The Marquesas Islands: Paradise at the Edge of the World

With scenery reminiscent of a Jurassic Park sequel, ancient and mysterious stone temples, and the feeling of visiting a parallel universe – visitors to the remote Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia are in for the adventure of a lifetime.

Written and photographed by Avichai Ben Tzur

Of the five archipelagos that make up the Islands of Tahiti – officially known as French Polynesia – Mother Nature devoted her finest work to the Marquesas Islands. It is the final stop in a long and enchanting voyage across the remote islands of the South Pacific, an opportunity to visit some of the most isolated and stunning islands in the world where nature is free to sculpt the landscape at it pleases in the absence of a protective coral reef. Few are the visitors that make it out here, and even for residents of the dreamy French Overseas Territory, a visit to the Marquesas Islands is a wild fantasy.

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Last Thoughts on French Polynesia

Before I get too far away from it, I should add that I did not hate my brief time in Tahiti. While it was expensive and it did seem to overwhelm much of the experience, there were a few things I did enjoy.

  • Poisson Cru. Before I left the island, I made sure I was able to have some of the National Dish of French Polynesia. Its basically raw fish in a coconut/lime sauce with vegetables. The one I had was cucumber and onion. It was very good. So good, I’d like to attempt to make it at some point while I’m on the road. I’m while technically a polynesian dish, I’m surprised you don’t see it at sushi restaurants. It would not be a stretch for them to make it.
  • Le Truck Many of the islands of French Polynesia have a form of transportation known as le truck. Le truck are sort of flat bed trucks with benches on the back and covers over the benches. They drive set routes like a bus, but they’re private. They were far and way the cheapest thing in Tahiti. A trip from the airport to Papeete was like 130 XPF, which is like US$1.50. A taxi ride going from the same spots was about US$30. They’d stop anywhere on the road where people were waiting and would drop you off anywhere on the route you wanted. There were a lot of them running, so many they would leapfrog each other as they picked up passengers. I saw one with a bunch of passengers at a gas station filling up. (The price you pay I guess…) You never had to wait more than a few minutes for le truck. The next time I ever here anyone talk about the evils of private buses running routes, I’m going to bring up le truck. Good service and cheap prices. I can only imagine what they’d cost in a place that wasn’t as expensive.
  • Roulottes These are basically lunch wagons. The people that run them set up mini restaurants out of the trucks. At night, they all come together at the harbor in Papeete and set up an impromptu food court. They have tables, table cloths, and the whole works. In the day the area is totally empty. At night…..instant restaurant row. They will set up small kitchens with gas powered grills, fryers, etc. Steaks, fries, pizza, crepes, and the above mentioned poisson cru. It was almost like being at the state fair.
  • The women. There was a story I once read on how when Captain Cook arrived at Tahiti, the men would trade nails and other metal goods for sexual favors from the women on the island. Eventually they began ripping apart the ship for nails. (That might be where the term “getting nailed came from”). The women of Tahiti are beautiful. No doubt. Many of them had something about them which made them look like sisters or cousins of each other. (I’m sure someone has done a study of genetic diversity on island populations. It would be interesting to read) Also, everywhere I went that sold post cards in Tahiti, were post cards of topless women. I’ve seen that no where else in Polynesia.
  • Black Pearls I’ve always thought that black pearls where way cooler than white pearls. French Polynesia leads the world in production of black pearls. They’re all over. They are also produced in the Cook Islands. If I buy one, I will probably buy one there because everything is so much cheaper.

Keep On Truckin

I spent most of today just doing logistical stuff: getting my ransom ticket refunded and getting my tickets to Rarotonga and beyond, moving to the hostel, and taking care of some stuff online.

Yes, that took most of the day.

I assumed that I would be leaving French Polynesia on Friday, but I found there was a flight leaving tomorrow (Tuesday) morning. I had a decision to make: leave now (Tuesday) or leave later (Friday).

I really haven’t seen much of French Polynesia. I haven’t even seen much of Tahiti. I was here last week in route from Hawaii to Easter Island, and today. Part of me really wanted to go to some of the other islands, but another part of me, the logical part of me, figured it wasn’t really worth it.

French Polynesia is flat out expensive. There is no getting around that. Its expensive to sleep, eat, and move. On Rarotonga, I can get a room for about $20 a night, or 2.5x less than what I’m paying for a night in my current hostel. That $20 gets me a place on the beach, while here I’m on the outskirts of town.

