Jun 20, 2014

Tubuai – Administrative Center of the Austral Islands

Don't tell me how educated you are,
Tell me how much you traveled.

Taking your pig to work day... Walking his pig - baguette on back of bike...
The Austral Islands are known as the “Authentic Islands”.  With so little influence from tourism, they are very much like the Marquesas with reefs. 

In Tubuai, like any other administrative center (read government and money), we see more bars on the windows, more fences and enclosed yards, more guard dogs, more youth on the street, more graffiti (tagging), and fewer pedestrians walking the neighborhoods.  Not sure what brings that out other than the lure of money attracting people who can’t make it but still stick around?  More dashed hopes?  There is certainly a sad pattern emerging.

Tubuai is even more agricultural than Raivavae yet only third in the Austral Islands.  Rapa, where we cannot visit because there is no airport and the boat only comes every few months, is the largest followed by Rurutu and then Tubuai.  In order to have a larger area to plant, Tubuai has turned its marshes into arable land.  First they built a road around the island that serves somewhat as a dam between the ocean and the land.  Add some landfill and drainage ditches and you now have supplementary usable land.  The cost however is that you no longer have some of the nice beaches you used to have, you no longer can boat across the two sections of the island, you have numerous mosquitoes, and there are no more white sandy beaches where the turtles can lay their eggs.  'Progress' always seems to come at a heavy cost. 

Rich land between two mountain chains
Tubuai has a valley between two parallel mountain ranges so it’s quite flat and the soil seems extremely rich.  They used to cultivate coffee but all that has been turned into vegetables.  They say they cannot compete with African coffee where manpower is much cheaper at picking time; yet Rurutu, their neighbor still grows excellent coffee.  They, instead, mostly grow potatoes and carrots.  What that means though is that many family members have lost jobs.  The picking was done by whole generations from great-grandmas to little kids, everyone helped during picking season.  Only tractors and strong men help with potato crops. 

Some say that the freight boat supplying the Austral Islands carries produce only from farmers willing to pay kickbacks and that may have to do with what sells, what is planted, what goes to waste, etc.  It’s unfortunate when there is no competition in any field.  Religion has a huge impact as well.  Many of the folks in Tubuai are Mormon and they are known for preaching to stay away from caffeine (even though they are heavy users) – growing coffee would go against the grain…  In Rurutu, they are mostly Protestants – and Rurutu has very little drinking of alcohol….

Between nuclear and military jobs vanishing, many men no longer have work.  Add to that less demand for physical labor in farming and less tourism and you have many families that cannot make ends meet.  

...and colorful
We hear over and over the story of the fishermen who cannot afford to eat the very fish they catch.  They have to sell the fish to make enough money to buy cans of fish or meat to feed their family.  Just the other night we were fed a ‘true’, to today’s standards, Tahitian meal: canned corned beef with tomatoes, onions, and rice, costing about ¼ of the price of feeding a family with fish and rice.  Sigh…   
Close-up - hibiscus, basil, thorns of Christ flowers, etc
Since the lack of work, more men dabble in quilting, sewing, doing what women used to do.  In Tahiti, unemployment rate hovers between 15 and 18%.  This does not account for the young adults who have yet to find work.  This leads to drugs, gangs, tagging their areas, high suicide rate, the usual.  These beautiful islands are not immune to this phenomenon.  The other type of low budget dinners these folks eat is called pain-beurre-café.  They literally only eat buttered French bread that they dip in instant coffee.

Bees have not been infected by the killer mites anywhere in French Polynesia so there is hope people can learn to raise bees.  It would be of great benefit to the rest of the world where they are dying off so quickly.  Another small sign of possible hope. 

School children (probably not unlike the US) are being fed canned fruits in syrups instead of fresh fruits for a couple of reasons:  they are cheaper and take less time to process before giving to kids…  They would rather see the fruits rot on the trees than use them for the kids.  A government regulation on ‘trace-ability’ of fruit plays some part.  Seeing this paradise of fresh fruits go to waste is really hard to stomach.

