Taha’a, Society Islands, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Taha’a, Society Islands

After sailing at sea again, this time from the Cook Islands, we reached Taha’a, a small island with only 4,470 inhabitants. Taha’a was a pawn in struggles for many years between fierce rulers of Bora Bora and Raiatea. It was known as the center for fire walking ceremonies. I didn’t see any sign of fire walking but I did enjoy learning the history and culture of the natives. In 1822 it came under French control and it is enclosed within the same barrier reef as the larger island of Raitea. Near the boat launch, the local mamas and papas sell their trinkets. It is a quiet place and a great place for snorkeling, with beaches on the beautiful motus along the northern reef edge.

For a lifetime, a person dreams of paradise on this earth: to be on Taha’a, on a private Mota Mahana, sunbathing, swimming, and relaxing. I took a kayak out around the lagoon: the water was so clear it was easy to see sand sharks, turtles, string rays, and many colorful fish. I tried out paddleboarding, being careful not to fall on top of the sharp coral everywhere. After water exercise, I walked along the beach, and under a grove of palm trees was a big basket of large coconuts, with a small machete lying on top. With one strong wack you could crack open a coconut and drink the juice. The coconuts were so big and the milk so sweet.

It was there on Mota Mahana that I noticed the physically fit young men covered with tattoos. The practice of tattooing existed here for hundreds of years. The word tatau means hitting repeatedly. Captain Cook wrote about it on his trip to the nearby Marquesas. Later, the tradition of tattooing became popular with sailors. Meanwhile, missionaries here on the Pacific Islands converted the locals to Christianity and tattooing was forbidden. There was no written language in the Polynesian culture so they used tattooing as a way of expressing their identity and culture such as sex, social status, rank, and family clan. It was used to protect against evil spirits, and it was a rite of passage for teenagers to adulthood. Tatooing came back in the 1980s, and I saw quite a few people who were heavily tattooed with symbols from their native culture.

It was fun to watch the natives dance and sing and then to try out their instruments. One day I had a parima dance class on slow Polynesian dance steps. The key to success is how to swivel the hips. Their lifetime family heritage and daily routine made it look so easy, but to a foreigner it was quite a laughable experience to try for the first time!

It was hot, humid, and sunny, so most of each day was spent staying cool. Water activities, especially swimming in the lagoon, were most pleasant. Taha’a is a beautiful place. It was a truly wonderful experience to go there, even for a short time.

(posted March 15, 2016)