Jun 2, 2014

Tahaa (Vanilla Island) and Raiatea (Sacred Island)

There is no shame in not knowing;
The shame lies in not finding out.
Russian Proverb

Aro, our tour guide, also paddles pirogues - check out the arms!
Located in the same lagoon are two islands Tahaa and Raiatea.  We first visit the northernmost and smallest one, Tahaa or Vanilla Island named such since they produce 80% of French Polynesia's delicious vanilla.

Church on blue lagoon
Blue doorway lost in the jungle growth
We take a guided tour of the island mainly to visit a pearl farm and a vanilla plantation.  Of course we are given the added bonus of being entertained by a very good local guide, Aro.  

We notice homes built on the water around the island.  A thing we hadn’t seen yet except for small pearl farm shacks usually located near their pearl production.   

House on the water - catamaran sailing in the background

Making windmill toy out of palm leaves
Final product - let the wind take it away
Also of note are all the tombs in people’s yards.  There are no central cemeteries in most of the Leeward Islands, only family ones.  This will change as we enter the Tuomatus.  Churches have tried to centralize tombs but have been unsuccessful.  In general the churches have the best lands on the lagoon’s edge.  Many schools are like that as well.  With such beautiful views it would be difficult to concentrate on schooling it seems….

Plate made of wild hibiscus leaves - Leaf can also go in Tahitian oven
Wrap small chunks of food with leaf - Akin to tamale wrapped with corn husk - Use stem to close
Aro shows us everything that can be made of wild hibiscus plant: plates, envelope for cooking or steaming food (akin to tinfoil), cordage, ‘grass-like’ skirt material, and nasal flute as well as a kid’s windmill toy from palm leaves.  He demonstrates how easy (with the knowhow) it is to open a coconut with another coconut, a fist, or a stick…  Looks a lot easier and painless when he does it!  He also speaks of the miro (local rosewood) and how its flower can help ease mosquito bite itch and how the bright yellow sap of the unripe fruit can be used as nail polish.  He put some on one of my thumb nails and it lasted 3 days even with several hand washes and showers…  
Maybe a nasal flute but it can be played by mouth too
Nets, buoys, small boat...
He addresses the two types of roofing we can find around here, one made of pandanu leaves the other of palm leaves.  Pandanu roofs take a lot more work but last about 8-10 years if maintained and made properly.  Palm leaf roofs only last 6 months if made of green leaves and 5 years if made of dried leaves.  Either way the dry plant material is first soaked in ocean water for a minimum of 12 hours to bug-proof it.  Bugs do not like to eat that much salt.  It also helps against some types of molds.  They are both woven in their own way before being applied to roofs.  They are truly beautiful and if very thickly installed they look somewhat like European thatched roofs.  There are fewer and fewer homes using natural roofing (not cost efficient and fire hazards) but the government dictates that large hotels MUST use these types of roofing on 80% of their structures.  It shows tourists the local craft and keeps the craft alive.  One of the few times I’m in agreement with a government idea…

Peeling outer layer of coconut by hand
He then picks up one of the native land crabs.  They dig holes everywhere near the beaches and roads.  In the process they consume a lot of roots that contain toxic substances.  Being around heavily traveled roads also brings toxicity to their habitat.  The locals, after they catch them, keep them in a separate bin, feeding them good water and local fruits to sweeten and detoxify their meat.  At first their back is green-brown, after three weeks of detox and good food, they turn yellow-green, meaning they are ready to consume. The male has a flat back; the female has a rounder back.  Some of these crabs become so big that at night their claws can pierce tires.  Cars, scooters and bicycles beware and bypass them when they roam the roads at night…

Pandanu or corkscrew pine has a white flower that smells like beer.  It is called hinano – hence the local beer name.  The flower is not currently in bloom, only the pinecone-like fruit is on the trees.  Interesting to know where the beer name comes from, no one had explained that to us yet.

