Six days, eight hours and five minutes after arriving at Faa’a Airport in a monumental rainstorm and discovering I’d have to sleep on a bench outside the airport McDonald’s, I am finally leaving Tahiti. As many of you may have read on my last blog post, while I’ve made some excellent friends here and discovered new ways to appreciate time without internet, I have not enjoyed my time on this island. Or perhaps it’s less a lack of enjoyment of my time here, and more a painful frustration at pretty much everything this island has offered me, which rarely went beyond rain, concrete, terrible transport and charging £10 for a beer.
This troubled little island, however, has just given me a parting gift that should make me a little more reflective and perhaps a little more forgiving, but really just comes across as a big middle finger to me; sunshine. I’ve barely seen a single ray of ultraviolet light this week – it’s been buried behind deep layers of cloud and driving rain, yet now I’m back here at the airport, I look up to see lovely clear blue sky out the window. Two hours before my flight leaves. Thanks for that, Tahiti. I could probably just accept that I was unlucky, and that maybe this island can give holidaymakers a perfect tropical paradise experience, but really it just makes me think that Tahiti hates me as much as I hate it.
Having written only three blog posts in the last week, including one that didn’t really recount anything that’s actually happened, you’d think I’d have enough experiences built up for a novel-length entry, but nope. Not much has been going. In fact, I can count four things of any note that have actually happened all week. They are as follows:
The first is that a tropical storm hit us. In my inadvertent round-the-world tour of natural disasters which has so far racked up an earthquake in Chile and a flash-flood on Easter Island, I’ve seen some extreme weather, but none like what hit us yesterday. At my hostel on the west of the island, everyone gets up early, everyone sits together and eats the excellent breakfast provided by the hostel, and everyone does it no matter the weather. Earlier this week, a Category 5 hurricane hit Fiji, west of French Polynesia, and a number of little subsidiary storms have been ambling around the South Pacific. One had been circling close to Tahiti, and at breakfast the day before it was due to either hit or miss us, Fred – the hostel owner and most French man I’ve ever met – disappeared into his house and returned, cigarette hanging from his mouth and a baguette/laptop combo under his arm, to show us a website that tracks tropical weather activity. As the day went on, we all agreed, as did the weather forecasters, that the storm would slip around the south of the island and miss us entirely.
The following morning, I woke up and headed to breakfast to find tablecloths whipping around in the wind, all the other guests sat in the little open-air breakfast hut wearing waterproof clothing zipped up to their noses, and all attempting to stop the mess of peanut butter and marmalade jars from being picked up and carried away on the breeze. ‘Oh so the storm did hit us in the end?’ I asked Fred. ‘No, the forecast said it would miss’. OK. I took my seat, rain digging into my face, and grabbed a piece of damp baguette. Just as I went for the butter with my teaspoon (for some reason the only piece of cutlery available), a huge gust of wind suddenly picked up two of the tables and, complete with jam jars, coffee mugs and butter dishes, slammed them against the back wall and out the side of the hut, out into the driveway. And we all just watched them sail off into the distance. I looked at Fred, Fred shrugged, and we went back to drinking our coffee/rainwater mixed drinks. It seems nothing can stop the French from enjoying a breakfast baguette.
The second thing of note was the story of how I got stranded in Pape’ete. As you will all know, I have described Pape’ete as somewhat of a shithole; a hideous mess of grey buildings and greyer clouds of exhaust smoke. However, on Friday I decided to head up into town as there was nothing else to do on the island. Plus, I wanted to see if I could persuade Air Tahiti Nui to allow me to jump ship and get an earlier flight off the island (£250 for a flight change?!). After resigning myself to another three days in this hellhole, I headed straight for the nearest bar, got on the wifi, wrote that particularly angry blog post about Tahiti, sent it off, grabbed a beer and finished it in about 90 seconds. At which point I looked around and realised it was 6pm. And on Tahiti, that meant it was dark. In a kind of semi-panic, I headed to the ‘bus terminal’ (really just a hut on the side of the road), and sat in darkness for 15 minutes before the lack of other people waiting, combined with a row of SUVs parked in the bus stop itself, made me realise I’d probably be there all night. So what did I do? I started walking. My hostel is 20km from Pape’ete, and in the pouring rain, without many other options, I started walking down the main road that circles the island.
