David Robinson Photos


Tahiti 2004

Gauguin was the original attraction - and in the end, that interest took me not just to Tahiti and the Marquesas but to New Zealand, Hong Kong, the Yangtze and Vietnam on my first trip across (over) the Pacific.

Before leaving SFO for LAX, Joanne and I spent that Sunday morning driving through the Marin Headlands looking at the beautiful white-rimmed coastline I was about to leave and the gleaming Pacific I was about to cross. Thoughts of leaving and separation filled our conversation; she read to me a John Dunne poem about life as a compass, one point fixed and the other wandering. (No one had ever read a poem to me before). My own thoughts alternated between anxiety and anticipation. I wasn't at all sure I was going to like Tahiti - or China. But I wanted to experience Gauguin, by which I meant to photograph his grave.

The Air New Zealand flight was half empty - when had I last been on a plane not packed to the gills? Flights to Tahiti typically arrive in the middle of the night, and true to form, this one got in around 3 AM. The landing woke me up; I looked out into the soft void of the tropics. Inside the gleaming terminal, the hula dancer and ukulele players were on duty, ready to serenade us. We all got little flowers. Then a Japanese tour group came in, excited to be welcomed (more elaborately) with leis and music and dance and ground staff in shorts and matching straw hats and Hawaiian shirts. The real deal. Airport authentic. The Japanese were mostly young couples, mostly with hard luggage. Discretionary income, money to spend. On to some plush resort.

Not knowing if the hotel I had booked would be open, I vowed to wait at the airport until a more reasonable hour would increase the chances. So, I waited as the light and heat rose, then took a taxi into Papeete to the hotel, the only one I could find with anything near a reasonable rate. (All the rest were Polynesian exotica class). Hotel Kon Tiki - I should have known - turned out to be a dump, one of the dirtiest hotels I've ever been in. But I went right to bed anyway. I was on the top (about the 10th) floor and right opposite the dock for the Moorea ferry. Convenient, I thought - but I soon found out they loaded cargo ships there all night long.

I did take the large and sleek ferry outside my door to Moorea, a short trip for such a big boat, and there I rented a bicycle to tour the island. I hadn't biked in years, and my rear end suffered as a result. Not my legs. I had a map but the scale was so off that I pedaled right by all the landmarks I had been looking for. I passed some very elegant hotels with faux grass huts built right over the water. Perfect for the honeymoon crowd, real or fantasy - which is what I take to be the target audience for Tahiti. Also, some funky homes closer to earth. I wish I had spent more time photographing the Gauguin beach towel on a line; as it is, it's my favorite image of the trip.

Papeete didn't have much to offer in my opinion, a combination port and public housing. It has become the service town to the luxury hotel and cruise industries. But I was here primarily to rest up before heading off to the Marquesas and Gauguin. The market looked interesting for its patterns of fruit and flowers (elaborate bouquets wrapped in plastic) and was almost empty. Fast food restaurants were the norm. So much for this town.

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The people of Papeete, however, were much more interesting. Polynesian beauty is striking and ubiquitous, so many young, dark women. But beauty is not limited to the young or some kind of elite. Europeans from Captain Cook to the present have found the beauty and casual life style of Tahiti to be seductive, me included. What impressed me even more on the streets of Papeete was the easy interaction between whites and blacks. Americans are not used to that. There are so many people of mixed race here, and to a casual observer, there seems to be no distinction based on race. Like the French, Tahitians do the double cheek kiss all the time, and it goes on across gender and age as well as race.

After just three nights in Papeete, I was more than ready to begin looking for what I had really come for - Gauguin. At 6 AM Wednesday morning, a taxi took me through the deserted streets to the airport. All very casual there, an easy check in and plenty of time for coffee and a croissant. (Tahiti is, after all, a part of the French Republic). The Marquesas are a separate group of islands to the north of the Society Islands. (All of French Polynesia is made up of about 120 islands, mostly small). There are boats every few weeks from Papeete to the Marquesas, but they are cargo vessels with cabins for people who book tours. One ship, the Aranui, has become popular and expensive - and the tours last 16 days. Not for me. Air Tahiti flights leave three days a week for Nuku Hiva and then Hiva Oa, and that's what I had booked.

The Nuku Hiva airport terminal looked like a modern upgrade of a grass hut. I had ninety minutes there before the next leg of the journey. I found myself in a general funk, brooding rather than anticipating, worrying about logistics, wishing I was home and wondering why was I here in the first place. Then, we were called to board a 19 seat - count 'em - plane for the flight to Hiva Oa via Ua Pou. The landing strip at Ua Pou reminded me of one of those graveled safety lanes running up the side of a hill off one of our interstates designed to catch runaway trucks. The plane dipped and danced but made it down to the tarmac without incident. Ua Pou looked to be in the middle of nowhere, so I was astonished to see that almost everyone got off the plane there. One young girl refused to disembark despite the all pleas and threats of her mother who had to get the crew to finally remove her. What awaited her? What did she know? From the plane I watched the passengers, both French and Tahitian, jump into their SUVs and head off into the green void.

