Tahiti, capital of Polynesia

Tahiti, capital of French Polynesia:
It was to French Polynesia in the South Pacific that we headed after leaving New Zealand. French Polynesia is an overseas territory of France that is comprised of 118 islands spanning a territory the size of the landmass of Europe. It is 12 time zones and 18,000 kms. from the home country – literally halfway around the world.

We crossed the International Date Line during our flight, and so we gained a day and lived Friday the 13th twice! It was the first time we had gone back in time, a bit like in “Back to the Future.”

Our arrival at the tiny airport in Tahiti was straight out of a made-for-TV movie. The air was sticky and humid (especially as we were wearing all our heaviest wool and fleece clothing to cut down on our baggage weight), and as we lugged our heavy carry-ons across the tarmac, my mind took me swiftly back to the familiar, sapping humidity of Thailand. Only, this time, we were greeted at the door to the airport by a band of middle-aged male musicians in large-print flowered shirts serenading us as a smiling hostess in a flowing flowery dress presented us with tiny white flowers to place behind our ears. Even though the shocking humidity and oppressive heat waves turned me into a puddle instantly and almost knocked me out, my heart was made glad by the island music and the sweet odor of the flowers wafting up my nostrils.

Dan, a friend of Stephane’s from France, greeted us warmly with kisses and flower necklaces. It was a real Tahitian welcome. Like I said, just out of the movies. He drove us in his Air Tahiti van to Isabelle and Johnny’s, who treated us royally during our one-week stay. From their balcony, we watched as jet-skis and ski-boats played in the lagoon during the daytime and then admired the magnificent orange sunsets over the island of Moorea in the evening. The smell of jasmine greeted us every time we left or returned to the building.

It was difficult getting used to Tahiti after the cold weather of New Zealand. The suffocating humidity kept us in a continual state of discomfort that comes with being a sticky mess of rivers of sweat. But it was made up for by Isa and Johnny’s genuine hospitality and friendliness and by our walks in the city of Papeete, where we strolled the covered market, looking at pareos, clothing, jewellery, and fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish. We were spoiled with Dan’s out-of-this world cooking at his French-Tahitian eatery in downtown Papeete, where my favorite dish was his fresh raw tuna and pineapple salad in a carved-out coconut shell.

Tahiti is bursting with color, from its plants and flowers to its waters to its women dressed in bold-print pareos. It is especially alive and bustling in Papeete, its capital. In fact, the steady stream of cars and trucks on the island’s only main road made us think more of a large city than an island.

It is amazing how very alive Tahiti is on its day off. At 6:30 AM on a Sunday morning at home, only the senior citizens would be awake. Not so here. Everyone from one to 100 is up and about. A group of young men gather around a boom box blaring loud music, making me think they’re the ones still going strong from Saturday night’s drink-a-thon. A steady stream of foot traffic is going in and out of the bakery, served by smiling women with flowers in their hair. Old men – and young – are sitting in the shade of trees. The churches are already filling up with parishioners in their Sunday best. Women in large, flower-print dresses and straw-brimmed hats encircled by flowers greet one another with smiles and hellos. A group of young parents bathe with their children in the shallow bay at the port.

One thing you constantly hear from French nationals and other male tourists is how disappointed they are in Polynesian women. They must come to the islands with a certain ideal of beauty, and then are disappointed by the reality. There are some very pretty Polynesian women, but the majority of people (men, too) are very large. They are not only tall, but also the heaviest people on earth. They make the French look like miniature dolls in comparison. On the other hand, the Polynesians are very friendly and have a ready smile.

There are a lot of similarities with the home country of France: 1) the language; 2) all French nationals, although not all Polynesians, smoke heavily; 3) almost every household has a cat or dog, or several; 4) open-air cafes; 5) same laws; 6) same minimum wage and salary ranges; 7) political maneuvering, especially strikes; 8) the baguette, cheese, and charcuterie; 9) the same outlets, light switches, and toilet flush (which we hadn’t seen since France); 10) and the same political system and president as France.

Our main reason for coming to Polynesia was to visit Stephane’s childhood friend, Franck, who has been living in Polynesia for over 10 years. Of course, the islands themselves were a draw, but we went principally to visit with Franck, whom Stephane hadn’t seen in many years. Franck lives with his Polynesian wife, Loretta, on the small island of Huahine, about a 9-hour ferry ride from the capital island of Tahiti. And so it was to Huahine that we headed.