Tahiti: Wrong Island

Quick primer:

1. Tahiti is one of several islands collectively known as French Polynesia.
2. It's part of France -- the locals are full French citizens.
3. Despite that, they annoyingly don't use the Euro.

As we mentioned in the previous writeup, there are only two places you can fly from Easter Island. One is Santiago, where we'd just come from. The other is Tahiti.

We only had room in our schedule for a three-day stay, which meant there would be no time to visit the other islands in French Polynesia, e.g., Moorea, Bora Bora, or the Marquesas. We would later read in a guidebook that those other islands are the ones that give "Tahiti" its reputation as an island paradise. Tahiti proper turned out to be a bit of a letdown.

It was nearly midnight when we arrived at Faa'a Airport in the capital city of Papeete (pronounced "Pappy 8A"), but there were still women with orchids in their hair and men with leis playing ukuleles and guitars. We assumed they were only dressing like this for our benefit until later that night, in our hotel room, when we saw the anchors on the local news:

Aside from the one Tahitian-language TV channel and some official signs and notices, life here is conducted in French. This meant that most of the tourists were also French — we didn't meet another Anglophone the whole time we were there. It also meant that I replaced Mike as primary communicator.

Speaking of the hotel... We picked it because of its highly-recommended on-site scuba shop, which as you'll see below lived up to the hype. The drawback was, well, everything else about the place. (We don't want to name names, but it rhymes with "Yentl".)

Located in a spot that's not within walking distance of anything (even for professional walkers like ourselves), they have a completely captive audience. Arriving in our room, we were shocked to see Internet access was $20 / hour. They even had a grouchy disclaimer reserving the right to disconnect anyone who does anything bandwidth-intensive... like, say, uploading Easter Island photos to one's popular travel website. We were too tired to complain, so we just went to sleep.

When we woke up, we discovered more to be upset about. The hotel — which bills itself as a "resort" and charges accordingly — had two of its three restaurants closed for renovation. The remaining one, an open-air lounge designed for big dinner shows ($180 per person, if you're interested), hosted a breakfast buffet in the morning.

There were three options. For $16, you could get coffee and a danish. $30 and they'll throw in some fruit. But if you want, say, eggs, toast, or bacon, you need to get the "Américain", with a whopping $40 price tag. Since the only other option would be to try to catch some fish, we begrudgingly forked over eighty bucks, warning nobody in particular that this had better be the best breakfast of our lives.

It, uh, wasn't.

The food was okay, but there were several offenses that I wouldn't have tolerated for one-tenth the price. Squeamish readers may want to skip to the next section.

First, there was at least one roach crawling amongst the breakfast breads. It happens, I guess. Then our coffee arrived. Hil added milk and passed the creamer on to me. Luckily, like most of life's situations, I have a system for this: Before I add milk to coffee, I give it a quick sniff to make sure it's okay.

It, uh, wasn't.

I'm not talking about a slight hint of sourness. I'm talking about a stench, like when you leave for a weeklong vacation and forget about the already-expired milk in the back of the fridge. I quietly brought it to the staff's attention, and they apologized and said they'd take care of it right away. Their solution was to bring us fresh cups of black coffee — and no replacement milk. I guess the entire batch was spoiled.

I felt sorry and nauseous for the people all around us drinking coffee. You know what? Maybe living on a remote island means it's hard to get fresh milk, even when you can charge through the nose for it. Maybe no amount of money can provide unexpired milk on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But how about those little creamer cups they give away for free at McDonald's? How about non-dairy creamer? It's like they just didn't care.

The worst, however, was the bird eating scrambled eggs off the serving spoon. The staff noticed but did nothing about it — even as I snapped four pictures over the course of eight minutes. I considered shooing it away myself, but concluded that if they weren't going to replace the spoon, it was best that the bird remain there as a warning.

For lunch we looked into getting a ride to town. The hotel advertised that it had a shuttle van, but it turned out to cost five dollars. Per person. Each way. The $20 total was a big disincentive against, say, running into town for breakfast and some email. Plus, the shuttle only ran once every two hours. We thought we'd be stuck paying hotel prices for three days, but then we discovered "Le Truck."

Le Truck saved our stay. It was cheap (about $1.50 per person), reliable (runs every 5 minutes) and interesting (full of locals). Although government-regulated, each Le Truck seemed to be independently owned, operated, ... and constructed. The body was a fairly standard flatbed truck, but the back was hand-made, perhaps by amateurs. Consisting of three wooden benches, a fiberboard roof, and a rough coat of paint, Mike said it reminded him of a baseball dugout circa 1910.

We loved it.

The route ran straight along the coast and right into Papeete (which was fortunate, because it would have been equally possible for us to have boarded a Le Truck headed the opposite way). We got off where everyone else did, and found ourselves at the entrance to a vast covered market.

