21 June 2012

In search of paradise

My last blog reminded me of the time, some years ago, when I backpacked around the Society Islands in the South Pacific. I started reminiscing, so I dug out an article I wrote on my return and I thought I'd share it with you. With all the rain we're having here in the UK, I think many of us would like to be lazing on a white-sand beach, drinking milk from a coconut, freshly plucked from a palm tree. But paradise is not all it seems.

Following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, W. Somerset Maugham and Rupert Brooke, to name but a few, and armed with my backpack, mosquito repellent and Lonely Planet guidebook, I set off in search of paradise. Well, it looked so good in the Bounty chocolate bar adverts and I needed a break. What could be better than spending several weeks backpacking around the Society Islands of French Polynesia?
I flew into Papeete, Tahiti's capital and, as soon as I left the airport, my watch promptly stopped. I was standing at a le truck stop at the time. Le truck is what they call the local buses in Tahiti because, well, they are in fact, trucks. Brightly painted, with bench seats inside and music blaring, they tear around the island and will stop almost anywhere you want, if you simply wave at the driver. Forget about a bus timetable though - there isn't one, at least, not one they adhere to.
'Excuse me,' I said to the smiling Tahitian woman waiting beside me, hoping she spoke English, 'do you know if there's a shop nearby that sells batteries? My watch seems to have stopped.'
'Why you want watch?' she said, beaming, 'you in Tahiti!'
I didn't realise it then, but much of Tahiti and the surrounding islands forming the aptly named Society Islands chain, work on this premise. Time, it seems, is not a major factor in the islander's lives. Even the French, who make up a large part of the population - Tahiti is an overseas territory - seem to be less concerned about it here. Oh well, when in Rome...

Tahiti is approximately 1045sq. km and you can see much of it by le truck. In addition to the stunning scenery and black-sand beaches Tahiti is famous for, there are many places of interest to visit. The Arahoho Blowhole, a lava tube opening into the sea, is one. A spectacular jet of water is forced through the hole, high into the air with each incoming wave. Incredible to watch - but don't stand too close, it's pretty tempestuous. Then there are the Botanical Gardens (a must for plant lovers); the Gaugin Museum (small but interesting); the Black Pearl Museum (you'll seriously consider stretching the credit card for a string of black pearls); and the tomb of King Pomare V, which is the subject of much debate.
Tahiti and Moorea lost the Royal line of Pomare, with the King's death in 1891, although he had ceased to rule long before. His tomb has become a tourist attraction, more for what's on it than what's in it. It's shaped like a small lighthouse and is topped by, either a replica Grecian urn or a replica brandy bottle, depending on whom you're talking to. Apparently, he was rather partial to Benedictine. I say brandy bottle. What do you think? You can tell me in the comments section below, if you like.

One place not to miss, is Point Venus. Here, you'll find the Monument Tower, in honour of Captain James Cook, and the Bounty Memorial, in memory of the Bounty (the ship, not the chocolate bar). Looking out over the azure waters of Matavai Bay, it's humbling to think that Captains Samuel Wallis, James Cook and William Bligh all stood on this very shore, perhaps even the exact spot upon which you're standing. Wallis, when he circumnavigated the world in 1776-1778 and discovered Tahiti in 1767; Cook when he and his team came here to observe and record, the Transit of Venus in 1769 and Bligh in 1788-1789, when he came to collect breadfruit - and we all know how that ended.

For a relatively small island, Tahiti has many tales to tell, and not just of visiting seafarers. Writers and artists have been flocking to Tahiti since the day Wallis found it. Robert Louis Stevenson lived here; W. Somerset Maugham found inspiration for his novel "The Moon and Sixpence", believed to be loosely based on the life of Gaugin, who also lived here. Herman Melville came here, as did Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Jack London travelled here, aboard the Snark and, of course, Rupert Brooke is said to have found true love here; his dying words were of his Tahitian lover, although he had left her when he returned to England. You only need to turn your head, to see why these great writers loved this place.
To venture inland, you'll need a car. A guide is a good idea too. I hired Michel, a Tahitian, and a bargain at the equivalent of £30 a day, who told me more about the Tahitian way of life, the politics, the history - even about his own family, than any guidebook could. He had a ready smile and a wicked sense of humour and if I'd had the money, I would have hired him to be my guide throughout the trip.
Michel took me to Arahurahu Marae, an ancient Tahitian temple, not that special to look at but there's something eerily spiritual about the place. We fought our way, through clouds of mosquitoes, to the Waterfalls of Faarumai, where swimming is now forbidden and then we visited both a banana and a vanilla plantation.
In addition to bananas and vanilla, pineapples, huge avocados and many other fruits and vegetables are grown here, including the infamous breadfruit and, together with some amazing flowers, are sold in the bustling market in central Papeete. The scent from the flower stalls is intoxicating with bougainvillaea, passion flower, hibiscus, frangipani and the Tiare, Tahiti's national flower, a white star shaped bloom with the most heavenly fragrance, all vying for attention. People really do wear flowers behind their ears here and the brightly coloured pareus - a kind of wrap - and dresses the women wear, reflect the vivid hues of the flaura.

Tahiti is not short of eateries, from top class restaurants to roadside snack bars, you can find French, Vietnamese, Chinese and Tahitian cuisine for anything from about two thousand French Pacific Francs to - well, the clear blue sky's the limit. Take it from me though, there's nothing quite like the taste of Poisson Cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice then served swimming in coconut milk, onions and oil) at five a.m., waiting for the ferry to Moorea.
The trip from Tahiti to Moorea takes an hour and the vista as you approach the island, is simply breathtaking. The pace of life seems even more relaxed here; one Moorean told me he didn't like the big city because it was too crowded - he was referring to Papeete. I couldn't help but wonder how he would feel if he ever visited London. He told me he had heard of England - 'that's the island where Elizabeth is still Queen,' he said, oddly likening England and Tahiti as similar islands in his mind.


