the property of proprietorial Tahitian villages. Looking toward the island from the lagoon, I could see that the coast was an unbroken stretch of bungalows and villas, one enormous attenuated suburb that encircled the whole of Tahiti. Undermined by French aid programs, and besieged by French construction companies, the Polynesians have abandoned their traditional house=-building. The houses were extremely unattractive and they were packed cheek by jowl along the coast, surrounded by chain link fences and walls which needed no translation, and the French houses had security cameras and signs saying Attention Chien Mechant! (Beware of the Fierce Dog!).

Earlier in the day, paddling ear Punaauia, I had passed a pair of fares, or traditional huts, but there were not many others like them in the whole of French Polynesia. I was so interested in them that I went ashore there and was told that these two at the edge of the beach at Punaauia were owned by the Swede Bengt Danielsson, who had run aground in Polynesia forty-odd years ago on the raft Kon-Tiki. In his book recounting the adventure, Thor Heyerdahl wrote, "Bengt was right, this was heaven," and Bengt stayed in Polynesia.

"Monsieur Danielsson is on holiday in Sweden," a Tahitian woman on the lawn told me. I was sorry to miss him, because Danielsson and his French-born wife Marie-Therese have courageously fought a vocal battle against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and in this small and politicallyh incestuous French colony Danielsson has been threatened, obstructed and shunned. Yet he perseveres in publishing to the world the fact that the French have been continually detonating nuclear devices - 160 so far - in one of the world's most fragile ecosystems, a coral atoll, nuking it to pieces killing fish and causing cancer. Perhaps it was just as well that I did not engage Danielsson on this subject of French colonialism, because just a short trip to any French territory in he Pacific is enough to convince even the most casual observer that the French are among the most self-serving, manipulative, trivial-minded, obnoxious, cynical and corrupting nations on the face of the earth.

Et c'est vous qui parlez! a French person might reply. Look who's talking!

It is true that America has overwhelmed its own territory in Samoa and made it a welfare state, but Samoans have emigrated wholesale to the mainland United States, where they flourish or fail, according to their abilities. There is no profit in Samoa for us. But Polynesia is all profit for the French - they need the land and the distance to capitalize on world air routes for French airlines, and they need Polynesia as a military garrison, and - most profitable of all - they need nuclear testing facilities for their arms industry. As an old-fashioned colony it is a racket. The French effort is devoid of idealism. Only a minuscule number of Polynesians ever make it to metropolitan France to qualify as doctors or administrators - the French run the entire show. but the patronizing racism inherent in French colonial policy has not had the demoralizing effect that was intended. They planted themselves in the islands and consistently discriminated against Polynesians and refused to learn their language - there was a law passed to French Polynesia in the 1960s forcing Polynesians and Chinese to take French names so they could be more easily pronounced. In the way, the French turned most of these friendly people into sullen adversaries and some into lapdogs. but though they have lost most of their traditional skills of weaving and house-building and fishing and sailing, the Polynesians have retained their oral culture - and that is a good thing, because no one needs their culture more than colonized people. What else do they have?

The Polynesians paid lip-service to the French and so the French truly believed they had subverted the islanders. but in fact they only made a greater burden for themselves. by encouraging the islanders to be "colorful" they distanced themselves. The French are at their most obvious, their most bourgeois and sentimental when they are dealing with people they regard as savages, but it seem to be a fact that sentimentality is a trait one always finds in bullies and brutes. The honest thing, in dealing with Tahiti, would be to discuss French Polynesia as a depressing political problem, because it has been a French colony for 150 years. Everything else ought to be irrelevant - that is, whether the beaches are pleasant and the food is tasty, and the hotels are comfortable, and what's the music like? The very fact of politics mattering in the Pacific seems strange - few people in other islands care about politics - yet it is the only place in the Pacific where there is a political situation. It is a characteristic of colonies that unless political life is manipulated or made ineffectual the place won't work.

But it is all so boring. I liked Pacific islanders generally for the way they guffawed at politicians - I admired their sense of family, their practicality, their usual indifference to world events. They were out of the mainstream, on the other side of the world - the brighter, happy side. For those with televisions, "Operation Desert Storm" had been to them not much more than a nightly entertainment video. That attitude seemed informed by a healthy combination of wisdom and vulgarity, and a taste for sensationalism - but most of the world's couch potatoes are much the same. There was always a mixture of motives among Polynesians: they made you feel at home and then they stole from you. If you complained, they would say that it was nothing personal - and if you couldn't afford it, what were you doing here, so far from home, in the first place? Colonial politics was just another complication. Yes, the French built court-houses and schools, but the French colonialists needed such institutions far more than Tahitians did. I just kept wishing that the French were a bit nicer and more generous, and weren't so keen on nuking everything in sight. They said they had to - for world peace, but that was merde. The French arms industry, third largest in the world, and exporter of nuclear technology, now more than ever depended on extensive nuclear testing.

I paddled past Bengt Danielsson's two thatched-roof fares. Buffeted by the trade winds - the wind never ceases to blow in Polynesia - I kept within the reef, glorifying in the sight of the lovely island of Moorea, in mountains looming dark and spiky - local myths claimed they were the dorsal fins of giant fish, but the island looked to me like a seagoing dragon, crossing the channel known as the Sea of the Moon. It was then, squinting into the intense glare of a cloudless oceanic afternoon - the sun slanted into my eyes - that I saw a small raft drifting perilously near the reef. There were some inert specks on it - humans probably - but it was the oddest possible place for a raft to be. If it went on drifting it would be smashed to pieces by surf. It had no mast or sail, nor was anyone paddling it. I had the idea that it had broken free of a ship and that somehow it had floated through a break in the reef. What was beyond question was that it was hardly visible from shore. The only reason I could see the raft was because I was in a seaworthy outrigger canoe and paddling along the margin of the reef.

