Susan Buckland: Island's beauty casts its spell

By Susan Buckland

COMMENT

The political power struggle in French Polynesia between the pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru and pro-French leader Gaston Flosse has me thinking about whose side Stefan Taputu would be on.

It was on the island of Moorea, across from Tahiti, that I met Stefan, or Tapu as he likes to be called. I was keen to see more of the island than the hypnotically blue lagoon that surrounds it, so I booked a tour.

A stunning looking man arrived at the hotel in a 4WD to collect me. His black hair curled to the shoulders, his skin was deep bronze, and piercing blue eyes smiled from the handsome face. A conventional tour guide uniform failed to disguise his muscular frame. And I realised I had seen him the night before, sparingly garbed in a Tahitian pareo and dancing on stage for a captive audience.

Tapu was an exotic cocktail, a seductive blend of France and Polynesia. And as he plunged us through valleys of pineapple and breadfruit towards the craggy interior of Moorea, he explained his background.

Born in New Caledonia to a French mother and Tahitian father, he spent some of his childhood in the South Pacific before his parents separated and his mother took him to France.

He completed his education there and added fluent Spanish and English to his French and Tahitian.

Then he fell in love with a French woman. They married and agreed to make their lives together in Tahiti.

She was happy at first. But as the months went by she began to long for the familiarity of her own people and culture. The feeling intensified and, like Tapu's parents, they were unable to bridge the gap.

"I had to let her go," said Tapu. "I miss her still. But I feel the need to be close to my Polynesian roots." He pointed to the thrusting peaks above the centre of the island. "I love this place."

Yet he admits to the pull of his European origins at times. And it took him two years to be accepted fully into the the Polynesian community. One of the reasons for learning Tahitian dance was to convince the people of his wish to belong, to be one of them. He stripped off his shirt to reveal a shell necklace and tattoos on his arms and torso which he had acquired after arriving in Tahiti.

He offered to show me how had learned how to climb a palm. While I looked discreetly over Oponohu Bay, where Captain Cook had anchored more than two centuries before, Tapu exchanged his shorts for a pare. I watched as, barefoot, he rose to the top in a series of powerful leaps and waved from under a bunch of green coconuts.

Tapu drove next to a lookout point on and asked if I would like to hear the sounds of Tahitian instruments from the mountaintops.

Of course, I said. Whereupon, he blew an instrument that looked like a pipe, not with his mouth but in the way of his Tahitian ancestors - with breath from his nose. And then he placed a shell to his mouth and blew.

The haunting sound echoed out over the valley. I looked at Tapu, etched against the bay and mountainous backdrop. Traces of his European heritage, for the moment at least, had all but vanished.

Fragrance from a bush of tropical flowers filled the air and the sound of ocean waves on the reef beyond beat like distant drums. And in that moment, if Tapu had told me his political allegiance in French Polynesia was on the side of independence, I would not have been surprised.

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