There are few places on earth that come closer to one's idea of paradise than Tahiti. Its position is fixed in the mind's eye, an expanse of sand and palm trees floating in bright waters. Peering out from the dream are the faces of paradise: women with mysterious, downcast eyes and long black hair cascading down their backs. This was the dream I had been having over and over during the eight-hour flight from Los Angeles to Tahiti, but every time I awakened, it slipped quickly from memory. Now as I looked out the window, Tahiti lay in the dim evening light beneath the belly of the airplane, the island's great humpback rising from the sea like a dorsal fin. But that menacing shape had no part in my dream, and, as I was soon to discover, it was the only thing even remotely ominous about the place these days.
Tahiti, the largest of the Society Islands, seems to be slumbering peacefully most of the time, the major visible sign that it is breathing out and breathing in being the tourists who come and go in the night. But for two weeks of every year, Tahiti awakens for its Tiurai celebration, and nothing can lull the island back to sleep until the feast is over. At night, the wooden stalls in the markets of downtown Papeete, the island's principal city, are filled with people who appear to be sleeping but are really just resting on their laurels, although not the laurels they frequently wear in wreaths on their heads.
The wreath, which is called a hei, is part of the headgear for Tahitian athletes competing in the traditional native games that have become part of the annual Tiurai celebration. The games, many of them dating back long before the arrival on the island of Captain William Bligh and H.M.S. Bounty, constitute a kind of folkloric Olympiad. Events range from the colorful and nutritionally correct fruit-carrying races to a greased stone-lifting contest, to say nothing of the always vicious weaving competition. Last year, tattooing was allowed as an exhibition event.
Last year's Tiurai was particularly fascinating because it was part of an even larger sporting and cultural event, the IV Pacific Festival of Arts. The two-week-long festival was preceded by a series of unforeseen but interrelated occurrences that included a revolutionary uprising 2,760 miles away in New Caledonia—which, like Tahiti, is an overseas French territory—and sufficient political intrigue to have the whole event moved from its original New Caledonian site to Tahiti.
The organizers of the event issued a statement before the opening ceremonies describing the Festival of Arts as "the privileged place and moment, the feast where Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians meet in a great impulse of brotherhood...." Notwithstanding that impulse, the representatives of Vanuatu, an island that had declared itself unwilling to lend support to France's presence in the South Pacific, refused to come.
Still, the IV Pacific Festival of Arts eventually attracted delegations to Tahiti from as far away as Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga, and all of them intermingled with the Tahitians, whose Tiurai is a traditional fortnight of revelry culminating in the celebration of Bastille Day on July 14. It all seemed a bit surreal the way it had worked out: It was an armed insurrection against France's colonial rule in New Caledonia in November 1984 that had caused the festival to be moved to Tahiti, where pilgrims found themselves at an event commemorating France's own struggle for liberty two centuries earlier.
To make matters worse, President Gaston Flosse of the overseas territorial government scheduled the festival's opening ceremonies for June 29. It was on that date in 1880, by the way, that one of Tahiti's 22 tribal chieftains—a young sot named Pomare V, who was looking for a steady income to pay his bar bills—turned over the entire archipelago of the Society Islands to France. The deal was fairly typical of colonial bargains: Pomare agreed not to ask for any authority in the new government, and in return the French agreed to overlook the fact that Pomare didn't really own the islands in the first place.
One hundred years later, President Flosse's willingness to serve France did not sit well with many Tahitians, some of whom had begun referring to him—not altogether affectionately—as the Sun King. The mayor of Papeete (pronounced papa-YET-ay) was so infuriated by some of the behind-the-scenes politics that he tried to keep all of the festival's events out of his city. Some of the president's political rivals showed their contempt by boycotting the opening ceremonies. It was a neat trick, and one that a lot of people later wished they had thought of, because the ceremony took place in an open stadium under the hot afternoon sun. The visiting delegations, arrayed like hothouse flowers in long, colorful rows on the infield grass of Pater Stadium in the village of Pirae, wilted quietly while a cadre of French politicians in dark suits droned on over the public-address system for three hours. There wasn't supposed to be any singing or dancing during the speeches, but the boys from Wallis and Futuna were periodically overcome by boogie fever and could be seen bounding about the infield like pinballs. Otherwise, there was very little movement at all, as one by one the delegates fell asleep in the broiling sun.