You sometimes heard stories of the ordeal of the people on such rafts, how their expensive yacht had been sunk by a killer whale, and how the quarreling castaways had clung to the wreckage for days or weeks, praying for deliverance, until, one sunny morning, the batt3red thing hove into view on a tropical shore, where holiday-minded families frolicked with beach balls, the raft looking as though it had floated straight out of Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and it was immediately, grotesquely clear that the survivors had made it through by using each other with the utmost barbarity - human bones, scraps of flesh and the evidence of cannibalism. "Daddy, what's wrong with those people?" - one of those rafts. That made me paddle faster, and I could see that there were only two figures on board and that I was gaining on the raft. It excited me to thing that I might be the first person to witness the arrival of the desperate craft in Tahiti, and I alone would hear their ordeal - what a piece of luck for someone like me, who intended to write about these islands where in the normal way nothing much happened. Now I could see that the two figures on the raft were lying flat, as though protrate from the sun, and there was something melancholy about the solitariness of their situation - within the reef and yet still so far from shore. You could drown, or starve, or die of thirst, or suffocate with heat exhaustion, even in the bewitchingly lovely place.

I had a water bottle and the remains of my lunch in my boat - enough to revive them, I was sure. They were upwind, so they did not hear the thrashing of my canoe, but I was soon close enough to recognize the strangeness of this simple raft. It was not drifting; it was tethered to a ;mooring. Apart from the two people, there was nothing else on it, not an object of any kind - no flag, no scraps, no bones, no bucket, nothing - nor any clothes. There were two skinny women on the raft and they were asked. As I drew near - I was only thirty feet away - some warning vibration of my maleness must have charged the air - suddenly each woman sat up straight. Or had they heard my paddling? They were young, in their twenties, rather pretty and, from their demeanor, French. They were browner than any Tahitian I had seen - the gleaming darkness of the most lizard-like sunbather. It was the sort of tanning that made you think of leather. Seeing me, they arranged their bodies compactly, as modestly as they could, folded themselves with ingenious economy, their knees drawn up under their chins, and their feet jammed together, and they hugged themselves, like monkeys squatting in the rain. To preserve their modesty, I did not go much closer, and yet I was close enough to be able to marvel at their nakedness, at the exoticism of this sight - a pair of nymphs on a bobbing raft in the Tahitian lagoon. 

"Hello," I said, trying to be jaunty, so as not to alarm them. But it had a hollow sound - and I realized it was just the sort of thing a rapist or voyeur might say to give false reassurance to his victim. They narrowed their eyes, their gaze did not meet mine, and their tense posture, with this grim indifference (which I took to be fear and apprehension), was meant to shame me. They wanted me to go away, of course. And now I saw a Tahitian fisherman, trolling from a small motor-boat. He looked up and leered at the crouching sunbathers. they shrank from him, too, and wished him away. It irritated me that they felt we had no right to go bobbing past them - that, simply because they had taken all their clothes off, they regarded themselves as inviolate, and treated this part of the lagoon (which belonged to everyone) as their private property. For that reason I lingered and then I left, paddling onward towards Papeete. There I was told that this was a fairly common practice - a French thing, women sunbathing nude in order to eliminate bathing-suit silhouettes on their skin. A speed-boat dropped them on the raft and returned two or three hours later to take them back to their hotel.

It was dangerously silly to lie naked under this blistering Oceanic sun, and there was not a single Polynesian who would dare it. Apart from being bad for the skin, and a cause of premature wrinkling, if not cancer, it was blatant immodesty. Once upon a time the Tahitian had reveled in nakedness and seduced European sailors and tempted them from their stern duties on shipboard. ("... for when we were sent away, 'Huzza for Otaheite!' was frequently heard among the mutineers," Captain Bligh wrote bitterly, after seeing his ship the Bounty headed back to Papeete and the local women.) But these days only the tourists went naked, and the bare tits you saw were always those of visiting sunbathers. The Tahitians were all covered up and decent; history's wheel had taken a complete turn, the fantasies were reversed, and now it was the Christian Tahitians who leered, and the pagan French who were naked.

As soon as the nameless Tahitian girl on Bougainville's ship dropped her flimsy cloth in full view of the impressionable sailors, Tahiti's fate was sealed, and the South Sea Island myth was born. Ogling a woman's private parts is the Frenchman's version of a glimpse of paradise in any case, but to these horny and fanciful sailors this was even better - the woman was a dusky maiden, just the sort of uncorrupted savage living in her natural state that Rousseau had described only fifteen years earlier. Captain Bougainville was ecstatic. He paid Tahitian women his highest compliment: "for agreeable features (they) are not inferior to most European women, and who on the point of beauty of the body might, with much reason, vie with them all." He wrote that the naked girl on board "appeared to the eyes of all beholders, such as Venus showed herself to the Phrygian shepherd, having indeed, the celestial form of the goddess."

