One day – in the not so very distant future – even my vision will seem “normal” in the eyes of the world.
Le Paradis is a 100% fictional work, touching on many issues in today’s French Polynesia: poverty, wealth, ecology, mythology and the conservation of culture and tradition (au sujet de la pauvreté, de la richesse, de l’écologie, des légendes, et de la conservation du patrimoine culturel).
It is my hope that this work will evoke interest regarding both the threats and consequences of modernisation, ecological disasters and materialism for delicate small societies outside the mainstream political, economic and cultural structures propagated by the large and powerful countries of the world. Many of these “peripheral” societies are struggling to maintain their traditions and cultural specificities. I would further venture to suggest that we who live in the large agenda-setting centres of modernisation, military and economic power and globalised culture have much to learn from these small societies in the far corners of the world, and that the survival of the Earth itself may be contingent upon a willingness to learn simpler and more holistic and interpersonal approaches to life, culture and spirituality.
This time I have chosen French Polynesia as the geographical/cultural entity that serves as a background for the abovementioned message; however, it could just as well have been another set of islands, or another remote society.
Photo by Adam Donaldson Powell
An excerpt from “Le Paradis”:
Part three / 3ème Partie Tales and poetic homages about / Contes et hommages poétiques concernant Mo’orea
Alain, the assistant hotel manager, had just arrived in Mo’orea for a three-day holiday with his family: his wife Vaea (“Peace”), his five-year-old son Jean-Marc, and his newborn daughter Solange. Originally from Montpellier, France, Alain Gastineau had taken a job as concierge at the luxury hotel on Tahiti eight and-a-half years ago. He had gotten the job through Gaspard, a friend from the time of his hotel management studies in Switzerland. Gaspard had a friend who had just become hotel manager at a newly opened tourist hotel in Tahiti, and who was looking for French personnel with luxury hotel and restaurant experience, ambition and talent. Gaspard had recommended that Alain apply, citing his previous work experience at top hotels and restaurants in Bern and in Marseille. It turned out that the only suitable position available at the time was that of concierge, but the hotel was doing quite well and the staff would eventually grow … as would the number of management positions.
Eventually, Alain did advance to the position of assistant hotel manager – which he had now had for the past three and-a-half years. The timing was perfect, as his wife was soon to give birth to their first-born child. In addition, while Alain enjoyed his position as concierge he did find it demanding to always be at the ‘beck and call’ of the tourists … who often had rather unreasonable requests and expectations. The job of a concierge is to realise that which is “impossible” – no matter what it takes. Although Alain was good at his work, he personally felt that he lacked the personal contacts required to do the job as properly as a member of Les Clefs d’Or (the professional organisation of hotel concierge staff persons) might. He felt that he often had to struggle to find the appropriate local service providers and merchants necessary to fulfill the rich tourists’ whimsical requests; this kind of local knowledge must be built up over a number of years of experience.
Unlike most of his other popaa (Western) friends, Alain had fallen in love with and married a vahine just a couple of years after he had arrived in Tahiti. He had only planned to work abroad (i.e. outside of Europe) for three years or so, but it was pretty much ‘love at first sight’ between him and the beautiful vahine Vaea. They were a striking couple: both were tall, he had thick, blond hair cut just above the neck, a square jaw, thin lips, piercing blue eyes, a classical roman nose, and an ex-swimmer’s physique; Vaea was breathtaking by any cultural standards with her light caramel-coloured skin, her olive-brown eyes, her long and straight dark brown hair, the longest eyelashes and the most beautiful full-bodied lips Alain had ever seen and (of course) a sensuous, curvy body that would have inspired a ‘Gauguin’ of any century and painting style.
Both Alain’s family, friends and colleagues had cast more than a few hints that he should wait to get married, but it was clear that it was not the “hastiness” of the engagement and ensuing marriage that worried them, but rather the crossing of racial and cultural lines. While no one doubted that any offspring from the union would (undoubtedly) be as beautiful and as intelligent as their parents, it was the exoticism of being a ‘demi’ (of Polynesian-European descent) that concerned Alain’s family and circle of friends and colleagues. Vaea’s family also had its reservations, but for them family is family … and they would embrace and support their daughter’s children no matter what they looked like, no matter who the father was … and no matter whether or not a child was conceived out-of-wedlock.
