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Tahiti Casts a Romantic Spell


Courtesy of Tahiti Vacations.She saw me off at the airport, the young woman I fell in love with, and handed me a small tiare bud as we kissed and said good-bye. As is the custom, I put the flower behind my ear and wore it that way all the way home, on the long flights to New York.

 

It was seven on a clear, crisp morning when I arrived, a good way to see the city after many days away. The taxi driver was friendly and chatty and offered me the Sunday papers to read as we sped along the unusually traffic-free highway into the city. Normally, I would have devoured the papers after having been away so long, but now my mind continued to drift – back to the island and the young woman I had just left.

"That a hearing aid?" the driver asked, with typical New York cab-driver candor. "That white thing behind your ear?"

"No," I said, realizing for the first time why he had been talking so loudly. I thought he had a hearing problem. "It's a flower."

"Oh," he said, "a flower." He lapsed into silence. His eyes caught mine several times in the rearview mirror, but quickly darted away.

The spell of Tahiti that had wrapped so closely around me all the way home, lingering like an invisible mist, a tune that eludes just beyond the grasp of recognition and yet won't dance away, was slowly beginning to unravel, as I knew it would. The chilly morning air turned the little flower brown. I dropped it out the window onto the highway. It's true, as she told me one night, looking away, the city is no place for a Tahitian flower, but how reluctantly I let it go.

Copyright Latana. 'Les Reveuses.' For information on viewing and purchasing Latana's images, please see the end of the story.Did I fall in love with one Tahitian woman or all of them? I'm still not sure. This seems to happen to all men who visit the island. Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Somerset Maugham, James Michener and those far less articulate found them irresistible as well.

There were the two lovely Tahitians who caught me staring – or were they staring at me? – and squirmed uncomfortably on the bus that was taking me to the Gauguin Museum. (Why, I wondered, was I crossing the island aboard a bumpy, vintage bus, to visit a museum when the works of art I wanted to see were right there on the bus beside me?)

And, of course, there's the image that keeps returning – of that morning she made coffee, her face and body illuminated by soft light that was not yet that of a new day.

Was the night an illusion, too?

Wrote Gauguin in a letter to Strindberg, "The Eve I have painted, and she alone, can stand before us naked. Yours in this simple condition would be filled with shame, and her body evoke evil and sorrow."

Courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme.Wahines, as the Polynesian women are called, have always cast spells. Known for their exceptional beauty, they indeed seem only vaguely removed from some special kind of Eden. Their hair is generally worn loose and flowing, cascading to their waists. Fastidiously clean, they bath two or three times a day. They often go shoeless, adorned in pareus, colorfully printed cotton sarongs worn over bikinis and draped in a hundred different ways.

 

Grass skirts, a thing of the past, are now seen only in nightclub floor shows where, still today, even in the most ludicrous surroundings – colored spotlights and cardboard palm trees – the dancers project an aura of innocence while performing provocative movements.

The pure, white, fragrantly heady tiare blossom with its smooth, satiny petals has long symbolized the island woman and served as her main adornment – worn as part of a lei, a crown or taupo'o (a hat). If she wears a tiare blossom behind her right ear, she's unattached; behind her left means she's not interested, her heart belongs to another.

Courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme.The island itself forms the perfect backdrop for such a complicated blend of innocence and sexuality. A pure French bonbon wrapped in cool colors of cocoa- green, Tahiti rises up out of the ocean for more than a mile. From afar, it is misty, moody, ethereal. Its loftiest peaks wear a crown of white clouds, much the way Tahitian women wear a wreath of white blossoms in their hair.

So complete was the island's reluctance to give up its ancient ways that when an airport runway was built, it had to be constructed on a causeway stretching out into the sea. The island's topography would have no part of it. According to old islanders who lived in the back villages and towns, the series of air disasters that followed the airport's completion was the work of Fatu, the Earth Spirit, who was angry.

At first glance, Papeete, Tahiti's capital, appears to be like any other South Seas island port – a babble of flower and handicraft stalls, pastry parlors, shops, markets, cafes, melon stands, boys swimming nude off the waterfront docks. Then, quite suddenly, you find yourself in that romantic mood – a bit lightheaded, collecting seashells and picking flowers, stumbling over sidewalks and bumping into walls. At least, that was the initial effect Tahitian women had on me, with their skin the color of burnished copper mixed with Florentine gold.

Copyright Latana. 'Les Yeux.' For information on viewing and purchasing Latana's images, please see the end of the story.And then there was only one. We met at a luncheon party and later she offered me a ride back to town. I invited her to dinner the following night, and much to my delight she accepted.

The Gauguin Museum, on the other side of the island, away from Papeete, celebrates the genius of the man who made sense of it all. It's set in the midst of a dense botanical garden overlooking the ocean. The open-air galleries contain more than 80 artifacts and about 800 documents that give a chronological picture of the artist's life. Many reproductions of Gauguin's works are on display, but only one original, an early European work donated to the museum by the late Malcolm Forbes.