From that moment - and Bougainville encourage the view - Tahiti was known as the New Cytherea, the abode of Venus. When Venus Aphrodite rose from the sea foam she stepped ashore (according to he poet Hesiod) at Cythera, in Ionia. This naked Tahitian girl was Venus made flesh, a goddess of love and beauty, the physical embodiment of the life force. But there was more. Every detail of Tahiti excited Bougainville, and when he settled down to write about his voyage he described how like the world before the Fall this island seemed, and he used Rousseau's precise expression "the golden age" for this uncorrupted place: Polynesia was one of "those countries where the golden age is still in use." Even the creatures associated with the mythology of Venus could be found in Tahiti. The dolphin, the tortoise and the gentlest birds were sacred to Venus - and there the captain had found them in the very spot where this dusky Venus smiled upon him. More than that, more rousing than the unashamed nakedness, were the sexual practices - and they were of the most unfamiliar kind. This seemed to be an island of exhibitionists. Officers and sailors invited into the islanders' houses were given food and afterwards the Tahitians "offered them young girls." Neighbours crowded into the house, music was played, the floor was spread with leaves and flowers, and the Europeans were encouraged to strip naked and make love to the girls, there and then, under the approving eyes of the islanders. "Here Venus is the goddess of hospitality, her worship does not permit of any mysteries, and every tribute paid to her is a feast for the whole nation." In short, public copulation, group sex, fruit trees and freedom.

The islands were bountiful and lovely, and what distinguished them from all other happy islands on earth was their dedication to free and joyous and unsentimental sexuality. Captain Cook was shocked by what he saw in Tahiti, and he wrote, "There is a scale of dissolute sensuality which these people have ascended, wholly unknown to every other nation whose manners have been recorded from the beginning of the world to the present hour, and which no imagination could possibly conceive." One one occasion in Tahiti, in a presentation that was organized by the islanders for the amusement of the foreigners, Cook and some of his men watched a naked six-foot Tahitian man copulate with a fourteen-year-old girl, and he noted that neither was embarrassed - indeed, the young girl was skilled in the arts of love. Bougainville's extremely well-written Voyage Around the World (1771) made Tahiti a byword for everything beautiful. The book was quickly translated into English, and it delighted and inspired - and stimulated - its readers. Just a few years after the book appeared, James Boswell got a hankering to go to Tahiti, and he mentioned this to Dr Johnson, who told him not to bother, because "one set of Savages is like another."

"I do not think the people of Otaheite can be reckoned Savages," Boswell said.
"Don't cant in defense of Savages," Johnson replied.
"They have the art of navigation," Boswell said.
"A dog or a cat can swim," Johnson said.
Boswell persisted: "They carve very ingeniously."
"A cat can scratch, and a child with a nail can scratch," Johnson said.

But Boswell was right, and he went on yarning to go to Tahiti, in order to "be satisfied what pure nature can do for man."

The Tahitians were anything but primitive. They were among the greatest navigators the world has ever known. They had been brilliant stone-carvers and masons. At Papara they had raised a large eleven-step pyramid, the Mahaiatea Marae, and there were more temples and altars at Paea and on the island of Moorea. The people whom Wallis, Bougainville and Captain Cook met (these captains visited Tahiti within three years of each other) were skilled in the arts of wars, of boat-building, and navigation. And far from depending on the fruit trees of the island for their food, they practiced complex and organized cultivation - growing yams, sweet potatoes, gourds and sugar cane they raised pigs and chickens, and dogs - they preferred dog meat to pork. Speaking of the first Europeans in Polynesia, Fernand Braudel wrote (in The Structures of Everyday Life): "But were the savages they described really primitive people? Far from it." Yet to nearly everyone, the sophistication of the Tahitians was the least interesting thing about them.

Because of its reputation for innocent sex, for pretty people in a pretty place, Tahiti has been one of the most inspirational pieces of geography in the world. Even writers who never saw it praised it - Lord Byron, who wrote a poem about it ("The Island"), and the philosopher Diderot (cribbing from Bougainville) set a novel there. Melville made his reputation by writing about it in Typee and Omoo, and Robert Louis Stevenson vastly preferred it to Samoa. Most of the people who subsequently wrote about it described it in much the same terms as Bougainville. Pierre Loti went one better and in the purplest prose imaginable described his marriage to a Tahitian; after reading this book, Paul Gauguin was encouraged to set sail. They were all male writers, of course; it would have been interesting if someone like Edith Wharton or Simone de Beauvoir had gushed in quite this way about Tahiti.

Even the sexually ambiguous Somerset Maugham regarded Papeete as pleasant - but he had reason to feel lucky for having gone there. He had sailed to Tahiti after Samoa (which he hadn't liked much) in order to collect material about Gauguin for his novel The Moon and Sixpence. This was in 1917, only thirteen years after Gauguin's death, and so memories were still fresh. Indeed, one old woman remembered that the obnoxious Frenchman had painted the glass panels of a door in a decrepit village house. Maugham went immediately to the house, where the door was still hinged and swinging, and bought it from the innocent owner for 900 francs (he later sold it for $37,400). Years later, Gauguin's son Emil, an overweight buffoon, was a colorful local character. Emil hung around the bars of Papeete, and visitors bought him drinks and badgered him for information about his father (whom he had never known), and for ten francs he let you take his picture. For literary reasons, Maugham regarded Tahiti as a seductive place (Gauguin certainly didn't, which was why he abandoned it for the Marquesas). It is questionable whether all Tahitians were ever as sexy as Bougainville described - he was only on the island a matter of days, his ship anchored off Hitiaa - but proof of the power of this book is the fact that Tahiti in particular and Polynesian islands in general are still regarded as Cytherean. Yet, manifestly, they are not. Pleasant and feckless, yes, paradise, no. 

