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.