Papeete Days

With Mark’s leg wound beginning to close up, we rented a car to further explore Tahiti. Our first outing was to a dance performance at the sacred Marae Arahurahu. Every year one dance troupe earns the privilege of choreographing and staging a performance held only on the four or five Saturday afternoons in July; we were fortunate to attend the final performance. We had visited a number of restored Marae by this time in our journey, but we had not witnessed any brought to life in such a vivid way. We arrived early, and as we sat among the trees on the outskirts of the restored stone platforms, eating our baguette and brie and extracting the succulent flesh of the pamplemousse, dancers arrived with their regalia in bags and baskets, and an older woman sat on the ground and wove a meter-long rectangular basket out of palm fronds. The marae was filled with sacred masts (Tira) – bright streamers flowing off of tall stakes – and the altar (Ahu) had bright red wooden boards (Unu) erected, symbolizing/invoking deities. We watched as the event management team of parking attendants, ticket takers, ambulance/first aid station, trilingual MC (French, English and Tahitian), and official photographers in the dozens all took their places, and then we searched for the best seats in the bleachers opposite the chorus and drummers. Never have we arrived so early for an event, and so we sat for an hour watching the pre-performance of mike checks unfold and the audience stream in. People-watching was quite entertaining, with a mix of Tahitians, French ex-pats, tourists and cruisers filing in and filling the bleachers to maximum capacity. We definitely felt a bit naked without tattoos, as almost everyone in the audience – Tahitians, ex-pats and tourists alike- seemed to sport at least one, while some bodies were moving art.
This year’s performance recounted a story of three chiefs of different islands uniting their forces (Tahiti, Raiatae, and ?) binding the princes together, and celebrating the new political union. An older man and woman led the dancers, both of them trickster characters who facilitated the plot with leaps and joyous shouts and calls. Many of the costumes were made of local fibers and leaves, with tall headdresses for the kings and princes; an older group of women dancers with delicate wings wore white cotton cloth providing full body coverage, while the young women and men dancers and the tricksters all wore grass skirts with shell adorned belts, flower leis and, for one dance, long narrow leaves for tops. Strong men carried the three princes on their shoulders, the winged women enveloped the princes in cloth, kings pronounced, and dancers amplified the story of the songs sung by the chorus through precisely choreographed hand movements and swaying bodies. Sitting with legs outstretched on the ground and wearing the mother Hubbard style dresses imposed by missionaries over 150 years ago, a dozen women, along with five men in pants and shirts sang multipart harmonies in powerfully rhythmic acapella, swaying back and forth to the conductor’s full bodied evocation of time and timbre. The ceremonial processions and pronouncements included youth who maintained a fire at the altar, and men bearing woven baskets of fruit and fruit-laden poles upon the Fata (offering tables). The winged women dancers, led by the trickster, carrying torches upon the forested hill behind the marae, united the sacred forest with the sacred stone platforms. When the drummers began their powerful beats, the young women dancers launched into exuberant hip swinging and the men their joint- defying knee swaying; the celebratory dance concluded with joyous erotic dances in which partners attempted to best the other; one woman dominated them all.
The next day we drove around Tahiti-nui and Tahiti-iti, stopping at scenic overlooks (including Vaimahuta Falls and historic monuments), lunching on the blissfully cool agricultural plateau of Tahiti-iti (reminding us of Sonoma county), driving out to the famous surf spot of Teahupoo and stumbling upon a wicked paddle boarding contest, and completing our circumnavigation with a twilight viewing of the beautifully sculpted gardens at the grottos, where legendary journeys of souls departing into the afterworld are brought alive through interpretive panels of the sacred falls, caves and forest.
Everywhere we visited we kept sending thoughts/prayers/love to Mark’s mom Carroll. She’s happy to be back in her home being cared for by Hospice. We call daily on the sat phone and cherish that connection.

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