On the continuation to Hiva Oa there were only three of us left on the plane, an eleven year old boy traveling alone, a Frenchman and me. I realized I had better snap out of my funk and start making some plans. I knew that the airport on Hiva Oa was on the opposite end of the island from the main town (Taiohae) and that it was about a two hour trip. I had made no plans for transport, never mind booking a hotel. So, I struck up a conversation as best I could - my French was still suffering from jet-lag - and asked about pensions in Taiohae, specifically the Pension Gauguin that I had read about. Oh yes, he knew it; it was good. In fact, he knew the owners. We landed in a thunderstorm that passed quickly. He was met at the airport by a Tahitian woman in her Toyota SUV (standard issue I was to find out) so I asked them for a ride and they readily agreed. If they hadn't, I'd have been in for a long remote wait.

They delivered me right to the door of the Pension Gauguin, blew the horn and warmly greeted the woman who emerged. Yes, she had a room. The price was right - 6500 Francs for room, breakfast and dinner, about $75, half of what the lousy hotel in Papeete had charged me just for a dirty bed. And, she took Visa. Soon, the Pension Gauguin had a new boarder.

The room was spare, but I didn't care. It suited me just fine. Bathroom down the hall. The first thing I did was ask directions to the cemetery. Madame didn't blink at my request; she nodded knowingly and gave me directions. So, I indulged myself and walked less than a mile to see the final resting place of Paul Gauguin. (I am doing a book on artists' graves). In retrospect, I think I rushed it, but I'd come several thousand miles for this photograph, and I saw no reason to delay resolution. The cemetery is on a hill overlooking the bay. Presumably, Gauguin likes the view plus the blooming frangipani trees all around, but I doubt he approves of all the white crosses that surround his grave as well. Also buried here is the French singer, Jacques Brell, but I don't know the story of how he ended up there.

The meals at Pension Gauguin were wonderful. Plenty of fresh fruit put out all day long. We all ate on the top floor veranda, open to the mountains on one side and sea on the other. On my first night, we had chevre cooked in coconut milk preceded by lobster salad. All fresh and delicious. At that meal was a large but fit Tahitian man with elaborate tattoos whose mannerisms and gestures - he was full of jokes and stories - seemed to me to be reminiscent of Corsica or Italy. More evidence of mixture. He was a fireman in Papeete who had gone to school with Andre, the proprietor. Next night, I was the only guest; we had fresh fish with haricots verts, all local. And French bread, of course.

Between breakfast and dinner, I had plenty of time to spare. I spent my days walking around the small town. At one point I headed out to see some petroglyphs, but the road was so muddy that after a mile or so I turned back, mission unaccomplished, soaked and full of mud spatters. Tropical thunder showers were common; brief bursts of hard heavy rain. Fifteen minutes after a rain storm in the mountains, the hills would give birth to waterfalls, silver exclamation points against the green.

Lunches I took at the Chinese-Tahitian "snack" one of two in town. One day I had a fish carpaccio with ginger and garlic, another time fish with aubergine (eggplant) slices. One of my favorite sights was watching all the Tahitian kids rush to the store to pick up their fresh baguettes as soon as they were delivered from the bakery.

I spent a good deal of time hanging around the general store that was the real center of the town. There, I was able to sit on a bench outside and watch the world of Hiva Oa come and go. While watching, I made some mental notes. The vehicle of choice was the manual shift four wheel drive, four door Toyota pick up, and most people preferred to ride in the back. (I never saw a vehicle that wasn't four wheel drive. The Tahitians say the heavy rains and poor roads demand it, but I suspect that Tahitian bulk also demands it). The Tahitians were enormous. They were also of every shade, especially the kids; I saw dark-skinned blondes and light skinned brunettes. Most of the men had elaborate tattoos, dense patterns and hieroglyphs on their arms, shoulders and legs. Tahitians greet each other with shouts and double cheek kisses - another mixture. Everyone seemed friendly, and there was a lot of laughing and joking. Tahitian language is staccato, a sharp series of barks. I remarked how different that was from the soft tonal languages of Africa. Outside the store, I began photographing babies; some mothers said o.k. others no. Then one baby started screaming, always embarrassing. But the sight of a white man here - despite the remoteness - is no big deal for adults or babies.

Through Andre at the pension, I was able to arrange an excursion to the other side of the island to Pau Mau on the northern coast. I went with Moy, the son of one of Andre's friends. Young and handsome, he had died blonde hair and lots of tattoos. He brought along his girlfriend and another young couple, so there were five of us in his pick up truck, all except the driver and me riding open air in the back. His girlfriend was quite beautiful, casual and comfortable, as everyone here seemed to be. The gravel road was narrow and windy and followed the coast until we headed across the mountains. There were no houses along the way. Moy was affable and willing to stop along the way so I could photograph. I had seen the coast of Hiva Oa from the air; now I could see close up the many fingers of land jutting out into the ocean, the green intersecting with the blue. The mountains, too, were dramatic. As we climbed higher, the vegetation became more varied; pine trees, trees like acacia, plus bamboo, bananas, breadfruit, grapefruit and others I couldn't identify. Polynesian-French light rock CDs played the whole way.

