Tahiti: Baguette of Hope

View from my hostel

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the world so far, it’s that Easter Island is dry. I complained day after day about the ‘brutal humidity’ of the island every time I had a moment to air my thoughts, but in hindsight it was either because I’m just generally not used to humidity at all, or because I had just come from a particularly dry region of Chile. That place is not humid. Tahiti? Now this is humid. I’ve been here for about 3 days now, and it has been non-stop rain of torrential proportions, combined with 35 degree heat and obscene levels of dampness in the atmosphere. Even now, as I sit on the porch of my hostel, mangos falling off the trees and slamming onto the roof every 10 minutes, I am struggling. It’s just so muggy.

Which brings about some other unusual problems. For instance, you always have to wear shoes; even if it hasn’t been raining, the ground will be saturated with dew. Also problematic is the insane mosquito problem; Tahiti is apparently a hotspot not for the Zika virus itself, but for the mosquito that carries it. So I assume, as soon as it’s introduced to Tahiti, the island will descend into collective apocalyptic panic. Natural order will break down, the government will be airlifted to safety, people will sell off all their gold, and all that will be left is an army of babies with shrunken heads, destined to aimlessly wander the land for all eternity.

F*ck you too, Vodaphone model

Also one thing that appears to defy the laws of science; you can’t dry clothing. It’s very strange, but say you get soaked by this rainfall and want a change of clothes, you’ll put your wet clothes out to dry somewhere – be it in a dry spot or even indoors – you’ll come back an hour later to discover that they’re actually more damp than they were before. I’ve been forced to devise a routine involving ceiling fans and support beams to successfully un-soak my clothing.

So, Tahiti. It’s white sand beaches again, complete with coconut-laden palm trees, cheerful men selling mangos and a laid-back Polynesian atmosphere, right? Without meaning to sound clichéd; if this is your idea of the essence of Tahiti, you could not be more wrong. This little sweatbox of an island, stranded out in the South Pacific, is an intense, heavily industrialised place that offers little in the way of perfect beach relaxation opportunities. The beaches are covered in black volcanic sand and rocky outcrops that leave no space for sunbathing or swimming, the island is encircled by a permanently-busy, fast-moving ring road dominated by heavy-duty transport vehicles, and then there’s Pape’ete, the capital and only real town of any note on the island. Pape’ete is not like Hanga Roa back on Easter Island. It’s not dirt roads and reed-roofed huts. It’s a hideous little city, absolutely devoid of any charm that the region may have had bestowed upon it by the original Polynesian settlers or their French colonisers. It’s a traffic-intensive, roadwork-filled maze of soulless concrete phone shops and cash-for-gold establishments, punctuated by the odd McDonald’s and filled with homeless people. The entire city is dominated by towering shipping cranes and a remarkably suffocating smell of pollution. I thought I was taking a huge risk by booking a hostel 20km away from Pape’ete. And sure, the transport around this part of the island is not as good, but overall I could never have foreseen how good a decision that has turned out to be.

Seems a bit much

Me and a couple of people from the hostel all chipped in to rent a car yesterday, and took the arduous drive up to Pape’ete, where I had my first casse-croute, a gastronomic staple of the island, and – I assume – one of the main factors behind French Polynesia’s surprisingly lofty ranking on lists of the world’s most obese territories. Every cafe, every food truck and every restaurant will have a variety of casse-croutes to test your vascular capabilities. In the major food market of the city, the ‘main hall’ is a vast space, white picnic tables bookended all the way from one end to the other, with maybe only about four food vendors; two guys selling whole tuna, one selling limes and another sat at an empty table looking like he’d forgotten why he was there. Then, through a small passageway at the back, we found a row of hidden, bustling fast-food stands. What they were doing back here, I don’t know, but I proceeded to order my first casse-croute. I got one with steak hache. Wait, I know I’m taking an age to explain what a casse-croute is, but I’ve got another point to make here – what the hell is steak hache? I couldn’t remember exactly from the last time I was in France, so I asked the server. ‘Well it’s steak. Then you mince it up, then you put it back together and cook it’. Oh yeah! It’s funny you French people call it that, cos it already has a name – it’s a goddamn burger. What on Earth is that about? Scrolling further down the menu, I noticed they also served burgers. I was extremely hesitant to ask, for fear of lapsing into some sort of never-ending cycle in which I’m being told all food is minced-up steak put back together, so instead waited for my food. What arrived was a monster. A casse-croute is a giant baguette, cut lengthways, and stuffed with lettuce, tomato, onion, copious amounts of meat of your choice, and then also filled with chips and covered with BBQ sauce. It’s an entire meal in a piece of bread. After sweating my way through the entire thing, I decided I may avoid them from now on. Although, they are cheap, and here comes my final and most fervent gripe with this island. If you don’t like me bitching about money, click away now.

