At the time Christian had a solid reputation in the hotel business and a new, well-paying and challenging job awaiting him 7,000 miles away in Bermuda, an island that is certainly not the ugliest spot in the world. Yet, like many another fool, in a nostalgic moment he had thrown it all over to stay in Tahiti without even a change of underwear. Eventually, of course—to follow the script to its usual end—a romantic soul like Christian becomes dissatisfied, with Tahiti and drifts off to some more exotic shore where he falls in love with a native girl, becomes a barefoot island character and goes slowly to pot.
Anyone caring to see Erwin Christian in his present state of decay can find him now 120 miles northwest of Tahiti on Bora-Bora, the most beautiful island of French Polynesia. True to the script, Christian did become disappointed with burgeoning Tahiti and went on to Bora-Bora because it intrigued him. On Bora-Bora he did fall in love with a charming local girl named Ate (pronounced Ah-tay). And today he has quite a reputation as a barefoot island character, although he is by no means the unwashed type who drifts onto the hotel veranda, sponging drinks from the guests and confiding in a rummy breath that he was slated to be the next president of Chase Manhattan Bank before he decided to chuck it all.
The worrisome thing is that Christian has now been in paradise for five years, but, contrary to the script, he does not seem to be going to pot, physically or mentally. Except for a slight slackness at the waist, he is solidly packed, built along the dependable lines of a percheron. Since there are days on Bora-Bora when the humidity hits 150% and it rains enough to float an ark off the mountaintop, Christian's tape recorder has expired, his scuba regulators occasionally sound as if they had the croup and some of his library books are moldy, but Christian's mind still ticks. The superficial good looks of Bora-Bora are the sort that any brainless man with healthy glands would succumb to, but it was a more special quality that attracted Christian, and thus he survives.
Although navigators long ago situated Bora-Bora by latitude and longitude, for ordinary men the island is still a nowhere place that lies in the Pacific somewhere between Christmas and Easter Islands, somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow. There is a modest flow of tourist dollars on Bora-Bora now, and the local folk have been known to pick the coconuts off the ground before the rats get at them, but the island has not yet been collectively farmed, industrialized or Hiltonized. Ironically, Erwin Christian, the onetime connoisseur of Atlantic and Pacific paradises, has been able to keep his head above water on Bora-Bora because the island itself happens to be sinking at a modest geological rate.
Bora-Bora is an almost perfect textbook example of the theory of atoll formation that was propounded by Charles Darwin a good 100 years before anyone had the proper tools and gumption to prove him right. In French Polynesia today there are many islands—Tahiti, for one—whose original volcanic bases still rear massively into the sky, and there are many atolls whose original island centers have long since sunk back into the sea—as Darwin surmised—leaving only a coralloid ring of reef as a lovely memory of their exuberant past. Bora-Bora lies somewhere in between: a lot of it has gone but it is not yet a memory. The deep crater of the major volcano on Bora-Bora is already underwater, but not yet so deep that it can be forgotten. The coral abuilding on the steep cone of the volcano still reaches within a snorkeler's distance of the surface. Although one spectacular, vertical remnant of the volcano rim, Mt. Temanu, still presses heaven hard enough to wring clouds out of the damp sea wind, most of the original igneous rock is undersea, and the atoll ring of tidal reef and barrier islands lies well away from the main shore. Much of the water inside the large lagoon is deep enough for a full-keeled clipper, but in places it is shallow enough to rip open the bottom of a rubber raft. To sum up all this topographical smitter-smatter in a single sentence that no geologist, pro-Darwin or anti, can dispute, today Bora-Bora is one hell of a wonderful watery playground. Erwin Christian has established a business as Bora-Bora's playground director. His "office" is his Tahitian cottage built on stilts into the lagoon near the Hotel Bora-Bora, the best hotel in the South Pacific. He serves as underwater white hunter, fishing guide, tour guide, research assistant, curator, historian and drinking companion for any educated visitor who would like to stretch his luck or at least exercise his muscles or brains a little. On Christian's glass-bottom boat the tourist gets a short intriguing lecture on marine ecology, with a bit of showmanship and balderdash thrown in. Visitors water ski behind his outboard runabout and dive with him in the lagoon or down the deep outside of the reef, where the sharks are sometimes large and sometimes seem interested in people. The fainthearted visitor who prefers not to mingle with the shark can troll from Christian's boat for jack, dolphin and tuna and for the impossible, unpredictable ghost of the deep sea, the wahoo.
