A NIGHT IN TAHITI

August 30, 2002 11:00 pm
Papeete is a green wonderland in the South Pacific. ().
Papeete is a green wonderland in the South Pacific. ().

By Bill Lundquist

Pilot Staff Writer

We'd been in Tahiti almost two hours, and it looked as though we were finally going to make it out of the Faaa International Airport.

It is a true international airport, but that doesn't mean it sees a lot of planes. Faaa doesn't have as much air traffic as the airport in Eugene.

That makes sense, since the islands of French Polynesia, occupying 2 million square miles of ocean, have about the same population as Lane County.

Most of those live in the city of Papeete (Pah-pay-eh-tay) on the northwest coast of the main island of Tahiti.

The airport and most of the luxury hotels are on the south outskirts of the city. Flights are so infrequent that the airport consists mainly of one long runway for jumbo jets. There is no danger that one taking off will meet one coming in.

Even though we were among the first passengers through customs, we had to sit in a stifling Marama Tours mini-bus until everyone going to any hotel had made it through customs and joined us.

It was fun watching the young honeymooner crowd, however. Pushing 50, we were probably twice the age of the next oldest couple.

Maybe it was our advanced age, but we were also feeling the tropical heat. After sitting in the vehicle for 45 minutes, we were nearing heat exhaustion.

All was forgotten, however, when our bus started to move. Suddenly, the air-conditioner became effective, and the sights, even at night, even in this rather dumpy suburb, were exotic.

The closest thing we'd seen to Tahiti before was the Jungle Cruise and Adventureland in Disneyland, but this was real.

Our bus first dropped off passengers at the Beachcomber Inter-Continental Hotel, one of Tahiti's finest.

The topless baggage-boy helping tourists with their luggage was our first sight of one of Tahiti's "young gods," and he certainly got my wife's attention.

Tahiti's young adults are the essence of physical perfection, and they glisten with sweet-smelling monoi oil, not sweat.

There were no luggage-handlers at our hotel, the Sofitel Maeva Beach, but that shouldn't have surprised us.

We later learned that the French Sofitel Coralia hotels are owned by the same corporation as Motel 6 in America.

The first thing the hotel clerk wanted to see was our voucher book from our tour company, Islands in the Sun.

This time, it wasn't too complicated. We handed them vouchers. They handed us an information packet and a room number.

Built in 1969, in a slightly pyramidal rectangular shape, the hotel wasn't anything special, but it did have a nice view, and every room was air-conditioned, to a degree.

I think the clerk went all out, at least by Tahitian standards, for our 29th anniversary by giving us a corner room on the fifth floor with a 180-degree incredible tropical view.

Soaked to the skin in the 80-degree, 98-percent humidity air (and this was a late fall night in the Southern Hemisphere) I was also dehydrated to the point of heat exhaustion.

In all of French Polynesia, only Papeete has chlorinated water, so I ran eagerly to the bathroom tap, which I twisted all the way open.

A little trickle of water ran out, then nothing. The clerk at the desk sounded exasperated that I would call her over such a trifling matter. Tahitians don't spend much time worrying, least of all about your problems.

It turned out the water had been off in the entire 224-room hotel all day while they worked on the system. We were told it might be back on within an hour.

I explained that I was about to die of thirst, and the clerk suggested I call room service.

I figured we'd find fluid faster in the restaurant, though we had no idea which of the two would accept our voucher book.

On our trip down to the beachfront restaurant, we received our first clues that we weren't in Kansas anymore (to paraphrase Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz").

The models in the advertising posters on the walls wore their company's black pearls, but nothing else. That was my first exposure (literally) to Tahiti's young goddesses.

The second unusual feature was the small gecko lizards running across the walls.

The famous Mo'o-rea, or yellow lizards, eat mosquitoes and other nasty bugs, and are considered welcome guests everywhere. The worst they will do to humans is poop on them.

The restaurant, like most in French Polynesia, had no walls for the Mo'o to run on, though I'm sure they were in the thatched roof above us.

Our table was already set with the ubiquitous dry, hard French rolls, but no water. Our waitress, stern and unusually thin for a middle-aged Tahitian, showed up in about 10 minutes, record speed on the islands.

We explained we were near death and she must have believed us, because within another 10 minutes, we had a bottle of water.

Not a good bottle of water, mind you. The only kind available at a Sofitel is Eau Royale, Tahitian for tap water.

Still, things were looking up. The water revived me and I relaxed and let the exotic setting soak in.

A trio (again, ubiquitous) was playing ukuleles and singing traditional Tahitian music at the adjacent outdoor bar.

A choir of angels would be positively put to shame by a few old Tahitians with ukuleles. Something about the harmony makes your soul throb.

The air was filled with the scent of the nearby Sea of the Moon, the ever-present sweet aroma of the tiare Tahiti gardenia, and of course, pungent French cigarettes.

I could forgive the French, however, once the food arrived. I love seafood, and nobody does it better than French Polynesians.

I decided I would have filet of swordfish in coconut sauce every day. I had no idea how prophetic that wish would be.

Rehydrated and pleasantly full, we walked on the beach under the southern stars.

Actually, more stars are visible from the Northern hemisphere, but the southern stars are different.

So is the water, which at 80 degrees, is not bath-water warm, but we had never experienced a warm ocean in our lives. We felt like we were on a different planet.

We walked out on a pier and gazed up at the Southern Cross constellation, blazing in a pitch-black sky. Could this be real?

Reality soon bit back, however. The water was back on when we returned to our room, except for the toilet.

I knew all it needed was a turn of the knob on the water pipe, but the valve was on the other side of the wall from our room.

The clerk was even more exasperated that I would bother her a second time, but within a half hour, someone had turned the knob.

Tahitian toilets, by the way, are interesting contraptions. To flush, you just pull up on a knob on the top of the tank, which is logically connected directly to the flapper.

Each flush releases a Niagara of water, which roars out of the front part of the bowl and disappears straight out the back. It's all over in a second.

I was disappointed that I couldn't see the water swirl in the opposite direction, which it is said to do in the Southern Hemisphere.

We still had nothing approaching actual water pressure, but the trickle of water in the shower felt like heaven.

Even better was the complimentary tiare-scented body wash and shampoo, which tingled and refreshed. Properly baptized, I emerged with an island attitude.

The thought of clothes seemed ridiculous in the heat. I would not don shoes and socks again for a week.

We had not yet purchased our pareos (like sarongs), so out of a misguided Western sense of modesty, I slipped on some boxer shorts before I stepped out onto our balcony.

It was raining now, but I could still see the Southern Cross. The rain was warm and gentle, so I took another shower, this time courtesy of nature.

Now, there are places in the world so wonderful that they can make you feel young again.

Tahiti goes beyond that. I believe to this day that we actually were 20 again, for that night.

People who don't believe such magic still exists in the world should go to Tahiti, and then tell me what they think.

So, clad only in our flower leis, we …

But what you really want to hear about is breakfast, right?

Next time, we find out beautiful Tahiti is dumpy compared with the other islands. Everything gets better, and worse.