It was an $8 cab ride to the Ibis Cook’s Bay hotel, a three-and-a-half star hostelry (no phones in the room and too much ukulele music at the pool bar for my $95 single), two years old in a tasty gingerbread-trimmed tropical architectural style.
Had I been on a real tight budget, I would have stayed with Denise and Fariua, who run a hostel chain in Papeete, Moorea and Bora Bora. For $15 a night, you live in cheesecloth-curtained dorms (the mosquitoes are fierce) with spanking-clean showers and toilets, a full-service kitchen and a mix of hostellers that’s a veritable United Nations of the road: a Berlin student of landscape architecture, a Sorbonne professor of linguistics taking a two-year mid-career break, a nurse from London, a gaggle of Southern Californians.
Be sure to come fully equipped, because little things are outrageously expensive on the islands. Would you believe $1.80 for a can of pop and $1.50 for Cracker Jack? My secret weapon is a humongous plastic carry-all suitcase I bought in Ventimiglia last spring to cart art catalogues back home in. On this trip it is stuffed with fiber cereals, crackers and soft drinks: As I consume these Pathmark specials, there’s space left for souvenirs.
Meanwhile, back at my expensive Ibis, it’s 5 a.m. while I’m typing—my body’s still on Philadelphia time. The concierge not only let me use the tour desk to type on but got me hot water from the bar for my morning Nescafe.
Later, I hungered for a croissant. The night watchman said there was a small shop 15 minutes by foot up the orbital road.
I started out, poorly shod in my zoris, because truckloads of Mooreans going to an all-day festival on the other side of the island kept forcing me onto the narrow shoulder where coral-like rocks harassed my feet.
Fifteen minutes into this tiptoe act, still no store. So, my eye attracted by a string of fish six feet long hanging from a stake next to the road, I hailed the fishing family to confirm that I was walking in the right direction. They assured me I was and told me the savory-looking string of fish had been caught the night before with electric light lures.
The Supermarche Pao Pao was a beehive of activity of locals provisioning themselves for the final two days of their four-day Easter holiday. I bought some imported French sausage ($7.50), a Hinano beer ($2.50), a bag of sweet cakes ($2) and a bag of doughnuts ($1.30). No croissants. Too early. And they’re mainly for the tourists, anyway.
On my stroll back to the Ibis, I was startled to have a young man on a scooter holler, “Bonjour, M. Hazard.” He was the fisherman’s son! As I passed their house, he asked me if I wanted a breakfast cup of coffee. As his wife prepared the hot water, he showed me the rest of last night’s catch, a “still life” of surpassing charm, the local fish being so multicolored and iridescent.
“Do you like to eat fish, Mr. Hazard?” I told him I was crazy about fish. “Well, then choose your breakfast, my friend.” I picked one long, skinny one that looked like an eel. Later, the wife told me that was aupapa. Then I picked up a more fishy-looking fish, something like our own small-mouth bass. That, I was told, was a pau ara.
“Aren’t you hungry, M. Hazard?” my host chided me for my shyly taking only one of each. So he added two more pau ara and another aupapa and showed me how to clean them—especially how to get the dangerous fins and other craw-catchers out of the filet.
Then, while his wife cooked my meal, we schmoozed about his family and mine. His included a Labrador named Rita who had recently dropped a litter. A cat had also just delivered a litter, and his daughter had delivered a jolly boy who’d been given the ancestral name of Vai Vai.
I teased Louis and Margot about their tremendously fecund little patch, theorizing that they must have had some party last Bastille Day to account for all this reproducing. Astonishingly, my joke came across in my pidgin French.
When I sat down to eat, there was a glass bowl big enough for cereal on my plate. Puzzled, I looked for cereal. “No, M. Hazard. Café.” It was a Frenchy-size cup for café au lait. What an experience!
As I left their compound, Louis handed me an object wrapped in an old newspaper. “Look at it,” he smiled. It was a “porcelaine,” the concierge at the Ibis explained. “It’s perfect. You know, they look the same in the water.” He handed it back to me carefully, confirming my suspicion that I had been given a small treasure by my serendipitous hosts in Pao Pao.
The greater treasure was their unassuming hospitality. Theirs was an experience no money could buy, no travel agent organize. It came straight from the Polynesian heart.
From Welcomat: After Dark, April 11, 1990