Do You See It?

Breadfruit.  Image: wikipedia
I wonder what happened when Obama was elected: was Finn empowered to reclaim her American-ness?  I suspect she might've been, at least in part.  Do you see it?

On the following morning, Finn left for the dock outside the Tahitian capital Papeete, to find the archaeology ship she’d spoken of that would take her to the Marquesas Islands, one of the remotest areas of the Pacific and indeed the world, while I prepared to fly east towards equally remote Rapa Nui and on to Bolivia where I was teaching English.

Together we’d shared a single day, circumnavigating Tahiti Nui, the larger circle in the roughly figure-of-eight island of Tahiti.  And like Tahiti, Finn herself was a series of circles.  Her grey hair like her body was short and rounded and there was neither too much melancholy nor too much seriousness in her dinner plate face.  Rather she looked as she was, practical-minded and ready for the road, of which she’d clearly seen a few.  I’d thought to tell her she was as I, a jajabor, but I didn’t get around to explaining the Bangla word for nomad.  I’d never travelled with a Dutch-American grandmother before.  It’d been a first.

It was early evening by the time we’d arrived back at the guest house.  We walked up the small gravel laneway from the highway, past the breadfruit trees I admired for their bulbous green breadfruits and the easygoing fleshy leaves.  There wasn’t much talk between us then.  We were tired.

An hour or so earlier in Papeete we’d found le truck, the Tahitian bus service with half-open sides and impromptu seats, to take us on that last leg back to the south, and I was glad we were no longer in the pick-up truck since there was a gendarme checkpoint and riding in the open back of pick-ups wasn’t allowed.  On le truck there could be no problem apart from the evening jam on the singular, circular highway we’d followed all the way back to the beginning.

Papeete was laid back and peaceful enough I knew, since I’d been there a few days earlier.  Sidled along an edge of a bay the Tahitian capital of about 130,000 people is bright with clothes, tropical flowers and colonial churches.  Green is very much green there.  The market, the Marché Papeete, is a few floors of clean, tin roofed space devoted to woven hats and Polynesian knickknacks and t-shirts with tropical prints upon them.  In Papeete the colonial atmosphere is neither relic nor past tradition: Tahiti remains a French possession and Papeete is still a colonial town.  French is the official language.  But with Finn there’d been neither time nor energy to dilly-dally.  The town was simply an opportunity to bid farewell to the pick-up driver, his wife and the other passengers, and to find le truck. 

After pulling up to the kerb in Papeete’s centre, I’d climbed down from the back of the pick-up and shook hands with the driver by way of thank you.  Finn handed me a necklace that the driver’s wife had given us, one each, of red seedpods threaded along a string.  I’m not sure if it was the brightness of the red or the exotic Tahitian origin of the necklace, but I thought to give it in turn to one of my English students in Bolivia, the one who liked to wear saris that we all called Señora Mumbai.  It would suit her, I thought.

Afternoon was already passing as we’d stood beside the road on the island’s north coast, where the sea is rough and the sand is black.  We needed a ride into Papeete and there was less traffic on the north side.  A pick-up stopped to offer a lift.  At first we thought to refuse since the cabin was full and it wasn’t perhaps the best for Finn to ride in the back.  But seeing she was of a grandmotherly age one of the passengers from inside the cabin agreed to give up his place.

A few minutes earlier we’d been admiring the Arohoho blowhole.  Without the reef that lies in the south, surfers were there to take advantage of the ocean swell.  With each wave came a snort and a spray, like an elephant might make while enjoying itself in a river, as the wave passed through the rounded rocky blowhole and burst upwards into the air.  We were close enough to be wet. 

‘So how did you start travelling?’ I finally got around to asking her.

In the 1960s Finn had run a small guest house, she said, in Amsterdam.  With all the guests coming and going, talking of their adventures and plans, in the end she’d wondered, if others could do such things, why couldn’t she?  ‘First I packed up the children and we all went to Spain,’ she said, ‘Do you see it?’  It was before travelling became popular.

A few minutes earlier we’d walked back from the waterfall to the coast road where the blowhole was, but it wasn’t far and Finn in particular was well-rested.  She’d taken time out by the falls.

There are three waterfalls at Faarumai.  Finn had found a rock to sit upon at the first of them, Vaimahutu Falls, not far from the car park, while I’d raced off to find the other two.  The three of them are similarly thin and tall forming each a line of water like a shower without the rose in place.  Down they come: direct and uncomplicated, over black tropical rocks they fall into each pool.  Finally I plucked the courage to ask her as we sat by the falls, ‘have you ever been to Bangladesh?’  She said she had and with breath held I asked what she thought.

