Saturday, 22 February 2014

Luxury Link 9

‘This may well be called the Cytheria of the southern hemisphere...where
 the earth without tillage produces both food and clothing, the trees
 loaded with the richest fruit, the carpet of nature spread with the most
 odiferous flowers, and the fair ones ever willing to fill your arms with
 love... contradicting an opinion propagated by philosophers of a less
 bountiful soil, who maintain that every virtuous or charitable act a man
 commits, is from selfish or interested views.’
                                                  George Hamilton, Surgeon Of the Pandora

Here, of course, was where it really all began. Below us was Faa'a Airport, reclaimed land on the offshore coral reef, beside the original island that, in less than thirty years, had been claimed by offshore European imaginations, and had claimed them back even more. Otaheite.
When Samuel Wallis’ Dolphin entered Matavai Bay in 1767, he had no idea that the physical integrity of his ship would fall into hard jeopardy, from the nails that would begin to go missing in his crew’s search for soft paradise. A year later, the deprived sailors on Bougainville’s Boudeuse, watched a smiling Tahitian girl climb onto their quarterdeck, and drop her pareu like a gauntlet. If Botticelli’s Birth of Venus had made a simultaneous appearance, she wouldn’t have held a candle. When Cook’s Endeavour arrived a year after that, to follow the Transit of Venus, his crew’s endeavours were similarly focused. The history of ships and Shangri-la culminated in Bligh’s Bounty entrance in 1788, and Edward’s Pandora pursuit of his mutineers, three years later.
Tahiti would have been paradise to any European, even without the months of abject misery any male crew would suffer just to get there. In a melange of recorded impressions from these first ships, the island itself was achingly beautiful.

‘We saw the whole coast full of Canoes, and the country hade the most
 Beautiful appearance its posable to Imagin, from the shore side one two
 and three miles Back...a fine Leavel country appears to be all laid out in
 plantations, and the regular built Houses seems to be without number,
 with Great Numbers of Cocoa Nut Trees and several other trees...all
 along the Coast. There is beautiful valleys between the Mountains- from
 the foot of the Mountains half way up the Country appears to be all fine
 pasture land- from that to the very tops of the Mountains is all full of tall
 Trees... The country is as beautiful as it could be, forests, fertile vales,
 streams and gardens make up a charming setting in which the
 inhabitants have located their houses... Nature was pleased to grant
 them perfect bodies... We found companies of men and women sitting
 under the shade of their fruit-trees: they all greeted us with signs of
 friendship: those who met us upon the road stood aside to let us pass
 by; everywhere we found hospitality, ease, innocent joy, and every
 appearance of happiness amongst them...We walk’d for 4 or 5 miles
 under groves of Cocoa nut and bread fruit trees loaded with a profusion
 of fruit and giving the most greatefull shade I have ever experienced,
 under these were the habitations of the people most of them without
 walls: in short the scene we saw was the truest picture of an arcadia of
 which we were going to be kings and the imagination can form...’

The Polynesian women, that came out to greet their boats, turned it into the Garden of Eden.

