by Whitt Birnie
One of life’s greatest pleasures is letting yourself get hypnotized. Adults do it all the time when they lose themselves in lovemaking, or experience a related feeling while sunbathing late in the afternoon on a quiet secluded beach, the warmth and rhythm of gentle waves lapping on the shore casting a spell. It happened for me again just the other evening while concentrating on the cascading undulations of light grass skirts and long dark hair while islanders performed an ancient ritual dance surely invented to hypnotize.
The small town of Papeete is more than a traditional tourist setting. Gathered outdoors under a starry sky, a warm breeze stirring the palms, the barefooted dance groups were entertaining their families, friends and a few curiously idle outsiders in the annual July fête, Tiurai, now called Heiva. Easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm for the refined ‘noble savage,’ very alive in the Fenua, their own natural habitat. Months of effort go into the festival preparations: handmade skirts with decorative headdress, scented leis and flowered tiaras, original choreography of traditional legends, new songs and old chants, all are set and recreated for just this occasion.
Whites of darting eyes gleaming, smiling faces with pearly teeth, slender scantily clad bodies decorated in vivid natural colours, raised arms and the universal hand gestures of primitive storytelling, it’s more than a healthy dose of exotic enchantment. I sensed my mind slipping away as I lost control to an overwhelming power in the native dance. The deep percussion of wooden instruments, blocks and drums, transmitted synchronized sounds at the deepest end of the audible range, the vibrating syncopated rhythms pleasingly loud, entering the body more through the skin than the ears. Only half aware of the others around me, out of the corner of my eye I could see that they were goners too.
And then, all of a sudden, a gentle sprinkling of rain began to fall. No one in the audience moved; we were all under a spell. The dancing female and male bodies, already wet and glistening from exertion, took on a slippery sheen as the cool refreshing droplets encouraged them to redouble their efforts. The dance floor became a shimmering mirror. We were all vibrating with the drumbeats, captivated, the dancers undulating their bodies, throwing wave after wave into their shining grass skirts. Wet, somewhere between warm and streaming, we passed over a bright line into a timeless oblivion. It passed through my mind that I might already be waiting at the pearly gates, these young adult dancers being just the angels I one day hope to see.
There seemed to be a long moment of silence at the end. I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up after 250 years, thinking, is this what James Cook and his crew were talking about? Is this why the missionaries were so anxious to intervene? Isn’t this part of the Enlightenment’s idea of the ‘noble savage?’ The silence gave way to bedlam. People started stomping their feet on the bleachers, hollering for more, encore et encore. The dance troupe wore a single smiling and pleasurable expression of utter exhaustion; no one had the energy to move, let alone wiggle their hips.
So there, that’s what the Tahitians do for fun: they write their own songs, then make costumes and musical instruments from what nature grows and gives them. They are unique. They create dances from their Polynesian legends. The world beyond their shores is ignored. They spend months of evenings learning and practicing their art, socializing face to face, getting lots of exercise in all the right places, playfully joking and flirting while acting and dancing with their many close friends, happily laughing and singing and having the time of their lives.
That’s the truth, the whole truth, I tell you no lie. It was a brief glimpse of paradise; I saw angels, I felt an afterglow, I’d witnessed some of heaven’s chosen creatures dance.
by Whitt Birnie
Historical logs, legend, myth, tale and lore have given Tahiti more than a name; Tahiti has become an idea rather than just an island. Credit the writers, artists, sailors, mutineers, producers and movie stars with building an image of what once was, and what it became. But credit the Polynesians with imagination, endurance and hospitality – against all odds, they have survived. They are deeply proud of their culture and love their country, the Fenua, like no other.
It was nearly 250 years ago that navigator James Cook sailed in, introducing the Western world to an exceptional culture. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here, with a stretch of the imagination, is how it might have appeared.
by Whitt Birnie
They showed up singing. While outside the coral reef, body-surfing in breakers rolling in from the Southern Ocean, I could barely distinguish their song underwater amidst the roar of the surf. But like a curious whisper which wakes you from deep sleep, their music cut through my watery reverie and I knew immediately that whales were close-by. Swimming full-speed to my tender, I was already planning how I might greet these mighty sea creatures face to face, and save the unique experience for others.
I did knowingly place myself in the right place at the right time for this picture, I admit, but the luck and variables to have it turn out right were staggering. The pink of dawn still lingered in the clouds. Early daylight turned the rippled surface a light blue. The headland background (can you see the features of her face?) permitted me to add to a series of related photos. The lagoon was calm, so I could hold the camera steadily.
The whales were snuggling together as they approached, almost as if they were emotionally attached. Then, as the magnificent male prepared his dive, his devoted spouse blew the remaining air from her lungs with such force that my body trembled with the camera in hand, my shaking fingers triggering the release unconsciously as I mentally strained to absorb every detail. In fact, the roar of her breathing out and in took their picture, I was just an instrumented bystander, and lived to tell the tale.
Have you ever seen what happens to the needle of a compass when you pass a magnet nearby? The whales’ passage exerted a similar invisible force, which changed my world forever. Little did I know how valuable prints of this image would become to a native people who treat these creatures as sacred: the Fenua’s Tohora, at “te ava moa,” in ‘the sacred pass.’ People still cover their bodies with tattoos of whales, marking their skin permanently, just as they have done for centuries. Finally, I’d found something every honest traveler wants, something personal to “give back” to our hosts, a marvelous people, the Polynesians, who have welcomed, embraced, tolerated and forgiven so many of us intruders, we who come by sea.