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Life in the slow lane on Raivavae, South Pacific

Sitting at a chopping block, a pudgy raven-haired woman uses a machete to remove green husks from palm-sized mape nuts, while her son prepares to boil them. Smoke from an open fire, where large breadfruits are roasting, fills the air. Raivavae, Polynesia, South PacificOn a forested slope at the base of a 1400-foot mountain, half a dozen huge pigs root around lazily, each tethered by rope to a tree. Beyond a tin-roofed house sprawls an irrigated patch of taro. Kids fill plastic bottles with drinking water from a spring and haul them home in a wheelbarrow. Coconuts, bananas and citrus fruits grow everywhere.

My wife and I are walking through homesteads on Raivavae in the remote Austral Islands of French Polynesia, which lie at the very edge of the tropics over an hour south of Tahiti by plane. It is lush and lovely, a high volcanic island surrounded by a barrier reef. The reef encloses a calm turquoise lagoon and is studded with a necklace of tiny islands, called motus. They are cartoon-perfect pieces of paradise straight from Survivor. The population of 900 is served by three flights a week. Each also stops at larger Tubuai, 120 miles away, an island first spotted by Captain James Cook in 1777 and later visited by HMS Bounty when it was under the command of mutineer Fletcher Christian. Raivavae’s children are required to attend boarding school there after the age of twelve, returning home only for Christmas and Easter holidays.

Raivavae, Polynesia, South Pacific

We have come to spend a few days at the largest of Raivavae’s several pensions, the Tama Inn, run by Eleonore White, who was born here, and her American husband Dennis. Our sleeping cabin, one of five simple units, is perched just above a white sand beach that we usually have to ourselves. Guests gather at a large table for wonderful meals of fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood, including the region’s signature dish, poisson cru, raw tuna marinated in lime juice and coconut milk. Raivavae does not have a single bar or restaurant, not even a taxi.

x210814C11-092-(3)Olivier Tatu, a tall, thin young man from Switzerland, notices us at the tiny airport while seeing off his wife. One of the island’s two Protestant ministers, she is flying to Tahiti, where she was born and raised, to visit family and see a doctor, because she is pregnant. (Raivavae has only a clinic with nurse.) Olivier met her when he came to Tahiti as a volunteer for the Presbyterian church. Her absence gives him time to show us around. He is compiling a book of island history and lore, making him the ideal guide.

In the village of Anatonu, on Raivavae’s northern shore, our pension is clustered with the church, a tiny general store, elementary school and community hall. Some 80% of the islanders are Protestant, many of them quite devout. We join Eleonore, Olivier, and their neighbours for a service where they play ukeleles, sing and listen to an emotional sermon by a gray-haired deacon, all in Polynesian. Olivier takes us to meet some of his neighbours and see how they live. After our stroll through several backyards, a man catches up with us to offer a plate of roasted breadfruit, set out on a large green leaf. Olivier shows us how to tear off a piece, roll it into a ball, and pop it into his mouth. Its smoky taste is delicious.

Raivavae, Polynesia, South Pacific“This is one of the more traditional Polynesian islands,” Olivier says, without the mass tourism and deluxe hotels of Tahiti and Bora Bora. “And people want to keep it that way.” French is taught in school, but teens prefer to speak their local Polynesian dialect; in Tahiti, they have gravitated to French. “Here, anyone can go out to the motus,” for specialized fishing, or to grow crops like watermelons. On Bora Bora, choice waterfront is dominated by upscale resorts. “We still have lots of seafood in the lagoon,” unlike Tahiti, where there has been overfishing. Olivier himself loves to fish for snapper. “And the soil is so rich. Food is not a problem.”

To earn cash for electric bills or gas for cooking, they catch and sell fish through a co-op, or make crafts for sale at markets on the larger islands. Some of Eleonore’s family grow and sell coffee beans. We visit the workshop of Gilbert Tamaititahio, a young man who is taking English lessons from Olivier. He harvests colourful seashells on the motus, and, after drying and cleaning, turns them into ornamental necklaces. For fishing and getting out to the motus, islanders build and paddle outrigger canoes. A few are elegant traditional ones hollowed out from mango logs and lashed together with coconut cord, but most are simpler craft made of plywood. Some also carve models of dugout canoes to sell, and weave hats from dried pandanus fronds. Many women sew elaborate applique bedspreads or wall hangings, a local fabric art tradition called tifaifai.


Raivavae, Polynesia, South PacificWe discover that life centres on the seaside road that circles the island. Bicycles are most of the traffic. For children, it’s their playground. Only a few cars or trucks come by each hour. It may be the baker, delivering long, crusty baguettes. Or Laboudet Edmond, a retired French officer and market gardener, who sells cabbages from a trailer he pulls behind his motor scooter. And then the dogs go back to sleep in the road. Nobody passes us without offering a friendly ia orana, the local greeting, or perhaps bon jour.

Olivier shows us the island’s last remaining ancient stone tiki, a goddess figure. “Before they went out fishing, people said a prayer to the tiki and left offerings,” Olivier tells us. “The tiki‘s power, or mana, was passed through its eyes, the door to the soul.” We also visit several marae, which are rectangular sacred sites enclosed by flat, upright stones. Some were places of harsh judgement and human sacrifice. In one, a tall stone stands in the middle. Olivier calls it a height gauge. Only men who stood that tall were deemed acceptable as warriors. Slightly eerie spots, the marae are still regarded as tabu (forbidden), and many people avoid them.

Raivavae, Polynesia, South Pacific

Life on Raivavae is quiet and simple, although even here, things are not as they once were. Until ten years ago, when the airport was built, there was only a supply ship every few weeks. Islanders grew much more coffee. In fact, Eleonore herself was born out in the coffee fields. There was even greater self-sufficiency, with less canned and imported food. Most clothing was sewn by hand at home. Before refrigeration was commonplace, fishing was an everyday activity. People also caught and ate the huge sea turtles, which are now protected. “We used to raise little ones and release them into the lagoon,” Eleonore tells me, “so there were many more than there are today.”

Raivavae, Polynesia, South PacificOur days on Raivavae drift by, slow and easy, with swims in the lagoon and sunset walks before dinner. The paintings of Paul Gauguin and the stories of James Michener present just this idyllic South Pacific life. Times have changed, but these days, Raivavae is as close as it gets.

All photographs by Annie Palovcik
For bookings at the Tama Inn on Raivavae, and information on how to get there from Tahiti, see

Tom Koppel is a veteran Canadian author, journalist and travel writer. His latest popular book on history, science and travel is Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific. Koppel provides a personal tour of that vast ocean and presents the latest findings in archaeology, genetics and carbon dating. For signed copies of Mystery Islands, just contact Tom:


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