Because they are both beautiful and bountiful, many of the small Polynesian islands that litter the South Pacific are dangerous places. At the first sight of such beguiling shores, too many men fall in love and jump ship, foolishly believing that they have found a paradise where the mangoes are never wormy and worrying is against the law.
On any of a hundred Polynesian islands noted for their largess, a man—if he is not careful—can waste away in the midst of plenty. Although an island rat can get along on the fruit of a single palm, a man who tries to do so usually finds he cannot live by coconuts alone. Even the lovely hibiscus blossom that abounds on the islands is edible—sea turtles relish it, and man can stomach it—but it is not nourishing. The man who goes to paradise to spend the rest of his days quite often finds after only a month that his senses are surfeited and starting to decay. The hibiscus and the dancing colors of the lagoon fade and are wasted on the eye. In time even the mango loses its taste, and only the worm remains. Although none of the island songs mentions it, it is a fact that paradise has a sneaky way of turning a complex man into a discontented vegetable.
To live in paradise, or even to enjoy one of the islands briefly, an outlander needs certain built-in credentials. Consider, for example, the case of 27-year-old Erwin Christian (no relation to the Bounty mutineer) as he stood in the Tahiti airport five years ago on a fine June day. In the last minutes before he was to board a jet and leave paradise, perhaps forever, Christian was both sad and happy. He had spent seven weeks on Tahiti, scratching out a living and enjoying life. During work hours and off hours, he had learned the byways and folkways of the island. He had wandered through the cloudy mountains of Tahiti and, with a tank on his back, had explored the undersea scarps that surround it.
In the year before he quit ship in Tahiti, Christian had courted—or at least had flirted with—various attractive islands of the Atlantic and the Pacific. Although he had liked them all, he had been able to leave each behind with the cool detachment of a sailor who knows he will always find another port and another love. But somehow Tahiti caught him. It was perhaps only because Tahitians have a festive way of making departure almost impossible. Christian's farewell party, a relatively modest Tahitian affair, started in midafternoon the day before he was scheduled to leave. He spent the night wining, dining, beering, dancing, singing and saying goodby to close friends, as well as to a great many people whom he had never seen before.
January 15, 1968
On the morning of his departure, Christian's farewell party became motorized. Somebody fetched an island passenger truck. Two dozen of the goodby party climbed aboard and kept on drinking beer and eating and saying goodby to Christian as they traveled with him around the island enjoying scenery they had all seen often before. At the airport bar the party kept on drinking beer and saying good by to Christian, who by that time was the perfect image of a man happily disintegrating in the tropics. His clothes were rumpled, his brow was damp and he was brimming over with beer. In the past 20 hours so many friends and strangers had draped fragrant leis and strings of shell beads around his neck that by takeoff time his nose barely cleared the top layer and breathing came hard.
Since the other passengers were already aboard, an airline stewardess said to Christian, "You must come now. We are taking off."
As Christian gazed blearily at the stewardess over the mound of flowers and shells that were stifling him, a bit of Shakespeare's metric wisdom crossed his mind: "We must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures."
"I am not going," Christian said.
"But you must go," the stewardess insisted. "Your bags are already on."
"Take them away," Christian replied. At this, his friends cheered. Then, still cheering, they took Christian back to his thatch house, where they continued the farewell party.
At the time Christian had a solid reputation in the hotel business and a new, well-paying and challenging job awaiting him 7,000 miles away in Bermuda, an island that is certainly not the ugliest spot in the world. Yet, like many another fool, in a nostalgic moment he had thrown it all over to stay in Tahiti without even a change of underwear. Eventually, of course—to follow the script to its usual end—a romantic soul like Christian becomes dissatisfied, with Tahiti and drifts off to some more exotic shore where he falls in love with a native girl, becomes a barefoot island character and goes slowly to pot.
Anyone caring to see Erwin Christian in his present state of decay can find him now 120 miles northwest of Tahiti on Bora-Bora, the most beautiful island of French Polynesia. True to the script, Christian did become disappointed with burgeoning Tahiti and went on to Bora-Bora because it intrigued him. On Bora-Bora he did fall in love with a charming local girl named Ate (pronounced Ah-tay). And today he has quite a reputation as a barefoot island character, although he is by no means the unwashed type who drifts onto the hotel veranda, sponging drinks from the guests and confiding in a rummy breath that he was slated to be the next president of Chase Manhattan Bank before he decided to chuck it all.
The worrisome thing is that Christian has now been in paradise for five years, but, contrary to the script, he does not seem to be going to pot, physically or mentally. Except for a slight slackness at the waist, he is solidly packed, built along the dependable lines of a percheron. Since there are days on Bora-Bora when the humidity hits 150% and it rains enough to float an ark off the mountaintop, Christian's tape recorder has expired, his scuba regulators occasionally sound as if they had the croup and some of his library books are moldy, but Christian's mind still ticks. The superficial good looks of Bora-Bora are the sort that any brainless man with healthy glands would succumb to, but it was a more special quality that attracted Christian, and thus he survives.
