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A Polynesian Paradise, and Family, in Flux


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An Island Magazine feature by Andy Revkin provided an intimate look at changes in a Polynesian family and village as modern life intruded in the 1980s.

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A Polynesian Paradise, and Family, in Flux

  1. 1. HAT WAS a jour· nal entry made Len year11 ago, afrer l'd spenr rhrec monrhs hv- mg on Ratatea, an tslanù 120 miles norchwesc of Ta- hici. The sray had lefr an indclible mark. l had been on a ft:llowsh tp, sruJying isolared mamune culrures, and when llefr l rook wtrh me a much more humble worldvtew chat In 1978 Andrew Revkin (above, far righi) first visited the Teihotaata famlly as a student. Ten years later (righi) some of the children have lefl for other islands. But waves stili endlessly move toward Ralatea's reef (apposite). come~ wirh ll•mg on a very smnll i land m a very btg ocean. Ir wa~ a vicw rhat unfolded each rime I climbed a :;recp mounrain parh behmd rhe vlllagc of Feruna, lookcd down, anù saw only rhc green of che i~land and thc blue of rhe Pacific. And che htghcr l chmbl:J, rhc !omaller rhac grcen ~peck becamc. lt vas one family in Fcruna thar Jrew mc back ro Ramrea a JccaJc afcer my Cirsr viSit. I was returning ro look in again on Turo and Fareka Teihoraara, who'J once raken me imo rhetr home and shown me rheir way of lifc. My wife, Lmda, and l haJ wnrten rhem, and rheir reply, encouraging u to come, provided rhe Cirsr clue rhar rhmgl> had changed. Ar rhc top of rhe noce rhere was a phone numher. Ten year ago rhcre werc no tclephoncs, no clectricity. In French, Turo wrme: "( scnd greer· ing~ co your lirrle family of rwo from our big family in Fetuna- che IO children and Il grandchtldren." None of che grandchilJrcn had been born when l was rherc. W HILE THE PLANE from Tahtu w Raiarea climbs above Faaa Airport, che urban sprawl of Papeete, Tahttt's recming capitai, unfolds bclow, and l realize rhar Polynesta's song hns grown faincer. In rcccm years devclop- menr and rounsm havc bmught mororcy· cles and video stores ro che most heav1ly rrnmmeleJ tslanJ~. Papccre, in parncu- lar, •~ a mess of rraffic and noise; and rherc is hardly a btt of Moorea's shorc rhat isn'c tn sighr ofa luxury rel>Ort. Forry minurcs larcr, ns we descend coward Ra•atea, l get my Cìrst aerial vtew of rhe Polynesia's song has grown fainter in recent years. 60 ISLANDS
  2. 2. In Uturoa, the malntown on Ralatea, daily business lncludes lime for blcycllsts to stop toparau'al'al, "make small talk." "l.mJ. Tcn vea~ earltcr l h,tJ a lowcr 'antm:c pomt, from che Jecl.; of ,, ru t~ frctghtcr. Dcck pa age,~ che chcapcM way w go. Raiatca j, a 16-mtlc-long tcnrdmp of vulcantc rock '<lftcneJ hy a Jcmc c..trpct ofgrccncry anJ encircleJ b , b.uncr rccf anJ hmtle green lagoun. A 'mallcr net~o:h~>r, Tahaa, lt6 wtthm che ,,une tllttcr rccf. Bora-&1ra anJ lluahmc c.m l'C 'ccn an che Jtscance. A-. dtc piane ctrdc., O"Cr L'turo.)a, rhc c)nl) truc W n, lmlc rrafltc ,how... on che m.tJ,. L:rurtl,l remam~ ,1 .,Jeep} ~ackwaccr Jc~ptrc bcmu rhc aJmtnl~tranve f11r Frcnch Poly- ne~t.t lccwarJ ·~lancb anJ che ~cconJ ~aguc~t populanon cenrer- mtlf llfRat,t· rea 7,386 mhabitanh !tvc m or :trounJ rhc t11wn. A' ''c Jt,cmh;trk ar rhc lanJinu 'rnr. ,1 pl.lti)('O of Frem:h ~~IJter,, r.tnnl•J ,mJ taut from a lean Jn:t .mJ tm~ ofcxcruon, gathers tn <l corner ot che atrptlrt. The taxi Jnver wh11 mkc' l" tnto wwn ..ays che soldicr:. h;tve JUM ftnhhcd parachutc drop!