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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

French Polynesia: Tahiti

Cathédral Notre Dame
Cathédral Notre Dame

Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, is the biggest settlement on Tahiti and the only place in the territory that can be called a city (with a population of around 150,000). It is also a mixed bag. I found the very idea of a population explosion delightful after such a long spell in the enforced hermitage of Zeke, and as we approached the city lights, the smell of thousands of bodies and their excretions drifted across the tide.

Town hall, Papeete
Papeete Town Hall
A view of Tahiti
Looking towards the interior of Tahiti

Tahitian Dancing

Dancing at the Bastille Day fête
Dancing at the Bastille Day fête

Still, we did see some local culture, mainly in the form of real Tahitian dancing. As part of the Bastille Day fête (Bastille Day being on 14th July, the excuse for a long celebration in Tahiti called the Heiva) there was a three-week long dancing contest, and for most of the nights we were in Papeete, you could watch the various teams strut their stuff in a makeshift stadium erected by the harbour. It was rather fun; the way those girls wiggle their hips is enough to make otherwise healthy men get palpitations, and even though the dancing we'd seen in Makemo had been more raw and powerful, the Tahitian programme of dance, choral ditties and instrumentals was certainly entertaining. Especially when the grass skirts and amazingly ornamental flower hats1 started to fall apart with the vigorous shaking they were getting...

Dancing at the Bastille Day fête
It might not look like these people are dancing to the ukulele, but they are

Wandering Round Tahiti

Le truck
Le truck

Another result of my visit to the Musée was my rediscovery of the joys of walking. Apart from a few stints in Mangareva and the odd beach walk in the Tuamotus, I hadn't been on any serious walks since Tongariro and I really missed it. So I took le truck to the museum – le truck being the local bus, a wacky combination of bus and truck, and cheap to boot – but decided to walk back, it being a beautiful day. The 15km, three-hour jaunt wasn't exactly picturesque – it followed the dirty coast road back to Papeete – but it felt good, and woke up those walking muscles that just don't get any exercise on the sea.

A basket-weaving contest
The basket-weaving contest
The dancers from Amanu performing in Tahiti
The dancers from Amanu

Le Retro

Claw, Mary and Crystal from the ketch Tir Na Nog
Claw, Mary and Crystal from the ketch Tir Na Nog

The ice creams at Le Retro, the café over the road from the yacht quay, were hard to beat. Not only were there some 30 flavours to choose from, but it became quite a social spot for the yachties: 'Fancy an ice cream?' became a byword for 'Stop trying to fix that and take a break.' Many a tale of derring-do was relayed over une glace du chocolat at Le Retro, I can tell you.

Real Food!

Marché du Papeete
Marché du Papeete

Food and drink, so long a subject of fantasies and restrictions, was initially a wonderful experience, and gradually it became normality again. Drinking beer; eating baguettes and the most amazing French contribution to international cuisine, the pain au chocolat; ice cream; real coffee; real milk... these things transformed my life more than I would have anticipated.

The Reality of Yachting

Dave and Dorothy from the cutter Kabloona III
Dave and Dorothy from the cutter Kabloona III, our neighbours in Papeete

Papeete quay also showed me once and for all the ugly side of cruising – in fact, whoever adopted the word 'cruising' for the task of getting a yacht round the world obviously hadn't done it themselves (one yachtie I met described 'cruising' as 'fixing your boat in exotic locations', and it was a deadly accurate observation). It's the constant battle to keep your yacht shipshape, a considerable challenge when the sea is constantly doing its best to eat away at your pride and joy. Dave and Dorothy had their engine die on them, and by the time I left Tahiti the problem had graduated from a possible electrical fault in the inverter to a burnt-out alternator. Rob had to fix his broken anchor winch, a thankless task that required a whole day's hacking around to botch a solution. Claw and Mary had to survive without their wind generator after it broke down, requiring a courier to take it to Hawaii to be mended. All along the quay yachts were having to stay longer than originally hoped due to ripped sails, dents in the hull, damaged equipment and, in one case, a badly broken leg. At least two yachts I saw had decided enough was enough, and were trying to sell their floating homes, with little success.

Leaving Zeke and Polynesia

The island of Moorea from Tahiti
Unfortunately I didn't have time to visit the jagged island of Moorea, as seen here from neighbouring Tahiti

Due to my unexpected departure, Rob had to find more crew, so Zeke became an interview zone for prospective sailors who had replied to the advert tacked on the bow (an advert noticed by plenty of people as we were tied to the yacht quay). Some were idiots, some were potentially good, and some were good choices, but every interview made me feel a little sad to be leaving as Rob reeled off the plans for the trip, and the places he was going on to visit: Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu and the rest of the Polynesian pantheon. But it didn't take much to realise that leaving the boat was still the best thing I'd done on the whole trip; sometimes you just have to accept that you don't have sea legs and are never going to get them.

1 San Francisco might have flowers in its hair, but Tahiti has them in its hair, round its neck, on its clothes... everywhere. Never have I seen a people so happily obsessed with flowers, to the point of it being strange to see someone without a flower somewhere on their body. It makes a welcome change from drab pinstripe suits.

2 This is a confusing issue. Many older women in Polynesia are huge, and wear these awful Mother Hubbard dresses that the missionaries brought in to cover up the previously naked natives. I had been told that Polynesian men like their women on the large side, and that being fat is regarded as a good thing, rather than the social stigma it is in the stick-thin fashion consciousness of the western world; this struck me as a particularly healthy attitude, as there's nothing remotely attractive about anorexic models. There's only one odd thing: Miss Tahiti is a gorgeous, slim girl, whom I was lucky enough to watch dancing at the craft show, and the girls who shake their hips at the dance contests are hardly what one would call overweight. Somewhere between young girl and old woman there occurs a metabolic change of immense proportions, literally, and it's weird.