POLYNESIAN PARTYING

October 18, 2002 11:00 pm
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By BILL LUNDQUIST

Pilot Staff Writer

After letting us swim with the sharks and rays, Marco, our Tahitian guide, took us out to his private motu, or islet, off Moorea.

Actually, it wasn't really a motu, he explained, but just a part of the reef that stuck above the water, and was covered with sand and low shrubs.

An enterprising young man, Marco had simply "claimed" the spot for his motu barbecue picnic operation.

He had built a couple of thatched roof shelters to shade his customers, and some benches for them to sit on.

We had been on the tour for several hours now, and what was most conspicuously lacking to us was some kind of outhouse.

A few of us ignorant tourists used the low shrubs on the tiny islet, but there wasn't much privacy, and the Polynesians looked at us like we were nuts.

We soon learned that there are few public rest rooms in French Polynesia, because everyone simply goes in the lagoons through their shorts or swim suits.

This is so common in Tahiti that an islander once told her boys to get out of our hotel's swimming pool because she thought they might be bothering us. All the while, she was holding her infant son over the pool so he could pee in it.

From a Polynesian viewpoint, however, going in the water makes perfect sense. French Polynesia occupies almost two million square miles of ocean, and has a population of about 230,000, with most of that in the main city of Papeete on Tahiti.

Papeete aside, if everyone else in French Polynesia used the ocean as an open toilet, the water would still be cleaner than it is off Brookings, where our treatment plant turns out almost pure water.

It took a psychological adjustment, but we soon came to appreciate the luxury of never having to seek out a rest room.

In fact, one of the most annoying things about returning to "civilization" was losing that "anytime, anywhere" freedom.

Jan Prince, the author of our Tahitian guidebook, later wrote us that we were the first tourists who had ever mentioned the idea of putting an outhouse on a motu.

Aside from that, Marco had anticipated our every need. There were coolers full of drinks, and large jugs of water. I was later to regret not sticking with the bottled water.

While we had been dancing with stingrays, Marco's crew had been grilling fish, chicken and sausages.

Before lunch, however, Marco demonstrated how Polynesians strip off a coconut husk with a pointed stick, break it open with one precise blow from the same stick, and drink the coconut water.

He then showed how women grate the meat from the shell and squeeze the "milk" out of it.

He explained that the dried meat, called copra, is used to make monoi oil, the best moisturizer on earth.

I don't know if he was kidding or not, but he said the oil from the dried coconut meat is combined with crushed crabs to make monoi.

The oil is available in bottles, scented with your choice of flowers. We wished we had bought a case.

Tahitians spend most of their days swimming, showering and slathering on more monoi oil until they glisten.

We were served mounds of lunch, buffet-style, on wooden platters. The food was wonderful, but I later stumbled upon one of the lunch crew washing the platters, utensils and grills in the same lagoon we had been advised to use as a toilet.

True, it was on the other side of the motu, but it did nothing for my digestion.

Following lunch, Marco put on a demonstration of how to tie a pareo. These are rectangular strips of cloth that can be worn as skirts, dresses, shorts, pant suites and just about anything else, if you know how to tie them.

In Indonesia, where most of the Tahitian pareos are actually made, they are known as sarongs.

Like the coconut show, Marco's pareo show soon turned bawdy and hilarious, and he was once again assisted by the amiable Australian gentleman, our own "Crocodile Dundee."

Marco knitted the fabric into positively obscene shapes, demonstrating once again that Tahiti is for the passionate, not the bashful.

Tahiti is also for the thin. We bought a book on how to tie a pareo, and the first instruction was always "wrap twice around the body."

One wrap around us, and there was no material left. My wife figured out how to make a nice sundress out of her pareo, and I just used mine as a simple skirt. Marco said I tied it like a girl, but his didn't look much different.

We used our pareos extensively that day to keep the sun off our skin. It was fall in the Southern Hemisphere, but the tropical sun was still intense.

We used 45 spf sunscreen on any exposed skin, and something stronger on our faces. One application in the morning usually held up the entire day.

We also prepared for our tropical trip by tanning about 20 minutes a day in Brookings' spring sunshine.

Once there, we exposed ourselves to the sun only when swimming or snorkeling, and I wore a T-shirt even then. Being bald, I always wore a swimming cap or stupid-looking floppy hat.

