Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tahiti... and Cyclone Arthur

The sight that greeted Captain Cook as he discovered French Polynesia way back in the day (by which I mean I can't remember the date).

You wouldn't think Tahiti would be a difficult place to love - even if it is French... but my first few hours in what was once perhaps the dictionary definition of paradise didn't feel like the start of a love affair - pas de tout.

It all started before i'd even landed, arguably before I'd even taken off. Flying into Tahiti and seeing hundreds of verdant, volcanic mountains stretched across 2.5m sq kms of the Pacific must be an incredible experience. Not that i'll ever know as - for some French beaurocratic reason or other - all international departures and arrivals take place in the middle of the night. So it was that I arrived at 1am, with 5 hours of jet lag, queued for an hour to get through passport control (they aren't that picky at Calais), and emerged from the terminal building into a cyclone.

No, really. I'm not exaggerating. Cyclone Arthur had been working its merry way through French Polynesia for two weeks before my flight touched down on the 26th. Something the pilots kept very quiet about when they gave their 'welcome to Tahiti where the local time is...' speech. I should have suspected something was up though when we were still flying through cloud as the wheels were reaching for the tarmac.

Drenched. This is the look of a man who has lived through a cyclone - clearly insane...

After the passport fiasco, myself and some friends i'd met on Easter Island cautiously emerged from the terminal looking for somewhere to sleep for a few hours. The Lonely Planet had promised that a cheap (for Tahiti) youth hostel was a few hundred meters from the terminal - perhaps a five minute walk. Had this been the case, I might have been merely drenched rather than completely saturated. However, the people of Tahiti seem to switch off all of their lights at night (I guess electricity must be just as expensive as every other darned thing there) and with the biblical downpour blurring our vision and our inability to read French signs, we toured around the outskirts of the airport for a good 30 minutes in apocalyptic weather conditions. Just as we wondered if the hostel was perhaps buried a few hundred metres under the terminal, the derelict and darkened shed we'd passed a number of times turned out - on closer inspection - to be the hostel. Sadly there were only 4 beds for 6 of us. Apologies to Lucy and Khalind who had to go out again into the torrent - your nobility on French soil will forever be remembered. This was particularly tough on Khalind, who not only managed to remain good humoured throughout but actually started chuckling to himself as the deluge reached it's climax. A possible candidate for a modern-day re-enactment of the Great Flood i reckon...

So I had a bed, and managed several hours' sleep before being woken by jet lag. Another friend - Roland - and I resolved that, though we were hungry, thirsty and narcoleptic, and though our credit cards wouldn't work in any of the French ATMs, we had to galvanise ourselves and get as far away from Tahiti airport as humanly possible.

And that's when it all started to get better. Our first step was to take the ferry to Moorea, an hour from Tahiti. What a great decision that turned out to be. This small island was discovered by Captain Cook in the late 18th century (he certainly got about that guy) and is, allegedly, a contender alongside Bora Bora for most beautiful island in the word. Within hours of arriving there, the rain stopped and the sun even tried to come out. We later discovered the full extent of our good fortune - the tail of the cyclone had cleared away just that morning.

As well as great scenery, superb beaches and incredibly warm sea-water, Moorea is a great place for diving. After a fairly quiet evening, I got up at 8am to do a dive, which i was promised would feature some fairly large sharks. And though the visiblity wasn't great, I did see a whole host of fish that I hadn't seen before including Lemon Sharks (fairly big) and Black Tipped Reef Sharks (medium sized).

So how to sum up Tahiti...

I could mention that the banknotes are ridiculously big, the locals insist on speaking French when I'm trying to learn Spanish, and everyone drives a renault, citreon or peugot, which is fair enough in gay Paris, but in the middle of the Pacific???

But I'd rather make a point of the fact that, despite only having 2 days to make an impression, and beginning with the worst start imaginable, Tahiti left me with some very pleasant memories. And how many Scotsmen can say they've lived through a cyclone? (Actually, if you've been to Aberdeen in the winter, ie September to May...)

So overall I'd recommend Tahiti to anyone not on a budget. But if you're going in January, check the weather forecast first.
The crystal-clear waters and (sometime) blue-skies of French Polynesia.