The first athletic event of any real folkloric significance took place three days later on the streets of Pirae, not far from where several swaybacked horses were grazing on a dirt field. The final preparations were under way before the start of the fruit carriers' race, an event modeled after the ancient Tahitian practice of hauling fruit and game out of the island's valleys to feed its coastal villages. (This custom is still observed today in the tiny district of Punaruu, where villagers sell oranges by the roadside that they have carried through the mountain passes—a day's walk.)
A good color sense is a necessity for the competitors in the fruit-carrying races. They pay careful attention to how the fruit is arranged, making sure that the red passion fruit doesn't clash with the papaya. The runners use palm fronds to lash large bunches of green bananas to both ends of a piece of bamboo, then adorn that with brilliant sprays of bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, aupuhi and croton. The fruit makes the fashion statement, not the man, so the runner wears only a cotton pareu around his waist and a wreath of maire leaves. No shoes.
There's no question that the proliferation of modern convenience stores in Tahiti has hurt training for the race. You hardly ever see anybody running through town with dinner slung over his shoulder anymore. Some competitors, however, try to stay in shape by going on hunting trips into the interior. "Carrying the dead savage pigs out of the mountains is good training for this race," says a manager for one of the runners.
More and more of the top fruit carriers over the past several years have been firemen. That was true again last summer, when 31-year-old Dominique Paie won both of the Tiurai fruit races going away. Paie started competing in 1980 to overcome a lack of self-confidence, and he has won both races every year except 1984, when he won only one. "When I was a child I always felt inferior in everything, put down," Paie says. "I felt like I was in a shell, and I wanted to prove to myself I was able to do something. When I was in school, and even after I became an adult, I was very timid. The only way for me to get over my inferiority complex was to win at something." In 1974 Paie was working as a guard at the French nuclear testing facility on the island of Mururoa and saw a newspaper photograph of a man winning a fruit-carrying race. "When you are guarding a nuclear facility," the champion says, "you have a lot of time to read the newspaper."
There were two fruit-carrying races: the first, a 1,500-meter haul with a 110-pound load; the second, a night run, illuminated only by torches strapped to the runners' loads, 66 pounds of fruit and fire over 2,500 meters. In the darkness that preceded the start of the race, a voice on the public-address system cried out, "Allumez les flambeaux!"—which is roughly the fruit-carrying equivalent of "Gentlemen, start your engines." The runners rushed forward and picked up their flaming loads, and then went blazing off into the night, with fruit falling behind them as if someone had shaken a tree. As soon as they had passed, spectators scrambled from behind the barricades and retrieved the lost fruit, although it was not clear whether they were doing this for the safety of the runners, who would be returning the same way, or because they were hungry.
When Paie returned, he was 30 meters ahead of the next man. The fire had gone out in his fruit but not in his eyes. His dominance in the running events did not end there. Two days later at Pater Stadium, he ran an overpowering anchor leg for his team in the sand-carrying race. Sand carrying is a lot like fruit carrying, unless, of course, you happen to get hungry during the race. Another difference is that the 5,000-meter sand race involves a running exchange at the end of every 330-meter lap with a baton that weighs 66 pounds. Muff an exchange and you could end up in another time zone. The presence of five drummers thundering away right next to the exchange lanes, just waiting for a chance to deliver that one big rim shot, added a certain electricity to the race.
Paie, his cousin Freddy and Sandro Oopa earned 36,000 Pacific francs (the equivalent of about $275) for their sand-carrying victory, and the money was doled out to them right on the victory stand, Tahiti's refreshing answer to the shamateurism that plagues so many international sporting events. The second-place team jumped down off the trophy platform after receiving its money, threw the loot down on the track and divided it up right there on the finish line. It was a charming ceremony. During the presentation of awards, one member of the third-place team got a little carried away and started to knee-dance with the woman who was presenting him his trophy. She knee-danced right back.
Not all of the games ended on quite such a harmonious note. After the top 20 finishers in the javelin-throwing competition had received their awards, a scoring error was discovered and brought to the attention of officials by a group of angry men carrying spears. One contrite—and possibly nervous—scorekeeper ended the confrontation by making up the prize money to aggrieved finishers out of his own pocket.
The javelin throw was held in Fautaua Stadium in Pirae, not far from the cloud-mantled shoulders of Orohena, the 7,396-foot peak that looms over Tahiti. Unlike Olympic-style javelin throwing, in which the emphasis is on distance, in the South Pacific the feeling is that if you're going to throw a spear a long way, you might as well try to hit something with it. A coconut was fixed to a pole 10 meters high and 30 meters away from where the competitors stood. Lines were drawn on the coconut, dividing it into five equal sections—the top worth 10 points, the next eight and on down—and each man was allowed as many as 10 throws per round.
