An Ersatz Travelogue for Alyssa’s Time in French Polynesia

I recently returned from a vacation in French Polynesia. This was my first ever solo vacation and something I planned and anticipated for a long time before I could finally make it happen. It was not my first air travel, nor my first vacation, but the first time I traveled to a far-off place alone with no academic conference, family visit, or other purpose in mind. It was also the farthest from home I have ever been, at nearly double the distance of my previous record. And it was glorious.

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Why French Polynesia?

With a world of vacation destinations to choose from, one presumably wonders, why did I pick this one?

Tropical islands in general fascinate me. Ecologically, they are a treasure trove of endemic life and biodiversity hotspots in what is often a comparatively desolate ocean, and atop that, their fauna gets to experience insular dwarfism and insular gigantism. Culturally, this setting imposes similar pressures on social development regardless of what culture finds a given island, creating striking commonalities around the world. Aesthetically, they are sublime in their beauty, synonymous with relaxation and leisure. As someone whose heritage traces back to tropical islands, they are dear to my heart; as someone living much farther north and inland than I once did, escaping to the sunlit, salt-aired wonder of these places now and then is good for my soul. The tropics call me, and their islands more so.

Few places tick all those boxes better than the islands of the southern Pacific Ocean, the famed “South Sea Islands” of endless romantic depiction. Much ink has been spilled, ranging from National Geographic to Looney Tunes, regarding the South Sea Islands, but stereotyped depictions tend not to correspond especially well to reality. Curiosity compelled me to find out firsthand which bits of my reading and watching were closest to the actual experience of this place. What would I find when I arrived?

Choosing a specific destination was a little more challenging. As a trans woman traveling alone, I must be on guard against possible violence and discrimination. Most of the island groups in the South Pacific have laws regarding people like me that are worrisome at best, installed by colonial overlords and retained thanks to those overlords’ unsettlingly successful missionary work. For all that I can usually escape the notice of such authorities, I’d rather not risk it. Between that and the wish of indigenous Hawai’ians to no longer be deluged with tourists, the list got short fast, and the most accessible of the places left was French Polynesia. I could hardly object to such a destination.

What French Polynesia?

It is time to step back a bit.

The Pacific Ocean contains a multitude of islands scattered across fully half of Earth’s surface. In addition to larger groups close to the Asian mainland, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Japan, and smaller groups close to the Americas such as the Aleutians, Haida Gwaii, and the Galapagos, a multitude of small islands dot the southern part of that enormous ocean, far from either continent. These are the South Sea Islands, often also called Oceania, though this latter term often also includes Australia. The islands of Oceania are divided into three broad geo-cultural groups: Melanesia, home to especially dark-skinned people and nearest to Asia; Micronesia, home to especially small islands in a swath mostly north of the equator and also close to Asia; and Polynesia, the largest and most culturally cohesive of the three.

Most of the Pacific islands were settled from Asia by speakers of Austronesian languages, and the history of settlement of these islands is intimately intertwined with the history of the Austronesian language family itself. This family originated in the island now known as Taiwan, whose aboriginal (pre-Chinese) population still contains most of Austronesian’s linguistic diversity. One branch of these people migrated south to the Philippines and spawned the Malayo-Polynesian branch of Austronesian, which encompasses all Austronesian languages spoken outside of Taiwan. From here, the family branched further as it spread. To the west, Malayo-Polynesian speakers spread throughout what is now Indonesia and Malaysia and even reached Madagascar by 500 CE. To the east, small groups reached parts of Micronesia between 1000 and 1500 BCE in multiple waves at different times.

