Cruise — As told to Diane M. Byrne
— April 2003
The Time of Their Lives, Part II
Alein and his wife are both originally from France, where he was an optomologist and she was an artist. Eighteen years ago, they set sail from France to travel the world in their 30-foot sailboat. They made a stop in Taha’a and loved it. They continued on their voyage as far as New Zealand, but after a short visit there, they came back to Taha’a and settled. They have two kids, a girl age 12 and a boy age 17, both born on the island.
Since their move to Taha’a, they have become avid botanists and know almost everything there is to know about the local flora and fauna—and a lot about Tahitian culture. Did you know there are 2,700 varieties of plants in Polynesia and only 950 of them are indigenous? Most of the plants came with the Europeans.
Alein and his family live near the water on a beautiful piece of land with trees, plants, and flowers everywhere. Instead of one house, with multiple rooms, they have five houses (or huts), with one or two rooms each. The walls of the huts are made from bamboo stalks and the roofs from woven palm fronds. The largest hut houses the kitchen and a small sitting room. Their dining area is outdoors. The smallest hut next door has the bathroom and a utility room, complete with a washer and a large sink for cleaning fish. No dryer—they hang the clothes on an old-fashioned clothesline! Just about 20 steps up the hill is the hut that house their sleeping room. It’s only a little bit bigger than their bed and is open on all sides to let the air come through. Another ten steps or so away is the hut where their kids’ rooms are. It’s also open on all four sides and has a divider down the middle to separate the rooms. The girl’s room had posters of Josh Hartnett, Heath Ledger, and various other teen idols covering the walls. The boy’s room had surf posters and a large picture of Britney Spears. Some things are just like home! The last hut is up the hill a bit and is their storage hut. I guess even in paradise you need a place to store your junk!
They grow or catch (fish) 90 percent of what they need to eat. If they have extra fruit or vegetables, they give them away or exchange for needed items.
Alein also grows vanilla. Here’s an interesting note: It originated in Mexico and was brought to Polynesia by the French (who got it from the Spanish, who got it from Mexico!). In Mexico an indigenous bee pollinates the vanilla flower; the flower has to be pollinated to produce the bean. There is no such bee in Polynesia. So for hundreds of years after the plant was introduced, it did not bear fruit. In the late 1800’s, an 11-year-old slave boy discovered that you could pollinate the vanilla flower by hand. So all of the vanilla produced in Polynesia has to be hand-pollinated. The flower blooms for just one day, so you have to be quick. Alein says a good worker can pollinate 3,000 plants in a day.
They also grow another crop here called Noni, or “stinky fruit.” It grows on trees and has a small, green, bumpy, oval-shape fruit. When ripe, it smells terrible—a combination of dirty socks and cheese! The natives squeeze the juice to make a tonic that they believe cures many ills—arthritis, diabetes, urinary problems, the common cold, and even some forms of cancer. (I think that if it tastes as bad as it smells, you become cured very fast so that you no longer have to drink the stuff!) Apparently, Noni tonic is becoming quite vogue in Europe as a natural medicine. In addition to drinking the stuff, the natives use it on bug bites and infections.
We also learned about the traditional Tahitian method of cooking in an earth oven called an ahimaa. They dig a large hole and make a fire with one of the local hardwoods. They cover the fire with stones. They take fish, pig, vegetables, potatoes, etc., and cover them with the leaves of the hibiscus plant; they place these right on the stones. Then they cover it with several more layers of leaves and then fill the hole with sand. Because the hibiscus leaves are full of water, this steams the food. Nowadays, most Tahitians use conventional ovens or stoves to cook, but they still use this ahimaa method to cook for special occasions and celebrations.
I think everyone agreed that Taha’a was the most beautiful island we have visited thus far in French Polynesia. Completely unspoiled, low tourism, friendly people, mountainous peaks, green, lush landscapes, and clear, blue water. What more could you ask for?
This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.