Sunday, August 30, 2009

Video: Liz Clark and the Voyage of Swell

This is a video about my friend Liz Clark who is solo sailing around the world on her boat Swell. Liz is an adventurer like no other, a fearless surfer, impressive diver, fisherwoman, eco-warrior and an inspiration to us all. I'm looking forward to seeing the full movie called "Dear & Yonder."

With all this in her favor, it might sound weird that what impresses me most about Liz is that she can climb a coconut tree. Seriously, it's really really hard to do. The first time I met her, she had been invited to a party on our Tuamotu pearl farm and, being that she was short on supplies but wanted to contribute, she brought over about twenty drinking coconuts she had collected herself. This, we all knew, must have taken hours of work climbing up tall trees like a monkey. At this moment all the guys on the farm fell irrevokably in love with her.

After months in the Tuamotus and other remote archipelagos Liz spent a few months here in Teahupoo, Tahiti - now she's in Raiatea repairing her boat. Wherever she's been with us, she's always added lots of life and been a great addition to the community.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Turning Coral Into Wine - Vin de Tahiti

I've visited the Vin de Tahiti vineyards on Rangiroa Atoll twice now: once for Lonely Planet and the second time to take photos for an Islands magazine article. It is one of the more surreal places I have ever been.

The crazy idea to start a vineyard and winery on a tropical atoll with no volcanic soil or stable fresh water source came from an extremely wealthy, wine-loving French businessman named Dominique Auroy. It's said that Auroy decided to create the vineyards because French Polynesia imports so many bottles of wine per year it seemed silly for the islands not to produce its own. Ironically, production has been geared almost entirely for tourism and export.

Still, visiting the vineyards is a must on Rangiroa (it's 8000 CFP - about US$100 - for a guided visiting plus tasting). All those struggling vines winding their way out of coral soil between the coconut trees is one of the country's strangest juxtapositions. It's hot, it's muggy and it's by no means organic. Vin de Tahiti's winemaker has assured me that the ground water on the vineyard's islet is perfectly sweet, but there is a testing station that the water is pumped through to check its salinity before it waters the vines (that are on a drip system). Having lived on an atoll for five years and knowing how unusual a fresh water table this immense is, I am a little skeptical of how long the fresh water will last and wonder if the vineyards are frivolously sapping the island of a very precious resource.

The next issue is the vast amounts of chemical fertilizers needed to turn what is essentially sand into rich, Mediterranean quality soil. Again, a whole station is set up for adding this cocktail of substances to the water before it makes its way to the vines. I am unsure if there have been studies about what the run off does to the fragile surrounding coral reefs but common sense tells me there must be a fairly large impact.

The surprise ending is the wine. Vin de Tahiti makes five types of wines: red, rose, dry white, coral white and mellow white. I am no wine expert but my father was a wine educator in California's Napa Valley and my husband's family is from Bordeaux - I have grown up with and love good wine (especially red) but I am not one to go headlong into complicated terminology and cryptic fruit and vegetable oriented remarks. Of Vin de Tahiti's wines, the sweet mellow white is by far my favorite mostly because it's syrupy sweet and is great ice cold - a real plus in the tropics. The Rose and other whites are drinkable but certainly not worth the $40 price tag - you are paying for novelty value here not taste. The red is so awful it can hardly be described as wine. I've had to write about it with phrases like "unlike any wine you've ever tasted," and "unique," but there you go, truth is I think it's terrible. But don't take my advice, on Rangiroa you can try all the wines at Vin de Tahiti's lovely, air-conditioned tasting room that requires an undisclosed amount of petrol to fuel the generator.

Yes, Vin de Tahiti isn't the most eco-friendly wine in the world, but it might be the most interesting. You can find out more about them at

Note: photos this blog by Celeste Brash

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Traveling French Polynesia by Supply Ship Part 3

For some reason that we never figured out, the boat anchored somewhere (we were in our bunks by this time so I don't know where we were) and we didn't make it to Rangiroa till dawn. Jasmine and I climbed out of our bunks when we felt the movement of the boat change from an open ocean roll to the steadiness of an atoll entry and we were up at the bow as we glided through Avatoru pass into the atoll's immense lagoon (Rangiroa is the second biggest atoll in the world). I think that arrivals and departures are definitely the highlight of taking the supply ships. With the wind in your hair, the first morning light reflecting off perfect turquoise, the excitement of arrival and the complete silence besides the putter of your clunker's engine, it's the quintessential moment of a tropical adventure. Jasmine, at age 11, could feel this as well as me, and she radiated with appreciation of island magic.

