Hello once more! This episode of my travelogue takes in Tahiti/Moorea and Easter Island. I’m writing this from Chile, where the next episode might be quite dramatic …
We left New Zealand early in the morning on the first of March, and arrived in Tahiti early in the evening on the 28th of February, creating our own virtual leap year. We worked out surprisingly late that we were going to need to book accomodation for the 28th twice. The international dateline wriggles back and forth over that part of the Pacific, basically reflecting the individual choices of the islands as to whether they’d like their clock to be slightly more convenient for Asia or for America.
I nearly wrote “for Asia and Oceania” there, but we quickly discovered there’s no such place. New Zealand isn’t part of the same continent as Australia – it’s simply the largest Polynesian island. Australia is a continent on its own, and the islands of the Pacific form their own continent, sparsely populated and mostly underwater. The country of French Polynesia (there’s no such country as “Tahiti”, I did not previously know) is a massive one, roughly the size of Europe. About one per cent of its area is land.
Air Tahiti Nui has an unusually good in-flight magazine (it actually has two; the main one and “Tahiti Vahine”, a magazine dedicated to writing articles about how there’s more to Tahitian women than the exotic stereotype). A you’d expect, several of the articles made passing reference to Paul Gaugin, possibly Tahiti’s most famous resident. And each one of them seemed to have found a newly unattractive facet of the great artist’s personality. I was aware that he’d abandoned his wife and children – this fact appeared in a moral philosophy article we studied at college, on the question of whether the act was redeemed by the art. But Gaugin was also a massive racist, particularly with respect to Tahiti’s substantial Chinese population. From the graffiti I saw, this attitude was not entirely gone, although there were also regular appearances of “CHINE POUVOIR” on the walls to suggest that the Pacific Island Chinese community were giving back as good as they got.
The Tahitians don’t play rugby as far as I can see, despite the French influence. They play a bit of soccer, and Moorea had one basketball court that was in occasional use. But it was very clear indeed that the national sport that everyone was really into was canoe racing. We were on a flight from New Zealand with a canoe racing team. They were a bunch of guys in matching lime-green rashguard shirts, not massive like the Maori rugby-player giants, but incredibly broad across the shoulders and all carrying their paddles in special cases as carry-on luggage. The lads were clearly having a fine old time – I didn’t catch what they’d been doing, but there are regular dragon-boat races in Auckland and in Wellington, so it wouldn’t suprise me either that there were Polynesian canoe races too, or that a bunch of Tahitian ringers had stormed the dragon boat circuit.
I got a look at their boat too, as it was unloaded with a bunch of surfboards from the hold baggage. A Tahitian racing canoe looks for all the world like an Olympic rowing boat, with a small outrigger, also made of fibreglass. They also come in one-man versions (and presumably fours, eights and the equivalent of double sculls). And they really move. Presumably they can’t be anywhere near as fast in a straight line as boats with long oars and movable seats, but they zipped through the waves like nobody’s business and I would guess they’re a lot better at making turns. There was a big race on while we were there, something like thirty kilometres, halfway round Moorea – the winning team were sponsored by the island’s power company and it was as big a deal as Boat Race day in London.
3.Rapa Nui Protests
We were in Easter Island / Rapa Nui for a week. This meant that it was pretty nerve-wracking for us when, on the second day of our stay, the entire island was shut down by protests by the Polynesian population. So we drove out in the morning, and quickly came up to a point where the road was blocked by a pickup truck parked sideways, with a rope barrier attached to it, and a couple of guys holding placards and telling everyone, in Spanish and English, that it was all closed and that we had to go back to town to wait. We were able to take the patient view, but for the people on short two- or three-day packages, it was no joke.
Basically, the Rapanui have a long-standing set of grievances against the government of Chile, relating to the status of the Polynesian language, the amount of “immigration” by non-Polynesian Chileans to Easter Island, and various issues between the islanders and the Chilean national parks authority which I didn’t fully understand. Since all the tourists stay in Hanga Roa, the only town on the island, and nearly all the important archeaological sites are outside the city limits and only accessible by three road links, it’s comparatively easy to shut down the entire tourism industry with a couple of roadblocks. So we spent a couple of days hanging around the protests, talking to the Rapanui about what the problem was, with (on my part) a sort of general agenda to push the conversation onward from general political principles of the struggle to specific discussions about how they might be persuaded to make a specific exception for me.