>. "Thcy'rc practicmg m ftght in New Caledonia," hc say,, mentioning Fmnce's mo~t rrouhlcJ rcrriwr. where tndigcnou' t~l.mJcr... anJ French sente~ are k~o..kcJ 10 a 'truQglc ft,r JXlwer. "And mayl-e the will fi~ht here," hc aJJ~. Rehrnm-. bcrwecn the Tahtttan anJ che Fcut.mi, he ':1),, usm~ the T:lhl(tan word ltlr Frcnch, ha"e erown tncreasingl) ~~1ur. Thc rcccnr "IOlenr unrcsc tn Ncw CalcJont,l ts lclt hcre 10 French Polync,irt. Evcn though che two rcmtones are 'cpar;m•J hy 2,700 male~ nf occan, many l:.thiu,m' go w Ncw Cal· edoma tu wmk m lucr.mve mtnmg or conl>trucntln Jnh,. The Jmer, namcJ Kaciui, kmn'·'Turo wdl. Hc j, m rown roda}. hc '·''· '(/c 'WP at che markcrpbce, whtc.h ,., ncarly ,,Jcnt. F.trmcr' from a netghhonng j.,l.lnJ ltc .,Jccpmg alnng~tdc rhctr warc., hc:1p~ of warcrmclon!> and 4uinrcr:. of pmcap· pie:. l,tccJ wgcrhcr wtch hemp rwmc. h~hcrmcn Jt,pl<t 'tringcr., nf grccn pilr· rot it.,h anJ r,tcb ~~r ~rreamlmcJ honttu. X.c arl' ..uung .n une uf thc fuoJ ,t,tll, ''hcn l 'cc .t t:tmtltilr figure ,hufflmg .,(m, h .tem,., thc ...quarc. lt '' 'l.m1. Tuw farhcr. Hc ha,n't ch<tnl!cJ. A J"lll"• crfull hutlt m.m. he grcers cvcrmnc lw p<mC'> 'lth <l ,mdc anJ a hanJ,h,tkc. Whcn Naru 'cc., me, ht., cyc- ,parklc Wtth rct:ognmon. Thc 67-yc;tr·okl man rrnuJI} Jc..crihe... hts grcnc·granJ- chtiJrcn "' hc lcaJ~ U'> to a ncw cumplcx uf guvcrnmcnr office' '''Hh tharchcd roo.1b. Turo nouce' u' and ''alb ovcr. ht, 'mtic hruaJcnmg '' tth C"crv 'tep. At 47, Stringers ofgreen parrot fish, racks 62 I"LA~'a S
  3. 3. Al the sometlmes sleepy Uturoa maf't(etplace (top), fresh bonito (above) from beyond the reef could end up on aRaiatea table as aPolynesian delicacy, polsson cru, by the end of the day. of bonito. • • O 1000 :1000 3000 Ka,_ t 1 l TH rAI lFI( ( ( Eo'110 _.. ~~NEW~ ZEALANO SOCrETY ISlANDS ... .. t ISLANDS 63
  4. 4. ~ Turo has changed. His dark eyes and ~ handsome face are che same, bue hi~ à waìsdine has grown by quire a few l inches, an mdcx (1f mcreasmg prosperiry. ~ A family busmess that had jusc bcgun ! arolmd the rime of my lasr visic is thriv- ~> ing: Hc and his wife, Fareka, now :.eli beer and soda from thcir house. Tcn years ago Turo was an a:;:,isranr ro h1s farher, who was rhcn rhe village chicf. Because Narii could neither read nor wr1re, Turo d1d ali rhe paper- work-and therc was a lor ofit, thanks co tht! bureaucracy creareJ by rhe French. Now rhere IS a longmg for local govcrn- menr, "bue no one does much abour 1t," ays Turo. "Thc hills are full of mangoes and bananas. The reef has lors of fish. 