Tahitian tales (and the selfish desire to sail away)

I fell for the same Edenistic charms that Melville, Gauguin and Robert Louis Stevenson had all succumbed to. Tahiti, it was then.

Let me tell you a secret

In September 2020, for good or bad, I travelled to French Polynesia.

Would you like me to explain why?

I didn’t think it was the best idea. It wasn’t the most ethical choice of destination. Nevertheless, I hardly protested when a cheaper (than usual) flight became available from Paris, where my partner and I had been located.

The first lockdown was tough for everyone.

Some of our relatives and friends had struggled through weeks of shielding and isolation.

Shouldn’t we be there for relatives and loved ones if – or when – a second lockdown hit?

There were different considerations to weigh up.

We had work arrangements that allowed us to base ourselves abroad for a few months, but if something went genuinely wrong, either for family or, personally for us, we’d be tens of thousands of kilometres from ‘home’.

There was the arguably more important question of whether we’d be putting Polynesian people at risk by travelling to Tahiti and the Polynesian archipelagos. While we had to have PCR tests both prior to boarding our flight, and a few days after arriving from France, were we selfishly placing our needs’ above other people’s?

When I admitted our plans to a few select friends, not everyone seemed convinced it was the best of ideas.

I didn’t argue with them. I understood people’s objections.

In the weeks after we arrived, I noticed how masks were more common in Papeete than in some parts of Paris.

I was struck by how well resourced the country’s healthcare system was and how widespread public health messaging was about the need for people to practise social distancing and other hygiene measures.

But through it all, I acknowledged we’d made a risky choice travelling to such a remote and (relatively speaking) under-resourced part of the world. I didn’t want to pretend to myself our decision wasn’t a dubious one, against the backdrop of the pandemic.

So before travel restrictions could stop us, we took pre-emptive action. We booked our tickets.

Not all disclosure or memoir has to centre on our qualities, or our merits.

Sometimes it’s better to acknowledge where our actions are borne out of self-interest.

And this was one of those occasions.

‘French…where?’

‘You’ve gone where?’ was a common question we faced, especially from British friends, who, unlike our French friends, had little appreciation of Polynesie Française’s status as a French overseas territory.

Perhaps you need me to use a globe or an atlas as a guide for the blog post to come…

I certainly needed a map when my partner, who is French, suggested we sit out a potential second lockdown in Tahiti. I had been to various exhibitions over the years featuring Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings. Although I had a passing knowledge of Gauguin’s Tahiti, the truth is, I knew little besides the fact the island was located somewhere in the Pacific.

I didn’t know French Polynesia comprised more than 100 islands, spread geographically across a surface area greater than Western Europe.

I went to the excellent exhibition on Oceania at the Royal Academy a couple of years before we travelled. That taught me about the artefacts looted from these islands. It marked Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific 250 years before. Cook had been in search of terra australis incognita – the unknown southern continent, as Europeans called it.

Reflecting, this part of the world remains largely unknown, both in terms of people who can say they’ve visited, and also in terms of its significance to so many current debates, be it the future of the environment, the rise of China, and the AUKUS pact that’s recently been agreed between the UK, the US and Australia.

The South Pacific that Captain Cook navigated – the vast collection of island states comprising Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia – covers almost a third of the world’s surface. I think that might be an overestimate by the way, but the Royal Academy is the source I’ve drawn on!

Yet you wouldn’t necessarily grasp the scale of the South Pacific if you were to glance at sketches of its islands on historic maps.

Take a look at a child’s globe, spin it on its axis: look at Polynesia through the adjoining magnifying glass: it still seems like an afterthought for geographers. Its geographic expanse is misrepresented as the globe tilts past Australia and New Zealand.

Its significance to the world remains oddly misunderstood.

Shifting sand crabs, reefs, and lots of Coca Cola

A year ago this week, my partner and I travelled to the Marquesas islands, well on the way to Hawaii if you take a boat from Tahiti. We were on a cargo ship, the Aranui, which once-a-month supplies the islanders with the resources they can’t grow for themselves. I can’t describe the scenery without resorting to cliché.

Let me try and describe Tahiti, at least, by consulting the diaries I kept at the time.