You have to feel some sort of instinctive sympathy for the Rapanui. They’re the last remnants of the population that made the moai, and they’re pretty badly off compared to other Polynesian populations. I don’t know whether they were actually correct in claiming that the benefits of the tourist trade were mainly taken by non-Polynesians, but that certainly seemed to be the official view of the Rapanui “parliament” (albeit that as far as I could tell, plenty of the guys on the roadblocks did not by any means agree with the council of elders, either in terms of ultimate goals or tactics.) And at the end of the day, it’s pretty clear whose statues they are, so they’ve got the right to make decisions about their own land.
But …well, it reminded me too uncomfortably of a certain strand of nationalist politics that was entirely familiar to me from Wales in the 1980s. They know that the tourist industry is their only hope of economic viability, but they don’t fancy working in it. Their basic objection to people from outside is simply that they’re not from round here. And it seemed to me that issues of language and culture were to some extent being used as a political smokescreen; the ahu and moai were clearly genuinely important historical and cultural sites, but to claim that they were literally sacred seems really very much like pushing credibility; the megalith religion was long since gone well before the first European contact. About thirty years ago, they changed their policy and started to refuse all requests to lend any of their archaeological treasures to foreign museums, and this seems really short sighted to me.
At the end of the day, Easter Island has to have a tourist industry if it is going to provide any sort of livelihood for the Rapanui. This is certainly the only possible basis on which independence from Chile could be viable. If it has a tourist industry, then it needs to invest in the infrastructure of a tourist industry – at present, even such basic blocking-and-tackling moves as “commission and print an official guidebook” haven’t been carried out. And the only people who are proposing to make that sort of investment in tourist infrastructure are the ethnic Chilean residents. It isn’t, at the end of the day, a defensible position for a national independence movement to have a main policy goal of something which would make national independence economically impossible.
While I was in Rapanui, I happened to notice, in the British newspapers, that “Leisure Studies” would no longer be an A-Level. This was, as you’d imagine, greeted with all sorts of chortling from Oxbridge-educated journalists about academic rigour and such. God, what morons. As it happens, the North Wales of my youth has been utterly transformed in the last ten to twenty years, rebuilding its economy from post-industrial wasteland. There’s a former quarry in Bethesda which is now Europe’s longest zipwire. The Llechwedd slate caverns are now full of trampolines and bungee activities. All of these things have been put together, I’d bet, by people who have studied Leisure Studies or similar courses, probably at local FE colleges. Because tourism is a proper industry in which people earn real money. But it still seems to suffer from a pejorative stereotype under which the provision of hospitality services is thought to be some sort of snivelling, forelock-tugging anachronism, rather than a highly skilled job that needs training and talent to do properly. You can bet your life that the Swiss don’t see things this way, which is why everywhere I’ve been on this trip, I’ve seen “Hotel Interlaken” or similar-named new developments. In Switzerland, “Leisure Studies” can be pursued to postgraduate level in the extremely well-regarded hotel schools, and they’re the ones who have got it right.
4.Tahiti travel tips
Papeete, not to put too fine a point on it, is a bit of a dump. It’s not the world’s largest Polynesian slum – that would be one of the poorer districts of Auckland – but there’s a lot of immediately recognisable urban deprivation on the streets. The trouble is that the economy of French Polynesia is dominated by the big hotel chains which are the largest employers, and the capital city only really exists as a transfer point for the package trade. There is a tourism industry which isn’t dependent on the big resort complexes, but it’s more or less entirely French-speaking so you have to be a little bit on the ball to work out what to do and where you’re meant to be going.
We left the island of Tahiti pretty immediately the morning after arrival and took the short ferry journey to its sister island of Moorea, which I think was the right decision. Moorea is absurdly pretty – it has the mountain of Bali-Hai on it, as made famous in South Pacific. It also has one or two stretches of the encirling reef which are regarded as among the world’s greatest surf breaks, but having only just barely learned to surf on soft sand in New Zealand, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour when it came to putting my fragile flesh anywhere near sharp coral.
