Tahiti

(NOTE:  I just checked into my hotel in Santiago and figured I’d post Tahiti tonight and Easter Island tomorrow, on the day it is named after. I hope you all have a wonderful Easter Sunday!)

Like most people, I suppose, I’ve long harbored a romanticized image of Tahiti as the ultimate tropical paradise. Friends have told me that it’s crowded and crime-ridden, and that Moorea, Bora Bora and other islands are the places to go, but since I was coming this way I decided to stop for a few days and check it out for myself.

I’ve never flown across the Pacific Ocean before, always up and over Alaska, and it is just enormous, twice the size of the Atlantic. Kuala Lumpur to Auckland was a ten-hour flight, Auckland to Tahiti six, and it will be six from here to Easter Island and five to Santiago, Chile. That’s a lot of water, and within the waters of the Pacific are 30,000 islands, including Tahiti and its surrounding neighbors in French Polynesia.

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I did a half-day tour of Tahiti Nui (“big island”) and Dave – a Hawaiian who came here 27 years ago to surf, fell in love and never left – gave us some of the history. Southeast Asians first populated Tahiti more than 1,000 years ago. That fact has been disputed over the years, and a Norwegian named Thor Heyerdahl built a raft he called Kon-Tiki, and sailed from Peru to show it could have been South American natives who first settled here. Despite the fact that Kon-Tiki had maneuverability issues and crashed on some rocks, Heyerdahl made it far enough to demonstrate he could have been correct. But he was ultimately overridden by the most modern of theory-busters, DNA testing, which proved that the blood of Tahitian natives is Taiwanese in origin, as is the language, which probably should have been a clue.

Dave told us that human sacrifice and cannibalism were part of the culture here for centuries, and it took a concerted effort on behalf of the Europeans to eventually wipe out those practices through the introduction of Catholicism. But though they were primitive, the natives here were also adventurous, and between the years 200 and 400 A.D. they explored the far corners of the Pacific and settled in many other places, including Hawaii.

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The legendary Captain James Cook stumbled upon Tahiti in the mid 1700s, just prior to also discovering New Zealand and Australia. The natives had no metal, so Cook traded nails and uniform buttons for pigs and fruit. Of course the Europeans also introduced viruses and diseases for which the hearty Tahitians had no recourse, including tuberculosis, which at one point wiped out 60% of the indigenous population.

The British ruled for 75 years and got into a bit of a tussle with the French, but rather than go to war over it they negotiated (what a concept), and after being given some rights that it wanted elsewhere, England turned Tahiti over to France. The language of all the residents is French, and so are a vast majority of the visitors, which came as a surprise; I’m not sure you can get much further away from here than France.

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Two guys have probably had more to do with Tahiti’s exotic image than any others: the artist Paul Gauguin, and Marlon Brando.  Gauguin left France for French Polynesia in 1895 to escape “everything that is artificial and conventional”, and he never returned. He took a 13-year-old wife, had trysts with several other pre-pubescent girls given to him by their parents – along with pigs and other food – and these girls were featured in many of his paintings. He contracted syphilis and believed the spring waters in a cave we visited could cure him, and it was decades before natives ever swam in that cave again. Gauguin ran into some legal problems and was sentenced to a month in jail, but died before he could serve any time.

Brando fell in love with Tahiti while filming “The Mutiny on the Bounty” here in the early 1960s. Dave showed us DSCN2551the beach of black, volcanic sand where Brando demanded they import white sand to better contrast with his dark blue officer’s uniform. He married his Tahitian co-star and bought a near-by island called Tetiaroa, where he built a rustic village that he visited often over the next 30 years. But in 1991 his son Christian confessed to killing the Tahitian boyfriend of his half-sister Cheyenne, and Cheyenne later killed herself at her mother’s home in Tahiti, and Brando never returned. A resort called “The Brando” is supposed to open on Tetiaroa later this year.