The first stop was the Avatoru quay which had much of the same hustle and bustle that we saw in Tikeahau only on Rangiroa there were more flashy pick up trucks and less people at the dock. Rangiroa is the most developed and populated atoll of the Tuamotus, and it was obvious that the arrival of our cargo ship was less of an interesting event here than elsewhere in the archipelago. Someone in each family had the job of picking up all the stuff while everyone else had better things to do - on other atolls, there is very little else to do so everyone comes out to the boat!

This stop was going to be several hours (a big population means lots of stuff to unload) but luckily Jasmine and I had plans. I had just written an article on Rangiroa's bizarre vineyards and winery, Vin de Tahiti, for Islands magazine and I wanted to see if I could get some pictures to go with the article. I had organized this with Vin de Tahiti and sure enough, Mihiroa, a young smiling Tahitian guide for Vin de Tahiti was there at the dock to greet us. We had time to get some pastries, drinks and snacks from a little store before getting in Mihiroa's car to drive a few kilometers to another dock and Vin de Tahiti's boat.

Next: Our visit to Vin de Tahiti.

Note: photos this blog by Celeste Brash

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Navigating the Tahitian Social Scene

From what I can tell so far, I think I'm the only expat non-French blogger in French Polynesia. I might be wrong about this but while all my Googling and digging has brought up some great blogs originating from Hawaii and a few tourist industry ones from Tahiti, no one else is writing about day to day life here and now. I guess this is normal considering that I personally know a total of (about) 20 English speaking ex-pats who live in this country and most of these are male surfers over 45 who married locals - nearly all these people also live very far from us.

So who do we hang out with?

Tahitians socialize mostly within their own very large families but if you do get close with them you are usually expected to behave as a family member. This means lending your car, bike, power tools, fishing equipment, boat and money to them and their other relatives you don't even know at various "emergencies" that spring up every week or so. Some stuff comes back and some stuff doesn't but no matter what, the tension created between people who have little concept of ownership and Westerners who have an overdeveloped sense of "hey I paid for that!" always ends in hard feelings. Tahitians expect that you ask stuff from them too and if you don't (and Westerners are often hesitant to ask people for favors) the relationship gets thrown off-balance and suddenly you are just the gullible patron.

This isn't to say we don't have Tahitian friends - we have lots of Tahitian friends but there are silent lines drawn from both sides after years of experience. These are people who stop by the house unannounced all the time but who would feel uncomfortable if we invited them over for dinner. They bring us bananas and sweet potatoes from their yards and we give them limes and pineapples from ours. Our kids play together and spend the nights at each other's houses, we'll drink a couple beers together from time to time and yeah, we do lend them the bike sometimes if they need it and they'll lend us their boat. Yet these relationships are kept casual and this makes it OK for either of us to say no. This also means they aren't available socially and we'd better have something else going on if we want a life.

So most of our core social group are like us, the mutts that don't really fit in. My best friend Amel is half Tahitian half Algerian and she's married to a Corsican guy who grew up on Tahiti; our friend Roy is a Kiwi, French and Tahitian mix and his wife is a Singaporean Indian. Ben is a Kiwi married to Valerie, a Chinese Tahitian mix and Terii who's half French half Tahitian is married to Annie who is pure Chinese descended from immigrants who arrived on Tahiti several generations ago. My husband is French and American and grew up partially on Tahiti so he's hardly considered and ex-pat. I, however give myself away as an outsider from the moment I open my mouth and speak my odd, Anglo, Tahitian French.

As Tahitian social lives go, I'm pretty happy with ours although I admit that what I miss the most about the States is my group of steadfast, fun, available and loving friends. Some weeks go by here where my social highlight is running into people at the grocery store. Nightlife is non-existent. Things pick up a lot during the Heiva (see my Heiva blogs) but other than that, dinner with friends over a bottle of wine is as wild as it gets.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Traveling French Polynesia by Supply Ship Part 2

Before the sun was up we could hear the crew starting to unload supplies. Jasmine and I got up at first light to find most of Tikehau out on the quay waiting for their fuel, boxes of food, furniture, bicycles and just about anything else you could think of, to get loaded down. The lagoon was a silent early morning blue, and Tikehau, the atoll I believe to be the most beautiful in the Tuamotus, was gleaming in calm, palm-fringed perfection.

