Tahaa - Society Islands


Tahiti pearls today


Visiting any of numerous pearl farms in Tuamotu and Society islands will not give you a chance to see how the actual pearl is made. The whole thing is happening underwater and even if you dive perhaps 10 to 15 mts the mysterious and years lasting process stays completely hidden in the shells. But the visit worth anyway. I visited a small farm Taaha. A guy called Morris, who works at the farm not only as a guide for tourists but also dives to check the shels and cleans them every 3 month from algae, explained me the trick how to produce so called "Tahiti Cultured Pearls"


Without farming Tahiti naturals pearls would be very rare for two reasons. Most of the lagoons in French Polynesia do not have conditions for shells to live (without assistence) and big amount of (naturally grown) shells was found only in few of those lagoons. However the main reason is that a natural perl is something extremely rare. If the shells are let to do their own job it is believed that to find one pearl you will need to open 14 000 shells(I heard an incredible number 100 000 too). As with many other things people found how to make the job more eficient and a lot faster. The technique came from Japan in the sixties. When Morris explained it to me I started to wonder what is precious about cultured pearls. The thruth is that when you buy a cultured pearl anywhere in the world most of it is not a pearl at all. Most of it is industrially cut (or filed) piece of shell (nacre) most likely from Mississipi river which has nearly no price. This little ball is put to "mother shell" with a piece of muscle of another shell to start and accelerate the several year process of creating a pearl. Whereas natural pearl contains a tiny piece of sand in its corner, cultured pearl is the reverse - it is created by a relatively thin layer of real pearl at the surface and the rest is just "filling". No difference to be seen and I do not know if there is a way to find. (There must be some kind of x-rays.)


Farming in Polynesia produces possibly millons of pearls every year. I believe that there is little precious about those pearls anymore. It needs some work, of course. The shells have to be held in the water above the bottom, they have to be cleaned. The bouys provide the flotation and rope and wire holds them.I dare to quess (but I am not really sure) that running a pearl farm is less work comparing to vineyard. There is a lot of pearls around. You can see neclaces in every of numerous pearl stores in Polynesia. To make a similar necklace out of natural pearls would take maybe a hundred years just to collect them and I doubt that they would be of the same size, shape and color, not mentioning the price of every single one. I bet a few people could afford a neclace like that. To be honest with cultured pearls they are not just "fake". What you can see, touch and admire is actually the real. No immitation, the original "hidden and mysterious" process was happening inside the shell before somebody opened it, priced the pearl and put it on the shelf in the store.  


Two kinds of pearls, cultured and natural. Each belong to different times (I wonder whether there is something like natural pearl found nowadays). And different stories behind them. The stories are not only about pearls but also about the material in the shells - nacre, which was the main trade article in the old days. If I liked pearls (and I have to admit that I do not particulary like them, but I like a lot nacre in wood as decoration and polynesian carved nacre in jewlery. I also admire nacre for practical use as traditional Polynesian fishing hooks for example ) I would prefer cultured ones. The romantic patina of the real pearls in the past is a nonsense. The real story would be rather about many local pearl divers who were dying during this hard job or soon after. About the practices of unscrupulous tradesman (see for example Bengt Danielsson book about life in Raroia). Nothing to be proud of, as many other colonial histories. If I liked the luster of the pearls, I would not mind to buy a cultured one even if it came just from poetryless massproduction. I would even forget the crushing fact that this bussiness in French Polynesia has its own Ministry..


I enjoyed the visit at the pearl farm in Faaha Bay. It is always interesting to listen to somebody who tells you about his work if he knows the secrets and wants to share them. I was given two shells which I will keep as a souvenier. There is a tiny little hole near the edge (that how they were fastened to the carring line underwater) which means they they were grown on the farm. Who bought the pearl created inside, I do knot know.



This information comes from the ministry of pearl culture in Tahiti.