Vanilla beans starting to mature
Green vanilla beans - Each plant can grow about 4 kilos
Vanilla green house
Vanilla bloom (out of season) - Not sure why that plant is blooming now
Drying vanilla beans over the next 3 months
Vanilla plantations are mostly under covers for both shade and protection from various critters.  At maturity, each plant can grow about 4 kilos of vanilla.  For each kilo of fresh vanilla you get ¼ kilo of dried vanilla.  Tahitian vanilla comes from a merging of Mexico and Madagascar vanilla plants.  The main difference is that the other two vanillas have to be boiled before they can be used.  Tahitian vanilla is sundried.  As it is dried, it is massaged by hand to keep a good shape and to even out where the moisture is (they call it sweating the bean).  It takes 9 months (just like a human baby) to grow a vanilla bean and 3 months to dry it.  Vanilla is hand pollinated.  It takes a vine 5 years before it starts producing sufficiently; all in all a very long process.  

A 500m2 plantation will produce about 250 kilo of dried vanilla that can sell for up to $200-300/kilo depending on quality (or $75,000/year).  Many vanilla farmers only work the vanilla from 4-6am daily then go to their regular job.  Many farmers however don’t want to be bothered with the 3 months it takes to dry the vanilla and sell it green to professional driers.  They make less but quicker money that way.   
Too muddy to grow young pearls - Can grow more mature ones
At the pearl farm it’s the same story about patience and long term goals as for vanilla.  It takes from 5-7 years to get a good pearl and an oyster can only make 3 pearls in its lifetime.  A new oyster has to be grown for the next generation of pearls.  Oysters are checked for the size of their gonad, which will determine the size of the introduced nucleus leading to the final size of the pearl.  Most nuclei are made of perfectly round beads from Mississippi River shells.  Oyster lips will be cut in tiny 3mm pieces to assist with the nucleus’ color.  If the piece is reddish, the pearl will be reddish.  If the nucleus gets rejected and the lip piece gets covered as a would be pearl it becomes what they call a kechi or irregular pearl of much lower quality but still sold on the market.  Grafted oysters are put into special net bags so it is easy to see which ones reject their nucleus since it will be found at the bottom of the bag.  The process has to be started over with these specimens.

Large pearl farms would like to see more regulations, smaller farms do not.  If someone goes to have their pearls inspected for certification each pearl that doesn’t meet the standard will be destroyed.  Large pearl farms can withstand such losses; small pearl farmers would still like to be able to sell these pearls of lesser qualities.  These lesser pearls dilute the already overloaded pearl market.  Too many are now produced and the prices are going down (not currently the best of investment)…  

Price of pearls depends on size, luster, color, thickness, and % of imperfections.  AA only has less than 3% imperfections, A less than 10%, B less than 30%, C less than 60% and then there is D…  It takes about 5 years to the first pearl, 7 to the third and last one.

I ask our guide about flower necklaces vs. shell or seed necklaces.  He said the flowers are used to welcome you, say hello while the shell or seed necklaces are used to say goodbye – they last longer and will remind you of the ones who gave them to you.  We see shell necklaces on tombs – goodbye to the dead loved ones – it makes sense. 

Mail box to baguette box

What we thought were mailboxes around the island turn out to be baguette boxes.  Our guide likes to say only the lazy ones have baguette boxes…

We learn a lot from Aro and appreciate his fun loving demeanor.  What we learn too is that people who are in 5 star resorts like everyone who is on the tour with us do not get exposed to the local lore, people, food, etc.  They do not get to experience their life as Polynesians.  Many who spoke with us felt we were lucky to live with them rather than be only served by them.  They couldn’t believe how much more we knew about their culture.  They were a little envious of our way of traveling.  