There’s one road which runs round the island and one which runs into the central highland, meaning that all addresses are given as either “kilometres clockwise”, “kilometres anticlockwise” or “near the agricultural school”. The road takes you round past coconut groves (the trees all have steel collars wrapped round them to stop rats from climbing up them) and pineapple plantations. The beaches are white sand and the climate is warm without ever getting stifling. The sea is an extraordinary shade of blue and the hills are a bright green from the same Kodachrome palette, making it almost impossible to take a bad photograph. It’s a very nice place. My advice to the independent traveller would be to head for the Hotel Tipaniers or (more of a backpacker kind of deal) “Mark’s Place”, buy yourself a small crate of Hinano Beer and accept that you’re going to be a bit of a beach bum for a while.
I wondered initially whether there were rabbits in Moorea, but then in the evening it became apparent that the holes you saw dug in the garden were occupied by crabs! The local crabs were astonishingly ugly, scuttley things which would run sideways across the road, seeming to stare up at you. They also grabbed things – a pair of my shoes which I’d left out by our garden steps ended up next morning sticking out of a crab’s house.
5.The statues non mystery
According to all the travel books I read, the Easter Island statues are “mysterious” and “unknown”, but it was not clear at all to me in what this mystery might have consisted. Everyone knows who carved them (the Rapanui, ancestors of the current Polynesian inhabitants), how they carved them (out of soft volcanic tuff, with obsidian chisels) and why they carved them (memorials of an ancestor cult). They don’t know exactly how they were moved across the island from the “quarry” in which they were carved to the standing sites, but the variety of competing theories just underlines the fact that this isn’t a very important mystery – as archaeologists from Thor Heyerdahl onward have shown, once you put your mind to it, you can think of half a dozen ways to move a great big stone across an island if you really have to.
The idea that there is some great mystery about the moai seems to go back to Captain Cook’s accounts of his voyages; apparently when he landed and asked the locals “what’s that?”, he got an uninformative answer. When combined with the fact that the Rapanui had given up on the megalith cult a hundred years or so earlier and taken up the “Birdman” cult as their main religion and cultural practice, so can see how the idea might have taken hold that the statues had been created by unknown past occupants. But it isn’t true. It’s the sort of thing that could have been sorted out quite easily with a bit of investigation, but that wasn’t really Cook’s style. His memoirs tend to follow the same pattern on each island – a landing, an exchange of trade goods, rhapsodies about the friendliness of the natives, an “incident” (usually involving someone from Cook’s crew shooting somebody) and then, inexplicably, the natives became hostile and it was time to leave.
6.The Diamond issue
If you’re reading about Easter Island at all, you quickly find yourself realising that you’ve got to make your mind up about the “Jared Diamond Question”. That question being, whether the view of Easter Island’s development and history in his book “Decline” bears any resemblance to reality at all. Lots of anthropologists and archaeologists get very cross about this, and I can sort of see why, because it’s easy to reduce that book to a simple and obviously ridiculous fairy tale where some Polynesian or other cuts down the last tree on the island and then looks up with a kind of Wile E Coyote “duhhh” expression on his face. This is daft, as quite apart from anything else there are still plenty of trees on Easter Island (as the local museum shows, arboriculture was actually practised – they cultivated trees and dug special pits to protect their saplings from the wind). Diamond also, in various bad-tempered online exchanges, seems to be very committed to the view that it was specifically the megalith cult which was the problem, and in my view goes well beyond the available evidence in insisting that the process of statue-moving just must have been really really intensive in the consumption of timber. I don’t think this stands up.
But …there’s a kind of “lost the battle/won the war” element to the clear holes in his story. It is pretty settled fact that the Rapa Nui population was already in sharp decline by the time the European colonists arrived – they obviously accelerated things, but everyone seems to agree that things had already got very bad. And it also stands out a mile within a minute or so of landing on the island that this isn’t the sort of environment where traditional Polynesian cut-and-burn agriculture is going to work well. There’s some decent evidence that local wars contributed to the destruction of fishing infrastructure (Diamond kind of goes on about canoes, because it fits into his obsession with trees, but actually the Rapanui, like other Pacific Islanders, built fish traps. Nobody relied on canoe-based fishing as a staple food source, for obvious reasons). And Easter Island had a serious problem with rats, which arrived with the islanders, but which there was no strategy for controlling, other than to use them as an emergency food source.