Bougainville's descriptions stimulated two quite different sorts of people, polar opposites actually - adventurers eager to taste the Cytheran delights of willing women, and missionaries determined to clothe and convert the islanders to Christianity. Over two hundred years later, these people are still contending for the souls of Polynesians. but for every Melville or Gauguin, or Don Kattwinkel on the six-day Polynesian package-tour ("Features include welcome flower leis"), or anyone else searching out a seductress, there are many more zealots with fire in their eyes who have made it their life's work to convince these people that they are imbued with Original Sin. No adventurer's book is complete without an attack on missionaries - Melville despised and ridiculed them for their subversion and hypocrisy, no missionary's memoir omits to mention the sinfulness and opportunism of beach-combers and remittance men. Each saw the other was a corrupter. 

It is almost axiomatic that as soon as a place gets a reputation for being paradise it goes to hell. Tahiti seemed to me dramatically beautiful, but is population lived entirely on the fringes of its steep and inaccessible slopes; and so it seemed small and crowded. It was full of French soldiers and expatriate bureaucrats cashing in on the fact that overseas salaries were double what they were in France and here there was no income tax. The businessmen were a perpetual scowl of disappointment, because business was so poor. the hotel-owners and tour-operators complained that tourism was off twenty to thirty percent. Even in its great days Tahiti prospered because of French aid rather than from the receipts of tourism, but if it was ever to become independent it needed to make a show of self-sufficiency. by the 1980s it had become noticeably poorer and more careworn. The bureaucrats were overpaid, but the place itself was undercapitalized, and the locals were penetrated by the aimlessness and vague resentment that characterizes most colonial people. Treat people like children and they become infantile and cranky. The clearest evidence of this was the government's official Put On A Smile! campaign.

Another campaign - the Tourist board was unimaginative but desperate to please - was a contest to find "the most hospitable Tahitian" who would qualify for a Mauruuru (Thank You Very Much) Award. Visitors to French Polynesia were encouraged to write letters to the Tahiti Sun Press recommending a person who had impressed them. I found the letters laughable but engaging, as they described a particularly helpful bellhop or swimming pool attendant or taxi-driver. One day, I read laudatory letter from some visiting Americans (Mr and Mrs Albert Crisp, from Los Angeles) who had spent a week in Moorea:

Since our stay at the Hotel Bali Hai in Moorea we have enjoyed meeting and getting to know Helene ("Mimi") Theroux, a sweet girl who tends bar.

Mimi Theroux is extremely friendly and helpful, and we would like to show our gratitude by nominating her for  a Maururu Award. She works very hard and this is to show our appreciation.

Seeing your own strange, hard-to-spell name correctly printed on the pages of a Tahitian newspaper can give you a powerful sense of belonging to the islands. And it is a belief in my family that every person with that surname is a relation - a descendant of Peter Therous (1839-1915) of Yamaska, Quebec, who had nine prolific sons, Henri, Louis, Ovide, Leon, Dorel, Joseph, Peter, Alexandre, and my grandfather, Eugene. I immediately called the Hotel Bali Hai and asked to speak to my cousin.

"Mimi Theroux doesn't work here anymore," the manager told me. He thought I might find her somewhere in Moorea, but he wasn't sure. he promised to find her address for me. I planned to paddle around Moorea sometime soon, and I vowed that I would seek out Mademoisell - or was it Madame? - Theroux, when I got to that island. Two things kept me in Tahiti for the moment - the arrangements I was making to go to the distant Marquesas on a freighter, and the prospect of watching the Bastille Day parade. I also wondered whether I ought to get a tattoo in this the homeland of tattoos - even the word was Polynesian (tatu means "puncture"). The idea of a tattoo on my ankle seemed an inoffensive way of satisfying my curiosity, but the sight of the only tattooist in Papeete, an excitable Belgian in a bloodstained room, made me change my mind.

Papeete is rather an ugly, plundered-looking town. Its buildings are scruffy, and flimsy and ill-assorted, and they clutter the lower slopes of the extinct volcanoes. Aorai and Orohena, that rise six or seven thousand feet behind it. Tahiti's road - there is only one narrow one, inevitably a speedway, that encircles the island - is quite famously bad and dangerous. To complete this unromantic picture, Tahiti I found to be one the most expensive places I have ever visited - a pack of cigarettes is $5, a liter of petrol $4, the simplest cotton shirt $90, and a meal in a good restaurant almost prohibitive, but as there are few good restaurants this is academic; and yet if you decide to have a pizza instead you will be paying about twice what you would at the Pizza Hut in Boston. there is no income tax in French Polynesia, yet indirect taxation can be just as brutal. You may congratulate yourself that you don't smoke or drink alcohol, yet even the most frugal vegetarian is in for a shock when he sees the Tahitian cabbages (grown in California) priced at $8 in Papeete's central market.