In nearly every yard we see a small old but abandoned home next to a new one.  The old ones were made of coral mixed with lime.  They looked like they were made of whitewashed concrete.  The government has been helping these people get larger kit homes – everyone seemed to prefer the newer more ‘plastic’ looking homes.  We think they don’t have has much soul and beauty but we’re not here to judge…  The new homes are shoddily built of wood which, due to termites, continual rains and high winds do not last more than 10 years! 

A story – probably heard in many places around the world but a good reminder – was shared by our host the other night.  "A salesman watches an old man come home every night with a fish and a coconut that he gives to his lovely wife to prepare dinner.  Many days go by and finally the salesman asks the old man why he does this every day?  Wouldn’t he prefer having a day off when it rains or just when he feels like it?  The old man replies that it is his way of life and that he’s happy with it.  A couple of years go by and the salesman comes back to the island and approaches the now older, more stooped, man with the same question.  This time the old man asks his wife what she thinks of the idea.  They ask the salesmen how that would be possible and he replies that all they need to do is purchase a fridge.  In order to do so all the fisherman has to do is catch a few more fish each month to pay for it.  They finally buy the fridge.  Once they get the fridge home, they find out that they need electricity to keep the fridge running.  Now the old man has to catch even more fish to pay for both!  Days, months go by and one day the old man realizes he’s fished the whole lagoon out and that not only he can no longer pay his monthly payments but he can no longer find a single fish to feed himself and his lovely wife…" 

Caramel followed us on our walks
In a nutshell that is the story of many islands that used to be quite self-sufficient.  Between religion (that has more clout here than mayors or elected officials) and capitalism, the locals don’t have a lot of chance to live the old way or get ahead simply. 

Speaking of great ideas, the government purchased 40 fishing boats for the locals.  They had them built in Korea.  Once the boats got here they figured out none of the larger framed Polynesians could fit in the bunks or anywhere, everything being sized to the smaller Koreans.  What they hadn’t thought of either was that the Polynesians had not learned to fish at sea being away from home many days.  They had only learned to fish in the safety and closeness of the lagoons and come back each night.  They were not trained to go further.  These 40 boats paid by tax money have rusted away somewhere, never used.  Just one of the many similar stories we hear as we visit the islands.  People forget to ask the locals first.  Most of the people making these types of decisions are French who do not live here, nor do they take the time to understand the Polynesian culture.  Many, even if they live here, never mingle with the locals.  They do not speak the language nor do they have Polynesian friends. 
Our host Wilson - safeguarding local maraes
We visit a couple more Maraes (communal sacred places) and I finally put a couple things together more concretely in my mind.  They have been mentioned to us before but it took me a while to truly understand.  A large Marae was normally used for living and didn’t include the sacred banyan tree.  A smaller Marae was usually used for celebrations and included the sacred banyan tree.  Celebrations could be anything from birth of a baby, death of an important person, seasonal activities, etc…  Even though we think we are repeating the content of certain tours we keep learning a little bit more each time.
Large marae stones
Another great dinner of tuna in vanilla sauce, fried taro, zucchini flan, chocolate mousse – this time in the company of 2 people from Switzerland and 2 from France who have lived in New Caledonia for decades.  Our hosts are from Congo and Tubuai.  We learn a lot from the difficulties in New Caledonia, a country I always dreamed of visiting but may not as things are changing for the worse quickly in that area.  We hope for a positive resolution to the troubles there.


  1. S/V DeJala!

    Steve from S/V Desolina here.

    OMG! you will not believe how I found you again! And you crossed with Wayne from S/V Music, whom I remember from LaCruz, and San Jose del Cabo.

    LOVE reading your posts! All the best from Los Angeles (again). Sold the boat in Wellington NZ, 2012.

    Sorry for the dupe post, this one will get back to me ;-)

  2. Steve,
    Tried the reply button to no avail. Your website is no longer live so I cannot think of another way to reply to you.
    Glad all is well for you. We are back in the US - preparing for our next adventure. Cheers, M&M


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