Think about the impressive things which humans accomplish. They climb huge mountains, they build machines that fly, they go to the moon.
To my mind there's nothing in all of human accomplishment as impressive as the colonization of the vast Pacific by the Maohi people. Sailing the open sea for thousands of miles without compasses or chronometers or written records. Navigating by stars, by ocean currents, by clouds, by objects in the water, by birds seen on horizons, by lore handed down by word of mouth. To settle Tahiti, Rarotonga, Aotearoa, Rapa Nui, Hawaii. Thousands and thousands of empty miles, weeks and months at a time, carrying whole villages with their crops and animals inside floating houses lashed between two enormous canoes.
The European assimilation of Tahiti with Eden makes perfect sense based on the scriptural narrative. Adam and Eve lived without labor; the earth was bountiful of itself.
Labor as the consequence of rebellion.
"As [Joseph] Banks explained, a Tahitian who planted ten breadfruit trees, a task requiring about an hour's labor, did as much for his family's food supply as an English farmer who labored the year round planting and harvesting crops. For Europeans, a society so devoted to pleasure, where work was scarcely necessary, raised profound moral questions." -- Lynn Withey, Voyages of Discovery: Captain Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific.
The Tahitians as a people who had not fallen.
The wealthy tourist's story about the natives - indigenous people - who are grateful to the Europeans and Australians for coming to their island and forbidding cannibalism and "revenge killings."
People are good people. They strongly feel the need to morally justify what they know in their hearts is wrong. The destruction of indigenous cultures.
It's as if they're trying to claim that the people said to them, "We really didn't like our culture. Thank you so much for saving us from ourselves."
Papeete: tatty cloud of colonial diesel fumes.
Pretty girl, white sun dress, white hat. Sits on a pylon near the ferry landing, blowing tentative but mournful notes from a white wooden recorder.
That's her life, those notes.
Sittin' on the dock of the bay, watching the tide drift away...
Hawaiian-style pedal steel drifts from a bar on Boulevard Pomare. Familiar, foreign. A Tahitian arrangement of Blue Bayou.
Le Docteur Francais who doesn't speak English avec le American gimp who doesn't speak French were able to get their various points across by combining signage with Latin medical terms and a selection of words which in our respective languages descend from Latin cognates. The American gimp with the numb leg and the highly owie lower back has a damaged vertebra. While not life-threatening, it's not helpful, and he should see his neurologiste en America. Meanwhile a diet of anti-inflammatories plus capsules pour le dolor will get him through the day. It's alright to walk and hike and climb, and swimming is positively good. Just watch your step, since you can't feel anything with that leg.
Pain. Loneliness. Struggle.
There had been misgivings. One's instincts are nearly always right. You go wrong when you overrule them.
No, no. There's a point to all trials. Life steers you. Alright then. Where are we going now?
Pain. Loneliness. Struggle.
Young woman in tears. Distraught. Young man guides her by her tawny copper elbow. She weeps, and is ashamed to be seen.
Tears, frowns, smiles, laughter: things we all do in the same language. Kisses, maybe.
Saddened all afternoon by her sadness.
Gauguin's women are everywhere on the streets. Same features, same pareus, same tiares. No differences, merely a detail: the cell phone hanging from their soft cloth belts.
The smell of burning leaves.
All around the island, the people rake their yards, empty their trash, then burn the results. On any horizon there are always one or two small fires visible. Gray smoke. Orange tongues against explosions of green.
Each room is like its own lifetime.
Look through the pictures. Each hotel, each experience, each city a different world, so filled with its own finite reality that to your perception it begins and ends discretely.
Here: at this point in time: in this place: a world opens and closes.
Breakfast and beer on Cook's Bay.
Pleasant, not hot, breezy. Lynne Withey, Voyages of Discovery: Captain Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific; while in the background the drone of accents. French, American, Kiwi, Tahitian. Across the bay white sunlight brightens the steeple of a lovely coral-colored church, shining like an ornament against the green green hillside.
Yeah, the arrogance.
You're on this little island road, and there's whole families going by on their, on bicycles, you know? There's like, four little kids, and an adolescent boy on bicycles, and they're toolin' along at about six miles an hour. And they're so nice: and they wave and, you know, you nod, you smile, you wave. And then, you know, from right behind them comes flying this gigantic, you know, Ford Bronco four-wheeler kind of thing, full of Europeans, you know, doing about nine million miles an hour, all in their bathing suits.