‘We have discovered a large, fertile and extremely populous Island in the
 South Seas... Women... endeavoured to engage the Attention of out
 Sailors, by exposing their beauties to their View... The men...pressed us
 to choose a woman, and to come on shore with her; and their gestures
 denoted in what manner we should form an acquaintance with her. It
 was very difficult, amidst such a sight, to keep at their work four
 hundred French sailors, who had seen no women for six months. In
 spite of all our precautions, a young girl came on board, and place
 herself upon the quarterdeck, near one of the hatchways, which was
 open, in order to give air to those who were heaving at the capstern
 below it. The girl carelessly dropt a cloth, which covered her, and
 appeared to the eyes of all beholders, such as Venus showed herself to
 the Phrygian shepherd, having indeed the celestial form of that
 goddess... At last our cares succeeded in keeping these bewitched
 fellows in order, though it was no less difficult to keep the command of
 ourselves... I was told by one of the Young Gentlemen that a new sort of
 trade took up most of their attention that day, but it might be more
 properly called the old trade...The Women were far from being Coy. For
 when a Man Found a Girl to his Mind, which he might Easily Do
 Amongst so many, there was not much Ceremony on Either Side, and I
 believe whoever comes here after will find Evident Proofs that they are
 not the First Discoveries. The men are so far from having Objection to an
 Intercourse of this Kind that they Brought down their Women &
 Recommend them to us with the Greatest Eagerness... I sheltered in a
 small house where I found six of the prettiest girls in the locality. They
 welcomed me with all the gentleness this charming sex can display.
 Each one removed her clothing, an adornment which is bothersome for
 pleasure and, spreading all these charms, showed me in detail the
 gracefulness and contours of the most perfect bodies. They also removed
 my clothing... They hastened to see whether I was made like the locals
 and pleasure quickened this research. Many were... the tender kisses I
 received!..I thought I was transported into the garden of Eden... In the  
 Island of Otaheite where Love is the Chief Occupation, the favorite, nay
 almost the Sole Luxury of the inhabitants; both the bodies and souls of
 the women are modeled into the utmost perfection for that soft
 science...I have nowhere seen such Elegant women as those of
 Otaheite... The Luxury of their appearance is also not a little aided by a
 freedom which their differing from us in their opinion of what Consitutes
 modesty. (A) European thinks nothing of Laying bare her breast to a
 certain point but a hairs breadth Lower no mortal eye must Peirce. An
 Otaheitean on the other hand will by a motion of her dress in a moment
 lay open an arm and half her breast the next maybe the whole...and all
 this with as much innocence and genuine modesty as an English woman
 can shew her arm... Most of these were young women, who put
 themselves into several lascivious postures... At certain parts they put
 their garments aside and exposd with seemingly very little sense of
 shame those parts which most nations have thought it modest to
 conceal, & a woman more advanc’d in years stood in front, held her
 cloaths continually up with one hand and danced with uncommon
 vigour and effrontery, as if to raise in the spectators the most libidinous
 desires....The Over flowing plenty, the Ease in which men live and the
 Softness and Delightfulness of the Clime, the women are Extremely
 Handsome and fond of the European, prodigiously insisting and
 Constantly Importuning them to stay, and their Insinuations are Backed
 by the Courtesy of the Chiefs and the admiration of the people in
 general. It is Infinitely too much for sailors to withstand... Otaheite...
 has every allurement both to luxury and ease, and is the Paradise of the
 World. The Women are handsome, mild in their Manners and
 conversation, possessed of great sensibility, and have sufficient delicacy
 to make them admired and loved. I can only conjecture that (the
 mutineers) have Idealy assured themselves of a more happy life among
 the Otaheitans than they could possible have in England, which joined
 to some Female connections has most likely been the cause of the Whole
 business...The women have too great an intercourse with different Men.
 ... it is considered no infidelity, for I have known a Man to have done the
 Act in the presence of his own Wife, and it is a common thing for the
 Wife to assist the Husband in these Amours... Inclination seems to be
 the only binding law of Marriage in this Country, for a Woman will quit

 her husband if she pleases...’

Friday, 21 February 2014

Luxury Link 8

‘Oh Tane, god of beauty, Lord of the fleets, of the deep ocean Take care
   of your people Carry us in the hand of your mana, right to our
   destination Give us a wind astern, a wind from the east Let us sail as
   fast as a child’s canoe with a coconut leaf for a sail Let us sail as
   smoothly as on a sea of oil, or a bed Let the crests of the waves be low.’

Robyn and I needed to find something that could link us to a more authentic Mo'orea, before it had got all muk’d up. We rented a white Peugeot. It turned out to be just the sort of time machine we needed.
We drove by an old white church with red caps on its two steeples, like candles, past a hand-painted mural of a pineapple, to a giant warrior statue with a paua paddle in one hand, and an outstretched palm in the other. Everybody wants something. We scraped the underside of the Peugeot on the rocks and roots of the old forest, on our way to swim naked in its waterfall. Another hot bush walk brought us to stony streams, big ripe orange coconuts on the ground to quench our thirst, and shiny burnt sienna bracket fungi and round white mushrooms and curved buttressed trunks and roots leading to the ancient rock walls of the marae.



  ‘Marae were the sanctity and glory of the land... the pride of the
   people... A place of dread and of great silence ...When the people
   approached... they gave it a wide berth, they lowered their clothes from
   their shoulders down to their waists, and carried low their burdens in
   their hands until they got out of sight of it... They were places of
   stupendous silence; places of pain... dark and shadowy among the
   great trees... the basis of the ordinances... the basis of royalty; It
   wakened the gods; it fixed the red feather girdle of the high chiefs.’

The Tahitians that worshipped here had individual names for over two hundred stars, seventy different species of coconut tree, and a marvelously complex oral history of their flowers, trees, rocks, fish, birds, insects, winds, and physical geography. The highly intricate Lapita pottery they had brought with them on their great twin-hulled sailing vessels had become increasingly plainer, until it was abandoned for baking their food in ahima'a earth ovens. They had no knowledge of the wheel, using rollers to move their gigantic canoes ashore instead, some on logs, some on human bodies. Because of how steep Mo'orea was, the wheel would have been of no use to them. They had migrated here around the time of the birth of Christ, but they had brought a different deity. The dark land above... The light land below... Surrounded by birds... At the flash of sunrise.
He was there Taaroa. was his name
All about him was emptiness
Nowhere the land. Nowhere the sky
Nowhere the sea. Nowhere man
Taaroa called out. No echo to answer
Then in this solitude he became the world
This knot of roots it is Taaroa
The rocks are him again.
Taaroa. The song of the sea
Taaroa. He names himself
Taaroa. Transparence
Taaroa. Eternity
Taaroa. The Powerful Creator of the Universe which is but the shell of Taaroa. Who bestows on it life in beautiful harmony.

The old warriors of Tutaha’s army were as serious as the Bali Hai boys were not.

    ‘Be like the blasting north wind Weed out the water mint (refugees)
     Look for the red taro (able-bodied survivors) Leave no one alive
     Disembowel the hen (the enemy clan) Do not leave a red root behind
     Be deaf to their entreaties Be like the roaring ocean Put the sky (the
     chief) beneath your feet Let us have the anger Of Ta’aroa, whose curse
     is death!’

We emerged to the smile of a swath of afternoon sun on the far forested peaks of the island. And moved forward again in time. The ancient Tahitian war canoes had carried their fresh water supply in hollow bamboo tubes, and set sail after offerings of ‘a fine mat, ura feathers, arioi cloth, a pig, half a breadfruit, and a bunch of braided coconut leaves.’ Let your shadow be one of aroha.
The two passing modern catamaran ferries carried their fresh water in little plastic bottles labeled Evian and Perrier, and set sail after offerings of an uneventful passage. They are coming on a canoe without an outrigger.
We drove by the fimbriae and flagellae of overwater bungalows, elongating further out into the lagoon with each of Muk’s birthdays. The abandoned Club Med lay in ruins above our road, luxury linked to oblivion.
Our final shelter from vulgarity was French. And how. The staff at Les Tipaniers was uniformly surly, the Parisian women waded topless on the shallow beach and on the long powder blue pier, and the kite-surfing legionnaires, cutting arcs through the atmosphere, considered the small children making sand castles under their aerobatic Activités nautiques collateral damage. All the yachts at anchor were first born limb amputation exorbitantly expensive. Fluffy orange clouds hovered en flambé above. Even the roosters and mosquitoes and heat that kept us awake all night did it with classical Gallic insouciance. And the signpost near the road that would take us back to Pape'ete promised to take us even further. Ile de Paques 4257 km.

But that wouldn’t happen until later.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Luxury Link 7

