Land of the sec­ond sky

An is­land-hop­ping jour­ney through Tahiti re­veals the in­cred­i­ble tones and tra­di­tions of French Poly­ne­sia

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Stephen Smith

An is­land-hop­ping jour­ney through Tahiti re­veals the in­cred­i­ble tones and tra­di­tions of French Poly­ne­sia

Most of the read­ing I did be­fore I trav­elled to Tahiti in­volved bar­ques and frigates named En­deav­our and La Boudeuse, ves­sels bear­ing the 18th-cen­tury Euro­pean vis­i­tors who thought they’d found par­adise. They hadn’t, of course, though that didn’t stop their ar­rival from chang­ing ev­ery­thing in a civ­i­liza­tion that had been in place for nearly 2,000 years. I see now that I should have con­cen­trated on study­ing more ev­ery­day vo­cab­u­lary to help me through my visit, maybe delved deeper into French Poly­ne­sia’s mod­ern colo­nial his­tory. In­stead, I spend much of the eighthour Air Tahiti Nui flight from Los An­ge­les catch­ing up on Cap­tain William Bligh and his 1787-89 mis­sion aboard HMS Bounty to se­cure bread­fruit seedlings for ex­port to Eng­land’s Caribbean colonies. Maybe you re­mem­ber the story, or one of the movies, but it didn’t go so well: ev­ery ver­sion leads to in­fa­mous mutiny. Even­tu­ally, I ex­tract my­self from the his­tory of early Euro­pean in­tru­sions to pre­pare for my im­mi­nent own. I don’t pick up much, in the end. By the time I land at Faa’a In­ter­na­tional Air­port on French Poly­ne­sia’s busy main is­land, Tahiti, the only lo­cal phrases I’ve locked down are ia ora na (good morn­ing) and mau­ru­uru (thank you). Whether you come bet­ter pre­pared, this is your start­ing line, the cen­tre of busi­ness and com­merce, home to the cap­i­tal city, Pape’ete. While the whole as­sem­blage is of­ten in­for­mally re­ferred to as Tahiti, French Poly­ne­sia is the ap­proved des­ig­na­tion for this scat­ter­ing of 118 is­lands and atolls, about half of them in­hab­ited. Cast across an ex­panse of Pa­cific Ocean as broad as Europe, the is­lands are grouped in five ar­chi­pel­a­gos: So­ci­ety, Aus­tral, Tuamotu, Gam­bier and Mar­que­sas. The pop­u­la­tion to­tals 280,000 or so, which is roughly twice that of Prince Edward Is­land. You can trace the as­so­ci­a­tion with France back to Cap­tain Louis-an­toine de Bougainvil­le and his 1767 ar­rival. Since then, French Poly­ne­sia has been, var­i­ously, a colony, pro­tec­torate and over­seas ter­ri­tory. To­day, it’s tech­ni­cally — awk­wardly — termed an over­seas col­lec­tiv­ity. Siz­ing up my fel­low pas­sen­gers, I’d say most are here to launch va­ca­tions: find a beach, snorkel through coral gar­dens, char­ter a cata­ma­ran, hike a ver­dant moun­tain trail. Honey­moon­ers tend to head to the re­sorts of Bora Bora, while surfers aim for the mon­strous waves at Teahupo’o, off Tahiti proper. I do learn enough about that on the flight to avoid it: Teahupo’o trans­lates — at least ac­cord­ing to my loose in­ter­pre­ta­tion — as “wave that chops your head off.”

MY FIRST MORN­ING in Pape’ete is lus­trous. That’s not a word I use lightly, but I over­hear it back at the air­port, wait­ing in line to pass through se­cu­rity and be­gin a jour­ney that will take me to four other is­lands — Ra­iatea, Taha’a, Moorea and Fakar­ava — in seven days, and it seems right. Early anal­y­sis: the spell that Tahiti casts has a fa­mil­iar trop­i­cal recipe, wherein equal parts sun and ocean and sand mix with an abun­dance of first-time vis­i­tor’s awe to make you feel per­cep­ti­bly fresh­ened and im­proved. As a vis­i­tor, you hear a lot in French Poly­ne­sia about mana, the spir­i­tual power that this place gen­er­ates, its nat­u­ral-born wis­dom, its mys­tery, its truth. Is that some of it? Maybe. Mean­while, I’m not shed­ding the 18th cen­tury so eas­ily. As we rise into the bright of the morn­ing, my thought as I thank the flight at­ten­dant who of­fers a bracer of pa­paya juice is, Yes, good to start the day pro­tect­ing against scurvy.