Map of the spread of Austronesian speakers around the Indo-Pacific with approximate arrival years and boundaries of major island groups.
Pavljenko, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The primary migration, for the purposes of our story, brought its languages to Melanesia by 1200 BCE. Here, they mingled with Papuan people from a much earlier and linguistically distinct migration, giving the region its characteristic mix of Papuan and Austronesian languages. It is from Melanesia, several centuries later, that Polynesia gained its first humans. Around 900 BCE, sailors from easternmost Melanesia reached Tonga and then Samoa 100 years later. Their spread from here essentially halted for almost 1000 years, a period known as the “Great Pause.” Historians in and out of Polynesia debate the reason for the Great Pause, but it was most likely related to long-term climate trends that made the Pacific Ocean far less navigable and which correspond to climatic challenges elsewhere in the world, including the droughts that collapsed the Maya civilization in Mesoamerica and the crop failures that played a role in sparking the Viking Age in northern Europe. (It is this period that is reimagined as a supernatural event in the film Moana.) Whatever the reason, Polynesians from Samoa reached Tahiti and its nearby islands around 700 CE and used this island group, now called the Society Islands, as their springboard for further exploration and settlement. Polynesians made the most distant islands in the region, northern Hawai’i, Rapa Nui / Easter Island, and Aotearoa / New Zealand, theirs by 900 CE, 1000 CE, and 1200 CE, respectively. In between, Polynesian groups also spread westward, sprinkling Melanesia and Micronesia with “Polynesian outlier” societies.

What is noteworthy here is that much of Polynesia was settled comparatively rapidly and from a broadly unified starting position compared to the other groups of South Sea islands, despite Polynesia’s island groups being much farther apart. Where the islands of Micronesia were settled at different times by migrants from different nearby lands and Melanesia is marked by intermingling between Austronesian arrivals and linguistically diverse Papuans, Polynesia is by comparison a single cultural and linguistic area. Each island group has its own language and cultural practices (and the divisions can and do run deeper and finer than that), but they are close enough to one another to reinforce a shared sense of Polynesian-ness across the vast triangle of ocean bounded by Hawai’i, Rapa Nui, and Aotearoa. Various cultural institutions build on and maintain this sense of kinship, inviting representatives from throughout the region and migrating between the various islands to preserve the same seafaring spirit, inter-island trade, and cultural exchange that first made them what they are and to celebrate both their diversity and their connection to one another. Throughout, Tahiti and the Society Islands around it are revered as a sort of cultural heart of the whole region, at the center of its geographic history even if it is not the oldest of its civilizations. That this connectivity persists despite the whole of the Pacific being divided between various colonizing powers and the peripheral islands being settler-colonized to the point of no longer having Polynesian majorities is a particular triumph of identity retention.

This historical overview glosses over numerous complexities, including the history of those same imperial powers using Pacific islands as military bases, test sites for nuclear weapons, and dumping grounds for agricultural waste they pretend is food; inter-island trade and warfare and how this affected the particulars of each archipelago’s demographics and cultural practices; and so much more.

Where French Polynesia?

French Polynesia has several archipelagos within its expanse. The Austral Islands are far to the south, the Marquesas are far to the northeast, between them are the numerous, tiny Tuamotus, and at the cultural center and geographic west are the Society Islands. The Society Islands, in turn, are divided into Windward and Leeward Island groups, just as those terms are used in the Caribbean. Further subdivisions are possible, for example segmenting the Gambier Islands from the Tuamotus, and the islands of French Polynesia share volcanic hotspot history with nearby regions such as the Line Islands portion of Kiribati. This raises a question: when someone visits French Polynesia, where do they go?

For most residents of French Polynesia and tourists alike, the answer is the Society Islands. The overwhelming majority of French Polynesia’s population lives in this small group of comparatively large islands and they are much more accessible to international visitors than anywhere else in the region. It is in the Society Islands that one finds the two most famous islands in the whole of French Polynesia, Tahiti and Bora Bora, and Tahiti is also home to the region’s sole international airport, Faa’a. I would be spending my vacation on neither of these famous islands. Instead, I picked the island of Mo’orea, which would forever require me to explain where I went.

Mo’orea is a short ferry ride from Tahiti and rarely selected as a destination in its own right. More often, travelers to French Polynesia make a short stop here between arriving in Tahiti and moving on to Bora Bora. Mo’orea, then, becomes part of the Tahiti or Bora Bora experience rather than its own trip, except for me. The famous islands were far too expensive for my desired length of stay and that was that. What was for others a short side trek on their way to a fancy resort elsewhere became, for me, nearly the whole vacation, and for that I have no regrets.

Before I gush about how much I enjoyed Mo’orea, let’s go over how I got there.

