Issue 8.4: August/September 2005

An Island At Sea

 

by Julia Steele
photos by Kyle Rothenborg

 

The first island I ever visited in my life was England—I was one, the Beatles were huge, it was cold, and one night, so my mother tells the story, I disappeared—only to be found, after a lengthy and increasingly frantic search, in a small store across a busy street, sitting on a stool, entertaining the locals. How I got there remains a mystery. More islands followed as I grew—Ibiza, where at six, I lived in a farmhouse with no running water or electricity, kept company by a monkey called Charlie Chaplin; Majuro, where at eight, I would fend off feral dogs and go reef-walking with my brother under the full moon; Jamaica, where at ten, I learned to love goat curry and drive a hard bargain with the dreadlocked women at the market; Fiji, where at thirteen,

I fell in love with the disco of Donna Summer and a Rotuman named Willy Valentine. And that is why islands for me have always represented adventure, abandon, unpredictability, bliss.

I’m thinking about this all as I sit on a tiny island in French Polynesia. It is my first trip to this country, and truth be told, I’d never been that interested in coming here: It all looked too manicured, too sophisticated, too expensive to me—I pictured a nation of gorgeous, pearl-strewn Tahitians munching croissants, a place where the nuclear testing was over, the living was easy and the Hinano beer flowed as profusely as the waterfalls. Where, I wondered, was the excitement, the volatility, in a place like that?

Now get this, because the irony grows thicker: As I’m sitting on this island, thinking these thoughts, I’m staring out at my cruise ship. Yes. My cruise ship, a 227-foot-long luxury craft replete with multi-star chef, a wine cellar, a jacuzzi on the sun deck and a live-aboard masseuse. I have spent the last few days on this modern-day, tricked-out bling-bling Bounty—me, who never expected to set foot on a cruise ship, who thought the whole industry should have quit while it was ahead, back in the days of the first Queen Mary. And here is the kicker: Every moment I spend in this country, I am more seduced by its vibrancy and its complexity. And my time on the ship? It is turning out to be one of the sweetest experiences of my life.


 

 

 

 

Before I go further, I should be a little clearer about the ship. First, while it is definitely no Kon-Tiki, nor is it one of those floating cities with casinos, piano bars and twenty-four-hour restaurants. Banish all thoughts of shuffleboard. The Ti‘a Moana has only thirty cabins and carries a maximum of sixty passengers. Size on a boat is directly correlated to intimacy, and the Ti‘a Moana is lodged at just the right spot on the graph between the claustrophobia of a small yacht and the anonymity of a large liner. It is also, thanks to the fact that Tahiti has been touted around the world as the planet’s ultimate paradise, a sort of floating paean to globalism. Though there were only forty of us the week I was onboard, we represented France, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Australia, the United States and Canada.

The most interesting thing about the ship, though, is who’s behind it. Development, design, ownership, operations—it’s all been handled by one person: Mehiti Degage, a young French-Tahitian woman, scion of a shipping magnate. Mehiti started out running ferries between Tahiti and Moorea and dreaming of creating something, as she puts it, "completely new and different, intimate, nomadic." She wanted to fashion an experience that would offer an authentic immersion in Polynesian landscapes and culture; given her country’s history and her family’s background, she was also more than a little aware that something singular happens when you combine Tahiti and ships (these islands gave birth, remember, to many of the Pacific’s great voyaging canoes).

Flush with ideas, Mehiti collaborated on the design of two sister vessels: the Ti‘a Moana and the Tu Moana. She filled both with Tahitian and Marquesan art and artifacts. Then she designed their voyages, crafting an excursion that passes through a quartet of islands: Raiatea, Taha‘a, Huahine and Bora Bora, each a world unique unto itself. Raiatea is French Polynesia’s most sacred island, the spot where many of the trans-Pacific voyaging canoes set sail. Taha‘a is a fertile land of plenty, the main source of the country’s vanilla crop. Huahine is famed for its archaeological sites and Eden-like vistas. And Bora Bora—well, it is the supermodel of the world’s islands, a place where the intensity of the beauty makes reality feel completely unreal. And it is here—fantasy island ground zero—that my journey on the ship begins.


 

 

 

"Welcome to my motu!"

Mahea Lichtle spreads his arms wide as he watches me wade through clear water and make my way onto the dry sand of Iva Iva, the small island, or motu, in Bora’s lagoon he calls home. His smile is wide, he wears nothing but a pareo, and sun and sand have styled his hair into a look that works way better for him than it did for Tom Hanks in Castaway. Mahea is a descendent of King Puni and some of the European sailors who stayed in Tahiti a few generations back; he spent ten years in Paris as French Polynesia’s cultural attaché, wearing a suit, then returned home and worked with Mehiti as her first cruise director. Now he’s gone troppo and lives in a small hut on the beach, spending his days fishing and diving. Not that he’s left glamour behind, though, because, after all, this is Bora. "Sharon Stone was here last week," he says, as we talk about living the pared-down life. "I saw these guys and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing on my island?’ and they said, ‘We’re going to take pictures of Sharon Stone for Vanity Fair,’ so I said, ‘Well, OK.’" He laughs.

You can understand why any art director back in Manhattan would want to use these vistas: calm iridescent waters, Bora’s Mount Otemanu rising lush and steep across the lagoon, light that paints everything more vivid. A trip to Iva Iva is the first adventure of the week off the Ti‘a Moana: a time to snorkel, explore, revel in the heat. After a dip in the sea, I talk with Mahea about theories of Pacific migration. I’ve come here from Hawaii, an easy five hours by plane, but I’m still conscious that I’m retracing a centuries-old route in this ocean. Mahea’s conscious of it, too. He grabs a stick and draws the Polynesian triangle on the beach, then quickly, expertly, offers a mini-seminar on the journeys that have come before, making holes and lines—islands and routes—in the wet, soft sand.


 

 

 
Tavita Manea

This awareness of ships and voyages and how the Pacific was settled is something I encounter throughout the week—though no one beats the way Tavita Manea tells the story. He’s got the whole thing tattooed on his back: a canoe sailing out from his spine, Marquesan mountains across his shoulders, a god perched below his neck. I meet Tavita on day two on the ship, when we’re anchored off Taha‘a; he’s come on board to teach us about tattoos and draw us each a temporary one. Tavita is a billboard for his art form: a walking, talking cultural monument who got his first tattoo at twenty-one and now, seventeen years later, is covered in them from head to toe. He has felt pens stuck through holes in his ears; he grabs one, then my foot, and deftly creates a tour de force. "L’histoire de la mer," he says when I ask what he would call it, and he shows me how the abstract black patterns he has drawn are a wave, a motu, the eyes of the wind, a dolphin. It’s beautiful, and when I think about swimming later that afternoon, I have to weigh my desire to be in the ocean against my desire to keep its story from washing off my foot.

Like Mahea, Tavita has had his share of time outside the islands: He mentions casually to one of the Spaniards on the ship that he spent a year in Barcelona. This theme is a recurring one: Many of the Tahitians I meet are people who’ve been away, then returned to live on ancestral land. "J’aime beaucoup parce que c’est sauvage," Tavita tells me when I ask why he moved to his mother’s home island of Taha‘a. In other words, he’s on this agrarian island, population 4,000, for a back-to-the-land experience. Actually, make that a back-to-the-island experience. Maybe, I think, like so many who start out on islands, he has found himself unable to live anywhere else, unable to live without the immediacy of the enveloping sea. I wonder, too, if he is wedded to living in a place where the lines of the land become so familiar, they begin to exist in the consciousness like a tattoo.


 

 

 
Ti‘a Moana Captain Julien
Dienis (left) with chief
engineer Jean Marc Rouet.

Stéphane Toimata has got to be one of the most stylish guys in French Polynesia: For someone who wears very little, he wears it very well, and he could teach John Galliano a thing or two about accessorizing with plants. Stéphane lives on Motu Ea, at the edge of Taha‘a’s lagoon, with a dreamy view across to Bora. Almost three years ago, he moved to Ea to live in a simple shack and start Mata Tours, named for his great-grandfather Mata, a shark caller who appeared to him in a dream and urged him to stick with the family business.