But for the Tahitians themselves the price of cabbage was academic. The islanders, who were always tidy and clean - impressively so, in a place where fresh water was scarce - managed to survive, and even to flourish, by cultivating small vegetable gardens and applying for welfare and using the extended family. They were a chunky breed, and I felt that there was perhaps something assertive in their obesity. They seemed to revel in being a different size and shape from their colonial masters or mistresses - apart from enthusiastic teenagers, who were imitative, there was almost no emulation among Tahitians of French physical types or styles - no joggers, no fashion casualties, no snobs or socialites. Few of them were even smokers. The Tahitian's most obvious indulgence was a kind of relentless snacking - they were forever munching and manipulating Planter's Cocktail Nuts, potato sticks, Porky Snaks (Porc Frites), Rashuns (friles au bacon), Kellogg's Corn Pops, Figolu Fig Newtons, Champagne Crispy Sponge fingers, Cadbury's Crunchies, Pinkys, Moros and Double Fudge Chocolate Biscuits, Toscas, Millefeuilles and Tiki crousti-legers, and Cheez Balls at five bucks a five-ounce can. to pay for this they spent their welfare checks or else got jobs cat3ring to the dwindling number of tourists, few of whom were big spenders. but even the poorest, scrounging Tahitian did not solicit tips and regarded tipping as one of the more insulting of foreign habits. 

Tahiti was typical of Oceania generally in the frugality of its long-term expatriates - it seemed through a kind of caution, not to say fear, that these people saved their money. Because people were so vulnerable, they made a point of not appearing to be well-off - it was altogether too easy for anyone to be burgled. There were retirees here, but they had gone to ground - they hid in bungalows deep in the valleys of Tahiti and Moorea. There were always yachties in Papeete harbor, but yacht people the world over are notoriously careful with their money - circumstances forces them to be self-sufficient.  Elsewhere on the island, the villages were fenced off and seemed contented, and the most conspicuous people in Papeete - apart from Japanese tourists and French soldiers - were the two sorts of folk who had been there since Bougainville described it as paradise: the adventurers and and the missionaries; the drunks and the God-botherers. At any time of day in downtown Papeete it was possible to see a sanctimonious clergyman passing a bar where a wrecked-looking Frenchman was sitting glumly over a bottle of Hinano beer. It was still possible to go to pieces here, any number of Frenchmen had married teenaged Tahitians, given them six kids, and turned them into twenty-year-old bags, thus keeping alive the South Sea Island myth. 

I had longed to be in Tahiti for Bastille Day and I made a point of lingering on the island to witness the parade. Rather disingenuously the French authorities on the island had converted Bastille Day into a gala they called Heiva Tahiti, the Tahiti Festival - they hadn't the guts to come clean and celebrate their independence day in full view of people who had yet to gain their freedom. I expected it to be a wonderful example of colonial comedy and hypocrisy and it was, "Sponsored by Toyota." To make matters even more puzzling, the posters announced in French The 109th Tahiti Annual July Festival, and to work this out you had to go to a history book and establish that it was in 1880 that Ariane (PomareV), the son of the intransigent Queen Pomare (IV), was pressured by the French into abdicating and handed his entire administration over to France, who proclaimed the island a French colony. with an astounding insensitivity the French had conflated the dates, and the Tahitians were being persuaded to celebrate the anniversary of their subjection on the very day the 'French celebrated their own freedom.

At eight o'clock in Bastille Day morning I joined the crowd of impassive Tahitians and frisky French people on the Boulevard Pomare, wondering what I would see, and fifteen minutes later I heard the first distant syncopation of the parade, a French army band playing the First World War song Aupres de ma blonde (il fait beau blah-blah...) - strange in almost any circumstances, but especially bizarre on an island of dusky dark-haired people. There followed a regiment of Marine Fusiliers carrying a French flag lettered Honneur et Patrie and about fifty men from the Special Forces holding hi-tech weapons. The "Regiment du Tonkin" band seemed harmless enough, but the oncoming ranks grew increasingly menacing - three units of legionnaires with fixed bayonets, and one with a French flag down the muzzle of his rifle, a black-beret regiment with fierce dogs in personnel carriers and more infantrymen, followed by men from the Foreign Legion, all of them bearded and wearing white leather aprons and white gauntlets, and each man shouldering - because this was the symbol of this unit of sappers - a wicked axe. The word Camarone was inscribed on the flag of these marching men, commemorating a battle in Mexico in 1863 in which a detachment of sixty-five legionnaires with their backs to the wall faced an army of 2,000 Mexicans and, refusing to surrender, were wiped out by the admiring yet remorseless enemy. This was the battle in which the famous Captain Danjou lost not only his life but his wooden hand (it was later retrieved and became a sort of Foreign Legion relic and talisman). "Life" - not courage - abandoned these French soldiers," was the official summing-up, and the event ent4ered the language in the form of a colloquialism - "faire Camarone" means to fight to the end.

I had the feeling that these parading regiments had been chosen for their ferocity. Anyone watching them pass by would think twice about mounting a revolt or starting an uprising, and so the Bastille Day parade, the so-called Festival of Tahiti - this part of it, at least - was unambiguously intimidating to the Polynesians, who watched in complete silence, even when the wives and children of the French soldiers were applauding. The French Foreign Legionnaires are very thick on the ground in Polynesia. Their toughness and intransigence are needed in such a sensitive place, and the romantic pose suits their swashbuckling image. I was told that they often take Tahitian mistresses. Owing to an indifferent diet and their love of snacks and sweet drinks, Tahitians frequently have bad teeth. The legionnaires' first - or perhaps second - demonstration of their love is to buy their Tahitian girlfriend a set of false teeth. You can often spot these spoken-for girls on the public trucks, sitting and smiling a lovely white smile. When the legionnaire goes back to France (and it might well be to revisit the wife and children he left behind) he takes his girlfriend's teeth with him, so as to leave her less attractive to men.