Today, Tahiti is struggling. Tourism is vital, its number one industry, and the weak global economy is taking a toll; many large resort hotels are dark. The production of black pearls is the number two industry – they are carefully cultivated over many years – but that requires tourists to buy them. Much of the French population is leaving because the government has rescinded some excessive retirement benefits and the French military presence has been cut in half. But Tahitians are still thinking creatively and with optimism; Papeete, the capital, is congested with traffic, so they are developing a second major city up the coast to reduce the pressure, and industrial shipping will be relocated there so Papeete can cater only to cruise ships.

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My visit to Tahiti was extremely relaxing, thanks in part to absolutely perfect tropical weather. I worked a lot on arrangements for the final two months of this trip (Cuba is looking good). I got a bit too much sun. Being less than three months from my 65th birthday I registered for social security and Medicare, mildly depressing but curable with two rum punches. I followed the NCAA basketball tournament … Duke is through to the Sweet 16, North Carolina lost and there is a great Cinderella story in Florida Gulf Coast, so all is right in that world. I went into Papeete once to do some Western Union transmissions and visit a couple of real estate offices. And I had a few drinks one evening with two engaging American women who have been friends since high school, and had stopped here on the way back from their vacation in New Zealand.

And on the day of my red eye departure I rented a kayak and cruised the half-mile or so out to the barrier reef that encircles 75% of Tahiti. The water in the lagoon created by the reef was crystal clear; where it looked to be a foot deep I knew it was ten. From out by the reef I could look back and see how mountainous Tahiti really is, and the darker clouds ensheathed the higher peaks as if protecting the secrets of the gods. It was beautiful and so unbelievably tranquil, as being on the water always seems to be.

In truth, I found Tahiti to be just the island paradise I’d always envisioned; a lot like Hawaii, just further away and so very … comment le dites-vous? … French. I doubt I’ll be back this way again, but I’m glad I was here once.

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6 thoughts on “Tahiti

  1. jbhersh23@comcast.net

    The island sounds beautiful ,glad it lived up to your expectations. Since Penny and Leo moved the other day, and we needed an Easter fix, I am having them for Easter dinner, don’t laugh, you are invited too. Bob is grilling a leg of lamb on the grill and I am doing the rest. We will think of you and propose a toast to a continued wonderful and safe trip. Love Jane

    • ruffinontheroad

      Janie, thank you, I so wish I could be there but will be in spirit for sure. You guys have fun, a great dinner, and I will be thinking about you. God bless!

  2. Prasad Chavali

    Looking through your blog, I noticed one picture..

    The sign says “Markiz Pashmina” – Pushmina the wool made from beard you and I bought the blankets so I guess it is popular in more places than India.

    How are you doing now? I am off to India again on Tuesday. Masters is 1 1/2 weeks away and lots to do still.

    thanks Prasad Chavali Sirius Tech Partners http://www.siriustechpartners.com (480) 626 8770

    From: Ruffin on the Road Reply-To: Ruffin on the Road Date: Saturday, March 30, 2013 6:12 PM To: Prasad Chavali Subject: [New post] Tahiti

    WordPress.com ruffinontheroad posted: “(NOTE: I just checked into my hotel in Santiago and figured I’d post Tahiti tonight and Easter Island tomorrow, on the day it is named after. I hope you all have a wonderful Easter Sunday!) Like most people, I suppose, Ive long harbored a romanticize”

  3. moonglow1

    Tahiti and Brando just seemed to go together. Thanks for the photos. Very calming. Looking forward to seeing you soon. Is there anything we can bring for you? I called Carol to try and get together with them this week to discuss trip, sharing a car, van, etc. it will be time to go before we know it! Have a Happy Easter. We did the Moon annual Sunrise service at PVI but it was just Bill and myself today
    Take care..looking forward to seeing you soon
    Jerri

  4. Another great report. Hope you will be tapped into the Masters as it should be another good one. Be safe in your final months of travel.
    Ray

  5. Amazing photos and poetic descriptions! Life is good for you!
    Jo

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