Stéphane tells me the story as we sit on Ea’s beach, finishing up a traditional Tahitian tama‘ara‘a, or feast, and looking across turquoise shallows to hundreds of coconut trees standing on a neighboring motu. A day with Stéphane is another event off the ship, and earlier a group of us were out in the lagoon with him, swimming with stingrays, then watching him call in and feed a dozen black-tip reef sharks. He stood in the water as the sharks swirled around him, utterly at ease, occasionally picking one up as it swam by. It was wonderful to see sharks in the wild, but it was even better to see Stéphane so utterly attuned to the sea, continuing an ancient way of living with the ocean.

Which leads to another thing about these islands: the benevolence of the lagoons. Each of the landfalls we visit is surrounded by wide, fertile, protected waters that have nurtured life for eons. The lagoons have a fantastic calm to them. When we are outside them at night on the ship, traveling between islands, the sea is filled with slow, strong swells. When we pass into the lagoons, everything stills.

Each dawn, I get up to watch the ship enter the day’s lagoon. This morning, we are nearing the Iriru Pass into Raiatea. Behind, Huahine is lit gold by the waking sun; ahead, Raiatea is still in shadow, with a stark white cloud sitting atop its highest mountain like a halo. I’m on the bridge, where first mate Nicolas Popinet offers coffee, and the captain, Julien Dienis, shows me the charts. Julien is new to the boat, just arrived from driving an Exxon oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. Judging by the calm smile on his face, he isn’t having any problem adapting.

The ocean outside is 2,480 meters deep, according to the charts; entering the lagoon, it’s thirty-two meters, and as we cruise into the pass, the color of the water shifts from deep navy blue to pale aqua. I look out at the two small motus that flank the pass, Tipaemau and Ilê Iriru. Later tonight, we’ll be on Iriru, watching a silent movie called Tabu that was shot in Bora Bora in the late 1920s; it won its cinematographer, Floyd Crosby, an Academy Award. Sitting under the stars, watching the film on a screen slung between two coconut trees, listening to the waves lap against the shore, I remember that Mehiti said time on the boat "stimulates the senses in a rich, vital and fragrant manner." At the time I heard it, it sounded like hyperbole. Sitting here, I realize it’s true.


 

 

 

One day, with my tattoo from Tavita mostly gone, I decide to swim around the boat. We’re anchored off Raiatea, in Fa‘aroa Bay, the deepest bay in Polynesia. I dive in off the back and immediately get vertigo—looking down, I see only clear blue dropping away to nothingness. I decide to swim with my head above water—perfect, really, since it gives me a whole new perspective on the ship, a fish-eye view. A paddler comes by on one of the small fiberglass outriggers that are as common in these islands as bicycles in Holland. I tread water and we chat in French, as naturally as if we’d just met on the street.

The paddler has come from Fa‘aroa River, which empties into this bay; earlier in the day, a group of us from the ship kayaked up it. The river is narrow, lush, slow-moving, but despite its quietude, it has a huge historical significance—it is the only navigable river in French Polynesia and it was from its mouth that many of the canoes that left Raiatea for Aotearoa and Hawaii were launched; when Captain James Cook arrived in Raiatea, he noted that logs destined to become canoes were floated down Fa‘aroa. As I say au revoir to the paddler and watch him head off toward the ocean, I think of all the others before who have headed out to sea here. I look down again, into the blue void, to give myself an inkling of how they must have felt. Then I climb out of the water and back onto the ship.