"Sometimes the girl does not want to give her teeth back," a legionnaire told me in Papeete. "Then we turn her upside down and shake them out of her."

The second part of the parade was much friendlier and less deadly-looking. It began with fire trucks and local school bands, and continued with majorettes and kids in cowboy hats, and Miss Tahiti, who was carried in an outrigger canoe by six muscular men. "Smile, woman," the islander in front of me called out in French to Miss Tahiti. Twenty-eight women in white muumuus, twelve in purple, a gang of drummers, dancers wearing feather head-dresses and coconut-shell brassieres, trick cyclists, the fat and wicked-looking men on motorcycles flying a skull-and-crossbones flag reading "Le Club Harley-Davidson du Tahiti," and local kids doing handstands on skateboards - and now the Tahitian cheered, yelling from balconies and clinging to tree branches beside the boulevard, and I kept imagining a painting - full of Oceanic colour and tropical light, and packed with chubby islanders and children and large laughing families, and severe and authoritarian-looking French soldiers, called "Bastille Day in Papeete," illustrating the paradoxes of French colonialism. 

This happy back half of the parade put me in a better mood and I followed a sniggering group of Tahitians through the side-streets and into the fenced-in garden of the French High commission, where a garden party was in progress under a huge Polynesian tree. Half of us had clearly crashed the party, and the rest - the VIPs, the beefy-faced faranis and colons in tight suits and the threadbare old soldiers wearing heroic clusters of medals and battle ribbons, and one conspicuously decorated with the Legion of Honor - were too drunk to notice us. "This France Libre was given to me by General de Gaulle," one elderly man told me, and other old soldiers - some were African and some Vietnamese - had seen action in Indo-China in the 1950s. The Tahitians especially were having a grand time: they ignored the waitresses with drinks and made a beeline for the hors-d'oevres, which they managed with wonderful dexterity, scooping up three or four at a time, squeezing them between two fingers, and cramming them into their mouths.

A French army band set up their music stands in the shade of the tree and perspired and played rousing songs, Sang et Or, and Tenth Festival, and Adios Amigos, and the stirring Marche des Mousquetaires Noirs, while the bandleader conducted them without a baton, using only his hands, the slapping gestures of a man making a sandcastle. For the people watching the parade or in this festival garden, Bastille Day in Tahiti was an excuse for a party, to play games at the funfair in the park, and buy balloons and amuse the kids. But walking back to the wharf along the rue du General de Gaule I saw a wall urgently spraying-painted with the word INDEPENDENCE.

The next day I went to Moorea, in search of Mimi Theroux. The ferry left from a wharf on Papeete Harbour - and as it entered the Sea of the Moon I looked back and saw the great greeny-black crags of Tahiti's volcanoes. They weren't rounded and plumb and undulant, but like a starved sierra, like the corpses of mountains, with bony protruding ridges and hard sharp hips and shoulders, narrow valleys with hollow sides, knobs and angles on the escarpments and an intense steepness all over them, as though in their ancient years of vulcanism they had hurled out their life and left themselves exhausted. The peaks and slopes of Tahiti - and of volcanic islands all over Oceania - are so steep and dark and so thoroughly wicked-looking that the coasts by contrast are gentle, and their pale pretty lagoons seem unutterably sweet. There is always a scrap of mist around the peaks, and sometimes a great torn pillow of black closed hovering. The vertical roughness is visible on these islands, but so is the mildness of their fringes. "Seen from the sea, the prospect is magnificent," Melville wrote of this same view of Tahiti. His words are still true. "Such enchantment, too, breathes over the whole, that it seems a fairy world, all fresh and blooming from the hand of the Creator." 

It cost seven dollars each way for the one-hour trip, and no charge for my collapsible boat. Most of the passengers were Polynesian, either full-blooded or else part-French, the people known locally as demi or afa, have attached themselves to the islands. The Polynesians were of two distinct physical types - either slender and nimble (the children and teenagers), or else (the over-twenties) fat and rather shapeless. Girls and boys were equally winsome, and men and women were precisely the same shape and almost indistinguishable. It ought to have been possible to paddle my own boat from Papeete to Moorea, but the wind discouraged me, a strong current ran between the islands, and apart from the ferry landing at Vaiare there was only one break in the reef. Avarapa Pass, on the northeast side of the island. The reefs of these islands were a great disincentive to any sort of casual boating, and as I intended to sail for the Marquesas within a week I could not mount the sort of expedition that had gotten me safely around the archipelago of Vava'u in Tonga. I planned to make camp on Moorea, to paddle within the reef, and to seek out Mimi Theroux.

There is no town near the ferry landing, there is hardly a village, and after the trucks had taken the ferry passengers away Vaiare seemed deserted.
"I'm looking for a place on the shore to camp." I said to a Moorean at the roadside.
"Not possible," he said - and he was sympathetic.