That the couple wished to marry was cause for a big family celebration, and Vaea’s parents were happy that Alain had had a good upbringing and that he had a good job. Many Polynesians were either unemployed, or worked at menial and underpaid jobs. The children of Alain and Vaea would not be illiterate or poor, and they would learn both French and Tahitian … properly. And so they got married, and their son Jean-Marc was born soon afterwards. They had recently bought a bungalow on the Isle of Mo’orea – somewhat tucked away from the tourist areas – which they had spent a half-year renovating and refurbishing. The small abode was situated on the western coast, near the small fishing village Baie d’Atiha (Atiha Bay); and was not far from Alain’s favourite French Polynesian structure: l’Église de la Sainte Famille (constructed with lime and coral). Vaea had taken responsibility for fixing up the charming little garden which now glittered with tropical plants and flowers, replicas of marae (ancient Polynesian sacred site) statues and wind chimes made of shells that she had collected. Alain supervised the small construction work and hired an interior decorator to help find the perfect mix of French modern and island interior design. The work was recently completed, and they had just brought their family of four to the bungalow for a three-day holiday … and to celebrate Alain and Vaea’s wedding anniversary.
Alain was very happy with his new life on French Polynesia. He was always a conscientious student and employee, but after several years away from Western Europe he had begun to realise that he was – in fact – not 100% comfortable with the “rat race”— with the “he who has the most when he dies is the winner” materialistic mentality, nor the dehumanisation experienced through being a “good soldier” who constantly runs after the clock and conducts his life according to standardised values, thought patterns, ideologies and social-economic systems. He was too young to have experienced the “hippie generation” and was – in the eyes of most people – considered conservative and normal. However, since moving to the islands he had learned to loosen his collar, breathe in between appointments, delight in people who were different from himself and to enjoy the nature around him without “scheduling in” a walk in a city park or a summer holiday. He loved his wife Vaea, and his two wonderful children: Jean-Marc and Solange. They were both quite intelligent, and had many of the typical traits of so-called “indigo children” and “crystal children”: they were intelligent (but quickly bored by things they considered to be unimportant); they were empathetic, sensitive, intuitive, curious, creative, independent … but also rather headstrong and insistent that they just knew certain things to “be true”. Jean-Marc particularly loved Vaea’s stories about Polynesian history, mythology and her explanations of the hand and body movements in traditional dance, the symbolism of Polynesian tiki and tattoos, and he was always “hungry” for information about local flora and fauna. Solange – although only five months old – almost never cried, and her broad smile and open eyes were like the sun rising over Mount Mouaputa (“the pierced mountain”).
Alain had found his “paradis” here in the Society Islands. He was – in many ways – “reborn”. The three days passed all too quickly, and seeing how much Vaea and the children enjoyed the bungalow and their time on Mo’orea, Alain suggested that they stay for several more days. Alain had to return to the job on Tahiti, but could return to Mo’orea on Sunday to bring his cherished little family home. When Alain returned to Mo’orea, he was overjoyed to see his loved ones. They had never before been away from each other for so many days. Solange had been sick for two days – nothing serious, but had a fever – and the local doctor had recommended that she remain at rest for a few more days and return to him on Tuesday. This meant, of course, that traveling back to Tahiti already on Sunday afternoon was out of the question, and Alain telephoned his boss to tell him that he needed a few more days on Mo’orea. His boss (Bruno) was quite understanding, and suggested that he take a two week vacation, as Alain had been working very hard the past months – often relieving Bruno of many managerial functions while the new hotel annex was under construction.
Both Alain, Vaea and his children were ecstatic over being able to remain at the bungalow for yet another two weeks, and that papá was going to be with them every day – without running to work every day and working long hours. When the children had been tucked in for the night, Alain and Vaea had an evening romantic picnic for two in front of the bungalow – with French wine, bread, fruit and cheeses from France and Switzerland, which Alain had brought with him from Pape’ete – and held each other and kissed for what seemed like hours as they gazed out over the Mo’orea landscape and breathed in the luscious, fresh country air.
“Bonjour, mon amour !” said Alain, leaning over a still-sleeping Vaea.
“E aha?” replied Vaea sleepily.
“Ia ora na. E aha te huru?” (Good morning. How are you?) whispered Alain into her ear, while kissing her neck.
“Bonjour Alain. E aha te hora i teie nei? Quelle heure est-il ?” (What time is it?) exclaimed Vaea as she attempted to bolt out of bed in panic for having overslept.