I was very eager to get on land even though the boat was hardly moving at dock, so Jasmine and I got off the boat and wandered around the pretty, flower-filled village. I'd been to Tikehau before on assignment for Lonely Planet so knew my way around already. First stop was the bakery to get some fresh pastries, the store to get drinks and then we headed out to the dock again to watch our crew throw items so heavy that they really shouldn't be thrown, off the side of the boat and down to very brave, strong other workers of the boat crew on the dock below. Really big items like cars and pallets of cement are unloaded with the crane. I saw a few familiar faces, none of who remembered me (Tikehau is fairly touristy but most of the lodging options are very local style family run pensions where no one has heard of, or could care less about Lonely Planet), but everyone was friendly and acted happy to see me anyway. We waited hungrily for the only small restaurant in town to open (we'd been living on snack food for 36 hours at this point) and had a quick lunch of chow mein and a very tasty poisson cru at 11am before getting back on the boat just before its departure.

It was a little sad leaving land and the graceful curves of Tikehau but the sea was calm, we were well fed and knew that the next stop, Rangiroa wasn't too far away.

Note: photos this page by Celeste Brash

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Taro in Coconut Gratin Recipe

We had friends over for dinner on Friday and through a communication mix up I ended up with several extra kilos of taro. This is not a problem since I love taro but I do get tired of eating it just plain all the time so decided to experiment with this recipe.

Taro is a Polynesian staple. It's a root that tastes a little like a potato but is much denser and lacks that slightly acidic vitamin C flavor. Usually it's peeled, sliced and boiled in water with a pinch of sugar and salt added. When perfectly cooked it's firm on the inside and slightly sweet and gooey on the outside.

This recipe is inspired from a Chammoro recipe from the Marianas Islands that I found on I've tweaked it to work with what I usually have in my kitchen and changed around a few quantities. It smelled great when it was cooking and tasted even better. The butter makes it rich, the coconut milk makes it sweet, the onions and garlic give it a mouthwatering aroma and even better flavor and the taro on the bottom of the dish got deliciously chewy. A perfect Polynesian side dish especially for grilled fish. This makes four to six servings.

Taro in Coconut Gratin
3 lbs of taro peeled and sliced into ½ inch thick half moons
5 Tbsp butter
1 medium yellow onion chopped
2 shallots finely chopped (optional)
3 large cloves garlic finely chopped
4 Tbsp plain white flour
1 ½ cups (or 13.5 oz one can) coconut milk
1 ½ cups water
salt and pepper to taste
1 pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
½ cup breadcrumbs

Peel and cut the taro then set it aside to soak in a pot of cold water. Melt the butter on medium heat in a large frying pan then add the chopped onions and shallots till they are transparent. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute. Add the flour and stir till the onion mixture is coated and then for about one more minute. Add the coconut milk and water in four parts, stirring the mixture so that it thickens without getting lumpy. Cook till thickened, about seven-minutes, add salt, pepper and optional cayenne pepper to taste. Drain the water from the taro then pour on the sauce, stirring so that the taro is completely coated. Pour into a casserole, cover with aluminum foil and cook on 350 F for 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, take off the aluminum foil and sprinkle the top with bread crumbs. Return to the oven for another five minutes till the breadcrumbs are crisp and golden.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Traveling French Polynesia by Supply Ship Part 1

Even though I lived on Ahe Atoll for five years I had never taken a supply ship all the way out to the Tuamotus from Papeete, so two Christmases ago my then 11 year old daughter and I decided to take the adventurous three-day voyage on the good-ship Dory (which unfortunately no longer takes passengers - for a list of boats that do see my other post How To: Travel French Polynesia by Supply Ship) from Papeete to Ahe via Tikehau, Rangiroa and Manihi.

First, take note that I am the most seasick person in the world. I get sick in cars, on airplanes and even, embarrassingly enough, on the Moorea ferry. But I love the idea of boat travel and if it weren't for my terrible tummy I would have probably sailed away long ago. My daughter fortunately has her father's steel Viking gut so I knew, in the worst case, the tables would turn and my little girl could stroke my back while I dry heaved over the side.

