I’m a miserable son-of-a-bitch at the best of times. I seem to hold a certain jaundiced view of life. I guess that’s what happens when you get older and grumpier. So I’m gonna apologise right now if I destroy one of your dreams about a “Tropical Paradise”. In fact if you’re off to the islands on your honeymoon it’s probably best you stop reading right now.
Tahiti used to be on my “wish list”. Like you, I guess, I’d look at those photos of thatch-roofed hotel rooms built over the lagoons with the tropical sunset and the azure sea and think “I’d love to go there...wouldn’t it be marvellous.”
Couple of years ago I did go there. I spent six months in Tahiti while my wife finished off her doctors internship. We were given ten days in a rundown hotel in Papeete and then took a freebie flat behind the hospital. And that’s pretty much where the dream started to unravel.
The flats for the families weren’t too bad. They looked out over coconut trees to Papeete, the sea and Moorea in the distance. You could see the sunset from the balcony. But because, at the time, we didn’t have any children, we copped the worse flat in the block – out the back looking over the squatters camp. That’s right, a squatters camp peopled by natives from the outer islands. A rough and ready shanty-town of rude huts with corrugated-iron roofs, open drains and basic facilities. A festering cesspit of raw sewage running down the red dirt alleys and household garbage left to rot on the ground. Packs of wild dogs running free.
Every night was Saturday night. We couldn’t sleep for the sound of drunken revelry - yelling, screaming, cussing, ukelele-playing, full-on howling-to-the-moon carousing at all hours. Interspersed with the sounds of dogs fighting...dogs fucking...dogs being tortured...dogs being raped...dogs being run over – the full Monty of dog hell.
There was a pack of semi-domesticated dogs roaming the squatters camp and another pack of rebel outlaw badass dogs roaming the hospital grounds. Every now and then there’d be a fight over territory and the shit would go down. Savage shit. Like dozens of dogs literally ripping another dog to pieces. Or dogs attacking other fornicating dogs – dogs locked together in the act dragging themselves under cars and buildings to get away from the pack. You’d see (just like in Bali) dogs walking around on three legs – with the other mangled one hanging bent and useless. Dogs with eyeballs dangling. Dogs with holes in their sides. Hairless sad-arse dogs riddled with fleas and mange. Hard-core horror-show dogs.
I always thought that when a bitch came into season she mated only once or twice. I’ve had dogs. I’ve observed their behaviour. But these dogs...geeze...maybe it’s the tropical air or something but I observed one bitch mate at least seven times in one day that I saw. To different partners. Doggy style. Which means staying locked together for about half an hour after each performance. Half and hour in which the other mutts would come looking for some of the action. And when they couldn’t get any they’d turn on the performers with savagery. I’m haunted by this. I can still hear the howls of pain as the lovers tried desperately to disengage from each other. You do know the physics of it, don’t you? How the dog’s penis engorges and literally locks itself into the bitch’s vag? Yeah, I know...gross. Fully gross. Imagine if that’s what happened to us? I suppose you could always have a fag while you were waiting.
Doggone it...I’m gonna go with this...follow the thread, as it were. I’m jumping ahead now. To the last month of our Tahitian stay. We’d decided to have a look at the remote Tuamotus Group of islands. We booked a deal with Air Tahiti – 4 nights, half-pension (accom., breakfast & dinner) and airfare – to Takapoto (“Take-a-photo”) - a “remote palm-fringed atoll with lagoon”.
We went Air Tahiti via Takarowboat or Takadump...Tacky something anyway. Takaroa, I think. The propjet touched down and picked up some fat bastard then took off again (by the skin of its teeth) for the five minute flight to Take-a-photo.
It was the usual tropical island airport setup – a basic departure/arrivals hut, a clapped-out firetruck, a welcoming posse of beer-gutted locals with dollar-signs in their eyes and a half-pissed crooner in a straw-hat strumming a uke and singing some island dirge. We cleared Customs in about five minutes flat and the Pension owner loaded us into the back of his Vintage Peugeot 504 Ute (I’m being kind with the word vintage) for the five minute drive to the accomodation. (Are you beginning to see a pattern here?)
