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“No one comes to Raivavae,” said a fellow passenger in lieu of an introduction. We had both just landed at the island’s airport.
My new acquaintance, a French woman who lives on Tahiti, was visiting Raivavae with her hiking club. Each year, the group chooses a different French Polynesian island to trek through.
Her reaction didn't surprise me. During my week in French Polynesia, any time I mentioned that I was ending my visit in Raivavae, responses ranged from awkward silence to astonishment.
It turns out that even most Tahitians have never set foot on Raivavae, which is just a two-hour flight from Tahiti in the Austral Islands.
Only one person I met on Bora Bora, a guide, had been to visit family.
“It’s still sauvage,” he said, using the French word for “wild,” which seems to serve as a badge of honor throughout the islands. “It’s like ancient Polynesia. People even ride horses to get around.”
Fewer than 1,000 people call Raivavae home, and it felt like they had all decided to greet my flight at the airport.
Local men played the drums. Women wearing their best Polynesian dresses and heis (flower crowns) welcomed us and offered intricately woven leis. Guesthouse owners chatted with their visitors, and no one was in a hurry to leave while the musicians played.
It’s like ancient Polynesia. People even ride horses to get around.
Clarisse, the owner of my guesthouse,
Pension Vaimano, was born on Raivavae. She doesn’t speak much English, but we discovered that
we share an understanding of Espanol, mas o menos (more or less). She built the pension — a collection of four rustic cottages — on family land. Each of the rooms looks out past foliage to Motu Piscine (which translates to “pool islet”), one of 28
small islands that stud Raivavae’s lagoon.
To get to Motu Piscine, we drove down the street that hugs the island’s shoreline. At the side of the road, Clarisse’s friend was waiting for us.
After sailing through turquoise waters on his mustard-colored motorboat, we left him to explore a white-sand beach. I watched as the yellow faded from view, overcome by the archipelago’s characteristic mist.
Clarisse mimed for me to close my eyes and took me by the hand so I wouldn’t trip on a low-lying branch.
“Viola,” she said, as I opened my eyes. A sequence of shallow pools separated by sandbars stretched toward a plant-lined horizon. We were the only people at Motu Piscine.
Instead of swimming, we gathered yarn-like strands from a nearby tree. I then followed Clarisse’s lead, weaving them over and under, over and under, until I achieved a petite crown that Clarisse fastened to the base of my brimmed hat.
On the boat ride back to Clarisse’s car, I spotted her pension’s blue-roofed bungalows, tucked into the mountainside. They were the sole structures visible.
We headed to Clarisse’s dad’s house; her other guests — three young French families who work in Tahiti — were already there, as well as local artisans. The artists patiently demonstrated how to poke a needle into a small shell and how to secure tiare
flowers onto an intricate crown. It was meditative, consuming work; I learned that the mat I helped with would take up to two months to complete.
Finally, it was time to enter the family’s small shed and open the ahimaa, an underground Tahitian oven that produces a festive meal of the same name. The night before, I had watched the hourlong, methodical creation of the oven. A hole was dug into the
ground and topped with coconut husks and wood, which was then set on fire and layered with volcanic stones and a blanket of banana leaves.
Afterward, the food was arranged and covered with branches and steam-producing soil. Now I watched as Clarisse’s cousin took apart his work, layer by layer.
Feasting on the ahimaa — which typically consists of unseasoned fish, pork, breadfruit, fruit pudding and bananas — is a special occasion for the family. We sat around the table long after we finished eating.
Clarisse, ever the high-touch host, then took me on a tour around Raivavae in her white Nissan, resisting our food comas by blasting a CD of ABBA’s greatest hits. We stopped at the island’s points of interest: a volcanic rock shaped like un hombre (a
man), a tiki (located on private property, which I nervously followed Clarisse onto), a marae (an ancient sacrificial site), the wharf, the police station and one of the island’s handful of sparsely merchandised markets carrying shelf-stable items
such as Cheetos and boxed wine.
I paid for wine and waited in Clarisse’s car — parked beside a pig tied to a tree facing the ocean — as she caught up with the owner. When we arrived back at the guesthouse, I was so in tune with the rhythm
of the island that I read more in one sitting than I have in a decade.
The next morning, my final day on Raivavae, the sunrise beamed through my window, calling me out onto the terrace. Lured by the light, I walked down to the sand. Standing in my pajamas, I was totally alone — sort of. Tatau, Clarisse’s dog, had followed
me from his post and walked with me along the empty road as if he was my own.
To reach Raivavae, Air Tahiti Nui offers daily flights from Los Angeles International Airport to Tahiti’s Faaa International Airport. From Tahiti, regional carrier Air Tahiti flies to Raivavae three days per week.
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