Saturday, January 2, 2016

Raiatea, Tahiti, French Polynesia

 “Beware of killer coconuts.”  This helpful advice comes from Vivien, the guide for a kayak trip up Fa'aroa, the only navigable river on the French Polynesian island of Raiatea. In addition to the rain and the ubiquitous mosquitoes, I must also be on the lookout for brown coconuts on the overhanging palms—at any moment one could fall and cause an early, and somewhat embarrassing death.

The rain has churned up the river so the water lacks the clarity of the blue ocean into which it eventually runs. The landscape does not disappoint, though: A lush canopy of vegetation—papaya, bananas, bread fruit, hibiscus, and palms—against a magnificent background of verdant mountains with cragged peaks and ridges, blanketed in clouds. The rhythmic paddling and the soft sounds of the river current bring a hypnotic feeling to the journey.

Raiatea, the second largest island in the Society Islands, means “bright sky” or “faraway heaven” in Tahitian.  Many cultures believe Raiatea is the original birthplace of Polynesia and from here the great migration led to the colonization of Hawaii and New Zealand. This belief makes Raiatea a place of pilgrimage for many Polynesians throughout the South Pacific.

In the main town, a sleepy little seaside village, the plaza has a local market with fresh fruits, crafts,
and fragrant tropical flowers, including ginger and the delicate white tiare flower, the same symbol of which adorns the famous Tahitian Hinano beer. Fresh flowers have been woven into leis that adorn women’s heads and necks and match their brightly colored pareos.  The dancers quickly shimmy their hips to the fast-beating drums and the faster Tahitian ukuleles.

 Raiatea shares a large blue lagoon and surrounding coral reef with a smaller sister island, Taha'a, which is known for its vanilla farms.  A few blocks from the plaza, down an unmarked street next to the post office, a steep but bucolic trail leads to Tapioi Hill, with
stunning views of the Taha’a, the lagoon, and the surrounding reef. After greeting chickens, dogs, pigs, goats, cows, and horses, I am standing next to radio towers viewing clouds and mist. It was worth the effort, though, to see why this island is named “faraway heaven” when I feel like I’m on top of the world. The scent of vanilla, gardenia, and ginger will always take me back to this beautiful day on that tiny peak of paradise.