Shifting Gears

Five islands (7 if you count the ones we landed on) and 3 archipelagoes later, we have said farewell to French Polynesia. Our last day of travel was pretty challenging. We left Rangiroa around 10 am and flew back to Tahiti where, in a moment of clarity, I had booked us into a hotel. We had to be at the airport at midnight for a 2:30 am flight to New Zealand and originally the plan was just to wait it out somewhere. Fortunately, I realized that this was a really bad idea and instead we went to a hotel with a pool and a restaurant. The room was ordinary enough, but the view from the lobby was impressive.

lagoonarium

Abraham and I took a taxi in to Papeete around 4 pm just to have a look around, but when we got there we found that they were hosing down the sidewalks and most of the shops had put up their shutters. The sun sets early in the tropics and we only had about another hour and a half of light. The city had what we both identified as a sort of Saigonesque feel. Of course, neither of us has ever been to Saigon, so I don’t know where we got that idea exactly. But it’s French and tropical and sort of seedily charming. I would have liked more time there but I didn’t much fancy wandering around after dark, so when the sun set we went back to the hotel to catch a couple of hours of sleep.

Well, that was a fond hope. Two single beds, 5 people; you do the math. Dani got a little bit of sleep, and I got a little, but I’m really not sure about the rest of them. Here’s a photo of the boys doing a really good imitation of Zombies at the Faa’a airport around 1 am:

Papeete airport

The only thing that salvaged the experience was this great group outside the international arrivals area, apparently waiting to serenade some homecoming friends. The woman with the guitar [sic] was particularly wonderful.

Faa'a Airport

So, now it’s on to New Zealand. I think we’re all going to miss French Polynesia, having kind of gotten the hang of it by now. Another couple of weeks and I’d have had them all speaking a bit of French; Seven was well along and Matiu, who actually knows a little, was at least helping me translate the menus. We had even mastered a few words (of the hello, please, and thank you variety) of Tahitian. As for the bigger picture, I have been trying to ascertain what exactly I’ve learned but I think it’s going to be a while before I can process it all. On that point I was rather struck the other day by this passage in The Biographer’s Tale by A. S. Byatt:

“We see most clearly at a distance; details confuse us; we must get away from what we desire to judge; summer is best described on a winter day.”

The Prodigal Returns

I can’t resist…

…posting a few more shots from Rangiroa, because it’s so cool and so remote, and because I may never get there again and most people never will. Some of these photos were taken by Abraham and some by Seven; occasionally we discover that the same photo has been taken by both. Shall we start with flowers?

red flower

yellow flower

blue flower

Now how about luggage? Note the addition of Abraham’s turquoise bag!

luggage

Here is a shot of the surf hitting the reef (the open ocean side of the atoll):

surf on the reef

and here is one taken at Avatoru Pass. This is one end of the 12 km road:

Avatoru Pass

Here is one of Abraham:

abraham

and here is one of Dani standing at the edge of the lagoon:

Dani at the edge of the lagoon

Shifting Gears

An Atoll at Last

On our first night on Rangiroa, Seven and I were strolling along the road and I said, “So, what’s different about this place from all the other places we’ve been so far?” Answer: no mountains. The temperature is the same, the sea is the same, the plants are the same, even the sand is the same. But the mountains, which on a high volcanic island dominate one’s sense of the place (maybe even more than the ocean if that’s possible), are simply missing.

An atoll is, in effect, the memory of a volcanic island which has subsided into the sea leaving only its encircling reef. Here is a part of one from the air:

an atoll

And here, btw, is what you land on. atoll landing strip

The Tuamotu Archipelago is a string of coral rings running NW to SE about halfway between Tahiti and the Marquesas. Rangiroa is the largest of them; it is, in fact, so large that you could fit the entire island of Tahiti inside it, which means, of course, that you can’t see to the other side (or even close!) when you’re looking across the lagoon. What you can see across is the strip of sand that passes for the island. Here is a photo Seven took standing on the open ocean side and looking across at the lagoon. That’s how wide the island is — not very!