At Puna’ Auia, the seabed was mottled with hairy algae and sprouting mushrooms I’d been warned to stay clear of, in case they hid sea urchins.

At Teahuputoo, one kilometre across the lagoon you could see the frenzied surfers battling waves, and beyond, the break in the reef before the imperious sea. To my eyes, the reef seemed caked with the crystal casing of a Margarita cocktail.

There were the roosters. Oh gosh, were there roosters. Roosters roamed everywhere, even in the airport car park.

There were species of flora and fauna I’ll never see again, or can’t imagine seeing again in such exquisite surroundings. In the water gardens of Vaipahi, there were ducks – evolutionary throwbacks, it seemed to me – with the beaks of roosters.

What senses we awakened!

There was the lift and tangy bite of our evening drinks of rum.

There were black-and-white butterflies – thank goodness there were plentiful butterflies, in this corner of our heating, endangered earth.

We tasted tropical jams. They were a sugary and grainy mix of pineapple, coconut and laser-sharp limes.

As you walked close to the shore, there was a constant twitching movement as sand crabs shifted sideways and burrowed themselves in the shallow homes they’d clawed out of the land.

The land close to the shore offered a cornucopia of banyan trees, marae temples, hibiscus, frangipani and tiare tahiti. The flowers were scarlet reds. There were other shades of colour: the peaches, loud pinks and lemon yellows Shirley Bassey favours for her choice of dresses.

I saw a dolphin in its natural habitat for the first time in my life. How lucky I am, how lucky I was. That remains my overriding thought.

Not all our memories are pleasant ones.

We saw rats the size of armadillos, close to our bedrooms. Mice crept out of our shower room in one hostel.

The nono flies of the Marquesan islands – to some, they were referred to as the ‘no-no’ flies because tourists heard their vicious bites were bad enough to avoid a visit – caused me to incessantly scratch myself, and soon enough, become unhinged.

There were the things we were surprised to see. Unfortunately, the territory’s huge dependence on imports from the United States, Australia and New Zealand has seen processed food and soda drinks, dumped by the tonne load at Papeete’s port.

Obesity is a huge public health problem.

A large body can be seen as a sign of beauty and attractiveness, and there’s no problem with that. So-called “fattening rituals,” consisting of large celebratory feasts, were historically meant to enhance a person’s sexual attractiveness and to become lustful and high spirited.

However, changes have occurred on the islands in more recent years in terms of diet.

One source from 2011 suggested French Polynesia stood as the third most overweight country on the earth. Ten years ago the obesity prevalence was recorded at 40.9% and an overweight prevalence of 73.7% was also recorded. One wonders how the tick-tick-ticking timebomb of McDonald’s and Coca Cola importing so much junk to these islands is affecting Polynesians’ health.

Recent rates of the coronavirus have slowed a little after terrible increases in new transmissions this August.

There have been 45,583 infections and 636 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began (as of November 11th).

The infection rate per head of population is worse, some sources state, than the UK’s rate, and it’s said it will take another 388 days for just 10 per cent of the population to be doubly vaccinated.

When we were there, things felt relatively safe, but one imagines the underlying demographics place some Polynesian people at higher risk of poorer outcomes when they become infected with covid-19.

What has changed – what hasn’t – what might never be the same

With the arrival of Europeans, newly introduced diseases killed large parts of the local population from the late 18th century.

There was always a worry with this new pandemic that tourists – even the civil servants who come from the French ‘mainland’, or La Métropole, as some people refer to France – would transport highly transmissible new variants of the virus.

Elsewhere in the South Pacific, we’ve recently heard how Tonga has reported its first case of the virus, but in Polynesia, the islands’ connections to France, the US, and other centres of trade, tourism and commerce, means cases have been reported since fairly on in the pandemic.

Looking back in history, one source I’ve read suggests the result of the 18th and 19th century population loss was a movement of islanders from the hills to the coastal plain. Over time, colonization and missionaries brought people into villages. Once the French arrived to test nuclear bombs in the 1960s, the isolation that brought these islanders together was abruptly put to an end, resulting in urbanization and a new era of health issues. Year after year, the islands of French Polynesia became more and more globalized.

France’s exploitation of its overseas territory is worth examining.

