A Little Bit of Me

Jottings and Writing, miscellanous misgivings

an ignorant traveler abraod

TAHITI 1991

Stepping off the plane and before what seemed like a second I was hit by the heat of the place. While waiting for a 3/4 hour “getting through customs” it was obvious that the Dunedin gear of  leather jacket, jersey, and cords only bought an instant sweat at the hint of any movement. It was 0515 and we had arrived at Faa Airport in Tahiti. Customs was a cursory check of our passports but it was the first time I had been faced by a figure in authority wearing a Smith & Wesson strapped to his hip.

A frantic search for a taxi and a chance to work out that fpc 20,000 is about NZ $35 and this is the price to get a taxi from Faa International Airport

The “zombies of the night” and the mysterious “sweepies” were the two biggest psychological dilemmas posed in the first few hours.

1

to Papeete, a distance of about 7km. Shit! they drive on the wrong or should that be the right side of the road here and as we speed toward downtown Papeete , with all the windows down and a cool, breeze calming everything down, in this modern Peugeot petite we pass lots of people wandering round the roads in a scene like “zombies from the dark”. What are they doing and in pidgin French / English the driver replies that they are going to work. This seems rather unlikely and we ponder on one of the mysteries of Tahiti that will return to haunt us.

We arrive at the hotel  and Zoot Alors! although we have been booked in we cannot possess our room until 1100hrs, the surly Tahitian desk clerk informs us. He finally relented at 0600-0700hrs when we make ready to bunk down in the lobby as jet lag and the oppressive heat are having their toll. We first, however, have to wait around until 0600 and a walk along the waterfront shows a few drunks sleeping off last nights festivities and groups of people with doggy shovels sweeping up the debris of the night. This, in fact, seems to employ a veritable army of people  who sweep up the discarded junk of yesterdays life. In fact, as we are to see later on, these sweepies are kept busy in an unobtrusive way all day working away relentlessly at their task and in later days we are led to speculate  that the discarded rubbish, soft drink cans, playing cards, paper and plastic bags, cigarette butts, half eaten fruit are all alive and well in the Tahitian countryside and could probably keep half the population of Tahiti busy as sweepies.

We arrive back from our walk and our surly Tahitian clerk has had his pound of flesh and reluctantly allows us to enter our room where we instantly grapple with the air conditioning and a strange siren like sound that pierces the now morning air and rattles window panes throughout our dream filled night.

1000hrs. The heat and restless energy have combined to bring us awake and we need to explore!. Its about 26 C outside and I am immediately struck that there are no TV’s, no radio’s,, no telephone books in the room; no information of where to go and what to see. We wander aimlessly in the general direction of the inner city to get something to drink and we are aware that our Dunedin mid-winter bodies are unaccustomed to the change of climate and the moisture that we have lost while in flight. There is also the enormous amount of water that is extracted from the air by the airconditioners and I notice pools of water lying beneath veritable waterfalls, cascading down from rooftop conditioners. All this must be combining to lower our moisture content to dangerously low levels.

So ! Our first contact with Tahiti. It is so difficult to work out how things are. Everything is in French and my schooldays French can partially work out the major things like banks, toilets, customs, chemists, hotels, restaurants, but there appears to  be a singular lack of people manning literally dozens of nameless shops strewn along the street with COCA-COLA and PIZZA signs adorning their exteriors. Restaurants and bars actually serve from coffee and snacks to fully fledged meals but the prices are a little daunting with Salad Nicoise going at fcp 1000 which is about NZ$25. We eventually find one of a number of in/out shops similar in layout to NZ lottery/bookshops which serve takeaways from a bit fronting on to the street and then various grocery items inside. The meals are displayed in glass cases and feature french rolls stuffed with all sorts of things and various pastries and bags of what look like dried fruit. We choose to go inside and mumble ” deux cafe” which is fraught with danger as Alison has hers with milk and I don’t and I can’t for the life of me remember how to order the two different varieties.

However the lovely lady understand and brings us two wonderful coffees with a bowl of sugar cubes and a tin of Carnation

milk which appears to be the milk of choice and is served everywhere in various guises .

We eventually buy some FANTA and things are looking up as we negotiate handing over money and starting to work  out how it all goes.