It really -- literally -- is like they think they own the place.
Young people on motor scooters, wearing helmets: huge black racing helmets, like Motocross. In their baskets at the front of the scooters they've got piles of baguettes, sticking out to the left and right, a good three feet wider than they are, out into the middle of the road, taking up a whole lane, as wide as Winnebagos.
"Non. No -- American."
"Ah! Engleesh?" Smiling, shakes hands.
"Oui. Yes -- English."
Smiles, shakes hands. Points to the harbor, says, "Calm." Waves his hands back and forth to show how calm it is.
The start of a good day.
Rose, lovely and helpful, stands friendly behind the reception desk. Tiare behind the left ear; tiare behind the right ear. The left ear: married. The right ear: available. With this simple semaphore she signals the basic contour of her life, at this moment in her journey. That her marriage was a mistake which has ended unhappily. That now she's ready to move on.
I closed my eyes and walked the length of the pier imagining what it would be like to be blind. Using just my ears to guide me. The sound of lapping water on both sides.
It was perfect. When I arrived at the end I was exactly in the middle.
When you participate in a package tour or stay in a resort, there are trade-offs.
You gain the confidence that you're going to be taken care of. There will be people who speak English, you'll be fed, your activities can be arranged for you, you'll have a spectrum of options that will be easily available. You can relax, do sports, participate in an excursion.
You lose, firstly, any sense of what life is like for the people, because you're very carefully screened from ever meeting them. Importantly, you also miss the chance of meeting those wonderful, rare individuals who are simply being genuinely themselves.
In a cottage on the grass behind the beach you sit at a table in gathering dusklight enjoying your conversation.
She's small, thin, very bright, very kind. She's suffered, she has a painful physical ailment. But, she's not bitter. She's joyous and warm, and when she learns of your interest in the people and their lives before the missionaries came, she tells you this story.
Up the mountain through the jungle on dirt trails not usually mapped there's a marae with a ti'i that yet lives. Visitors don't go there, even the archaeologists who've rebuilt other sites. Only locals. And not very often.
One time the pain from her illness was so great that her family took her to the old marae. She made an offering, praying to the ti'i for relief. She slept there that night, and when she awoke she had no pain, none, the first time without suffering in many months. It lasted three full days.
"Don't go there alone!" she says. "The trail is slippery, it's been raining. And anyway. Don't go there alone."
On the road within 200 meters of Club Med you reach tin-roof shacks without walls, yards rubbish-strewn, faces cold. They have spectacular views from their homes. But they have no running water, and they don't return smiles.
Sea birds have voices that were made to complain.
Horse-faced French blonde on honeymoon does nothing but talk. In the room, talk, outside the room, talk, in the shower, talk, on the deck, talk, at dinner, talk, in the excursion boat, talk. Loud. At all times, talk.
Some people are born into the knowledge that the world is theirs.
"Yes, sitting on a wallet does make one more attractive. Haw-haw, haw-haw, haw-haw."
The dazed and sleepy-looking people at the bar, mysteriously bovine.
Then the illumination:
"I have some Wellbutrin left. If you have a Valium we can trade."
Scrawny little thing, she looks so skinny. Don't these rich people feed her?
I got a whole plate of fish for her and she scarfed it ravenously, jumped up on her hind legs to get to it before I could even put pieces on the ground for her. She took it right out of my fingers, her little claws out to steady herself on my outstretched hand. Desperate. Don't they feed her?
In the morning she'd forgotten me entirely. Wouldn't let me near.
The resorts are rigid. Packaged and scripted: you move from Point A to Point B to Point C. They have to do that to process everyone.
Which makes the kind of spontaneity impossible which happens in an environment with fewer constraints.
The institutionalization of rebels.
One of the cruise liners is named Paul Gauguin.
You have to wonder what he would think.
Probably be amused.
But, you know.
Honeymooners, retired couples. The romance of the isles.
My romance is different, more about identities and history and Good versus Evil. Probably just as visceral.
What happened to this happy-seeming culture, and how that makes me who I am today.
Me and you both.
Back to Travel index.