'Aita pe'at>e'a." No worries. Turo makes the rounds nf the market, commg away with :.everal pmeapples and a bonito. and wc board onc of rhe brightly painred rrucks that are rhe buses o( Polynesia and head south for Feruna. New sighr~ mesh w1th fading memories a~ che truck winds around ridges ~md down along rhc Lagoon. We passa viliage ar rhc foor of Mounr Temeham, a voi· canic moumain char ri es inco che clouds. Unril recendy rhc misry plarcau ar the rop could only be reached after a daylong hike. Now, Turo says, tralis have heen cut up ro thc plateau that allow four-wheel-dnve vehicles w bring vis- in the world. itor:> up m less rhan an hour. Onc reason for rhc rrip is che riure 'at>e tahi, a f•ve- peralcJ Aower rhatgrows on che plareau- and nowhere else m che world. The wh1tc blossoms, wh1ch open ac sunrbe wirh a resounding pop, resemblc a lily char i:.~piit 10 haif. The flowers were once taboo co alt bue R~uarca's royalty, and, accordmg to Polynestan scholars, che blossoms represenr che h<md ofa pnncess from Tahm who wa:. prevented from mar· rying hcr Raiatcan lover. Ra1area's kmgs and priesrs hold aspe- Cial piace in che l,700-year history of centrai Polynesia. le wa:. from che broad bay ar che mourh of Faaroa River on Raiarca's east coast rhat Jouble-hulled canocs scr satl on voyages o( cxploration that culminared in rhe dtscovcry of Hawaii and ew Zealand. And at Opoa, a lirrle farrher Jown thar coast, are che rums t>f Marae Tapurapuatca, Tahirian cìvili:anon's most sacred tempie, descnbed by one Pacific. hisrorian as ''che St. Perer's of centrai Polynesia." Kmgs from as far away as che Cook lslands and New Zcaland had ro travel w che broad, bouldcr-lmed plaza for investiture. A FTER COVERING 25 miles 10 80 minures, we round a riJge anJ che shark's rooth profile of Orop•ro-called "evil ISLANDS 65
  5. 5. mountam" bccau~c rhc worst storm~ always !>woop 10 uvcr ats ~houlder- ap· pcars, m10g darectly hch10d thc 'lllage of Fctuna. Thc mountaiO usually wears a ~hrouJ of cloud, and when the wipy taal of thc clouJ po10ts wward Feruna, thc village gards for wind and rain. A quact cummunny of ahour 100 10hahatant~. Fctuna laes along thc rhm nbhon of land that run~ betwècn thc mounrams anJ the lagoon. Flat-bot· tomcd outhoard skaff~ hang fmm racb ne;u thc; cattlc gra:c 10 the grovc~ of coconut palms rhat ~wcep up 10to rhc halb. lr t!> mango sca'tm, and the uce:. are rhack wath blu~h10g pank anJ ycllo~ fruat. Bcncarh che rrecs ,, narconc per· fume waft~ from a m<lsh of fallcn, fcr· mentang mangoc!>. "A good mango cason mc;,n)o wc'rc an fur a baJ cyclone season," says Turo. Tmdatton says a grcat w10d musr come ro shakc '<l much frutt from rhe trcc~. Up ahcad a famaltar stcme JCtty jursour 10tu thc lagoc.m. Tcn ycars ago, cach naghr as rhe flared lakc fanned embers, wc troopcd t)nto rhe JCHy ro fbh wath hand l10es for dmncr. Someumes when rhe moon w.h ncw, dcaJI~ stone· fìsh would come anto the shallow . Once, when wc wcrc pullmg m nets, onc o( Turo daughrers poanted to my feet wath a warnmg. llookcd butcould 'Ce nmhmg untal shc took asuck, stabbed down, and ltfted rhe reef-colorcd sronefash out ofrhc warer. The poasonous 'pmcs had bcen JUSt anches fmm my fect. In thc weeks and months that followcd, wc carne acro:.s four or five more of them. lt wa:. only rhc last onc thar l spottcd on my own: OK, l remcmbcr thmking at the rime, l've finally arrived. Turo say!