Getting to Mo’orea involved the following vehicles, spread across about a day and a half of travel:

  1. Taxi from my home to Ottawa’s intercity Tremblay train station for an early-morning train to Toronto. I would have used public transit, but it was too early in the morning for relevant transit options to be running.
  2. Intercity train from Ottawa’s Tremblay Station to Toronto’s Union Station.
  3. Toronto’s “UP Express” train from Union Station to its airport. Conveniently, the UP Express dropped me off at the same terminal as my flight, saving me further transfers, and the fact that Ottawa’s transit system uses the same payment card as Toronto’s made this part of the trip pleasantly seamless.
  4. Flight from Toronto to Los Angeles. Side note: of all the airports I have spent time in, LAX is now officially my least favorite by far. What an awful place. LAX feels like it was designed with the same car-centric nothing-is-close-to-anything sensibilities as the rest of Los Angeles, except everyone is on foot because it’s an airport.
  5. Overnight flight from Los Angeles to Pape’ete, the capital of French Polynesia and home of Faa’a International Airport. Faa’a is a charming, small airport that had a musical troupe playing for arriving passengers and art objects on display all around the customs line as well as spectacular natural scenery nearby. It is also extraordinarily open-air, with no jetways for exiting planes and most parts of the airport having no or incomplete walls for maximum ventilation. The Departure side is rather more urban but just as open.
  6. Shuttle ride, arranged by my travel agent with a local tour group, from the airport to the ferry port.
  7. Ferry, with tickets ready to go thanks to my travel agent, from Tahiti to Mo’orea.
  8. Taxi ride, also arranged by my travel agent in advance, from the Mo’orea ferry port to my resort, the Sofitel Kia Ora Mo’orea.
  9. A second taxi ride, paid for on-site once I had checked in, to the nearby Vodaphone outlet and back to acquire a local SIM card and provide data and phone access without paying exorbitant Canadian roaming rates.

Mo’orea is beautiful. As a smaller and somewhat less traveled destination, it lacks the bustling character of the regional metropolis Pape’ete in Tahiti where I also spent a little time and has more than enough resort amenities to feel like a proper vacation. More than that, however, Mo’orea has cultivated natural attractions that are exactly my speed, in particular diving, fishing, and hiking. It is among enthusiasts for these activities that one finds the few outsiders who recognize this island’s name when they hear it. I stayed that the Sofitel Kia Ora Mo’orea resort, a resort with middling reviews near the ferry port, and my selection of minor complaints pales against the sheer splendor this place helped me experience.

The Sofitel is a simple place with simple attractions. My garden cabin featured a large, very comfortable bed, a chaise-longue with a television mounted above it, a nook for brewing tea or coffee with provided machines, a large bathroom with two sinks, a truly lovely shower that improbably combines natural light with privacy, and a large locked French door providing a view of the back porch and the lagoon. The cabin was air-conditioned, which provided welcome relief from the tropical heat on especially bright days. The Sofitel also has garden cabins farther from the water and Polynesia’s trademark overwater bungalows with floor windows that enable guests to watch fish swim beneath them. Notably, there is no charge for the tea and bottled water provided in the rooms, the inverse of typical hotel minibar policies, and soap, shampoo, conditioner, and body wash are provided alongside niceties such as a shower cap and hair dryer. The staff all speak Tahitian and French, and most speak at least basic English as well.

A photograph of the view from the shoreline near the restaurant at Sofitel Kia Ora Mo'orea, facing the overwater bungalows. The sky is deep blue, the sea is blue-green, the sand is white, and the scene is beautiful.
Yup.