You think you know your colours thor­oughly enough, but the ocean in Tahiti dumb­founds the pal­ette you’ve been work­ing with all your life. As we bank over Moorea, I watch a keel­boat sail through an in­ner-lit blue­ness that must be reg­u­lar salt­wa­ter, though I’ve never seen any­thing like it be­fore. French Poly­ne­sia will keep this up through­out my stay, en­hanc­ing colours and tex­tures, am­pli­fy­ing the ex­tent and 4K-depth of hori­zons, in­creas­ing their lim­it­less­ness, find­ing new ways to make el­e­ments as old as weather and night­fall seem like sur­prises. The blue, I think, is cobalt. It is, to be clear, blue.

FIRST STOP: RA­IATEA, sec­ond-largest of the So­ci­ety Is­lands af­ter Tahiti. Landed at the Uturoa air­port, I find my guide for the day, Te­hina Rota, wait­ing by his van. He’s a young man in his 20s, with lots to tell me as we drive south along the coast road. One of his early dec­la­ra­tions: “Peo­ple com­plain that Ra­iatea is too far from the big coun­tries. For me, no, that’s the qual­ity.” I sur­prise my­self with how de­mand­ing I am of de­tail. If I’m dry­ing my co­conut meats for co­pra, to make co­conut oil, how long do I need to sun them? (Two days, or so.) And tell me again: where, ex­actly, is the best place to spear a par­rot­fish? (A kilo­me­tre or two off­shore, at the gap in the reef where la­goon meets open ocean.) The sun sits high as we ar­rive at our des­ti­na­tion, marae Ta­puta­pu­atea, and it’s puls­ing so hotly as Rota parks the van and leads me to the shore that it feels like it’s dropped down to join the tour. A is a sa­cred en­clave, a tem­ple for wor­ship and sac­ri­fice, an in­ter­sec­tion for the liv­ing to com­mune with their an­ces­tors, a place for royal gath­er­ings and cel­e­bra­tions, a source of mana and its sanc­tu­ary.

Stephen Smith ( @pkstrk) writes for Cana­dian Ge­o­graphic and The Wal­rus. His first book was Puck­struck: Dis­tracted, De­lighted and Dis­tressed by Canada’s Hockey Ob­ses­sion. With its thou­sand-year his­tory, marae Ta­puta­pu­atea is the most-revered and im­por­tant in Poly­ne­sia, and in 2017 it be­came the re­gion’s first UNESCO World Her­itage site. Ded­i­cated to ’Oro, god of war, it com­prises a com­plex of sites on the shore sep­a­rat­ing moun­tain and ocean, amid a dense­ness of tamarinds and banyan trees. As we walk near the cen­tral 17th­cen­tury open court­yard that’s paved with basalt, Rota points out bread­fruit, which looks like a green, bet­ter-ar­moured grape­fruit. The co­conut palms nearby stir him to an ode that comes gust­ing out: “We should pray to the co­conut! We should plant a palm in ev­ery school­yard and have the kids thank it! It gives us ev­ery­thing — food and wood, shel­ter, medicine. It’s the past and the fu­ture!” Also, he men­tions a lit­tle fur­ther on, a threat to ter­res­trial tourists. “Watch out,” he warns. “They fall.” Af­ter a lunch of at Villa Ix­ora, a serene bay­side guest­house with a shady restau­rant that’s on the way back to­ward Uturoa, it’s on to the town’s wharf, where I can see Taha’a, my next desti- na­tion, high­ris­ing across the nar­rows, the slopes of its moun­tains lushly canopied by aca­cia. Taha’a has no air­port, so I mo­tor across in a whaler steered by Pas­cal Bailly, an ex­pat French­man in his 50s. On the way, I have my note­book out to work on a ten­ta­tive list of sur­round­ing greens. Gau­guiny-emer­ald, su­per­mint, too-ripe pear, ex­treme-ker­mit … I don’t know that I’m mak­ing a lot of progress with my colours: as has been the case since I ar­rived, na­ture con­tin­ues to over­whelm lan­guage. Bailly’s guest­house, Fare Pea Iti, comes highly rec­om­mended and, with its view of the moun­tains of dis­tant Bora Bora, it doesn’t dis­ap­point. If you’re a fan of daz­zling beaches and seren­ity, of hibis­cus and gar­de­nia, and icy bot­tles of Hi­nano beer, well, then, yes, this might be a place for you. The main house cen­tres a col­lec­tion of thatch-roofed pri­vate bun­ga­lows. A fur­ther tour of the prop­erty takes me to the pool and, be­yond a