We later negotiate buying our first food and then finding its the standard snack food for the area. They are beautiful French rolls stuffed with all sorts of goodies and the one that eventually becomes a firm favourite of mine is cold spaghetti with a sauce with pork or bacon or something spread over it.

By midday we have cruised the shops of Papeete and a ready for more food and a swim. The other choices in the bread rolls are crabmeat, omelette, ham, fish, chicken and you can by chicken legs in batter or without out, which we are initially suspicious of but later turn out to be delicious and much better than our battery fed equivalent. All this is for about fcp100-250 (NZ$1.80-$2.50). We then wander down to the waterfront to find a place for the elusive swim we have been promising ourselves since about mid June when we finally decided we were going to do this. There are some pretty fancy yachts tethered, fore and aft Mediterranean style, with the anchor out to sea and two stern lines to davits on the rock wall and gang planks to the boats. Some skippers have ingeniously rigged these so that they go through a masthead halyard and they can be raised and lowered to prevent unwelcome visitors. They seem to be mostly American yachts although there are some from Australia, Scandinavia and Great Britain. I plan to try and track down any existence of FAITH11’s visit her in the early sixties , if I can. There does not seem much evidence of folk actually being on board the yachts and the only activity I witness is a young maiden slurping some water over herself after rising wearily from sleep ( its midday) and two small Tahitian children hauling gangplanks up and down for visiting friends. There is water and power for each berth and the amenities seem great with only a stones throw to the shops.

The swim proves to be unobtainable as all this area has large signs warning or swimming being prohibited and I can only guess that the pollution is such that it would impose a health risk. After walking for miles we flop on the beach and bask in the sun. We have to find some place where we can buy inexpensive food and some snacks for our hotel room.

The supermarket

We have found a supermarket! Great! Familiar territory and its great to feel the old steel basket beneath your fingertips and knowing that no-one is going to start babbling in your face when you pick something up. God! Scotch, Gin , Vodka, Rum for sale in the supermarket though about NZ$50 a bottle. Fruit is expensive with oranges and some out of season apples going for $NZ 6 a kilo. Meat is horrendous! A leg of NZ lamb is about NZ$25 and most beef is about fpc1000 a kilo (NZ$15-20), although we are confused as to wether this may be a pound rather than a kilo.

We buy cheese(fcp100); wine (fcp600); crackers (fcp200); a corkscrew( fcp130; some mineral water (fcp90) and some more FANTA (fcp300) and bannanas (fcp125) which should provide plenty o snacks for about NZ$35.

The restaurant

After crashing out for three hours upon returning to the hotel (jetlag- numero duty free whiskies) we venture out for a meal.

Cafe RETRO has attracted our eye earlier on. It is resplendent with marble floors, interesting decor and a menu we can understand. Fish ( poisson) and steak tartare are the specials of the day. We later learn from the local newspaper that this restaurant is to be the location for a French movie currently being made and it does have a certain ambience of French people popping in for a vino and Gauloise after a hard days. There are luscious Tahitian maidens serving and drumming up the clientele. We have some minor problems with ordering as they are all a bit concerned that I am unaware that steak tartare is raw meat ( of which I am fully aware) but they fail to pick up that Alison has unknowingly ordered raw fish. The food arrives and it initially appears rather paltry but this soon passes as it is delicious with a beautiful simple salad. A demi-litre  of rose ( no vin rouge) and coffee and strawberry tart comes to NZ$90 or fcp4500 which is pretty expensive but we think that the experience has been well worth it. We are gaining in confidence and we have managed to suss most things out.

On the way back we find a large fenced off arena we had been curious about on our first morning. There is an Arts Festival due to happen in a few weeks and it turns out this is the venue for practices. It is also the main venue for traditional Tahitian performances for tourists. We stroll in , sit down, and we are entertained for nearly an hour by dancing, magnificent ukulele playing and singing.

Further along the waterfront, just past the Tahitian fishing fleet, who ion the company of the French authorities, were so unkind to Margaret Hicks, we bump into our Air NZ flight crew who have been sampling the night life during their stop over. Its wonderful to hear a familiar language after a day of people jabbering away in French. The waterfront is populated at night by dozens of mobile food places which offer a wide variety of foods such as Pekinese, Canton, Chinese, French , Italian food for about fcp600-fcp1000 each. It seems to be the centre of night life as it is being continually cruised by cars, scooter, motorbikes, prostitutes, tourists and locals alike and their are delicious smells everywhere.

