Tag Archives: Fiji

South Seas Society

SocietyIslandsMap

When I was travelling the world as Chief Executive of a couple of literature and literacy NGOs in the 1990s, I very much enjoyed the time I spent in the Pacific islands of Samoa, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. I therefore leapt at the opportunity this winter to visit Tahiti on our way to New Zealand, and cruise round the Society Islands on the good ship, Paul Gauguin. We normally spend our holidays in our little camper van, so this luxurious cruise was a fantastic treat.

We started in Tahiti, and over the course of the following ten days, called at seven other idyllic islands, five of which were in the Society Islands and the other two are atolls of the Tuamotu archipelago.

Tahiti has been inhabited since pre-historic times. It was discovered first by the British explorers Samuel Wallis (in 1767) and James Cook (in 1773); and then by the French explorer, Louis-Antoine Bougainville in 1773. Owned by Britain for over 100 years, it then became French in 1880, and in 1950 voted to remain under France rather than choosing independence.

The work of two of my favourite artists, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, was influenced in one way or another by the time they spent in Tahiti. I had therefore hoped to visit the Gauguin museum, but it was closed for restoration two years ago, and no one seems to have any idea when it will reopen. I spent an interesting morning at the Museum of Tahiti and the Isles, but unfortunately they have not seen fit to exhibit any Gauguin material in the absence of the specialist museum.

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Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti are all well-known, and none more so than ‘Women of Tahiti on the Beach’.

In 1930, Matisse also visited Tahiti, and at the time claimed not to have been very affected by his visit there. However, towards the end of his life his mind appears to have returned to the light of this area, and in particular the designs used by the Tahitians in the cloth they print for their clothes, which bear some quite striking similarities to Matisse’s wonderful late ‘cut outs’.

The Society Islands were most probably named in honour of the Royal Society in London, though some believe they were named after the London Missionary Society, whose missionaries took Christianity to the islands.

Here are some very short notes on the other islands we visited, followed by a few general observations.

Huahine

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There are two islands here: Huahine Nui (big) and Huahine Iti (small). There are some archaeological remains of maraes on the island, and a collection of famous blue-eyed eels, but we decided to catch the (fairly basic) local ‘bus (Le truck) in order to have a quick look around the tiny town before striking out along the beach to sink gratefully into the sea.

 

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We spent two days in this Paradise. On the first day we took the tender to a private Motu (island beach) where I braved the heat on my first paddle board expedition, and also met a large and very beautiful stingray, which floated gracefully below me as I swam. The next day we went snorkelling in a coral garden known, with good reason, as The Aquarium.

Rangiroa and Fakarava

We had opted for the longer, ten day cruise, rather than the six-day one, and the extra part came next, as we sailed from the Society Islands to the Tuamotus Islands to visit the atolls of Rangiroa and Fakarava. In the Society Islands the islands are in lagoons, surrounded by coral reefs. The lagoons are a beautiful turquoise colour, laced by the white surf breaking on the coral reef. In the Tuamotus, we were visiting atolls, in which the coral reef surrounds a lagoon, with no island in the middle. Instead, the islands are part of the reef itself.

The lagoons were far larger than I had expected, covering many miles. Rangiroa is the largest atoll in Polynesia, and the second largest in world. It is 78 km long and 225km around, and contains 78 islands around a turquoise lagoon teeming with exotic fish.

Fakarava
was the ancient capital  of the Tuamotu Archipelago, and the old village of Tetamanu has one of the first Polynesian Roman Catholic Churches, built of coral in 1874. The whole atoll is now protected as part of the UNESCO biosphere.

We were by now many miles from the Society Islands, so had a 36 hour sea passage to return to the main archipelago. It was good to be out of sight of land for so long, to experience a little of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

Taha’a

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Possibly the most exotic day of our exotic holiday. We were dropped on a private island Motu on the atoll, where we were treated royally. We spent the day as ‘lotus eaters’, swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and partaking of the lavish barbecue.

 

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Moorea

Our final port of call was the beautiful island of Moorea, where we spent two days. As with all the other islands, we moored a little way from the island and disemarked by tender. There are two deep bays, Opunohu Bay, where we moored, and Cook’s Bay.

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Moorea is only seventeen miles from Tahiti, and we had looked out at its dramatic mountains in the distance on our first few days in Tahiti. After Tahiti, it is the most populated island. It is the remains of a volcano, and the outer rim of the crater is very evident in the sharp mountains that encircle the whole island.

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As we were nearing the end of the holiday, we splashed out on two expeditions: an afternoon on a jet ski on the first day – which involved driving over water at 64 knots – and a ‘bus tour of the island on the second.

After ten days of utter peace and beauty, we returned to Pape’ete, which appeared very busy in contrast.

General observations

UnknownOur ship, the Paul Gauguin, was extremely luxurious, and we were looked after very well. The vast majority of passengers were large North Americans, which was something of an education. I can now recognise women who have had a facelift; and I have sat at table with men who believe that the most important freedom, which they must retain at all costs, is the freedom to own guns. Being light drinkers and moderate vegetarian eaters, we probably didn’t get as good value from the deal as many of our fellow passengers – but we had a wonderful, relaxing time. There was a swimming pool on top deck, for extra swims between our sea immersions.

One huge concern to me was the number of plastic bottles of water that were consumed. Some sea water was desalinated, but the heat is intense and it really is necessary to consume a great deal of drinking water. We all know about the huge area of the Pacific that is now polluted by a raft of plastic, and everyone – tourists and locals alike – use several new plastic bottles every day. I don’t know what the answer is to this problem, though some new biodegradable materials are being developed. They cannot come too soon.