rangiroa

These rings are typically not continuous; they have breaks, or passes in them through which the lagoon empties and fills. On Rangiroa the town, airport, hotels, houses, etc., are spread out along a 12 km stretch of road (there are lots of cars, which seems insane, since there is nowhere to drive except up and down this stretch), at either end of which there is a break in the reef. At the Tiputa end, the pass is narrow and seemingly pretty deep and the water rips through it at the turn of the tide. It’s famous for the dolphins that come there to feed when the water flows out of the lagoon, bringing, presumably, lots of fish with it, and by some miracle Seven and I just happened to be there at the right time of day:

dolphis at Tiputa Pass

The whole time we were on Rangiroa the wind was blowing like crazy — nothing to stop it, I guess, for hundreds (thousands?) of miles, and the lagoon, which we faced from our bungalow, was almost as wild-looking as the open sea. Apparently this is typical of July — a strong, steady southeasterly. The boys did get one swim in off the jetty in front of the hotel, as you can see:

swimming at rangiroa

though it was so rough I could barely watch (Seven went with them, so that was ok). Apparently they saw lots of things — the Tuamotus are a famous destination for divers — but then when they came out of the water Seven spotted this sign:

poisson

He was the last one back to the bungalow and he came in laughing about how he’d seen this sign about a poison Tigerfish (!) and then he read about another kind of poison fish, and then another and another, and suddenly he thought, “Holy shit, they’re all poisonous!” I think it might have been the stonefish we saw in ‘Opunohu Bay that put the wind up him initially…

I am now going to leave you with my favorite Rangiroa picture. There is something about the arrival and departure of planes on these small islands — I remember the feeling from Rarotonga back in the 1980s when the plane only came once a week, and when you heard it go you knew it would be another 7 days before it came back for you. The planes are much more frequent everywhere now — there were certainly a couple a day on Rangiroa (even the odd private jet) — and yet there still seems to be something a little forlorn about the sight and (especially) the sound of them approaching and leaving these remote little specks of land…

plane arriving on Rangiroa

I Can’t Resist…

Land, Sea, and Air

The day before we left Mo’orea, Seven and I went to pay a call on Marimari Kellum, whose grandfather came out to French Polynesia from the States at the beginning of the last century and, for a time, owned the whole ’Opunohu Valley (her father ended up giving most of it to the Territoire). Kellum’s son, Hiria Ottino, has just embarked on an amazing journey, retracting the ancient Polynesians’ migration route in reverse all the way back to China, and he actually IS sailing! Here is a photo of the canoe he will be  traveling in:

O Tahiti Nui Freedom

and a link to the website for anyone who wants to know more: http://otahitinui.com/vaa/en. Here’s to a safe and enlightening journey. Bon voyage!

Our own little party, meanwhile, also finally managed to get out on the water, albeit for a 5-minute lagoon crossing, but it might still have been one of the highlights of our time in Mo’orea. We went out to the Lagoonarium (not to be confused with the lagoonarium at the Tahiti hotel), which is a little motu out on the reef with places to sit and drink coffee and snorkels and kayaks that you can borrow. Here is a picture of us going across in the boat:

at sea

As per our normal routine, Seven and the boys went snorkeling and saw tons of cool things while I sat in the shade and worked. Lest anyone think I am just idling away my time, I am posting some evidence of my activity.

Here I am working in the forest:

me working in the forest

And here I am working in a restaurant:

me working at a restaurant

It’s okay though, I’d as soon read as snorkel, and, to be honest, I am a little afraid of the sun. One of the ironies of the trip so far is that the only person who has managed to get sunburned is Seven (the hubris of the naturally dark-skinned), whereas I have been neurotically careful.

But to get back to the lagoon, the color is just astonishing. As you go from the beach to the reef and back again you pass through a spectrum of blues from the palest aquamarine through series of deeper and deeper turquoises to a dark ultramarine. This isn’t quite as vivid as what we saw, but it gives you an idea:

water colors

The colors of Polynesia are, generally speaking, difficult to exaggerate – they are already exaggerated. This is, incidentally, one of the interesting things about Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings: how dark, even gloomy, the palette is when you consider the vividness of the colors in these islands and the clarity of the light. There are lots of interesting possible explanations for this, some having to do with Gauguin’s state of mind and some having to do with what was going on in the islands. Many Polynesian populations reached their nadir in the late 19th century; in the Marquesas, for instance, a smallpox epidemic in the 1860s is said to have wiped out 2/3 of the population.

The thing about boats is that they enable you to see these islands as they were, until very recently, always seen. I have been preoccupied with this idea for quite a few years now, though how far it gets you along the path toward understanding what an island rising from the horizon actually meant (to voyagers, raiders, explorers, castaways, etc.) is unclear.

Now, of course, we have this other way of seeing islands — from above. I wonder how that changes our understanding of them?

island from the sky

An Atoll at Last

More Mysterious Stonework in the Forest

Up in the ‘Opunohu Valley on Mo’orea there is a very intriguing marae complex with a large number of excavated platforms (many with large trees growing inside),

IMG_1686

and, if you wander a bit farther away, lots more of what look like unexcavated platforms.

