Tahiti: A Little Magic, A Little Mystery

Flying into Bora Bora, February 2003

“One visit to Tahiti will make you forget all about Hawai’i!” How many times had I heard or read such a proclamation? I first “discovered” Hawaii in 1994 and have had an ongoing love affair with the islands ever since: majestic scenery, inviting waters, fresh and deliciously prepared food, and a fascinating history, culture, and music scene. Despite my red hair, freckles and an ancestry tracing back to the Pilgrims, I feel as if I am an honorary Hawaiian. So when the opportunity arose in 2003 to take a sabbatical from my university and do a trip around the Pacific Rim, I added Tahiti to my itinerary, thinking it’d be great to see the place from which people migrated and crossed thousands of miles of the Pacific to reach and settle Hawaii.

Tahiti was my last stop on a 7-week trip that took me to Thailand, Bali, Australia, and New Zealand. I left Auckland late on a Sunday afternoon and thanks to the international dateline, I arrived in Papeete, Tahiti at 11:30 on a Saturday night. I had reservations at Hotel Matavai, and was told that I could call them from the airport and they’d send a bus to pick me up. After much searching I found the Hotel Matavai phone, only to find that the cord had been ripped out of the wall. After another 10 minutes I found an intercom on a wall that said “Hotel Matavai”, so I pressed the button, and after a few seconds, through static thick enough to make me think I was communicating with someone in another solar system, a far off voice could be heard asking, “EES THEESE MEESTER DAVEESE?”  I screamed that, yes, indeed it was, and heard the tinny voice say, “Look for bus, 5 minutes.” A big yellow bus arrived 20 minutes later and off I went, arriving at the hotel at 1AM. It looked like a run-down Holiday Inn, but it was only for one night so I wasn’t worried. When I asked the desk staff when the ferry departed for Moorea in the morning they said, “We don’t know. Come down and see our travel agent around 6:30 or 7:00”. So much for getting a full or restful night’s sleep!

I ended up “sleeping in” until 7:45, rushed to the lobby and learned that the ferry departs at 9:15. I caught the shuttle to the port and saw a bit of lovely downtown Papeete; picture a hybrid of Fresno, California and Tijuana, Mexico with lots of chickens!  There is a nice shopping area, but mostly it’s a muddy, messy little place. I couldn’t wait to sail off to Moorea, looming on the horizon, to start my real Tahitian experience. Once the ferry got me to Moorea, I had to catch the island’s bus system, and as a reminder that this is a French territory, it is called Le Truck. Some of the Le Trucks are really buses, but many are big pick-up trucks with a roof and bench seats in the bed and no functioning shock absorbers. It took about a half hour to reach Cook’s Bay where my hotel, Club Bali Hai was located. Cook’s Bay is a beautiful body of water, surrounded on three sides by tall green mountains and the hotel has a prime location here. My overwater bungalow was built on stilts over the bay, a roomy and pleasant little cottage with lots of windows and a porch. It had a refrigerator, stove and microwave, and a cozy living area with a separate bedroom and an outdoor shower with a garden. This was no Hotel Matavai, and I was grateful!

I learned that Le Truck only runs after or before a ferry departure, and there are only two departures a day, so there really is no public transportation at all. Taxis cost between $25 and $40, depending on where you want to go, and everything within the immediate vicinity of my hotel was closed on Sunday. I suddenly felt like a contestant on Survivor, a feeling which I found would recur often on this trip.

I ended up taking a long nap, and then went for a swim at the beach where I met Al, a 60-ish man from New Jersey. Al told me that he is a former US army officer who now bills himself as “Al, the Magician of Mystery”. He was staying at Hotel Kaveka, a mile down the road and was trying to convince the manager there to allow him to do a dinner show of magic (and mystery) in return for a free lodgings and dinner. He was quite a character. Since my hotel didn’t serve dinner I decided to walk to the Kaveka, which was a small, rather dark and depressing place, but I sat on their outdoor terrace and ordered shrimp curry, rice and a bottle of water (tap water is not drinkable here). My dinner cost $30 and was as bland as it could be, with hideously undercooked rice.

Of course Al soon appeared, lurking around looking for the hotel manager, who I am certain was trying to hide from him. He joined me for dinner, and entertained me with several magic tricks. A few were kind of sad and pathetic, but he did do a few that truly stumped me, like smearing chocolate sauce into my right hand and having it magically move to my left hand as well. However, when I gave that some thought, I realized that I’m able to do that myself with very little effort when I am eating an ice cream cone or a messy pastry. Al also did a few interesting rope tricks and I had no clue how he’d accomplished them. He is, however, quite mad. He rambled almost incoherently about things that sounded like headlines from The National Enquirer. After dinner, he was off again in search of the manager, and I made a hasty retreat down the pitch-black road to my own hotel.

The next day, short on cash, I walked three miles into a “town” which consisted of two restaurants, three banks, and a couple of souvenir shops. I then went to an internet cafe and was horrified by the $3 for 15 minute rate they charged. With nothing more to see, I ended up hitch-hiking back to my hotel (the first time in my life I’ve ever hitchhiked), and got a ride fairly easily. I’d signed up with Club Bali Hai’s tour director, Stefanie, to go on a four hour long safari tour of the island in “a 4 wheel drive air conditioned van”, which was scheduled to depart at 1PM. By 1:30 there was no van, so Stefanie called and learned that I was the only person who’d signed up, so the tour had been cancelled. With determination, she then got back on the phone and after four futile attempts to find a tour for me, she got me a spot on Ben Tours (not Ben’s Tours, Ben Tours). They were to pick me up in just 10 minutes in front of the hotel and they did, after driving past me once, requiring me to run back into the hotel to tell Stefanie they’d forgotten me!

The “air conditioned van” was an open-air pick-up truck with boards for seats and a tarp on the roof… a kind of mini Le Truck. The driver and guide was Roger (pronounced in French as RO-JAY), a Polynesian man who spoke fluent French and little English. There were two French couples already in the truck and neither of them spoke any English so I would have to rely on my incredibly rusty French. Off we went to explore an agricultural area, a fruit juice distillery, a waterfall, and a scenic overlook on our island safari. We drove up terribly rutted and pot holed roads, mostly dirt and mud, and had to hold on tightly to keep from bouncing on the plank seats. We entered the agricultural area, and without leaving his driver’s seat or slowing down, Roger began shouting fruit names, in French, out his window. It was hard to hear him with all the rattling and banging of the truck on the bad roads, and then of course, he only spoke French. Friends tease me that I learn the names of food first when I study other languages, but it paid off now.

Annanas!” Roger screamed (pineapples), and we would all look to the left to see a pineapple field.  “Papaye! ” (papayas), and we all looked to the right. “Annanas! Avocat! Annanas! Banane! Annanas!” (There were a LOT of annanas!)  It was so absurd, I kept giggling, but I couldn’t explain to my French friends why I found this all so amusing. We then drove at least 15 minutes down even bumpier roads to the juice distillery. Free samples of tropical juice sounded good on this hot, sticky day, but alas, the distillery was closed, and why Roger did not know this is in advance is a mystery. The scenic lookout might have been scenic if it hadn’t been shrouded in clouds and rain. We then stopped at a large, flat stone structure that resembled the heiau temples found in Hawaii. To my amazement, Roger actually got out of the truck to give some explanation to the French tourists and they all hopped out to have a look. To me, all he said was, “ancient temple”, which was wonderfully informative, as well as a bit confusing; a sign beside the structure had an English caption reading, “archery platform.” Maybe they shot bows and arrows during their religious ceremonies? I’ll never know, as Roger quickly herded us back into the truck for another grueling hour’s drive.

Cars would come flying up behind us, their drivers cursing Roger’s slow speed, and them zoom past us at their first opportunity. I got into a fit of almost uncontrollable laughter as I started daydreaming: maybe I could make a sign saying, “Help… I have been kidnapped. Please save me!” and dangle it from the back of the truck. We finally stopped at a convenience store for cold drinks; the price was not included in the tour despite missing our fruit juice distillery visit. As we all got back into the truck I noted that one of the Frenchmen had a Hinano beer. I gestured to it and said, “Bon idee!” and then holding up my bottled juice, said, “Je suis stupide“, and this got a hearty laugh from the French, who seemed every bit as bored as I was.

Finally, we got onto the dirt road leading to the waterfall, but halfway down, Roger stopped, got out of the truck and told us that the waterfall was dry, pointing to a bare spot of rock on the hillside. Never fear… to make up for this sad state of affairs, Roger gathered several fruits (whose French names I now knew by heart) – pamplemousse (grapefruit), coco (coconut), and of course the ever popular annanas. Taking a hygienically questionable knife from the glove compartment, he began slicing them all up for us to sample. I began laughing again as I imagined my germ-conscious friend Carol being here, shaking her head and saying definitively, “I am not touching those fruits!” However, the fruit was tasty, and I lived to tell this story.

And that was my circle island safari. I can honestly say that other than a nice view here or there, I saw NOTHING on the island to warrant further exploration. There are simply widely scattered hotels, a restaurant or small general store here and there and little else. I kept thinking of Shania Twain’s song, That Don’t Impress Me Much, making up my own lyrics in my head as we drove: “So you’ve got a closed juice distillery, so you have a dry waterfall… that don’t impress me much!”

Things improved that night. At 5:30 each evening, a guy named Muk (he is a white, American guy and I have no idea why he is called Muk) who founded the Club Bali Hai 30 years ago, holds a get together around the pool, and all the guests come out to have a drink and talk. It was actually fun, and I got the scoop on where to eat. A couple from New Zealand, Kevin and Anne invited me to join them for dinner at a tiny place called Chez Michelle. It is run by a single French woman (Michelle, I presume) who closes by 7:30 if no one shows up. We were her only customers, but for $15 she made us a stupendous dinner of fresh fish, vegetables and fluffy rice, and some of the best ice cream I have ever tasted. Thank God, there is a good place to eat here!

The next day I’d signed up for a shark and stingray feeding trip. We set out on a sunny morning and went to the shark feeding location, where the captain was to get out and feed dead fish to black-tipped reef sharks while we all put on snorkels and held onto a rope down current from where the sharks feed. Although we were told by Stefanie, whom I should not have trusted after sending me on “Hell Safari”, that the trip included full snorkel gear, there was none available. When half the boat almost mutinied, the crew “found” a few stray masks, with no snorkels attached, and many had broken straps, so all you could do was hold it to your face, hold your breath and stick your head in the water for as long as you could! In addition, the waters were very choppy and it was hard to balance. I held onto the rope, but occasionally someone would hang on it, sending me underwater for a huge drink of sea water. Someone else would cling to me for support and push or pull me underwater. It was a nightmare, and all I got were a few quick glimpses of golden reef sharks with black-tipped fins, maybe 5 – 6 feet in length.

The stingray feeding, thankfully, was a whole different kettle of fish, so to speak. We anchored in much calmer and shallower water, and as soon as we get out of the boat we were surrounded by dozens of these creatures, deep gray with white underbellies, 4 – 5 feet across with tails about four feet long. They are gentle and curious animals that would come right to you and sort of slide up your body until the front of their head was out of the water. They have very human-looking eyes that look right into yours, and you can pet them and feed them dead fish. It was an absolutely wonderful experience. Toward the end, many black-tipped sharks gathered around – at least five, and some of them were swimming only 10 feet from me, but for some reason it wasn’t scary, even though it perhaps should have been.

The following day I caught the ferry back to Papeete, and then headed to the airport for my flight to Bora Bora. Interestingly, on the ferry crossing, I sat inside and didn’t have even the slightest urge to look back at Moorea as we sailed away. Uncharacteristically for me, I felt no twinge of sadness upon leaving.

The flight to Bora Bora took 45 minutes, and despite a lot of cloud cover, the clouds broke and we were treated to a spectacular aerial view of the island and its surrounding lagoon and motu. A motu I learned years ago from yes, Survivor is a narrow barrier island of coral and sand that rings the main island and protects the lagoon. It was truly one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen. The airport is located on a motu, and is all open-air, fronting a beautiful beach with a view toward the main island. A small boat from my hotel was waiting to greet me, and I was taken across the lagoon to my hotel, the Eden Beach, located on a very long, skinny motu on the east side of the island.

I can truthfully say that as the boat docked at the Eden’s pier, I thought I had arrived on Fantasy Island. The lagoon is indescribable shades of blue and green, and the white, coral sand beach was blinding in the sunlight. Palms trees lined the beach and the pool and bar area offered stunning views of the lagoon, with the main island of Bora Bora and its craggy green mountains in the background. The hotel has only 14 units, and I was told that only four were occupied on the day I arrived, so it was very quiet. I got checked in and was shown to my beachfront bungalow, which shared this same view. This was the most expensive hotel I’d ever stayed at in my life, a “bargain” at $350 a night compared to other properties I’d looked at. The room had no refrigerator and few amenities, but was clean, comfortable and in a spectacular locale. However, other than the hotel, there is absolutely nothing else here, not even a convenience store or cafe. If you want anything else, a free shuttle boat can take you to the main island, but it leaves and returns only four times each day.

My first stop was the hotel’s restaurant for lunch. To my surprise I realized that of the three waitresses who seemed to be running everything, two were actually men: either transvestites or transsexuals. I later determined after doing some research that these people are referred to as mahu.  In Hawaii this term is a derogatory name for gays, akin to “faggot”; in Polynesian tradition it’s used to describe individuals who have a mix of both masculine and feminine traits: a “third sex”. Mahu typically dress and live as women out of a natural orientation, but in some cases, especially in the past, boys who were born into a large family with many male siblings might be chosen and raised as mahu from birth. Mahu are regarded with a very special, gifted status in this culture, but may find life very difficult if they move to places like Auckland or Sydney, where they are subjected to prejudices and violence, much like transgendered people are in the west.

After lunch I decided to take the shuttle over to the main island, but by now it was raining. When I reached the other side, I discovered that there was nothing there except for a car and bike rental agency, both of which were closed. There were no stores, no restaurants, nothing! Evidently the only substantial town is on the other side of the island and there is no public transportation. At that point I decided to catch a shuttle over to the Meridien Hotel and figured I could just walk from there back along the motu to my hotel. The Meridien is a beautiful, 5-star hotel, but other than lovely grounds, there wasn’t much in the way of shops or anything to see, so with a sigh I decided to begin the walk back toward my hotel. After several minutes of walking northward, the paved paths vanished and I followed what appeared to be an established trail, but the farther I walked, the less developed the trail became. Rain started again with a vengeance. I headed east across the motu to the ocean and followed a gravel path for awhile, but that soon gave way to a rough coral path that was difficult to walk on, with little cover from trees to keep the rain off. I went west again, back to the lagoon side and the trail got still rougher. At some points the trail vanished entirely and I had no option but to walk into the warm lagoon and wade in water almost as high as my waist for many yards with my backpack over my head to keep it dry. Soon small shacks that seemed abandoned and looked like temporary quarters used by local fisherman cropped up in the dense foliage around me. Tabu! (keep out) signs were plentiful, but by now I’d been walking almost 45 minutes and figured my hotel could not be too much farther away. Some shacks were guarded by several barking dogs, so, back into the lagoon I went to give the dogs a wide berth until it felt safe to “come ashore” again.

Many times I was startled by things moving in the brush, and knowing there are no snakes on the motu, I wondered what they were. Finally, I got a good look at one: it was a huge crab, the size of an Alaskan king crab!  There were also plants covered in tiny, sharp-tipped seeds that clung to both clothes and skin. Some of them got on my leg, and I thoughtlessly tried to sweep them off with my hand, only to have one embed itself in my thumb causing much pain and considerable bleeding! As if this weren’t exciting enough, two thunderous explosions occurred off in the distance, but they were not thunder. I thought to myself, “Oh, great! With my luck the French have resumed their nuclear testing here!”

After 90 minutes I made it back to the Eden Beach, soaking wet, bloody and exhausted. I showered and napped, and then went to the restaurant for what turned out to be a lousy and very expensive dinner. One of the mahu, Anastasia, urged me to return at 9:00 for the Polynesian dance show that she and her “girlfriend” were doing, but I reclusively hid in my bungalow, watching the rain from my porch. I’ve seldom felt so completely isolated: a rather offbeat hotel staff, a handful of solely French speaking guests, no easy way off the motu and nowhere to go even if you could leave. My imagination turned from Survivor to the silver screen as I went out on the beach and stole a scene from the film Cast Away, screaming, “Wilson!” several times out at the sea. If you didn’t see the film, Wilson was a volleyball that was Tom Hanks’ character’s only companion during his time on a deserted tropical island. He talked to Wilson as if the volleyball were a real person – until Wilson floats away one night. At this point, I could really have used a Wilson.

The next day I decided to go to the main island and rent a bike for the day, so I caught the 8:30 shuttle, but as the boat approached the shore, rain bucketed from the skies. So I rented a car for about $85 for 8 hours (no air conditioning, manual transmission, no radio!), but I was desperate. As I signed the contract I saw that there was a $2,000 deductible if I have an accident, but when I asked if I could purchase any additional insurance coverage to reduce my liability, I was told “no” quite matter of factly. Risk taker that I am, I rented the car anyway, but returned it two hours early. I circled the whole island twice and there was simply nothing else to see! There were a couple of nice views, many exclusive hotels that allow no public access, and very few shops or galleries. For such a popular tourist destination, I was stunned at how little there was to offer. I did have the good fortune to bump into newlyweds John and Erica, whom I’d met on Moorea, and we decided to meet at a famous restaurant called “Bloody Mary’s” that evening for dinner. I was happy to know I’d have some companionship and I could thoroughly enjoy my night out without being limited by the shuttle schedule, as the restaurant provides a free shuttle to customers.  Before I left the main island that afternoon, I stopped at a general store and stocked up on some snacks for the next day. I decided I would just try and make the most of things and spend the next day at the hotel, taking advantage of the lagoon, the beach and the solitude.

Back at Eden Beach that afternoon I chatted a bit with the French woman who manages the property. She seemed bitter and disgruntled, and it became quite obvious that she hated being on Bora Bora, which is all the more interesting when you learn that her previous hotel job was in Nigeria!!!  She had a look in her eyes that said, “Get me off this rock” and complained that there is nothing to do, no reliable phone or e-mail service, etc.  I almost laughed when I asked her how long she’d been there: only 8 months!  I said, “Well, it is a beautiful place,” and she replied, “It has the lagoon… that is all”. I half-expected her to break into a chorus of Shania Twain’s song… “So you have a lagoon… that don’t impress me much!”

Dinner that night at Bloody Mary’s was fun and I was excited to be “going out” for dinner, though Anastasia at the Eden Beach seemed disappointed. This restaurant is frequented by many celebrities, and the fresh fish is cooked to order on the grill. My calamari steak and ahi tuna were amazingly good, though of course, tres cher!  John and Erica were fun company, though that woman never let him get a word in edgewise. Poor John; they’d married only a few weeks ago and as I imagined listening to Erica’s voice for the next 50 years, a feeling of deep sadness swept over me. I got back to the hotel at 10:30 PM, with my shuttle boat driver taking me across the dark and treacherously shallow lagoon holding only a flashlight in front of him for navigation. It rained hard all night long with strong gusts of wind.

It was still raining hard when I woke up, so I stayed in bed until almost noon when it had finally stopped. I ordered a picnic lunch to go from Anastasia, and then went hiking along the outer edge of the motu. The open ocean with a couple of distant islands in the background was beautiful and I made a bit of peace with this place. After lunch I went back to the hotel and took out a sea kayak for several hours. The lagoon is so shallow that you can walk easily 1/2 mile out and be in water only up to your knees, making swimming impossible. But the water is flat and calm, so it was easy to paddle the kayak and I had a nice time exploring the coast and then paddling out to water deep enough to allow me to hop into the water for a real swim.

For my final evening on Bora Bora, I opted out of the “motu death march” and arranged a shuttle to the Meridien to attend a Polynesian Buffet and dinner show. The food was only fair, but the show, which was put on by several local families, was charming, though I missed a lot due to people with video cameras jumping in front of me and blocking the view. It amazes me how people are so busy trying to record an event that they miss out on the actual experience. I got recruited to dance with one of the young vahines (girls) for a number that involved me taking on a surfing posture and clacking my knees together in time with the beat of the music. Luckily no one took a movie of this! Tahitian music and dance is a bit different from Hawaiian, with far more reliance on drums and rhythm and less emphasis on melody. Speaking of Tahitian music, I heard “interesting” versions of Cher’s Believe, and the old Bee Gees’ song Massachusetts done to a Tahitian beat by local artists!  It is a small world after all.


I returned to my hotel around 11 PM, and it was a beautiful night with no rain. Everyone was asleep. I got my Walkman and one of my favorite Hawaiian music CDs and dragged a lounge chair right to the lagoon’s edge, my feet dangling in the water. I listened to my music and watched the sky as clouds parted and exposed a brilliant star or two before hiding them once again. I watched shells on the beach moving all around me; tiny crabs lug them around on their backs, and it is surreal to see dozens of shells moving in chaotic patterns all around you. Mother Nature playing her own version of “The Shell Game”.  After almost an hour, lightning started in the distance and I watched as the storm came gradually closer. I could see the beautiful central peak of Bora Bora’s main island illuminated for an instant against the lightning flashes. This was what I’d dreamed about when I decided to come to Tahiti, and I’d finally managed to find it on my last night. Still, the Hawaiian music made me long to get back to my beloved islands again. I thought of how the ancient Tahitians left Bora Bora and found their way to Hawaii and I wanted to follow their path. I laughed and thought, “Don’t worry, my beloved Hawai’i. You have no competition here!”

But Tahiti had one last parting shot, one more trick up its sleeve for me. How dare I crown Hawai’i the winner in the little contest taking place within my mind! The next day, back at the airport in Papeete suffering through a four hour layover I heard a booming voice shout from across the terminal, “Matt! How was Bora Bora?”  And there he was, Al – Magician of Mystery, who just like the chocolate sauce smear on my left hand, appeared seemingly out of nowhere. And then I knew that my layover would be anything but boring.

3 thoughts on “Tahiti: A Little Magic, A Little Mystery

  1. Matt! I wish you’d talked to me before going to Tahiti – I knew when I started reading this it was going to be bad. Colin and I spent 7 extremely long days In New Caledonia, another French colony and it was brutal. Colin had been working in Papua New Guinea and we decided to meet somewhere halfway between NZ and there, and I was also heading to Vanuatu to reconnect with the place I’d spent 4 years as a child. In hindsight, we should’ve just gone straight there!!
    Anyway, Colin was earning well, and we arrived in Noumea with plenty (or so we thought) US dollars which we converted to francs. After 2 days, we laid all our money out on a bed and worked out how we could budget so we didn’t run out of money!! The ONLY food they didn’t import from France was locally sourced orange juice, and that cost $16 a glass!!! We ended up just buying baguettes and cheese from a local supermarket and surviving on that. There was very little in the way of shops (thank goodness). The only nice beach belonged to a row of hotels which was only acessed via their establishment. So once day we hired a car to drive to the other side of the island to a town called Sale. The car guy happily took our money and nodded that this would be a good day trip, a great destination. So off we went, on a questionable road, but Sale was consistently signposted so we were heading in the right direction. We drove for at least 2 hours, and were nearly there!! Looking forward to a cold drink and some food a wee cafe or similar. The sign said we’d arrived – surely not – there was nothing, and I mean NOTHING here! We must have it missed the turn-off, so we turned around and went back to the last signpost. No, we were headed in the right direction. Here we are! …NO, ..maybe we need to drive a little further….it ended up in a run down house’s back yard. Further questioning of a local confirmed we had indeed arrived. ALL that was there was an very old, rusty single petrol pump!! We’d driven 2 hours and hired a very expensive car for this ‘day trip’!!! OMG. Why nobody thought to tell us I have no idea – what must the car hire people have thought when we said we wanted to drive to Sale?????
    The whole trip to New Caledonia was a very expensive lesson in tourist PR – this was several years ago and of course, now I’d have the whole of the internet to help me!
    I’ve enlightened anyone who’ve thought they might like to go that they’d be better going to their local Starbucks!!
    Just thought you might feel better about your French island disaster!


    1. Wow, Brenda, your account gave me flashbacks. It is all funny now in retrospect, but I spent a small fortune and it just seemed that nothing was worth what you had to pay for it, and unless you want to rent a $1,000 a night bungalow over the water and be on a honeymoon, there is simply nothing much to do!


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