Some places live up to expectations, some exceed them, and some just plain suck. Sorry for the poor English but you get my drift. I`ve found so far that the places that the guidebooks tell you to go to, the places that are `famous´, the places that come heavy with the weight of expectation, rarely satisfy. What charm they may have had is diluted by aggressive hawkers, greedy taxi drivers, indifferent locals and drive-through McDonalds restaurants.
One of the images a lot of people have in mind is of a golden beach, bathed in sunshine, with a swaying palm tree and a woman in a sarong. It`s only when you actually get to the beach that you realise just how clever photographers and marketing people are, as the beach pictured on the brochure didn`t show the dog crap and broken glass around the paths, the overpriced drinks and fetid snacks in the restaurant, or the fat Germans pacing around in minute Speedos shouting abuse at the underpaid waiters. The more time I`ve been away, the more I`ve seen that there are hardly any places that have the power to surprise, to really satisfy, to exceed your expectations and leave you speechless. But I´ve still found some. Tahiti wasn`t one of them.
Tahiti embodies for some the idea of an island paradise, just the name does it, like a trademark. It was in Tahiti that the crew of Captain Bligh´s Bounty stayed for ten months collecting breadfruit plants – they loved the place so much that they rebelled when they had to leave. I went to Tahiti out of curiosity, because it was on the way somewhere else, not expecting too much. It turned out to be OK, but it´s no paradise. I stayed at a small pension (guest house) on the outskirts of town, Pension Teamo, looked after by the amiable and fussy Marie-Claude, just her name taking me back to school French lessons and the Bertillon family. Roaches scuttle over the floorboards in the evenings and noises wake you in the dead of night like someone is actually attempting to check the size of their room by swinging a cat, but otherwise it was comfortable, and the place comes with the added bonus of two small Gauloise-smoking Frenchmen who look like they`ve been there since the 1970s. Speaking of the French lessons, I must have paid more attention than I thought when Miss Benfield was spitting down the microphone in class, as my French dusted off almost respectably – French is the main language in Tahiti.
My stay of a few days was spent wandering the capital Papeete, were locals drive huge pickups they bought on credit and a small kiosk on the waterfront was the only place to buy remotely cheap food, and heading out to see the coast with some folks I met in the pension. I never got to see the rugged interior of the island, an unpopulated area of forest and jagged volcanic peaks, so my lasting image of Tahiti is of new housing being built on ledges cut into the hill-side, a Carrefour supermarket bustling with shoppers, and the buzz of vans and cars on the streets of Papeete, with the occasional comical sight of a cyclist`s pilion passenger playing his guitar as the bike wobbles down the street.
Your image of the food on a Pacific island may be of mouthwatering tropical fruits, colourful fish and yams, served on huge banana leaves. In Tahiti that`s sadly not the case. Most of the food is dried, preserved, processed and tinned, shipped in from thousands of miles away. The island has almost no food production of its own. The only place we found to get reasonably priced, reasonable food was Les Roulottes, a huddle of food vans down near the waterfront serving steak frites, fish, pizza, Chinese dishes and crepes to a mixed crowd of locals and tourists, while a local band played plinky-plonky Polynesian music in the background.
Nights in Papeete took on a slightly seedy quality, especially at the weekend, but the place felt basically safe. Dealers attempted to call you over to dark corners, and girls in very short skirts hung around the neighbourhood of our pension by the side of the road, including a beautiful Fafafini with the longest legs I`ve ever seen. Fafafini are transvestites, but more than that, they are boys who have been raised as girls – a tradition in Polynesian islands, when a family has no female children.
Tahiti was good harmless fun for a few days – but no more. Easter Island, next, had a completely different feel, and something incredible that I wasn´t expecting.