France conducted 193 nuclear tests from 1966, only finishing these when Jacques Chirac was in power, in 1996. Yes, these occurred quite some distance from Tahiti, in atolls, but recently declassified French Ministry of Defence documents reveal how for years the French downplayed, or underestimated, the health and ecological impacts of its tests. 100,000 people could be entitled to compensation as the incidence rate of cancers like thyroid cancers show no sign of abating.

You’ll find some parts of Tahiti and its surrounding islands over-developed, although there are admirable attempts to encourage eco-tourism and investment in renewable energy in key locations.

One island that visibly demonstrates the industrial exploitation of the 1960s is Makatea, in the Tuamotu archipelago.

A recent article on the legacy of phosphate mining highlights how between 1906 and 1966, one-third of this uplifted coral atoll— which is less than half the size of Manhattan and only seven kilometers across at its widest point—was eviscerated. The island has been left with an estimated one million pock-marked holes in its earth.

And talking of the environment, bravo to the President of Palau, in the western Pacific, (not Polynesia, but it faces the same risks to its environment), when he recently lectured the COP26 Summit ‘you might as well bomb us’, when pointing out developed nations’ CO2 emissions will first wreak havoc on the Pacific’s island states. 

I was lucky enough to visit the atoll of Fakarava on the cargo boat trip to the Marquesan Islands. Essentially a sunken volcano – the rim now represents the remaining available land for people to live on – it was a hauntingly quiet day as I started out to the horizon.

I reflected the island might no longer exist, in say, 50 years time, should global heating continue at its current dangerous rate. Did I contribute to this global emergency by flying to Tahiti? Yes. I should at least admit to that. 

Having been there, it’s incumbent on me to share the risks the region faces.

The recent controversy over the AUKUS pact between the UK, the US and Australia highlights how the South Pacific is becoming a battleground – a pawn – in the west’s political games with China.

It’s important to reflect there has long been a Chinese presence in the region. We met some wonderful Chinese friends in Tahiti and Bora Bora. But the People’s Republic of China’s support and foreign aid causes concern: it comes in the form of concessional loans which many doubt Polynesian island states can realistically repay. 

Sail away, Sail away

The Enya song, Orinoco Flow, is about a river delta in Venezuela. I loved listening to it as a kid. Its lyrics captured a romantic spirit that I too hoped to capture, of ‘sailing away, sailing away’..okay, not to Venezuela necessarily, but anywhere ‘exotic’.

As a child, I yearned to get away somehow. I wanted to discover the distant lands of my imagination.

‘Only when I am old enough’, I would say to myself. ‘One day, I will see beyond the clouds that sit above the Green Belt separating the M25 from my childhood bedroom’. Okay, I didn’t speak like that in my teenage years – but you get the drift!

I remember watching Nicolas Roeg’s dreamy film, ‘Castaway’, starring Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe. Adapted from Lucy Irvine’s 1984 book, it tells of her experiences of staying a year with writer, Gerald Kingsland, on the isolated island of Tuin between New Guinea and Australia. This too spoke to me. I wanted the thrill of adventure, but above all, I wanted the anonymity and disconnection that follows isolation. I think this appealed to me the most. The sense of being a castaway.

We listen to programmes like the BBC’s Desert Island Discs and we wonder what we too would prioritise were we stranded on a desert island.

Clearly none of us really do want to end up stranded.

None of us wish to be that Tom Hanks’ character who befriended a basketball he affectionately called ‘Wilson’, or, for that matter, Robinson Crusoe.

So what caused me to agree to this mad plan – to ‘sail away’ to Tahiti, as it were, against the backdrop of the pandemic?

What is it that charms and teases not just me, but so many of us, when we think about a life far away from everyday bureaucracy and mundanities?

Why now, when I grapple with things that don’t go swimmingly well – the obstacles of everyday modern life – do I reflect on our South Pacific stories from a year ago?

Is it something to do with the unreal simplicity and pace of life on an island like Tahiti – the furthest you can travel from ‘home’? I guess I longed for an escape, and truth be told, am I so very different?

We remember

A year ago this week we woke up to the news a fellow passenger on the Aranui crossing from Tahiti to the Marquesas had gone missing.

I remember him.

I remember Jean-Paul.

I remember the thought that occurred to me when a staff member confirmed that Jean-Paul had presumably drowned.