On Tahaa, we, for the first time, tasted tuna paté.  It was made of tender white tuna mixed with bread that had been soaked in white wine.  Shaped into a loaf with herbs then cut into slices of pate to eat with baguette – Delightful.  There is just so much one can learn to do with fish when that is all there is around…

Job title:  Monkey man...
We move to Raiatea a short 40 minute boat ride to the south of Tahaa but in the same lagoon.  Raiatea is larger and more populated, has the airport and the hospital.  On the way there we ask the boat captain what exactly he calls the young man at the back of the boat going back and forth across the stern.  We call him ‘monkey’ just like the motorcycle sidecar monkeys.  He helps stabilize the boat especially when we turn.  Never heard of that job before…  How would that look on a resume for job title?  Monkey man…  
Mike climbing the three cascades
In mape (local chestnut tree) forest
Along bamboo forest
We enjoy a hike up a river next to our pension aptly named “Three Cascades”.  After that we walk to town but the electricity is out until dinner so most everything is shut down.  As soon as power comes back we cook a simple dinner and head to bed early.  Tomorrow we hired a guide to take us up river in kayaks and want to be ready.  The next day comes and no guide shows up; our pension’s owner forgot to confirm.  We end up finding our own kayaks and do the trip ourselves at no cost.  It probably wasn’t as involved as with a guide but it was still worth it.

Palm orchid (leaves same shape as baby palm trees)
The following day we hike to the Te Mehani plateau with Thiery Laroche our guide for the day.  On the way up we see that the Caribbean pine and the acacia trees have taken over most of the mountain, outpacing indigenous plants like the pandanus.  We want to see an extremely rare flower, the tiare apetahi, Raiatea’s emblem.  On the plateau we visit, only 28 plants remain.  This plant from the campanula family is extremely rare and nearly impossible to transplant.  The word apetahi (meaning only one half) grows extremely slowly.  The specimen we are shown are only 2 foot tall and 200 years old.  Because it is the emblem of Raiatea, many locals still sneak-up on the plateau to steal the flower for baptisms, weddings, visiting relatives, etc.  The plant doesn’t seem to stand a good chance of survival.  There is fortunately another much more difficult to access plateau where it is thought 500 plants live.  Only very few scientists with special access privileges are allowed to go.  Although we had to trek 12 km of very bushy and mountainous terrain to get there we were very happy to see this gorgeous and unique flower.  
On the plateau looking towards Tahaa and Bora Bora
Channel between Tahaa and Raiatea
Our guide points out that wild cats (from domesticated population) are starting to come up the plateau indicating the petrel birds are soon to return to the island to mate and have babies.  Somehow the cats know when the season begins.  They try to trap or poison the cats for the baby petrels don’t have much of a chance to survive their attacks.  Amazing how so much of what man brings to islands (pets, plants, and diseases) creates havoc on indigenous local species.  Somehow the wild cats are not interested in eating the dense rat population – birds are easier preys. 

There are only two native birds left and the wild cats are making a big dent in their already dwindling numbers: green pigeon and king fisher.  They can only be found in densely forested narrow valleys where few people meander.  Rats also eat fruits containing seeds that would normally fall on the ground and produce seedlings.  Since these seeds are now being consumed locals have to gather the fruits and start new plants in greenhouses before planting – the normal reproductive cycle of native plants has been altered too drastically to sustain a healthy population.

Hinano flower the Tahitian beer is named after
Fruit from same plants
Even on the plateau you find streams, water

  •  We learn that Tahitian language only uses 13 letters: O,E,I,A,U,H,J,M,N,P,R,T, V (although there are some variances between Marquesans, Tahitians, and other islands. 
  • 45% of Tahitians have diabetes.
  • 20% kids are adopted.  Many young parents unable to care for them leave them with extended family members.  Speaking of kids, the Tahitian word for them is tamari (like the sauce)…
  • Pregnant women living on islands where there are no hospitals get to stay in pensions at islands with maternity wards for up to 2 months prior to birth of baby - all expenses paid!
  • The majority of men over 45 have gout from too rich a diet.
  • Many flights are not full on purpose.  They keep some airplanes light due to runways being too short for full loads to land safely, and allow for extra fuel.
  • They build eco-friendly hotels but have to blast the coral reefs to pieces to build them???
  • Instead of vets flying to smaller islands on a regular basis (i.e.: once a month) they fly sick animals to vets who are in major cities.  Can you imagine the cost?
  • Scientists from France and Spain have come to study the bee population of the islands.  It is considered the healthiest in the world.  They are very careful not to import anything that could jeopardize this (no honey, certain fruits and nuts, etc).
Piece de resistance - Tiare Apetahi

Open apetahi and one ready to the following morning

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