The Sofitel is not an all-inclusive resort, which visitors must keep in mind for their budgeting. Breakfast comes with the cost of the room, but other meals do not. Since anywhere else to eat is at least a taxi ride away at the nearby(ish) village of Maharepa, that means most guests will take their meals in the on-site restaurant, whose prices are a bit steep by Canadian standards and whose quality usually keeps that from being too onerous. Sofitel makes up for its generosity with tea and bottled water by charging for water at lunch and dinner, in keeping with French restaurant practices, and once I learned that, I started saving my hydration for the free water in the room. Bills from meals, excursions (see below), and the daily room tax are kept on a tab and paid on checkout. There is on-site shopping in the form of a small souvenir shop and convenience store as well as Pearl Romance, a vendor of fine pearl jewelry; a short walk just outside the resort brings visitors to Pearlescence, a second, small, independent jewelry shop, and a few roadside fruit stands. There is also an eye-wateringly-expensive on-site spa and a fancier restaurant that serves multi-course luxury meals a few times per week. I don’t really know who that second restaurant was for, given that the main one had some manner of musical or traditional dance performance every night and even featured a traditional Tahitian buffet on some nights.

Outdoor spaces are the domain of four species of birds that are more-or-less omnipresent: zebra doves, Geopelia striata, which resemble small mourning doves with blue skin around their eyes; red-vented bulbuls, Pycnonotus cafer, with dramatic jay-like crests and red rump feathers under their tails; common mynas, Acridotheres tristis, with bright yellow eye skin; and feral chickens. All four of these species are introduced from Asia and not native to French Polynesia. Other birds, in particular seabirds, are also found here, but one has to go a bit off the beaten path to see them in numbers.

The water near the resort is clear and glorious to the point that I did not fully understand why swimming pools are painted the shade that they are until I witnessed it firsthand. Live coral, with its associated teeming sea life, grows within an easily waded few meters of the coral-sand shore. Sofitel also has excellent views of the distant retaining reef that separates the island’s lagoon from the much rougher, much deeper Pacific Ocean and, farther out, the island of Tahiti.

How French Polynesia?

To come to Mo’orea in general and the Sofitel in particular specifically for the resort amenities is to largely miss the point of this place. That lies in the excursion desk in the open-air lobby, where patrons can connect with various local providers to go on whale-watching tours, snorkeling tours, hikes, scenic drives on the ring road that encircles the entire island, fishing excursions, and more. I arranged two such excursions in advance with my travel agent and one more at the desk to help fill the days and make sure I experienced this island’s natural wonders. Tragically, the whale-watching is seasonal and was not available. Tours start early, usually departing the resort at 8 AM local time, which dovetails nicely with the resort starting breakfast service at 6:30 AM, with tropical 12-hour days, and with visitors from five time zones eastward trying to escape jet lag.

Snorkeling in Mo’orea’s lagoon is incredible. I have been snorkeling in the Caribbean, both in its seagrass meadows and its reefs, and it is nothing compared to the sheer spectacular beauty of this place. Unlike most of the reefs I encountered on Caribbean trips, the coral here is thriving in healthy natural conditions and under the careful stewardship of the various private and public authorities that manage it. At least at the sites that snorkeling tours visit, there are no vast fields of dead coral skeletons dissolving under the weight of their algal load, and in their place are the delirious colors of living, pulsing cnidarian life. The shallow reefs teem with fish I otherwise only ever see in pet stores, including damselfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish, blennies, flounders, triggerfish, tangs, sharks, rays, mullets, and more, and the invertebrate life is similarly diverse and plentiful. Sea turtles and dolphins are present and easy for tour guides to find, and I got to spend time in the water with two different species of sea turtles. Taking on this excursion with the tour group, as opposed to trying to make it happen on my own, gave me access to better snorkeling sites and equipment, including an underwater handheld sea scooter that made movement far easier and safer. The tour company even offered a package of photos taken by the guide with a waterproof camera mounted on his sea scooter for an additional fee.

A view of a hawskbill sea turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata, a critically endangered species I got to see in person. It us surrounded by crystal-clear water and living coral in bright purple.
Which I went ahead and paid, and it was worth it.