All the precautions paid off. We returned to Brookings with modest tans, but didn't lose a day of our vacation to sunburn.

The other tourists on our expedition, however, stripped to almost nothing and spent all day in the direct sun.

We watched as they progressively turned bright red. The Tahitian word for Caucasians, by the way, is popa'a, which literally means red lobster.

Before leaving the motu, we were given a couple of hours to enjoy the shallow straight between the motu and Moorea.

The wide channel, near some of the larger hotel complexes, was filled with snorkelers, waterskiers, and parasailers.

Well, "full" in Tahiti meant there were a couple of people here, a few more a half mile away, and a boat or two a mile from there.

I swam out to the middle of the channel and stood alone in the vast Pacific, the green peaks of Moorea rearing up behind me.

The clear blue water was filled with light, and it filled me with light. I could not then, and cannot now, believe the living can experience such beauty in this world. But I know it happened.

On the return trip, nearly everyone wanted to ride on the outrigger, which was sort of like waterskiing sitting down.

A couple of Marco's friends zoomed by in a speedboat, and he responded by gunning his motorized outrigger canoe until the wash nearly drowned one of the guys on the outrigger.

He also dinged the boat badly on some shallow coral, and sheepishly slowed back to "touring" pace.

The waves lulled the sunburned and weary crowd almost to sleep, making the spectacular scenery seem even more dreamlike than it had before.

As promised, Marco didn't lose a single passenger, and after a short van ride, we were back in our heavenly overwater bungalow.

I won't go into the details of our interlude there, but it fit in perfectly with the rest of the day, which I have called the best day of our lives.

The sun sets early and quickly in the tropical fall, and we were soon walking through well-lit, lush gardens to our hotel's open-air thatched roof restaurant.

True to his word, Charles, our Polynesian host extraordinaire, had reserved a table for us with a perfect view of the stage.

It was International Buffet Night, and the food was great. Most Polynesian food is tasty but rather bland. I was surprised by innocent-looking triangular Indonesian meat pies that had quite a kick. I cooled down with several kinds of dessert.

I steered clear of things like the heaping platters of tiger shrimp and raw oysters. We arrived at the buffet about a half hour after it opened, but the ice that was supposed to keep that stuff cold had already melted. A lot of it sat out at 82 degrees for hours.

Trust me, if it's not hot, cold, or well-cooked, don't eat it, no matter how tempting it may appear. The science of food preservation is not up to modern Western standards in French Polynesia.

The singing and dancing, however, puts all other cultures to shame. Dancers range from small children to 20-somethings, and they are more lithe and talented than those in the Broadway chorus lines.

The young gods and goddesses, as I call them, are built to Greek models of physical perfection.

No two are alike, but whether shorter, taller, thin or thinner, each is perfectly proportioned.

Photos don't do them justice. The shutter freezes their smoothly-flowing muscles into odd lumps while in mid-gyration.

The dancers are also great actors. They use their eyes and arms, not to mention their hips, in come-hither ways that no one could refuse.

A few minutes after the show, they were back in their shorts and T-shirts, smoking and giving tourists the same sullen and suspicious looks they might get from youths in any American inner-city.

On stage, however, they projected the warmth and charm that Hollywood used to make the South Pacific famous.

Unlike in Western Society, such charm and beauty does not get Tahitian youth very far, especially the women.

In America, women that beautiful can go to Hollywood or a New York modeling agency and write their own tickets.

In Tahiti, the young goddesses are treated quite shabbily by the young gods, and don't have much status in society until they have produced a few babies, which Tahitians adore.

The people who really count in Tahitian society are the rather rotund elders, those pushing 40 or older.

In the shows, they sing and play the instruments, producing a harmony too sweet to be real.

The dance groups on Moorea are all amateur, but they compete like athletic teams. It gives the youth something to do and helps preserve cultural traditions.

At the end of the show, tourists are invited to join in the dancing, just to prove, I suppose, that "white men can't dance."

My only regret was that my camera battery, which had performed flawlessly for two years, quit the second the dancers took the stage.

If I go blind tomorrow, though, I will always have the memory of unimaginable beauty.

As the day ended, we both knew it could never be equalled again in our lifetimes. It truly was the best day of our lives.

Alas, nothing good lasts forever. Next time: Trouble in paradise.