Nothing to See

Papeete, Tahiti – September 2000

My friends in New Caledonia told me: Papeete is polluted and overcrowded. And dangerous! Tahitians are extremely racist. You will be harassed because you’re an outsider. If you were going to Bora Bora or Moorea or even another part of Tahiti, then it would be worth it to go outside and look around. But you’ve only got fifteen hours. Do yourself a favor and stay in your room, Julie. There’s nothing to see.

I leave my suitcase in my room and walk out to the lanai. It is morning and most of the other guests have checked out. I tuck the map of Papeete into my pocket and walk out of the front gate. I only need to go left at the corner and walk straight down to the waterfront. I’m disoriented and spun out from jet lag, but I know that I won’t be able to sleep. Maybe it’s an ugly city, but I want to decide that for myself. As for the people – everyone has been nice to me so far.

It’s Sunday. The streets are deserted, but I remain vigilant. I have been the target of harassment in New Caledonia, where I currently live. I’ve been chased down by a car full of Wallisian women. I’ve been sworn at, spit at, and shoved by Kanaks, the local people of New Caledonia. A friend of mine had a bucket of vomit thrown in her face. Maybe it is the reality of being a stranger in a strange land.

After a few minutes, I’m surrounded by functional cinderblock buildings. Each one cyclone-proof and the same grimy, sun-faded pastel color. All of the shops are shuttered. Their wares are barricaded behind metal doors. I couldn’t buy a disposable camera even if I wanted to. Besides, even the verdant peaks of Tahiti are obscured by clouds. My friends were right. There is nothing to see. I’ll walk to the waterfront and then head back.

A motorcycle races by, slicing through the silence. I freeze until the sound fades away. I emerge from downtown and cross over to the waterfront.

My eyes come to rest on the horizon. Moorea rises from the sea, a jagged shard of blue-green glass piercing the belly of the sky. My throat constricts. Once again, I freeze. And behold nothing.

16 thoughts on “Nothing to See

  1. Ah, all of humanity strives to be unique, but when confronted with uniqueness strives to destroy anything or anyone that does not conform to the status quo. We do not understand or welcome “outliers.” Another excellent post – I am so glad that you did not stay in your hotel room!

    • I’m so glad that I didn’t stay in my room, either. But there was no way that I was just going to sit in my room – I was in Tahiti!!! That view of Moorea more than made up for the cheerless downtown. It’s one of my biggest photographic regrets…

    • Doris – thank you so much for the award. I don’t put awards on my blog, because I’m trying to keep it minimalist and focused, but I hope you know that I really appreciate the thought and energy that you put into passing this one along. It means a lot to know that my blog is worthy of this attention. 🙂 Warm Wishes – Julie

    • It was totally fine. But then again, I saw absolutely no one except the people at the guesthouse and they were pleasant.

      I was going to look for a copyright-free photo to put with this, since I didn’t have one of my own, but then I thought that this particular post would be better without one.

    • Hi Frances – I learned that people are very different on the various islands, even within the same country! For example – in the country of Micronesia, the states of Pohnpei and Kosrae were some of the friendliest places I’ve ever visited, but just a short flight away, the state of Chuuk was hands down the most hostile place I’ve ever visited. I didn’t leave my room except to so on a snorkeling trip, and that was the worst, and one of the most dangerous experiences I’ve ever had…not because of the snorkeling, but because of the people.

      As for Tahitians – my experience with them outside of Tahiti has always been very positive. I actually work with some now, and they are great. So I honestly don’t know if it’s true what people say about the people of Papeete. Again, it could be a question of the specific island/city in French Polynesia.

  2. Hi Julie ( at least I think your name is Julie)
    I’m shocked to hear that your friend had a bucket of vomit thrown at her face. Why would someone do that?

    • Hello! The man did it because my friend was white. When she contacted the police, they did nothing, even though she pointed out the man. She had to get blood drawn to be sure that she hadn’t contracted HIV or some other disease because of coming into contact with bodily fluids. She was clean, thankfully. But what a horrible experience.

  3. I have the impression, dear Julie, that we often have the strongest impressions in places where there doesn’t seem to be anything to see! That you didn’t like New Caledonia very much reminds in my mind!:) I wish you a very good week.

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