Making matters worse, the supply ships stink. Diesel fumes linger even if the boat has been at dock for several days, black grease coats the railings and pools in corners and a all-encompassing layer of accumulated salt makes everything permanently sticky and damp. We bunked in an empty container with windows and doors cut into it, along with two other Tahitian guys on their way to work on a pearl farm. The ship's crew didn't really pay us much attention over the three days but they did let us into their quarters so we could use their toilets and once (and this was a truly decadent moment), the shower. Meals were up to us although we had no cooking facilities. We brought fruit, crackers, pate, peanut butter and granola bars, which ended up being plenty.

Well-armed with Bonine we set sail late afternoon and spent the first night sleeping, or sort of sleeping, while being hurdled back and forth within our beds by the rolling sea. It started to rain and a slight stream of water began to leak onto my head. I moved around so my head was at the other end of the bed which was much better even though I had cold wet feet all night. My daughter was luckily on the bottom bunk and stayed nice and dry. Maybe it was the fact that I had something else to worry about besides being sick, but the next morning, even though I was cold and sleepy, I actually felt OK. It was a full day at sea, not as rough as the night and I found if I just stayed in bed I didn't get too sick. My daughter read and played checkers with the other two guys in our room. Night came and we slept again, more peacefully this night till we felt the boat stop and the anchor drop into the Tikehau lagoon.

Note: photos this blog by Celeste Brash

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Life With Chickens

My day starts the same way every morning. The cats meow desperately at the front door so I pour them each a bowl of kibble before letting them in. They race to their bowls and I shut the door quickly before Dubya (named for his IQ) a young but gracefully plumed rooster gets in the house and steals their food. The cats, who until recently ate outside where they had to battle poultry for their meal, scarf up their breakfast like Power-vacs. I feed them inside now so all my cat food money doesn't go to the birds (sorry couldn't help that one!). Next I go and open the mesh cage of the newest member of our family, a two-month old chick (also a rooster) who cheeps sweetly and hops on my shoulder. He's charming right now but I know that one day he'll be as big a pain as Dubya. After my morning hello, the chick flies off my shoulder and chicken-walks into the yard to look for bugs - but he spends most of his day on the deck trying to get in the house. Meanwhile my otherwise beautiful deck is perpetually covered in chicken poo.

Now you are probably asking why I let my life get run over by chickens. The roosters crow all night (some I have discovered, talk in their sleep), all morning and sometimes hop right up onto the deck table next to my desk window and crow their lungs out when I'm on the verge of typing a fragile and brilliant thought. But my son loves them. He's raised them from chicks and they are his beloved pets. Before this he raised pond fish, collected and bred geckos, kept mice we caught in the yard, saved myna birds from dog attacks and nursed them back to health, brought home mangy, starving dogs that we treated and either kept or found homes for and (this was the worst) built a centipede farm.

The boy loves animals but unfortunately for him there's not much variety on Tahiti. If you look at a map you'll see that we're smack dab in the middle of the South Pacific with virtually nothing but ocean between us, Australia and South America. Anything (animal, vegetable or mineral) that couldn't swim, float or fly here didn't make it this far. When the first Polynesians arrived they, along with their dogs, pigs and stowaway rats were the first mammals to set foot here. These same Polynesians even brought the first coconut trees (that are famous for floating thousands of kilometers and sprouting on sand spits) - that's how far away and un-biologically diverse we are compared even to the island groups to the west of us. There are no snakes, no poisonous insects (but centipede bites sure hurt!) and nothing really scary. So my animal-loving son plays with chickens and I put up with it. And the truth is, I love them too as long as they don't poop in the house.

Note: the photo on this page was taken by Diana Hammer

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Poisson Cru Recipe

If French Polynesia had a national dish it would surely be poisson cru. While poisson cru literally means "raw fish" in French, it's less daring but tastier than the name suggests. The chunks of fresh fish are first marinated in lemon juice which "cooks" them slightly, are then mixed with fresh salad veggies and lastly doused in coconut milk. I have never met anyone who doesn't like poisson cru, it's on nearly every menu in the country and in a way its flavor defines Polynesia - sweet, refreshing, tender and exotic.

Most of the time poisson cru is made with fresh tuna but it can be made with other fish too. In the Tuamotus it's often made with parrotfish, it can be made with jack fish, halibut or snapper and I have friends in Canada who claim to have made it with fresh salmon with great success. Some people add chopped garlic or ginger but I've found that simpler is better - nothing beats the unadorned mix of lemon and coconut milk.

