'la Orana (pronounce “yo-rah-nah”) = Hello!
Have you ever traveled to a dream island or secretly wished to do so? I have, for about 40 years. Then in July 2022, I had the incredible chance to spend 5 weeks in and around Tahiti with my husband and our 2 daughters. Tahiti is the largest and most populous island in French Polynesia. As a photographer in search of natural beauty and authenticity, I was rather served! Not only are the landscapes breathtaking, but I found the Polynesian lifestyle to be very soothing and inspiring. In this article, I will shine a light on my discoveries. If you are into travels, personal growth, or if you love the word coconut and the smell of vanilla, keep reading.
By what miracle did we travel to this corner of paradise?
We always said we would go to French Polynesia one day, as we have friends who live in Tahiti. This year was perfect to do it—all we had to do was to make it happen. We were offered to stay at a friend’s house, booked our flights, and flew to Tahiti with little preparation. We just knew it was a dream destination and July is perfect to go. Temperatures are cool, schools are closed so there is less traffic, and summer camps are open for kids. So we left Barcelona at the end of June, after what felt like a marathon. I remember jumping on the plane feeling tense and tired… but also extremely excited!
We somehow put up with a 13 hours flight to Los Angeles + 8 hours flight to Papeete (Tahiti). Not to mention a 12 hours time difference in total. Surprisingly enough, our children (aged 3 and 4 years old) seemed to enjoy the trip. They were excited to travel together and they don’t have a good understanding of time and space 😉
It was more challenging for us until we got on the plane to Papeete. The aircraft was filled with tiaré flowers that smell like heaven. We could watch documentaries about the island and its culture and activities… And as we arrived at the airport, a Tahitian band was playing and singing. Our friends welcomed us with garlands of flowers, as a way to tell us “we accept you on our land”. What a tremendous introduction to the Polynesian lifestyle! My soul was shaking. I knew this experience was going to be extraordinary.
What you need to know about the fascinating French Polynesian islands
Polynesia means "many islands" in Greek. French Polynesia is a set of islands that is an overseas country attached to France. It is made of five archipelagoes and 118 islands and islets of volcanic origin, scattered across the Pacific. These cover four million square kilometers of the ocean which is the same area as the European Union! It is halfway between California and Australia... "in the middle of nowhere".
The climate is tropical—warm and humid. Summer is from November through April, with a warmer and humid climate. Winter is from May through October when the climate is slightly cooler and drier.
The flora of these islands is relatively poor in terms of diversity of species, due to geographical isolation. However, most of the islands are covered by tropical forests, as the soil is very fertile. I was amazed by the abundance and beauty of the vegetation, and surprised by the unstable weather in Tahiti. We had many cloudy days and rainy episodes, far from the postcard pictures one can see on the Internet. I enjoyed the contrasts and black sand beaches, the white sand beaches... Taking time to enjoy the rain on my skin and the smell of wet trees and sunshine after the rain was bliss. Call me mindful! I guess this is fully part of the Polynesian lifestyle.
Most of the people throughout the islands may be classed as Polynesian. However, many are also of partly European or Asian heritage. The official languages are French and Tahitian. Polynesian religion changed dramatically with the coming of European missionaries at the beginning of the 19th century. Today, most Polynesians are followers of Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestantism. Polynesian societies have an exceptionally rich body of folklore and mythology. Myths relate to the origins of human beings, cultural practices, and institutions. There is a considerable body of mythology regarding the origins of tattooing in Polynesian cultures. Some origin myths describe the process of migration from one island to another via ocean-going canoes.
Note: I did not photograph Polynesian people for privacy reasons but you can check the wonderful work of my fellow family photographer Doris Ramseyer on Instagram, and brilliant video documentaries made by kids on Kids Reporters YouTube channel.
Tourism is the country’s main economic activity. Agriculture, once of primary importance, now only provides a small portion of the gross domestic product. Black cultured pearls, principally from the Tuamotu and Gambier islands groups, account for some two-thirds of export earnings. Pearls are classified by origin, then graded by size, shape, nacre thickness, color, luster, surface clarity, and how they match. So choosing “your” pearl is not an easy thing. But we had an amazing experience at the Champon Pearl Farm in Taha'a where I eventually found a necklace that delights me. Nearly 80% of all of the vanilla produced in French Polynesia is cultivated on the island of Taha'a, called "Vanilla island".
How did we experience the Polynesian lifestyle as a family?
During the week, we would leave the girls at the drop-in daycare center. The educators working there call the parents “Maman” and “Papa”. They take care of the children as if they had always known them from the very first day. We barely had to book or do any paperwork; everything and everyone was simple, easy, and nice. The kids got to know the locals and enjoy various activities. We got to spend quality time as a couple, hiking and doing watersports. Snorkeling around the coral reefs was hallucinatory! I wish I’d had a GoPro with me...
