Sunday, July 1, 2007

Kurt in Tahiti

Thursday 21 June 8am

I’m writing this from the wharves at Papeete, Tahiti. The sun is blazing down outside, from a clear superblue sky over clear superblue sea, and it would seem like an ideal time to be up on deck.
I know that if I don’t get this down now, it may be a while. Because the storm warnings are out. Just a couple of hours south from here, a couple of hours after our scheduled 11am departure from Tahiti, there will be no more of the calm seas and prosperous voyage that have favoured us for the past month. The effects of the huge meterological disturbances which have been ripping Australia apart in recent days have spread as far north as here, and for the week of our trip from Tahiti to New Zealand we are going to be heading – and I mean square on heading – into increasingly rough seas, culminating in all likelihood in force 8 or even 10 gales.
If that happens, it will be a record for me. So far, the most stormy passage I’ve gone through was a force 9, years ago on the ‘Northern Star’, off Brisbane. And that was just for one day, not a week. Also, the Star was a rather bigger vessel than this one. Ah well, I survived that one without blenching, so I should be able to survive this one without being ‘lashed to the Bosun’ (as the Captain rather attractively suggested) or confined to my cabin, as I rather fear one or two of our nautical neophytes might be.
Anyway, I’ve cleared all my possessions away into the hooked closed drawers, and into my suitcase, emptied out everything liquid except the drinking water (which can go in the fridge when things get rough), and the last thing to be packed away, this afternoon when the sea cuts up rough, will be this indispensable machine. I don’t want it toppling off the table on to the floor…

We arrived at Papeete in the night of Tuesday to Wednesday. I didn’t wait up for it. Instead I awoke to find us already berthed.
Now, I have been here before. Twice, if memory serves. Maybe only once. And 35 years ago. But, whichever, I came away with a pretty muted appreciation of the place. I remember, a ‘Pacific-French’ bar-cum-dancing, all lined with mirrors, and Alison and I dancing in what became a virtual floor show as the locals stopped, one by one, their own gyrations, to gawp at the two lithe, tanned, lively stunners that we were in those days, reflected over and over in the mirrors…
And I remember a motor bike tour of the Island with the boys from the band: Alison riding pillion behind I think the drummer, and I glued rather too closely to the decidedly substantial guitarist. Well, the pillion footrest was broken off, so I had to sort of twine my leg round his, and clutch tightly r ound his vast chest, so as not to destabilise us… Maybe that’s why I don’t remember too much about the scenery, just the disappointing Gauguin museum which, of course, only runs to prints not originals, and the fact that we couldn’t find a decent (by NZ standards) beach to laze on.
Anyway, my feelings about Papeete were pretty much ‘been there, done that, don’t really care to do it again’. But when I peeped out my porthole, when I bounded up topside to watch us tying up and click a photo or two, I was quite surprised. I’d remembered the place as rather shabby and dingy, in the way that so many tropical places all round the world are. But, from the Monkey Island of the Tikeibank, Papeete didn’t look like that at all. It looked really rather pretty. The green misted mountains, the trim little town (and it is indeed little) with what passes for its residential suburbs scattered loosely up the hillsides behind, the blue sea and the blue and white ferries shuttling past heading for the misty island of Moorea – James Michener’s Bali H’ai – in the distance.
And such a nice day.
Should I perhaps change my mind and go ashore after all?
It would, in any case, be good to stretch the legs a little, to have a proper walk after a month at sea.
Lyndall, Grev and Michael were planning to take the 9.05 ferry to Moorea to do some moped discovering on what is supposed to be the nicest island of the group, so I decided that I and my useful command of the French language would just wander along with them to the ferry port.
It was about a 30 minute walk from our far-end-of-the-port berth to the ferry terminal, and most of it is through the various marine installations of the island – from the Tahitian military naval yards to various repair docks and the berths of the local ships: never the choicest part of any town, but nevertheless far from as shabby as I’d expected.
So, once the Moorea-bound team (including Biddy and Hugh, picked up en route) were safely away on their respective ferries, I decided to stroll on a bit further, along the water front to the other end of town.
I am very glad I did.
There is nothing exceptional about Papeete. It is a typical French tropical or Polynesian town. Just like Noumea. But typical French Polynesian towns aren’t quite the same as they were 46 years ago when I first visited New Caledonia. The essential character is still there, though. The funny dark little cafes and bars, the dusty boule or basketball grounds, the ubiquitous, shabby Coca Cola signs, the proliferation of official and government buildings, and, of course, the people. Those lovely plump-cheeked, shyly sparkling girls who are destined in too few years to become the obese, waddling dentally-challenged dames one sees everywhere, and the broad-built, gentle and also often semi-shy men. Perhaps nowadays there are more ‘other-races’ around than there used to be, but it is still the Polynesians who are the glory of the place.
But, on top of what I remember as the characteristic French island of half a century ago, have come the modern additions. The shops and the offices of the late twentieth century. Now, as the whole world knows, very often old plus new equals horrible aberration, but here, somehow, I felt that it worked. The funny little bars and cafés, and the splendid colonial buildings stand side to side now not only with nature, but with never-grotesquely-tall 20th century constructions – many already sandpapered into happy cohabitation by the tropical sun and rain – in what I found a decidedly agreeable way.

My little walk finally ended up being three and a half hours. I followed the waterfront to the town’s end, where the very erratic footpath vanished into a motorway and forced me inland to ‘centre ville – Papeete’. Centre ville turned out to be just one or two streets back from the waterfront and I comprehended that Papeete is decidedly smaller than Rangiora, NZ. But it was full of enjoyable sights – and remarkably few tourists -- and even though I was getting a touch sweaty and decidedy footsore as I headed back to the docks I had duly enjoyed myself.

I enjoyed the churches. Yes, for once, I really did. The Protestant church is painted pink, for heaven’s sake, with a green roof, but the Cathedral de Notre Dame (built 1875) is even better -- bright yellow and scarlet! They seem to shout ‘God can be good fun’. How different from the greys and browns of the Anglo-Saxon world.

The Presidential palace was quite something too, an enormous old-time edifice, with impressive iron gates and a fountain in its front courtyard and with half a tree-lined boulevard of mixed and matching other official and ceremonial buildings to hand. The important looking war memorial, which was surrounded by freshly laid wreaths, celebrated a different area of war to those I’ve been used to hearing about.

I duly ‘did’ the market – the traditional mixture of food and the favourite tourist items – woven bags, fantastical hats, and racks and racks of the Tahitian pareo, the brightly coloured all-in-one garment that spells ‘Tahiti’ to the rest of the world. I suspect at least some of them were ‘made in China’, but they certainly were colourful. (I found out later there was a second floor to the market .. but one floor did me fine).

I passed a delightful colonial building – perhaps once an hotel – painted up in red white and blue and labelled Kuo min tang and something in Japanese, I passed the dim, discrete and not very royal-looking Royal Papeete Hotel, I walked by all sorts of eateries and drinkeries, ranging from the fondly familiar little gloomeries of yesteryear, to glistening brasseries (with a small beer at $10NZ a pop!) and an up-to-date Internet Café, elbow to elbow with a sinister looking nightclub (men $1000 entry, girls free!). I passed, alas, a MacDonalds too. And it was full. But as I stared sadly, an old man walked past me, sucking the milk from cocoanut through a plastic straw. Long may he live.

Back on the waterfront – such activity – a whole section of shabby old booths getting repaired and licked with paint, a funfair under construction, a huge up to date arena with state of the art sound and lighting .. apparently this is all in preparation for the 14 Juillet festivities .. which I understand get off the ground here some time before the end of June! The juxtaposition of the splendid arena and the shanty booths summed up Papeete nicely.

And I liked it.

Back on board for a cold shower, a few cold beers, a bit of lunch, a snooze, and down to the gym. I put the bike up to the porthole, and as I dourly pedalled my 10km I had the joy of watching a hundred or so little coloured one-paddle skiffs racing across the harbour. A few eight-man longboats varied the entertainment, but I liked the skiffs best. Modern, lightweight boats they may have been, but once again, watching the men plying their paddles like Olympic canoeists, I enjoyed the mixture of old and new.

Bit by bit, the rest of our ‘family’ returned. Everyone seemed to have passed his or her day in a difference way, and each and every one of us had had a thoroughly good time.
And, good grief, I didn’t spend one cent.

Hey! We’re moving. It’s 11 o’clock already … time to go up and wave goodbye to Tahiti. Until next year…

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