As Hawaii is more exotic than Southern California, so Tahiti is more exotic than Hawaii.
The difference has to do, I think, with its greater remoteness from what they referred to in the film Stagecoach as “the blessings of civilization”. The “Society Islands” are in the middle of nowhere, south of the magical equator, enriched by the retained remnants French colonial culture and cuisine, contrasting with Hawaii’s American besmirchment.
If the current residents’ ancestors when they outriggered from Tahiti homeland to Hawaii had known they would someday be building a string of Pizza Huts throughout the islands, they would have likely remained in Tahiti.
“That’s a long paddle for ‘restaurant chain’ pizza.”
Having hiatused the previous year in Hawaii, I decided – or perhaps a co-worker recommended – a more adventuresome excursion to Tahiti, with the nearby islands of Moorea and Bora Bora.
When he heard I was visiting Tahiti by myself, my boss, a recognized bon vivant, insisted that, if I offered to pay her way, he could easily connect me with a congenial female companion, so I could appreciate the tropical paradise in the appropriate manner.
If you think that happened, you are hardly regular readers. Or if you are, you are paying insufficient attention. Would it have been nice to do that? It might have been. But with my rich and fertile imagination, I immediately envisioned,
“I know you paid for this trip but I have taken an interest in the bell boy.”
The excursion involved a nine-hour flight from Los Angeles, with a refueling stopover at the halfway point in Hawaii. “The halfway point.” Meaning, I was venturing twice as far into the Pacific as I had ever ventured before.
The single drawback is that I was traveling in “Coach”, in a wide-bodied airplane whose middle row included five seats, to which I was randomly assigned the middle one. Forty years later, and I can still remember that middle seat. And the two passengers on each side who did not talk to me. I could intuit their unentitled superiority.
“The middle seat of five. Doesn’t that say ‘Nobody’!”
We landed finally at Faaa Airport (pronounced “Fah-ah-ah”, Polynesians allowing no vowel to go to waste.) What then followed were sixteen days of tropical grandeur.
The vacation was, as I had mentioned, forty years ago. What I have left are disparate shards of recollection:
The most dazzling unimpeded sunlight I have ever experienced.
Crystal clear, aqua-turquoise waters rendered glacierly smooth by an encircling reef.
A comfortable cabin stilted over the Pacific including a glass window in the floor so you could watch the fishies swim by underneath, and a back patio, down whose steps you could descend into the sun-heated perfection.
Excellent snorkeling. (Mary Tyler Moore, recognized for her privateness and her reserve – she invariably ate “show night dinner” by herself – voluntarily entered the conversation before a filming, advising me to buy my own snorkeling mask so it would fit more snugly on my face than the hotel-supplied apparatus. And I did.)
Mimicking a Disney animated feature, the fish proceeded beneath me in seemingly organized phalanxes, multi-colored and beautiful – orange fish, black-and-yellow striped fish, polka-dotted fish, long fish, flat fish, fish with outsized, fan-like fins, fish with hose-like proboscises.
It was the Rose Bowl Parade, with sea creatures. And you’re wet.
Speaking of sea creatures, reliably after dinner, weird, grayish manta rays swam past my patio. We’d been instructed to toss them wadded pieces of bread. Unsure what these bizarre-looking – fish? mammals? – were actually capable of, fearing, their appetites whetted by the bread morsels, they might slither onto my porch and take a big bite out of my foot, I lofted the proffered bread into the water and then scurried into my room, locking the door, lest they be able to negotiate the doorknob with their snouts.
On the principal island of Tahiti, I arranged for an organized “day-tour”. We saw turtles you could actually ride on. Not that they allowed you to ride the turtles, but they were so big, riding them was easily possible. If you had exceptionally short legs.
At a stoplight on Papeete’s (Pa-pay-yay-tay’s – I told you) central thoroughfare, our tour guide claimed that the enormous man lumbering up the street beside us was actually Marlon Brando. Everyone went “Yeah, right.” Except that it was.
The “Gauguin Museum” – Paul Gauguin once resided and painted in Tahiti – was so financially impoverished they had to sell the majority of their genuine “Gauguins”, decorating their interiors with counterfeit “knock-offs.”
I had a delightful dinner with a Mia Farrow look-alike who I knew was not Farrow herself as there was nary a mention of Frank Sinatra.
I befriended an older couple – who were probably younger than I am now – the husband of whom, named Norm, bore a resemblance to President Jerry Ford, both in look and in Midwestern demeanor.
Since Norm could never remember my name, I came up with a strategy. Whenever we ran into each other, we’d great each other saying our own names instead of the other person’s – I’d say to him, “Hi, Earl” and Norm would respond, “Hi, Norm.”
Near the end of the trip, Norm’s wife informed me that he was seriously ill, and that my interest and companionship had been a welcome distraction. I felt good doing something for somebody else. I ought to try it again some time.
I am certain there are more noteworthy memories, which will surely come to mind after I click on the word, “Publish.” It was some kind of a trip.
I have, however, never returned to Tahiti, and here’s at least partially why.
One night, when I was outside, standing next to an older stranger, enjoying a spectacular sunset, I ventured, referencing the Tahitian experience,
“Isn’t this wonderful?”
To which he grumpily replied,
“It’s not like it was.”
That’s one reason I have never gone back. I am afraid that now I’d be the guy saying,
“It’s not like it was.”
And who the heck needs to hear that?