There are few places on earth that come closer to one's idea of paradise than Tahiti. Its position is fixed in the mind's eye, an expanse of sand and palm trees floating in bright waters. Peering out from the dream are the faces of paradise: women with mysterious, downcast eyes and long black hair cascading down their backs. This was the dream I had been having over and over during the eight-hour flight from Los Angeles to Tahiti, but every time I awakened, it slipped quickly from memory. Now as I looked out the window, Tahiti lay in the dim evening light beneath the belly of the airplane, the island's great humpback rising from the sea like a dorsal fin. But that menacing shape had no part in my dream, and, as I was soon to discover, it was the only thing even remotely ominous about the place these days.
Tahiti, the largest of the Society Islands, seems to be slumbering peacefully most of the time, the major visible sign that it is breathing out and breathing in being the tourists who come and go in the night. But for two weeks of every year, Tahiti awakens for its Tiurai celebration, and nothing can lull the island back to sleep until the feast is over. At night, the wooden stalls in the markets of downtown Papeete, the island's principal city, are filled with people who appear to be sleeping but are really just resting on their laurels, although not the laurels they frequently wear in wreaths on their heads.
The wreath, which is called a hei, is part of the headgear for Tahitian athletes competing in the traditional native games that have become part of the annual Tiurai celebration. The games, many of them dating back long before the arrival on the island of Captain William Bligh and H.M.S. Bounty, constitute a kind of folkloric Olympiad. Events range from the colorful and nutritionally correct fruit-carrying races to a greased stone-lifting contest, to say nothing of the always vicious weaving competition. Last year, tattooing was allowed as an exhibition event.
Last year's Tiurai was particularly fascinating because it was part of an even larger sporting and cultural event, the IV Pacific Festival of Arts. The two-week-long festival was preceded by a series of unforeseen but interrelated occurrences that included a revolutionary uprising 2,760 miles away in New Caledonia—which, like Tahiti, is an overseas French territory—and sufficient political intrigue to have the whole event moved from its original New Caledonian site to Tahiti.
The organizers of the event issued a statement before the opening ceremonies describing the Festival of Arts as "the privileged place and moment, the feast where Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians meet in a great impulse of brotherhood...." Notwithstanding that impulse, the representatives of Vanuatu, an island that had declared itself unwilling to lend support to France's presence in the South Pacific, refused to come.
Still, the IV Pacific Festival of Arts eventually attracted delegations to Tahiti from as far away as Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga, and all of them intermingled with the Tahitians, whose Tiurai is a traditional fortnight of revelry culminating in the celebration of Bastille Day on July 14. It all seemed a bit surreal the way it had worked out: It was an armed insurrection against France's colonial rule in New Caledonia in November 1984 that had caused the festival to be moved to Tahiti, where pilgrims found themselves at an event commemorating France's own struggle for liberty two centuries earlier.
To make matters worse, President Gaston Flosse of the overseas territorial government scheduled the festival's opening ceremonies for June 29. It was on that date in 1880, by the way, that one of Tahiti's 22 tribal chieftains—a young sot named Pomare V, who was looking for a steady income to pay his bar bills—turned over the entire archipelago of the Society Islands to France. The deal was fairly typical of colonial bargains: Pomare agreed not to ask for any authority in the new government, and in return the French agreed to overlook the fact that Pomare didn't really own the islands in the first place.
One hundred years later, President Flosse's willingness to serve France did not sit well with many Tahitians, some of whom had begun referring to him—not altogether affectionately—as the Sun King. The mayor of Papeete (pronounced papa-YET-ay) was so infuriated by some of the behind-the-scenes politics that he tried to keep all of the festival's events out of his city. Some of the president's political rivals showed their contempt by boycotting the opening ceremonies. It was a neat trick, and one that a lot of people later wished they had thought of, because the ceremony took place in an open stadium under the hot afternoon sun. The visiting delegations, arrayed like hothouse flowers in long, colorful rows on the infield grass of Pater Stadium in the village of Pirae, wilted quietly while a cadre of French politicians in dark suits droned on over the public-address system for three hours. There wasn't supposed to be any singing or dancing during the speeches, but the boys from Wallis and Futuna were periodically overcome by boogie fever and could be seen bounding about the infield like pinballs. Otherwise, there was very little movement at all, as one by one the delegates fell asleep in the broiling sun.
The first athletic event of any real folkloric significance took place three days later on the streets of Pirae, not far from where several swaybacked horses were grazing on a dirt field. The final preparations were under way before the start of the fruit carriers' race, an event modeled after the ancient Tahitian practice of hauling fruit and game out of the island's valleys to feed its coastal villages. (This custom is still observed today in the tiny district of Punaruu, where villagers sell oranges by the roadside that they have carried through the mountain passes—a day's walk.)
A good color sense is a necessity for the competitors in the fruit-carrying races. They pay careful attention to how the fruit is arranged, making sure that the red passion fruit doesn't clash with the papaya. The runners use palm fronds to lash large bunches of green bananas to both ends of a piece of bamboo, then adorn that with brilliant sprays of bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, aupuhi and croton. The fruit makes the fashion statement, not the man, so the runner wears only a cotton pareu around his waist and a wreath of maire leaves. No shoes.