If only this array of food and atmosphere could be part of Dunedin nightlife . The mixture of noise, food and people provides endless entertainment.

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The enigmatic and omnipresent “Trucks” have no timetable, negotiable fare and constitute the most friendly face of the Island.

3

The next day sees us more determined to explore this Island. We first decide that we must have food for a picnic. This necessitates going to the local market and buying mangoes, melon, tomatoes, lettuce etc for the day. The local market is a delightful place filled with fruit, vegetables, meat, fish , crafts being sold from stalls and wonderful bargains.

Its then off to find a beach. The locals travel by “Le Truck” which are a fleet of flatdeck trucks with bench seats fore and aft and a covering over the back and painted in gay colours. They run from the center of Papeete to various spots around the island. There are no timetables, the buses just run when there are enough customers. We have decided that we want to go to Point Venus which is a beach  (with black sands-the local tourist guide has explained to us in broken English). It is also the sight of Captain James Cooks observation of the planet Venus which historically was going to be able to allow mad englishmen to work out their longitude. There is much confusion but Alison and I manage to over come it by taking out the map and pointing to the beach we want to go to. We are finally hustled into the appropriate truck and are on our way. You don’t pay until you get top where you are going to and then you have to clamber over the seat of the truck to hand over the 100 francs.

We arrive at Point Venus which indeed has the historic references to Captain Cook and a splendid lighthouse to boot, but the beach is beckoning. The beach is covered in wonderful people and its a shock to the system to see so much naked flesh on display. Indeed my first day on the beach at Tahiti is filled with wondrous and beautiful sights as women after women arrives, strips off, languishes in the sun, splashes in the water then reclothes and is off home.

Another curious feature is that at 1200 a bus arrives and disgorges numerous schoolchildren who seem to come to the beach for lunch , then the afternoon. Alison is game for a few swims but I am afraid that the sights on the beach are keeping me out of the water. Mid afternoon we wind our way back home and have a delightful cafe at a small wayside diner at the end of the beach which serves snacks, ice creams to full meals. We are walking along the road where mangoes are literally lying on the roadside and a “le truck” comes down the road so I flag it down. To my horror when we reach the main road it turns the wrong way and proceeds down the east coast of the island. However, the driver seems to know where we want to go as after 5 km or so, he draws to a stop, turns round and gesticulates for us to get out, cross the road , and catch the bus back to Papeete , waiting on the other side of the road. No charge !

That evening we decide to try the waterfront and sample the wonderful crepes that had been described to us by our Air NZ crew. We choose a French type place is run by an attractive French women who serves the most amazing steak and salad and coffee to follow. I don’t know whether it is my having not smoked for a couple of days but the food has the most incredible taste. We wander down the alley of trucks and vans, being careful to avoid being run over and on our way back have a crepe a la mariner each which is like heaven. There is also a fare running in the town centre and Alison is keen for a ride on the Ferris wheel. However, the prize attraction is this imported merryground with he most ornate horses and lighting. It is breathless to see it and I would love to hear the story behind it.

The worst thing that can happen to you in any foreign country is to get lost, or at least to think that you may be lost. Alison does not seem to grasp this. We could be robbed and our bodies discarded and no-one would be any the wiser. I was amazed that, just this morning, we blithely climbed into a jeep containing three tattooed, tough looking guys who were boozing up. We drove with them , in total trust that they would take us to where they were going and that we would survive the journey. Sooner or later our luck just might run out.

4

Stranded in the middle of Tahiti, somewhere near Parea. We have walked from the beach we spent the day at which was magnificent for warm water, typical naked dusky Tahitian maiden, more naked French mademoiselles, oh! and the beautiful sun. God this place is amazing. I was so embarrassed taking pictures of topless ladies that they are all probably out of focus or over or underexposed or of the wrong parts of their anatomy. Anyway! Lost! We’re led to believe that the last bus back to Papeete is at 1630 from the museum guide we have talked to as we wandered back  from the beach. We arrive at what we though was about 1525 and there is no-one else there. Volvo’s, Peugeot’s, BMW’s, Suziki’s , Renault’s , Ford’s, Mini’s roar by and buses roar by , but in the wrong direction and we are looked upon disdainfully as stupid tourists perched on a stone by the inward bus sign, now suddenly being doused by some rich French garden water as one of the residents decided to water their precious lawn.

