First steps in Oceania. This is the notebook of a trip to French Polynesia, on the islands of Tahiti and Moorea. It is also the story of a tired traveller, in search of forgotten (perhaps lost) emotions. Take a Pacific lozenge, the best medicine?
So close, but so far away: before arriving in Tahiti.
I’m about to take off for the Pacific. I had already met the Pacific, but not as deeply, not “there in the middle”. You know what I mean? Not there, on those little jewels of singular islands, scattered across the blue.
I’m someone who likes to be discreet. And very naturally, when I packed my Polynesian suitcase, I took with me all the variations of blues, turquoises and whites I could find. In my imagination of the Pacific, it just seems to me that one can blend in with the most beautiful shades of the universe.
In my imagination of the Pacific also, everything smells like a flower: a sweet, not heady smell, a scent that embalms. The beauty of the world crowned with the pink, white and yellow petals of the frangipani tree; perhaps with a hint of vanilla. I wonder if the scent of a Tahitian rose is like something I already know. I wonder how it blends with the bananas, guavas and mangoes in the market. I wonder if I’ll go away forever addicted to the smell of tiare, to the fragrance of monoi mixed with that of salt and sand on my skin.
I’m in Paris, in my hotel room at Charles de Gaulle. Outside it’s cold but it doesn’t matter, because tomorrow I’ll be at the bottom of the world. I finally find the spark of excitement of my new beginnings, the spark that always precedes a plunge into the unknown.
Taking the temperature of the Pacific, in Papeete
Twenty-two and a half hours of air travel is a real kick in the pants. Going back in time? It is of undeniable curiosity, for the mind but especially for the body. Gino, the driver of my guesthouse, Fare Rea Rea, picks me up at the airport. I arrive all sweaty with a tepee crown around my neck that hides the urgent need for a good shower. In bed at 0:55 (the time to chase a huge cockroach out of my room and help my Mexican roommates get a reluctant kitten out of theirs) I wake up at 5:20 with the vivid and pleasant memory that here, life starts very early.
So I get active almost naturally, check the opening hours of the mini-markets (5:00, all is well) and go shopping for my first groceries, in the very literal company of the hens that have gotten up with me (or even earlier, as real native hens). I spend endless minutes in front of each stall to understand, gauge, compare, and decide. I leave with a modest and rather usual basket: pasta, rice, tomatoes, cream, garlic and the luxury of a bit of cheese. I am happy to find stoves where I could exercise, very simply, another of my passions.
At Fare Rea Rea, there is excellent fresh fruit! It is at the market in Papeete too. As I imagined, it embalms the flower – the green vegetable, red – the pineapple, the banana – the monoi. The small, very green parks, in the city and along the seaside, are full of people resting or contemplating. In the sailing port, an aquarium of local species has been reconstructed. With my newly expatriated friends, François and Camille, we have fun following the very curious cowfish, with its horns and its determination to go to the end of the basin, very quickly.
Right now it’s the rainy season. The summits of Papeete (shiny green when the sun is shining) are regularly covered with thick clouds. A light rain regularly reminds us that we can’t escape the indecision of the elements.
The first lagoon, in Tahiti
It is obvious that waking up between five and six in the morning is going to become a pleasant habit: I can already imagine that on my return to Europe, I’ll go mad and get up of my own free will at such hours… Or will I naturally and automatically return to more European habits?
In short, I get up at five, prepare the table and coffee, and have a good breakfast. If the monsoon is mild, I take a dip in the swimming pool. Between six and seven other guests begin to flock to the porch of Fare Rea Rea: we share coffee and fun.
In the afternoon we borrow a car to visit our very first lagoon, to take our very first bath. The road gets higher and we catch a glimpse of the magnificent mix of blues, the one on the postcard from the end of the world. We stop just 18 kilometres from Papeete, at the beach of Vaiava (or PK18, from the small name of its kilometre marker). It is a modest and quiet place.
In the lagoon, the water is so calm that you don’t feel any current. Underneath, a perfect playground for a beginner like me! I engage in a hunt for the most curious, the most colourful, and the least shy fish.
Relax, take your time: integrate the Polynesian rhythm.
The days go on quietly, since that’s just what I really needed. The beautiful encounters bring me comfort; I find support, discreet support, even silent support. Here kindness seems to be an art of living and, already before leaving, I was very curious to discover the real Land of the Teddy Bears, the one where even rays and sharks come to seek big hugs.
My flowered dresses, my flowered earrings, my flowered hair clips… All these things finally find their place here: all those little things that I had bought with tenderness but that I didn’t dare to wear, in our very European discretion. Here the beauty of the world is celebrated, as is the peace of mind. The hair is decorated with festive petals; the gardens are full of fruits and flowers.
When I arrived, I immediately caught a chill, a sign that my body is finally slackening, slowly. This is because that’s usually when I get sick, when I stop clenching my teeth, when I stop tightening my muscles, when my heart and my body get back to a steady breeze.
But on the other hand, I don’t feel anything anymore! My nose is as blocked as if I had caught the flu in the middle of the Swiss winter. I’m disappointed that I can’t smell the aromas, flowers, flavours and the earth from here that warms up after the rain, but it’s a necessary step to find myself again. And then, there is always the song of these unknown birds and the colours of these delicate aquatic beings to put me in a good mood. That and a beautiful sunset…
The black sand and the roar of the water: all the beauty of Tahiti
The very long mornings due to the very early awakenings give you time for a thousand things, such as going to the market in Papeete with the only (very) good reason to buy fresh fish to put on the grill.
“Do you know where I could find fresh coriander?” (Yes, everyone here is on first-name terms).
“I finely chopped it and put it in there, with ginger, it’s very good! “The saleswoman rolls a little “r” when she opens a small container and slips it under my nose. The scent of this unknown oil comes out of my poor, cold nose. I’ll leave without my bouquet of coriander, but with a delicious homemade sauce for lunch fish.
Well fed, I’m off to explore the north coast of the island of Tahiti with Camille and Xavier François. We borrow a car and drive to the Three Waterfalls of Faarumai where a huge waterfall awaits us. Seeing all this water coming down from the mountain, in the heart of this luxuriant jungle, is a gift for the eyes. The sound of its crashing in the basin gives off a fresh steam that sparkles on the skin. The two other waterfalls were closed, probably because of the rainy season, which makes it difficult to enter the island. It is said that people tend to get lost or surprised by the floods here, and that is why it is better not to venture there alone on foot.
After this spectacle, we take the road in the opposite direction to discover the main attractions of the coast, such as the famous Teruaporea, the Tiarei Blower’s Hole: a hole in the rock from which a rumbling sound can be heard, accompanied by a puff of steam. It is said that the warriors of yesteryear threw the lifeless bodies of their enemies into this hole.
Along the road, there are several viewpoints from which to admire the beauty of the island, its black sand, or to observe the small and big surfers patiently waiting for their wave. There is also the Point of Venus, a real little piece of the world dominated by the Teara o Tahiti lighthouse.
The monsoon surprises us as we discover the tomb of the last king of Tahiti, Pomare V. It is an island full of stories and legends and I am just a very humble passer-by who flees in the rain, in order to better come back with the next passage of the sun.