For a very different experience, I also partook of a hike to the Afareaitu waterfall in southeastern Mo’orea. I and a pair of other Sofitel guests I met on the taxi ride from the airport enjoyed a not-too-taxing hike uphill through the densely forested volcanic terrain, all to the tune of our tour guide Étien’s narration about Mo’orea’s and French Polynesia’s agricultural practices, foodways, ancient cultural traditions, economy, and more. Our frequent stops for new bits of knowledge, whether it was for a demonstration of the “Polynesian iPhone” (pounding on the buttress roots of trees to make sounds that travel long distances) or “Polynesian shampoo” (the soap-like liquid found in ‘awapuhi flowers, Zingiber zerumbet, accessible by squeezing them) or of Étien’s past as a born-and-raised Mo’orean who was employed both here and in France at various times and made the point to return and take up his place in the local community made sure the experience both fascinating and memorable. At one point, Étien asked if any of us knew about the Polynesian triangle (see earlier section), and when I responded that I did, he challenged me to expound on it at the next stop; he added many informative details to my incomplete but largely accurate account. The waterfall itself is tall, wide, and dramatic, presenting an enormous wall of volcanic rock covered in clinging plants and down which pours a torrent of clear, cool water from the island’s rainy mountains into a chest-deep pool in which we were invited to swim. This biologist also enjoyed that the pool was home to numerous freshwater shrimp and the giant mottled eels, Anguilla marmorata, that were hunting them. The eels gently moved away from any human approach despite the largest of the ones I spotted easily being over a meter long. The end of this trip included a spread of tropical fruits for us to enjoy and a brief visit to a local grocery store, which made very clear that French Polynesia is a very expensive place to live for anyone who cannot sustain themself entirely on seafood, which was very cheap.

A wall of volcanic rock with water pouring down it, surrounded by greenery.
It is difficult to do justice to Afareaitu Falls in photography. It’s just so tall.

The last excursion was a second snorkeling trip, this time paired with a long boat ride around the northern end of the island to see its paired, W-shaped bays and the architecture and mountains around them. Mo’orea’s most striking mountain, Mt. Mouaputa, famously resembles a long-haired woman’s head facing the sky, and this direction provided clear views of its distinctive shape. The snorkeling on this trip was not quite as visually spectacular as on the previous excursion, but made up for that by featuring stingrays trained to show interest in human visitors. Once stingrays learn to associate humans with food, they become downright cuddly. They flap among people, brush up against people, and climb up on people, even partially exiting the water to do so, and they enjoy being petted. Nevertheless, it was not far from anyone’s mind that the wrong move, such as accidentally stepping on one, appearing to follow one from behind, or touching its underside with too much enthusiasm, could lead to a vacation-ruining sting. The experience is very much as if puppies carried handguns. This trip also featured blacktip reef sharks, which are about one meter long, do their best not to get close to people, and pose no danger. The end of this excursion was a short stay on a nearby islet where the tour guides demonstrated Polynesian coconut-cracking techniques, hat-weaving, pareo draping, and the recipe for poisson cru à la Tahitien, otherwise known as “Tahitian ceviche,” which was easily the highlight of most of Sofitel’s lunch menus, while standing in ankle-deep seawater he used to clean the table. A particular treat was a stingray and a shark getting close to investigate the smell of tuna as the recipe demonstration went on, and to getting to share my enthusiasm for the day’s events with two lovely American tourists who enjoyed my informative tidbits about the various fish species we saw.

A group of cracked-open coconuts on a wooden picnic table.
I cracked this open myself with a stick. It was a lovely experience.

While at the resort, I kept my days full with reading the three books I brought with me, usually outdoors on the cabin porch; some light shopping; and a lot of wading and swimming near my cabin. On most days, wading and/or swimming were the most convenient way to get from the restaurant to my cabin, more direct and a lot more fun than the walk on the official path. I also took a lot of pictures, whether for Patreon, for memories, or to satisfy my quest to finally get a decent shot of the extremely skittish grapsid crabs that hid in the intertidal rocks near my cabin.

A well-camouflaged crab eating algae on the end of a wheelchair ramp at the water's edge.
I ultimately figured out that they were a lot less skittish if I hid above them and they could only see the phone. They’re still quite well camouflaged. Stray dogs and seabirds eat them, so I understand why they are so nervous.

Who French Polynesia?