A hope! a gentleman joins us and to my horror tells me that the updated time is 1655 and now all hope of a bus to take us back is lost. Yet he is sitting, jiggling his 100 franc coins and occasionally seeming to flicker at a passing BMW. Suddenly a bus appears  as he is joined by a Chinese and non Tahitian lady who laugh at our fate and introduce themselves. They are from Vanautu and have ben in Tahiti for 5 years training in hotel management. He actually speaks english and has probably picked up my angst. We’re OK and sailing down the road and having a decent conversation despite a group of drunken Tahitian army recruits who have appeared on board and in deference to the plainly written rule forbidding them to drink and smoke they are slurping down beer and passing round a bottle of “Cutty Sark” which is nearly empty. We survive! and home to the supermarket , French bread, pate, onion, tomato , mango, French wine  and to pretend we are slumming.

Out to Cruise

Off to sample the nightlife of Tahiti , but first a stop off for some coffee. The coffee here is magnificent and we haven’t had any all day. Some we have seen come out of a percolator and we have just had some cappuccino , but also small dark , rich coffee in small cups you can barely get your fingers through the handle for fcp200; and they are heaven! The smell of Gauloise and Gitanes pervades the night air as French people stop off for a smoke, wine and cafe. Over on the adjacent wharf is the cruise vessel the WINDSONG.

What a monster! In the brochures it looks big but here, tied next to the wharf it is amazing. It hugely towers over the local fishing fleet with its three masts. The mizzen sail is self furling and all the staysails also have huge hydraulic self furling attachments on them.

From the commotion on the boulevard with gendarmes ( with guns) and blockades it is obvious that this is a huge money spinner and all the cultural/ traditional dancing and swaying is being bought out to entertain the clients. After visiting the Polynesian museum today and seeing this spectacle I am forced to the point of view that these people have not achieved much in the way of cultural awareness re there place in French Polynesia. The French

have traditionally been very arrogant and authoritarian in colonial rule and the farcical nature of the Island awareness is a tawdry sign between Papeete and Faa reading ” Welcome to Nuclear Free Tahiti”

We have just been struck by the anomalies. A proud native race where in the north of the island most native Tahitians don’t even bother to speak the native language and talk in French. The further you travel form Papeete the more the native Tahitian langauge is spoken. The people obviously have  proud cultural heritage  yet the countryside is evidence of a total neglect of environmental awareness. Rubbish is everywhere and after a school picnic the ground looks like a mini Maouroua Atoll. Young people seem to be either fashionably in or swigging on a bottle of Johnny Walker or Cutty Sark, smoking and gambling their young lives away.

This is born out later in the evening as we see evidence of some of the seamier aspects of Tahiti. We have wandered down a dark looking street and found the clubs which cater to the more basic impulses of the tourists. Here transvestites , prostitutes ply for trade either in the clubs or the streets and bars surrounding them. A young American tourist is trying desperately to lure and even younger Tahitian girl back to his hotel room on the pretext of not being able to find his way home. When I offer to help him find said home, he rather rudely declines my offer. People asleep in doorways or amidst piles of rubbish created by the festival over the road stand in stark contrast to the magnificently garlanded dancers who display for the tourists.

Two conversations

Moorea Island is the closest Island to Tahiti and probably the second biggest tourist trap with Club Med and a few others scattered around the Island. You reach it via a ferry which runs from the island of Tahiti 3X daily or if you are rich you can fly. We are anticipating that we will catch the 0945 sailing but I wake at 0600 and try to rouse Alison for the 0700 sailing; but, she isn’t interested. Back to sleep and awake again at what I think is 0830 . I leap out of bed and into the shower and as I fall asleep mid dressing I discover, to my chagrin, that it is 0730.