 

 

 
Jean-Michel Braesch

On the great canoes, seafarers ate fish, breadfruit, taro, coconut. On Cook’s ships, the crew’s fare was salted pork, biscuits, sauerkraut. On the Ti‘a Moana tonight, dinner is chilled lychee-and-champagne soup, pepper-crusted seared ‘ahi and crème caramel.... Or maybe it is hearts of palm-and-pineapple salad, moonfish in banana leaves and chocolate fondue. Truth is, I ate all of those things on the ship, but I can’t remember now in which order. What I do remember is the artistry of Jean-Michel Braesch, the ship’s very young, very talented chef from Alsace. I first met Jean-Michel at dawn, on the bridge, when he pointed out dolphins to me as we were entering the pass at Huahine. He was wearing his cooking smock already. "Bien sur," he said when I asked if I could see where he cooks, and so here I am in the galley. It is so small and so hot that it feels less like a kitchen, more like one big oven; standing side-by-side, I think Jean-Michel and I must look like Hansel and Gretel. From the confines of this small miracle of engineering and space management, Jean-Michel and his team do 300 meals a day when the ship is full, feeding sixty passengers and forty crew. The food, like the manifest, is a testament to the increasing smallness of our world.

"The ostrich comes from Australia, the quail from France, strawberries from the United States, dried bananas from the Marquesas," he explains when I marvel at the range of things we are eating. There are local delicacies, too: Fish from island fishermen; watermelon, coconut, fresh bananas; breads, croissants and pain au chocolat, all bought as dough on Bora, then baked fresh each day. "Pastry is difficult, because it’s eighty-six degrees here in the galley," says Jean-Michel, though he hardly need say it—the sweat on everyone’s foreheads makes it obvious.


 

 

 

"Paradise is a myth."

It’s morning and I’m sitting at a table in the shallows off a Huahine beach with Paul Atallah, an archaeologist friend from Hawaii who now lives on Huahine. Paul’s come to join me for the ship’s breakfast on the beach—there’s champagne and omelets, and though Paul and I have each spent years on islands, we’ve neither of us actually had a meal with our feet in the lagoon before. As we eat, we talk about Tahiti and that leads to a discussion of the way outsiders have viewed it since they first came upon it—a view Paul characterizes as "overly romanticized baloney."

"There was never paradise here and there probably never will be," Paul says; as an archaeologist, he has dug through all sides of history and upturned all sides of human nature, and when he talks of Tahiti’s history, it’s of tribal warfare and human sacrifice. Later in the day, I’ll tour Huahine with Paul, seeing maraes, fishponds, farms—the human influence, with all of the good and the bad that comes with that everywhere on the earth. But now, looking out at the sea and the reef, I’m not thinking about the human history of this island—and while intellectually I know that everything Paul’s saying is true, I feel myself in a wonderland. Looking at a vista of ocean and sky that has existed unchanged for millions of years, I think how perfectly in balance nature is here—and that to me looks like paradise.


 

 

My favorite story about a cruise ship is The Lady Eve, a 1941 Preston Sturges comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck as a glamorous card shark crossing the Atlantic. It’s a movie to permanently fuse ships, games and savoir-faire in the consciousness, and I’m reminded of it when the ship’s consummately urbane hotel director invites me to play backgammon on the deck after dinner one night. Jean-Gabriel Hamdad is an Algerian who grew up in France and now lives in Australia; he’s witty and charming, and if this were a movie, I think he’d be played by Omar Sharif. We drink cognac, smoke Benson & Hedges, laugh a lot and play into the wee hours. The first night, I’m rusty and he’s kind, reminding me of strategies I’d long forgotten; I win a few games and he wins a few. And then, from the next night on, something strange happens. I can’t lose. I win game after game after game, and when I come back from sure defeat three times in a row, all three times winning by only one roll, I realize that the universe is taking this opportunity to remind me that life is guided by something far more profound than luck or chance. I never do lose another game on the ship.

Which brings me back to my earlier musings on islands. Sitting on the motu, looking out at the Ti‘a Moana, I realize my time on it has left me feeling reborn, reawakened, like I’ve just lived through some sort of fantastic magic trick. That that has happened on a swanky cruise ship in French Polynesia amazes me, but then I think, why not? In truth, this ship is itself yet another island—yet another that has brought with it adventure, abandon, unpredictability, bliss.    HH