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

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.

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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…

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The Eclipse

A Linguist’s Paradise

Thought you might enjoy this photo of Seven a la mode Tahitienne. Actually, I believe only the women wear flowers in their hair, but I think it suits him.

Seven with hibiscus flower

Seven is definitely still provoking interest, especially among the Islanders, and all our most interesting encounters have been with people who want to know who he is and where he comes from. One person guessed Hawaiian; another thought he might be Rarotongan. No one yet has thought to suggest New Zealand, which seems like the obvious choice, or Tongan or Samoan for that matter. This would seem to indicate that there aren’t too many non-French Polynesians traveling in these parts.

Our encounters really emphasize how separated the Pacific is by this English v. French colonial divide, but it’s frustrating seeing people with so much in common separated from one another in this very fundamental way. Maybe if his Maori were better they would have a Polynesian lingua franca, but I don’t know. Everyone tells us that speakers from different island groups are mutually unintelligible.

Or, rather they tell us that people from other islands can understand each another, but that they can’t understand them. Marquesans, we are told, sound like Maori; or Tuamotuans sound like Marquesans; or Easter Islanders sound like Hawaiians; but no one, apparently, sounds like Tahitians, at least from the Tahitian point of view. We have, however, met an interesting assortment of people from the eastern Pacific, including a  guy from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) who spoke to us in a mixture of French and English, taught us a few words of Rapa Nui, and counted out our change in Spanish!

On a completely different subject, I have become painfully aware (from questions put to me by people at home) how little I know about birds and plants and I’m sorry to report that I cannot be at all interesting on either subject. However, I did see the most magnificent pair of breadfruit trees the other day. They were so huge and glorious that I made Seven turn around and drive back about a 1/4 mile to take some pictures. (The kids were utterly bored by this; “Hey, let’s stop and take a picture” is becoming code between them for anything time-wasting and stupid). You can’t really get a sense of how big they were (this is shot down from the roadside above) but they had to have been 40 feet high at least.

breadfruit trees

This is what the leaves and fruit look like up close. Beautiful, isn’t it?

breadfruit

Breadfruit is, of course, the cargo that Captain Bligh of the Bounty was supposed to pick up in Tahiti and take to the Caribbean (where it would be grown to feed slaves) before his crew mutinied and left him to perish in an open boat. It is prepared in various ways, including most famously a fermented mash, which is, I believe, an acquired taste. Dani wouldn’t get near it…

Abraham Joins the Crew