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Donkin on Travel

1997, Moorea, Tahiti

Moorea, Tahiti

Cody, the fisherman, clasped his hands in prayer while perched on the edge of an outrigger canoe anchored in the clear lagoon waters on the inner fringe of the reef.

His long black hair was tied at the back, over a sinewy frame partly covered in tattoos. "The current is strong so we must not stray too far from the boat," he said, breaking into a smile that betrayed a row of bent and yellowed teeth.

I had inquired about the bone fishing, a form of game-fishing using flies. No problem, they said, but nothing turns out the way you expect in the south sea islands. He handed me a spear gun.

The current caught us the moment we entered the water but we were well away from the gap in the reef called the gate. There, the eddies are so strong they can drag you into the depths beyond. Spear fishing is not easy and, to tell the truth, I had no heart for it. I aimed to miss but Cody meant business. He returned with three fish which he gutted and scaled as we returned to the shore. He began eating one raw and passed me another. It is only sashimi with fins, I told myself, and gorged the meat in the spirit of Rousseau.

Here on Moorea, a half-hour sail by catamaran from Tahiti, you can still live out the Rousseau ideal. Brightly coloured sarongs adorned with Gauguin's Polynesian images billowed from washing lines in a field by the island coast road.

Compared with downtown Papeete with its casinos, traffic and ugly buildings, Moorea could have been another world. The Tahitian idyll reflected in much of Gauguin's work has been destroyed in Papeete along with most traces of his life on Tahiti itself. The Gauguin museum has no more than couple of minor paintings. Apart from a few pictures still in private collections, the island has been picked clean of his work.

The days are long gone when hunting for Gauguins was something of a sport among the English after Somerset Maugham's successful foray. He returned from a trip in 1916 with three glass-panelled doors painted by the artist. He sold one of them, bought for FFr200, for £13,000 shortly before he died.

They call Papeete the Las Vegas of the South Pacific, not a mantle that sits comfortably in Polynesia. At least the women have lost none of their beauty. Neither have many of Tahiti's other islands. Moorea, a favourite haunt of the French, has recovered its allure after French nuclear testing delivered a severe blow to South Pacific tourism two years ago.

The south sea islands have become a favourite of honeymooners. Some couples come to marry. "They used to get a garland and a few bars on the guitar in some of the ceremonies but now we can give them the full Polynesian experience," says Olivier Briac, a French choreographer who cut his musical teeth with the Paris Lido and the Moulin Rouge until he turned his back on Europe 19 years ago and settled in Moorea.

Briac, now 51, was barechested, wearing a sarong tied at his waist and a large fossilised shark tooth set in gold around his neck. He wanted to live in the old Polynesian manner and built a hut for himself using woven coconut and pandanus leaves and traditional building techniques. But he did not abandon his musical roots completely and began putting on shows of Polynesian dancing for visitors.

His dancers were invited to stay and build their own homes. "It coincided with a time that many young Tahitians were beginning to have a sense of their own identity. Some came to join me and we began to build a village," he said.

Today there are 19 huts in Tiki village supporting about 80 people, making up two dance troupes who dress and live in the old ways, tattooing their bodies and reviving Polynesian art and culture. "At first people called me a rebel. But now they see that the concept is working," says Briac.

Tourists pay a £6 entry fee to look around the village. They can have themselves tattooed in a variety of designs starting at £10 for a small motif such as a lizard.

Unlike most Polynesians, who are accustomed to covering their bodies in the way they were taught by visiting missionaries, Tiki village men wear little more than loin cloths.

The biggest attraction is the marriage ceremony. Briac has had a floating hut built out on the sea in the form of a royal wedding barge for use by newly-weds. Those who come to marry are dressed in grass skirts and flowers with painted tattoos that wash off afterwards.

"It's a good life," said Tama, out on the reef as he steered the pirogue. "We come out here and fish, we dance a little and we talk. Yes, it's a good life."

© Financial Times

   
©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved