John Walsh: Tahiti and the UK are not really so far apart

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The Independent Online

You have to admit it: Tahiti in early May just isn't Britain. For one thing, it's always 82 degrees fahrenheit there, morning and night. For another, lissom young women in flowery frocks with ruffled sleeves keep giving you spring onions to put behind your ear (they turn out, on inspection, to be unbudded sprigs of tiare, the national flower). For a third, you're considered a shockingly idle slugabed if you rise after 7.30am, when the sun is scorching the mist off the lagoon, and a hopeless lush if you're caught hanging out in a bar, looking for yet another pina colada, after 9.30pm. Early bedders and risers, the French Polynesians.

Then there are the great big fruits hanging down from the trees, like the four-bladed orange carambola, which virtually crushes its juicy lusciousness into your mouth as you walk by; the amazingly warm waters of the Pacific Ocean, calmed down from 100-metre waves to gentle lapping breakers by the presence of a coral reef, half a mile from the shore; and the elaborate tribal tattoos across the shoulders of the plump youths who show off their bodies at every opportunity, while the girls modestly confine their public displays of tribal identity to areas behind their ears and the backs of their shins.

Yes, Tahiti is, in almost every respect, the other side of the world from life in London. There's just one thing we have in common. For three years they've been trying to make a coalition government work, and it's been a complete shambles.

In 2007, the government of Gaston Tong Sang was brought down by a no-confidence vote after the former president Gaston Flosse announced his support for opposition leader Oscar Temaru. Flosse was anti-independence. Temaru was pro-independence. There was no logic about their making common cause; but they both wanted to get rid of the hapless Tong Sang. Oscar Temaru, however, had no stable majority in parliament and was forced to call an election. Tong Sang won – but with breathtaking gall, the other parties struck a deal that gave them one more seat than Tong Sang in the Assembly. Flosse, anti-independent, became president with the support of the pro-independents, and Temaru became speaker of the Assembly supported by the antis.

It was a farce, a strategic coalition of completely warring ideologies designed to shut out a hated third party. Since then, governments have fallen, the three men have jockeyed for power, and offered each other cabinet posts, while unemployment in the islands has risen to 13 per cent and ordinary Polynesians shake their heads when asked about their rulers. Coalitions? Jeez. Just say no.

An election of confusion wherever you were

I was in the South Pacific to follow in the grass-skirt-chasing footsteps of Paul Gauguin, whose sensuous Tahitian paintings will receive an airing at Tate Modern in September. My trip was planned long before the general election was called, and it was frustrating to experience the event from 9,000 miles away. Still, at least I had CNN in the hotel bedroom. You can always rely on CNN, can't you?

But as the results filtered through, an air of panic could be detected in the newsroom. As the tickertape reported "No clear winner in British election" and "Voters turned away as system breaks down", a shouty-voiced pundit called Richard Quest tried to explain UK voting patterns by cramming blue, red and yellow balls into brandy balloons, to no effect. A "social media" expert was called in to discuss the importance of Twitter on the vote, and we learnt that the word "constituency" had been employed a lot in national tweets.

Bianca Jagger graciously appeared, to explain that she supported the Liberal Democrats because of their commitment to world peace. A craggy satirist called "Political Mann" treated the election as a farce involving two nobodies and one has-been. At last the harrassed lady anchor asked "global political expert" David Tang (the chap behind the Shanghai Tang chain of shops) to explain the effect of a hung parliament.

Tang clearly had never heard of a hung parliament (was it like a dropped waistline?) but explained that Britain was so marginal in the global economy – "They're not even in the eurozone" – it scarcely mattered a toss who was in charge. It was riveting. Nothing like checking out world opinion to get some perspective on our importance.

What your holiday tattoo says about you

I met a tattooist in Moorea (Polynesia's most popular tourist island after Bora Bora) and considered having a hammerhead shark emblazoned across my lower back. Hardly any Western customers, he said, come for a tattoo without considering which design they want, but their subconscious desires are obvious to the trained eye.

If they want a tattoo on their right forearm or left buttock, it means something specific about their lives. "I can tell if they're trying to memorialise someone who's ill, or if they've got issues with their father," he said. Sometimes he doesn't bring up the significance of the design until halfway through, "and I say, 'So, how long is your son in hospital?' or 'So you haven't spoken to your father in two years' and they're shocked."

Many honeymooners come to be tattooed together, and been told they will have a baby boy in a year; he's duly received postcards, nine months later, saying he'd been dead right. "The body is a temple," he said, "and the tattoo is a window. You must be careful not to have many people looking inside you. Nobody wants to have 'My wife's gone and left me' written on their arm for all to see".

I thought about the hammerhead shark. I decided, on the whole, perhaps not. What was I, asking for trouble?