So in my view, Diamond’s central claim – that Easter Island’s history is basically one of gradual human-caused environmental degradation, which left it unable to sustain life – is not so far off being right that it can’t be used as an organising metaphor for his book. He just didn’t need to put quite so many cherries on the top.
7.Logistics around the world
The Polynesian islands are about as remote as it gets in terms of the international supermarket supply chain, and that is to say … not really all that remote. The French supermarket giant Carrefour stretches out its long arm – and its astoundingly good own brand of Breton cider – as far as Tahiti without any problems. Pushing my trolley around the supermarket in Moorea, I saw many old friends on the shelves, plus a few lines which had clearly been sent there by a FFE in the Carrefour shipping department who was simply looking to show off (“foie gras in the Pacific? Oh I think that is not so difficult to achieve. But people there will also want apricot conserves and pate de campagne. I can achieve that too”).
Tahiti also gets the benefit of Kiwi ingenuity, coming from the other direction; Silver Fern Farms, a pretty ubiquitous meat processor, boxes up all the bits of the beasts that New Zealanders won’t buy and exports them to its neighbouring developing world populations. So it was that, having locked on the logo and been pleasantly surprised by the cheap price of imported veal, I ended up standing in a kitchen wondering what the hell I was going to do with a box of veal hearts.
The fact that all the imported food seemed to be priced about where I’d expect it to be in an OECD supermarket did make me wonder how the locals managed, given that they didn’t seem to be earning OECD wages. The answer was that they ate a lot of fish, particularly tuna, which was locally caught, absurdly cheap and very good indeed.
Easter Island seemed to be more of a challenge for the shipping industry as it’s considerably further away from anywhere. If you’re allergic to fish, as one of my kids is, you’re going to have a tough time. But even there, it was more a question of things like fresh produce not being available at all, rather than being expensive. It really lets you see how amazingly cheap container shipping is, and even airfreight isn’t so very much as a proportion of the price of anything with any value-added element to it at all.
8.Lazy days with sharks and rays
We rented a couple of kayaks and paddled out over the lagoon. The way that islands like Tahiti and Moorea are formed is that you have a volano which pokes out of the sea. Around the volcano grows a coral reef, and then over time, the cone of the volcano collapses. This gives you a smaller, internal volcanic island, with a ring of coral around it marking the limit of where things used to be. It means that you can get exciting surf breaks a kilometre or two out, past the reef, but the seashore and the beaches are protected and the sea is basically millpond smooth.
Maybe half a kilometre out from where we were staying, there’s a spot where the tourist boats go every day and feed the rays. The rays have, unsurprisingly, got used to this, and so they show up at the same time every day. That part of the reef is also hospitable to black-tipped sharks – ranging from about the size of a human leg to (as I repeatedly reminded my children) roughly big enough to swallow a five-year old. They’re basically nocturnal animals though – at eleven in the morning, they’re clearly swimming round in a kind of daze which is close to sleeping as sharks get. They don’t even notice the tuna and bream swimming in front of their faces, let alone the tourists taking photographs of them. As far as I can tell, they just perceive us as shadowy obstacles and whoosh round us, in their own sharky world.
They’re amazing looking creatures; the row of blunt gills set back behind their big white scary eyes make them look more like a BMW sports car than any animal on earth, and I can’t believe this wasn’t the intention of the Bavarians. To be standing there on a shallow reef with a mask on and just ducking down and watching them circle around you, then seeing a great big ray undulating its wings and gliding past, trailing its sting behind it, is pretty special. On a couple of occasions, the sharks took it into their heads to form a school and move somewhere else and that was a real sight. We had twenty or thirty of them, lined up three or four abreast, and progressing forward with a sinister sense of purpose. I swam behind them for a while to try and see where they were going, but I soon lost touch.