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All the Polynesians we met were lovely people. Not only were they welcoming, friendly and happy, but in many cases displayed exceptional empathy, often intuiting what we were going to say before we opened our mouths.

Many of them are also ravishingly beautiful. We were treated to several Polynesian dance imageshows. These sinuous dances were banned by the missionaries, who presumably found them a little too suggestive; and the dances began to be rediscovered/reclaimed only in the mid-20th century. It is, of course, impossible to tell how close they now are to the original dances.

The islands are all Francophone, and everyone speaks the local Tahitian language as well. As usual when travelling, it was worth learning a couple of words of the local language; but everywhere we went, people were surprised and delighted that we spoke French.

The economy of the islands is based on tourism, black pearls and vanilla.

The main garment for both women and men is still what in Samoa I knew as the lava lava and in India as the sarong, and in Polynesia is called the paleo. Most of the designs are bright and colourful, and there are dozens of interesting ways of tying it.

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All the islands we visited were unbelievably beautiful, set in turquoise lagoons, surrounded by coral on which white spray breaks constantly to form a lacy border. The coral is of many different colours and shapes, and the number and variety of fish defy description. Other wild life was not so plentiful, though there were plenty of frigate birds fishing round the islands, and on Tahiti there were minahs, pretty little ground doves with budgerigar blue faces and fine striped feathers; and tiny, multicoloured finches.

Both air and water temperature were a constant 31-34 degrees, so we could swim and snorkel for hours, only leaving the water when we were completely soggy. It was also of the highest salt content that I’ve ever known, so it was so buoyant one could practically sit on it.

Having enjoyed the holiday of a lifetime, it’s back to the camper van for the next few years!

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Food, Glorious food

Given the number and seriousness of recent food scares, one might be tempted to ask who needs enemies if one’s friends, the food producers on whom we all have to rely, can endanger us so much. But actually there is nothing very new about these crises. Slipping parts of horse into beef products, with the attendant risk of introducing bute into the human food chain, or discovering that consuming popular processed products such as bacon and sausages tends to shorten life quite significantly, are but the latest unpleasant revelations. The DDT used on food crops a generation ago was eventually found to be unacceptably dangerous to the consumer, and many (most?) of the food items sold in shops have long been laced with varying amounts of poison as a result of the pesticides, hormones and enhancers used on livestock, fruit and vegetables.

Yet, apart from the obvious fact that we can’t live without eating, the very metaphors of food and eating are deeply embedded in our acts of loving, our religious rituals and our celebration of life.Image The Jewish Seder meal, the Christian Eucharist, the offerings of food left in various forms of Hindu puja: all these and many more indicate that feasting and sharing food are basic to our religious instincts. And the opposite, fasting, also has a part to play in many people’s religious practice -– particularly, for Moslems, in Ramadan, which culminates in the feast of Eid.

Even limiting the palette to Christianity, the Scriptures and tradition are steeped in stories and metaphors of food: the Heavenly Banquet, the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000 and the Last Supper to name just a few.

ImageAnd moving away from the religious, many, perhaps most, of our celebrations and rituals involve special food and drink: Christmas pudding, hot cross buns, Easter eggs, Pimms in summer, mulled wine and mince pies in winter. The list is endless. Relationships rely on the giving and sharing of food: from the initial shy gift of a box of chocolates or the grubby sweets shared in the playground, to the hospitality extended to friends round our dinner tables and the celebration party (complete with special cake).
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Probably most of us could describe ‘memorable meals’ we’ve shared over the years: a romantic candlelit dinner for two sitting on deck chairs beside a pasting table in our poverty-stricken youth, an al fresco meal of fish on a wave-lapped Greek beach, or a simple sandwich consumed on top of a mountain after a vigorous climb.

Among my own treasured food memories are some from when I was working in poor parts of the world when I was chief executive of an NGO. One picture I still treasure is of a simple but delicious feast provided for me in a Tanzanian slum and served with royal grace; and another is the gift of a live chicken that was thrust into my arms as I left a remote African village. This latter fluffy passenger quite quickly adapted to travelling by car over bumpy roads, and I gave it to the next people I visited.

When my husband accompanied me on a visit to Siberia, we travelled in two stages from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway. For some reason the caterers ran out of food and  we were ‘reduced’ to dining on smoked salmon and extremely inexpensive 
champagne for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was also, of course, a samovar at the end of each carriage, which supplied an inexhaustible stream of tea.

And then there was the time we were guests of honour at a banquet in the far north of Thailand. On our plates were some unidentifiable lumps of a black substance. Having detected that these were not chunks of delicious aubergine, I quietly moved mine to the edge of the plate; but my vegetarian husband, ever curious, speared a chunk and asked our host what it was. When he was told that it was ‘congealed chicken blood’, I watched his smile fade as the piece of food slowly descended back to his plate where it was surreptitiously slipped under a pile of rice to hide.

Drinks come in various interesting forms, as well. When I was lecturing at a college in Fiji I was given a coconut shell full of cava, which I was required to down in one. It was not particularly unpleasant, as long as one didn’t mind the gritty sandy texture, but I think it probably spiced up my subsequent talk.

ImageCézanne’s translucent paintings often capture the spiritual beauty of food and remind us that food is for sharing, enjoying and celebrating. It’s no wonder that the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to show hospitality to strangers, ‘for in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares’. It’s easy to believe this when looking at one of Cézanne’s wonderful (wonder-full) studies of comestibles.

There are gloomy statistics that tell us that even in our wealthy country many homes do not have a dining table and that food is often consumed in front of a television without the need for conversation or laughter. Such information should alert us to the fact that while food is important as a personal, social and religious entity, it is also deeply political. 

And that will be the subject of my next blog. For the moment, I hope you enjoy your food, and are able to share, celebrate and entertain angels.