Anyway...the dogs. They had dogs at Takapoto too. Domestic dogs. Several of them. Hard-arsed battle-scarred sons-of-bitches. And these bastards were doing the Tahitian Love Dance outside our hut day and night too. Locked together. Attacked mercilessly by the other dogs. Crashing into the rattan walls. Tear-arsing through the gardens. Frightening the bejesus out of the Missus in the middle of the night. She thought we were on safari in Kenya or some-bloody-where and the Lions were about to make us proud. I’ll return to this.
Meanwhile back in Paradise...I mean...Papeete, we were settling in. Settling in to what turned out to be one of the unhappiest six months of my life. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking – “Come on Lambe...it couldn’t have been that bad...you were in Tahiti – dusky maidens in grass-skirts, free love, Gauguin, Captain Cook – all that”. Yeah well...where do I start?
The dusky maidens no longer wear grass-skirts unless doing the Tamouré at the Intercontinental 6 o’clock session. They’ve all gone to seed and had six kids by the time they are 22. The love part costs you bigtime like everything else in Tahiti. The Gauguins are all in Paris. Captain Cook is remembered by a sad-looking obelisk and the name of a lookout and a cocktail and …dunno really. No-one seems to give a bugger about Captain Cook. The natives pinched all his gear so he couldn’t fulfil his mission of watching Venus making out with Mars or whatever is was. No-one gives a shit. They’re all down the lagoon hooking into the Hinano and wiping themselves out on Paka. Then drink-driving home and beating the crap out of the Missus or raping their 12 year old daughters. You think I’m kidding? I’m not.
My wife worked in the hospital. As a paediatric intern. She saw it first hand. You read about it in the court reports in the local rag - “La Dépêche” too. Seems Tahitian men think it perfectly normal to knock their women around – to put them in hospital. They think it their right to deflower their daughters. They think it’s fine to drink themselves stupid, get in the car and run over some toddler – happens all the time.
The standard of care in the hospital was not quite the standard of care she'd become used to in the Parisian hospitals she'd worked. How do I put this? Ah bugger it - I'll tell it like it is. Second-rate doctors and nurses end up working in second-rate hospitals like Mamao in Papeete. People die needlessly from faulty diagnosis and unprofessional care. There you are. I've said it. So sue me! (the name of the new Jewish/Japanese restaurant downtown).
Moving on. I really wanted to like Tahiti. But Papeete was a big disppointment. Where do I start. O.K. The natives aren't friendly. They won't even look at you when they pass you in the street. You're the Invisible Man. You're White. You're probably French. You probably live up in the hills behind Papeete in a gated community with guards and nannies and housekeepers. You're making a trillion-times more money than your average Tahitian. In short you're the colonialist. The oppressor. I can dig it. But it depressed me. I wanted to scream "I'm not French!"..."I'm not the one raping your islands"..."I wanna hang out with you guys not the snooty Frogs". So I tried. I tried real hard. I met Tahitians out surfing. I got on the piss with them. Even smoked a bit of their weed. Introduced the wife to them. Bought them beers. Tried to get into their heads. But it got me nowhere. As one Tahitian guy said to me "You guys have everything - we have nothing". And he's right. The Euros are up in the hills sipping their Mai Tais in the cool breeze while the islanders are sweating it out down in the slums and shantytowns drinking and smoking themselves into oblivion.
I don't want to talk about it anymore. Too bloody depressing what whitey has done to the islands. It's not just Tahiti either. Let's go back to the Tuamotus. To Takapoto.
The Air Tahiti brochure banged on about the facilities we could expect. Something like "quaint native-style accommodation". Read that as an unsecure rattan and bamboo hut with a mouldy foam mattress, dim solar-powered lighting, separate ablutions block with broken door, hordes of mosquitos and randy mutts prowling the campus day and night.
