I knew from reading his diaries that even Paul Gauguin, the French painter whose languid Tahitian women inhabit most of my dreams about the island, never found the paradise he expected there. "Mad, bad, sad is my adventure in Tahiti," Gauguin wrote in 1897. "I see nothing but death to end it." This from a man who had spent the better part of a decade on the island painting half-naked 14-year-old girls. My feeling was that some people should learn to lighten up.
One who did was Marlon Brando, who had discovered Tahiti while playing Fletcher Christian in Bounty and eventually went on to buy the island of Tetiaroa, a small atoll in the Society Islands. Though he is a frequent visitor there, Brando is rarely noticed in downtown Papeete—which might seem a little hard to believe, considering he may be pushing 250 pounds these days—primarily because Tahitians have no real concept of celebrity. "You'll never get a lot of respect in Tahiti, because the people just don't give a damn," says Tavana Salmon, 57, a descendant of tribal high priests, who recently returned to Tahiti after spending 40 years in Hawaii. "Everybody here is the same. When they see Marlon Brando walking down the street, they tell him, 'Ooh, you ugly, you too fat.' " In the South Pacific, no man is an island, but Brando is beginning to show up on navigational charts.
Many tourists, and some Tahitians, travel to Moorea expressly for the white sand. Tahiti has black-sand beaches that swaddle the island like a sable stole, and a lot of people suddenly realize after they have seen it for the first time that the sand is really nothing but dirt with good public relations. The beaches in Moorea looked fine to me, but as we docked in Cook Bay I was concerned about the weather. A thick cover of lurid-looking clouds had settled over the sharp up-thrust of the interior mountains, and it had begun to rain hard as my rental car swept along the shore road, past colonnades of palm trees and the wonderfully fragrant frangipani.
Before leaving New York, I had told a friend that I was determined to learn to scuba dive on this trip. I had always associated scuba diving with frogmen jumping into the East River on the coldest day of the year to fish out the body of some mobster. My friend warned me about rapture of the deep, a mental euphoria or stupor caused by underwater pressure, but I dismissed the idea with an airy wave of the hand and told him that I would take my rapture where I found it. Now as I approached the sign saying PLONG�E at the Linareva resort on Moorea, a cluster of five bungalows on the west coast of the eight-mile-long island, all I could think about were the underwater armies of doom that constantly used to afflict Lloyd Bridges on the TV show Sea Hunt. What if some gold smuggler tried to cut my air hose while I wasn't looking?
My guides were Jean Luc Untz, 26, and his girlfriend, Catherine Arnou, 27, both from France, and after five minutes of instruction on the beach, we were out on the lagoon and in the water. The reef diving in French Polynesia is said to be among the finest in the world, and though I seldom had any idea what I was looking at, it was all wonderfully vivid. At one point, Jean Luc began tapping at the mouth of a small hole in the coral, dangling some bait in front of it. I naturally assumed he had lost his mind, and tried to remember whether it was getting beaten to the surface by my air bubbles that would give me the bends, or the other way around. Just then, the most malevolent-looking creature I had ever seen (later identified for me as a moray eel, more feared in those waters than the shark) lurched violently out of the hole, snapped at the bait and withdrew again in the same instant. Later, when we reached the surface, Jean Luc told me I was "easy in ze water," and I believe it was the nicest thing he could have said. I decided not to tell him that I had stopped exhaling during the eel interlude, figuring that would solve all my problems with air bubbles—presuming I didn't explode first, of course.
The gods have always smiled on the Society Islands. The average annual temperature in Tahiti is nearly 80�, and the rainy season that runs from November to April provides an abundant food supply for anyone with a small yard. It wasn't until the recent urbanization of the island that many of Tahiti's 100,000 citizens even held jobs. And though Tahitians are well on their way to becoming working stiffs like the rest of us, they still place great emphasis on knowing how to have a good time. The rather shabby appearance of many of their houses, for instance, usually leads tourists to the incorrect assumption that much of the population lives in poverty. The truth is that most Polynesians place little emphasis on the external trappings. It is the entertaining they do inside their homes that is important to them, which is why so many huts made of corrugated tin have color televisions, video recorders and stereos inside.
Overindulgence is tolerated in Tahiti, where the islanders have a considerable reputation for their rate of beer consumption. Tahitians are not exactly noted for their ability to hold their Hinano, the local blast. Not surprisingly, when it comes time for them to give up these indulgences to go into training for the Tiurai's sporting events, many find it very nearly impossible. Some go to their churches and sign a religious oath, called the Blue Cross, in which they swear to give up smoking and drinking for periods lasting as long as six months.
Horse races were once held every weekend at the hippodrome in Pirae, but when the railbirds began brawling with each other on a regular basis, the races were cut back to one Sunday a month. One of those happened to fall on the second Sunday of last July, and it became one of the merrier venues of the festival. Tahitian horse racing is done very much by the seat of the pants, particularly in the bareback races that are the most popular event at the track. Most of the horses are not thoroughbreds, and it's probably just as well because thoroughbreds are often too high-strung to race without a starting gate. As it is, the Tahitian horses frequently turn and run the wrong way. "They're not really racehorses, so you can never be sure what they'll do," says Wendy Pratt, a 21-year-old American who has been race riding in Tahiti for the past eight years. "The people here really come out to see the races because they like to see the horses riding off the track, running into the bushes, and the jockeys falling off. We lose about two horses every race."
Pratt won the first bareback race aboard a 9-year-old named Bob. That was followed by a trotting race, a second bareback race, a horse-and-sulky race called an "amble" and finally a long-distance gallop. At a proper French track, these races would most likely have been run in a clockwise direction. In Tahiti, however, they race counterclockwise, just as they do in the U.S.
Things often went in unexpected directions during the festival. An event the official calendar described as an "ecumenical cult" was scheduled for the first Sunday, but there were so many disagreements among the various religious sects that the cult had to be canceled. So everybody retired to his own church to caucus in a state of high ecumenical dudgeon.