Although navigators long ago situated Bora-Bora by latitude and longitude, for ordinary men the island is still a nowhere place that lies in the Pacific somewhere between Christmas and Easter Islands, somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow. There is a modest flow of tourist dollars on Bora-Bora now, and the local folk have been known to pick the coconuts off the ground before the rats get at them, but the island has not yet been collectively farmed, industrialized or Hiltonized. Ironically, Erwin Christian, the onetime connoisseur of Atlantic and Pacific paradises, has been able to keep his head above water on Bora-Bora because the island itself happens to be sinking at a modest geological rate.
Bora-Bora is an almost perfect textbook example of the theory of atoll formation that was propounded by Charles Darwin a good 100 years before anyone had the proper tools and gumption to prove him right. In French Polynesia today there are many islands—Tahiti, for one—whose original volcanic bases still rear massively into the sky, and there are many atolls whose original island centers have long since sunk back into the sea—as Darwin surmised—leaving only a coralloid ring of reef as a lovely memory of their exuberant past. Bora-Bora lies somewhere in between: a lot of it has gone but it is not yet a memory. The deep crater of the major volcano on Bora-Bora is already underwater, but not yet so deep that it can be forgotten. The coral abuilding on the steep cone of the volcano still reaches within a snorkeler's distance of the surface. Although one spectacular, vertical remnant of the volcano rim, Mt. Temanu, still presses heaven hard enough to wring clouds out of the damp sea wind, most of the original igneous rock is undersea, and the atoll ring of tidal reef and barrier islands lies well away from the main shore. Much of the water inside the large lagoon is deep enough for a full-keeled clipper, but in places it is shallow enough to rip open the bottom of a rubber raft. To sum up all this topographical smitter-smatter in a single sentence that no geologist, pro-Darwin or anti, can dispute, today Bora-Bora is one hell of a wonderful watery playground. Erwin Christian has established a business as Bora-Bora's playground director. His "office" is his Tahitian cottage built on stilts into the lagoon near the Hotel Bora-Bora, the best hotel in the South Pacific. He serves as underwater white hunter, fishing guide, tour guide, research assistant, curator, historian and drinking companion for any educated visitor who would like to stretch his luck or at least exercise his muscles or brains a little. On Christian's glass-bottom boat the tourist gets a short intriguing lecture on marine ecology, with a bit of showmanship and balderdash thrown in. Visitors water ski behind his outboard runabout and dive with him in the lagoon or down the deep outside of the reef, where the sharks are sometimes large and sometimes seem interested in people. The fainthearted visitor who prefers not to mingle with the shark can troll from Christian's boat for jack, dolphin and tuna and for the impossible, unpredictable ghost of the deep sea, the wahoo.
On days when the ocean swells created by large, distant arguments are not smothering the reef with foam, Christian takes parties out to the flat reeftop to surf cast, or simply to roam and scavenge for shells. For any dedicated gourmet, the trip to the reef is a must, for the top of it is literally crawling with hors d'oeuvres. Right on the spot the tourist can pluck and wolf down a snail called maoa, and the urchin, pana. There at his feet, ripe for picking, he finds the seaweed, rimu; the white slug, petite b√™che demer; the limpet, opihi; the tubeworm, uao; and a number of other wriggling delights that, when eaten fresh and raw, taste every bit as good as the discarded beach sandals that also lie here and there on the reef.
Those who want to turn their backs on the sea—a near impossibility on Bora-Bora—should definitely look up Christian, for he is the man who knows the most about the soul and history of the island. He has read most of the books, fact and fiction. In one extreme, he has read the excellent journal of Polynesia's first great prophet, Captain Cook, and the journal of Banks, the botanist who sailed with him; in the other extreme, he has romped through the romances of Nordhoff and Hall. Christian is a close friend of the Bora-Bora natives and is also on intimate terms with the island's prosperous colonies of geckos, skinks, mynahs and land crabs. He has explored the ruins of the two extinct cultures that lie in the cool growth of the hillsides: the ancient Polynesian religious sites called maraes, and the concrete foundations and gun emplacements left by the American warriors who came in World War II and built an airstrip on which one plane landed.
In the past 20 years a great deal has been written about the damaging effect that the advanced cultures of the outside world have had, are having and will have on sweet, timeless Polynesia. Certainly there has been much change, particularly in the island's most popular attraction, les girls. An Australian complained recently in a Tahiti hotel, "Squeeze a Tahitian girl today, and she is covered with so much bloody sun lotion she squirts right out of your arms." There is a noticeable decline even in the dancing of the ladies. While they still dance the fast, sexy, aboriginal tamure, Tahiti teeny-boppers would much rather turn up the jukebox and dance the rock 'n' roll. Many of the Polynesian women no longer let their hair grow as their mothers did. Some complain that the extra two pounds of hair hanging down their backs provokes headaches; others are fearful of getting their tresses tangled in the moving parts of their motorbikes.