During the team javelin competition, spectators were invited to try their hand, and 15 of them did, taking a total of 150 shots without once coming near the coconut. Yet, at the end of each round of competition, the coconut husk was so thick with metal-tipped quills it looked like a Polynesian porcupine. Each competitor clutched the six-foot-long, 13-oz. javelin with a single finger resting on the back tip and then lofted it underhanded in a great arc—half an arc if his hand was steady and his aim good. The soft quivering purau-wood shafts often crossed each other in midair as they flew toward the target before striking the coconut with satisfying thhhuunks. The competition for top individual honors stayed close for six rounds, and then a former spearfisher named Michel Maro practically lobotomized the coconut with three blades that sliced cleanly through the top, which gave him three 10s for the round. Maro finished with 68 points, 22 points better than the runner-up.
With the conclusion of the javelin throw, the festival had reached its midway point, and I was getting restless to see some of the other Society Islands. The next day I left for a short visit to the island of Moorea, only an hour's boat ride from the Papeete harbor, and the place where many Tahitians go on weekends, perhaps to escape the congestion of downtown Papeete, where there seems to be more cars than streets. The traffic comes as a rude shock to most visitors to Tahiti, especially since the island is basically so easygoing. The government is trying to regulate auto imports more stringently, but a lot of old hands in Tahiti feel paradise may already be lost.
The change started back in 1960, around the time that M-G-M filmed its remake of Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti. On his first trip to the island, the Mutiny's location scout had to fly from Los Angeles to Hawaii, hop a prop plane to Bora Bora and catch a seaplane for Tahiti. But even then, a large airport capable of handling overseas flights was under construction near Papeete. "Before we left Tahiti, months later, a jet strip was open," says Jimmy Taylor, 66, who married a local woman and retired to Tahiti after serving as Bounty's wardrobe master. "That was the beginning of the end. Now it's gotten so commercialized it looks like Long Beach. The island paradise that you associate with Tahiti just doesn't exist here anymore."
I knew from reading his diaries that even Paul Gauguin, the French painter whose languid Tahitian women inhabit most of my dreams about the island, never found the paradise he expected there. "Mad, bad, sad is my adventure in Tahiti," Gauguin wrote in 1897. "I see nothing but death to end it." This from a man who had spent the better part of a decade on the island painting half-naked 14-year-old girls. My feeling was that some people should learn to lighten up.
One who did was Marlon Brando, who had discovered Tahiti while playing Fletcher Christian in Bounty and eventually went on to buy the island of Tetiaroa, a small atoll in the Society Islands. Though he is a frequent visitor there, Brando is rarely noticed in downtown Papeete—which might seem a little hard to believe, considering he may be pushing 250 pounds these days—primarily because Tahitians have no real concept of celebrity. "You'll never get a lot of respect in Tahiti, because the people just don't give a damn," says Tavana Salmon, 57, a descendant of tribal high priests, who recently returned to Tahiti after spending 40 years in Hawaii. "Everybody here is the same. When they see Marlon Brando walking down the street, they tell him, 'Ooh, you ugly, you too fat.' " In the South Pacific, no man is an island, but Brando is beginning to show up on navigational charts.
Many tourists, and some Tahitians, travel to Moorea expressly for the white sand. Tahiti has black-sand beaches that swaddle the island like a sable stole, and a lot of people suddenly realize after they have seen it for the first time that the sand is really nothing but dirt with good public relations. The beaches in Moorea looked fine to me, but as we docked in Cook Bay I was concerned about the weather. A thick cover of lurid-looking clouds had settled over the sharp up-thrust of the interior mountains, and it had begun to rain hard as my rental car swept along the shore road, past colonnades of palm trees and the wonderfully fragrant frangipani.
Before leaving New York, I had told a friend that I was determined to learn to scuba dive on this trip. I had always associated scuba diving with frogmen jumping into the East River on the coldest day of the year to fish out the body of some mobster. My friend warned me about rapture of the deep, a mental euphoria or stupor caused by underwater pressure, but I dismissed the idea with an airy wave of the hand and told him that I would take my rapture where I found it. Now as I approached the sign saying PLONGÉE at the Linareva resort on Moorea, a cluster of five bungalows on the west coast of the eight-mile-long island, all I could think about were the underwater armies of doom that constantly used to afflict Lloyd Bridges on the TV show Sea Hunt. What if some gold smuggler tried to cut my air hose while I wasn't looking?