I’d taken too many liberties during the pandemic, I reflected. One definition I’ve read of ‘Hubris’ is the ‘overweening presumption that leads a person to disregard the divinely fixed limits on human action in an ordered cosmos’. Something was bound to go wrong, and now it had. 

Ever since a boat crossing I was on when I was sixteen, I’ve felt uncomfortable on the water. Then, I was sailing from Athens and a Greek tragedy turned into a farce when a Captain’s three am announcement that our boat was sinking, and we “must get up to deck”, turned out to be a practical joke. 

Ever since I ruminated on the possibilities of surviving contact with water, on the bottom bunk of the cabin I shared with Dad on Channel crossings to France, I’d say I’ve feared drowning above any other outcome in life.

Perhaps one root of this obsessive thinking was the 1987 capsizing of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise roll-on roll-off ferry, minutes after it departed Zeebrugge in Belgium. It was one of my first real memories of absorbing the news when I was five-and-a-half years old. Hypersensitive, I replayed the image of the boat on its side in my mind’s eye; the different angles the ship was photographed from in the sky.

At first, the Aranui crossing was choppy, but the daily routines felt satisfyingly smug. We disembarked at low-lying Fakarava, an atoll in the Tuamotus archipelago, which lay there patiently, knowingly, on our third morning. We opened our curtains and there was an unreal toothpaste blue hue to the ocean, with ribbons of turquoise and white spray, enticing us, drawing us into its upside logic, twelve hours from anyone we would ordinarily call or text.

An older couple tested positive for Covid on day four of the voyage. My partner and I had been sitting next to them for hours in a 4 x 4 on Nuku Hiva island, ankle to ankle, elbows enjoined. Nuku Hiva was where Herman Melville jumped a whaling ship in 1842 as a twenty-three year old sailor. We were tested for Covid, but our results came back: ‘negative reaction’. The couple were quarantined in a cordoned off cabin. In a sly twist on Melville’s fortunes, they were told to disembark. The boat sailed on. 

Henri Mattise, who visited Polynesia on a sojourn in 1930, described the South Pacific as a sea “so blue that it made the sky seem pale”. So it seemed as the Captain steered the Aranui forward, together with its hulking towers of cargo-filled crates, the water beneath the deck a miniature sketch of Hokusai’s Japanese tidal wave. 

November 9th and a crew member finally broke the news. We were told Jean-Paul was indeed ‘gone’. It was ‘triste’. No one had the foggiest what had happened.

The air was cooler than before.

Behind us was a full view of the aquamarine South Pacific Sea, to quote W. Somerset Maugham from his writings about the South Seas, “all your fancy pictured”.

According to his biographer, Selina Hastings, Somerset Maugham wrote about the Pacific islands’ prelapsarian beauty and the immensity of the southern sky. I’m told he also wrote about the arduous aspects of his journeys, and how his voyages on the South Seas were rich with drama and incident.

Is that why these poets, painters and dreamers all ventured here, tens of thousands of miles from home?

For the risks and the misadventures as much as for the Pacific’s peace?

There’s a potion we hope to take when we take to the seas, or on any trip, I suppose.

We want to live in the present, to be as far as we can from life’s harsh lessons.

Perhaps that’s why we eventually let our memories of Jean-Paul get submerged with new hopes, and more trivial anxieties as we returned to Paris.

There’s a desire that drives our flights of fancy and acts of folly. I suppose it’s the desire we feel at parties when we’re kids, or at least that’s what we’re hoping to recapture; the unbridled joy, the suspended belief that we have to experience anything outside bliss.

It’s what I’ve tried to obtain in recent years. A life where I need not be Dad’s emotional crutch, one where I can at last, in increments, be an escapist, a voyager, a dreamer, a man who lost his Mum young, but won’t be defined by loss, won’t be held back by grief. A man who wants to tolerate and even embrace a degree of risk. 

So, Tahiti it was then.

For good or bad.

I fell for the Edenistic charms Melville, Gauguin and Robert Louis Stevenson all succumbed to as they sought an escape from their Occidental lives.

And on this day, a year on, I remember you, Jean-Paul.

We do remember.

***

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.       

A poem by Robert Louis Stevenson

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