Letters from Tahiti: Life on the island

Dear Grandma, How are things in southern California? We now have electricity on the western side of Moorea. Now I'll have power 24 hours a day, instead of from dusk until 10 p.m. when the landlord turned on the generator. No more having to read by an oil lamp while battling little bugs that want its light as well.

I, as most, do without hot water, and am not holding my breath on that one. It's not considered essential or even necessarily desirable. If it's cold, I heat water on the stove, put it in a rubber tub, and pour it over myself with a plastic ice cream container. The ordinary has become special!

But my husband will tell you that Tahiti is the best country in the world, because nobody starves here: Fruit grows abundantly and the lagoons are full of fish. Though he may be slightly biased, being Tahitian, I've never seen any evidence of underfed people in the three years I've lived here. (When I say Tahiti, I mean the Society Islands: Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Huahin'e being the main ones. There are four other island groups included in French Polynesia. Since most people call the group in which I live Tahiti, I do too.)

The main drawback to this paradise is, it's expensive. You do usually get good-quality products for your money, though. It's not like you pay a lot for cheaply made goods; they're durable. It's just that the inexpensive choices aren't there.

Eating out is expensive, because there are almost no cheapy restaurants. No McDonald's. But you would pay about the same price for the same meal in the United States.

There are ways around the high prices, especially for those who don't live in the city. Angelo's family is good at it, and they're fairly typical.

Lots of needed items can be, and are, made from the surroundings:

Brooms, purses, hats, baskets, woven roofing, can be made from coconut tree leaves. The trunk of the tree makes sturdy building posts and chopping boards. Other trees can be used to make cord, and carved into furniture, banjos, outriggers, harpoons. Bamboo makes a good fishing pole and fish trap, and is even used to build houses. (In this mild climate, things don't have to be built like steel. Hurricanes are rare.) There's also a tree that grows cotton, which can be used to stuff mattresses and pillows.

City dwellers also have many ways of cutting corners:

As there's no need for seasonal or heavy clothing, the wardrobe needn't be as extensive. Styles are simple, and you don't have to be a master sewer to whip up clothes, sheets, pillows, pillowcases, curtains. Angelo's family makes most of these things themselves.

Homes are decorated with local objects: walls hung with shell necklaces and hats. Throw-pillows on chairs and shells on tables. Indoor plants.

There's someone in the family to repair everything: cars, motor scooters, boat motors, generators, plumbing. Families tend to be large and very self-reliant. Everything is reusable: nails, wood, roofing. Old towels become mops. Nothing need go to waste. Add some rice or bread to leftovers to feed dogs, cats, pigs. Dogs and cats are fed fish and chicken bones, and seem to thrive on them. As I grew up with that as a no-no, I felt sorry for the family dog once and bought her some dry dog food. She wouldn't eat it! Neither would the other dogs in the vicinity. They preferred the bones! I ended up giving it all to the pigs.

Things we would consider outdated are practical here. Angelo's family on Raiatea lives where electricity hasn't reached yet, and have a refrigerator that runs on oil, an iron that's heated by coal, and a sewing machine that works manually with a foot pedal.

Since Moorea is so close to Tahiti, the main island, not much is here. Unlike outlying islands like Raiatea, which are pretty well supplied, we depend a lot on Tahiti. Relying on Tahiti can get frustrating at times. If a machine breaks down at the hotel, for instance, and we can't fix it ourselves, we have to have a repairman come over from Tahiti. If he's out or on vacation, it can be a real panic. In that case, we borrow from neighboring hotels, or do without, until someone can come, or we end up taking the machine to them.

Even Papeete, the capital, basically closes down from 11 a.m. Saturday until Monday morning. Nothing is open 24 hours a day except emergency services. In fact, most businesses and stores are also closed from 11 a.m. until 1 or 2 p.m. every day for lunch.

I've finally found the secret: Stop resisting. A Tahitian friend of mine told me once, when I was complaining about ironing, which I dislike, ``You have to do it, so you might as well like it.'' Good advice. I never hear them complain about chores. They don't spend hours figuring ways of having more leisure time. They enjoy whatever they're doing.

And it's all worth it most of the time. Beautiful blue lagoons, luscious green mountains, flowers galore, and serenity.

You mentioned in your last letter that you picture me relaxing under swaying palms. They're not palms, they're coconut trees, and you don't even stand under one lest you be konked on the noggin.

I've never heard of anyone being hit by one, though. But some tourists who parked their rented car under a coconut tree had their windshield smashed. They were surprised when they had to pay for a new one. To the owner of the car it was only common sense not to park there. But there are other trees to laze around under that are hazard-free.

Well, now that I'm dried off from my swim, I think I'll get a soda and watch the sunset.



An essay about Jenni's Tahitian wedding appeared yesterday on The Home Forum page.

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