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.
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
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,"
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.
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."