Peter Cooper, our Children’s Work Director, is currently on a year long world wide trip with his family. Here he writes about his experiences so far.
I left you last half way through our time in Tahiti. The bonus of staying somewhere for a month is that you really do get the chance to see more than the tourist image of a place. We spent our second two weeks revisiting some of the places that we had been whisked in and out of by our excellent host Carlos. We also tried our best to use the public transport much to Carlos’s despair. He assured us that it is useless, a disgrace, an embarrassment, an outcry, no good, how do say in England? A dogs lunch. A dogs dinner Carlos I say. That’s right he says “a dogs lunch and dinner”. Sometimes Carlos was much less complimentary about public transport than this. His less than glowing recommendation made me strangely even more determined to prove him wrong. This presumably isn’t a trait you have ever seen in me before? My first attempt to catch the bus resulted in a decisive victory to Carlos. I walked 10k to the supermarket and no bus passed. I walked back this time laden with three bags of shopping and no bus. Twenty K and four hours in 30 degrees and it’s 1-0 to Carlos and significant weight loss for me. Not to be beaten a second mission this time with Maryellen resulted in a return trip to the supermarket on the bus. The same driver having completed a lap of the Island, dropped us back right to our door. 1-1 Carlos me old China. I later found out he was born in China, so no doubt he thinks this was a slur on his heritage . Carlos dismisses our journey as a ‘ freak’ or perhaps on reflection it was a observation directed to me personally. The final result of our public transport dual would be decided with a full family outing to a remote beauty spot. Mama Hena, who is Carlos’s on site employee, begged us not to go. She predicted every kind of natural disaster will beseech us and we will be stranded for ever. She waited at the bus stop with us like a mother hen, clucking and cursing and was distraught when a bus eventually arrived. She made a last ditch effort saying something like ‘you go if you must but leave the babies, you must think of the babies’ Calm down Mama, We will be fine I will be back to drink very poor quality vin rouge with you before sunset, promise. She conversed with the driver in a cross between French and something local, making sure we didn’t get ripped off. The driver took our money which was no doubt less than he had first intended and tossed it into a bucket full of change which balanced on his rather ample belly. No need for a ticket in return just a grunt and a gesture to sit down. Mama Hena could be seen through the rear window, hands on hips, shaking her head before being consumed by a cloud of dust and diesel fumes. The buses themselves are known as Le Trucks. This refers to the now retired open trucks that are legendary in the travelling world. The guide books say that the old Le Trucks have been replaced with modern air condition coaches but the name Le Truck lives on. A few of the bygone Le Trucks have been saved, repainted and are now used to extract vast sums of money out of cruise ship passengers who are bounced around the island. If they weren’t sea sick on their cruise they certainly return to their ship looking very green. So the poor mans transport now exclusively carry’s the well off, whilst the locals and us get the modern air conditions coach. The air conditioning comes by way of the door being left open whilst driven at great speed. The graffiti in various languages translates perfectly well into English and the foam bursts through the ripped vinyl seat covers. I like it a lot. The view of the mountains on one side and the surf on the other is stunning and we are halfway to a decisive victory over Carlos. As we wend our way through the remote east coast villages with houses made of the ubiquitous corrugated iron, its curious to note two different methods of payment for the local passengers. Some throw a few coins in the aforementioned belly bucket, others simply kiss the bald head of the driver and offer no money at all. I’m planning to pucker up for the return journey. Meg has strategically saved a few large notes in case she needs to offer a conciliatory bribe to at least get the three of them safely home. Our days trip is a stunning success, just the return journey to negotiate. To cut a long story short, we ended up teaching our 6 and 8 year olds the finer art of hitchhiking. Proper education they are getting. My rather lack lustre efforts are replaced by a cute looking Maryellen who has got her felt pens out of her rucksack and has produced a colourful sign. Within moments we are being swept safely home by a young couple who are professional surfers in their flash jeep. They live at the end of the road at the world famous Teahupoo wave. When the wind is in the right direction, they ride one of the most dangerous waves in the world which requires a jet ski to tow the rider into it. The professionals can be viewed on YouTube. The amateurs can be viewed on the annual list of fatalities. So 2-1 to Carlos but at least we have hung out with some real surfer dudes/babes.
A couple of global health issues are very noticeable in the native French Polynesian population. Smoking is prolific and obesity in children and those in their teens, twenties and thirties is frightening. Coke Cola is the universal drink of choice and is drunk by very young children in teeted bottles. This global brand dominates all advertising throughout the country. Every restaurant, cafe, shop and even the pop up kitchens that serve food on the streets mostly at weekends, are fully adorned with coke cola branding. Nothing else gets a look in. Coke along with the French stick which is subsides by the government is fueling the nation and is the staple diet of both rich and poor families. Carlos who worked for the domestic airline for 25 years, told me that as the inter island planes are so small that every passenger had to be weighed as well as their luggage. In two years the average weight of passengers increased by 10kilos.
The mountains of Tahiti are majestic and are almost completely impenetrable as they are densely forested. The wood is very soft so has survived the saw as it’s not suitable for building. The only clearance I witnessed was at lower levels for pineapple plantations. Livestock farming is also very limited so the rain forest is almost pristine. Everything apart from tropical fruit, coconuts and a few root vegetables like Tarro is imported from Europe or New Zealand at great expense.
Our favourite natural feature to date is a blow hole known locally as the dragon. It’s a tube created when a lava flow cooled upon reaching the sea. The tube at one end is open to the sea swell and at the other breathes out a jet of compressed air. When the swell is big the dragon is very angry. The frequency of the sea swell is irregular and for some periods the dragon can go quiet, barely breathing for several minutes. But when a big wave crashes in, it blows out with tremendous power. We have a great video of our Rosebay taunting a particularly subdued dragon. He tolerated her for a few minutes before launching her off her feet and dumping her on her backside a few feet away. The location of said dragon is also not obvious and he can be seen to cause a good deal of wardrobe malfunctions on unsuspecting skirt wearing tourists. It’s got a great sense of humour has the dragon and a good following of local spectators who gather to witness the unveiling’s. as I mentioned at the start, being in one place for a while introduces you to the local customs and enables you to join in.
During our last week in Tahiti we were blessed by some spectacular close encounters with the Humpback whales. Mostly they had stayed off shore and could be seen transiting the bay. But for some reason they started coming right into the channel between us and the inner reef. I was able to paddle board alongside a breaching calf. Whilst junior played and it’s wash rocked my board, I was only to aware that somewhere as yet unseen a 25-30 tonne mother was close by. She eventually broke the surface next to me and blew a dragon like blow that resonated through my torso. Adrenaline kicked in and rendered my legs to jelly and I found myself kneeling rather than standing on the board above this gentle giant. I continued to cruise a respectful distance beside them for some time before a final tail slap from the mother signalled a deep dive and they were not seen again. the whales will soon be heading back south to the rich feeding grounds of Antarctica. In all the time that the mother has been on migration to give birth in the warm waters around French Polynesia, she has not fed and has survived solely on her own body fat alone. Her calf is nourished by her rich milk and they will only feed again upon reaching the krill deep down in the southern ocean. Hopefully this feeding phenomenon will give them at least some protection from ingesting the plastics that litter the Oceans in the mid latitudes. Doing beach cleans has been a regular feature of our journey.
The Cook Islands are a 3 hour flight on a small plane. like Tahiti they are made up of a main island in this case Rarotonga and lots of smaller atolls. The arrival into its tiny airport is exhilarating as the plane banks steeply to avoid the mountains. Rarotonga is one of two airports world wide which are famed for their jet blast. Tourist gather to almost touch the wheels of a landing plane or be blasted by the departing jet blast. The Cook Islands is a country that went bust and was bailed out by New Zealand. In a few short hours we have exited the Euro Zone of Tahiti and everything is very Anglophiled albeit with a deal of kiwi twang.
We headed straight to the beach to be greeted by the now familiar rolling back of a Humpback really close to shore. The Cook Islands is a port of call for them as well. I have lots to tell you about this magic place which seems to run like one big YMCA. I have actually met a lady called Aunty Joy (real name is Aunty Lydia) whose job description is to bring joy to peoples lives. In bringing joy to us she was unfortunately savaged by a chicken but that’s a story for another time.