What would I do in French Polynesia this week? I’d probably move to Moorea and try to visit Bora Bora. That’s about it. I wouldn’t dive. I wouldn’t eat out much. I’ve set some budget limits for myself. I knew before I started that the Pacific was probably going to be the most expensive leg of my trip, which is why I’m doing it first. I’ve been over budget so far, but not by a lot and I hope to make up for it in other countries (Cambodia, Thailand, etc). This is ridiculous however.

The fact is, I can spend X amount of money and Y amount of time on a beach here taking photos of stuff, or I can do it some place else and get 1.5-3x as much for the same amount of money.

Staying here wont bankrupt me. That’s not the issue. I have a lot of time, but my time isn’t infinite. Would I rather spend a week here, or use that week in Australia or China? Easy choice.

So, tomorrow I’ll be in the Cook Islands, speaking English, drinking relatively cheap beer and, hopefully, hitting on Kiwi girls on vacation.

Imagine A Hotel Mini Bar, Inside a Movie Theater, Inside an Aiport, Inside Disney World

…that describes how expensive it is in Tahiti.

I’m at a cafe right now and a CAN of Diet Coke costs $5. I’m staying at a hostel in Papeete which is as far as i can tell the absolute cheapest place to stay on the island, and its still about $50 a night.

The only thing I really want to see in French Polynesia is Bora Bora. I think I’m going to see if I can hit that and then look into leaving ASAP. I originally wanted to visit some of the other islands, but we’ll see. If I have to stay here for a few days, I’ll probably visit Moorea also at a minimum.

I’m off to go and get my money back from from hold up last night.

I’m definitely going to reserve my tickets for at least a few weeks in advance for as long as I’m in the Pacific.

My Kafkaesque Almost Nightmare in Tahiti

I was held my the immigration police in Tahiti for almost an hour. Here’s why:

To get into Tahiti you need to show proof that you have a ticket to leave Tahiti. I guess the place is so expensive that they know there is a good chance you’ll be broke by the time you leave, so they want to know you have already paid for it.

When I was here last week, the ticket office at the airport was closed, so I couldn’t get my ticket to Rarotonga for when I’d get back from Easter Island. I figured I’d buy it online while I was in Easter Island.

Well, I tried to buy a ticket online only to find out that they don’t offer e-tickets on Air Tahiti. The only way I could get a ticket is if they sent the physical ticket to my address. Clearly that wasn’t going to work with me on Easter Island.

So I was placed in the situation of needing an exit ticket to get into Tahiti, but I could only get my exit ticket if i could get into Tahiti.

Please read that sentence again.

That was the first thing that made no sense. The second thing is what really showed the stupidity of the rule…

I was sent to the Air Tahiti Nui offices (their international branch. I need the domestic branch for Rarotonga) to buy a ticket to Las Angeles. It cost $1,400, BUT, as the ticket agent was quick to point out, it was fully refundable. I asked if I could get my money back tomorrow, and she said “yes”. That means the requirement for an exit ticket is a total sham, because if I can refund the ticket I was forced to buy, then in the end, I have no exit ticket. All I was forced to do was lend Air Tahiti Nui $1,400 for 12 hours.

I’m really looking forward to Rarotonga. If I can get a flight to there earlier than the 19th, I very seriously might take it and leave French Polynesia behind.

A Tahitian Treat

Bonjour, and greetings from the island of Tahiti in French Polynesia.

I’m sitting at the food court of the airport writing this. my flight doesn’t leave for another twelve and a half hours, but I’m at the airport for good reason. My hotel for the night was within walking distance of the airport. I took off this morning on what I thought would take me to the center of Papeete, but ended up taking me nowhere. It seems much hotter than Hawaii just because of the high humidity. All that walking with a very heavy bag and no water or food, and I figure I should get something to drink and eat. The most obvious spot for that was the airport, so here I am.

My previous post was written in the dead of night. Now that I have some light, I can see the landscape and everything around me much better. It is definitely less developed here than any place I’ve seen in Hawaii. Lots of corrugated tin/steel on buildings. Lots of older cars. The French influence is heavy. I saw several posters up for the current French Presidential election. I think there might have been local elections as well as I saw several trucks running around with flags and posters of men in suits on the side.