At one point, Moy asked if we could stop to see someone, and of course, I said sure. We pulled off the highway into a rutted dirt road half hidden by huge banana trees - a banana plantation, it turned out to be. The road led to a small house and shack with chickens running about. From the house a man emerged barefoot and in shorts tied with a string with an open shirt. He was Irish-white, and my immediate assumption (based on years of reading Graham Green, I guess) was that he was an expatriate gone to seed - with drink or sex or both - in the tropics. But that was far from the truth; he was Tahitian, bred and born, a relative of the beautiful girlfriend traveling with us - family. He had not gone native; he was native. He spoke the language of the island to the others and French only when speaking to me. He told me that he had lived there twenty years and had planted all these trees himself. He made his living from selling fried bananas to stores. Bunches of green and yellow bananas were hanging all around. The shack was a drying shed; he opened the door to reveal dozens of racks of naked bananas drying, shrunken nearly to the size of cigars. They took two or three days to dry, heated from below by burning coconut husks - free fuel. We freely sampled, and I found the bananas to be sticky and sweet, almost like soft candy. Seeing this man and his operation was one of the most remarkable experiences I've had in my travels.

When we were leaving, the girl gave him a tender kiss on the forehead, first wiping away some sticky strands of hair. Later I learned (from Andre at the pension) that the man's name was Augustin, that his lineage was indeed Irish and that his father had 18 kids on the island. The girl was part of that large family.

Then Moy took me to the site of some "Tiki" statues, reminiscent of Easter Island in miniature with the same severe carved facial features. I was able to spend time photographing them. There was also a figure of an animal that looked like a llama - which would seem to support the once popular but now discarded theory of Thor Heyerdahl (the Kon Tiki expedition) that the Polynesians sailed west from Peru.

Our destination was Pau Mau where the entire village had come out to watch a soccer match being played on a pitch alongside the ocean. The field included the road. At a wooden Christian church, they were serving fried chicken and rice with ketchup. The spectators were sitting on a hillock under trees watching the game below. Some had chairs, some sat on coolers. Women cradled their babies, older kids played games and ran around. It was a real social occasion, a tapestry of modern Marquesan village life. One woman reading a book told me that some of Gauguin's ancestors were "Chez moi" meaning that they were blood relatives. She was bragging about it. I spent a lot of time photographing.

Back at Pension Gauguin, I learned that Andre - his last name is Teissier - was a fourteenth generation Marquesian and that his great grandfather had been the police chief. I found Andre and his wife (whose name as best as I can remember was Antunonia) lovely people, warm and accommodating. The meals were fantastic, and every evening there was a different cast of characters - guests - for dinner. The upstairs veranda was the scene of a very social life. On my last night, there was a full table including a French doctor (an ophthalmologist from Papeete making his bi-weekly rounds to the islands) with his mother (visiting from Lyon, I think it was) and Antunonia's brother and wife and young baby. By this time I had found my French, and with the practice of dinner conversation, I was able to follow and join in pretty well. In fact, Andre kept telling me, "For an American, you speak really well."

Andre took me to the airport for my plane, and it was like a party at the terminal, full of laughter, chatter, double-kissing, kids darting all about. Moy was there, so was the woman who had taken me from the airport. There were a couple of French back-packers and Club-Med types silently reading amid the festive chaos. Leis wrre prepared for the arrivals, baggage put on a cart for departure. As I got into the plane, I was surprised to see a woman in a stretcher placed over several seats; the planes here are used as medivacs.

I came for Gauguin and found the Pension Gauguin, one of the best experiences I've had anywhere. Nothing much to do, everything to enjoy. I bid my goodbyes and took Gauguin with me. I knew I had a long wait ahead of me in Papeete, because my plane to Aukland wasn't scheduled to leave until 4 AM. I hung around the airport until around 5:30 in the evening, checked my bag and took a taxi to one of the posh resorts near the airport, the Tahiti Beachcomber Parkroyal, where I intended to have a long luxurious dinner. The striking arched entrance to the hotel framed the island of Moorea against the setting sun. Uniformed help were everywhere. The dining room had plush carpets and large cushioned chairs. I was shown to a table overlooking the hotel's man-made lagoon and man-made beach. (Everything from the swizzle sticks to the sand was imported). At sunset, the bar boys, all young studs stripped to the waist, ran around the edge of the pool with grass torches to light flaming pots. The pond reflected the sihouette of Moorea, picture perfect, all the luxury of a luxury hotel. This is what attracts the tourists, this is what they had come for, the full picture postcard experience. I call it the faux Polynesia, and I was glad to be rid of that part of it.

I taxied back to the airport to find my departure had been pushed back to 7 AM, so I would have to wait even more. There were few seats at the airport, so I had to sit on the marble floor. There was one air-conditioned room - without seats - so I alternated lying on the cold marble floor with sitting in the warmer terminal. Finally we boarded, only to find that this plane too was being used as a medivac, in this case for a baby. Doctors were working on him as we boarded, but it took two hours for them to stabilize him enough to fly. We had to wait. We finally left around 9 AM. I was on to Auckland to rest up for a couple days before continuing to Hong Kong. You can have Tahiti - but I'd go back to the Marguesas any time.

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