story by Julia Steele
photos by Kyle Rothenborg
The Pacific is full of islands few people have heard of. For every Maui, there's a Beqa and an Ailinglaplap and a Kayangel. Maupiti belongs to this class, the unknowns. Unlike its closest neighbor, Bora Bora, it is not celebrated—if anything, it is forgotten. It is remote, isolated, sparsely populated. But it would be a mistake to equate anonymity with insignificance. Maupiti may not be famous, but it is anything but insignificant.
I got my first clue of that fact the night before I left for the island. I'd telephoned Dr. Yoshihiko Sinoto, the Pacific's foremost archaeologist, a man with more digs to his name than Stephen Colbert. Four decades ago, Sinoto did work on Maupiti, and when I mention the island's name on the phone, he begins to tell me astonishing stories of his time there: of a boat wreck, drownings and elderly women all possessed by the same dream; of a frame-up, thefts and midnight interrogations by Bora Bora gendarmes. They are tales of intrigue and discovery that conjure up adventure on a grand scale. The best part Sinoto tells me last, of The Great Maupiti Find, a 1,200-year-old site stumbled on by a watermelon farmer out planting seeds. Sinoto excavated the site and documented its most valuable treasure, a whale tooth pendant from New Zealand—a type of pendant never before seen outside New Zealand. It was the first definitive proof that the Tahitians went west or the Maori came east or both. It was proof that Maupiti is a place where truth lies waiting to be discovered.
Passing through French Polynesia, I get the same two reactions time and again when I tell people I'm bound for a week in Maupiti: envy from those who long for escape, alarm from those who fear boredom. In the French Polynesian consciousness, Maupiti seems to function as some sort of elderly relative: once strong and illustrious, now frail and behind the times. Step off the plane and this image of decrepitude vanishes. Maupiti is the oldest island in the Society chain, but its current isolation makes it feel the youngest. Immediately, you know: There is a wildness here and a languor that has not been co-opted.
The airport alone makes you feel it: There is no floor. A runway, yes (an unnervingly short one that juts into the lagoon), but no floor, just coral. And that is only the beginning. Maupiti lives just to the edge of modernity, flirting with it, skirting it. There is, for example, no hotel. There have been many attempts. The last was a thirty-room, five-star eco-resort. The mayor was solidly behind that plan. He spoke with every family on the island, and the consensus was positive. "Great idea," he heard again and again. The hotel went to an island-wide vote and failed to pass. The mayor gave up in frustration, the status quo triumphed, and for now, when you stay in Maupiti, you stay at one of the island's dozen or so family-run pensions. They are small and usually right on the beach; if you are after an immersion into Polynesian living, you could not do better. When I awoke in a little bungalow at Pension Papahani on my first morning—under a mosquito net, listening to the birds and the waves, watching pink light grow gold—it was with the conviction that now I was really in the Pacific.
Pension Papahani sits on the shores of Motu Tiapaa, facing the lagoon. Maupiti's terrain combines a classic high volcanic island (imagine Moorea) and a number of motus, or small islands (imagine Rangiroa). It is the best of both worlds: In Maupiti's center sits the high island, lush, dominated by a massive rock mountain, surrounded by the lagoon. The motus, flat, laden with coconut trees, encircle the lagoon; beyond them is the wide-open sea.
Before the advent of airplanes, to get in and out of this island was not easy. There is one and only one pass into Maupiti's lagoon, a stretch of water notorious as one of the most treacherous passes in French Polynesia. From the beach at Pension Papahani, you can watch the waves smash in the channel. The matriarch of Pension Papahani, Vilna Tuheiava, gave me the most beautiful explanation for this geographic configuration. "Maupiti, c'est une femme," she told me, "L'ile, ca c'est la flanc, the womb. Et la passe, ca c'est la sexe." In other words, Maupiti is a woman, and every time you enter—mythologically at least—you join yourself with her. The Tahitian name of the pass, Vilna told me, is Onoiau, which translates roughly as "you may enter if I allow." Vilna's explanation was, I thought, pure Polynesian, straight from a worldview that sees land as a living being, a creature of sensuality and fecundity.