The next morning we departed for the second of the three places we had intended to spend our nights in, on Mo'orea. The first had been Tahitian, the third would be French, but this one was All-American. The Club Bali-Hai was a Southern Sea romantic legend and, poolside at 5:30 pm, every night except Wednesday, the narrative was retold by one of its original wayfarers.
“Pull up a chair.” Said the old guy with the silver crew cut. “Swing in. Swing in.” He was sporting two small airline bottles of José Cuero tequila, and a grey sweatshirt. Hammered and Happy.
“Welcome to Happy Hour with Muk.” He said, pouring the contents of one of his bottles over ice. “I’m Muk.”
In 1959, Donald ‘Muk’ McCallum was in his early ‘30s, and a salesman in his family’s Southern California sporting goods business during the day. By night, he ran a tiki bar called Miss Boo's in Costa Mesa on the side. He shared an apartment in Corona del Mar on Acacia street, with two friends. Jay had gone to Newport Harbor High School with Muk, and then to USC, and then to work as a broker at the Pacific Stock Exchange in Los Angeles, leaving every day before dawn. Hugh was an attorney, and had been a classmate of Jay’s at USC. It was the end of the Eisenhower era, and the beginning of their disenchantment. Every night, they traded their suits and slacks for Hawaiian shorts, cranked up the Tahitian music on the stereo, consumed prodigious amounts of exotic potent mixed drinks, and dreamed of different lives beyond their sunsets. They’d end up down at the harbor full of sailboats, and wished that one of them would take them away from the rat race. Then one day, Hugh signed onto a ninety-foot yacht, which had entered a race to Honolulu. It sailed on to Tahiti, and Hugh got off in paradise. The sultry scenery and opportunities for romance hooked him through the gills, and he found an elderly California couple that wanted to sell their vanilla plantation on Mo'orea. Hugh rolled the name around on his tongue, and in his head. Urufara. He returned home to willing accomplices. Muk sold Miss Boo’s, Jay sold his stock-exchange seat, and their friends bought shares in the scheme.
By June of 1960 the stockbroker, the attorney and the salesman had sailed across the Sea of the Moon on a smoky diesel freighter, vowing never to return. But it turned out that Hugh had been a better lawyer than a farmer. Only two of their nearly 400 acres could be cultivated. The price of vanilla crashed when African farmers flooded the market. French authorities, determined to prevent their islands from becoming a haven for poor foreign dreamers, would only grant them six-month visas. Their farming failures by day were more than offset by their successes with the local vahines at night, drinking and dancing and singing in the One Chicken Inn, where the barstools were overturned crates.
“I'll tell you this.” Muk winked. “Sex on the Beach wasn't just the name of a drink in those days. We lived in a beat-up old shack with coconut fronds on top, from a local politician who had four bungalows at a hotel he was desperate to get rid of. Jay and Hugh and I were desperate to stay. We made a deal.”
The hotelier got the Americans three much-coveted renewable five-year visas, and the boys got a new learning curve. They knew as much about running a hotel as about vanilla farming, but it all came together slowly. Hugh drew up the business papers, and went about making repairs and upgrading the shacks. Jay was the business brain, restricting their rampant aspirations to a strict budget. And Muk, always the jovial public salesman, greeted the freighters at the dock, and cajoled visitors to stay at the Hotel Bali Hai instead of one of the spots near the harbor.
“We used local workers to run the restaurant and do most everything. We knew them all.” Muk said, looking around. “Hell, we probably all dated their mothers.”
“Things were pretty wild in the old days.” He said. “We used to be the TV for the whole island. People would come down and watch us.”
In 1962, a Life magazine writer and photographer named Carl Mydans, returning from an atomic bomb test at Johnston Island, stumbled across their South Pacific playboy inn. There were airline stewardesses. Mydan’s plan to stay one night turned to three weeks, and the making of a myth. The boys thought they were relating a folk tale of hardship and endurance in the face of adversity, but the photos in the December issue told a different story- the trio of muscular, tanned smiling American Bali Hai boys, in swim trunks and sandals, carousing with beautiful girls in tropical pools by day, and partying deep into each Polynesian night became an overnight sensation in tens of millions of eyeballs, back in the States. Their phones ran hot with reservations, and the hotel rapidly grew from a small collection of ramshackle bungalows to a 65-unit resort, one of the largest in these most Society of islands. By the early 1970s, the boys had built new hotels on Raitea and Huahine, and introduced the first overwater bungalow, which became an icon of the quintessential tropical escape to paradise. Jay appeared on What's My Line and Muk did ads for Camel cigarettes. The Bali Hai boys started incidental families with local women, and even occasionally married. They were living the dream.
But then, gradually, the very grind they had sought to leave behind in Southern California, caught up to them. There were real estate deals and construction deadlines, ledger books, maintenance issues, labor strife, dollar-exchange fluctuations, fires, and competition from a new Club Med, and other more modern resort complexes. The very success that created their luxury link to prosperity and treasure began to unravel their pirate freedom, simplicity and happiness. Hugh and Jay are gone now, and Muk, who used to look after the plumbing, has plumbing problems of his own. And arthritis. The boys had sold off or shut all of their properties except the Club Bali Hai, where, in the last small outpost of a once far-slung enterprise, Muk had it in his will that he is ‘to be stuffed and set out here, so there will be 'Muk's Happy Hour' forever.’
For some in the plastic chairs, seated around the table by the pool in the sun setting against the magnificent mountain backdrop of Cook’s Bay, Muk’s message was a celebration of the success of the American pursuit of happiness. Cook had observed that Polynesia had been settled from the west to the east, and the unsettled had come the other way. The story that Muk told, in the same way every night for decades, had become increasingly inflexible. Whenever I tried to ask a question, his annoyance with any deviation from the gruff gospel by which he had defined his reality, would show. Muk the missionary. His Happy Hour had become less about happiness than homily, an attempt to solemnize a life of self-absorption and debauchery. Hugh Heffner may have been a hero to a lost decade of eternal adolescents but the legacies that would link luxury to decadence and dissipation, required the uncoupling from, and abandonment of, the most singular fundamental element of existence. Meaning.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Luxury Link 6