My guides were Jean Luc Untz, 26, and his girlfriend, Catherine Arnou, 27, both from France, and after five minutes of instruction on the beach, we were out on the lagoon and in the water. The reef diving in French Polynesia is said to be among the finest in the world, and though I seldom had any idea what I was looking at, it was all wonderfully vivid. At one point, Jean Luc began tapping at the mouth of a small hole in the coral, dangling some bait in front of it. I naturally assumed he had lost his mind, and tried to remember whether it was getting beaten to the surface by my air bubbles that would give me the bends, or the other way around. Just then, the most malevolent-looking creature I had ever seen (later identified for me as a moray eel, more feared in those waters than the shark) lurched violently out of the hole, snapped at the bait and withdrew again in the same instant. Later, when we reached the surface, Jean Luc told me I was "easy in ze water," and I believe it was the nicest thing he could have said. I decided not to tell him that I had stopped exhaling during the eel interlude, figuring that would solve all my problems with air bubbles—presuming I didn't explode first, of course.
The gods have always smiled on the Society Islands. The average annual temperature in Tahiti is nearly 80°, and the rainy season that runs from November to April provides an abundant food supply for anyone with a small yard. It wasn't until the recent urbanization of the island that many of Tahiti's 100,000 citizens even held jobs. And though Tahitians are well on their way to becoming working stiffs like the rest of us, they still place great emphasis on knowing how to have a good time. The rather shabby appearance of many of their houses, for instance, usually leads tourists to the incorrect assumption that much of the population lives in poverty. The truth is that most Polynesians place little emphasis on the external trappings. It is the entertaining they do inside their homes that is important to them, which is why so many huts made of corrugated tin have color televisions, video recorders and stereos inside.
Overindulgence is tolerated in Tahiti, where the islanders have a considerable reputation for their rate of beer consumption. Tahitians are not exactly noted for their ability to hold their Hinano, the local blast. Not surprisingly, when it comes time for them to give up these indulgences to go into training for the Tiurai's sporting events, many find it very nearly impossible. Some go to their churches and sign a religious oath, called the Blue Cross, in which they swear to give up smoking and drinking for periods lasting as long as six months.
Horse races were once held every weekend at the hippodrome in Pirae, but when the railbirds began brawling with each other on a regular basis, the races were cut back to one Sunday a month. One of those happened to fall on the second Sunday of last July, and it became one of the merrier venues of the festival. Tahitian horse racing is done very much by the seat of the pants, particularly in the bareback races that are the most popular event at the track. Most of the horses are not thoroughbreds, and it's probably just as well because thoroughbreds are often too high-strung to race without a starting gate. As it is, the Tahitian horses frequently turn and run the wrong way. "They're not really racehorses, so you can never be sure what they'll do," says Wendy Pratt, a 21-year-old American who has been race riding in Tahiti for the past eight years. "The people here really come out to see the races because they like to see the horses riding off the track, running into the bushes, and the jockeys falling off. We lose about two horses every race."
Pratt won the first bareback race aboard a 9-year-old named Bob. That was followed by a trotting race, a second bareback race, a horse-and-sulky race called an "amble" and finally a long-distance gallop. At a proper French track, these races would most likely have been run in a clockwise direction. In Tahiti, however, they race counterclockwise, just as they do in the U.S.
Things often went in unexpected directions during the festival. An event the official calendar described as an "ecumenical cult" was scheduled for the first Sunday, but there were so many disagreements among the various religious sects that the cult had to be canceled. So everybody retired to his own church to caucus in a state of high ecumenical dudgeon.
For centuries, the Polynesian people of the South Pacific worshiped, among others, the god 'Oro. Then the missionaries arrived and began instructing them on the true path to enlightenment. Now the islands are teeming with religion, seething with it—Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Buddhists, Catholics, even the Anabaptists—all teaching the one true holy word. In the Protestant churches, women in the congregation wear splendid white hats and the traditional missionary dresses. Most of the first hour of every Sunday service is devoted to singing the haunting Polynesian himenes. Tahitians do not hold anything in. They throw their heads back and raise their voices high when they are hymning, as if they were trying to get God's undivided attention.
"On Sundays after they come back from church, they play volleyball or soccer or go paddling," says Cincy Efird, a painter from New Bern, N.C. who was living in Tahiti last summer. "After that, everybody sits and sings. It's their big day of the entire week, and it's all centered around sports and singing."