Something I had a feeling I would experience but did not anticipate to this degree was the sense of familiarity that permeated French Polynesia. I was the farthest from home I had ever been, in a place whose linguistic heritage hearkens ultimately to Asia that is a French overseas territory, but almost every moment felt like coming back to an ancient home. The landscaping throughout the island and especially on resorts prominently features the same African and South American plants that are found all over South Florida and the Caribbean and near relatives native to the Pacific islands, some of which I mistook for their Neotropical kin. The pineapples grown in such profusion here are South American, and Polynesia is closer to the Asian origin of its bananas than plátano-loving Latin America is. Sweet potatoes are the foremost evidence of ancient contact between Polynesian people and indigenous South Americans, clearly taken from the continent and spread across the islands just as coconuts made the opposite trip. Rice was a staple grain at the dinner table, often not even mentioned because its presence is as default there as it is in Hispanic cooking. Tahitian (also spoken in Mo’orea) does not have Spanish’s distinctive rhythm but its similar sound inventory stands out against the French spoken here and the English tourists bring. It was a surreal, emotional experience watching the soft ceremony of the traditional Tahitian oven being exhumed from its underground chamber and then divested of its banana leaf covering so that the roast suckling pig inside could be extracted and served as part of that night’s Polynesian buffet, so close to a Cuban caja china feast and yet so obviously not quite the same.

A traditional oven made of metal grates with a suckling pig, plantains, and other foods inside, freshly exhumed.
Almost a caja china. Almost.

The differences, too, were real. The Afareaitu hike showed just how much of the similarity came specifically from landscaping choices, as the African traveler’s palms and royal poincianas gave way to Asian-descended tree ferns, but even here the occasional strangler fig reminded me of Miami’s taste for the exotic. Menus showed ample French influence and used far less garlic and more coconut than their Cuban or Puerto Rican equivalents would have, and other staples such as olives and cilantro were not nearly as common. The colonial substratum, from the selection of cheeses and breads to the license plates to the available wine, was French and not Spanish and pinged sensibilities honed in Canada rather than in more distant homes. My small number of visits to off-resort urban spaces showed familiar gatherings of people in outdoor patios having cheerful conversations and enjoying food and drink well into the night, but they had a lower-key, less energetic quality than the ones I remember from Miami and lacked the sense that all that cheer was the layer of stone atop an angry magma chamber waiting for the crack that would let it erupt. There is a good-naturedness here that feels refreshing compared to the foulness that drove me away from Miami, as if this place is a distorted reflection of the tropical home I might have had.

All those feelings came crashing into focus when Étien, the tour guide on my Afareaitu waterfall hike, looked at my large collection of tattoos and asked me if I would be seeking a local tattoo during my stay.

Everything I had read, ever, about Polynesian tattooing reinforced that it was an art full of local meaning, with ritualized significance for each symbol, motif, placement, and other detail, that would be disrespectful for a tourist to pursue. On that basis, I arrived in French Polynesia with no desire to get inked here and I told Étien as much. Étien found this thought lightly amusing. He explained to me that none of that applies to tourists. Effectively, the local attitude in the Society Islands is that tattooing in the local Tahitian style (there are at least five Polynesian tattoo traditions, several of which are more restrictive) only carries any of that meaning when on the body of a person who is asserting a place within the local society. Tourists, effectively, access a separate, parallel tattoo track that is purely aesthetic and does not register to Society Islanders as disrespectful or appropriative. If anything, the fact that the local tattoo practice generates so much interest from outsiders is a boon that they appreciate. Étien’s family, who are part of Mo’orea’s social fabric, are expected by him and by others to follow the local protocol about when tattoos are earned and what they represent, but tourists flatly aren’t doing anything wrong, in Tahitian eyes, by getting inked during their stay. The Tahitian tradition has even incorporated a number of Western artistic practices, including use of color and more overtly representational imagery, that remain outside of the other Polynesian tattoo traditions. I queried several other locals and they all provided the same story: I would be disrespecting no one by visiting a local tattoo artist and getting something done. And as a longtime admirer of this style, that was exciting.

So, I made a few calls. With a relatively narrow window between my last snorkeling trip (before which a fresh tattoo would be ill-advised at best) and my flight (after which it would be impossible), this was an unlikely whim. Three artists proved unable to accommodate the sum of my minuscule availability and my lack of a tattoo’s worth of Communauté financière du Pacifique francs in hand, but a fourth, on the island of Tahiti, could make use of the many-hour gap between my arrival there and my midnight flight back to Los Angeles and was happy to give me a tattoo.