Poisson Cru
1/2 kilo (about 1 lbs) fresh yellowfin tuna cut into 1 inch cubes
3/4 cup fresh lime or lemon juice (or a mix of both - the lemons or limes shouldn't be too sour or bitter)
2 chopped tomatoes
½ small onion finely chopped
1 chopped cucumber
1 shredded carrot
1 green bell pepper thinly sliced (optional)
1 cup coconut milk (canned is OK but fresh is best)
spring onion or parsley (optional)

Take the tuna chunks and soak in a bowl of seawater or lightly salted fresh water while you chop the tomatoes, onion, cucumber, carrot and bell pepper - locals swear this makes the fish more tender. Remove the tuna from the salt water and place in a large salad bowl. Add the lemon or lime juice and leave the fish to marinate for about three minutes. Pour off about ½ to 2/3 of the juice (depending on how lemony you like it) then add the vegetables and toss together with the fish. Pour the coconut milk over the salad and add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with chopped spring onion or parsley and serve with white rice.

Pearl Farming Video

Check out this video about our pearl farm Kamoka Pearls on Ahe Atoll in the Tuamotus. I lived out here for five years and still visit whenever I can. It's one of the most beautiful places on Earth and is by far the most ecological and socially responsible pearl farm in French Polynesia.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Fishing the Side of the Road

"What a beautiful fish did you catch it yourself?"
"Yeah I caught it on the side of the road."
Or so goes the local joke.

People who come to Tahiti for the first time often scoff at the fish being sold along the roadside. They turn up their noses at the supposed flies and the high outdoor temperatures that are surely making it rot on fast forward. But locals know better. Roadside fish is fisherman direct, rarely more than a half-day old and costs a fraction of what you pay at the supermarket (where the fish is usually around three days old and has probably seen many more flies). A giant slab of sashimi quality tuna that can generously feed four people costs 1000 CFP (about US $12) and most of what's for sale is bought up by hungry locals within a few hours.

On good days you'll find glimmering gold and blue mahi mahi, octopus, ume (unicorn fish) and of course lots and lots of tuna. The strings of small lagoon fish usually have been shipped from the Tuamotus and these are the exception to the rule - they are possibly a week old (or more) and often rotten. I have never figured out how they keep up the market for these sorry looking fish - everyone I know who has bought them swears to never do it again.

Luckily for me, I'm married to a fishing fanatic so I get free lagoon fish direct from the lagoon to the table a couple times a week. When we have company though, or when Josh has been too busy to fish, I head to the side of the road and dangle my 1000 CFP bill for some tuna to make the local raw fish favorites: sashimi, poisson cru or carpaccio.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Post-Heiva: Better Than the Real Thing?

While the Heiva is an over the top, Polynesian entertainment spectacular put on at Tahiti's biggest venue, seeing the dancers perform their acts after the festival and away from the crowds can be even better. Last weekend my family and I took a four-day trip to Moorea and I got to see a post-Heiva show by Tamariki Oparo, a dance troupe from Rapa who won the second place prize at the Heiva dance competitions. Their show had been the talk of Tahiti because of its low-frills authenticity. Most winning acts are put on by professional troupes who practice year-round and have bigger budgets but Tamariki Oparo are a small group of mostly teenage dancers that come from French Polynesia's most remote island, Rapa in the Gambier Archipelago, that has a population of under 500. This means that he 50 or so dancers represent about 10% of the entire population! I had been sorry I'd missed their dance during the festival.

This surprise local Moorea show was at the Club Bali Hai, an old school American-run boutique hotel right on Cooks Bay that I've always loved for its unpretentious sailor's vibe. No advance tickets were for sale, we just had to show up and pay 1000 CFP (about US$12) at the door (my Heiva tickets for mediocre seats cost 2500 CFP). Our kids got in free. There's no stage at Club Bali Hai, just a big lawn next to their little outdoor cafe called L'Ananas Bleu (the Blue Pineapple) squashed between the breezes of Cooks Bay and Moorea's vertical peaks. Apparently Tamariki Oparo had spent the previous week or so performing as a handful of other hotels around the country and this was one of their final shows before going home to Rapa.

About 150 people were in the audience, many of us just sitting cross-legged on the lawn. We were right in front on the ground, best seats in the house. The leader of the troupe came out first and gave an unusually long opening speech in Tahitian and French and asked the audience to please translate it into English to anyone who needed it. My favorite part of his discourse was when he described how there were really no stores in Rapa but plenty of fish and very fertile soil. "We'll all do great if there's ever independence from France," he said. "But I'm not so sure about all of you." He then told us the story of the up-coming dance: the evangelization of Rapa. This was no surprise since I'd already seen the group's singing act (see my previous blog) and their theme had been much more religious than most. The people of Rapa are obviously quite pious.