The Polynesians used to spend their day of worship much differently. Before the Europeans arrived, services were conducted in an open temple called a marae. The largest and most holy temple in the islands was Taputapuatea on Raiatea, where ritual human sacrifices were sometimes performed. "Maybe 100,000 to 200,000 people were sacrificed in that temple," says Salmon, exaggerating the fact some thousandfold, perhaps to entertain his visitor. "The marae was a terrible place, with dead bodies strewn about and flies everywhere. They used to put coconut rope through the ears of defilers of the temple and hang them in the trees. Tahitians are very superstitious about the temple. Taputapuatea is still a very sacred place, and Tahitians don't like to see it desecrated. Last year a boy urinated on one of the rocks in that temple and all of his hair fell out. They don't like to talk about that."
Women were never sacrificed at the marae, and the men who were chosen for the honor had to be magnificent physical specimens who were "unblemished by women," according to Salmon. At an elaborate reenactment of the marae ceremony produced for last summer's Tiurai, a solemn procession of warriors from the Marquesas Islands bore their human sacrifice into the temple on a litter of coconut palms. The Tahitians then entered carrying several large bunches of fruit, which was what they had chosen to sacrifice. If you were a Marquesan, you had to be reexamining the priorities that had led you to this exalted moment. A lifetime of building your body and girding your loins, only to be offered up for ritual slaughter alongside a cantaloupe.
The man who served as high priest at the festival's marae was that iron-eyed impresario, Salmon. Once the producer of the most lavish Polynesian floor shows on Waikiki Beach, his talents were eagerly put to use by the festival's organizers. That, of course, didn't prevent the outspoken Salmon from showing his soaring contempt for them at every opportunity. One day shortly after the marae ceremony, he was hustled off to one of the out islands to meet a delegation of visiting dignitaries. "They sent me on this trip because they respect me," Salmon says. "They have no choice, I'm the shaman of the country."
The entertainment for the visiting dignitaries was supposed to be provided by a troupe of authentic Tahitian dancers, but the show didn't really hit its stride until Salmon began loudly denouncing the performers for wearing "grass skirts" that were, in fact, made of shredded plastic trash bags. "I told them, 'I'm not performing with plastic skirts. I'm famous,' " says Salmon. "I started walking down the beach, and they came after me. They said they were going to arrest me if I didn't come back, so I came back. But I wasn't pleased. Plastic skirts in Tahiti. Ooh, what an insult."
After Salmon returned to Tahiti in 1980, he set about trying to revive the island's ancient traditions, many of which had already begun to disappear. The custom that had probably fallen on hardest times was tattooing, once a vibrant art form in the Tahitian culture. Although not held in particularly high esteem in many parts of the world, tattoos were a sign of status and power in Tahiti. "The tattooed people didn't eat with the untattooed," says Salmon. "And a woman wouldn't stay with a man if he didn't have his tattoos." The district chiefs were the only ones allowed to wear intricate designs on their bodies.
You could get just about any kind of tattoo you wanted at the Tiurai's tattooing exhibition, which was conducted by Salmon and a Maori tribesman from New Zealand in a grass hut behind the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands. A bowl of warm water and a dirty rag were used to wipe away the excess blood, so that it wouldn't cover up the design as the artist went about his work. The ink had been made by mixing water with charcoal or carbon, and spectators were invited to lie down on a straw mat and have the ink pounded into their flesh with a whalebone needle and a wooden mallet. The action stopped only when the people getting tattooed passed out from the pain and had to be carried away.
Nothing that was produced at that exhibition could compare with the stunning tattoo that belongs to Teve Tuhipua, a bellman at the Beachcomber Hotel in Faaa. Three years ago Tuhipua went to Samoa for a simple tattoo, but the beauty of the Samoan designs made his skin frieze. "I say to myself, why not? I will try it," recalls Tuhipua, who chose his design because it "blinds the eyes." After a six-week ordeal, the job was finally done. The dark filigree of the tattoos covered almost every part of his body, the only exceptions being his face, the soles of his feet and one other isthmus of his anatomy that might delicately be described as No-Tattoo Atoll. "That gonna be too painful," he says.