Monday, January 29, 2007

South America - a wee look back...


ice-cream for 6p, beer for 25p in Bolivia
mojitos and salsa dancing in a La Paz club in the wee small hours of Ne'erday 2007
celebrating in the main square as Cusco beat Lima to win the Peruvian league
ablando Espagnol con las personas sympathicas (todos!) de Sud America
floating for hours across the mirrored surface of the Bolivian salt lake.
dancing to Blur and the Chemical Brothers in a Cusco club on boxing day
La Serena, Chile - home to the most beautiful people on earth (except if you're from Argentina)


kissing a Peruvian ass
stern-gazing und beir trinken mit Constance und Regina unter unheimlichen klaren lugen
loopy lupin loping ladies of La Paz
drinking (inventing) mine-shaft - a wicked combination of 96% miners' alcohol (65p per litre) and sprite
Peruvian rail's surprise cabaret and fashion show
deja vu - every day, everywhere - what was that all about?


  • looking down on Machu Piccu through the mist
  • whisky and redbull on Christmas morning, in a tent, 15000 feet up in the Andes
  • walking across the island of the sun on Lake Titicaca
  • spotting a pair of Condors circling on the thermals over the Bolivian altiplano
  • mining...
  • giving out hot chocolate to the kids of Quishirani and Cuncan - sacred valley, Peru.
  • cabaret and jazz clubs and night clubs and watching the sun come up all in 24 hours in Santiago
  • appearing on Bolivian tv and having to redo the interview because the reporter couldn't understand my Spanish

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Easter Island - La Isla Pascua - Rapa Nui

When I originally booked my flights for this trip, back in July, the most logistically challenging part of the journey was the route across the Pacific Ocean. Flight availability is notoriously difficult for the Pacific legs of round-the-world trips and even that far in advance, I was more or less compelled to commit to 6-days on Easter Island, which seemed to me a long stay for what I assumed would be an exotic curiousity.

In fact, the island was so much more than just a history lesson and an opportunity to take some nice photos. I hadn't imagined that, in addition to the spectacle, atmosphere and mystery of the statues there would be great surfing, clubbing until 6am and one of the best dives I've done in my life.

The island has (left) a great beach and (right) impressive volcanic craters.

My first interest was with the statues so I hired a moped and sped off to see some of the sites. There seems to be a cliche that you leave Easter Island with more unanswered questions than you arrived with. That's understandable, as there doesn't seem to be an undisputed answer for any of the big questions about the Rapa Nui statues...
No-one knows where the people came from (South America or other pacific islands), no-one knows when (though possibly around 1500 years ago) and no-one knows why they built the incredible maoi.

Perhaps the biggest question though is how. And its a question I found myself asking again and again and with increasing disbelief as I toured around the island.
There are three tiny islands off the south of Easter Island. The top island in the picture is where i went scuba diving. Visibility was incredible - up to 50m - and the dive was an incredible experience. You can also see engravings depicting the 'birdman', a cult which became important to the island's people in the 18th century after the statue building phase had ended.

The statues weighed up to 70 or 80 tonnes and can be up to 10m in length. How a soceity of a few thousand people could create the statues, move them miles across the island and then erect them on ahus (ceremonial platforms) invites speculation but no convincing explanations.

The most impressive site on the island for me was the quarry itself. This one small site was the source of the stone for every moai on the island. And what stands in the quarry today gives an atmospheric and chilling impression of the 'end of days' for the statue makers and their way of life.
I love this photo, which I got when I went back to the quarry at sunset. Great effort is made on the island to ensure that tourists do not touch the statues, for fear of erosion, but when no-one else is around the horses obviously like to use the statues as scratching posts for their backsides.

There are literally hundreds of statues in the quarry in various stages of being carved, cut out from the rock or erected for transportation to the coastal platforms. We know that production of the statues ceased completely prior to European discovery in the 18th century. But it seems that there was a last frenzied burst of activity before all production mysteriously stopped. The best guess it that it was the amount of effort and resources that the islanders spent on production that resulted in catastrophe. Timber was used to transport the moais from the quarry to their platforms and as more and more trees were cut down some critical point was reached where fishing and farming on the island became unsustainable. The islanders were most likely victims of their own cult.

One further mystery surrounds the final fate of the maoi. By the 19th century, every maoi on the island had been torn down (those standing today have been re-erected in the 20th century) and its not clear why. One possible answer is that the islanders turned against the gods for whom they had originally erected the statues. Over-population and over-use of the tiny island's natural resources most likely led to ecological and social disaster. There is something haunting about seeing the fallen figures. A lot of local people are convinced that Easter Island contains a message for us all about the fragility of the planet and its resources.

Even after 6 days I had mixed feelings about leaving Rapa Nui. As the most remote inhabited place on earth, it is never going to make it on to everyone's travel wish-list. But I can't recommend it enough. As far away as it is (and it's a 5-hour flight from Santiago alone), there is a magic about the place that clearly affects every visitor.