"On a working pearl-farm" they said. Well yeah. Except the owner was scamming everyone by extracting the black pearls way too early at a year or so old so that the nacre was too thin and they would eventually crack and fade. "Home-cooked meals" meant shit he got out of a can or a packet with the occasional bit of overcooked tuna or rubbery pearl-oyster . Can't remember the rest except for the coconut bread for breakfast which was very good.
"Facilities include windsurfers - knackered, pushbikes - clapped out, outrigger canoe - fucked, table-tennis - no balls, trampoline - actually worked but I can think of a million more interesting ways of cracking my scone open, Fishing in the lagoon." The last one rang my bells. But alas no boat available.
Fair play to the man though. When he saw how disappointed I was at not being able to fish for tiddlers in the lagoon he offered to take me outside. No, not to thump me. To take me out into the open sea. Bewdy, I thought. This could be good.
I wasn’t wrong. It was good alright. I’m just lucky I’m still here to tell the tale. We set off at sparrows fart one morning after a rattle on the door to wake us up. Actually I’d been awake half the night. Couldn’t sleep. Nothing worked. Not even counting dogs.
I have a pretty clear memory of bouncing down the crushed coral road in the back tray of the Pug and staring up at a fantastic display of stars. We pulled up at the breakwater and unloaded the gear and an ancient outboard that I swear he’d nicked from the Evinrude Museum. The boat was even ruder. He made it himself he proudly told us. It was nothing much more than a hard-chined Fifties-style 5 metre runaboat made from packing-crate ply. Like something out of “Popular Mechanics”. Something meant for the Great Lakes. You could still make out This Side Up stamped on the sheets of plywood. Now I know my boats. In fact I have a Master Mariner Class V. And this vessel was a definite worry. No way was it suitable for the open sea. And apart from that we had a dodgy outboard with no chain securing it to the transom. No life jackets. No flares. No radio. No lights. No mobile phone. No bailer. No “V” sheet – in short, no safety equipment whatsoever. And did he have Third Party Insurance you ask? Don’t make me laugh, china. It was still dark and we were preparing to shoot out through the boatharbour into a swell we couldn’t see (but could hear).
So throwing caution to the wind we skull-dragged the Do-It-Yourself dinghy down the concrete launching ramp and jumped in before the swell could crush the thing against the concrete wall. And putting our faith in Bozo we shot out past the breakwater to go tuna-fishing Island-Style. Shot out blind. We could hear the surf and relied on some pisshead standing on the rocks to give us the nod and Wahoo! We were off! Gun it brother!
Obviously we made it. And I’ve gotta hand it to the skipper, he had some balls. We felt the swell pick us up, heard the prop cavitating like crazy, then the blades dug in and away we went, spray flying over the unprotected bows and water already beginning to pond in the bilge.
We chugged down the weather side of the island, pretty much hugging the coastline until we came to the Secret Spot (third coconut tree down from the old fish cannery – but don’t tell no bastard or I won’t be invited back.) By this time the sun was up and the sea wasn’t too bad at all. I began to feel a bit better about it all. Figured if the motor did cark it (which was a distinct possibility) we would at least be able to swim ashore, nonwithstanding any Noah activity, of course.
to be continued my dears...are we having fun yet? is that the beginning of a smile i see there? how come no bastard comments? is there anyone out there? anyone? help me...i'm drowning (drowning in a sea of love)
Now where were we? I've been meaning to get back to this for weeks.
So we're out in the briny as the sun comes up over "Take-my-foto". In a 16 foot boat made out of packing cases powered by an old Evinrude Outboard held together with rubber-bands and paper-clips. We have absolutely no safety equipment. Unless you count the fish plastic that, at a pinch, we could you use as a liferaft. But the skipper seems to know what he's doing. And anyway, what would you rather? This , or a trip round the island in tourist-trap launch with a bunch of American retirees all going "Oh my God" at this and "Gee gosh willickers" at that. I know what I'd rather. Not that there's anything wrong with Americans. Well there is, but where do we start.