> hc nnJ rarcka don't tì~h anynmrc. "Wc'rc mo husy." Thcy 1:-uy bonaro frum rhc markcr an Ururoa, or thc) gct rccf fa~h frlltn a ncaghl'<)r, onc of a handful of ' allagc~ who suli fì,h ~cv· eral rame~ a wcek. Thc truck ~Jucals w a h,tlt Wc Jump down m frvnr of a tradattonal T.1hauan housc. '' ith walls of Wtlvcn pand;tnus, percht.-d on the cdge of thc lagoun. On the !>ade facing thc 't!a, thcrc is an adda· tton hualt of prc.,.,cJ bo.ud and corrugatcJ un. A h.a, hccn c..ut an thc front .tll w 't!rvc .h '' ,,,Ics wandow thc pacbgè swrc. hlrck.1 comcs fonard. pullang hcr ycllo" (>cm:u up <mxmd hcr ~uhswnra.1l mr...o. Lakc Turo, shc has Tree-ripened mangoes, one of lhe more colorful harvests of the Raiatea bounty. After dinner we listen to the distant 66 I"LANDS
  6. 6. Moana shares asiesta with grandlather Turo (lelt) and asnack wìth cousin Elisa lrom grandmother Fareka (bottom). Daughter Florlne (below) flashes aTahitian smile. grown in girch. She swamps us wnh hugs, then laughs ac me. "You've lo~t wetght," she sayl>, rcmèmbering me as a wcll-fed scudenc. Hovcring in her shadow are a liccle hoy nnd a gtrl. Mmma anJ Elt::;a are grantlchildrcn who've been aJopced by Turo and Fareka. In Frcnch Polyncsia chilùren are ofccn rJiscJ by pcople othcr than rheir parenr~; orphans and babteS born our of wcdlock are rakcn in hy sisccrs, grandparenrs, or ncighbor:... Shy, doc-eyed Elisa is nearly chree. Her mocher, now 18, ts trying to find work tn Papeere. Two-year-old Moana (che name means "Jeep ocean" in Tahi- tian) was a sickly baby, horn rhrec months premature. "No onc wanretl him," says Turo. "Now rhat hc's a bcau- ttful boy, ali our sons-in-law want him. But we're gotng ro kecp him. Righe, Moana?" Thc boy clamber~ tnro Turo's arms and lecs ouc a Tarzan yodel. Thc tntcrior ofche hou c is brighrcncJ by fabric hanging:. ~ewn hy Fareka. Hibtscus blos..•..oms fili a bowl on a coun- ter. A large coklr rclcvtsion, wirh a ptece o( fabric prorecrmg rhc screen, has a piace of honor. Thc year-old rclcphonc i~ hung on che wall ar eye leve!. Bur rhe fwnt uf che houl>C ts caken twer by the beverage busine~~: mlcb of cmpry bcer borrles anJ a huge rcfngerawr. Our firsr meal, ltke cvery one ro follow, is enormous anJ procectls M a langUtd pace. Moana sits on his granJfarhcr's lap and prcsidcl> ovcr dtnncr, tssuing JUÙg- menrs on cach coursc. Thcre are wok- fricd tcaks anJ n~h. grccn salad, a large bowl of ncc, anJ che most splendtd dtsh in Polyncsia-p()isson cru. Cubcd fish (in thts ca::.e, runa) ts manmuetl tn lime juice, coconuc mtlk, gnrlic, anù gtnger, thcn mtxed wirh sliced tnmaro, cucum· ber, aml onion. LmJa ~rcaks almosc no Frcnch, bur as che mcal progres:-es Farcka cakes hcr tnto che folti!> ofT.1htwm ho~r•· mltry, making hcr alrcady fcel very much ar home. After dinner, wc alt stp instant coffce and, rhrough the large glassless wmdows facing the sca, ltsren w rhe Jistanr pounding ofche surf~m rhc rcef. Ltke che SOlmd tlf some cnJicss frctghr tram, che roar never ~rop:.. Ourstde, wpa'ct, largc land crabs rhat ltve tn holcs around thc house, scrahble afrer mble scraps rhe dogs have lefc behind. Geckos enltvcn rhe nighr as they scalk inscccs around che bare ltghr bulb!;. Coconur racs :,camper pounding of the surfon the reef ISLANDS 67