On days when the ocean swells created by large, distant arguments are not smothering the reef with foam, Christian takes parties out to the flat reeftop to surf cast, or simply to roam and scavenge for shells. For any dedicated gourmet, the trip to the reef is a must, for the top of it is literally crawling with hors d'oeuvres. Right on the spot the tourist can pluck and wolf down a snail called maoa, and the urchin, pana. There at his feet, ripe for picking, he finds the seaweed, rimu; the white slug, petite b�che demer; the limpet, opihi; the tubeworm, uao; and a number of other wriggling delights that, when eaten fresh and raw, taste every bit as good as the discarded beach sandals that also lie here and there on the reef.
Those who want to turn their backs on the sea—a near impossibility on Bora-Bora—should definitely look up Christian, for he is the man who knows the most about the soul and history of the island. He has read most of the books, fact and fiction. In one extreme, he has read the excellent journal of Polynesia's first great prophet, Captain Cook, and the journal of Banks, the botanist who sailed with him; in the other extreme, he has romped through the romances of Nordhoff and Hall. Christian is a close friend of the Bora-Bora natives and is also on intimate terms with the island's prosperous colonies of geckos, skinks, mynahs and land crabs. He has explored the ruins of the two extinct cultures that lie in the cool growth of the hillsides: the ancient Polynesian religious sites called maraes, and the concrete foundations and gun emplacements left by the American warriors who came in World War II and built an airstrip on which one plane landed.
In the past 20 years a great deal has been written about the damaging effect that the advanced cultures of the outside world have had, are having and will have on sweet, timeless Polynesia. Certainly there has been much change, particularly in the island's most popular attraction, les girls. An Australian complained recently in a Tahiti hotel, "Squeeze a Tahitian girl today, and she is covered with so much bloody sun lotion she squirts right out of your arms." There is a noticeable decline even in the dancing of the ladies. While they still dance the fast, sexy, aboriginal tamure, Tahiti teeny-boppers would much rather turn up the jukebox and dance the rock 'n' roll. Many of the Polynesian women no longer let their hair grow as their mothers did. Some complain that the extra two pounds of hair hanging down their backs provokes headaches; others are fearful of getting their tresses tangled in the moving parts of their motorbikes.
Actually, the major islands in the heart of French Polynesia are on the threshold of supertourism. Although Tahiti has been a familiar place for years, thanks to the efforts of various artists from metropolitan France and from Hollywood, a mere decade ago a flying squirrel could get there almost as easily as a man. As late as 1958—the year the U.S. lobbed its first object into outer space—to get from the U.S. to French Polynesia, a traveler either took a slow boat or flew to Honolulu, then to Fiji, then to Western Samoa, then to the Cook Islands, crossing and recrossing the date line before plopping down in the Tahiti lagoon three days later. (There are oldtime air travelers who claim that, on the rambling way to Tahiti, they were sometimes off-loaded at Darjeeling and Port-au-Prince, but such accounts are exaggerated.) It is a fact that eight years ago Tahiti did not have an airstrip big enough for a Piper Cub; then, in late 1961—almost overnight it seems—there was a long strip shining in the sun and jets were whistling in, bringing the usual assortment of package-tour visitors.
Though the islands have not yet had a full dose of tourism, cruise boats have been coming on and off since the turn of the century, the passengers often scuttling ashore only for a day, like lemmings in reverse, intent on killing their shipboard restlessness. Some mornings Erwin Christian rises early to take the local coastal pilot outside the reef so the pilot can scramble aboard a cruise ship and guide it safely through the gap into the lagoon. Even before the cruise ship has safely dropped its hook, Christian can tell the character of the passengers by the amount of garbage they are throwing into his beautiful lagoon. Noting the paper cups trailing behind the Matson Lines' Mariposa on one such day, Christian said to a visitor accompanying him, "The lunch boxes of this crowd will be washing up on the beaches for two days. When you get back to the Hotel Bora-Bora, lock your cottage door. If you do not, you will find these people in your shower. They will take your mask and snorkel. They will take your American-made socks back to America as souvenirs."