As this is the first day of my trip outside of the US, I should probably clarify a few things for everyone. I view the world as someone who has lived their entire life in the upper Midwest of the United States. That means that 7-11s, oceans and mountains are novelties to me. Like all humans, I have a tendency to notice things that are different from norms which I expect. When I walk into a store in a foreign country, the first thing that always strikes me is that the brands of candy are all different. You see Coke and Pepsi, but I’m used to seeing Coke and Pepsi, so it really doesn’t strike a chord with me. I think humans are hard wired to notice differences. It lets us know when something is wrong and helps us sense danger. (that is not to say that everything different is dangerous, just that is where the tendency to notice differences comes from)

So one thing I’m always going to do is point out how places differ from each other and how they differ from what I’m accustom to. For example, I’ve only seen one make of US automobile in Tahiti so far: a Jeep Wrangler. One thing I enjoying doing is checking out the McDonalds in every place I visit. Some people might turn their nose up at that and say “why would you travel that far just to go to McDonalds?”. If I was just going there to eat, they’d have a valid point. But McDonalds is like a cultural version of a cover done by a band. Every McDonalds is sort of the same, but every McDonalds is different. In Hawaii, McDonalds serves breakfasts with eggs, Spam, and rice. As far as I can tell, that is unique to Hawaii and says something about Hawaii. Something which sticks out precisely because you see it at McDonalds. There is a reason why The Economist uses the Big Mac as a proxy for the cost of living in countries.

The Papeete airport has a McDonalds in it. The menu is the smallest I’ve ever seen. They serve no hamburgers and no french fries. The only sandwich I can see which they sell in a panini ham and cheese melt. They give balloons out to all the children. I don’t know, but maybe they market it as food for children? One data point in an airport is hardly enough to make a conclusion.

On the subject of differences, I’ve noticed lots of obese native Hawaiians while in Hawaii. I’ve seen very few obese Tahitians. Hawaiians came from Tahiti. I wonder if the difference in weight is due to diet (French vs American) or genetics? Just taking a guess, I’d say diet. Hawaii seems much more wealthy and obesity is a problem in other Polynesian countries. The diet here seems more fish/bread oriented, with much less junk food available.

*update*

I’m writing this at 3:15pm local time at a cafe on the harbor in Papeete. I’m paying a high amount for wireless internet and eating some frites and a diet coke.

If you need to do a layover on Tahiti, don’t do it on Sunday. This place is dead. Everything is shutdown. Everyone seems to just be hanging out and flying kites.

I made the mistake of setting out from my hotel without a map or an idea of where I was going. Turns out, its a lot farther to town from the airport than I thought. And the sun is really powerful here. And its humid.

Lesson learned. Don’t set out without an idea of where you are going. Especially when you don’t know the language very well.

I ended up taking a taxi to town and all was well. I still have nine hours to kill before my flight. I also have nothing to read in English.

My French vocabulary is increasing quickly. I need work on simple verbs and grammar. I can read things much easer than I can express my own thoughts. There seems to be some English world that sort of corresponds to many French words.

Numb3rs

I’m safe on Tahiti. Its dark and I can’t see anything other than how bad I’m getting robbed. I’ll get to that in a second.

The currency in French Polynesia and all French Pacific Territories is the Pacific Franc (XPF). The Euro is sort of on a 1-to-1 ratio with the dollar. By that I just mean that if something is X Euros, you sort of know it’s in the ballpark of X dollars.

The XPF like 92.4 to the dollar. You pay for stuff in thousands. A bag of Cheetoes in the vending machine is 170 XPF. I’m paying 1,000 XPF for ONE HOUR of WiFi in my own god damn room. This place makes Hawaii look like Sam’s Club. (Oh, I can only use HTTP over this connection. I can’t use Skype, IM or anything else)

Not only do you get the whammy of doing currency conversion, but you also get the new language and metric for the “get your head around it” triple crown. I just set my room temp to 18C. I think that cold.

…I think.

The temperature seems the same as Hawaii but waaaay more humid.

I’m only going to be here about 24 hours before I leave for Easter Island. I think on my return, I’m just going to spend a day on the major islands before I move on to Raratonga. It’s just too damn expensive to spend any significant time here. I’d like to spend a day on Bora Bora, but there is no way in hell I’m going to spend any money diving or doing tours here.

Also, they only have two TV channels in my room Both in French. That doesn’t shock me or surprise me (it is FRENCH Polynesia and it is in the middle of nowhere), but unlike watching Telemundo or Univision, its not funny. I am actually going to take the opportunity and try to expand my very limited French vocabulary. I get a feeling most people here speak English.

I think I will spend my limited time here tomorrow just walking around town, hitting an internet cafe and making sure my reservations for next week and the week after are all secure.

Expect my online access to be very limited over the next week.