  7. 7. across rhe roof from rime to rime. Tum and Fareka ralk of evcryrhing th<H has occurred smcc In last trip. Of rhc1r rcn ch•IJren, only rhe four youngcsr ,nll livc on Ra.area. These four sray ar thc -.cconc.lary school in Ucuroa ali weck and come home on wcckcnds. The s1x oldest, ali g1rl:., movcd away, mosr of rhem w rhe mam •~land, Tahiti, in scarch ot jobs and husbtlnÙ!i. Thc each marricd, hence rhe Il grandchildren. In the morning l walk mto rhe ccnrer ofrhe village and back inro my pasr when Turo ch.!Jren ranged in age from 2 ro 15. Wc had fished for our supper, rended gardens, and dug up a mounrains1de ro planr vams. Thc raughr me Tahirian, leadmg mc around by rhe hand, pointing m rhings anJ quiz:mg me: "Eaha tera?" What's rh•:.? Tclcphonc poles are rhe most obvious adJirion w rhe landscape. Bur hur- Oressed in their Sunday best, churchgoers on Raiatea (above) make themselves comfortable in tropical heat. Acourtyard paved with volcanic rock (apposite) reflects older Tahitian religions at the tempie ruins of Marae Tapatapuatea. 68 JSLA~DS ncanes caused rhc b1~gesr change: Sixof rhem-"rhree bad and rhree not so bad," says Turo- wipcd out almosr every house bcrwcen rhe road and rhe lagoon. One of rhose houses bclongcù to Turo's farher, Nani. lrs sharrered remams are now sinking slowly imo rhe eanh likc a ror- rmg log. Along wirh rhe othcr v1llagers who losr rheir homes, Naril has built his new ranch-sryle house up on rhc hill berween the road and rhe moonram. D AYS PASS, and early plans to fili rhem wirh diving, fi:.hmg, and hiking are ofren neglecred as we :.ettle imo rhe rhyrhm of che vil- lage. Turo's beer CUl>tomers mvanably sray awhile ro parau 'ai'ar, "make small ralk." At first the Tahitian worJs wash over us rn a flood of vowels. Bur it is a soft, very soothing language, almost likc music, and l sometimes find mysclf JU5t listening ro thc sounds, sraring our over rhe warer. In a sociecy that so values small calk, che celephone is a big h1r. Turo calls h1s daughrers every week. And m the even- ing whilc dmncr is prepared, he tunes che radio to one of the mosr popular programs: a cali-in quiz show. The arnval ofelectriciry has extended day imo nighr. Where once we ali wcnt ro bed when rhe lantern burned down an hour afrer sunset, now Turo and Fareka srr up and smoke and chat w1th neighbors unrillO or ll o'clock. In rhe cvcnmgs rhc rclcvistOn is often on, bur only occasion- ally is it warchcd wirh rea! inrercsr. Thc soap opera "Santa Barbara," duhbed in French, is never missed. Despire rhc amenna Turo placed on rhe mountain- s•de across rhe roaù, reception is so bad that rhe piccurc fades m and ouc evcry fcw minurcs. Church is sciJI primarily a St.x:ial and musical evenr. The beli rhar used ro hang from a tree branch now has 1ts own beli rower, and chere are more shoes- and fcwer bare fcer- m evidence at serv1ce . XIh1te woven hars are fanncd as the pasror ra1ls agamst rhe allure of Papcete. "The notse of che big city blots our thc voice ofGod," he says. "Here m Fcwna, you can stili hear His voice." He loob around che pews and lamems rhe lack of young faces. In facr, rhe churchgoing popularion has shrunk so much rhat Feruna now shares its pasror wirh anorhcr village.
