Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Polynesian Paradise

Moorea, French Polynesia | © Samuel Autman

PAPEETE, Tahiti – From that first whiff of fresh gardenias on board on Air Tahiti Nui’s late-night flight from LAX, our delegation’s trip from rural Indiana flatlands to South Pacific’s plush utopia, had already entered a new realm of sensory bliss.

The flight attendants placed flowers in our ears and switched to traditional Polynesian wraps. Champagne flowed freely. The pilot’s instructions were in English, French and Tahitian. Every passenger had private television screens, earphones, pillows, blankets, and seats that reclined in exquisite comfort. It was as if everyone were flying First Class.

French Polynesia and 118 islands’ hospitality had already kissed us before we’d even touched her soil. The airline industry could learn a lot from those folks. For the next two weeks, two professors (myself included) would take 20 American college students on a 10,000-mile excursion via airplane, bus, van and boat to the islands of Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine and finally, Bora Bora to discover the people and culture of French Polynesia.

Locals greeted us at the airport in Papeete (pronounced “poppy eh tee”) and placed leis on everyone who got off the plane. Getting through customs went smoothly because of the trilingual agents’ efficiency. (While most of the service industry and structure is fluent in English, it would be helpful for someone in the travel party to speak conversational to advanced French.)
Our hotel, the Royal Tahitian, had such deep green shrubbery, it was as if we had all entered a new kingdom of greenery. Each morning, we’d get up and find flowers that had fallen from the trees and landed on the walkways. Mornings began with freshly cut pineapples, mangoes, watermelons, croissants and coffee.

Papeete is the cultural center of Tahiti, located on the northwest side of the island. In some spots, it looked pretty run-down. But residents of all 118 islands flock there for music, cinema, traffic jams and goods imported from the United States and Europe.

Although we took several walks led by tour guides, the peak of the Papeete experience was the day we climbed on board 4x4s and rode into the bowels of the island for an eight-hour safari – something few tourists, yet alone young Americans, get to see.

Our guides were so skilled, they had us eating wild raspberries. Wearing water shoes and swimwear, our group spent an afternoon “canyoning,” – exploring the islands interior water canyons and jumping off cliffs into waterfalls.

No trip to French Polynesia would be complete without a trek to the see traditional Polynesian dancers at a place like the Tikki Village on the island of Moorea, with its beautiful beaches and people. The islands are a blend of French and Polynesian cultures for sure.  

TASTY BITES, MOSQUITO BITES Almost all of the tourism literature has pictures of golden, perfect bodied men and women, scantily clad, wiggling their hips, dancing and moving about in the most sensuous way. One could look into the way they’re exoticizing their bodies and culture, or another way to preserve a rich cultural legacy of storytelling and dance.

The Pension Motu Iti is cheap and ideal for backpackers. It was run by a family who cooked every meal fresh daily. The bungalows were right on the water, with swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing easily accessible. The pension owners were utterly charming, accommodating and forgiving of our sometimes loud student population. My only discomfort was the alarming number of mosquito bites we all endured.

French Polynesia is not for the budget-conscious traveler. There’s a reason it’s called the Honeymooners Capital of the World, because honeymooners are often flush with cash. Most goods such as bottled water are heavily taxed. Some places will take the US dollar or the euro.Most places take credit cards but the exchange rate is killer. It’s better to go to the bank and exchange dollars for the French Pacific Franc.

One of our tour guides – Paul – described French Polynesia as a “fag’s paradise.” Apparently, homosexuality is widely accepted on the islands, not just tolerated. They don’t coalesce around bars as some do elsewhere in the world. The strongest evidence is in the presence of a population called the rae rae.They are men who live and dress as women and dominate the hotel and restaurant business. Often they wear makeup, pull their hair back in buns and are in some cases indistinguishable from women, a la Jaye Davidson from “The Crying Game.” Although not all of them are gay, a significant portion are. Straight or gay, they’re venerated as the third sex.

On many nights during our stay in Papeete, we dined outside at roundabouts, stands where fresh food is cooked and brought by rae rae servers. Much of the food is the fresh catch of the day. Of course, their ideas on gender are different from ours in the United States. Many masculine men could be seen walking the roads with flowers behind their ears and their middle sections covered by sarongs.  

We ate among the best seafood imaginable, fresh fish caught that day, had mahi mahi burgers, swordfish and tuna grilled in vanilla sauce. Most of the pineapples we eat in the United States are from Hawaii and by comparison not nearly as succulent, syrupy sweet, soft as the ones here. Because Bora Bora is surrounded by a lagoon, there was much time to swim and sunbathe.

One of my most physically invigorating times, other than the miles and miles of hiking tours we took, was when the other professor and I rented bikes and rode 18 miles around the periphery of Bora Bora. How many people can say they’ve done that? The most dreamlike time and place was at the Pension Mauarii on Huahine, (pronounced waa-hee-nee). It was a gorgeous facility, with a combination of private rooms and beach- and bungalow-style rooms — within a few feet of the bluest water.

All of the meals were served in an exquisite restaurant, overlooked the lagoon like something out of a dreamed up Hollywood movie set. One day, a boat picked us up and we set sail on a 90-minute lagoon tour, which stopped at a black pearl shop in the middle of the water. Our lagoon tour guides, who happened to be the owners of the pension where we stayed, made a big batch of Poisson Cru. That meal consisted of uncooked tuna cut into cubes, combination of combined with lime juice, coconut cream, limes, garlic, tomatoes and carrots. It was shocking to see them rinse the tuna we were about to eat, in the lagoon water. It was served with rice and bread. The food was tasty.
TAHITIAN SERENADE When we arrived at Huahine, they greeted us with citrus drinks. We had so much fun with the wait staff, whom we all got friendly with, that they serenaded us in Tahitian as they prepared our last meal. It was touching.

Because of their geographical isolation from the rest of the world, almost all the islanders own their plots of land, hunt, fish and have little need for higher education or many of our modern amenities. Because the government is still under the domain of the French, they all have free health care. They have all the sun, beaches, coconuts and natural produce they’ll ever need.

On our last night in Huahine, I sat in a circle of Huahinians, as they call themselves. A woman, who spoke about four languages, told me in English of the dissolution of her first marriage and how she had lived in Europe but couldn’t wait to get back to Huahine. She pointed to her husband and told me: “I am the happiest woman in the world.” She sure acted like it.

And French Polynesia seemed to be the world’s most beautiful place.