Butterfly job


It is one of the smells I remember from my childhood. And because smell memories are maybe the strogest connections with our past, I remember it well. A vanilla smell from my gradma´s cupboard. I remember the day when I discovered vannilla sugar and I was explained what it was for. Beautifull moment - extraordinary sweet odour, so far unknown and even sweeter promises of some kind of bakery my granma was going to make with it.

My knowledge about how vanilla is grown was very vague untill now. Tahaa claims to be a Vanilla island and I smelled vanilla so many times in various corners during my trip around the island that I can say that Tahaa is the most vanilla island I ever visited. I came to a farm run by ex foreign legia soldier Brian and his Tahitian wife Ilanda Hioe. I came alone, without previous notice, as most visitors. One group of visitors was just half way trough their tour, but I got my own after they finished.

To start planting you need a place, partialy protected from the sun with little trees which will support vanilla plants after they grow. You need the plants to start with (it is one specie of all other 40 000 orchids) and money for living for nearly 3 years untill your plantation will give you some earnings. Every plant needs to be broken at its very end every 3 month to make sure that it will fork every time and have more flowers and beans in future. If you keep the right conditions for two years avoiding other plants to suppress your vanilla and keep away illnesss, the plant start to flower.

    Vanilla flower has to pollinated on the same day when it openes.            Brian is introducing his farm to all visitors.  


What is comming now is real butterfly job - the pollination. The butterfly eats the male part (anther) and some pieces usually fall during his degustation on the female part (ovary) and the vanilla bean is on its way. (So you can say that this is the exeptional oral sex which ends with conception) The problem is that the only butterfly in the world which is qualified to do this is missing. The butterfly lives in Madagascar (where the vanilla plants come originally from)and as far as I know it does not work overseas. It means everywhere else except Madagaskar, the farmer has to pollinate his vanilla flowers. And because a man is not a butterfly, he uses a different trick - his fingers. The farmer does not have much time to do it. The flower blossoms one morning and evening the same day is too late. It means the farmer has to go around his field and pollinate new flowers every day. The fromula is simple: no pollinating, no beans.

The beans are ready in 9 month. A little detail: every bean has a little cap in the top by which it is connected to the plant (visible on the left picture bellow). If you take it from the plant too soon such a way that the cap will brake of the bean, you lost the bean completely and all work would be in vain. All the smell is lost in the moment of forcing the bean out of its tiny cap. Drying is the next step and a not easy one at all. All I remember is that it has to be done fast (whole day on the sun) in the beginning and slow (2,5 hours in the sun) later. Between drying the beans are better to be kept in warm, so wrapping up in blankets or even storing in old freezers overnight will do. But what seems to be really expert job is something called "massage". Nearly dried beans are squeezed and pulled gently between fingers. All this is not an easy job. Not fysically hard, but I hope it is clear that beans need a lot of attention before they turn from green to nearly black - dried. Patience is needed. If everything is done properly, vannilla smell will last for many years. 

    Vanilla beans are nearly ready to be harvested.            Dry vanilla beans - nearly ready to be exported or used to odour coffe, cosmetics, oils...  


 After the tour, I was eating bananas with grated coconut next to a little farm store with Brian. (Of course he reminded me that I do not have to buy anything, it is a pleasant custom on this island, it happened in other places as well). His family house was just next, nice, green place and happy house. I said that this must be a perfect place to retire after 15 years of military service in many African countries. "Nobody is shooting at you" he smiled and nodded.    

My grandma and the smell in her cupboard exist only in our memories. And I am glad that after visiting Tahaa, Waterbird continues her sailing with the vanilla scent in her galley.



Visiting Mama Naumi


I was on my way around the island and I was told that there is place in Tapuamu village, where a local lady sells her handicrafts - shell necklaces. I become a little suspicious after I noticed that the place is listed in an official leaflet tourist information because something well known and therefore too much visited often becomes boring and commercial. How wrong I was!