The market

There were tables selling everything: local honey, fresh fish, bath products, rattan baskets, Tahitian black pearl jewelry, and dirty postcards (mixed right in with the tame ones). I bought a sarong, which the Polynesians call a "pareo" or "pareu." The one I chose has a black and purple flower pattern and makes a great skirt, scarf, or beach towel.

This was also where we finally found cheap food. First we stopped at a table where a lady was selling fruit. The sign said "2.000" (2,000 Polynesian francs, or about $2). We wondered to each other whether that meant $2 apiece or $2 for some sort of bundle, and ended up just handing over 4,000 francs and asking for des bananes et caramboles. We laughed with joy when she handed back a shopping bag bursting with at least fifteen little bananas and a huge pile of carambola.

We also got a toasted baguette spread with garlic and anchovy for $1.50 and a selection of little Chinese pork buns and entrees for under $5 — all of which we ate immediately. I felt we needed to take something besides fruit back to the room... something low-carb and filling yet shelf-stable. We stopped by a butcher's counter and got a big bag of pork rinds ($4). At a grocery on the next block, we grabbed some cheap cookies, peanuts, and bottled water. It was about as much food as we could carry, and it cost less than our crummy breakfasts had.

After we'd eaten and shopped, we walked along Papeete's waterfront before catching the westbound Le Truck. We were worried about whether we'd recognize our stop, but I saw it just in time and we rang a doorbell nailed above a window to signal the driver.


There wasn't much to do back at the hotel except dive and sleep, but luckily that's all we had on our agenda. As mentioned earlier, the diving was spectacular. (The sleeping was pretty good, too.)

The water was crystal clear, warm enough that I didn't need a wetsuit, and filled with interesting stuff. There were fish and clams:

You have to search far and wide to find a fish this ugly.
Giant clam

...and sea anemones and clownfish:

...and shipwrecks:

...and weird things to touch:

Which brings us to the following creature. In the following series of pictures, you can see the transition as Hilary (1) grabs it, (2) tries to get rid of it, and (3) discovers that the "tentacles" are actually a sticky defense mechanism which thankfully doesn't sting but still takes several minutes of sand-hand-washing to remove.


After that, we stopped touching stuff.

Actually, that's not true. Throughout our dives, we noticed that much of the coral was studded with tiny plants — they looked like pine trees that go on your model train set, except they were blue or yellow or pink. They looked like they were begging to be touched, but as soon as we tried, they disappeared into the coral, as if pulled in by the Grinch. We later found out they're actually animals, commonly referred to as Christmas tree worms. The part you see is a sort of tongue, which filters microscopic food out of the water and retracts when it detects the slightest change in current. Their incredible sensitivity thwarted all my attempts to take a close-up picture, but here are two from Wikipedia along with a video of some of my efforts.

We also stuck our arms right into this cold spring. Brr!

The best dive of the trip — and our lives, so far — took place after dark. We had never been on a night dive before, and it really struck me as a rite of passage, like trying out for a higher belt in karate. Unlike a normal dive, we would only be able to see whatever our flashlights were pointed at. Communication, an important part of diving, would have to be done with the lights — waving them in a circle meant we were okay, shaking them back and forth was a sign of distress, and so on. To get someone's attention, you bring your spot of light over to theirs, shake it around, and then drag it away. If their spot follows yours, you have their attention and can lead it over to whatever it is that you want them to look at.

The typical point of a night dive is to see the fish that don't come out during the day. That alone is reason enough to go, since the nocturnal species are usually very different from the day shift. This site, however, had even more to offer. Known as The Wrecks, it's a veritable junkyard of ship and plane parts, and our trip through it was otherworldly. The divemaster took us on a path where we seemed to be surrounded by twisted metal on all sides and at all times. Several of the divers said it was like a scene at the beginning of Alien where an interstellar mining crew investigates a mysterious derelict spacecraft. Since I've never seen the movie, I was reminded instead of Nintendo's Super Metroid.

At the end of the dive, we paused at 15 feet. This is a standard part of diving; stopping at this depth for three minutes helps reduce the likelihood of decompression sickness. While we were waiting there, the DM signaled us to turn off our lights. We did, and of course everything went black. Then, suddenly, we started to see little green bubbles of light all around us — he was waving his arms and causing dozens of tiny, formerly invisible phytoplankton to glow in response.

Back on board, we warmed up with towels, tea, and cake as the boat sped back to the dive shop. You can see all our dive pictures in the Flickr set.


If you'd like to visit French Polynesia, we recommend you not follow in our footsteps. Rather than spending your vacation on the main island of Tahiti, get to one of the outer islands as soon as possible. Unless you're a diver, in which case you should just stay underwater the entire time.

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