While the popular conception of Gauguin's life in the South Seas is a highly romantic one, he was actually sick, hungry and discouraged most of the time, despised by the island's French, who thought him insane, and merely tolerated by the islanders. Five-foot-four, seemingly half the size of Anthony Quinn or Donald Sutherland, both of whom played him on the screen, Gauguin made two trips to Tahiti and spent his final years on the island of Hivaoa, where he died alone and forsaken at 54.

Several years ago, Gauguin's Mata Mua, a Tahitian scene painted in 1892, brought $24,200,000 at Sotheby's in New York, the record auction price for the artist's work.

Frequently in New York, when out of sorts for whatever reason, I walk over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from my nearby apartment simply to stand for a few minutes in front of Gauguin's Two Tahitian Women, awed by the weight and brilliance of its color and the pure, simple sensuality of its image. Over the years, I've come to fantasize that somehow the painting belongs to me and that, like Malcolm Forbes, it was a gift to the museum. One day when I visited, it was gone, as were several other Gauguins. I asked the guard standing nearby what had happened to them. He shook his head, raising his eyebrows, as if to say, "Here's another nut. How am I supposed to know where they are?"

Then I knew the painting wasn't mine.

There are high-rise hotels in Tahiti, and the island youths wear bleached blue jeans and ride Yamaha bikes and Hondas. Visiting American and European women quickly adopt the island "look." Pareus sell briskly at the island boutiques and at the Club Med on neighboring Moorea, from where they've been chosen as the official Club Med costume throughout the world.

Courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme.Tiare blossoms are free for the picking – "Is it the right ear or the left?" – and even the ecology -minded can do so without guilt; pick one and another grows in its place within 24 hours. Moni-Tiare, a popular, locally produced skin cream found in all the hotel shops, or at any downtown Papeete pharmacy at a third the price, promises according to the label to instill the genuine look and feel of a wahine. There are swaying palm trees and black velvet beaches and mai-tais to weaken inhibitions. Grass skirts can be rented for photographs in front of the cardboard palm trees.

The taxi crossed the Triborough Bridge and we were suddenly engulfed by the sounds and sights and smells of New York, vibrant and vivid even on a Sunday morning. Finally we pulled up in front of my apartment building and I got out. I paid the driver and tipped him well, but he drove off with neither a thank you nor a good-bye for someone who wears a flower behind his ear.

I never heard from her again, and after several months, I stopped writing. I was hurt, but not surprised. A friend on the island had warned me that Tahitian women rarely look back. With an almost childlike prospective, they live only in the present – only now – which might be one of the secrets of their overwhelming appeal. My friend said it was also a kind of insulation for them against generations of broken promises, of people who went there, fell in love and never had the courage to go back.

When You Go:

 

Tahiti is halfway between California and Australia, and is the largest island of the Windward Group of Society Islands, French Polynesia.

Papeete is Tahiti's capital and the administrative center of French Polynesia. With a population of about 100,000, it is a big city by island standards.

For general information on Tahiti, visit Tahiti Tourisme's Web site at www.gototahiti.com.

To view or purchase Latana's beautiful images of Tahiti, visit either www.artistdesigns.com or www.tahiti-explorer.com. Latana's work is also displayed on Moorea, the smaller island west of Tahiti, at the Galerie Moorea.

Courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme.

There are flights from Los Angeles to Papeete on Air New Zealand, Air France, Qantas and AOM French Airline. Round-trip fares, with 14-day advance purchase, start at US$1,026.

Le Truck, the local bus system, is the most popular and most colorful form of transportation on the island. But be prepared for a bumpy, noisy ride. Le Truck is a brightly decorated pickup truck with long wooden benches on each side. For $1, you can go almost anywhere on the island, although you'll probably have to transfer trucks several times. The entertainment on Le Truck comes at no extra charge – rock or Tahitian folk music that blares incessantly through huge stereo speakers.

For information on everything from weather to diving on Tahiti and her islands, visit www.tahitivacations.net or call 1-800-553-3477.

Freelance writer Ron Butler is a New Yorker who recently moved to Tucson, Ariz.

The pure, white, fragrantly heady tiare blossom with its smooth, satiny petals has long symbolized the island woman and served as her main adornment worn as part of a lei, a crown or taupo'o (a hat). If she wears a tiare blossom behind her right ear, she's unattached; behind her left means she's not interested, her heart belongs to another.

Courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme.The island itself forms the perfect backdrop for such a complicated blend of innocence and sexuality. A pure French bonbon wrapped in cool colors of cocoa- green, Tahiti rises up out of the ocean for more than a mile. From afar, it is misty, moody, ethereal. Its loftiest peaks wear a crown of white clouds, much the way Tahitian women wear a wreath of white blossoms in their hair.

So complete was the island's reluctance to give up its ancient ways that when an airport runway was built, it had to be constructed on a causeway stretching out into the sea. The island's topography would have no part of it. According to old islanders who lived in the back villages and towns, the series of air disasters that followed the airport's completion was the work of Fatu, the Earth Spirit, who was angry.

