The following travel writing essay is an excerpt from my travel book Tahiti –Pictures, Prose and Poetry
I find traveling the greatest form of education an individual can obtain of the world we live in, and have a wonderful time in the process. The art of traveling requires a myriad of personal character-building skills. Travel is passionate living. It takes a person of grit to lug around that backpack, from country to country, continent to continent. Low budget travel forces you to mingle; to learn how to meet and communicate effectively with people. Travel breaks down preconceived cultural barriers, helping the individual to appreciate and understand different cultures.
Travel broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to determine quality of life. A good traveler is flexible, able to adjust to each new situation, and to adjust the pace to one’s own style. Traveling may be the last bastion of ultimate freedom.
The backpackers I’ve met here in Moorea are a very savvy, mature group of world travelers with keen insights about their travel experiences. The topic of discussion and laughter include customs, money exchange scams, bartering, and the different treatment of innocent travelers by custom officials, depending on their nationality. Stimulating conversations that cover similar and varied observations of people, cultures, and their respective governments, the locales ranging from Nepal to New Caledonia, Fiji to Chile, to Syria and Easter Island.
As the days moved on, so did different segments of travelers, the European nationalities and languages always changing around the campground. Strong friendships would swiftly emerge, and it was always a warm, emotional scene at 1:45 in the afternoon as we said our goodbyes to the travelers departing on the bus that would eventually take them back to Papeete, Tahiti. Fortunately, for those staying behind, a quick in the cool clear lagoon would swiftly help dissolve the tears.
Over the course of our stay on the islands, each traveler, through our daily discussions and actions, conveyed an intimate sense of what their idea of paradise would be and how they’re discovering it within their reach here in French Polynesia.
For Diana, a Canadian woman from Toronto, in her late 30’s, she’s discovering her paradise in her daily walks around the island of Moorea. An early to bed person, like many folks on the island, she’s up before sunrise to begin her walk toward Cooks Bay. Through these walks, Diana has found the solitude, the quiet delicate beauty of the flowers and the warmth of the people was providing an inner peace like none she has ever known. She says she’s the happiest here she’s ever felt in her life.
For Miguel, our lovable hearty sixty-seven year old Italian gentleman, he was discovering his paradise by engaging in youthful company, conversing with fellow kindred spirits who also enjoyed traveling and the invigoration it brings to oneself. Miguel said he’s the only person in his small hometown in northern Italy of 4000 inhabitants that has traveled beyond Italy. His wife and neighbors were old in spirit, and spoke of life in depressing terms. There was too much life breathing in Miguel’s bones to submit to that lifestyle for very long.
For Luke, the artist, an English bloke living in Zurich, these islands helped him find the inspiration to paint and to photograph.
For Walter and Carol, a middle-aged Canadian couple in Toronto, they are finding their own paradise by enjoying the pleasures of life through modest budget traveling, stretching their few dollars further by sharing a tent. Walter had always wanted to dance among Tahitian dancers and was thrilled to get his chance.
In the holographic universe, there are no coincidences, only holographic signposts. For Walter, this signpost came in the “chance” meeting of an older gentleman who offered him and his wife Carol a lift back to the campground. The man said he was originally from Croatia and had immigrated to French Polynesia thirty-nine years ago. The man then began to sing a Croatian song that Walter had not heard since he was a child, sung by his mother; he sang along with the man. Walter said it was very difficult to restrain the tears.
For Beverley, a beautiful British blonde, her idea of paradise was to complete the remaining days of her travel by finding a great beach and getting a perfect tan before heading back to London. Gradually, the gentle appeal of the surroundings would cause her to pause and begin to recognize a deeper richness in the meaning of her serene environment.
For a young Norwegian fellow, a financially successful salesman for a Norwegian telecommunication company, it meant leaving the rat race and pursuing his own creative artistic endeavors. He wanted to find inspiration and confirmation from others that his dream was the right course to follow.
For Dan, a young accountant from London, paradise meant the freedom to roam, to choose, to sit and marvel and take in the whole beautiful scene.
For two young French girls, paradise was a place where they’d find romance. For a young Frenchman from the south of France, paradise meant always to be by the sea, while for others, paradise was simply a place not to be in a hurry.
And finally there was Hermes. A French Adonis, his broad shoulders, tan, muscular physique, dark wavy black hair, and deep resonant French voice could easily make any woman swoon and undoubtedly a few ladies have, as I enviously bored witness. Yet, I saw no desire by Hermes to take advantage of this power he could easily wield over women. Over the course of the few days I was able to get to know Hermes; he truly was a very sincere, noble gentleman, who also genuinely loved to sing. He could have easily been the French version of Elvis. It became obvious that being a gigolo to silly American women was not the level of conduct he wished to choose. His idea of paradise was sought elsewhere. Like Gauguin, Hermes decided to journey by freighter to the mystical Marquesas islands. As we bid good-bye at the campground washbasin, Hermes demonstrated with curving hands that the women on the Marquesas are most curvaceous and beautiful. He boasts a very broad smile. Even our jovial French Adonis may find his own paradise.
For me, the Marquesas will have to remain a mystery. The paradise I was looking for I’ve already found.
You may ask yourself, is it possible this place called French Polynesia could seem so ideal, a paradise that still exists in a world that often appears over-wrought by human tragedy and suffering. Have I painted an accurate picture of this environment and its people or are there signs within this culture that describe a paradise lost?
There were indeed indications of a paradise under gray skies. The city of Papeete lacked any visible aesthetic charm except for along the waterfront. Debris littered the downtown streets. Clouds of exhaust billowed from the numerous passing trucks, cars, and motorcycles, practically asphyxiating me as an innocent passerby. Cleaner gas and catalytic converters must have been considered unnecessary concerns by the Peugeot dealerships.
Ominous signs of Western influence were not limited to Papeete either. An observant eye could hardly ignore the plastic debris which lay strewn along the beaches of Bora Bora, or the discarded structural debris of a hotel conglomerate’s abandoned plans.
The people were not immune to unsavory outside influences as well. To circumvent the prudent land ownership provisions of the Tahitians, which restricts the ownership to locals, not foreigners, the French banks have insidiously encouraged wanton materialism and exorbitant debt among many of the Tahitians. Not accustomed to this financial practice and responsibility, payments inevitably can not be made and the banks seize the land which was put up as collateral.
And while storms were thankfully limited to weather disturbances in French Polynesia, storms of political unrest were gathering in earnest across the Western Pacific theater. At a Tahiti hostel, we couldn’t help but laugh at the misfortune of a Swiss traveler who had stumbled upon every “hot spot” in Oceania on his transit here, including New Guinea, New Caledonia, and Fiji. “Man, don’t bring bad luck to our paradise here!” we exclaimed.
Yet, this rising tide of negative influences can still be halted. The people can become educated and encouraged to have a greater awareness of the destructive effects that modern debris has upon the environment. Efforts could easily be made for a community cleanup effort, and the establishing of recycling facilities.
The people of French Polynesia are amiable but far from unaware, to be easily duped. In 1996, the Tahitians voiced their strong dissent against French nuclear testing and the practice has been halted. No, I think the human tools needed to resist the pillagers and profiteers are present among the fine Tahitian people. Paradise lost can quickly become paradise reclaimed. It just takes effort.
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Also, my travel books and Tahiti photography are found at: www.michaelmcguerty.com