‘We should PRAY TO THE CO­CONUT! We should plant a palm in ev­ery school­yard and have the kids thank it! IT GIVES US EV­ERY­THING.’

tidy pile of downed co­conuts, the pri­vate beach. The her­mit crabs I’ve been see­ing all day are, to Bailly, a se­ri­ous men­ace to the gar­den, and he smil­ingly threat­ens as they scut­tle out of the path. He has one solemn cau­tion as we ar­rive at my door: be­ware of night but­ter­flies. OK, good, so … moths? Bailly shakes his head. Oh: bats. “No, no.” He’s at a loss, now, to go fur­ther, other than to say that the mos­quito net­ting should pro­tect me. “In the trop­ics,” he adds, “the night but­ter­flies are big as birds and stupid as shoes.” I kick off mine and wade out for a swim be­fore set­tling in on the pier to see how the sun sets over Bora Bora. Who’s a painter who paints like this? You’d have to take care: these are gar­ish Hal­loween colours we’re deal­ing with here. The night’s dark­ness fills the ocean first, wait­ing for a cue to drain up­wards. The sky or­anges and pinks be­fore it — dra­matic ce­les­tial pause — pur­ples. In a few more min­utes Bora Bora is re­placed on the hori­zon by a pow­der of lights. I MAKE IT through the night undis­turbed, if none the wiser about what I was guard­ing against. I have a busy two days ahead of me on Taha’a, steered by Sa­muel Ta­maehu of Here­m­ana Tours. On the water, Ta­maehu aims the bow of his boat out into Taha’a’s north­east­ern la­goon. Many of the So­ci­ety Is­lands are en­cir­cled by reefs, which them­selves are of­ten dot­ted with mo­tus — tiny islets so idyl­lic in their palm-treed white-sandi­ness that they could be mas­querad­ing as clichés. An­chor­ing motu- side in waist­deep water, Ta­maehu splashes down ahead of me, slap­ping the water to alert and bring on a bevy of — three, four, five, six — st­ingrays. Zoom­ing black and flat around us, the rays re­sem­ble noth­ing so much as stealthy door­mats. Friendly ones, though. As long as you leave their barbed tail-ends alone, you’ll find them as play­ful as pup­pies. We move into deeper water and I don mask and flip­pers to ex­plore the by­ways of a coral gar­den. The lam­bent cobalt I was look­ing at yes­ter­day from the air is a gleam­ing turquoise now that I’m in it, and I’m sat­is­fied to let the colour ab­sorb me. My boat tour ends and we drive to Ta­maehu’s house for lunch, a tra­di­tional Sun­day feast cen­tred around an open fire-pit known as a hima’a. Hot from the coals, there’s pork and chicken, taro

PAS­CAL HAS ONE SOLEMN CAU­TION as we ar­rive at my door: be­ware of NIGHT BUT­TER­FLIES. ‘In the trop­ics,’ he adds, ‘they are big as birds and stupid as shoes.’