It was a Polynesian problem, all the land was spoken for. I did not argue. I rented a motorcycle and went in search of a hotel with a beach, but this was an easy matter. Moorea had many hotels, and business was so terrible I could take my pick. When I had settl3ed this, I went back to the rental place for my boat. But I kept my motorcycle. I rode to the Hotel Bali Hai and found the manager, who seemed to be American. Yes, he said, Mimi Theroux had worked here not long ago, but she had left.

"She lives with her mother at Paopao."
that was Cook's Bay, not far off.
"Is she married?"
"I never saw any husband," the man said, and he described her house so that I could find it.
It was a white building, but it was not a house. Large and square, two storeys, with verandas above and a restaurant below, and with a flat roof, it had the geometric look of a commercial structure. but it was in good condition, freshly painted, gleaming in the sunshine, and facing directly onto the bay. I parked my motorcycle and walked around. A Tahitian was tinkering behind the building, but as it was high noon and very hot there were few other people in sight.
"Mimi Theroux?" I asked the Tahitian.

He pointed upstairs, to the porch where laundry was hung. I looked on the door at the foot of the stairway, but there was no response. I knocked again, and excited a dog in the next yard. I called out, and a young woman appeared at the top of the stairs.

This was Mimi. She was Chinese. I told her my name and she invited me up the stiars where, at the top, a small dark child was playing with an older girl.

"This is Moea," Mimi said, hoisting the smaller child.

"Your daughter?"

"Soon she will be." She spoke English with a slight American accent.

We were walking through the cool interior of the upper floor where, at the far end on the front of the building, I could see the blaze of the sea and the glarey sky of Cook's Bay - one of the most beautiful spots in the whole of Oceania, lovely, secluded, dramatic and rather empty. But this was French Polynesia. Because it was secluded it was neglected; the beach was no good, the shore was littered, and if you didn't have a motorcycle how would you get there?

It seemed to me that Mimi had a tincture of Polynesian blood. She said that this might have been so - she vaguely remembered seeing an elderly Tahitian relative, but she was not sure whether this was a blood relation. I rather liked here for not being sure and for not caring much about it. "I'm sorry to drop in on you like this," I said.
"It's okay. Jim has spoken about you."
She explained that she was married to James Theroux, who was a distant cousin of mine and, as he had spent years sailing back and forth across the Pacific, from Samoa to Fiji and Tonga, to Port Vila and Australia, Jim was well known in Oceania. He was an expert surfer and experienced sailor and navigator. His name had been mentioned to me and sometimes, introducing myself to a yacht-owner, I was mistaken for him. People knew his boat in the way they knew my books: just names that had become familiar.
"He is in Australia, at the moment, in the Whitsundays, taking charters," Mimi said. "I saw him seven months ago. Maybe I will see him again in a few months. He is like you, always travelling."
"Does he look like me?" I asked.
"No. He is more handsome," Mimi said, and went to chase Moea, who was throwing toys at the wall. 
Mimi was relaxed, she seemed capable, she was slender and barefoot, wearing a pareu on her hips; a loyal and energetic Chinese who did not make a fuss about a seven-month separation. She was small, quick and attractive. After she told me a few details of her life I figured her age to be thirty-four. She had met Jim when she was twenty-one, at the girls' college in Punaauia, on Tahiti. Her maiden name was Tshan-lo.

"Jim said, 'Come with me,' so I went. yes, it was romantic," Mimi said. "He had a boat. I had never been on a boat like that before. First we went to Pago, and I was sick, from the sea. Then we went to Fiji, Vava'u, Vila, Australia. We were in Vila for a couple of years, but when independence came there was trouble." - the Jimmy Stevens uprising - "and we left. In Vava'u the Tongans stole our laundry from the lines. but we liked it. Jim fished with the local people in the night."

"Do you still get seasick?"
"No. Now I am a good sailor. I have done it for more than ten years," Mimi said.

Each phase of her life had been difficult, and she was one of those people who seemed to have been strengthened and made confident by the sudden changes. It seemed to me Chinese tenacity, but in this Polynesian setting - in the beauty of Paopao - it had no edge to it. She had travelled from Moorea to Tahiti, she had gone off and married this impulsive American; and they had sailed the seas together. In Australia Jim sold his boat and then, hearing that Alan bond's twelve-meter yacht Southern Cross was for sale, they flew to Perth and bought it. It was a wonderful boat but it was empty. They rigged it and sailed it across the top of Australia, through the Torres Strait and past Cape York to Cairns. that took a year, because they had spent all their money buying and refitting the boat.

"We stopped in many places - to work and make money. But they were interesting places," Mimi said. "In Darwin we stopped for months. I worked as a waitress and Jim, was a gardener. We didn't mind. It was an adventure." Moea was still running around the oom wither her little friend. The room was large and breezy, with a few pictures - Jim's yacht was one - and some calendars and plain furniture. It was clean and more pleasant for being mostly bare.

"Moea is very pretty," I said.
"Soon she will be a Theroux," Mimi said.
Seeing the impish face of this little islander and hearing my own name made me glad.
"Her mother is a Marquesan," Mimi said. "My sister knew her mother when she was pregnant, and she knew that I could not have a child myself and that I wanted to adopt one. The woman already had two children and no husband. You know how it is here. Anyway, as soon as she had the baby she gave it tome. She told me the father is French, but look at her - that baby is Marquesan - very black hair and dark eyes and skin."

Mimi turned to the child with admiration. Moea was a very sweet, very strong and upright two-year-old, and happy, her laughter ringing in the room, as she played.