Manuia Tattoo is a small shop within walking distance of Faa’a International Airport in Pape’ete. Their two artists have visited Calgary in western Canada for tattoo competitions and come back with awards, so they found the fact of my Canadianness pleasant. Tuatini Tamata, the lead artist there, had me look through a binder of his past work—a much more extensive selection than was available on the shop’s social media—to find a general idea I liked. Since this was an impulsive tattoo I had not had time to incorporate into my overall tattoo scheme, it had to be somewhere where I would be unlikely to want anything else; since I was already reeling from the cost of the rest of the trip and it would have to be formally designed during this appointment, it had to be small. I settled on a band around my left ankle, incorporating and riffing on the Taíno coquí petroglyph that was my first tattoo. In this way, I could commemorate how homelike and yet non-homelike this whole place felt while partaking of its artistic excellence, while upgrading the smallest and least impressive of my existing ink.

Tamata drew a design for me directly onto my ankle using a ballpoint pen, designing something that would work with the nearby Puerto Rican image to accentuate it without touching it. In the exceedingly clever way of this place, the tattoo he created for me has images in both the positive space and the negative space. In the positive space, he used a hammerhead shark head that signifies tenacity, strength, and sociality (perfect for someone who is having to accept that she’s far less awkward and unsociable than she used to be and adjust her self-concept accordingly), the hope vehine symbol associated with womanhood and origins (a nice treat for a trans woman), and a sun (well, I like sunlight), and the negative space between them resembles the coquí petroglyph the whole tattoo is designed to embrace, repeated several times. A second row is devoted to the omnipresent negative-space repeated spearhead motif often used to signify warrior pride and which also looks like shark scales. There is one section of the tattoo I have not quite managed to figure out, that I think is a variation on the enata symbol used to represent a human figure with the symbols used to represent taro on either side and a few other flourishes that don’t quite match anything I have found in my reading before or after this session. As an alleged human who has enjoyed both taro and its close cousin yautía / malanga found in Puerto Rican and Cuban cooking, I can hardly object. I was too high from the tattoo experience itself, too encumbered by English being Tamata’s third language and French barely qualifying as mine, and too anxious about getting to the airport on time to ask for clarity while I was still in the studio and my digital request has not yet borne fruit.

Four images showing the tattoo all the way around. It has one row of spearheads spreading outward from a central hammerhead-shark motif on top and a second row of more complex symbols. All of this is arranged to accentuate the original piece, a Taino coqui petroglyph in the shape of a highly stylized frog.
Manuia Tattoo’s exemplary work. I think it looks great even in this early stage of healing I call “skin confetti,” which is preventing his lines from looking as clean as they will when the bits finish flaking off.

Being in this tattoo studio as a foreign trans woman traveling alone for the multiple hours this experience took was quite the experience. I made the risky decision to acknowledge the existence of my two girlfriends when Tamata, in idle conversation, asked if I was married, and the conversation that followed was amusing in its incredulity. At one point, Tuatini’s assistant Patu Mamatui asked me if I was a man or a woman, explaining that my voice made him wonder; he did not further interrogate my answer. About 30 minutes later, he asked me if I did crossfit and if I was looking to add a Tahitian boyfriend to my pair of girlfriends. There is great amusement in the idea that this man wasn’t sure of my gender earlier that hour, knew I was catching a plane out of the country later that day, and still liked what he saw enough to shoot a highly improbable shot. Throughout, Tamata was the epitome of professionalism and Mamatui took no actions to make me feel unsafe before he went home for the day. And since people always ask, Tamata used modern, sterile tattoo equipment rather than the bone tools used in fully traditional Polynesian tattooing, which are still used today by some artists.

At Tamata’s insistence, I took a taxi rather than the eight-minute walk down an admittedly not very pedestrian-friendly street to the airport once I paid for his work.

When French Polynesia?

The trip home looked much like my arrival. At Faa’a International Airport, I sorted out my ticketing and my bags, took care of the outgoing customs paperwork that would spare me and the jewelers the export taxes for my purchases earlier in the week, and waited at the very, very loud gate for my flight to Los Angeles to arrive.