  8. 8. Thc road through Fetuna once pctereJ out not far beyond the ,.,Jlage. Now H :.llce~ up mto the craggy intenor IJkc a scar and link:. up with rhe road rhat run!> along che cast coasL Turo's cousm dnvcs u:; 111to Uturoa one day, takmg thc ncwly fin~Shed roure, che longer way .uound. "<l rhat wc can sec che rest of Raiarea. The mhcr Mdc of che tsland •~ much more dcvelopcd: Tract~ of :.uburl:>an-~tylc homcs look hkc they werc atrhfreJ from Lus Angclc~. Thts IS where the ~nMII colon~ uf French live, a5 well a~ Ram- who have prospcred, mosrly m htgh-paymg civil servicc jobs. Whm lmie wurbm therc 1~ on Ranncn occurs mo~tly along tht:. cmt~t.•u Opoa, Avcra, and Ururoa. Thcrc are a couplc of small hotcls, S<lmC campgrounJs, anJ a halfdo:cn pensrons famJIIes (che li1hiti<m cqlllvalcnt ofbed-and-breakfasr:,}, whtch provrdc vtsrtors wtth a t~tc of T.1hitian famdy llfc and cu1sine. O NE DAY NEAR thc end of our stay, thc cloud around che peak ofOrop1ro pomts uncrringly coward Fcruna. Shuttcrs are pullcd down uvcr cach wmdow. lt 1s rhe -.cart of thc r.liny sca"m· and the roof spring' h.:.tb that havc l:>ccn forgonen for mlmtlv... With cach downpour, c;ml frllm con· strucnon prOJCCts w,lshc~ .1cross che l.1goon m a red stam. Along wtth :.dt from Jredgmg proJcCts, 1t 1s chokmg much of rhc coral. Tcn ycars ago che mner reef, a :.hallow shelf of coral near ~horc, was a J'llp·art palcnc of color. E'cry crevice h1d "<llnC creature. No'' rhere 1:. lmle hving wral lt has been replaceJ m most pare- uf the rccfby spin brown ~pongc~. Thl• ~i ru.uIl>!l 1~ berter on rhe ourer barncr ree(. Turo rake.., us fora p1cn1c onc Sunday w Natl Nao, a tiny 1slct out by che P•''~•tJ.!C w Jeep w<~ter. Benearh rhc sca 'ud;Kc, wc fmd a mag· n1ficcnc rock g;JrJcn nf cor;~l hcad:. and cxrraordinary (i..,h, !>cmnllaung l1kc fm!· worb as tht..') dan hcrc anJ thcrc. The day:. Jnft h. ,mJ CCntu,tlly 1t t:, (Ime co lea'e. A frc,h-c.ut branch placed m the roadway rhat ntghr ~~ .1 s1gnal ro thc prcdawn truck w ~wr (or pa...-.cnger:-. l rhc alarm on lll) ,Jtch for four o'clock; wc chcd: our, onc la~t umc .mJ rhen ,go m l:>cJ. In che cari) mornmg JMknt.>,~, we 11plash cold warcr ovcr our bod1cs anJ have a cup ofNcscaf~. Thc hcaJlighrs uf che truck swccp amund a curve. Hug~ anJ kisse~ are cxc.h.mgcd. Lmda and l c.hmb aboan.J anJ lcac Fctuna bchind, once again rcmcmbcnng rhc old lc~M>n: Onc of rhe h.lrJc,t rhmgs m rhc t~rld is ro leà'C French Pnl~ ne''·'· + Visitors lo lhe home ol Turo andFareka Teiholaala (above) are as likely lo arrive by waler as by land. During afamlly picnic, lite swings lo ils own Polyneslan rhythms. 70 ISLANDS