IMG_1724

It was obviously an enormous complex back in the day. The valley itself is wide and deep and has a river running through it, so it seems not at all surprising that there would have been a large and powerful population residing here. The platforms are scattered through a glade of mape trees — this is the tree with roots like drapery, sometimes called the Tahitian chestnut — which seems to lie at a certain altitude on the mountainside. As you get up out of the glade, you also leave the marae area behind. The fact that there are large trees growing inside the platforms suggests how long they have been abandoned, but it also made me wonder if these trees grew here in the days when the platforms were in use. They are particularly beautiful, tall and sinuous, with these astonishing roots:

mape tree

As to whether there were such trees on the marae compound 200 hundred years ago, you could probably answer this question by looking at the engravings from the early European expeditions (no copies of which I happen to have with me at the moment). The 18th and early 19th c. explorers had artists with them who recorded — I think remarkably faithfully — the places they saw. I have been struck by how much the coastline in this bay looks like the drawings that were made on Cook’s voyages — in fact this is one of the places he stopped. They also shot the 1984 Mel Gibson/Anthony Hopkins Bounty movie here, which we watched the other night. I thought the scenes with the Tahitian girls were ridiculous (were they instructed to giggle hysterically as they were being hauled by the sailors onto the ship?). It was fun, though, to see the line of the mountains in the movie exactly as it looked off our deck.

And here is a little mystery. Up by the marae Seven and I read about something that was described as an “archery platform.”

archery platform image

This was news to me; I had always understood that bows and arrows never made it to Polynesia. The text at the site suggested that the ancient Polynesians used the bow for contests only, i.e. not for war (and that this was a measure of their good sense). But, if it had been me, I would certainly have used it for hunting. An excellent way to catch the birds they brought with them, which, despite being nominally domesticated, run wild all over the islands, crowing from dawn to dusk. Ah, the sound of Polynesia…

Polynesian rooster

Land, Sea, and Air

The Eclipse

It turns out that 98% is a little anti-climactic when it comes to solar eclipses. No one understands how I managed to schedule our stay in the Tuamotus, where the eclipse was total, for a few days after the event, but we did see it from Mo’orea, where it was something between 98 and 99%. It happened between about 8 and 10 in the morning and it definitely got dimmer, but what it  really got was colder. Abraham says that during the Silurian (or some other pre-Permian era) there was a 20% reduction in solar radiation and the whole earth froze over. I can believe it. (Btw, these facts may be slightly off; I didn’t bother to corroborate; it just seemed like an interesting idea).

Anyway here we are, observing the celestial event:

watching the eclipse

and if that isn’t an album cover, I don’t know what is.

More Mysterious Stonework in the Forest

It’s All Relative

Compared with the Marquesas, and even sleepy Ra’iatea,  Mo’orea feels positively metropolitan. Our first attempt to go to the beach took us through a hotel compound of bungalows and paved paths, a restaurant by the water, a place to rent kayaks, a dive center, etc. Dani (who has certainly been spoiled by his first taste of a Pacific Island beach in the Marquesas) had an almost violent reaction to the level of development. You may judge for yourselves, however, just how bad it was (that’s the four of us in the center):

Les Tipaniers

Maybe 20 people on the beach, 5 in the water, and another 10 sitting at the restaurant or wandering around – not exactly Wingaersheek on a July weekend…

There was, however, quite a lot of activity in the water. The wind was high and there were some astonishingly acrobatic kite-surfers flying around the lagoon and leaping over the dock, which was amazing. Dani, Matiu, and Abraham took a couple of kayaks and set off down the lagoon.

boys in kayaks

They were headed downwind and it occurred to me that they might have some difficulty returning. Indeed, in almost no time we lost sight of them. So Seven jumped into a kayak and set off in pursuit. About an hour later they reappeared, trudging through the lagoon, dragging their kayaks behind them.

This question of access to the beaches is interesting. We have been told twice by locals that you can just go into the big hotels and go to their beaches, but the larger hotels are obviously trying to stop people from doing this because they’re gated. We made an experiment along these lines the other day and were instantly stopped by the guard who asked Seven where he was going. I then got out on my side of the car (I don’t think the guard could see me; I was in the back seat on the opposite side) and spoke to him in French:

Was there a beach?

It was not public; there was a public beach down the road.

Was there a restaurant at the hotel?

Yes.

Then we would go to the other beach and come back to the restaurant later.

It’s funny about these encounters, I never know exactly how much they are genuinely charged and how much I am bringing to them in the way of expectation. But I certainly did get an adrenalin surge, or, to put it another way, it didn’t feel very friendly. From there we made our way to the public beach which was full of picnicking Tahitians (a little bit more of the Wingaersheek feel). That has its own challenge in a way. As Abraham noted, our local cred is better when we have Seven with us. (Matiu, who is the brownest of our children, is rapidly darkening in this sun and will pass for local pretty soon).

Finally, a nice shot of fish from off the dock somewhere…

IMG_1442

The Eclipse