The skipper killed the motor and we went on the drift while he rigged up the gear. He had half-a-dozen large plastic "boo-ees" (as the Yanks call them) with fishing line and steel trace attached to one end and the other rigged up to the buoy with a clothes peg arrangement. The idea being that when the fish took the bait, the clothes peg would be dislodged allowing the buoy to invert itself and you could tell by the shape whether you had a catch or not.
Skip (half American half Tahitian) started the ancient outboard again and we buggered off to a distance to wait for the booees to do their thing. It took about half an hour for the first bite. And then they went off one after the other over the next ten minutes. We motored back over and Skipper hauled in the first line hand over hand. There was a sizable yellowfin tuna at the end of it. About 15 kilos he reckoned. He hauled in another line and there was another tuna. Then it was my turn. He'd made it look easy but it was quite hard. There seemed to be six million miles of line and it cut into my soft city whiteboy hands until they bled. But I didn't want Kahuna to think me a wimp so I continued. Then for good measure I hauled in another.
All up we got four tuna off six lines. The biggest being 20+ kilos. Not a bad mornings work. As the fish came aboard the skipper cut a nick of flesh from its head and drove a length of sharpened stainless steel rod into the brain, killing it instantly. Well I say "instantly" but they did a death rattle - a bloody gruesome thing to watch, as the rod shorted out their hard drive and they went still. Who said fishing's not cruel?
He killed them this way to give the meat a better taste - before the fish has the chance to release fear and distress hormones (I think - correct me if I'm wrong. I did ask but Mine Host was a taciturn bloke at the best of times. One grunt "Yes" - two grunts "No"). But he didn't bleed the fish like I've seen before. Tahitians, apparently, prefer their tuna red, like steak.
By this time the sun was well and truly up and we were all in good spirits as we motored back to the boatharbour. We trailed a couple of lines with lures behind as we went and managed to hook something but it got off.
In the light of day we could see how dodgey the boat was. Already there was gallons of water in the bilges. Most of it came over the sides.
Skip pointed to some dogs on the shore. "They're fishing!" he yelled over the rattle of the ancient Evinrude. We watched as the little island dogs put their whole heads into the water and emerged with fish between their jaws. Amazing. "When they're hungry they go fishing" laughed Skip.
Approaching the boatharbour we saw there was a good four foot surf breaking at the entrance. "This is going to be good" I thought. The Skip had a quick look around and then gunned us on to a wave and we surfed in lickety-split. I don't know what would have happened if the motor had died. Yes I do...we would have broached and ended up being smashed on the rocks. That really would have been a "Take-my-photo" opportunity.
Skip's French girlfriend was waiting dockside with the Peugeot ute. We dropped one fish off with an island "Maman" and the rest went into his deep-freeze, save for the one we were to eat that night. The offal went to the randy dogs.
I was really looking forward to the tuna meal but was sadly disappointed by the overcooked, dry steaks served. What was better was the "Poisson Cru" (raw fish) Sushi-style that we had as an entree. I would have liked some "Wasabi" paste to go with it. ("Tell him he's dreaming" was the call from off-stage).
The next day we took the clapped-out bicycles for a tour along the crushed coral roads to check out the much-touted "ancient native-style fish traps". They turned out to be tidal traps made from piles of stones in a shallow entry of the lagoon. I imagine they were hundreds of years old. And the water was pristine. On the other shore we could see dozens of abandoned pearl-farms. Over-supply killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Coming back through a grove of coconut trees we diverted off the track to check out one of these farms. There was a 60's Series Two Landrover rusting away in the open next to a rude "native-style" house with a pearl-shed on stilts a few hundred metres into the water. Not a soul around. Not even a randy dog.
Nothing else to report really. As we prepared to board the plane our host presented us with a woven grass hat each. Mine made me look like something out of "Gilligans Island" but in fairness I imagine a lot of punters would be delighted with them. They were beautifully made of fresh green coconut palm leaves that turned brown over the next couple of weeks.
I dunno. Seen one tropical island - seen them all. But at least I can say I've been tuna-fishing native-style.