A Tour of Polynesian Culture

July 6th, 2010 7:31 pm by Dave from here

The reason we came to Huahine instead of some other island like Bora Bora was that it has major Polynesian archeological sites, marae, more than any other island.  So this morning (July 6) we hired a guide, Paul Atallah (ask your hotel for “Island Eco Tours”) to drive us to the village of Maeva, which has the largest concentration of marae on Huahine.

Our guide talks as fast as a New Yorker, but with a California accent.  He moved here 15 years ago with his wife, a native, and is quite committed to remaining.  I got the feeling from the way he prefaced his sentences with constructions of the form, “contrary to what you may believe…” that many of his clients arrive at Huahine believing things.

The entire trip was a fascinating conversation about Polynesian culture from as early as they can piece it together to the present.  Some current thinking puts the origin of the Polynesian people in Indonesia, as indicated by the spread of the pandanus leaf used for thatching roofs and making sails for ocean-going canoes.  They spread to Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Easter Island, and New Zealand, and possibly as far west as Madagascar.  Another recent study has discovered chicken bones with Polynesian DNA on an island just off the coast of Chile.  I was surprised to learn that New Zealand is thought to be the most recently populated land mass in the world, just 600 years ago.

We toured the marae, which are basically altars like the ones on Easter Island but without giant heads.  There has been quite a bit of restoration work in the past few decades.  Several altars line the beach around Maeva, and we went on a walk up the hill where many others have been discovered and restored, including a beautiful one which adjoins a very old banyan tree.  (There were tons of mosquitoes, but their bites didn’t last long).

We were also accompanied by dogs.  The marae are all on private land, whose ownership has passed intact from pre-colonial days.  The Europeans introduced the idea of individual ownership, which has replaced clan ownership, but the people planting vanilla on the rubble of a square kilometer have in some sense an unclouded title.

Another sexy tidbit about preconquest Polynesians is that they didn’t necessarily tumble to the idea of a single father.  The woman who slept with as many high born boys as she could, was attempting to gather all of their energy into her baby, and if you were to ask who the father was, she would say “all of them”.  Inasmuch as the woman’s clan was regarded as a source of land legitimacy as well as those of the fathers, maybe unclouded is not the right word to use about the land titles.  But it is a good word to use before eclipses.

He also talked quite a bit about present-day French Polynesia and its challenges.  It has hardly any natural resources to export, and it must import almost all of its food and fuel and other supplies.  The industry which should be the most promising for it is, of course, tourism.  Tahiti, tropical paradise — wait, how much did you say flights and hotels cost?  Its high minimum wage, $1500/month, makes it a very expensive place to operate hotels.  So they get as much tourism in a year as Fiji gets in three months, or Hawaii gets in nine days.  France sends two billion euros per year, but people here wonder whether President Sarkozy will try to find a way to reduce that amount as France deals with the budget shortfalls that are happening all over the world in the last couple years.

Paul Atallah is himself a one-man anthropology demonstration.  His father was a red-haired fair skinned Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem. I guess he knows about tribal warfare.  He would like to be doing research, like the other Huahine based archaeologist we met on the Paul Gauguin in 2005, Mark Eddowes, but he has a family to support and there isn’t a lot of money in sorting out lava and coral rocks and teasing stories out of them.  So he’s a guide.  Fortunately a few cruise ships stop here so he has some chances to take people around.

After our tour, we had another delightful lunch with a “trilogy of calamari” (ceviche, fried, and a tajine with raisins over couscous) and mahi mahi in a mostly papaya puree.  Mmm.  Tropical France.

Now I’m off to the 15 cent per minute internet cafe.

Cours de Pirogues

July 6th, 2010 7:28 pm by Dave from here

Monday we woke up and noticed a lot of activity on the beach across the street:  dozens of locals were setting up their outrigger canoes.  The races, which are part of a July festival called Haeve, began at 9 am with men’s singles.  About 30 or 40 contestants lined up, paddled out to the reef, turned around and came back.  Races with boats of six, younger men, followed.  The owner of our pension competed in both single and six-man events, as did a man who rented us bicycles, coming in first in the six-man event.

After the races, we rode some sketchy bicycles (only the front brakes worked, and only some of the derailleurs; my seat seemed rusted in one position) to a site on the other side of the island occupied by Hotel Sofitel for about ten years, but which was abandoned about five years ago because it consistently lost money.  It’s located next to a convenient snorkeling spot, where the lagoon went out about a kilometer and never got too deep to stand up in.  There were a few rocks with small amounts of coral growing on them, and various tropical fish darting about.  The water was even warmer than the Timberline pool (though still cooler than the hot tub).  The current through the lagoon was so swift that you had to swim constantly to watch any particular piece of coral, or else stand up in the waist deep water which defeated the purpose of snorkeling; and if you let yourself drift past the boulders and corals it was like being on a tour bus and you never got to look at anything.  The lagoon was nice but not spectacular.  There were the usual suspects in terms of colorful tropical fish and iridescent blue-lipped clams and anenome drama and urchins, but they weren’t arranged so that they would form a desktop or a jigsaw puzzle.  Most of the coral was of a nondescript brown bulbous sort.

As we left, we noticed that Ray’s back tire had lost all its air.  I biked back to get help, and he started walking.  As he came back, someone offered to pump it back up, but it didn’t take any air at all.  So he kept walking and got a ride — meanwhile, I got the pension owner to go get him, and we passed him almost immediately after he’d gotten picked up.  The bike renter was nice enough not to charge us for all the adventures.