Actually, the major islands in the heart of French Polynesia are on the threshold of supertourism. Although Tahiti has been a familiar place for years, thanks to the efforts of various artists from metropolitan France and from Hollywood, a mere decade ago a flying squirrel could get there almost as easily as a man. As late as 1958—the year the U.S. lobbed its first object into outer space—to get from the U.S. to French Polynesia, a traveler either took a slow boat or flew to Honolulu, then to Fiji, then to Western Samoa, then to the Cook Islands, crossing and recrossing the date line before plopping down in the Tahiti lagoon three days later. (There are oldtime air travelers who claim that, on the rambling way to Tahiti, they were sometimes off-loaded at Darjeeling and Port-au-Prince, but such accounts are exaggerated.) It is a fact that eight years ago Tahiti did not have an airstrip big enough for a Piper Cub; then, in late 1961—almost overnight it seems—there was a long strip shining in the sun and jets were whistling in, bringing the usual assortment of package-tour visitors.
Though the islands have not yet had a full dose of tourism, cruise boats have been coming on and off since the turn of the century, the passengers often scuttling ashore only for a day, like lemmings in reverse, intent on killing their shipboard restlessness. Some mornings Erwin Christian rises early to take the local coastal pilot outside the reef so the pilot can scramble aboard a cruise ship and guide it safely through the gap into the lagoon. Even before the cruise ship has safely dropped its hook, Christian can tell the character of the passengers by the amount of garbage they are throwing into his beautiful lagoon. Noting the paper cups trailing behind the Matson Lines' Mariposa on one such day, Christian said to a visitor accompanying him, "The lunch boxes of this crowd will be washing up on the beaches for two days. When you get back to the Hotel Bora-Bora, lock your cottage door. If you do not, you will find these people in your shower. They will take your mask and snorkel. They will take your American-made socks back to America as souvenirs."
The best favor a visitor can do himself and the islands is to leave his mainland habits at home, particularly the penchant for collecting and accreting, rather than traveling light. Any souvenir, whether it is a pair of American-made socks, a bottle of cut-rate rum, a pandanus basket or the scalp of a native girl, becomes in time a ball and chain.
The Polynesian residents now involved in tourism shake their heads pityingly at the waves of tourists now coming ashore who take snapshots or a bike ride and hardly even get into a boat, much less into the water. Irene Michili, a Polynesian-Italian lady who has been taking tourists around for seven years, says, "They do not come here until they can afford to. That is the trouble." This past fall, while riding in a canoe up a river on the island of Raiatea, a lady visitor stopped clicking her camera long enough to exclaim, "It is just like Disneyland."
"No, madam," the river guide said. "The wild animals on this river are real. For example, in that pasture over there, you can photograph a real, wild dairy cow."
Erwin Christian remembers a German writer who came to Bora-Bora: "The writer said, 'It is all so beautiful—the white beach, the water, the mountain, so what in hell am I going to write about?' And I said to him, 'Look, take my bicycle and pedal around the island. Go to Anau, the poorest village, but before you come to the first house, let the air out of a tire and walk in with the bicycle.' And he did this, because I followed on my Vespa to see. The natives ran out. They helped him with the tire. They gave him food and drink. They gave him a pareu. I do not know if he found anything to write about, but he came back to the hotel roaring drunk and happy."
Erwin Christian's early life was the sort that would make any sensitive, growing creature believe that paradise, at most, is only a contrivance of the mind. He grew up in Silesia, a European area of great doubt and insecurity. His part of Silesia was sometimes German and sometimes Polish, depending on whose heavy feet had marched over it triumphantly most recently. He played as a boy under the black flak puffs that filled the sky in World War II. Still today, when he opens a new underwater camera housing, his nose wrinkles, for the acrylic smell is the same he remembers from the melting canopies of the fallen planes. His first boat was a crude kayak that he fashioned out of a wing tank jettisoned by an American plane. He started at the bottom of the hotel business, not so much to escape the distress of flattened Germany as to find out what the French, English and American sides of the world were like. After serving in a number of strict European hotels—notably Claridge's in London—he went to the resort islands because he became fascinated with the sea and wanted to find out what was happening on the other side of the interface. He is a fit man to help people enjoy the island, primarily because he has the inner resources to enjoy it himself and a capacity to infect even the most Babbitty man with some of his own curiosity.
While discussing the deceptive largess of Bora-Bora recently, Christian tossed his head toward the island's dramatic volcanic remnant, Mt. Temanu. "I always know that mountain is there," he said, "and that it is always changing, but I sometimes will not look at it, simply because it is so beautiful. It is important to remember that these islands are fragile things, though they have certain stern requirements."
Hiqh Island and Fringing Reef, a South Pacific combination nowhere more splendidly formed than at Bora-Bora, provide a vast water-sports playground safe enough for the timid, adventurous enough for the bold. In the calm, clear lagoon there are outrigger sailing canoes, snorkling classes, water skiing and glass-bottom boats. The coral garden of the lagoon is a world of hypnotic beauty. Shell collectors comb the reef for cowries and Tridacna. Bigger game lies outside—to be dived for, trolled for, or cast for by fishermen in sneakers at the ocean's very edge.