It was our third day on Bora-Bora, the island no one seems capable of writing about without saying that James A. Michener called it the most beautiful island in the world.
My wife and I were trying to decide what to order for lunch in the restaurant at the Sofitel Marara, the hotel that film producer Dino De Laurentiis built to house his crew during the making of Hurricane, a film apparently famous only as a flop; I've never come across anyone who has actually seen it.
I was feeling guilty because I was thinking of having, yet again, my favorite island dish, the marinated fish salad known in French Polynesia as poisson cru. So I consulted our waitress, a woman who was in love, or so I gathered from the word "Love" tattooed in English on her forearm. I asked what her favorite island dishes were.
Her answer: canned tuna, canned Spam, and, most of all, canned corn beef. I thought she might be kidding, because she accompanied her answer with a fit of giggling and then fled to the kitchen.
But after lunch, when we rode our bright red, rented bicycles into Va¿tape, Bora-Bora's biggest settlement, I stopped at Chin Lee's grocery store and found a well-stocked supply of the very items the waitress had named. As I stood looking at the jumbled shelves, a local fellow politely shouldered his way in front of me to pick up three, four, and finally, after some hesitation, five cans of corned beef.
Overcome by a curiosity that not for the first time in my life I later regretted, I bought a can, smuggled it back to our hotel room, and sat down to eat it. The contents of the can, which I had identified - correctly, I hoped - by the smiling cow on the label, was so high in fat that its color was almost white. The smell, although not immediately identifiable to me, was what I will forever think of as long-dead bovine. And as for the taste, I got down one small bite. The rest could remain uneaten, as far as I was concerned, until the cows came home.
I was intrigued. With a lagoon that amounted to a seafood take-out, and with ripe coconuts on every palm tree (except those where they had been removed so as not to risk injury to guests while on hotel property), could the locals really prefer canned meat?
"Yeah, they love the stuff," said Richard Postma, a 41-year-old expatriate American who himself has been on Bora-Bora for so long that he speaks fluent Tahitian and wears a thigh-circling tattoo of traditional Polynesian design that puts to shame the familiar American jailhouse tattoos seen all too frequently in Papeete.
I was questioning Postma as he let me steer his 46-foot sailing catamaran, Vehia, across a lagoon whose waters were displaying more variations of blues than an after-hours jam session at a Memphis nightclub. As the other guests stretched out on the netting between Vehia's two hulls, blissfully unaware of who was at the wheel, Postma told me that the taste for canned meat was a legacy of the American occupation of Bora-Bora during World War II.
The war, he said, is a time remembered with so much fondness by the locals - who never saw any of the horrors of conflict, but only the generosity of thousands of young boys with PX privileges - that to this day Bora-Bora is one of the rare places on earth where people genuinely like Americans. And canned meat products.
It is a fondness strengthened by the fact, said Postma, that the Americans had the good sense, in the eyes of the Bora-Borans, to come in, share their wealth, make love to the women ("The locals think it's a great trait to be part-American"), and then leave.
He said Bora-Borans think the American way makes infinitely more sense than the approach taken by the French, who have been administering much of the region since the 1800s, and who have been increasingly criticized for introducing French Polynesia to atomic testing, and - of greater concern to many - the work ethic.
In all my imaginings of Bora-Bora, the island that by many accounts is as close to paradise as you can get without purchasing a one-way ticket to the afterlife, I had never imagined a single well-liked American (except me, of course) or a single can of corned beef. Yet, unexpectedly, here they were.
Ii had expected the great physical beauty. Michener had seen to that: "To come back to Bora Bora at the close of day after a long trip in a small boat and to see the setting sun illuminate the volcanic tower, massive and brooding in gold, is to see the South Pacific at its unforgettable best."
And I had expected the happy, smiling people. Again Michener: "People...as attractive as their island, the most natural and uninhibited Polynesians of all...."
But it is the unexpected discoveries, even in paradise, that make a place special. It is the unexpected discoveries that form the basis of the stories you tell.
The first unexpected discovery many people make about Bora-Bora is that it belongs to the same small group of French Polynesian islands that includes the perennial beauty-contest finalists, Tahiti and Moorea. The group is called the Society Islands, so named by Capt. James Cook because the 450-mile string of them - including the lesser-known lovelies, Huahine and Raiatea - seemed to him sociably close together.
