You know those romantic images of Tahiti we all have in our head? A hand-in-hand couple strolling on a sugar-sand beach, turquoise water lapping at their feet and palm trees swaying overhead. Lissome, long-haired maidens in native dress, performing a seductive dance. A tattooed chief blowing reverently on a conch shell, backgrounded by a flaming sunset. Tiki bars serving fruity umbrella drinks. An outrigger canoe flying toward the horizon, propelled by the powerful strokes of a muscular man.
Forget it. Here is the real Tahiti:
As a volcanic island surrounded by a coral reef, Tahiti has beaches aplenty. Most, however, are not wide and white but narrow strips of sand varying in color from brown to black. The water inside the lagoon is indeed turquoise near the shore, quickly grading to darker blues as the depth increases, a pretty sight. On the west coast, you can rarely see the ocean from the road that encircles the island, as houses and commercial buildings line both sides of the street. But there are openings to access public beaches with free parking and picnic tables, so come and enjoy. On the less developed east coast, you’ll find more open vistas with rugged green mountain slopes and sparkling sea.
Black sand beach at Venus Point where Capt. James Cook took a transit of Venus in 1769
Monument to the Bounty, which landed at Venus Point in 1788
Tahiti’s population numbers almost 190,000, and in Papeete, the capital city, expect rush-hour traffic jams both morning and evening as people commute to and from work. The six-lane main thoroughfare is divided by a barrier planted with shade trees and flowering plants, and the speed limit is 30 kilometers per hour. Not once have we heard anyone honk their horn or seen them shake their fist or scowl at another driver. When a pedestrian approaches one of the marked crossings, the cars not only stop for you, they often flash their headlights as they do so to confirm they have seen you and you are safe to cross. Smile and wave to thank them and they smile and wave back.
The architecture in downtown Papeete is also low-key, mostly 4-5 story buildings with storefronts on the ground floor and apartment units or professional offices above. Right now the main drag is something of a construction site as the sidewalks are undergoing a major renovation, but you can always stroll the winding paths of the waterfront park with its lily pond, playgrounds, soccer field and free family-movie nights. At the huge public market, vendors sell everything from freshly caught fish to exotic fruits, produce, flowers, jewelry and handicrafts. Restaurants range from pizzerias to fish/chicken/steak houses to the very popular food carts that operate nightly in another downtown park.
Public market, Papeete
Chocolate crepe for Father’s Day
Unless they exist in gated resorts, we have not seen a single tiki bar. Nor have we seen any upscale neighborhoods or McMansions, though perhaps they exist somewhere. Most of the houses we saw in a drive around the island in a rental car were of modest size and close set. In Papeete, it was something of a shock to find more than a few homeless people in the parks, on the streets and under one of the overpass bridges as we had not encountered them on any of the smaller islands we previously visited. Possibly, in those places where the community is more tightly knit, people are more likely to be taken in and cared for. The most recent figure I could find for the unemployment rate for all of French Polynesia is 21.9%.
Though no longer used as a form of transportation, outrigger canoes are numerous and rowing competitions are held throughout French Polynesia. At Venus Point we witnessed a strung-out race involving some 100 boats, each with a six-person team. In the port of Papeete, other sea traffic includes ferries to Moorea, commercial ships delivering cars and manufactured goods, and local and foreign sail and motor yachts. For a few days, the 257’ long, 5-story behemoth parked at the private dock opposite us made the 100’ long yacht beside it look like a pipsqueak.
On land, in addition to four-wheeled vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles abound. It is important for teenage boys to demonstrate their prowess by rearing up their bikes and riding as far as possible on the rear wheel only. A daring few nose-dive the bike and ride on the front wheel. It is also currently stylish for boys to cut their hair short on the sides and back and leave it longer on top, then dye the top patch in a color anywhere from golden-blond to copper-red. One young peacock outdid them all by mixing tufts of white, purple and green.
On the sports front, who’d have thought we’d attend our first-ever international triathlon in Tahiti? But there we were in the waterfront park cheering on four male and two female competitors as they swam, cycled and ran the course. A local drum and dance troupe urged them on. Aussies took first place in both the men’s and women’s events, and Duncan Reid of the USA took second for the men. Making the event extra special was the nice chat we had with Duncan’s mother, Linda, whom we met near the finish line. Go, Duncan!
As for entertainment, you can see the latest Hollywood fare in French at one of Papeete’s three movie theaters. On Thursday nights, one theater shows them in English with French subtitles, which is how we came to see Solo, the new Star Wars 3-D flick. We also enjoyed a free music festival with the main street closed to traffic and four stages featuring rotating bands performing such Tahitian favorites as Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.” In July, traditional music and dance teams from throughout French Polynesia will come to Tahiti to compete in the Heiva, an annual two-week event. It’s definitely your chance to see lissome maidens and athletic young men, though from the pictures in the brochure the “traditional” costumes for both sexes are straight out of a Las Vegas floor show.
Finally, there is one thing in the Real Tahiti that is the same the world over: bureaucracy run amok. One Saturday morning, Eric and I attended a public meeting in which representatives from the neighboring island of Moorea came to present their proposed new anchoring/mooring plan. I understand their concerns: Everyone wants a piece of paradise, and the waters around Moorea are becoming crowded with local and transient sailboats, fishing, charter and dive vessels, superyachts and cruise ships. With some restrictions already in place, they are seeking even more control over where and for how long boats like ours can visit.
The resulting plan was designed by a committee that included representatives of a dozen governmental, commercial, environmental and tourism agencies but not one boat owner. A slide show displayed, on a color-coded map, how the lagoon is to be divided into multiple zones designated for fishing vs. anchoring vs. diving, etc. It assigned quotas for each zone and reiterated a current rule that you cannot anchor for more that 48 hours in any spot that has a sand bottom—don’t ask me why. But you can pick up your anchor, move ten feet, reanchor in the same sand bottom, and you will be fine. The plan added stringent new rules for garbage and waste disposal that you will violate if you accidentally drop so much as a cookie crumb overboard.
All of it is totally unenforceable, and the audience of approximately 50 sailors began to object in increasing degrees of testiness. At which point Eric and I left. The entire presentation was in French, and my brain circuits fizzled when everyone began talking at once. Yet we appreciated the experience. Whatever comes of the plan—and it will take years for it to be enacted—it was democracy and comedy in action.
In closing, here’s a clip from that street music festival. Electrified though it may be, I think the real, modern Tahiti sounds like this: