La Ora Na Tahiti

Back in April when it was still cold enough to need a beanie and gloves to go out hiking in the redwoods, my sister-in-law mentioned she and my brother were planning a trip to Tahiti. I promptly invited myself along and requested the two weeks off work. I did not anticipate the vaccine mandate and how that would play out, the staff burnout, injuries, and all other sorts of complications that would lead to a severe staffing shortage at my work at the hospital. As October approached, I started to feel a vague sense of guilt for taking such an opulent vacation for so long. Every time I looked at all the holes in the schedule, I wondered, if it would be the more correct thing to cancel the trip to Tahiti. Then three of my co-workers were diagnosed with breast cancer in one week. I was, as was everyone in the department, stunned. It felt like I’d had the wind knocked out of me. One of the women was my age, and a friend, and we had just finished making reservations for a ski trip to Colorado this winter. How could this be happening? It made me ponder life and how fragile we are and what was really important. This was so real, so close to home, that it really, but really struck me for the first time…tomorrow it could be me. I could be the one receiving a cancer diagnosis, tomorrow, next week, next year. I had reservations to a corner of the world where I had never been; a beautiful, tropical island with my family. I might never have this chance again. I was going.

(Covid test before flight, upon arrival, days 4 and 8, and upon departure. My nephew is now a pro at the nasal swab.)

All flights to French Polynesia land in Pape’ete, Tahiti. Many people stop only briefly there and then sail or fly on to more remote, less populous, more fabulously expensive islands. We decided to give Tahiti an chance and booked a house overlooking the bay for 4 nights. I anticipated Tahiti to be like a sister island to the Hawaiian islands where I have spent so much time, but frankly, it reminded me much more of the Caribbean side of Panama where I spent several years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Pape’ete with its crumbling cinder block buildings, peeling paint, heat, traffic jams, street dogs and decidedly third world vibe brought me back to my days in Panama. Street dogs were a new concept to my nephew Gavin and he started keeping a daily tally. However, as soon as you left the city, you could exhale and appreciate the incredible natural beauty that quickly eliminated any lingering stress from Pape’ete. The baby blue of the water, the impenatrable green of the jungle, the vines and flowers hanging everywhere, the little fruit stands on the side of the road, and the city is forgotten.

Sunday in Tahiti is truly a day for church and family, and EVERYTHING is closed. If you are lucky enough to find a grocery store open for a few hours, you will not be able to buy alcohol. That aisle will be blocked off. Since absolutely everything was closed we decided to go for a Sunday drive. Tahiti is shaped a bit like Maui with a big part and a little part and they are called Tahiti Nui (Big Tahiti) and Tahiti Iti (Little Tahiti). We putted along, and stopped whenever we saw something interesting. We walked pretty beaches of black sand and white sand. We watched a surf competition and ate shave ice. We hiked to a waterfall. We watched the churches disgorge files of big, broad, local women draped in colorful mumus, strands and strands of flower leis around their necks, flowers in their hair, prettier than any expensive jewelry. They were surrounded by smiling, jumping squirming children, delighted to have done their duty and be let out to play the rest of the day. We ambled along creeks that kept me shaking my head and saying, “But this is just like the Garden of Eden!” I just couldn’t get over the abundance. There were flowers and fruit trees, and streams of fresh water just everywhere. For sailors of bygone eras, it must have been paradise found.

Monday I booked us a “surfari”. I’m not particularly interested in surfing and in fact, I hate rough water or big waves (too many negative experiences), but going out to see the famed surf break Teahupoo would give certain bragging rights back at home, and I did want to see the cliffs and mountains of Tahiti from the sea. Boy was it more of an adventure than I anticipated! For starters we were the only English speakers on board so we never really knew what was about to happen next. Second, I spent a good portion of the day thinking, “OMG. I can’t belive they’re letting us do this. You would NEVER be allowed to do this in the U.S. The boat did double duty for the first part of the day, taking surfers out to the wave and shuttling them back to shore. We’d go out and sit on the shoulder of the wave, the swell rising up beneath us, curling and breaking just feet away. I tried to send mental telepathy messages to our capitan that it would really, be a-ok to watch from a further, safer distance.

At last we motored off and the views of the island were just spectacular. It was worth it. Then we stopped, everyone but us had a discussion in French, and people started undressing. Then they jumped off the boat and started to swim towards the island… but there was no beach. My nephews are 9 and 12 and good swimmers, but the water was rough and it looked like people were trying to navigate a channel through the sharp coral along with gauging the good sized swell. I was having serious second thoughts, but my nephews leaped in suddenly and so we followed. At the island’s edge were large lava rocks but one of them had a small archway. We watched, treading water (with no life vests or flippers) as people tried to time the swell and swim quickly underneath the arch. Not everyone was successful the first time and one young woman got her head and back banged against the lava arch. Once inside it was a magical little protected area with a waterfall tumbling down and rocks one could climb on to to rest. The whole risky, scary, but very exciting process had to be repeated in reverse to get back to the boat.

Later in the day we pulled up to a pier that half fallen half-way over. We stepped gingerly off the boat and then quickly leapt to shore lest the rest of the pier choose that moment to fall the rest of the way over. We were off on a hike over sharp shards of coral and then up slippery, muddy slopes that required ropes to climb up. Our guide was a young, handsome Tahitian man called Obama. One woman spoke a bit of English and was able to convey that his name was Omana but the tourists couldn’t get it right and kept calling him Obama so he decided to keep it. The jungle was so hot, and humid, and lush. I desperately wanted to stop and inspect all the plant and bird life but I had to keep rushing along to keep up else risk being left behind. It was too perilous to take your eyes away from your feet, even for a moment. At the end, we climbed through a lava tube with a creek rushing through it and came out to a spectacular waterfall. By the end of the day, everyone was muddy, bruised, salty, and bleeding, at least a little, but felt we had certainly gotten our money’s worth in adventure!

The other main thing that struck me about Tahiti was the poverty of the local people. It’s not something I had ever heard anyone mention. The people seem very poor, again reminding me of Panama. Many of the buildings seem to be shanties made from tin siding, cinder blocks, and bits of wood but with a million dollar view. All of the goods and services are very, very expensive. It’s such an odd juxtaposition. I thought of Tahiti from the perspective of a native person 300 years ago and they must have been rich with natural resources, especially when compared with Native peoples of other places. Of all the places in the world I have been, Tahiti seems like the place I would have wanted to be-the warm sun, the ocean full of fish to eat, the streams and watefalls full of fresh, sweet water, trees heavy with bananas and mangos. How unfair that with modern times, they seem so poor. I’m still pondering it and not sure what to make of it all.

(Taro in the market place)

Up next-the adventure moves on to Moorea…

2 thoughts on “La Ora Na Tahiti

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