“Then we plow’d the South Ocean, such land to discover
          As amongst other nations has made such a pother.
          We found it, my boys, and with joy be it told,
          For beauty such islands you ne’er did behold.”
                                                    Dolphiner’s Song of Tahiti, 1768

The voyage across the Sea of the Moon took an hour, and another quarter century. The last Mo'orea ferry I boarded had been half the speed and size of this one. Through the only blazing jewel break in the reef towards the landing at Vaiare, the Aremiti crossed from the fresh flaming sapphire tumbling open ocean to the molten emerald glow of the lagoon basin. My eyes rose to tall angular volcanic peaks spiring eight thousand feet up into the violet sky, splitting the sun into dark shadows and pearl light. Sharp steep skeletal slopes slid off black escarpments into hard narrow hollows, where cadaveric crags set loose sparkling waterfalls over the ridgelines. Enormous greenfire palm plumes swayed in the warmth of the trades, far above the aching blinding surf spray, the cloud powder salted starch of the white sand beaches, and flamboyant trees ablaze with vermilion flowers, spilling their own cataracts of flame through the surrounding thick green foliage. Does any dim grey North dweller really know what light and colour are?  It was as if the mountains were trying to escape from the paradise below them.
The disembarking chaos of soft French and softer Tahitian vowels flowed into a few round voitures, one long rectangular Le Truck, with big open wooden windows and a village of primary colors painted on its side panels, and silence. Ten minutes after we made our Vaiare landing, it was deserted again. And Robyn and I had the wind on our faces, running counterclockwise around Mo'orea’s heart-shaped coastal road, past Teavaro, Temae, and Maharepa, to Cook’s Bay, where Vaita’s prophecy had been fulfilled. ‘The glorious children of Tetumu will come... Their body is different, our body is different... And this land will be taken by them... The old rules will be destroyed and sacred birds of the land and sea... will come and lament over that which this lopped tree has to teach. They are coming on a canoe without an outrigger.’
Cook had observed that Polynesia had been settled from west to east, but Robyn and I were committed contrarians. Streams of sunlight fell over the mountains onto our arrival at the old Hotel Kaveka. There were stingrays below our deck that night, and refuge from the heartwrenching beauty and the French verbs that surrounded us, next morning.