During the weekend, we would explore different beaches, gardens, and islands nearby, making the most of our family time. We went to the peaceful island of Moorea by ferry. During our last week, we took a cruise around Raiatea and Tahaa islands on a catamaran. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach Huahine nor Bora-Bora due to the weather conditions, but Raiatea and Tahaa offered us spectacular views of untouched, undisturbed wilderness… a source for spiritual renewal. Spending several days with our crew also helped us better understand the Polynesian lifestyle.
What makes the Polynesian lifestyle a source of inspiration?
Polynesian philosophy and culture: it's all about the people!
We were immediately astounded by the luxuriant vegetation and breathtaking landscapes. However, these would probably not have been that disorienting without the cultural clash. People are surprisingly smiling and friendly. They promote wellness, respect the environment and focus on family - helping and giving to one another while honoring heritage. They express themselves through the creation of art (paintings, sculptures, graffiti, tattoos, dance shows, music...) which is an integral part of the Polynesian lifestyle. Both the Museum of Tahiti and her islands and the Paul Gauguin Museum were closed during our stay, but we saw that art was present in all places.
One of the things that surprised me the most was to see a lot of people sitting, doing nothing. At the beach, in the parks, on the street, and even on the side of the road... I thought to myself "how can they just sit around doing nothing?". For a somewhat hyperactive mumpreneur, it seems hard to understand. But what if they were the ones who had it all figured out? Western culture is a "to do" culture that tends to forget the importance of just "being".
The mantra of Tahitian people is: “aita pea pea” (not to worry). You can feel there is no pressure, especially in the service industry. Although Tahiti is industrialized, you don't see people walking or eating glued to their smartphones. Whatsapp hasn’t even taken over messenger and people barely mainly use Facebook pages to market their offers! I found myself wondering what we, in our society, even run after and why. When did anxiety become a collective emotional state? Why the need to control every aspect of our lives? How come we strive to let go of the stress it creates? Isn't our society creating unnecessary pressure? How is the new generation going to be able to even breathe in peace?
As the days went by, I often felt like this was the quality of life I wanted. My husband and I even considered moving there for a year or so. Many French people moved to Tahiti and I can understand why.
That said, it’s not only rainbows and unicorns. There is a lot of unemployment and a dramatic lack of cultural and physical activities. Most people are overweight if not obese as 80% of the food products are imported and extremely expensive. Sadly, an obesity crisis is hitting Pacific Islanders. Alcohol is also said to be a proper plague along with other drugs including Coca-Cola. Sadly, American influence is omnipresent. Traffic jam at peak hours is a real issue as there is only one road that goes around the island... Not to mention habitat destruction; coral bleaching, illegal fishing, climate change, and the impacts of coastal development.
So yes, Polynesia is a destination of world-class, iconic beauty and diverse, cultural discovery. But when you walk off the trail, you see people constrained by their environment, however attractive it may be.
The nature-culture relationship in Polynesia
Unlike Western philosophies, the concept of "Man AND Nature" makes little sense for Polynesian societies. In Polynesian culture and practices, these two worlds are not distinct. They consider them as part of the same universe. Polynesians assign a nutritive role to nature (fishing in the lagoon, abundant fruit trees, etc.). They live by the rhythm of the sun, which is natural and wonderful. For Europeans, nature has a strong aesthetic dimension and is mainly a setting for outdoor sports. Food for thought!
The concept of Mana
“Mana” is a life force and spirit that connects all living things in Polynesian philosophy; energy that flows through all things and humans. It is viewed in both Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures as an important form of healing power and spiritual energy.
As a natural beauty lover and woman of faith, I am already familiar with the concept. As I grow in mindfulness through meditation, observation, and reflection, I develop a grateful heart and appreciative mind towards nature. I recognize the mind-body connection and the interconnection of everything. While I capture the natural beauty of Life through my photos and films, I try to evidence that humans are as beautiful and amazing as the flora, ocean, and animals. I think our strengths and weaknesses as well as our ups and downs are what makes us so beautiful. We are natural creatures, not separate from nature. So in the end, the mana is at the core of my work and all my interactions with my clients. I just didn’t know how to call it until now. Maybe I could rebrand as “Pauline Mana Photo & Film” now, lol!
What to remember from such an extraordinary experience?
The word "holiday" is explained in the dictionary as "an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling". Taking time away from the job is so beneficial that it should be prescribed by doctors more often! And when we expose ourselves to new environments, stepping outside our comfort zone, we can grow and change.
Being able to discover some of the treasures Polynesian islands have to offer is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Polynesian culture, traditions, and problems made me question the founding principles of the modern world. It expanded my horizons and strengthened my beliefs. We can't stop progress, but we can avoid absurdity and try to slow down and take time to "be" happy and enjoy life. Of course, we cannot get anywhere without working hard. But taking care of ourselves, helping others, and protecting the environment should be our priorities. Because balance is the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. The only way to heal the world around us is to first heal ourselves.
I am truly happy to go back to work with new energy and vision. May this feeling of inner peace reflect on my photoshoots and inspire you to live a blissful life!
Nana = goodbye!
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