Bora-Bora, or Porapora as it was originally spelled, is among the smallest of the Society Islands. In fact, considering how large it looms in the literature of paradise, it is unexpectedly small, being only 4 miles long and 21/2 wide. During its pre-European history its warriors had to develop a special talent to survive, a talent immortalized in a line from a Polynesian chant: "Porapora with the fleet that strikes both ways." This does not refer to liberal attitudes toward sexual preference, but to the fact that Bora-Borans introduced a concept into warfare that had never occurred to their neighbors: the sneak attack.
Centuries have passed since the last of Bora-Bora's war canoes, their paddles muffled, arrived at a neighboring island for a surprise party. Today, Bora-Borans refer to themselves generically as Tahitians, and speak better Tahitian, they say, than the residents of Tahiti. Yet in an unexpected way, modern warfare has played a major role in shaping the culture of Bora-Bora - and setting it apart from even its nearest neighbors.
In 1942 Bora-Bora was occupied by the U.S. military as a site for a refueling base. Some 4,500 American troops arrived to build the base and to defend it. What they found, according to one of them, naval officer James A. Michener, was paradise.
It was such a paradise, he was later to write, that, unlike other Pacific islands during the war, where the enlisted men became restless and wanted to go home, those stationed on Bora-Bora didn't want to go home at all, and would "raise merry hell," when efforts were made to send them.
Among the attractions, there was, of course, the palm-fringed reef, which surrounded the wide blue lagoon, which in turn surrounded the high, green island. There was the sun, the trade winds, and the white sand. And then there were the vahine.
"The younger women were strikingly beautiful," one naval officer wrote. And yet another officer, presumably one not very popular with the troops, commented: "When we first got there the women just wore a sarong with bare breasts. We showed them how to wear tops."
Fifty years after the first U.S. servicemen arrived, I arrived, asking the question: "Was it really paradise?"
I asked 72-year-old Hysler Hope Eastburn in the open-air lobby of the Hotel Bora Bora. Eastburn, or "Pappy Hope," as the locals called him, had arrived on Bora-Bora in February 1942 as a 22-year-old army private.
Now a retired professional gardener who has visited Bora-Bora every year for the past 18, he walks with a slow, slightly bent gait that serves as a graphic reminder of just how long ago World War II took place. Yet not two minutes after I'd met him, he was insisting that he show me the way up a steep, overgrown path leading to two of the 30,000-pound coastal defense guns the Americans had brought with them to the island.
The climb, which began near the Matira Restaurant, took us about 20 minutes. When we arrived at the top, we were both sweating, I, perhaps, the more profusely. "Tough walk," I said, in what I hoped sounded like a condescending tone.
"You ought to try it dragging them guns."
Eight of the guns - huge, rusting things - had in fact been literally dragged up the side of the hill, using ropes and, I presume, a full inventory of the kind of colorful language for which army sergeants are so well known. It took 400 men, including Eastburn, five months to get the job done.
"I think of it as paradise now, but I didn't in them days," Eastburn said as we looked from the hilltop toward the pearl white necklace of surf that encircles the lagoon.
"There was them guns to keep us busy. And them land crabs."
The land crabs, he said, had been the real enemy on Bora-Bora during the war. (The island was never attacked by the Japanese.) "You'd hang your socks on the line, the wind would blow them down, and the land crabs would drag them into a hole. Two or three days later they would bring them out again, all chewed up."
By 1946 the U.S. servicemen were gone from Bora-Bora. But today the islanders, even the ones who weren't around during the war (which is most of them), still talk about Americans with the kind of enthusiasm that kids usually reserve for a favorite aunt or uncle who comes loaded with gifts, but never stays around long enough to become an authority figure.
"Americans built the airport that lets us have tourists," one woman told me. "Without it we'd still be working on coconuts." The woman, generously girthed, with a cigarette lighter tucked into the front of her green-and-white pareu, was the driver of a minibus I had boarded for a tour around the island. "You can't pronounce my real name," she said. "So just call me Sugar."
As we drove past Matira Beach, along the two-mile strip where most of the hotels are located, we could see out beyond the lagoon to the sandy, palm-covered islets, called motu, that form part of the barrier reef.
