The epitome of a tropical paradise
Ia orana and bonne anne! That’s what you would hear all around French Polynesia during the week I spent there - people greeting each other and wishing a happy new year. I flew to the islands from California, but it felt like this nine-hour flight took me not across the Pacific ocean but rather to a whole different world where everything is happening at its own pace of time.
A quick glimpse at a world map does not reveal anything significant about Tahiti and other islands - in fact, in looks like a few rice grains on a blue field. This impression is quite deceiving: French Polynesia spans more than 5,000,000 km2, an area roughly the size of Europe. Isolation has kept the 5 archipelagos distinguished as much by geography and topography as it is by its distinct culture and history, and out of the 118 islands, only half - 67 - are inhabited, so the idea of a deserted tropical paradise is not that wild after all. Unfortunately, island-hopping here is not an option for a tourist on a budget, with the hour-long flight from Pape'ete (the capital) to the famous Bora Bora costing some €350 ($400) for a round trip. The high price of getting to as well as being in French Polynesia is likely the reason why Tahiti receives about as many tourists in an entire year as Hawaii gets in one week! That’s a real exclusive retreat for ya. Yet despite the glossy brochures boasting vivid turquoise lagoons and luxurious bungalows, the islands aren’t always picture-perfect. The summer months - December through March - are unpredictable, prone to rainfall and high humidity, making a trip there a gamble at best. I was bound to arrive on New Year’s eve which made me check the weather forecast religiously.
Even though the forecast did not look promising at all - thunders, drizzles, and hardly any hours of sunshine - I landed in Pape’ete on a very sunny morning. It is a small capital city that is cute enough for a stroll along the waterfront, but not exciting enough to spend all your time there. In reality I decided to skip Tahiti as a whole, even though it promises some waterfall-laden mountains and black-sand beaches, and headed straight to Mo’orea, an island a short ferry ride away from Pape’ete. According to numerous guide books, what makes heart-shaped Mo’orea special is its volcanic origin, jagged peaks, and steep slopes that form two scenic bays in the north shore. And while it sounded great and all, the main reason I opted for this island over Tahiti for my whole 5-day stay is the cheapest accommodation option in all of French Polynesia - a small family-run pension not too far from one of the bays. Staying there was the only place I could afford there (everything else was at least quadruple the price) as everything is expensive: apart from seafood and fruit, all products and items have to be shipped in from great distance. Just as Harrison Ford drunkenly mumbled in that 5 days, 6 nights movie, “It’s an island, honey. If you don't bring it you ain't gonna find it here.”
December 2014 -January 2015
TYPE OF TRIP
- Solo travel
Los Angeles, USA - Pape'ete (Tahiti) - Mo'orea - Pape'ete (Tahiti) - Auckland, New Zealand
The pension turned out to be an experience of its own: the dorm room was an open loft in the attic with no wall facing the ocean. It did not really bother me as I secured a bed far enough to escape the following nights' rainfalls and I had the room just for myself almost the whole time. What happened to be a major downside is, ironically, the size of the island (134 km2). Wandering by foot can only take you this far in high humidity, but I was lucky enough to get a few lifts from fellow travellers - no place on the island would rent me a scooter without a driver’s license. Because of this disadvantage, I did not get to see as much of the island as I would love, but I still enjoyed what Paul Gauguin once described as “In Tahiti, the gods are there to lavish upon the faithful the good gifts of nature.” Gauguin spent 9 years in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, which inspired some of his most celebrated paintings. To be fair, who wouldn’t be inspired by these views? As you walk along the beach, it is hard to avoid the cheeky thought if you are the luckiest person in the world.
Since over-the-top indulgence has become the island’s signature thanks to the many extravagant resorts catered to affluent honeymooners, I could not help the splurge and treated myself to a day pass at Hilton that was only 10 min away from my guest house. It was a graduation trip for a reason! The pass included access to the facilities, free snorkeling gear, free lunch, and a drink. Their best asset was an amazing beach, and a few hours later - my first hours under the tropical sun - I was all shades of red despite my super strong sunscreen (or so I thought). The snorkeling was prime, but it was only a warm-up for my diving trip a few days later! Mo’orea is known as a diver’s dream destination due to the rich marine life, lack of strong current, shallow waters - and shark diving! Local sharks are the black tip reef ones and completely harmless. Closer to the lagoons are string rays that are also nothing but friendly.
When booking my RTW trip, Tahiti seemed liked a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity. Whereas most tourists come here for a honeymoon or a romantic getaway, I was drawn to these islands as some of the most remote parts of the world with a complex political history. As I learned on my trip to Fiji, South Pacific is much more than just white-sand beaches with turquoise water, tilting palm trees and exotic flowers (although those are pretty awesome) - it is a clash between islanders and colonisers, local and foreign cultures. To this day, French Polynesia is a French overseas collectivity, which means the local government has no competence in justice, education, security and defense and services in these areas are directly provided and administered by the Government of France. Even though tourism is growing, the islands heavily rely on funding from Paris for health care, social programmes and infrastructure projects. Even at a brief glance, it is safe to say that the French control the infrastructure, run the hotels and restaurants where wealthy tourists go, own the supermarkets, and therefore they set the prices. The Polynesians occupy lower positions like drivers and receptionists, few of them make it to the better jobs or have opportunities to thrive other than serving the French military. While the French say that the locals are not reliable because of laziness, the circle seems to be vicious with locals having scarce options, to begin with.
Despite the apparent French influence and flair including ubiquitous baguettes, the Polynesian culture is ambient. For instance, most islanders are tattooed: the practice of Polynesian tattoo is old and well-respected. Back in the day, it used to be a means of membership link or an initiation rite. Later it became a representation of social status and was a way to deliver information of its owner. It’s also a traditional method to fetch spiritual power, protection, and strength. With the arrival of missionaries, tattoos were banned and only got a renaissance in the 1980s, but the techniques and designs still follow strict conventions, which regulate how symbols should be combined to create a meaningful work of art to each person. Another sociocultural peculiarity I was looking for while there but did not manage to come across is mahu or rae rae, biological males who behave and/or dress like women. Or maybe I did see them but was not aware of it? Traditionally, the term “mahu” referred to the transvestite population in pre-colonial Polynesia, who were regarded as neither a man nor a woman, but a highly revered member of a third sex. Mahu shouldn’t be seen as the equivalent of Western homosexuality or transvestism because they’re an integrated part of the wider Tahitian culture. In traditional Tahiti, mahu had their social function to fulfill, often looking after children, fishing for shellfish, gardening, and making bark cloth and mats like women. In modern French Polynesia, some mahu are usually referred to as rae rae if they live on the fringe and have more common with the hormone and silicone-injected Western transgender practices. These people were always considered gifted and divine as they combined the best of both the male and female gender. Mahu communities also have counterparts on other Pacific islands, particularly in Samoa and Tonga.