I found the little store in the middle of a village, the sign said that this was the place of Mama Naumi. The lady came to give me a welcome, I left my bike outside and went in. The store was full of shell and spliced rope necklaces with other decorations like beads or nacre. In many many variations. Not only the price was lower than in another place I visited the same day but I was also told that if I buy two, I can get one for free. When I counted my money I found I can afford one, I picked up a necklace with a nacre rossete. I was thinking that even this looks like a common store where they give you some special offer to make you to buy more, there was something different in the air. Unfortunately the communication remained very simple, because my French is less than poor not talking about Polynesian. When Mama Naumi showed me pictures of her children and put another shell neclace around my neck as a gift I realised than I am not only a customer, but a guest in her house. When I was given another two neclaces (of the same type I had bought before) in the bag, I hesitated if this can be a gift again. Yes it was. I felt like a very welcomed guest and I was really sorry that I do not speak more French. What a pity I did not have anything to give back (I learned to carry something every time I go of the boat but I gave all I had that day to somebody else before).

I liked the moments I was with these people. They were smiling, dressed in rich colores, so fitting to these islands, there was a lot of dignity in their behaviour and nothing was pretended or just made because "it should be like that". As in other places like Marquesas Islands, the people are sincer. If somebody says that people are generous because it used to be a cultural norm, it is only half of the truth. Polynesia can be a place where we can learn that giving can be a pleasure even if you give something valuable to a stranger. You can doubt it only if you had not experienced it.

Before I said good bye, I ask for permition to take a picture of my hosts. Mama Naumi put a red ibiskus flower neclace around her neck. I made a picture. You can guess what happened with the red neckless after. She came with the neclace in her hands and waited patiently (because I was much taller) untill I put my head down...

Mama Naumi and her husband in the front of their handicraft store.

In the evening, on the same day I gave a two of the given necklaces to my friends who stayed in a local hotel. A waiter from the hotel said to me later: "now I understand, where they come from (the necklaces) I was wondering where they could get something like that. I got it - you must have visited Mama Naumi!" I understood that there are not many places in Tahaa where you can experience the old days of Polynesia. I am really glad that Mama Naomi is not the only "old days person" I had an honour to visit.

A little story for Baron Munchausen


It also happened on my bike trip around the island of Tahaa in an unnamed village. It was late afternoon and Tahaa seemed bigger than I had thought. My bicycle was becoming surprisingly slow (surprisingly, because it had a big label "Balistic" so I expected a higher speeds, a bit afraid of speed controls). I stopped in a place where something was going to happen. Few drummers, a guitar and ukulele player were playing a little music, obviously getting ready for something bigger. I had no idea what was comming. I saw some poster on a wall with big letters, something like a text of a song. I decided to stay because I thought interesting would happen and I was tired and needed some rest anyway.


Something interesting was comming. Shortly after I noticed that there were nearly only women around, not counting the musicians, some kids and few men who were building a house behind not paying any attention what was happenning here. Now the musicians started to play loudly and all the women, maybe 20 of them, maybe whole village, started to DANCE! If somebody told you before that Polynesian dances are sexy, he was not lying, I can say. I felt kind of uneasy because I was the only man watching. I was happy that there were only women for one single reason: It was not likely they will invite me to participate. (that would be a real nightmare) As far as I was able to read the faces, no one of them was saying "get out of here". All this was happening outside in the centre of the village in a daylight and I was sitting on my bike on the main road. The fact that all the women were dressed is the last important information I am going to give you.


Just immagine how Baron Munchausen would go on with the story. "And...this is the moment which nobody wants to believe me...All the women from that kingdom dancing for me. Although my faithfull servants had warned me I had to leave my dear tired horse Balistic behind and I went to meet the ladies. What a surprise when I saw the tall one in the middle ...Suddenly I had to tell her how much she reminded me Katherine the Great of Russia!..."


You must forgive me I did not take any pictures. It was simply immpossible to make them. As far as I know my dear Baron never took any.

Later I was surprised to hear that regular dancing hours are common here. The dances practiced are often new - new dance composed for a particular opportunity. It means that dancing is not just a preserved tradition but part of alived culture.

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