One of the other passengers wanted to know if people lived on the motu. No, Sugar said, families usually go out there for only a few days at a time, to gather coconuts.
"How romantic," said a dreamy-sounding woman who, like seemingly half the tourists on the island, was on her honeymoon.
Sugar turned and looked at the woman as if she were as dumb as a land crab. "Coconuts is hard work. I did coconuts, stooping over all day to pick them up. It's hard for your back. As soon as I pass my license, I say the heck with these things, I'm staying with the bus."
We drove counterclockwise around the island, along the lagoon-hugging 19-mile road that was another gift of the U.S. military. On the inland side of the road, a single row of thatched or tin-roofed houses - where there were houses - backed up against the green skirts of the ancient, twin-peaked volcanic cone that dominates the island. As we drove along, it seemed to me that a lot of house building was going on. Traditional houses, they looked like, framed with straight, thin tree trunks so recently stripped of their bark that they were still freshly white.
"No, not houses," said Sugar, in a tone that made me suspect she might think that the woman on her honeymoon wasn't the only one as dumb as a land crab. The structures were temporary food, liquor, and games-of-chance stalls being erected for Bastille Day, which the Tahitians have stretched into a month-long celebration that is often the start of, as one Bora-Boran told me, "the year's best feuds and romances."
Toward the end of our tour, from the old Club Med that was closed following a December 1991 hurricane (a new one is under construction) all the way around to Bloody Mary's, the American-run bar whose varnished wooden tote board of celebrity visitors is proof that name-dropping can be an art, we could see the sailing cruise ship Wind Song riding at anchor in the lagoon.
Back at the Hotel Bora Bora, one of the managers, an American named Al Robbs, told me that a few years ago one of the passengers aboard Wind Song had been James A. Michener himself. While on the island, Michener was taken by sailing canoe across the lagoon for a birthday lunch at the hotel.
"He told me," said Robbs, "¿you are living the life I always dreamed of living.'"
To visitors, whose average length of stay is five days, Bora-Bora does seem like a dream life. To visitors, that is, who can get beyond the fact that such a necessity of life as Coca-Cola costs up to $2.70 a can, with all other costs proportional.
It is a dream life of lying in a hammock in front of a thatched-roof bungalow while you watch honeymoon couples in the lagoon splash and giggle and come interestingly close to forgetting that they are not the only two people in the universe. It is a dream life of circling the island on a bicycle in half a day, stopping along the way at a roadside stand where the proprietor will, with his machete, lop off the top of a drinking coconut for you. It is a dream life of canoe trips out to the reef, where you can swim in chest-deep water among sharks while they are hand-fed by locals skilled at convincing you that you are in absolutely no danger.
And to visitors it seems that some Americans - a group usually numbering around 15 or 16 - have found ways to live the dream life more or less permanently. Most of these long-staying Americans have done it by marrying Tahitians (the simplest way, if you don't have a needed job skill, to circumvent the strict French laws about how long foreigners can stay). Most have golden-skinned children that are more Polynesian than American. And most consider Bora-Bora, more than America, to be their home.
But are they living a dream life? When you live on Bora-Bora, is it paradise? Or is it just¿where you live?
To seek the answers, I spent a dozen days talking to dozens of people, sometimes under conditions that finally prompted my wife, Diane, to ask "You call this work?" I talked to Americans, among them 18-year-resident Monty Brown, whose duties as director of the Hotel Bora Bora have included commiserating with a guest who complained that the splashing of the fish beneath the window of her overwater bungalow was keeping her awake at night. And Robin Teraaitepo, a woman who has lived on Bora-Bora for five years with her Tahitian husband, Ben. "When I was growing up in Oklahoma," she said, "the closest I ever thought I was going to get to paradise was watching the Don Ho show."
I talked to locals, ranging from the mayor, who had recently come to power on the promise of running water for every home, to a young Tahitian who had returned from a visit to California with the belief that American women were much easier to live with than Tahitian. "American woman, to show her you love her, you just buy flowers. Tahitian woman, that don't work."
My conclusion, based on what I heard from all these people, is that Bora-Bora really is paradise. But for an outsider, living in paradise is hard work. You have to work hard at understanding the people you have chosen to live among.
And you have to work hard at understanding yourself.