The personal financial costs of Easter Island’s ‘remote island economy’ was a tiring and mildly frustrating appendix to an amazing trip. Tahiti is dominated by financial woes. Perhaps if it weren’t absolutely pissing it down with rain all day every day I may be able to find ways to distract myself, but as it stands, the only major activity available to me is either drinking the truly dreadful Hinano lager brewed on the island, or lurking around supermarkets, which on Tahiti is actually surprisingly entertaining. It’s actually become quite funny by this point, but my God this place is expensive. And so French.

If you went to the Cook Islands or some similar British-owned South Pacific island group, I guarantee you wouldn’t wander down the street to find such excessively British things as a Tesco, a fish & chip shop, a Twining’s and a bowler hat fitter all lined up next to each other, yet the French clearly took their hedonistic colonial days very seriously. Head into Pape’ete and you’ll see patisseries, boulangeries and boucheries crushed up against one another. You’ll see native Polynesians in part-traditional dress walking down the street holding giant baguettes. You’ll even see beret-clad men leaning against lamposts with cigarettes hanging from their mouths.

Thus, you’ll also see such French staples as Carrefour, a giant supermarket known for having extremely low prices. Hilariously, it is thus also considered the cheapest place to buy food on Tahiti. Trouble is, the French have also decided that supermarkets in Tahiti will not be filled with Tahitian versions of French staples, but of the authentic French staples themselves. Yeah sure, why not fly a tiny piece of reblochon halfway round the world and charge £20 for it? Why not chuck that 1995 Bordeaux on there too and sit it on the shelf at £450? And while you’re at it, stock the plane up with the shittiest, Carrefour own-brand budget versions of all the food, and thus totally negate the fact that they’re budget items. A usually £2 tub of crap, bland own-brand ice cream? That’s now £15.

Interesting, this is totally normal for the islanders, as you would expect, because there’s another funny little aisle in the far corner where every item is marked with a little sticker saying ‘Avion’ over a white silhouette of a plane. These are items they are making a point out of having flown over, and it turns out the things they choose to specify this aspect of amount to an odd collection of stuff. American processed cheese, Delerium Nocturnum Belgian beer, tapas chorizo and nutella are all mixed in there with some sort of unspoken added flight tax, as if the rest of the items in the supermarket hadn’t been flown in. But then; light at the end of the tunnel. As I stumbled through the foie-gras section, my wallet weeping as my vision started to go blurry, I reached the croissants. Expensive but not too bad. Then donuts. Hey they’re kind of cheap. Then, boom. I knew it. You can always rely on the French to charge absolutely nothing for one staple of their diet. I held it in my hands and breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps there is space on this small, tropical speck of land for cheap food. It was my baguette of hope.

So in conclusion, Tahiti is vastly different from anywhere I’ve ever been. I feel like I’m ticking off boxes of countries, climates and cultures at an alarming rate, each one revealing hidden surprises and strange, unexpected flaws. It’s kind of depressing in a way that many of these places that were once so far away and exotic and mysterious are now just… here. And they’re just places. They’re not magical lands made of rainbows and happiness. They’re just cities, towns and countries where people are born, live, work and die, and it’s possible to feel that. Perhaps it is that Tahiti, a place so synonymous with luxurious paradise, is actually a pollutant-ridden centre of commerce, that is making me feeling quite so confused as to what to think. As that drugged-up guy from Keane once said, ‘the map of my world gets smaller as I sit here, pulling at the loose threads now’.


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