We queue to get tickets which are fcp1400 each return ( NZ$25). While waiting I hear a familiar language  and its Bob , from Sydney. Although he is an Australian he looks oriental and he is wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt so he could be virtually from anywhere. But it is obvious that Bob knows even less French than us as he’s reading Sundays timetable; whereas I have at least sussed out the French for Saturday.

Bob is in the hotel trade and he is in Tahiti on a working holiday with wife Judy who is constantly smiling and then

retiring to write in what looks like a giant exercise book. Does she tear out the pages and send them home to Sydney in air mail envelopes that conceal their cheap and tawdry stationary? Bob is frustrated because he’s the front man for a proposed Japanese/ Australian/Tahitian consortium who are going to shoehorn their way into a hotel. As he says with the Japanese being involved they demand that it has to be something rather special and Bob is looking a little frayed around the edges as he sucks on his 10 Malboro of the morning and anxiously glances at his watch. He has been here two days and he has just received his itinerary and so this morning he has already booked in and out of two hotels. One transaction took less than 15 minutes and Bob is reeling. He reckons that so far he has done fuck all work but has had ,lots of meetings,. Basically the local tourist industry is just not happening! It’s just not set up right. There is no information available for people to work our whats on outside of your own hotel. The local people are not interested in promotion. Bob says that some in the industry blame the Tahitians in that they are frequently described as lazy. Bob says you haven’t seen lazy until you go to Fiji. ” Heres the towel you ordered sir” says the Fijian waiter “and you may well reel in surprise as it was three bloody days ago that you ordered said towel”. Bob doesn’t see his proposed venture going very far and as he glances at his watch and sees that we are already 20 minutes past sailing time  , he is not a happy man. Meanwhile Judy sits on their suitcases and scribbles a few more lines on her worn A4.

We’re on our way home from Moorea. A pleasant enough day on what was probably a private beach but there was no-one to warn us off so we grabbed a few fallen coconuts for sustenance and helped ourselves. Apart form giant crabs roaming the beach and their

numerous holes which the cover the roadside to the waters edge and into which a small child may disappear the environment is kind to us. Apart of course, from the inevitable tide mark of FANTA, ROYAL MINERAL WATER, HEINEKEN & HINAMO BEER,  assorted wrappers and various other items of rubbish.

Haamerati cruises onto the return ferry and he is floating about a foot off the multi-coloured, rubbish, strewn deck from the accumulated litter of the days cruises. Roo, his friend? has been standing beside us for at least a quarter of an hour and he’s into his second Heineken which he quickly drains and throws over the side to join the rest of the garbage that is being disgorged from the bowels of the ship. By mid crossing Roo and Haamerati, along with two other friends have polished off close to two dozen cans and are now blocking the aisles, insulting the local French people, singing romantic, bawdy songs , when they are not lapsing into native Tahitian  and presumably further haranguing any pseudo French Polynesian who happen to be near. They are treated by the other passengers with a curious mixture of contempt and fascination and bon-homme. Although I cannot make out what they are saying it is obviously rather risque and is causing offence to some of the other passengers who quickly move to another part of the boat. Inevitably by journeys end ( and an exciting journey it is , with my first sighting of a flying fish and a horrendous swell  which the crew pound the antiquated steel hull through at tremendous speed, causing it to shudder ominously with each new wave) Haamerati has to talk to someone and that basically leaves me  because he’s insulted nearly everybody else. Despite his obvious drunken state and my complete lack of Tahitian or French and his unwillingness to talk in French and utter lack of any English we manage to communicate , much to his delight. He thinks that French Polynesia is great but only on the outlying Islands. Tahiti is basically had it. “Non plage” he keeps repeating , every time we look over at the rapidly approaching island which is being bathed by the late afternoon sun and looks simply amazing. “Le Yacht, byu non plage, Tahiti” then Haamerati lapses into French body language with drunken gesticulations showing obvious disgust for Tahiti. His sweeping gestures encompass the modern motorways with Peugots, BMW’s and Mercedes speeding to and fro and I can only conclude that he has a view of Polynesia that has occurred to me as well. The clash of the French and Polynesian ways of life and the differences in wealth and colonial pride lead me to speculate that Tahiti and French Polynesia are a time bomb , waiting to explode and as Haami(as he now wants to be called)and Roo throw yet another three cans over the side to add to todays garbage I can only feel for them and what they will probably go through before they can resuscitate their pride and feeling for this beautiful country.