In all, my trip from the Sofitel Kia Ora Mo’orea back to my home in Ottawa involved the following vehicles:

  1. Taxi from the resort to Mo’orea’s ferry port, arranged in advance with my travel agent.
  2. Ferry, with tickets ready to go thanks to my travel agent, from Mo’orea to Tahiti.
  3. Taxi ride, also arranged by my travel agent in advance, from the Tahiti ferry port to Manuia Tattoo.
  4. A second taxi, paid for out-of-pocket, from Manuia Tattoo to Pape’ete’s international airport.
  5. Overnight flight from Pape’ete to Los Angeles.
  6. Flight from Los Angeles to Toronto. The trip back was even more ridiculous than the trip here, with arrival at one terminal, check-in at a second, and the gate in a third, and I had to transfer my forcibly checked bag myself.
  7. Toronto airport’s inter-terminal link train to switch to the terminal with the UP Express station.
  8. Toronto’s “UP Express” train from Toronto’s airport to Union Station.
  9. Toronto’s yellow metro line to get from Union Station to my prearranged hotel for an overnight layover. I could have taken the metro back to Union in the morning if I’d wanted, but it was a nice day and I had time, so I walked.
  10. Train from Toronto to Ottawa.
  11. Ottawa O-Train from Tremblay Station to Hurdman Station, Ottawa’s main public transit hub.
  12. Bus home.

Such are the trials of being simultaneously a traveler, someone who does not drive, and someone who avoids taxis when possible.

The very, very long process of getting home left ample time for reflections and lessons. Since most of those are already in this essay, I will end with a Tahitian phrasebook I wish I’d had handy before I arrived. Staff and locals often use a specific shortlist of Tahitian phrases even when mostly conversing with tourists in the tourists’ preferred language, and being able to respond to those phrases with the appropriate Tahitian response is a form of politeness that resort staff and others encourage. In the Tahitian text below (as in the various Polynesian words above), an apostrophe indicates a glottal stop (as in the “t” in “Batman” or the hyphen in “uh-oh”) and a bar over a vowel indicates that the sound is held longer than unmarked vowels. Vowels are otherwise pronounced much as they are in Spanish, but the intonation that best matches Tahitian pronunciation is a lilting, singsong pattern.

Hello. – ‘Ia Ora Nā.

Thank you. – Māurūru. Respond to service and kindness with this.

Thank you very much. – Māurūru roa. Save this for genuinely supererogatory behavior. Locals think it strange when this is someone’s default rather than simply “Māurūru.”

No problem. – ‘Aita pe’a’pe’a. Locals will forgive you for not getting all those glottal stops right. This is a default response to “Māurūru.” The internet suggests that “Maeva” and “Mānava” are also acceptable, but “’Aita pe’a’pe’a“ is the one that was presented to me locally. Locals also suggested that “Nānā” is acceptable, though this means “goodbye.”

Goodbye. –  Nānā. If an exchange begins with “’Ia ora nā,” it is polite to end it with “nānā.”

 

All in all, I had a truly magnificent time in French Polynesia. If the financial stars ever line up for me again, I would gladly return to this place, perhaps during whale-watching season. Spending one of the coldest weeks in the Ottawa year in faraway warmth is always a good decision and the odd little home away from home that Mo’orea became during my stay was an especially excellent mix of business venture (so many photos for Patreon), vacation, learning experience, and all-around adventure. The contradictory mess of stereotyped depictions in media cannot hold a candle to the sheer, delicious, complex reality of this place, with all its difficulties, wonders, and everything between. I hold no illusion that ordinary life here could be quite this splendid, but for what it was, I am delighted. This was such a good decision and I am glad I get to share it with you all. And with something inked into my body now, I shan’t easily forget the lovely time I had here.

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An Ersatz Travelogue for Alyssa’s Time in French Polynesia
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3 thoughts on “An Ersatz Travelogue for Alyssa’s Time in French Polynesia

  1. 1

    ordinary life is splendid when we’re not used to it, those people will feel the same when they come to big city like new york, as the grass is greener on the other side. I hope i too have the chance to go there and experience it. Great article, thanks!

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