The dance began with the whole troupe, dressed in ti' leaves and smeared with mud dancing Rapa style. Now Rapa style is a little different than Tahitian style dancing. Instead of just moving the lower body they wiggle and writhe their upper bodies too making it a little less refined looking but much more fun and energetic. You just sort of want to get up and dance, mud-covered with them. Josh was taking photos and some of the guys were really hamming it up for him.

Next, two of the Rapa dancers sat in a wooden outrigger that they were able to drag along the grass to make it look like they were moving in the ocean. The narrator explained they were out fishing. Next a group of Europeans (actually Rapa dancers dressed in white pants, white and blue striped pants and sailors hats) came up in another boat, kidnapped the Rapa fisherman and took them to Tahiti. In the next act the dancers wore Tahitian style dance costumes (long fiber skirts and bandeau bras) and danced a Tahitian style dance - it was great to see the contrast with the Rapa style. The fishermen get evangelized after some beautiful dancing scenes then go back to Rapa and the mud and leaf dancers again, to spread the word of God.

I loved the show but couldn't help but be a little sickened by the irony of the theme. The evangelists banned Polynesian dancing just as soon as they had the power to do so, so the fact that this was a dance telling the evangelization story, via dance . . . well you get the picture. While not historically correct, I do appreciate that the Rapa people are deeply religious and I am happy that nowadays they get to both express their love of God and their prowess in dance.

In all this was nothing like watching the Heiva where you look down on a stage from a large amphitheater and hear everything filtered through speakers. No, this was the real deal with the dancers looking us right in the eye and being able to see them sweat. At one point the star male dancer even lost his skirt and continued on with the rest of the show in his bright blue skivvies. You wouldn't see that at the Heiva. Someday I'll make it to Rapa, one of the only high islands in the country I have never made it to - there's only one boat every two months!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Notes from the Heiva

French Polynesia's biggest festival is the July Heiva when all the best traditional dancers, singing groups and athletes get on stage and show everyone what Tahitian culture is all about. Unfortunately I miss the Heiva almost every year because I'm either off in some other country researching a guidebook or because I'm back in California visiting family. This year however I'm broke and out of work so I got enjoy some of these festivities that, in my opinion put Vegas to shame (note that I've never actually been to Vegas but after seeing the Heiva who needs it!).

My good friend Amel is an ex-dancer and Tahitian dance aficionado and she bought us tickets to what she thought would be the best show of the Heiva dance competitions, the Hei Tahiti performance at To'ata Amphitheater in Papeete. The way the Heiva dance competitions work is that there is a first amateur performance by a dance school, usually made up of every race, shape and size of men, women, girls and boys who all enthusiastically shake their hips and waggle their knees. This is the kind of the show most of us locals are used to seeing at parties and restaurants throughout the year - a few trip ups inevitably happen and there's a huge range of talent from the stiff to the future professionals.

Next come the himene singing competitions. I remember finding these a little boring but this year I lucked out since the group was from Rapa, the most remote island in French Polynesia and also the most traditional. A circle is made with a few rows of seated singers in the interior with a ring of standing performers along the outer perimeter. The leader of the group conducts the many Christian inspired yet undeniably Polynesia harmonies that converge to make one forceful, spine tingling melodic creation. In Rapa they use lots of flat notes making the songs at first sound off key but as the ear becomes used to hearing the uncommon combinations, it's impossible not to become completely taken away into the heart of the song. I was so moved by the force of this group, that honestly I nearly started to cry. Amel told me that the music from Rapa fascinates anthropologists since the melodies are considered some of the least Western compositions in the world. There's a fantastic video of this group at the 2007 Heiva at

After the himene come the percussion competition where the group does a few required numbers then some wild improves that make you want to get up and boogie. For some reason the group we saw thought it would be cool to wear these giant plaited coconut palm frond balls over their heads so that they looked like something between the Residents (an eighties industrial music group that wore giant eyeballs over their heads) and swamp creatures. We never figured out why they thought this would be a groovy gimmick but they seemed to be able to play just fine even with big baskets covering their heads.

