Saturday, 15 March 2014

Tahiti not the island Paradise I imagined

Tahiti is the largest of the French Polynesian islands and is a volcanic island with black sand not the lovely white sand you imagine on a South sea island. The island is 45 km across at its widest point and covers an area of 1,045 km2  so it is not huge. We were staying on Tahiti Nui (big Tahiti) which is the bigger part of the island which has a thin bit about half way down the island. The smaller southern part is called Tahiti Iti or small Tahiti.

When we booked our trip to the South Sea islands we were both very keen to see Tahiti as this was the island the epitomised the South Seas through Gauguin’s beautiful paintings. His paintings were full of bright colours and exotic people and this is what I was expecting. I was hoping to see colourful tropical gardens and friendly smiling local people rather like we had seen in Samoa, Fiji and then later in the lovely Cook Islands. How wrong can you be?

Tahiti is miles from anywhere except the other French Polynesian islands and even these are often an hour or so flight away. To give you an idea Tahiti is 4,400 km to the south of Hawai'i, a whopping 7,900 km from Chile and a good six hour flight and 5,700 km from Australia.

We arrived at Faa’a airport which was quite tiny and were welcomed with singing and all the formalities like passport and collecting luggage went very smoothly. Once outside we found our name on the board for our meeting and the person took us to check in and gave us lovely fragrant leis to wear then we waited while they sorted out which car would take us tour hotel which was the Radisson this time. After about ten minutes sitting in the mini bus with another couple they finally decided to take us to our hotel. This was a bit disorganised and as we were quite tired from a night of travel we were a bit peeved at the wait as we had paid some decent amount for an airport transfer to save us fussing at the airport in the middle of the night.

As I said it was very late at night and we were feeling quite tired so I can’t say I noticed too much on the way to the hotel. We passed through or by Papeete  (pop 131,695) which appeared to be quite a small town beside the sea and not a large capital city by most standards. The road pretty well followed the coast all the way to the hotel and we discovered later that this was because the middle of the island is not inhabited at all. It is quite hilly being a volcanic island and most of it is still overgrown vegetation. The majority of people live on the fringes of the island of Tahiti and very few live inland or on the southern blob of Tahiti Iti.

The entire population of the island is only about 180.000 so it is a very small island in so many ways.
Tahiti is part of French Polynesia and the citizens and French; they have all the benefits of being French with none of the downs sides it seems but more of that later! They are part of France but not part of the EU. They have their own currency which if called the French Pacific Franc (CFP) and this is fixed to the Euro at 1 CFP = EUR .00838. The main language spoken by all is French and the Tahitian language is definitely a second language. During the 1960’s it was forbidden to teach Tahitian in schools but today it is taught once again. All this seems to have removed a lot of the feeling for a Tahitian culture from the people which I found quite sad. I felt that Tahiti was exactly that, France in the South pacific, the people have full political and civil rights of French citizens.

This is the part that we found staggering. They pay no income tax at all yet their education is free through to university. They pay only 20% of any medical costs and there is brand spanking new hospital just built in Papeete. Tahiti has its own  assembly, president, budget and laws and the previous president of Tahiti was pushing for independence from France but obviously only about 20% of the population were supporting this. I am amazed that 20% supported it as France is keeping the country afloat. Franch money pays for the roads, the education and most of the health care of Tahitians. Presumably it must also pay for the assembly and the President as well as the police as the local people pay no tax so this is the only funding coming in. The only industry producing much income is tourism and that is mainly on the islands of Bora Bora and Moorea which is adjacent to Tahiti.

We looked in to spending a couple of nights on Bora Bora until we found that the cost of two nights and the flights was in the region of £3000 for the two of us. So this is a destination for the seriously wealthy as we found Tahiti itself expensive enough.

Once we were in Tahiti we enquired about getting to Moorea.  It appears that there is a ferry between the islands which goes hourly but there were no trips organized from Tahiti to get to Moorea picking you up from your hotel. The shuttle from the hotel to Papeete only left at 9am or 1pm returning at 5pm so we would have had to catch a local bus and no-one was very helpful about times. Trips around Moorea could be arranged from the ferry port in Moorea but you had to get there. In the end it was going to be so complicated and also quite expensive as every time you did anything in Tahiti it was expensive so we decided not to bother.

I think considering how much the people rely on tourism as an industry it is appalling how poor it was. Nothing was easy and transport was also unreliable. We had a spent a morning on our island tour of Tahiti and been monumentally unimpressed so we were reluctant to spend more money getting to Moorea to find that it was another disappointment.

The other main industry in Tahiti or French Polynesia is the farming of black pearls and these were eye wateringly expensive. Most of the pearls are exported to Japan, Europe and the US. Tahiti also exports vanilla pods, fruits,( not sure which as we didn’t enjoy many fresh fruit while we were there)  flowers, monoi, which  is an infused oil made from soaking the petals of Tahitian gardenias (tiare) in  coconut oil. fish, copra oil, and noni fruit which is supposed to have health benefits but tasted disgusting, a cross between molasses and vinegar.

We didn’t see much evidence of anything being farmed at all and a lot of food is imported from Australia and New Zealand. I am sure more could have been grown as the soil is fertile and the weather perfect for growing but I think the people have got used to being kept by France. They will have a big shock if France decided to give them independence and cut off their funds.

I was quite shocked that a nation could be allowed to sit back and just take with no encouragement for them to do something about their own up keep. This ‘handout’ receiving is not good for self esteem and the lack of pride was evident as we drove around. There was graffiti everywhere on every flat surface someone had scrawled untidy graffiti and it looked awful. All the houses had walls or corrugated iron fences so you could not see in and all that was visible were ugly scribbled on walls I various states of repair. This was not how I had imagined this tropical island was going to look, I was very disappointed.

Hope this has been of some interest to you and save you spending the money to find out for yourself how underwhelming this island is.

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