It was a Sunday, and Robyn and I decided to walk down and around the bay, past sailboats and cages full of Gaz de Tahiti butane tanks, a shop selling pareus, a Nestlé rebar man sculpture outside vending ‘citrons,’ an old fishing boat, a fishmonger tattooed in the same blue and white as his Rava’ai marlin mural, and a wall made of abalone shells, before passing through the sleeping town and near empty Chinese supermarché of Pau Pau at the bottom of the blue invagination. We turned north again, past the Salle Omnisports de Pau Pau and wild red ginger and small yellow roadside flowers, under jagged mountain cliffs and towering coconut palms. Mangos and an empty honesty box covered a green and white floral pareu-covered table. A red version further along was piled with small orange pineapples, each with a 5 CFA price tag. A tall papaya tree reached above the diminutive church of St. Joseph, whitewashed with pink trim, enclosed by a rock wall, between two broad flame trees, under the prominence Mount Tearai. Masks of bald wooden Tahitian faces with poignant expression of pain, carved from seemingly random planks, lined the road further north, of the same trees with the buttressed roots that tried to trip us, as we took refuge from the sun on the shore. Our four-masted horizon ghost windjammer, Polynesia, sailed by, just as Robyn found a red hibiscus to place behind her left ear, put a forefinger in her right dimple, and assumed her saucy French girl pose under the flowering red mimosa. It was midday hot, and we were headed for the tropical beverages at the Jus de Fruits de Moorea. Our throats were parched when we arrived, and the ‘ouvert’ sign, outside the gates of the processing plant, was reassuring.  Until we encountered two problems. The first was that, there were no fruit juices available in what should have been a tropical torrent of fruit juice. Instead, there were fruit juice liqueurs to sample, as many as we wanted. Liqueurs and dehydration were a bad marriage. Our head divorced the rest of our bodies just before the tour buses arrived. When they did, those who descended the stairs were New Zealanders, blue collar Kiwi Maoris from Auckland, who were reveling in their Polynesian relationship with their obviously more erudite French-influenced Tahitian cousins, and the opportunity to drink as much high alcohol dessert libations as was possible in the half an hour of off-road adventure that their tour allowed. George Forster, who had travelled with Cook on his second Endeavour expedition, the unofficial account of which he published as A Voyage Round the World in 1777, had expressed a confidence in the ability of his Tahitian navigator and translator, Tupaia, to ‘raise the New Zeelanders to a state of civilization similar to that of his own islands...’ The differential calculus of fruit liqueur volume disappearing down Maori throats in a time-dependent fashion, was not supportive of this conviction. Robyn and I struggled back to the Hotel Kaveka for water, and the burgers and freedom fries, which tasted very French.

Tahitian Elephantiasis

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Luxury Link 5

We passed a right-angled breadfruit tree, with a shark’s tail nailed to its trunk. Its fruit were gigantic, like green basketball scrotums afflicted with filariasis. Beyond the turtle petroglyphs were a vanilla plantation, walls of coral and concrete and conch, and a boy and girl on bicycles, who stopped just long enough under a mango tree, to charm Robyn out of a pen. Our one path circumambulation continued past an outrigger canoe stenciled with shark and dolphin fish, through beautiful lush valleys and mountains, and into an ancient stone marae, under a pillbox–like mountain redoubt, with three lonely coconut palms on its top. Closer to Vaiea were front yard cement block square graves, painted white, on which pots of plastic flowers slowly faded in the sun. There was a strangely inappropriate mural of two fat Polynesians dancing tango, and a hand-painted Hinano beer label poster, that brought us back to Alain’s smile and sunglasses, and the fast wake of his outboard home. The dogs got up to welcome us back, Yoyo prepared another excellent fish dinner, and even Alain accompanied us on his solar powered keyboard, after the homemade coconut ice cream.
Yoyo and Monique waved to us from the shore next morning, as Alain cut the boat on an arc towards the airstrip. The dogs went back to sleep, as the motu disappeared into our slipstream. We waited in the hot sun for the weekly flight back to Pape'ete, beside a chalk mural of pink tiares and fish and a four-masted windjammer. I thought of how I would have like to meet Gerald, and link to the luxury he had created on his motu. But one person’s luxury is another person’s loathing. Gerald’s innovations had generated more than one kind of power. During his birthday party, the electrical room was set on fire, and a counterweight turnbuckle bolt on one of his expensive wind turbines was unscrewed, causing the entire structure to buckle. Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
The strangest part was why the dogs hadn’t barked.

 “Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the
  opposite of vulgarity.”

                                                                                    Coco Chanel

Monday, 17 February 2014

Luxury Link 4

    “I absolutely loathe luxury. It is the one thing I cannot stand.”
                                                                                Brigitte Bardot

Only one island over was the weakest luxury link in the chain. Robyn and I had booked the catamaran because ‘it was just like Bora Bora had been fifty years earlier.’ Bardot would have loved the place. The French tricolor rippled off the stern, and the waterspouts and flying fish skimmed and skittered over the surface of the waves.
Green. We had arrived there. There was no other landing place. Maupiti was green. Then there was blue. We continued there. Maupiti was blue. Blue barrels full of noni, blue sky, and blue water. Other than for the soaring grey cliffs and white sand and the occasional rust red roof, Maupiti was green and blue.
Alain, who met us with his boat at the jetty, had brought the customary fragrant tiare leis, but he tossed them over our necks like he’d rather be doing the driving than the welcoming. I don’t think we ever heard him speak. But his smile, and the wrap-around sunglasses pasted to his head, told us he was glad to have us there. He was aiming for the small lagoon islet of Motu Tuanai, and Pension Poe Iti. The owners, José and Gerald, were away, but their dream was still awake. The pension was self-sustained in power, from photovoltaic cells and a tall wind turbine. It had solar hot water heaters, and potable water from a desalinization system on the property. Gerald may have been self-sufficient, but he would eventually realize that this was not the same as secure.
There were flowers, and coconut and other fruit trees. Two of the flowers had come down to the white sand shoreline to greet us. They couldn’t have been more different. One was Polynesian, the other Parisian. The French woman was thin and pale, with puffy eyes, long black forehead bangs and a ponytail off to the side, and not quite white teeth. She wore sandals, a stainless steel wristwatch halfway up her arm, and a pink gardenia behind her right ear. The large canvas handbag hung over her shoulder seemed out of place, until you realized where she kept her Gitanes, and her lighter. Monique was a guest, on her mission abroad to update travel information for the more urbane citoyens of the Fifth Republic.
In contrast, the Tahitian woman was the picture of health. Brown and barefoot, rotund and raucous, the ivory smile below her flat nose reflected the afternoon sunlight above the two giant green leaf imprints on her fuschia dress. Yoyo was José and Gerald’s chef, chambermaid, and chargé d'affaires.
She looked like Bloody Mary would have, if Rodgers and Hammerstein had portrayed Bloody Mary without betel nut and rough skin, and the opposite of vulgarity. Yoyo was all class. If you try, you'll find me, where the sky meets the sea.
Here am I your special island. Come to me. Come to me.
Four tan dogs were asleep against the breakwater.
“Maeva.” Said Yoyo, welcoming us. “Ils sont tous frères et sœurs. Comme nous.” Brothers and sisters, like us. She showed Robyn and I to our small bungalow. The red hibiscus scattered on the bed were large enough to sleep in their own shadows.
By the time we unpacked, the dogs were dozing again, on our porch. But when Robyn and I tried to sneak off for an early evening walk around our motu, they sprang into life, as if they had been trained to lead the way. Four upright curled tails, wallaby-bounced ahead of us, on the clanking clinker coral strand. They led us over cracked volcanic rock shelves along a beach lined with more scrub-like vegetation and more sea smell than we had found on Bora Bora, whose mountains still loomed on the horizon in the distance. Perhaps it had been like this, fifty years earlier, before the luxury link had forever weakened the primeval Tahitian food chain. But even here, the hundreds of red and white crabs that formed a missing link, looked French, like Citroëns or Renaults in a continually moving territorial traffic jam, defending their turf far too sideways to progress, ours, the dogs, or that of the Fifth Republic. The Mount Tiriano cliffs on the main island were rugged and square, like the white church with the red roof under them, in Vaiea across the lagoon.
Poisson cru and poulet fafa waited for us on the plastic tablecloth of the Poe Iti dining hall on our return. We shared our wine with Monique, but Yoyo didn’t drink.
“Je reçois heureux sur les étoiles.” She said. I get happy on the stars. When they came out later, they put the grapes to shame.
The dogs were still asleep on our porch next morning, where Robyn and left them after breakfast, to walk around the main island. Alain took us across to Vaiea, and arranged to pick us up a few hours later. The town appeared abandoned, and the first interesting sign of human habitation, was an interesting sign. Stop! Filariose. I had thought that Elephantiasis, and the swollen limbs and basketball-size scrotums I had seen in books of human oddities and tropical medicine, had been eradicated, as did many imperfect experts on the disease. But roundworms were still peddling their life cycles through mosquito proboscises, and I had another reason to encourage Robyn to keep the screens closed.