The Pacific Ocean holds isolated islands created over centuries by Mother Nature through volcanic eruptions. Among these is the tropical paradise called Tahiti, our second destination on our Polynesian adventure. The international airport served as our port of entry after a long flight from Hanga Roa. The flight was entertaining as we were accompanied for the second time by the Mambo Kings, our in-flight movie. Tahiti is the administrative centre of the French Outremers territory of the Windward Islands. This archipelago is known for is unique black sand beaches and small yet mountainous landscapes. The first settlers were Polynesian, arriving to the region around 300 AD and their ancient architectural style can be admired throughout the land including in their capital city, Papeete. Approximately 70% of the total population are indigenous and the remaining proportion are Chinese, Europeans or mixed, locally knows as demis. Tahiti was proclaimed French territory in 1880 and as a consequence, the only official language is French. Nevertheless, the native language Reo Tahiti was widely spoken by the majority of the locals. Tahiti is located 4,400 km (2,734.03 mi) south of Hawai'i, 7,900 km (4,908.83 mi) west of Chile and 5,700 km (3,541.82 mi) east of Australia. The island is encircled by a main road circling the high mountains dressed in a dense rainforest on one side and the breathtaking coastline on the other. The weather does not vary much throughout the year and seasons are determined by dry or rainy. The next few days we were spending on the remote island were during the wet season.
|Le Truck, Tahitian public transport|
As we sat the next morning for breakfast before beginning our action-packed Tahitian vacation, we were greeted by a wet, windy and gray morning. As we slept in our comfortable beds on our first night in Papeete, a tropical storm had settled over the island leading to a major shut down of paradise. Shops, plantations, air traffic, and to our dismay, ferries were all closed. We were scheduled to make our way across to Moorea, only 9 km northwest aboard a colourful boat which had been cancelled until the typhoon would pass. My father did not lose hope and had us running around the island in search of boats, planes or any other form of transportation to get across the bay. Even a simple fishing boat with an ambitious captain could have aided us in our life threatening trek. Money did not seem to hold the same type of motivation as in other places. This was admirable but very counter-productive for us and my father would not give up even after exhausting all options. I am sure if we did not have luggage to take across, he would have given more thought to swimming 9 km to reach Moorea. After several hours of every locals telling us "Be careful, there is a typhoon!", my Dad realized he had to give up. I noticed how hard that was on him, yet the rest of us had long given up, trusting the Tahitian knowledge of the ocean and weather. We were so close yet so far. I remember my Dad signaling to an island off the port telling us that is where we had to go. How frustrating can it be to see your goal with no way to achieve it. Everything happens for a reason, and in that case it certainly worked in our favour. These storms can last a few days and the only news reports we were able to obtain mentioned our Moorea hotel, a quaint place built on stilts, had been washed away into the deep blue sea.
As we were marooned on the island, we decided to make the best out of a bad situation. We had already seen quite a bit of the waterfront during our quest for transportation, where some lovely hotels and shops were closed due to the typhoon. It was not a day to board a cruise ship either and I did not envy anyone teetering somewhere in the ocean with the high winds and waves dictating every movement. Land was definitely the place to be. We found a small grocery store where we were able to buy delicious French style sandwiches, the famous Croc Monsieur¸ which probably tasted amazing due to the fact we had even found it difficult to find an open restaurant. We figured that by having a nice lunch we could kill some time, as we had plenty to spare, but even this proved a difficult feat. Another place that seemed to be one of the few open for business was a movie theatre. None of the local movies were screening (probably not a large film community there) and we had no problem getting tickets for one called Navy Seals. I suppose the age ratings were of little importance as the selection was not exactly plentiful and neither was the audience. The ambience was similar to Cape Fear where a family is watching a movie and the only company they had was Robert De Niro and his cigar. Navy Seals starred Charlie Sheen, the leader of an elite strike force fighting through all sorts of adverse weather conditions to conduct some covert operation in the Middle East. As we watched the movie, we developed an empathy for the heroes as we were stuck on the island due to conditions they were fighting, except for the guns blazing, kodiac speedboats and an enemy to eliminate. The movie had only taken away about an hour and half. Afterwards, we took a ride on the local bus, also known as Le Truck, a clean, respectful and friendly service. We had asked the lady driving the bus how close could she get us to the hotel, and as we were the last passengers to get off, she dropped us at the front door of lobby. People there were very helpful, compassionate and seemed to go out of their way to be nice to others. I suppose many knew one another and this allowed for a friendlier community, rather than the big cities of the world where everyone seems to be rushed or worried about status determining who they can mingle with. This behaviour did not compute among the locals.
On our next morning, still no sign of the bad weather clearing up. Moorea seemed more and more like a lost cause. As we had our continental breakfast, my father was devising a plan for the day. Each time my father seemed to realize Moorea was just not going to happen, there seemed to be more of an absence in his contributions to the topics of discussion accompanied with a certain frustration. He decided we would rent a car to drive around Tahiti. The rental was incredibly useful to make our way to the Botanical Gardens. We thought it would be amazing to see the local nature up close and personal. After all, the land seemed to be extremely tropical, something we did not have back in Chile. As we parked at the entrance to the gardens, we were turned away by a sign posted up announcing the park was closed as well due to the typhoon. We began to wonder if this was just an excuse for people to take an additional day off, blaming everything on the weather. We would have to make our way somewhere else. My mother was an extremely great painter and had the chance to paint marvelous landscapes during our Venezuela posting, so she continued when she had the spare time in Chile. As an artist and a Frenchwoman, there was a specific treasure for her in Tahiti. Our next stop was the Paul Gaugin gallery. As we sat in the car wondering if the gallery would be closed due to the Typhoon as well, Maman must have been imagining the artwork she was about to see. Gaugin was born in Paris, France, in the mid 1800s, and he was known as a leading post-impressionist painter. He had spent several years in French Polynesia, depicting the Tahitian people through his own style. He seemed to be enamoured with the culture and eventually died somewhere in the colonies. The place was actually open to our surprise, but my mom seemed to be disappointed that the pieces in the gallery were all copies from the originals. We were all happy to have found a place open. We also learned the local phrase "Vahini raki raki" which simply put means ugly girl. This was the title of one of Gaugin's paintings.
|Maman, Brian and I with some Polynesian architecture in the background|
One of the fondest memories I keep of this trip was after the museum, on our drive back to Papeete to complete the full circle, a brief stop on the side of the road. On the right side of the road, we had the drizzly gray coast line with the waves smashing in, and to the left, a cliff with a small hole in the ditch next to the road. This was my father's treasure. When the waves crash in to the coast, they are in fact colliding with a system of holes and caves in the coast. Volcanic rock looks like a piece of Swiss cheese (similar to the cartoon cheeses full of holes) and if the perforations provide appropriate conditions for matter to find a way through, there is an exertion of mist upon exiting through the other side. The force behind each wave created pressure bursts and a drum-like sound which we were able to examine up close. This was The Blow Hole (in upper case letters due to the importance for my Dad). The sprays were in continuous harmony with the ocean tide, something that seemed to excite my father every time. He wanted to document this finding on his camera. He instructed Brian and I to pose around it as living proof the Bickford’s had encountered the glorious Blow Hole. My brother and I had regretfully declined his invitation as we did not want to get sprayed and Maman was clever enough to encourage my Dad to pose instead. As a result, my father still tells the story with a huge smile, remembering the awful salty spray leading to an uncomfortable humid feeling inside his pants delivered by the exiting mist from the blowhole. He always finishes this story with a joyful giggle. Life is all about the special memories and I will never forget how much fun we had even though our plans were all improvised. The blow hole is a story to pass on to future generations.