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Tahiti Diary

Think of Tahiti and I have always thought of Mutiny on the Bounty, Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian, Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh, and the beaches, lagoons and rich, green peaks of the island of Bora Bora. Every journalist among the 100 or so on Tahiti over the past fortnight has the same complaint: our editors back in Britain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, not forgetting France, think we are covering the French nuclear test at Mururoa and the subsequent riots from under a palm tree on a beach.

Instead we spend our time dashing from hotel lobbies to editing rooms, through clouds of tear gas at the airport in Papeete, the capital, and on the well-worn path between Greenpeace's office on the harbour-front and the French military's press bureau. The French have done their best to handle media from the Anglo-Saxon world by flying in a group of young English-speaking soldiers, most of whom look as bewildered as the journalists they were assigned to assist. They, too, grumbled that they had had no time to visit the beaches and reefs.

In any case, it is somewhat disappointing to arrive in Tahiti and discover that its beaches are black, not golden as depicted in travel brochures. This is because they were formed by volcanic material, unlike the white coral-based beaches of neighbouring Moorea island and Bora Bora. At the time of writing, my feet had touched neither variety.

Papeete is a cosmopolitan town of about 100,000 people, consisting of French settlers, soldiers and legionnaires, native Polynesians and "demis", the mixed-race population that has grown since Paris's rule over French Polynesia began 153 years ago. For visitors during these volatile times, one's nationality has become charged with new meaning. Australians and New Zealanders, who have condemned the nuclear tests more loudly than anyone, are the lowest order here. The French blame them for helping to incite last week's riots, and accuse them of trying to kick France out of the Pacific.

When a French airport worker asked me during the riots if I was Australian, I innocently replied that I was. A tirade of abuse followed, the drift of which was that Australian police had almost shot Aborigines and kangaroos out of existence, while the French treated their indigenous people in Polynesia with respect. As a precautionary measure I took to replying, when asked by suspicious-looking French people, that I was British, but that brought an equally vituperative attack from an elderly French man and his Tahitian vahine, or consort. Saying you are Australian or a New Zealander to Polynesians, though, is fine.

Journalists from France here have had the same problem in reverse. I was walking with a French reporter through the battle-scarred streets outside Papeete airport when a young Polynesian hot-head, his face swathed in a disguise, told us: "British, Australian, New Zealand okay. French ..." and drew a finger across his throat. My companion told them rather unconvincingly that she was Australian. The difficulty is in remembering who your enemies are, and not giving the wrong answer to the wrong person.

Several sorry sea tales have drifted back to Tahiti from the international flotilla of protest ships near the nuclear test site at Mururoa atoll, 600 miles south of Tahiti. The most unsettling concerned a Fijian protest ship packed with German MPs and journalists, which broke down between Tahiti and Mururoa and was drifting for several days. Passengers succumbed to seasickness and were said to be "anxious and agitated". Eventually, a patrol boat was despatched from the Cook Islands to rescue the vessel, but accidentally rammed it in darkness and high seas. The captain reported to Papeete by telephone: "This is not a happy ship."

International MPs and journalists aboard La Ribaude, a Greenpeace yacht, suffered a week of severe seasickness before French commandos arrested them near Mururoa on Saturday. At least they made it to Mururoa. A vessel called the Western Express did not. It set out from Australia to pick up its load of politicians and journalists in Tahiti. Hit by bad weather and financial problems, the Western Express limped in to Papeete after the bomb had gone off. The Mururoa voyage has been cancelled. Legal action is said to be pending.

The atmosphere in Papeete, as everyone waited for a nuclear explosion to take place under the ocean, was bizarre enough. But since the test a week ago, which Paul Vericel, the commanding French general, described as a "message of peace", there has been a sense of living in a war zone. When the riots broke out, I returned to my hotel one evening to find a letter from the management which said: "In the case of any intrusion into the hotel by the protesters, you are advised to offer no resistance, to leave the public areas and to assemble on the grass area."

As tourists departed my hotel, their rooms were taken by more than 200 riot police flown in from France and New Caledonia to join reinforcements of paratroopers and legionnaires. With military accommodation in Papeete stretched to the limit, it has been a bit unnerving to be confronted by police, machine guns slung over their shoulders, wandering through the dining room and lobby. It also seems strangely at odds with the old laid- back South Seas image.

The colonial charm of Tahiti, which once captivated Somerset Maugham, has long been swept aside by concrete buildings and traffic snarls of the Los Angeles variety. The museum dedicated to Paul Gauguin, the artist who spent much of his life in Tahiti in search of an unspoiled paradise, is something of a let-down; there is not one original Gauguin on its walls. Even Gauguin and Robert Louis Stevenson found Papeete too much of a half- and-half world between Western and Polynesian culture. But there is a surprise around many a corner. Papeete's market seems unchanged to me. You can still buy breadfruit from the plants Captain Bligh was sent to gather in 1788. Riots aside, Polynesians are probably the world's friendliest people, and they know, women and men alike, how to wear flowers in their hair far better than any Western hippie could ever manage. If the French stop exploding nuclear weapons under their coral atolls, their islands may yet be paradise regained.