Sunday, September 7, 2008
24 Hours In Tahiti
French Polynesia is a wonderful scam on the part of the French. They found a beautiful, unspoiled paradise teeming with friendly natives, eager to please, and then made them speak a language every honeymooning tourist couple wants to hear. Beautiful Asians with French accents. You couldn't get better results if you built this place in a lab. As the Japanese steamrolled through the Pacific in World War II, they no doubt had similar designs—even linguistically—but ultimately not the staying power to see them through. Concrete proof that if you can't take a little nuclear holocaust, you don't belong in the game.
Bouganville wrote of Tahiti back in 1768, and hailed it as an untouched, unspoiled paradise free from the ugly corruption of society. Europe must have taken this as a challenge, because it signaled the beginning of a race to ruin Tahiti, a task almost completed by smallpox and syphilis. Still, it retains a kind of mythical grandeur. After all, this is the place of the Bounty, Gaguin, Captain Cook. It's a place of beauty and romance, as long as you don't wander outside the resorts. If you do, you're faced with the brutish realities of poverty and the half-hearted and broken promises of distant colonizers. Corrugated steel shacks and dark, esoteric graffiti. Locals wandering around in the kind of hopeless daze that is only known by those who see no way out of the life they're accustomed to. But the hotels keep you from all this. They present the untarnished facade people come here looking for, and no doubt leave thinking is genuine. They choke out the beach, leaving only a thin ribbon of black sand to testify that this was ever anything more than a grownup Disneyland for the obscenely wealthy. Yet, jungle covered mountains shoot up from the sea, asserting their dominance over even the most grotesque and creative attempts at capitalism. Fat tourists snap pictures of them, blissfully ignorant of their defiance.
On the plane ride here, I sit next to a brash and overly-friendly 21-year-old named Ben. He tells me he and his friends are here for a wedding, and it's obvious he sees Tahiti as some kind of Bacchanalian playground. A place where any vice can be indulged for the right amount of money. In between hitting on the politely disinterested stewardesses and getting progressively drunker on shitty Tahitian beer, he learns of my plans for Auckland. I'm moving here from the States knowing no one, no job prospects, no place to live. All in the ridiculous pursuit of being a vagabond journalist, the lowest rung on the social—and perhaps even evolutionary—ladder. Ben gives the kind of lilting, amoral encouragement and advice only a drunk frat boy can. Tear it up, he advises. Live life in a drunken, orgiastic stupor, taking from New Zealand what I can and giving nothing in return. Normally, his antics would draw my intellectual contempt. Instead, I'm touched by this fantastic salute to American ignorance, excess and entitlement. Ben's is the kind of naive overbearance that is simultaneously our country's most beautiful and horrifying trait, and I love him for personifying it so well. At the end of the trip he makes a gift to me of his Playboy magazine, and I accept it—not only because I've learned not to argue with drunks, but because I understand that nothing could be more meaningful coming from a guy like Ben than the twentieth century's foremost chronicle of indulgent nihillism and tits. I discard it at the airport, but with a deep sense of appreciation.
Ben and his entourage invite me to party with them, and I almost do. My layover here is only 24 hours, after all. Why not spend it getting bombed out of my skull with a bunch of meatheads? At the very least, it would make for an interesting story. Instead, I somehow find the will to go to my hotel and have a nice dinner of steak and foie gras. Anyone who's ever had foie gras knows that it's the single most glorious thing a human can experience. Even the most hardened vegan, had he tried it, would rip the liver out of every goose he saw to get at that succulent meat. It's the perfect dish for a place like this. Excessive. And every night, it's served to self-involved Anglos like me by beautiful island girls who get off work and go to their tenement homes far away from the prying eyes of tourism. Just one more day of selling an opulence they themselves will never own.
All the girls here are sweet and demure, but skittish like a dog that's been hit too many times, and I wonder if this is a heavily patriarchal society, or if tourists are just that fucking rude and demanding. I try to be overly polite to compensate, but they still constantly apologize, and it makes me sad. Makes me wish I could have seen this place as the proud and savage tribal society it used to be rather than a prefabricated retreat for honeymooners without the sense to spend their money on a house instead.
Everything at the Radisson here smells like flowers and the salty mist drifting off the ocean, and all around me I see happy couples either just beginning their marriage, or contented veterans of it. There's something beautiful about their unspoken hypothesis that any trial of relationship, any trouble they may face can be left at their point of embarkation. No void of communication, no infidelity, no cold emotional apathy could overcome the beauty of this place if it were real and if it were forever. But it is neither. The cynic in me knows that when these couples return home, all those things will be waiting where they left them in longterm parking.
Guinea hens run around the grounds of the hotel, and I can hear birds of paradise singing in the distance. This island was theirs long before it was anyone else's, even before those first brave Asian pioneers set out across the angry Pacific in outrigged canoes. With any luck, it will be theirs again someday. The jungle and the beach will swallow up the resorts, their deserted husks a lonely monument to a time when man thought utopia could be packaged and sold, and the birds will sing on into the emptiness with only each other to hear it.