As important as the games were to the daylight hours of the Festival of Arts, it was dancing that bound together the nights, just as it has always bound life together in Tahiti. When the first English sailing ships arrived in Tahiti, they were surprised by what one of their officers later described as the "wantonness" of the dance. "Even if they begin in decency," wrote a visitor in 1849, "they invariably end with gestures of an abusive sensuality." During the festival you could usually tell what kind of night it had been by looking in the sand on the dance floor at the Place Vaiete, a square in downtown Papeete. The more fevered the dancers' exertions, the more strange the vegetation you were likely to find strewn about the premises. This curious molting process gradually diminished the costumes of all the dancers except of the men of Papua New Guinea.
Although they were among the most primitive-looking delegations at the festival, the New Guineans had a good fashion sense and they knew what they liked. They became regulars in the shops of Papeete, where they quickly developed a fondness for the gaudy pink and yellow plastic shopping bags that came with their purchases. Soon they were accessorizing their costumes with the bags. The look was very smart, yet elegant in a way that didn't call attention to itself.
Almost everybody at the festival spoke one of the Polynesian dialects, or French, and in many cases both. There was a slight communication problem between the delegation from Tuvalu and their Tahitian hostess. Tuvaluan men are unaccustomed to being addressed by women not of their lifelong acquaintance, and so they refused to talk with the young woman at all, preferring instead to follow the marching orders of their bus driver.
Communication was what the festival was supposed to be all about, and no one was working harder at keeping the lines of communication open than a small but determined delegation of folkloric dance groupies who had traveled all the way from Australia, their wonders to perform. These ambassadresses of goodwill diligently attended nearly every function planned for the dance groups, eventually developing a preference for the delicately built but fierce-looking men of Easter Island. And despite the language barrier, these young women were able to divine through pantomime, and God knows what other kinds of semaphore, that the Easter Islanders found Papeete so choked with exhaust fumes that they could hardly wait to return home to their own remote island.
Much of the traffic during the final days of the festival was near the Papeete harbor, where thousands of spectators lined the shore for the outrigger canoe races, the most important event of the entire Tiurai. Some of these were the same kind of craft that Tahitians had paddled across Matavai Bay in 1769 to greet Captain James Cook and the Endeavour, and later Captain Bligh of the Bounty. The double-hulled 16-man canoes were about 50 feet in length, and for a week they created beautiful silhouettes on the water as their crews practiced at sunset.
At the start of each of the 16 races, the canoes formed a great picket line across the harbor, their hulls the color of breadfruit and mangoes. The paddlers from each club wore distinctively colored pareus like jockeys' silks, so they could be identified from the shore. It usually took about 20 minutes for all the boats to move to the starting area, and everyone waited patiently for the stragglers. There was something particularly lovely in the way the boats floated there together, like the petals of a flower, happy just to be drifting in such a beautiful bouquet.
"As great as this event is, it could never be on American TV," says Andy Toro of El Cerrito, Calif., who was representing the International Canoe Federation at the race. "Could you imagine what would happen if the outrigger race was supposed to begin at 9 a.m., and they didn't get all the boats out until 9:35? In the States, money controls everything, and money is TV. But these people don't give a damn about that."
A carbine was fired across their bows to signal the start of the race, whereupon the crews began paddling in crisp, rhythmic strokes toward a reef at the mouth of the harbor. There the canoes had about 100 meters in which to turn for home, a feat that was accomplished with much bumping, to the hooting delight of the bettors on the shoreline. That was the point at which Carlos Perez of the village of Tautira, the favorite in the one-man race, was whacked so hard on the gunwales by the eventual winner's brother that his canoe spun around in a complete circle. The race ended in a three-boat sprint over the final quarter-mile of the course, with the canoes virtually dead even the entire way. Even the grim-faced officials on their barge—men who had to keep themselves propped on their elbows at all times to prevent their papers from blowing into the sea—raised up in shouts of encouragement to the three. After he had crossed the finish line, winner Filippe Bernadino sat slumped under the prow of a Chinese junk, his chest heaving violently.
Someone threw a flowered lei into the harbor to mark the end of the outrigger races, the final event of the festival. It seemed a fitting signal. During the era of the great ocean liners, visitors to Tahiti would throw their leis into the harbor waters, and if the current brought them toward the shore, it meant the visitor would return one day. A Tahitian friend told me of the custom at the airport as I was about to leave. "The trick was that the tide always brought the flowers back to shore," she said. "Tahiti is a jealous island, and it's not going to give you up so easily. If you come back next month, it's going to be a completely different place than when you left. Tahiti is a dream island, but the dream is only real while you're in it. When it's over, you can never be sure if it was all real."