‘I liked it,’ she said, and immediately spoke of the friendliness of Bangladeshis.

An hour or so earlier we’d just been setting off from the main road towards the falls on foot when a red car stopped for us.  It was a couple of Canadians on their honeymoon, and they’d hired a car.  They drove us to the start of the trail.

An hour before that it’d been raining and on Tahiti Nui’s eastern shore we stood.  There’d been a car with a driver kind enough to take us that far, but it wasn’t going any further and we hoped for transport to the falls we’d read about.  Vehicles are less likely to stop for strangers in the rain, so to improve chances I stood back and we put Finn out in front as a kind of bait.  Who wouldn’t stop for her?  Sure enough the driver of a small truck thought to apply his foot to the brake.    

Perhaps twenty minutes before that the car had picked us up at the entry to the Paul Gauguin museum.  Finn was telling me she’d been to Yemen and Egypt.  ‘Have you ever been to a dangerous country?’ I asked her.

‘There’s no such thing as a dangerous country,’ she said, ‘only people can be dangerous.  Do you see it?’

‘And please don’t mind,’ I asked, ‘but in places like Yemen and Egypt is it a problem being American?’  It’s well known that American backpackers will deliberately sew Canadian maple leaf flags onto their backpacks when they travel, for extra safety.  ‘Sometimes I say that I’m Dutch,’ she said, ‘it makes things easier. Do you see it?’

Yes I saw it, and I’d long enjoyed saying I was Australian because it’d meant once something quite different to American, at the start of the journey.

Tahitian Women on the Beach, 1891, by Paul Gauguin.  Image: wikipedia

Paul Gauguin finally left France in 1895, never to return.  He sailed to Tahiti to escape European civilisation and ‘everything that is artificial and conventional.’  And he was something of a ladies’ man in Tahiti as he took to his easel and canvas, with several of his companions featuring in his paintings, which were for the most part unrecognised as significant works of art until after his death.  And there were legal ramifications for his support for the Tahitians against the French colonialists.  He was fined five hundred francs and sentenced to three months’ gaol. 

Before entering the museum Finn had been quite taken with the entanglement of trees along the driveway.  Among them she saw mushrooms.  She stopped to admire them and told me their scientific names.  ‘When I’m not travelling,’ Finn said, ‘I like collecting mushrooms.  There are pine forests on the northwest coast of America where I live, and they’re good for mushroom picking.  Maybe you think it’s a silly hobby but I like it.  Do you see it?’

Perhaps an hour before that we stood on the road in Paea, where there are two maraes worth seeing: Arahurahu and Taata.  Before the arrival of Christianity the Maohi of Tahiti pursued their own religious rites and at each marae or open-air temple there was usually a stone platform with sitting places for the chiefs and an ahu or altar, as well as a tall post around which sacrifices were made.  In absolute silence the tahu’a, the local priest, would offer prayers.  In Tahiti perhaps the most popular of the gods was Oro, the god of war and wisdom.

The first marae was not altogether far from the guest house so that morning we’d started the tour on foot.

Tahiti island has a single highway circle around its perimeter, following the South Pacific seashore that in the south runs roughly parallel to the outer walls of the reef.  If you stand at water’s edge by the highway and look down, even in the shallows of bare centimetres of the perfectly clear water will be a multitude of fish, brightly coloured, blue, red, striped or spotted, with triangular angel fish too in zebra black and white.  Tahitian reef waters are a well-stocked aquarium right until landfall. 

On the highway’s inland side the hills rise up, almost immediately, firstly covered thick with tropical foliage, until the cliffs and jagged peaks take their place almost impolitely towards island centre.  It leaves a ring of humanity in Tahiti, along the inhabitable strip around the island’s coast.  It’s a circular society.

Without transport we proposed where we could to take ‘le truck’, and otherwise to hitch.  Being two might be a disadvantage in getting a ride from strangers, I’d thought, since it would need to be a vehicle with two spare seats rather than one.  On the plus side they’d be perhaps more likely to stop.  Who was going to leave a Dutch-American grandmother standing on the side of the road?

It was on the night before that I’d met Finn, in the semi-outdoor kitchen area of the guest house.  We were scrambling together a bit of food, each our own, when the talking started.  Finn was on her way to the Marquesas Islands, she said, but with a day spare before the ship’s departure, one way or another she agreed to accompany me on a day-tour around Tahiti Nui.  Do you see it?

Black sand beach in Tahiti.  Image: wikipedia

Islands have many personalities.  Sometimes they are brave and witty, at other times they make us wonder about human beings, and still at other times islands come to visit us in the city.

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: Do You See It?
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