(think sweet potato) and jack­fish roasted in palm leaves. Ta­maehu con­jures the pois­son cru: raw tuna, toma­toes, onion, doused in co­conut milk and lime juice, mixed by hand. I help my­self to a gen­er­ous serv­ing of Thanks­giv­ing stuff­ing that turns out, in­stead, to be my first taste of bread­fruit. I’m a quick con­vert. Af­ter­ward, we hoist javelins at a co­conut fixed atop a six-me­tre pole, and in terms of ridicu­lous fun, my pro­vi­sional opin­ion is that there may be noth­ing bet­ter. Yes, Ta­maehu hits the tar­get ev­ery time while no, I’m not even close. There’s a jolt of the wrist and a fol­low-through to his un­der­handed re­lease that I can’t quite mas­ter. “Prac­tice at home,” he tells me. My sec­ond day on Taha’a gets un­der­way with a visit to a dis­tillery, Do­maine Pari Pari, es­tab­lished in 2005 by yet an­other dis­placed French­man, for­mer vint­ner Lau­rent Masseron, who uses six dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of lo­cal sugar cane to dis­till rhum agri­cole. The tour of the prop­erty ends aus­pi­ciously, with the sweet, brown fleet­ing burn of a req­ui­site morn­ing shot of rum. If rum-mak­ing is a rel­a­tively young in­dus­try in Poly­ne­sia, Taha’a is home to more tra­di­tional en­ter­prises as well. Along with co­conut oil and vanilla, the pearl is one of French Poly­ne­sia’s prin­ci­pal ex­ports. Near the is­land’s busiest quay on the water­front of Ta­puamu Bay, I walk the pier out to the stilted huts of the Iao­rana Pearl Farm, Taha’a’s largest. Most of the op­er­a­tion here is long-term and sub­ma­rine, an on­go­ing story evolv­ing amid 20 un­seen hectares of oys­ter beds in the bay. I set­tle for a thor­ough dock­side ex­pla­na­tion of the metic­u­lous fiveyear cul­tur­ing method that will per­suade these bi­valves to foster black-lip pearls like the ones avail­able in the farm’s shop. Like the Iao­rana oys­ters, which are flown in from the Tuamo­tus, vanilla is an im­mi­grant here­about. Na­tive to Mex­ico, the plant first ar­rived on Taha’a in or around 1919. To­day, it pro­duces 80 per cent of French Poly­ne­sia’s vanilla, which ac­counts for a nick­name I keep see­ing: Vanilla Is­land. It doesn’t leave much to the imag­i­na­tion, it’s true, but I still feel a duty to in­ves­ti­gate. A Dane, Brian Hansen, owns the plan­ta­tion at La Val­lée de la Vanille with his wife, Moeata Hioe. If, like me, you didn’t know that the vanilla flower is an orchid, the only one that pro­duces ed­i­ble fruit, Hansen will bring you up to speed. Sit­ting in for his les­son on vanilla cul­ti­va­tion, I learn why you have to fer­til­ize or “marry” the flower by hand (Taha’a lacks the in­sects that would oth­er­wise do the pol­li­nat­ing). For me, the whole ex­pe­ri­ence is, in sum, all to the good. Af­ter the morn­ing’s ex­po­sure to rum and shellfish, Hansen’s tu­to­rial will lend me a desserty fra­grance that will linger for days.

MOOREA, TAHITI’S near-neigh­bour to the north­west, is third-largest of the So­ci­ety Is­lands. The ferry from Pape’ete gets you there in half an hour, which makes it some­thing of a sub­urb: many peo­ple who work in the cap­i­tal live here. My visit is all too brief, a sin­gle full day that I opt to spend on the water rather than hik­ing the is­land’s high­lands. As it turns out, I don’t ca­vort with the whales: out with Maui Ci­ucci of Co­ral­lina Tours on his boat, I’m busy fid­dling with f-stops on my cam­era when the hump­backs, mother and calf, breach nearby. Later, within the shal­low blue-green of Moorea’s en­cir­cling reef, I swim with black­tip sharks. Or rather, I splash in chest-deep water while the sharks show no in­ter­est in my pres­ence. There are lone­lier, far­ther-flung is­lands in these wa­ters — Pit­cairn, for example, where mu­ti­neers

A cou­ple takes a sun­set walk along a pier on Ra­iatea, the sec­ond largest of the So­ci­ety Is­lands.

Clock­wise from BE­LOW: Swim­ming with st­ingrays off Moorea; the spines of a rambu­tan, a ly­chee-type of fruit found in French Poly­ne­sia; a de­tail of bread­fruit, a sta­ple in the is­lands.

ABOVE LEFT: The long, stick-like fruit of the vanilla orchid at a vanilla plan­ta­tion on Taha’a. ABOVE RIGHT: Hik­ing in the high­lands of Moorea.

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