"The father went afterwards to the woman and asked, 'Where is the baby'" Mimi went on. "But the woman said, 'ou didn't come the whole time I was pregnant. I gave the baby away.'"

"Where had the man been?"

"The man just left her and ran after a young girl when the baby was in the stomach," Mimi said. "That was two years ago. I have been happy. but now I am getting worried. In the past weeks the mother has been calling me. I know that if she was Moea she will take her. She signed the document for adoption but it does not become final until two months more. I have to hide. The woman does not know where I am, but somehow she knows my telephone number. I would never give Moea away. She was such a lot of work when she was small, but she is so intelligent and she understands everything I say."

We were seated at a table, looking past Paopao to the bay.

"It is so lovely here," I said.
"It is a picture postcard views," Mimi said. "You should have seen the sunset last night. The sky was all pink - no sun, just clouds and sky. I sat here and watched it with Moea."
I was touched by the thought that after seeing twelve and a half thousand sunsets in the Pacific she still marvelled at one. Suddenly she said, "How did you find me?"
"I asked at the Bali Hai. You know you were nominated for a Mauruuru Award?"
"No," she said without much interest. And then she called out to her mother. Was she conveying this news?
Her elderly mother, Madame Madeline Tshan-lo, was seated silently on the porch, looking off to sea. Mimi did not know the sold woman's age - she said it was impolite to ask. Madame Tshan-lo had had nine children, of whom Mimi was the youngest ("I am the runt"). All the rest were married - to French, American, Tahitian, Chinese - and they lived all over, in many countries. The old woman smiled at me and spoke in Cantonese to her daughter. "Give that man some food," she said. Mimi went to th4ekitchen and brought me a plate of vegetable stew - carrots from New Zealand, potatoes from France, rice from China. You needed a garden in order to live, Mimi said. There was no work, she said, but man y people got by on breadfruit and taro and mangoes. Talking about food, Mimi remarked on the high cost of living.
"We have the most expensive electricity in the world," she said. "Every month I can't believe the bill. It costs me fifteen thousand francs a month, for just a TRV, a freezer, a fridge and lights."
That was $160. 

"They want to give us income tax, but everything is taxed! That is why it costs so much to live here."

The reason there was no income tax was because people were taxed on the things they bought. Tax had been reduced on alcohol in order to encourage tourism, but that had not done the trick.

"Three weeks ago there was a roadblock in Tahiti, because they raised the petrol ten cents and the diesel twenty cents."

This was a few days before I had arrived but people were still talking about it and marvelling at the disruption it had caused. The roadblock of bulldozers and trucks had been put up just outside of Papeete, between the town and the airport, so that in order to get to the airport it was necessary to take a ninety-mile (117 kilometer) detour around the island. No one was arrested. There were negotiations, and at last the government reduced the price. What was clear in most people's mind was that if it happened again, if the government passed an unpopular measure, roadblocks were the answer - though in the past (as recently as 1987) the government had used riot police against protesters.

"What about the French?" I asked. "Do you think they'll hang on here?"

"Good question," Mimi said. "Eventually we will be independent, I suppose."

I left Mimi, admiring her strength and her filial piety, and I mounted my motorcycle and went the rest of the way around the island. It was a stormy month - three or four times I was caught in a downpour, either in my boat or on the motorcycle - and so I was not sorry to be denied the chance to live in my tent. The raindrops pelted so hard they stung my skin. And after the rain there was always a lovely aroma of tiare and oleander, and enormous complete rainbows, every color in a whole archway.

One day I paddled to Maarea, Melville had lived for a while here in 1842, and he mentions it a number of times in Omoo ("Fair dawned, over the hills of Martair, the jocund morning"). It had been a long trip for me, because I had stoipped at a little island called Motu Ahi. And when I was caught in the rain on the way back I headed for the shelter of a little beach, where - sheltering with me under a tree - was a cyclist, Dominic Taemu, who was in his twenties and pedalling around the island.

We talked about Bastille Day and the Heiva Tahiti. He laughed.

"Bastille Day. That is a French festival. That is historical. It is not our day."

"Do you want Polynesia to be independent?"

"How can we be independent? We have no resources," he said. "The Japanese have taken all our big fish - they come in their big ships and use drift nets. We had lots of fish before, but now they are small and few. The coconuts and the copra re nothing. We have nothing."

"What about other work?"

"There is no work, because there are too few tourists," he said. And he thought awhile. "We know other places are cheaper. For us this is a big problem. We don't know what to do."

It was the fear of destitution, the fear of losing French prosecution and aid. But it was perhaps like a woman anxious about divorcing, fearing to be alone, without support - even though the husband is in opportunist and an exploiter.

"Independence - yes, certain people want it. It might come. But what will we do then?" And it dramatized the paradox of French Polynesia that Taemu, a native of what has been called the most beautiful place on earth, then said, "We have no means to live."

An extract of the text from THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA by Paul Theroux, published in London by Hamish Hamilton, 1992. 

Jane's Tahiti Home Page
Tahiti Postcards and Picture Galleries
Oceania Postcards and Picture Galleries
Jane Resture's Oceania Page

 click here Jane's Tahiti Home Page                 
      click here Jane's Oceania Home Page                  

Pacific Islands Radio Stations

 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 1st November 2008)
yahoo.gif (465 bytes)

eXTReMe Tracker