Although they were among the most primitive-looking delegations at the festival, the New Guineans had a good fashion sense and they knew what they liked. They became regulars in the shops of Papeete, where they quickly developed a fondness for the gaudy pink and yellow plastic shopping bags that came with their purchases. Soon they were accessorizing their costumes with the bags. The look was very smart, yet elegant in a way that didn't call attention to itself.
Almost everybody at the festival spoke one of the Polynesian dialects, or French, and in many cases both. There was a slight communication problem between the delegation from Tuvalu and their Tahitian hostess. Tuvaluan men are unaccustomed to being addressed by women not of their lifelong acquaintance, and so they refused to talk with the young woman at all, preferring instead to follow the marching orders of their bus driver.
Communication was what the festival was supposed to be all about, and no one was working harder at keeping the lines of communication open than a small but determined delegation of folkloric dance groupies who had traveled all the way from Australia, their wonders to perform. These ambassadresses of goodwill diligently attended nearly every function planned for the dance groups, eventually developing a preference for the delicately built but fierce-looking men of Easter Island. And despite the language barrier, these young women were able to divine through pantomime, and God knows what other kinds of semaphore, that the Easter Islanders found Papeete so choked with exhaust fumes that they could hardly wait to return home to their own remote island.
Much of the traffic during the final days of the festival was near the Papeete harbor, where thousands of spectators lined the shore for the outrigger canoe races, the most important event of the entire Tiurai. Some of these were the same kind of craft that Tahitians had paddled across Matavai Bay in 1769 to greet Captain James Cook and the Endeavour, and later Captain Bligh of the Bounty. The double-hulled 16-man canoes were about 50 feet in length, and for a week they created beautiful silhouettes on the water as their crews practiced at sunset.
At the start of each of the 16 races, the canoes formed a great picket line across the harbor, their hulls the color of breadfruit and mangoes. The paddlers from each club wore distinctively colored pareus like jockeys' silks, so they could be identified from the shore. It usually took about 20 minutes for all the boats to move to the starting area, and everyone waited patiently for the stragglers. There was something particularly lovely in the way the boats floated there together, like the petals of a flower, happy just to be drifting in such a beautiful bouquet.
"As great as this event is, it could never be on American TV," says Andy Toro of El Cerrito, Calif., who was representing the International Canoe Federation at the race. "Could you imagine what would happen if the outrigger race was supposed to begin at 9 a.m., and they didn't get all the boats out until 9:35? In the States, money controls everything, and money is TV. But these people don't give a damn about that."
A carbine was fired across their bows to signal the start of the race, whereupon the crews began paddling in crisp, rhythmic strokes toward a reef at the mouth of the harbor. There the canoes had about 100 meters in which to turn for home, a feat that was accomplished with much bumping, to the hooting delight of the bettors on the shoreline. That was the point at which Carlos Perez of the village of Tautira, the favorite in the one-man race, was whacked so hard on the gunwales by the eventual winner's brother that his canoe spun around in a complete circle. The race ended in a three-boat sprint over the final quarter-mile of the course, with the canoes virtually dead even the entire way. Even the grim-faced officials on their barge—men who had to keep themselves propped on their elbows at all times to prevent their papers from blowing into the sea—raised up in shouts of encouragement to the three. After he had crossed the finish line, winner Filippe Bernadino sat slumped under the prow of a Chinese junk, his chest heaving violently.
Someone threw a flowered lei into the harbor to mark the end of the outrigger races, the final event of the festival. It seemed a fitting signal. During the era of the great ocean liners, visitors to Tahiti would throw their leis into the harbor waters, and if the current brought them toward the shore, it meant the visitor would return one day. A Tahitian friend told me of the custom at the airport as I was about to leave. "The trick was that the tide always brought the flowers back to shore," she said. " Tahiti is a jealous island, and it's not going to give you up so easily. If you come back next month, it's going to be a completely different place than when you left. Tahiti is a dream island, but the dream is only real while you're in it. When it's over, you can never be sure if it was all real."