Thursday, June 26, 2008

Papeete, Tahiti (and the strange outbound clearance process here)

Tuesday we managed to get Med-moored at the marina after the wind dropped back to normal levels.  They put us on the outside dock with the big boats.  Man, do we look small next to those guys!  Glad they put us out here because the inside docks of this marina appear quite tight and it would have been a challenge for us to fit in there.  As soon as we were secure at the dock we found the office for the agent we used to clear into Marquesas.  He will handle our clearance into Tahiti and then our departure from French Polynesia.

The departure clearance from French Polynesia is just plain weird.  Papeete is the only official port of clearance for either arrival or departure.  All the other “official” ports of clearance must mail the completed forms to Papeete.  When you leave Papeete to go visit the other windward islands of French Polynesia, you actually clear out of French Polynesia in Papeete.  They give you the departure clearance paperwork and then you take it to the Gendarmerie at your final island stop (almost always Bora Bora).  The Gendarmerie in Bora Bora stamps the departure paperwork, you mail back another copy of this departure paperwork to Papeete, and then you leave French Polynesia.  That entire process is so strange.  We have never heard of any other place where you clear out weeks or months before you really leave.  So we will be clearing out when we leave Papeete but will not really leave French Polynesia until many weeks later.  Our plans are to visit Moorea and definitely Bora Bora but we haven’t decided about the other islands in between those two.

Tahiti itself is actually 2 islands that are connected by a road.  The larger northern island is called Tahiti Nui and the smaller southern island is called Tahiti Iti.  I just love the name of Tahiti Iti.  The main city is Papeete and is located on the northwestern coast of Tahiti Nui.  We took Le Truck into the city of Papeete and walked for hours trying to find a few small boat items.  Le Truck is the local version of a maxi-taxi – the cheap mode of transportation.  Taxis are supposedly exorbitantly priced so no one uses a taxi.   Bill’s sneakers literally fell apart while we were walking in town; the soles separated and were flopping so badly he was having difficulty walking.  We think it is the extreme heat inside the boat that destroys the glue in shoes.  This is the third pair of sneakers that has literally separated since we moved aboard; and each pair was really in good condition when they fell apart.  So we found a sports store and bought him a new pair.  He was not happy when he later realized that he had paid $160 for a plain pair of sneakers.   Tahiti is an expensive place.   The only reasonably priced things in French Polynesia are baguettes, which cost only about 65 cents each.   The daily baguette is a ritual that we will miss a lot when we leave French Polynesia.

Polynesia is known for tattoos.  The Tahitian word tatau literally means “to hit.”  In ancient times the pigment was made from the soot of a burned candle nut, called “ti’a’iri”, and was thinned with water.  The mixture turned blue once it was introduced below the dermis.  This was done with a tattooing comb, called a “fa”, which was a kind of adze with sharp teeth on one end.  The fa was carved from fish teeth or bird bones.  A mallet was used to hit the fa’s handle and make the pigment penetrate into the skin.  The fa could have a few or a great many points, depending on how large a body part was being tattooed.  Ancient Polynesians believed that tattooing originated with the gods.  The 2 sons of the god Ta’aroa were the first ones to be tattooed; they supposedly did this to seduce their sister.  Men imitated the gods and began to tattoo their bodies.  Tattoos had aesthetic value and were considered sexually attractive, but that was only one aspect.  Tattooing marked the passage from childhood to adulthood.  In some areas it also was a mark of identification, or belonging to a particular group; and was also considered a protective barrier against evil influences.

Each island group does different type tattoos.  The Marquesas traditionally were the most heavily tattooed of any island group.  Marquesan men would shave their heads and tattoo their scalps.  In fact, they tattooed their entire bodies; sometimes even their eyelids and tongues and other ultra-sensitive parts of their bodies.   Marquesan women were more restricted in their tattoo options.  The most frequently chosen body parts were the earlobes and the space behind the ears, the lower back, and the arms and legs.  The Christian missionaries considered the tattoos to be erotic and they certainly could not tolerate any erotic; so the missionaries managed to get King Pomare to ban both tattooing and dancing in 1819 when he officially converted to a Christian religion.  This ban remained in effect until very recently when the Samoans did a tattoo exhibit during the Pacific Arts Festival, which was held in the Hiva Oa, Marquesas one year.  This exhibit rekindled interest in the ancient practice of tattooing and now one often sees young Polynesian men and women with tattoos. 

In the Society Islands it was traditional for both men and women to wear tattoos on the shoulders, arms and legs; but never on the face.  They would tattoo their buttocks uniformly blue and then tattoo the lower back to the hips with several rows of designs.  The Z-shaped broken line was the most commonly used sign and were worn by women on each joint of their fingers and toes.

In the Austral Islands marked their difference by the use of hand-width tattooed bands below the armpits.   Tattooing was much less practiced in the eastern Tuamotu  but was quite common in the western Tuamotu.  Men of Rangiroa (in the northwest Tuamotu) might be tattooed from head to toe with irregular designs such as curved lines, concentric circles or checkerboard designs.  In the Gambier Islands a tattoo was compulsory.  The special mark of that archipelago was a circled tattooed under the armpits of teenager boys.  It was divided into four parts and was progressively inked in during the young man’s lifetime. 

Because dancing and tattooing were banned for so long, no one is certain what the original Polynesian dances were exactly like.  But thanks to many sketched log books and sketches made by sailors back during Captain Cook’s visits to Polynesia, we know what the original tattoos looked like.  At least this tradition was not totally lost.

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