We docked in Papeete on the morning of January 23. Polynesians pronounce each vowel separately, so the name of this city is pronounced Pah-pay-et’-tay. Papeete was founded by Christian missionaries from the London Missionary Society in the early 1800’s. Tahiti is the biggest island in French Polynesia & Papeete is by far the biggest town with a population of some 80,000. In stark contrast to the other islands we have visited this has the feel of a city, with lots of traffic & bustle & modern buildings crowded together. Papeete is the administrative capital of French Polynesia, which is considered an overseas department of France. The population of the islands are French citizens, represented in the French Assembly, & have the right to vote in French presidential elections (although with a total population of a little more than a quarter of a million, including children & other non-voters, they probably don’t have much impact on the outcome).
We spent the morning on an excursion to the west side of Tahiti, mostly for an opportunity to get out of the city and see some of the island. As we alighted from the ship there was a local singing group in colorful traditional garb to greet us.
Our first stop was a site with a marae and several stone tikis. As mentioned earlier, a marae is a stone platform used by the ancient Polynesians for religious and community gatherings (men only). We were told that most maraes in the coastal areas were destroyed by the Christian missionaries, so that now ancient ones are only found in the mountains where the missionaries didn’t go. This one is a (supposedly) exact copy of an ancient marae that is in the mountains and no longer accessible because the road was destroyed. It was built in 1954 & is flanked by copies of two ancient tikis (stone religious statues). Maraes are built of stones fitted precisely on top of each other without mortar or cement.
This spot was also a lush tropical forest. We saw our first breadfruit tree here. Breadfruit is a versatile product used to make several different kinds of food. Captain Bligh’s mission when he brought the Bounty here on its ill-fated voyage was to collect several thousand breadfruit seedlings to transport to the Caribbean, where it was thought they could more efficiently provide sustenance for the slaves there. He collected the seedlings but, of course, never made it to the Caribbean because most of his crew famously mutinied and set him and a few loyalists adrift in an open boat. Instead of dying, as expected, Bligh navigated the boat to safety in Indonesia in one of the great epic sea journeys. The mutineers kidnapped some Tahitians and ended up settling on remote Pitcairn Island, where most of them died a few years later at the hands of their Tahitian slaves.
We drove on to a botanical garden. As you can imagine, it was replete with beautiful flora. There was also a tattoo parlor here. Tattooing originated in the South Pacific, where people were covered with tattoos from head to foot; in some places this was just about all they wore. It was adopted by sailors on the first ships of exploration. But the Christian missionaries banned tattooing & required everybody to wear Victorian style clothing.
Our next stop was at the restaurant of the Gauguin Museum. The museum contains only copies of his works & its closed anyhow (for some time if not permanently). But the grounds are quite nice. At the restaurant we were treated to a drink so Rick had a Hinano, the ubiquitous locally made beer (quite good). Tahiti is actually two islands: Tahiti Nui is the big one where we were & Tahiti Iti is a very small island attached by a small strip of land. From the museum grounds was a nice view of Tahiti iti across the water. We also encountered an energetic little bird who didn’t want his picture taken.
The last stop on our excursion was the Museum of Tahiti & Her Islands, but before that we should say that although it was quite difficult to take usable pictures from the moving bus, the landscape throughout the drive was quite excellent, with mountains on the inside & shoreline on the outside as we drove along the coast road.
The Museum of Tahiti is a small museum with a lot of archaeological artifacts. Our guide Maeva, explained many of these exhibits for us and there were also a number of informative maps and geological displays. Most notable here (and sufficiently lighted for photography) was a collection of ancient Tikis.
Outside were more beautiful gardens and a surf laden seashore. Across the water was a stunning view of the neighboring island of Moorea where we would be stopping the next day.
We drove back to the pier listening to Maeva’s fairly interesting life story and her less interesting religious views. Our first stop in town was the Marche, a two story market building. We had been disappointed to be told that the market would close by 1:00 PM, which is when we returned from our excursion. But one of our more experienced tablemates, Bob, told us that the upstairs where the pearl and handicraft shops are located would stay open longer. Sure enough, the colorful produce market on the first floor was closing when we arrived, but the upstairs shops were open until 5:00. We spent some time there, particularly looking at the beautiful Polynesian black pearls cultivated in this area, which really come in a variety of colors despite their name. These pearls are big business in this area. Then we set out to walk to the library. This took us through a long park along the waterfront that we understand was completed only recently. Near the beginning was an interesting two headed stone sculpture acting as a support for a tree limb. In the park we saw many flowers & trees, of course, and a monument to the achievement of Polynesian autonomy (but not independence).
The library was an anti-climax. It was the library for adults (we hope there is also one for children) & is a part of a much larger cultural center. There was no interesting sign or entrance, and it was closed. But we took a couple of pictures anyway.
Walking back, we stopped at two churches whose insides are supposed to be interesting. But (par for the course this day) both were closed so we didn’t get to see the insides. The pink Eglise Evangelique is the largest protestant church in French Polynesia, supposedly built on the spot where the London Missionary Society first set up shop here in the early 1800’s. The Catholic Cathedrale de l’immaculee Conception was first completed in 1875, but was extensively renovated more recently.
Near the cathedral was another little bird like the one at the museum, also unsuccessfully trying to avoid a picture. Across the street was a fine example of an interesting tree we had seen on our drive. It is like a palm tree, but its fronds are arrayed in a semicircular row, just like an oriental fan. Well, it was very hot & humid & we were tiring out, so we returned to the ship after that, foregoing a jaunt to see some other buildings on our list that were probably closed too.
That night there was a fantastic Polynesian music & dance performance by a well known Tahitian group. Our table mate Bob, who had seen them 2 years before, told us that in this performance none of the costumes and none of the dancers were the same. One can understand why . . . the dances were so energetic that pieces of the grass-like costumes littered the stage by the end, and the energy required to perform them can only be possessed by the very young. The women’s hips went so fast & so constantly that it seemed like they had a separate power source from the rest of their bodies. And this went on without a break in the music and dancing for about an hour. The pictures really do not convey what it was like in reality. Quite a show; one had to arrive quite early to get a good seat, since there was only one performance.