Thursday, June 16, 2016
Papeete, 1955. Twenty-seven days' sail from Hilo, Hawaii, our family's yacht is moored stern first to the seawall, a gangplank connecting us with Tahiti's main street. As we mend sail and scrape barnacles off the hull, we watch the world of French Oceania move ceaselessly past.
Here comes a woman pushing her bicycle, a small and squealing pig dangling from the handlebars by its trussed trotters; there go a group of laughing Polynesians, loaded with bundles and crowned with circlets of leaves and brilliant hibiscus blossoms.
The center of town is the open-air market. From 4:30 AM on, buses full of humanity, with roofs piled high with stalks of bananas, bunches of coconuts, strings of fish, trussed fowl and indignant pigs pour in from the outlying districts.
Here, a magnificent branch of bleached coral, a fresh pig's head and a flagon of Chanel No. 5 may be found sharing counter space in a single stall. There are red-fleshed tuna chunks threaded on a string, a small mound of tomatoes at an exorbitant price, a woven palm-leaf basket of fresh limes for practically nothing, basket included.
Moorea is eight miles and one universe away from Tahiti. Whereas Tahiti can be reached from ships all over the world, the outer islands are accessible only to private yachts and an occasional inter-island launch. We spend five days anchored in Papetoai Bay, one lone boat surrounded by spectacular and vividly green peaks.
Along the palm-lined shore we get glimpses of a couple of native houses with woven walls of split bamboo and roofs of pandanus thatch. Beyond the houses runs the narrow crushed coral road which is the main highway around the island. The nearest village is two miles from us--a dozen houses, an octagonal church with a red spire and two Chinese general stores. We walk there for supplies but neither store sells fresh fish, meat, or vegetables.
Huahine is a hundred miles downwind. Its port, Fare, has a dozen small stores along the waterfront and even boasts a bar and a hotel. A couple of times a day one of the storekeepers rolls a large hand-cranked freezer onto his porch and scrawls on a blackboard in front, "Glace en vent." First-comers get solid ice cream, stragglers--soup!
After a few days, we work our way inside the reef to the south end of the island, where the charming village of Haapu nestles in isolated quiet. No roads connect it with the rest of the island. We stroll down the main street between rows of woven and brightly decorated native huts, many of them raised on stilts. Everywhere we are given a warm welcome.
Haapu is the kind of South Seas community we have dreamed of. The dock we are tied to is right next to their community laundry: a fresh-water tap. Housewives gather every morning to soap their clothes on a large flat board or stone on the ground, pounding the dirt out with a rounded wooden stick. I cause a sensation by scrubbing ours on a corrugated washboard and rinsing them in a galvanized iron tub!
In the evening, we take the portable phonograph on deck and start playing "Night and Day." Within minutes we have a party in full swing, village men picking shy partners to dance with by the light of our pressure lantern. They dance on the dock beside us, some of them gyrating in Tahitian fashion and othes trying modified waltzes and foxtrots. Between songs, they crowd aboard to peer into our cabins with excited giggles and comments about our accommodations we can't understand.
As we sail toward it, Bora Bora's distinctive profile breaks through the early-morning mist like a giant molar. Green, precipitous, cloud-capped, its beauty only increases as we draw closer to where the tumbling line of surf crashing on the reef divides the deep-sea indigo from the clear turquoise of the shallower lagoon. Along the shore we see a fringe of coconut palms, eternal symbol of the tropic isle.
Bora Bora is personified for us by Big Joe. He and his wife make dance costumes of bleached fibers, elaborately decorated with hundreds of yellow and brown cowrie shells which sell for $25-30 in the tourist shops of Papeete.
Earle commissions Big Joe to make skirts, tops of fine bark cloth trimmed with shells and crown-like headdresses for Jessica and me. When Big Joe brings us the completed costumes, Earle pulls out his wallet. "How much?"
Big Joe waves the question aside.
"But Joe," Earle insists. "If you don't tell me how much, I can't take them!"
"Aw, never mind money. What I do with money?"
"But there must be something you need?"
He thinks it over. At last, hesitantly, "You maybe got an old pair pants? I could use pants. Or maybe old blanket?"
Again, nightly, we find ourselves host to informal dockside parties. The music might begin with a scratched cowboy or hillbilly record on the wind-up Victrola but it always ends with the soft plucking of a guitar, the strumming of homemade coconut ukuleles and a completely spontaneous exhibition of Tahitian dancing to the compelling rhythms of slit drum, kerosene tin, or just the slapping of hands on a bare thigh.
(By Barbara Reynolds--taken in part from All in the Same Boat by Earle and Barbara Reynolds, published 1962)