To reach my final destination, I travelled by inter-island ferry - an unforgettable, if rather cramped, journey. Sitting on a deck surrounded by locals, animals, machinery and other travellers, with the smell of diesel filling the nostrils, is not for the faint-hearted. I met some lovely people though, including a rather dashing Frenchman, so I rather enjoyed the experience.
Described as the most beautiful island in the world from the air, I had long wanted to visit Bora Bora's glistening white sands. I imagined blissful days relaxing to the sounds of gently lapping waves, and tranquil nights under softly swaying palms. The reality, for me, was somewhat different. Yes it was beautiful and yes the waves did gently lap at white-sand beaches but paradise, it seems, costs money. I was backpacking remember. Not for me, the plush hotels at £400.00 or more per night; I had a beach hut for less than a tenth of that.
It had seemed a good idea, on a packed commuter train to Cannon Street, but I hadn't expected to share it with the local insect and land crab population. Each night, I shone my torch on the mattress on the floor and waited until the scuttling of feet and claws had ceased, knowing tranquillity was a distant dream; the scuttling feet would return and believe me, it's difficult to sleep with such knowledge. The occasional thud of a coconut falling on the thatched roof where a coconut crab had dropped it, or indeed, the crab itself (they can fall many feet without harming themselves) only added to my nightly horrors. And don't get me started on the wild dogs! The sound of packs of them barking in the distance, sent shivers through me - a premonition perhaps, of things to come.

Whilst I couldn't afford to stay at a plush hotel, I could afford to buy a drink in one - just. One night a group of my fellow "hutters" and I, walked along the soft sand to the nearby hotel beach bar and disco. I was leaving the following morning so, after several fun filled hours, I left the others partying and, hoping I could get some sleep despite the scuttling feet, strolled back towards my hut. Just me, the moonlight and the gurgle of the waves tickling the shore.
My peace was shattered by a pack of dogs, barking and snarling, racing towards me from the palm trees. Terrified, I stood my ground, wondering whether being torn to shreds by possibly rabid dogs was preferable to heading into the water and being eaten by sharks. (Hey, I've got a vivid imagination).
Thankfully, I didn't have to choose. From along the shore came the Frenchman I'd met on the ferry. He'd been at the hotel, spotted me leaving the disco and had followed me out. He picked up a piece of driftwood and ran towards the pack, yelling and waving maniacally - well, he was French. Astonishingly, it worked and the pack headed back into the interior.
It could have been an incredibly romantic moment, standing on a beach with a handsome rescuer. Unfortunately, I had a boyfriend at home so I couldn't show my saviour the extent of my gratitude, if you know what I mean. We did spend the night exchanging travellers' tales though, so I still didn't get any sleep.

Despite the "hut of horror", being bitten alive by mosquitoes and the water being turned off twice a day for two hours at a time, I loved Bora Bora. The island picnic by outrigger canoe, with a fish lunch, caught before my eyes, and fresh milk from coconuts my guide plucked from the tree and dropped at my feet, was amazing. And swimming with manta rays and black tipped reef sharks, so close that I could touch them, is a memory that will stay with me forever.
One word of advice though, if you've got a head-on picture of a shark, in the lens of your underwater camera, don't panic. Yes, it means he's coming in your direction, but he's just curious. Keep calm; he'll veer away and swim right past you - at least the one heading for me did! And, to be honest, he was only about five feet long.

I boarded the inter-island ferry leaving Bora Bora, with mixed feelings and sat on deck watching the hub-bub on the quayside. At 11 a.m. a Swiss couple decided to go ashore for one final drink. We weren't sheduled to sail until 1 p.m. so they had time. They left their rucksacks with some friends and disembarked. At 11.15 a.m., with just one blast of the horn, the ferry headed out to open water. I saw the Swiss couple running back to the quay but we continued on our way.
'Why are we leaving so early?' I asked the portly islander sitting next to me, 'we were due to leave at 1p.m.'
He nodded and smiled. I noticed he wore no watch. '1p.m. Island Time', he said, as we both watched the frantic Swiss couple fade into the distance.
There was nothing I could do, so I watched the flying fish and dolphins frolick in the ripples caused by the boat. There would be another ferry in three days - Island Time.

Would I go back to Bora Bora? In a heart beat - but only if I could afford to stay in an hotel!

******© Emily Harvale 2001-2012*****

Comments   

0 #4 Susan Bergen 2012-06-24 14:56
A real trip of a lifetime. And such history too. Drinking milk from a coconut aaahh...
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0 #3 Emily Harvale 2012-06-24 09:41
Thanks Lyn. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it and yes, they are super memories - although the "hut of horror", I'd really like to forget!
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0 #2 Lyn Sofras 2012-06-24 09:27
Wow, Emily, what a wonderful description. You really succeeded in transporting me to this land that time forgot!
What super memories for you.
Thanks for a really engrossing read.
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0 #1 Emily 2012-06-19 09:09
I did meet a rather dashing French guy on the inter-island ferry to Bora Bora (and there's a story to tell about him) and an Air New Zealand pilot on a lay-over in Tahiti, but I had a boyfriend at home so there was no romance. Lots of material for a novel though! Great idea Isabelle.
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