At first glance, Papeete, Tahiti's capital, appears to be like any other South Seas island port a babble of flower and handicraft stalls, pastry parlors, shops, markets, cafes, melon stands, boys swimming nude off the waterfront docks. Then, quite suddenly, you find yourself in that romantic mood a bit lightheaded, collecting seashells and picking flowers, stumbling over sidewalks and bumping into walls. At least, that was the initial effect Tahitian women had on me, with their skin the color of burnished copper mixed with Florentine gold.

Copyright Latana. 'Les Yeux.' For information on viewing and purchasing Latana's images, please see the end of the story.And then there was only one. We met at a luncheon party and later she offered me a ride back to town. I invited her to dinner the following night, and much to my delight she accepted.

The Gauguin Museum, on the other side of the island, away from Papeete, celebrates the genius of the man who made sense of it all. It's set in the midst of a dense botanical garden overlooking the ocean. The open-air galleries contain more than 80 artifacts and about 800 documents that give a chronological picture of the artist's life. Many reproductions of Gauguin's works are on display, but only one original, an early European work donated to the museum by the late Malcolm Forbes.

While the popular conception of Gauguin's life in the South Seas is a highly romantic one, he was actually sick, hungry and discouraged most of the time, despised by the island's French, who thought him insane, and merely tolerated by the islanders. Five-foot-four, seemingly half the size of Anthony Quinn or Donald Sutherland, both of whom played him on the screen, Gauguin made two trips to Tahiti and spent his final years on the island of Hivaoa, where he died alone and forsaken at 54.

Several years ago, Gauguin's Mata Mua, a Tahitian scene painted in 1892, brought $24,200,000 at Sotheby's in New York, the record auction price for the artist's work.

Frequently in New York, when out of sorts for whatever reason, I walk over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from my nearby apartment simply to stand for a few minutes in front of Gauguin's Two Tahitian Women, awed by the weight and brilliance of its color and the pure, simple sensuality of its image. Over the years, I've come to fantasize that somehow the painting belongs to me and that, like Malcolm Forbes, it was a gift to the museum. One day when I visited, it was gone, as were several other Gauguins. I asked the guard standing nearby what had happened to them. He shook his head, raising his eyebrows, as if to say, "Here's another nut. How am I supposed to know where they are?"

Then I knew the painting wasn't mine.

There are high-rise hotels in Tahiti, and the island youths wear bleached blue jeans and ride Yamaha bikes and Hondas. Visiting American and European women quickly adopt the island "look." Pareus sell briskly at the island boutiques and at the Club Med on neighboring Moorea, from where they've been chosen as the official Club Med costume throughout the world.

Courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme.Tiare blossoms are free for the picking "Is it the right ear or the left?" and even the ecology -minded can do so without guilt; pick one and another grows in its place within 24 hours. Moni-Tiare, a popular, locally produced skin cream found in all the hotel shops, or at any downtown Papeete pharmacy at a third the price, promises according to the label to instill the genuine look and feel of a wahine. There are swaying palm trees and black velvet beaches and mai-tais to weaken inhibitions. Grass skirts can be rented for photographs in front of the cardboard palm trees.

The taxi crossed the Triborough Bridge and we were suddenly engulfed by the sounds and sights and smells of New York, vibrant and vivid even on a Sunday morning. Finally we pulled up in front of my apartment building and I got out. I paid the driver and tipped him well, but he drove off with neither a thank you nor a good-bye for someone who wears a flower behind his ear.

I never heard from her again, and after several months, I stopped writing. I was hurt, but not surprised. A friend on the island had warned me that Tahitian women rarely look back. With an almost childlike prospective, they live only in the present only now which might be one of the secrets of their overwhelming appeal. My friend said it was also a kind of insulation for them against generations of broken promises, of people who went there, fell in love and never had the courage to go back.

When You Go:

Tahiti is halfway between California and Australia, and is the largest island of the Windward Group of Society Islands, French Polynesia.

Papeete is Tahiti's capital and the administrative center of French Polynesia. With a population of about 100,000, it is a big city by island standards.

For general information on Tahiti, visit Tahiti Tourisme's Web site at www.gototahiti.com.

To view or purchase Latana's beautiful images of Tahiti, visit either www.artistdesigns.com or www.tahiti-explorer.com. Latana's work is also displayed on Moorea, the smaller island west of Tahiti, at the Galerie Moorea.

Courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme.

There are flights from Los Angeles to Papeete on Air New Zealand, Air France, Qantas and AOM French Airline. Round-trip fares, with 14-day advance purchase, start at US$1,026.

Le Truck, the local bus system, is the most popular and most colorful form of transportation on the island. But be prepared for a bumpy, noisy ride. Le Truck is a brightly decorated pickup truck with long wooden benches on each side. For $1, you can go almost anywhere on the island, although you'll probably have to transfer trucks several times. The entertainment on Le Truck comes at no extra charge rock or Tahitian folk music that blares incessantly through huge stereo speakers.

For information on everything from weather to diving on Tahiti and her islands, visit www.tahitivacations.net or call 1-800-553-3477.

Freelance writer Ron Butler is a New Yorker who recently moved to Tucson, Ariz.