Travels in Tahiti

By Jennifer Lane

“In gulfs enchanted,
where the siren sings
and coral reefs lie bare”

--The Chambered Nautilus,
Oliver Wendell Holmes

Charles Darwin once called Tahiti “The island to which every traveler has offered up his tribute of admiration.”

     It is difficult to disagree. Hailed for centuries as a place of legendary beauty, Tahiti’s verdant peaks and turquoise lagoons have inspired generations of visitors, from historical luminaries like Darwin and Captain James Cook to modern-day tourists and honeymooners. They have admired it not only for its sublime scenery, but also for its vibrant culture and fascinating natural history.

Stories about Tahiti had long evoked my own curiosity. The thought of seeing the place where Captain Cook observed the transit of Venus, the coral reefs and mountains of black volcanic rock that inspired Darwin’s second-most-famous theory, piqued my interest in history; especially the history of science. I wanted to experience it for myself, and was lucky enough to have the opportunity when a friend suggested a vacation there in summer 2006.

     Our arrival in Tahiti’s Faa’a airport was an opportunity to experience local culture. Despite the unlikely hour (4 a.m. local time), a band of ukulele players was there to greet us, as women with baskets handed out fragrant tiare blooms—a species of gardenia—to all the passengers. Then, at the taxi stand outside the airport, leis were duly handed out, until every newly-arrived visitor was covered in flowers. It all may seem a bit touristy in this day and age, but it demonstrates the genuine friendliness inherent in Tahitian culture.

In some ways, modern-day Tahiti is rather industrialized and businesslike. There are shopping malls with fast-food restaurants and Carrefour supermarkets, busy highways with trucks barreling back and forth, and on weekday mornings, traffic jams (especially in downtown Papeete, the capital). It’s sad to see signs of smog and pollution in this once-idyllic island paradise. Happily, measures are now being taken to protect the local environment, although progress along these lines has been slow. Most of the tourist infrastructure must now conform to strict guidelines to limit pollution of the lagoons, and many schools and other community programs sponsor cleanup efforts. Hopefully, growing awareness will help to turn around some of the damage that industrialization has caused.

     Environmental issues aside, downtown Papeete is a thriving urban center, and interesting to walk around. The most common businesses are pearl shops, reflecting the fact that, after tourism, pearl culture is the largest industry in French Polynesia. The biggest seller is (not surprisingly) the Tahitian black pearl, which comes from the oyster Pinctada margaritifera and is generally not black, but more often a luminous eggplant shade. The majority of pearls are farmed on outlying islands, especially the Tuamotus and the Gambier Archipelago, and then shipped to Tahiti, and internationally, for sale.

     One of the most interesting sights in the capital is the Marché de Papeete (Papeete Market). Outside, it’s not much to look at, but inside it’s a colorful place – large, airy, and somehow evocative of both a Victorian greenhouse and Paris’ Centre Pompidou (maybe it’s the glass ceiling and the many painted iron staircases). The vast, warehouse-like interior is lined with tables full of all sorts of merchandise—flowers and myriad tropical fruits, straw baskets, perfumes and monoi (coconut oil scented with sandalwood or tiare), jewelry carved from pearl oyster shells. Toward the back of the building are the fishmongers, hefting the day’s catch for prospective buyers. The market has remained on its current site for 250 years, and was once rebuilt after being destroyed in WWII.

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