“Aita pe’ape’a! Pas de problème !” (Don’t worry!) replied Alain, lightly pushing Vaea back into a reclining position. “Il est huit heures et quart.” (It is eight fifteen in the morning).
“But what about the children … and breakfast?” asked Vaea.
“Both children are bathed, dressed and waiting for us in the kitchen, and breakfast is all made. We are only missing you … our Polynesian Queen. Why don’t you bathe and get dressed, and we will see you in fifteen minutes or so for a nice Continental breakfast – Tahiti-style,” said Alain, before he kissed Vaea on the lips.
Vaea smiled but pushed Alain away when the kiss began to get a bit too passionate, saying: “Be careful … or I may never get out of this bed. We both know what that kind of kiss leads to!”
Alain tickled her, and they both laughed for a minute before Vaea suddenly ran from the bedroom into the bathroom and began singing in Tahitian. Vaea stood naked before the bathroom mirror, combing out her long dark hair which reached down to her shoulder blades in the back and covered much of her breasts on the front. She thought of her relatives and her childhood friends, and how different her life was from theirs. She had “married well” in relation to most. Her husband was kind to her, generous, a loving father, faithful (as far as she could tell) … and he made a good, stable income. She lived neither in the slums on the outskirts of Pape’ete nor on one of the poor outlying islands where the amenities of modern civilisation were worlds away. She should be happy … and she was – except for moments like this, when she suddenly longed for a simpler and more carefree life, without possessions, without time schedules, and without all the constant expectations that had to be lived up to … both with regard to the French purebred, the demis who were trying to balance between their French/European, American or Chinese roots and their Polynesian ancestry and customs, and her own Polynesian friends and relatives. She wondered what kind of life her own children would have as adults: how they and their children would adjust and fit in, and how much of their forefathers’ cultural traditions and wisdom would remain in their environment and their personal identities. Both she and Alain had attempted to provide the children with a bilingual upbringing, and Vaea and her parents always told the children stories and legends passed down in her family from generation to generation. However, Vaea could already see the results of Western materialism at work, and she knew that her children would have to strive to become as “French” as possible in order to maintain their living standard when they became adults. She was torn. On the one hand, she wanted her children and their children to have all the conveniences that went along with a European or American upbringing: to live well, to have good-paying and secure jobs, to travel the world, go to the best schools, etc., and on the other hand she wanted them to become local leaders who would work to resurrect soon lost traditions and values and, perhaps, even to work for independence for French Polynesia. These were things she wanted for herself actually as well, but she accepted that her greatest contribution and hope was to raise her children to achieve these dreams for themselves and her countrymen. A lone vagabond tear slowly streamed down her left cheek … soon followed by another welling up in her right eye. She splashed some water on her face, put on a Polynesian wraparound and joined her little family in the kitchen for breakfast.
“Ia ora na”, said Alain as he kissed Vaea on the forehead. “E aha te huru? (Ça va ?)”
“E ma’i to’u”, Vaea replied, repeating in French: “Je suis malade.”
“Tu es malade, mon amour ? Qu’est-ce que c’est ?” asked Alain in a concerned tone.
“Aita pe’ape’a (“Don’t worry”) … it is nothing. I feel a little depressed. I think I am just a bit tired.”
“It is no wonder,” said Alain. “You have had the kids all alone, twenty-four hours a day, for several days now. Why don’t you take the day off, and go be by yourself. I can take care of the kids. Besides, I have missed them and have already made plans with Jean-Marc to drive down to the bay and hire a boat for the afternoon. We will take Solange with us. It is no problem, really!”
“That is not necessary. This is your vacation, and we are supposed to be enjoying this free time being together and celebrating …”
“Chuut !” Alain interrupted. “Not another word. We have several days before us, and we will have many fun activities together. You need a break. Perhaps you could go for a walk and take in some nature, or go swimming … or even just relax and do nothing.”
“Well … if you are really sure. I will have dinner ready for you when you get home…”
“Forget dinner,” interrupted Alain again. “We will pick up some delicious food down at one of the restaurants at Cook’s Bay and bring it home. Today you will only relax – Mo’orea-style! It is twenty past nine now; and we will not be back home before six this evening so you will have plenty of time to do whatever you want.”