Last comes the piece de resistance, the professional dance show. Hei Tahiti began with a giant fake smoking coconut center stage out which came the first dancers. The story of the show was about the ancient land division wars in Raivavae (an island in the southern Gambier archipelago) and it was relatively easy to follow what was happening. A beautiful woman danced alone till a man ran in, swept her over his shoulder and ran off with her to a little hut at the side of the stage. When they came out they had a baby - I mean a real baby - and then the wars began. Tahitian dance is always performed in a series of styles from the slow suggestive aparima to the fast hip gyrations of the otea. Costumes are changed several times and in the case of the professional groups these are outrageous confections ranging from simple skirts and bras made of ti leaves to massive, mother of pearl bejeweled head dresses.

I used to always think that the beautiful, graceful female dancers were the star attraction but as I get older I appreciate the men more and more. Everyone talks about how sexy all that female hip shaking is but ladies, a muscular Tahitian man wearing only leaves and scissoring his knees back and forth seriously gets the hormones raging. Some of these guys you wouldn't look twice at on the street but get them on stage in a loincloth and they become beacons of masculine sexual energy. I don't doubt for a second that the women do the same thing to guys in the audience. The ancient Tahitians had a handle on sexual expression that Hollywood still has no clue about - these shows get you at your most base human level.

Hei Tahiti won the dance competition this year so I'm really happy I got to see their show. Now the Heiva is officially over there are still a few performances to catch. I was lucky enough to catch Tamariki Oparo from Rapa who danced in Moorea last weekend and I promise to blog, with pictures about that soon. All the winning groups are also performing at the Intercontinental and Meridien hotels on Tahiti through August so I'm hoping I'll get to see another show I missed at the Heiva.

The Heiva is organized by Tahiti Nui 2000 but Tahiti Tourism ( can help with info about getting tickets for next year's show from around the month of April. Note that the only picture on this post isn't actually from the Heiva (it's from the Billabong Pro awards ceremony) since you need a special (and pricey) permit to shoot photos at the Heiva.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Aaaaah Moorea

So where do people who live on Tahiti go on vacation? Actually most of us would prefer to leave the country, not because we don't love it here but because we crave variety. Snow, smog, shopping malls - we love them for a few days, love the strange sensation of being truly cold, the edgy metropolitan feel of a city, loud bars, a real cinema and we looooove shopping. Then we're happy to go home. But when budgets don't allow for tickets out we are forced to go somewhere much nicer than LA or Paris, we go to Moorea.

It's only 10 miles and a 30-minute boat ride across the "Sea of the Moon" to what I believe is the most beautiful island in French Polynesia. Of course from Teahupoo, where I live, you have to add an hour and a half driving time to get to Papeete but that's another story. Every time I visit Moorea I wonder why I don't go more often. As the Aremiti ferry pulls out of port in Papeete you get a full-frontal panorama of the city with its newly gussied up waterfront complete with palm fringed black sand beach covered in a mass of local athlete's outrigger canoes painted glossy red, yellow, white or blue. The beige-pink steeple of Paofai Church pokes over the palms as a reminder that the car-clogged city was once a low-key colonial port town; this always makes me a little wistful and reminds me how exotic it is here and how lucky I am to be here. Usually a practicing team of outrigger rowers whisk by the ferry before it reaches the outer reef and heads out of the fluorescent blue lagoon.

Speeding across the Sea of the Moon, pods of dolphins sometimes follow the ferry for a while and on occasion you might even get to see a breaching whale. We didn't see any marine mammals on our way to Moorea on this trip but watching Papeete get smaller from the windy upper deck is always a delight. Then, as Tahiti turns abstract all eyes turn to Moorea.

Moorea is perfect. The near vertical peaks are cut at angles so sharp and teetering that they look like the work of some strung out artist with a straight edge. Unlike Tahiti which is a heavy mountainous glob, Moorea has valleys that chisel their way around the sharply delicate peaks allowing the sun to shine through unencumbered by vast shadows and the whole place feels bright and open. Meanwhile the lagoon is as blue as any Photoshopped postcard you've ever seen and slender white sand beaches line the coast.

So what did we do on Moorea? Not a lot. We have several good friends on the island and most of our time was spent catching up over rum punch and sunsets. We did get to see a fabulous dance performance by a troupe from Rapa, the most remote island in French Polynesia and I'll get to this (with pictures) in my next blog. In the meantime, sweet Moorea dreams. I'm back on Tahiti and a cold (for here anyway) and windy storm front has come has come in so I too am missing the tropical sun.


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