French Polynesia: Head over eels in love

Mark Rowe discovers strange rituals and savage beauty in French Polynesia

If you were to draw up a list of implements that could be used in the sacred rituals of indigenous peoples, a tin opener would be unlikely to feature very prominently. But this is Huahine, an island in French Polynesia, and the locals pride themselves on doing things differently. Our guide, Marie Louise, waded into the river, grasping the tin opener in one hand and a can of tuna chunks in the other. Right on cue, as the pungent smell of brine and fish hung on the muggy air a giant eel slithered out of a shadowy cluster of swampy bushes and threw itself snout first into the tin.

If you were to draw up a list of implements that could be used in the sacred rituals of indigenous peoples, a tin opener would be unlikely to feature very prominently. But this is Huahine, an island in French Polynesia, and the locals pride themselves on doing things differently. Our guide, Marie Louise, waded into the river, grasping the tin opener in one hand and a can of tuna chunks in the other. Right on cue, as the pungent smell of brine and fish hung on the muggy air a giant eel slithered out of a shadowy cluster of swampy bushes and threw itself snout first into the tin.

Soon there were 20 eels, each around six feet in length, wriggling and fighting one another to gorge themselves on the flakes of tuna. I had never seen anything like it; these fellows had blue eyes and long ears. All the eels were dark, though locals talk of eels with a pigment mutation that turns them bright yellow from time to time. They can live up to 30 years and travel up to 1,800 miles into the Pacific to breed.

To the islanders of Huahine the sacred eel is superseded only by the coconut in terms of respect and importance. The reasons are a little obscure to the outsider but there is no denying the tradition of the daily feeding ritual. Islanders say the eels, which have been on Huahine as long as man, keep the waters clean and free of pollution, eating rubbish and bacteria that grows on the riverbed. As the French bothered only sporadically to introduce filtered drinking water, this activity was very important and still is, to this day. The islanders go further, saying the eel, with its large gills, resembles a coconut tree, though this comparison was beyond my imagination.

After a few days on Huahine, the notion of sacred eels, and the mix of legend, tradition and otherworldliness they imply began to seem entirely natural. For Huahine is not a mainstream destination within French Polynesia. The majority of visitors to the region head for Bora Bora and Moorea, bypassing Huahine, which lies between these two magnets of the South Seas and 109 miles from Tahiti.

You won't find many signs for black pearls on Huahine. In fact you won't find many signs for anything. There are plenty of historical sites to visit but the islanders haven't got around to marketing them. Huahine is a place to buy a map, and head off the beaten track into the rainforest that covers almost the entire island, and spend time quietly cursing when you fail to locate a marae, or sacred ground of worship, among the dense thickets. It is an island of countless twists and turns. Driving past a creek one moment, we turned inland to see peat bogs and wading birds. The commercialism in other parts of French Polynesia could be a world away: around the island we saw families snorkelling for their fish lunch or at work in family-owned coconut plantations.

Near the village of Maeva we passed ancient fish traps, shaped like the letter V, which catch unwary mullet and jackfish. Along the edge of the water were a series of spectacular maraes, set by a creek, tumbling into the water beneath a wiry Banyan tree in the manner of a watery graveyard. Close by, we came to more than 30 maraes, set out along the riverfront in what is now considered to be the most extensive archaeological site in French Polynesia. The village was once the seat of royal power, and perhaps for this reason the missionaries made it one of their first tasks to build a larger-than-usual church that looks ridiculously out of proportion for the handful of present-day inhabitants. Uphill from Maeva we walked through rainforest to the marae at Matairea Rahi, all stones and vines, a pandanus tree thrusting straight up through the canopy in search of the sky. The guides will try to capture your imagination with tales of human sacrifice, but they really don't need to jazz things up: you can easily picture all kinds of rituals taking place in this thick jungle.

The French took one look at all of this and decided to refer to Huahine as "La Sauvage" and continue to do so today. Despite the intensely rural nature of life, this is stretching things a bit since the locals all wear digital watches and have developed a liking for French Bordeaux. Where they can afford them they drive pick-up trucks. For their part, the islanders point out that "Hua" supposedly means sex and "Vahine" means woman in Tahitian, a language you will hear more of in Huahine than French.

Huahine, with its small-village culture, is one of the most common places to come across mahu, Tahiti's third sex. Your encounter with them will usually be in restaurants, when you notice that the slender hand and nail-varnished fingers that just brought you the menu belong to a tall, striking man in a dress. To call them transvestites is a little wide of the mark as their outlook on life is more subtle; they are usually the first male child of a family and are reared from an early age into the female way of living, spending time in the kitchen when their younger brothers are out playing football.

The name of the island is not the only point of disagreement between coloniser and subjects. It soon becomes clear that the good folk of Huahine have little time for their former French masters. A Tahitian proverb suggests that "obstinacy is the first diversion of Huahine" and it is easy to see why. Driving around, we found that people only waved or smiled when you made it clear your nationality was "Not French". As one local put it: "The French don't have to know you to dislike you and that goes against our customs."

It rained and it rained during our five-day stay, but it made no difference to our enjoyment. And without the rain, Huahine could never look the way it does. One day we walked sweatily to a viewpoint called Three Bays Pass, overlooking the entire island and its vast, restful lagoon with its contrast between the light-green shallow water of the outer reef and the deep blue closer to shore. It was as though a giant tin of green paint had been tipped over the island and the dozen or so shades of green we could see were merely splashes of paint drying. After each sudden and brief downpour the fragrance of ylang-ylang rose up with the steamy heat.

 

Mark Rowe organised his visit through Tahiti Tourisme, (020-7771 7023). In Huahine he stayed at the hotel Relais Mahana (00 689 688 154; fax: 00 689 688 508). Rooms cost from £103 per night. Bridge the World (0870 444 7474, www.bridgetheworld.com), has flights with Air New Zealand from London to Papeete, Tahiti, starting from £774 (excluding 9-24 December), and return internal flights to Huahine with Air Tahiti starting from £103.

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