Paradoxes are  everywhere. Cleanliness, filth. French, Polynesian. The country almost seems to be schizophrenic………………………………………….

It is only later that I learn that “la plage” probably means swimming and my estimate of Haameratis political sensitivity is shattered.

5

Our last night in Tahiti is greeted with a tinge of sadness as we realize that the trip is finally coming to an end. We plan to eat expensively tonight as the NZ$100 a day we have budgeted each for has gone a long way since we managed to sort out the markets and the waterfront food stalls. We find a Vietnamese restaurant in a back street of Papeete , and amazingly it is virtually empty. In fact we are the only occupants until a Frenchman arrives with two beautiful women and we are left to speculate what their various relationships may be . Again, the waitress cannot speak English or understand us but we manage to order a variety of entrées and mains which to our horror all arrive at the same time. We are faced with plates of steaming frogs legs, rice, sates, chicken and fish dishes. The food is , of course, outstanding and in our intoxicated state I leave the restaurant and leave my French yachting magazine behind. This causes me some sleepless moments over the next day as I reckon this would have been the perfect way to, learn to speak French.

Our last day is to be spent in Papeete in a leisurely fashion, wandering the beachfront and lying in the sun. We have both managed to gain a bit of a tan , although Alison has overdone it slightly and is a little redder.

The yachts on the beachfront have finally got some bodies on board and lying on the beach we can see that most of them appear to spend the whole day sitting in one spot, doing very little. Despite the fact that there is a decent wind there is not one yacht out enjoying it and they spend the day swinging around their anchors as the breeze builds up. Our moment of excitement arrives when the sole New Zealand boat manages to drag its anchor and we are treated to an hysterical half an hour as they motor around fiddling with various bits of rope.

The streets are filled with people in the morning attending church and then in the afternoon the boulevard is busy with people screaming up and down all day.

In fact we are treated later in the day to the local Kamikaze pilots doing banshee runs up and down the boulevard , aboard their Kawasaki 900 Ninja turtles . They blithely ride without helmets, footwear and shorts at speeds which should shred the skin off their little knees. I know understand the building spotted earlier in the week denoting the Institute de Rehabilee de Amputee , complete with a few limbless souls propped up outside.

Leaving the hotel at 0200 hrs is not easy. We have had, or tried to have , a snooze before catching a taxi to the airport but the oppressive heat, the thought that we will not wake up and the tremendous downpour outside have all conspired to rob me of rest. Although we have a wakeup call in I have seen the Tahitian clerk of our first night is on the desk and I cannot trust the little bastard enough to put my future in his fat little hands. When we get outside there indeed has been a storm and it is obvious now to see why the gutters are so high. When it rains here it must really pour down. The night is wonderfully clear , with a full moon and millions of stars and the drive to the airport is surreal, tempered by our separate states of tiredness.

Leaving Tahiti is like a dream. We are cast in the transit lounge with various other dissociated bodies travelling from the USA to Auckland. They have been in the air for what seems like days and its an eerie feeling to be in a country , but not to be in a country as we all sit in the area that separates us from the formality of International customs or the relative tranquillity of being not subject to any taxes, to be in the buffer zone.

Our last sight of Tahiti is of the glittering lights of the boulevard as the 747 wheels away from the island and starts its long climb to 34000 feet and the journey back to New Zealand.

My overriding impression is that this trip has kindled in me a wish to explore other parts of the world. There is an amazing feeling of discovery and confirmation of your own roots when you enter into a country and come to terms with how things work.

Its also my belief that travelling relatively independently from tourist routes is the way to see the country. Had we travelled to a hotel in Tahiti, on one of the outlying islands, we would have sun, surf and traditional Tahiti , but we would have missed the children arriving on the beach at mid day, the bus drivers, the friendly people in the market, walks in the countryside, the garbage strewn beaches, the meeting with Haamerati and Roo on the ferry. We probably wouldn’t have seen the merryground and we probably would,nt have had to learn to speak a mixture of French and pidgin English. In short we would not have enjoyed ourselves !

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