Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Unicycle Diaries 2: Transit of Tahiti

Taken from my travel diaries written in French Polynesia...

Travelling eastward across the Pacific and the International Dateline is like starring in your own personal version of Groundhog Day; only with the added variety of radically different scenery as each day is repeated.

We spent Saturday 29th October and the Sunday morning in Auckland, then spent Saturday evening all over again in Tahiti, and now Sunday 30th on the neighbouring island of Mo’orea.

When we finally get past this weekend to Monday 31st, it’ll be a relief. Not that you should really be watching the calendar when you’re on holiday.

Our flight arrived at the capital Papeete at an impractical hour (as many flights into Tahiti do) on Saturday night, but in the end there was enough time to walk to the waterfront and have a meal.

The Saturday night collection of food vans and fold-up tables was fun, exuding casual charm. Patrons order from a surprisingly diverse range of dishes including Tahitian fish like mahi mahi, French standards like steak frites, and displaced Chinese food like "chow men".

Because we’re only here for a few days, we hadn’t applied our minds to speaking French, but were suddenly faced with linguistic limitations. My French stems almost entirely from literary references in Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, Sherlock Holmes and films like Amelie, while Narrelle’s is sourced from imperfectly-remembered schoolgirl lessons.

As a result, we’ve been committing blunders like asking for a receipt (‘recipe’ in French) instead of the correct word. Fortunately the French speakers of Tahiti take a more sympathetic view of Anglos mangling their language than their compatriots in Paris. Funny to think that after visiting that city 15 years ago, the next time we’d enter French territory would be so far away from Europe.

Here’s something strange I’ve noticed: the soundtrack to every overseas experience is in English, no matter how exotic the locale. On the Papeete waterfront, we could hear ABBA drifting from a nearby cruise ship; on a ferry’s radio, a Jamaican guy was singing “I need some nookie tonight”; and as I sit typing in the hotel bar, the background music is alternating between French numbers and English covers.

Before leaving Tahiti we went out early to visit the Marche, the city markets. The building is one of those practical open-but-covered structures you see in the Pacific, a vast mostly timber shed housing numerous stalls. Locals crowd in, buying and selling handcrafts, fish, flowers and fruit, including the more interesting varieties of bananas you never see in the West.

There are some beautiful but huge wooden masks that would never fit in the luggage, and some suspiciously sexual statuettes - you could imagine them selling by the truckload to sniggering tourists mindful of the old Tahiti stereotype regarding free love.

And now we’re on the neighbouring island of Mo’orea. The catamaran ride from Tahiti only takes 30 minutes, and the two islands are visible the whole time. While both are volcanic outcrops, Moorea's eastern approach is far more dramatic, a sharp protrusion of jagged peaks covered with greenery. I felt like chanting "Kong, Kong!" as we approached, but that’s a story for another day...

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within.