We had dinner nearby at a waterside bar, eating what one hopes to eat on a French tropical island:  local seafood with sauces made from local ingredients by French chefs.  In this case it was mahi mahi with vanilla sauce, and lagoon fish meuniere.  And three liters of water to rehydrate us after a long active day in the sun.

My Winter is Warmer than Your Summer

July 6th, 2010 7:26 pm by Dave from here

After not having found a friend’s house to leave the car, we took it to LAX Park, which seemed to offer the lowest rate for monthly parking.  It is a giant fenced parking lot filled with cars which are basically touching each other.  I have no idea how the valets have room to pluck a car out of the middle of the crowd to get it ready for the returning owner.  Hopefully I’ll get my car back, but if not, it’s had a good run, with 230,000 miles.

We found the Air Tahiti Nui checkin counter, and soon were on a bus taking us to an isolated jetway on the tarmac so we could board.  The flight was pleasant:  the food wasn’t ultimately superlatively awful, and the entertainment system only crashed once with an Ignore / Retry dialog.  There were a couple movies which were watchable enough.  The plane was filled with eclipse chasers, many bound for the Paul Gauguin which we sailed on in 2005.  Some we recognized, others recognized us from earlier eclipses.  After landing in Papeete, the Tahiti Airport Motel loomed on a hill just above the airport, and we could easily walk up to it without dealing with taxis.  Its wi-fi was a little sketchy; for some reason mail didn’t work reliably, but doing anything in a browser seemed to work OK.

Ray has noticed that a week ago we were at the base of the snowfields on Mt. Hood in Oregon, in the peak of summer as throngs of kids headed to the lifts with their snowboards.  And now we’re in 80-degree humid tropical weather in Tahiti in the dead of winter.  The ocean is about the same temperature as the pool at Timberline Lodge.

Today we took a little propeller plane without oxygen masks on a 30-minute flight to Huahine.  Most of the passengers were headed to Bora Bora — only about ten got off here.  We spent today, the Fourth of July, a Sunday where everything is closed, going on little walks and mostly hanging out under the fan in the room in the little pension where we’re staying, conveniently located right on the main drag.  No fireworks to be heard anywhere, but there were a few trees full of birds which make an incredible racket when you walk under them.  The only restaurants open for dinner were four food trucks called roulottes — we had a nice pizza from one of them with bits of tasty merguez.  Hopefully we’ll find some tours of the archeological and snorkeling sites in the next few days, and rent some bikes and tool around the island which is probably about three miles by six miles across.  It’s a beautiful place, much more Tahitian than Papeete, which is much more French.

The Journey of 10,000 Miles Begins with Falling on your Ass

July 3rd, 2010 12:34 am by Ray from here

We have two completely separate friends who had promised us that they were capable of providing 1) a place to stay on our first night out, and 2) a place to park the car for the month that we would be out of the country.  So, confident of our place in history, we drove down to Los Angeles and had a California French bistro meal that couldn’t be beat, and drove off with a blood alcohol likely in excess of .08%, to discover that neither person could be reached, or had landlords who had any intention of honoring their intentions.

Eleven PM in Los Angeles on Fourth of July Weekend.  Not good.

I think it will be OK.  We have found the Ocean Park Hotel on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica — and how?  Tripadvisor, Yelp, Expedia?  No.  They are all way too slow.  We drove past it.  I am amazed that that approach still works.  Mind you, I am still dedicated to the idea of planning every aspect of a vacation before leaving the house because even with plans, you still end up with a fair amount of improv, but — at least serendipity can sort of work. Dave is on the Internet on his phone looking for a place to park the car tomorrow before we get on the airplane to Tahiti.

This meal we had featured no ordinary alcohol.  Our long standing friend Paul is a wine importer from France, and when we show up at his doorstep, as we did at 6:30 PM after a slightly convoluted drive from Woodside to Los Angeles (we had to stop at CostCo to pick up some photos for a friend in Romania to give to her neighbors, and also buy a small gift for a lad we met in Fiji in 2005 who has invited us to his father’s house for a kava ceremony), he habitually takes us to some stunningly trendy Los Angeles restaurant to which he deals French wine.  Tonight we went to Church and State, in an ever-less-sketchy neighborhood (factories becoming lofts) east of downtown. The stunningly beautiful and talented people who work there invariably shower our table with amuses-bouche and charcuterie compliments of the chef and it really stretches out the $300 to have a plank of salami slices from various named villages and the chopped livers of various family pets, with awesome mustard.

Paul brings his own wine, usually.  Tonight’s was from Languedoc.  The lecture that went with it was that it really doesn’t matter how much Grenache a wine might have in it, what is crucial is where it came from.

He also sent it back to be chilled because it’s too warm.

After the check came I wrote a snide note to my friend Byron about how much better a time we were having than he is (he is flying to Nicaragua tonight at 2 AM and maybe ate at Burger King) and launched into an hour and a half of annoyed panic coupled with hating everyone who made promises to me that they couldn’t keep.


June 26th, 2010 9:17 pm by Dave from here

Hi!  Here are notes about our trip to French Polynesia and Melanesia.  We’ll visit Huahine, sail on a largish catamaran to see an eclipse south of Tahiti, and briefly explore the French island group of New Caledonia, the volcanoes of Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands, take another quick look at Fiji, and spend a day in Tonga.