You have to understand that pure-blood Tahitians, unlike your unfortunate self, are not the product of a cold-weather culture where the idea of getting ahead developed as a necessity for surviving the winter. To them, the chief attraction of a job is often that it is an opportunity to visit with friends.
You have to understand, when you see a Tahitian throw a can or a bottle on the ground, that until not too long ago, before the outside world first brought him cans and bottles, the elements saw to it that anything he dropped on the ground quickly rotted, and disappeared.
You should consider, when you hear that it is relatively common for a Tahitian man to beat his wife "because a Tahitian woman does not respect a man who does not physically dominate her," that there is much about our own society we don't understand either.
You have to understand that in all these matters, Tahitians, like people everywhere, resent having someone come in from the outside and tell them how things ought to be done in their own country. "All you can do," says Richard Postma, "is try to set an example."
And, as a resident of paradise, you have to understand that you will always be on stage. Nothing about your life on the island will be unknown, or undiscussed. You will not, as Al Robbs said he sometimes wishes he could, be able to get in an automobile and drive until you reach a place where no one knows you.
You should know that you won't know right away who won the World Series, or the NFL or NBA championships. (Although, come to think of it, all you have to do is go to Bloody Mary's and see L.A. Lakers fan Rick Guenette, who has the ball scores faxed to him.)
You have to understand that if you stay long enough you may discover that you have nowhere else to go. "Can you imagine me trying to get a job someplace in the States with a 25-year lapse in my curriculum vitae?" says 44-year-old Keith Olson, a North Dakotan who has been in Polynesia since he was a teenager.
And finally, you have to understand that no matter how hard you try to come to terms with paradise, you will probably not succeed as well as an outsider named Alfred Doom.
Doom, a Tahitian with American blood in him, arrived on Bora-Bora from Tahiti in 1948, coming ashore from a ship to visit an island girl. He stayed so late visiting the girl that the ship - the freighter that made a monthly circuit of the Society Islands - sailed without him. Forty-five years later, he is still on Bora-Bora, and still married to the same girl.
"Bora-Bora was very calm when I first come," said Doom. "Few bicycles, some horses, and lot of canoe. The canoe then is like the scooter today." The old way of fishing and coconuts was still OK then.
But as the years went on, the traditional way of life seemed less OK to Doom and less OK to his wife, whose family is Chinese. In the late 1950s he went to New Caledonia to work in the nickel mines and came home with enough money to buy the island's third automobile, a De Soto.
At the time, it would have been hard to imagine any purchase more extravagant or useless than an automobile on Bora-Bora. Unless, of course, you were Alfred Doom and had the imagination to see the possibilities that were created in 1961, when the island's first resort, the Hotel Bora Bora, began attracting tourists to thatched-roof bungalows that sat beneath palm trees beside the most beautiful lagoon in the world.
In the beginning the Hotel Bora Bora owned a jeep. But there were days when the jeep was unable to handle all the transportation needs of the guests. On those days, the hotel hired Doom. "In the beginning, I am the spare tire," he said.
Now, at 62, he's the big wheel. Mr. Transportation. Mr. Member of the Tourism Committee. Mr. Uncle of the New Mayor. He has lived happily. He has prospered. And he has thought as much as anyone about the future of his adopted paradise.
He worries about commercial boats coming from elsewhere to take fish from the waters of Bora-Bora. "You fishing for your family, OK. You eat the fish, as much as you want, OK. You make money, no. These fish are for this island."
He has thought about the plans for building more hotels on Bora-Bora, which currently has fewer hotel rooms, about 400, than a single medium-size hotel in Hawaii. And he is in favor of such plans. Up to a point. "Make hotels until all people on island who want hotel job have one. We don't want people come from other island for job."
He has considered the possibility that French Polynesia could become an independent nation. "The majority, they want to be independent, but they know we not ready. We better stay with the French for the moment. Maybe in 20 years, maybe more, maybe. But for the moment - no."
French Polynesia is not ready for independence, he said, because it is not ready to stand on its own financially. And as we watched a group of Japanese tourists spend a scheduled 30 minutes sitting on the beach, I asked him what might allow Polynesia to stand on its own financially?
His answer was that of a man who deserved to live in paradise. And would always be happy there.
"Maybe we can find a way," he said, "to make smiles grow on trees."