Yes I am fully aware that the word ‘taxi’ is probably ringing around in your head, but you have to remember that I’m a traveller, and budgeting is pretty much a requirement for every part of my trip. Even at their cheapest, taxis are rarely a viable option, and here the words ‘cheap’ and ‘taxi’ would never be uttered in the same sentence. Taxis don’t patrol for rides here; you have to call them. And the callout charge is £9 before you’ve even gone a yard. The fare then is 150 XPF (about £1) per kilometre. So that’s £29. Oh hang on no it isn’t, because the fare goes up once the sun goes down to 240 XPF per kilometre. So overall, from the callout to arrival at the hostel, I’d be charged £42. For a twelve-minute journey. What on Earth is that about?
Soaking wet, I decided to stop at a supermarket about a kilometre from Pape’ete where I had earlier gotten wifi. After the wifi refused to work, I went to the information desk to ask what my options were. After practically laughing out loud at me questioning where all the buses were, she told me the only option was a taxi. So I turned around and said ‘I’ll just walk’, when a little old lady, attempting to return some clothing at the desk and laughing with the staff, said ‘I can drive you’. I said ‘Oh that’s very nice of you but it’s OK’. She insisted I shouldn’t pay for a taxi or walk along the road at night, but obviously a random woman at a supermarket is a less appealing prospect than both of those options. She went back to returning her clothing, when the other information desk lady leaned over and whispered ‘I understand why you’re hesitant but it’s OK, I have been friends with this lady very well for many years, it’s perfectly fine, I have her phone number and address’. The other information desk lady agreed with her and said it really was my only choice as there would probably be no taxis free anyway. The first then leaned over the desk and showed me the old lady’s name and phone number on her mobile.
(N.B. Yes I’m aware I’m making a big deal of this but I am 100% sure my mum, who will currently be reading this, would have a heart attack if I didn’t make it pretty clear that this I was totally convinced this was undeniably a safer situation than either walking home and ending up under the wheels of a passing garbage truck, or hitchhiking. And lo, I was right; I’m not dead.)
So I caved. There’s no way in hell they were all in on some human trafficking con. In my desperation, and after a good 10 minutes of internal debate (and outward debate with the information desk lady), I agreed to a lift, and we stepped outside into the pouring rain to reveal the most extraordinary vehicle I could have imagined for a little old lady. She got her keys out, clicked the unlock button and a beep sounded behind us. I turned around to the sight of a monster/pick-up truck hybrid. The wheels were as tall as my shoulders. I had to literally climb into it using a built-in ladder. After boarding the Starship Enterprise, I asked her some questions to make conversation. To cut a long story short; she was ‘retired’ despite having never had a job, had married a multi-millionaire property owner in the 70s, was particularly worried about the rising drug abuse problems in Tahiti, and then, without any hassle, dropped me back at the hostel. After adamantly refusing any money for her help, she told me that acceptable payment would be to ‘write about her as part of my strange and unpredictable adventures’. So there you have it.
The third thing was that I was standing at a crossroads when a police car ran a red light, and all other cars in the queue proceeded to follow it through the red light and across a line of perpendicular traffic, causing a couple of crashes, lots of car horns and the occasional French swearword.
The fourth was the entirety of my final day. While the Tahiti experience has been pretty shit, the final day was far from it. Camill, my friend from the hostel who I spent pretty much every minute of every day with, had organised something pretty awesome and extremely French. A group of family friends of hers were hosting a lunch at their place up in the hills overlooking Pape’ete, and I’d wrangled an invitation. After weaving through awkwardly steep roads and sharp turns, we arrived at the house. I have to say, after five weeks of slumming it in hostels, this was the most welcome change of pace I’ve had so far; we were treated to a four-course French meal, complete with champagne, about five bottles of red wine (including an absolutely mindblowing 2010 Saint-Emilion), three different meats, a cheese board and finally a decent coffee, something I’ve dearly missed in recent weeks. Oh and they had the tiniest little kitten ever.
So after getting a little drunk and eating enough food to sustain me for hibernation, we headed back to another of Camill’s friend’s place, where I saw the first sunshine of my entire time in Tahiti, accompanied with a few beers and a swim in their pool. So Camill, if you’re reading, thanks again; the entire Tahiti experience will be much more fondly remembered because of it!
I would continue now into a couple of reflective paragraphs about how perhaps Tahiti would be the perfect holiday destination in the right circumstances, or that maybe I just have to appreciate the experiences I had rather than concentrate on the negatives, but I don’t want to. Get me off this f*cking island.