Jean-Marc was quite excited about spending the day with his father, and had a thousand questions he wanted answers to: what kind of boat they would drive; if they would go fishing; if they would ride Le Truck or a car etc. Solange just smiled and cooed, happy to be a part of any joy and excitement.
Vaea felt a little guilty, but mostly relieved to have a day to herself, and after breakfast urged her little family to get on its way and to leave the dishwashing to her. She kissed each of them as they left the bungalow, and stood in the doorway – waving goodbye until they were out of sight.
She had decided to pack a knapsack with food and drink and to hike around in Opunohu Valley, visiting the many maraes such as Marae Titiroa, Marae Ahu-o-Mahine and Marae Afareaito. If she had time, she might even continue all the way up to the lookout (Belvédère) and take in the fantastic view of Mount Rotui. She became quite excited as she scrambled to put on her t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. This expedition reminded her of those she often took in her youth – sometimes alone, and sometimes with her closest friends. She thought of the delightful chestnut tree forests, the streams, the often elusive side paths known only to locals and the sometimes steep climbs … and the magical maraes – remnants of her forefathers’ civilisation. Vaea was again singing as she left the bungalow and mounted her off-road bicycle. If only for today, she was now on holiday …
The warm, mild breeze felt soothing upon Vaea’s face. Sometimes it seemed strange to her how different she felt being on Mo’orea. Even though the island is situated only sixteen kilometers northwest of Tahiti, being there felt almost like she had traveled to another Polynesian world. While there were many tourists on Mo’orea during the tourist seasons, their bungalow was outside of the tourist district, and Vaea both knew of many places she could escape to on the small island as well as the best times to visit natural and historical sites in order to avoid tour groups.
Mo’orea is (of course) famous for its emerald-coloured mountains, its valleys, waterfalls, jagged peaks and volcanoes kissing the skies, incredible views, fabulous lagoons and the delicious sandy shores. It is not strange that it is thought by many to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. But Vaea also loved the easier pace, and the closeness to traditions and ways of living practised by many of the local inhabitants, as well as the lush abundance of fruits and flora found in the mountains, along the coast and in the valleys: mimosas, puaratas (New Zealand Christmas trees), tree ferns, acacia, lantana and guavas, coconut palm trees, uru (breadfruit), mape (Tahitian chestnut), tou, fara, purau (used to make grass skirts), aito (Iron tree), pineapple plantations, gardenias, heliconias, plumerias, hibiscus etc.
Vaea set her course in the direction of Mount Mouapouta to visit the ancient maraes built by her forefathers and the Belvédère lookout point. She looked forward to sitting and meditating at a couple of these maraes in particular. She always felt both a profound sense of peace and an energising effect when she was there in the middle of the forests, communing with the spirits at these previous social and religious gathering places – well watched over by the tikis (statues).
Vaea took the valley road past the agricultural college and soon reached the Marae Titiroa. She felt her heart begin to race as she dismounted her offroad bicycle and walked through the mape forest. She soon reached the tohua (platform of the council) and the two small maraes nearby. She pulled some bottled water from her knapsack and sat cross-legged on the tohua, breathing deeply past her chest and into the lower regions of her mid-section … releasing all the stress and tension that had built up since the last time she had been at the maraes. After about fifteen minutes of meditation Vaea stood up and walked her bicycle further down the forest path toward Marae Ahu-o-Mahine. According to local tradition the marae is named after the grand chief Mahine, who was chief of the area during the time of Captain Cook. As she approached the altar in the centre of the marae, which was edged by hand-hewn round stones, Vaea asked the spirit of the great Mahine to continue to watch over her family. She felt an inner warmth overtake her, and she was almost certain that the sounds of nature she heard around her were the sounds of the marae coming to life. In her imagination Vaea could discern the voices of groups of her ancestors bartering and exchanging goods, socialising and discussing local politics. She marveled at how these sacred gathering places had been maintained from generation to generation, even building newer maraes around older ones or stones from other maraes. She remembered that the summer solstice was approaching soon; the perfect time for being at the marae as it was generally during the summer or winter solstice that chiefs were honoured. This because the solstices were identified as times where the portals to the stars were most open; and traditionally, deceased chiefs were transported from the coast in holy war canoes and burned on funeral pyres at the marae. For Vaea, these thoughts and stories concerning her ancestors were beautiful “family jewels” to be passed down to her children and their children as a way of preserving at least some of the culture and heritage of Polynesia internally … even though modernisation and globalisation was wiping out much of the traditions and the old ways of living.
From Marae Titiroa, Vaea continued on to Marae Afareaito. The path between the two maraes was confusing for non-natives to follow, but Vaea remembered the way instinctively. She had taken this path many times before in her teenage years. This large marae was her favourite. She sat for a good half hour on the ahu, leaning against the back rests originally used by priests, and gazing out at the crescent-formed archery platforms used by archery competitors in ancient times. She smiled to herself as she thought of the daily news reports about warfare and the use of weapons in violence and crimes all over the world, noting that archery was always a ritual and sporting activity amongst her ancestors … and never a form of warring.
Vaea looked at her watch. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. If she proceeded onward now she would reach Belvédère (the lookout point) in time to eat her lunch and still arrive home at the bungalow in time for dinner. She mounted her bicycle and began the steep climb up the winding road to Belvédère. Belvédère had always been one of her favourite places on Mo’orea, with its scenic views of half the island: including Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay, as well as Mount Rotui. There were several tourists and hikers at the lookout when Vaea arrived, so she decided to leave after ten minutes or so … after all, this was a view she knew with her every heartbeat and breath; it was a gateway from her very soul. She proceeded to one of the island’s waterfalls, which was just a short walk from Belvédère. Fortunately, she found herself completely alone except for a young Polynesian teenage couple … embracing and kissing on the opposite side of the waterfall. Suddenly Vaea thought of Alain, and wished that he were here to share in the natural paradise at hand … but part of the magic of this place and the moment for Vaea was being alone; alone with her thoughts, alone with nature and the internal and external silence and harmony.
She sat down on a rock near the cascading water, removed her shoes and ate her picnic lunch consisting of pineapple and guava, cheese and bread. After eating she stretched out onto her back, resting her head upon her clasped hands. Daydream soon turned to sleep, and when Vaea awoke to the sounds of tourists who had found their way to the waterfall she quickly looked at her watch … noting that the time was now almost five o’clock in the afternoon. She must be getting home.
And with that, Vaea proceeded to walk back to Belvédère and the road. On the way droplets of water began to “rain” from some of the trees. She heard the tourists in the distance exclaiming that a storm must be coming, but Vaea looked up into the clear blue sky and smiled while thinking that the tourists had obviously not been told about the “raining trees”. Vaea had her own ideas about this phenomenon, amusing herself with the idea that the trees occasionally rain tears of sorrow in remembrance of dead chiefs … upon command from Oro, the Polynesian God of War. It was, after all, the followers of Oro who brought the tradition of building maraes from Raiatea (Havai’i fanau’ra fenua, or “Havai’i the cradle”) to Mo’orea and Tahiti. (Vaea had experienced “raining trees” on both Tahiti and Mo’orea.) She also wondered if the trees were not crying because the marae tradition had been abandoned. By the time Vaea reached the lookout, there were no tourists left and she spent another fifteen minutes gazing out at the reflections of volcanic peaks in the waters in the distance. It was then that she decided that she would convince Alain to move to Mo’orea. It would be better for the children, for her and for their relationship. She felt the stress of living in Pape’ete even more so now that they had been away for days on end. Alain could initially commute weekly to work on Tahiti … just as some of the other inhabitants of Mo’orea. Besides, in his line of work, she was certain that Alain eventually could find the same kind of job at a luxury hotel on Mo’orea.
The bicycle ride home seemed quicker than the journey to the maraes and Belvédère. She was a woman with a purpose, and the seeds of change were waiting to be sown. It was a quarter to seven in the evening when she arrived home. When Vaea walked through the doorway of their bungalow, she was received affectionately by Alain and their children. Alain had bought Tahitian poisson cru for dinner (cubes of raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk).
“Ça va ?” he asked eagerly.
“Oui. Ça va bien !” replied Vaea.
Vaea hugged both her children and spoke only Tahitian throughout the meal. After tucking the children in for the evening Vaea walked into the main room of the bungalow, began to sing and dance in a flirtatious way before Alain and then pulled him to his feet, explaining: “Come with me to the bedroom. We have a lot to discuss …”
Alain needed no further coaxing. And Vaea smiled wryly, humming to herself the old film song: “A man chases a girl until she catches him.”
Copyright Adam Donaldson Powell