The departure

Leaving Pitcairn was not easy. Three days before my departure, it hit me. I was leaving. I was returning to the outside world. I was returning to the unknown, to strangers, to mobile phones, to unlimited internet, to roads, to news and deadlines and utility bills. It was one of the few times in my life that I have felt scared.

It was not just my return to ‘real life’ – I use that term loosely, as Pitcairn has led me to question what is real on more than one occasion – but also the idea of goodbye. Goodbye is a word that rarely rings of permanence. These days, with cheap travel, Facebook, email, etc, we all live in a state of constant flux. Nothing is concrete apart from our own transience – our lives are international, spanning time zones and languages. Leaving Pitcairn is quite different. Saying goodbye had a permanence that made me feel uncomfortable – partly because it is a concept so at odds with my own experience of reality.

In the three days preceding my departure, a feeling of impending dread started to creep in. My world had shrunk to a 2 mile by 1 mile lump of rock – my patterns and behaviours dictated by the roads down to Adamstown, by shop hours, post office times, the VHF announcing the arrival of yachts. I had melted into island life, and I could no longer remember who I was before it, and nor could I imagine how I would be after it. I now know how people can get stuck there, or how certain behaviours become normalised – because if two or three people on an island of 40 behave in a certain way, that defines normal. Each person has an influence that ripples throughout the island, one word can cause a tsunami. The islanders have, however, become a kind of extended family. Some despise me, some have taken me in, some have offered refuge against the turning tides of opinion. Many have surprised me.

Youngest person on Pitcairn island

Youngest person on Pitcairn island

It is difficult to explain, but even in hostility there can be comfort. There is comfort in familiarity, and on Pitcairn, it is such a small bubble that you get to know a person’s peculiarities quickly. You get to learn that buying AA batteries in the store will provoke a vulgar joke, and you come to expect it, and perhaps even miss it when it doesn’t come. I know now what sets a person off, and how to avoid it. I know which buttons to press should I want to get a rise. I have probably spent a greater proportion of my life with some of the people on Pitcairn island than I have with many of my closest friends out there in the world. They are not all people I would choose, but necessity had thrown us together, and with some pushing and pulling, we have, for the most part, learnt to coexist.

I realise now that I had the odds stacked against me from the outset. I knew that the island hated journalists, but I somehow expected that more people would Google me, realising that I wasn’t one, and instead finding a bunch of Polaroids of lighthouses. I thought that would change things. When it didn’t, I tried talking to people, offering to show my work. That didn’t work either and the suggestion was usually met with derision – as one islander commented “I know what you do, I don’t need to see it”. Of course they had no idea, but on Pitcairn opinion can become fact in the blink of an eye. When an island and identity is so built by myth, why should my identity be any different?

I didn’t realise quite why I was so demonised until the last 10 days, when the Claymore returned, bringing with it a raft of visitors. Some were country collectors, and would have been happy to have stood on the soil, collected the passport stamp and left again, some were adventurers who just wanted a different sort of experience, and some were artists and filmmakers. It was this latter cohort that most intrigued me. I watched with interest as they fled from the landing in a convoy of quad bikes, wondering what they would take away from this craggy lump of rock. After a couple of days, it transpired their experience was quite different from my own. They were almost glowing. The islanders are ‘so friendly” they exclaimed. “Hmm” I thought to myself.

I was puzzled. The very people who had, and have continued, to avoid my lens and talking to me, seemed to be the very same people performing for others’ cameras. The more I thought about it, the more confused I became, until I had – at 3am as is so often the case – an epiphany of sorts. I was a long stay visitor, a female long stay visitor no less. I fit the profile of the island’s two least popular long stay visitors almost exactly – unfortunately for me. I followed in the footsteps of the universally despised Kathy Marks, author of Trouble in Paradise, and the equally loathed Dea Birkett, author of Serpent in Paradise, the latter of which had, according to islanders, arrived under false pretences, pretending to work for the post office while actually writing a book. This book had been cited in many of my showdowns – on one occasion Dave Brown (island nickname “Mouth”) brought it up point blank, saying over morning tea that he was sure I was “another Dea Birkett”.

Bounty replica made by postmaster Dennis (aka "Sambo" Christian

Bounty replica made by postmaster Dennis (aka “Sambo” Christian)

After my epiphany, it transpired that the short stay visitors who came in with the Claymore held several distinct advantages, the first that should have been glaringly obvious was that there were males in the mix, handsome males at that. The women who had escaped me like mercury (and could be just as poisonous) fawned for the cameras and fluttered their eyelashes. By comparison, I had nothing to give.

I think I may have mentioned it before, but the island lives through different psychological phases depending on the proximity of the supply ship. When the Claymore leaves at the end of its runs, the island reverts to its working state. It battens down the hatches, closes its doors, wipes the “hypocriting” smile off its face and reveals its true colours, warts and all. There were no longer enough people to warrant the performance, the long stayers would get to know reality soon enough, so why bother to mask it? The public shows of community dry up, the polite dinners evaporate, and life returns to normal. Having now witnessed the full cycle of the Claymore, I have now experienced both versions of Pitcairn ‘reality’ – the party thrown for tourists and officials, and the other – the Pitcairn in survival mode which lets its unsightly belly flop around from beneath a too small Pitcairn Island vest.

It is a clever scheme on the one hand – by appearing generous and open to short stay visitors, the myth of Pitcairn being the idyll of community is protected. The islanders can continue to believe their own hype. The island’s fans receive their positive affirmation. The legend continues. Pitcairn remains quaint – a South Pacific pet. On the other hand the smoke and mirrors may contribute to the island’s downfall – if you can’t identify a problem how can you isolate and solve it?

It is only those rare few who ever visit for a long haul that can experience what Pitcairn is really like. I had wondered why the islanders would risk my own negative experiences escaping into the world and tarnishing their image, but then I realised that the balance is always tipped in their favour, that the mythical and romantic image that has been cultivated for the last two centuries will outlast anything I could ever say or do. That every Claymore run brings in more tourists who leave believing the hype that has been created for them. It is their voices that will be remembered, for they fall into step with the power of wishful thinking.

Having said all this, I can’t deny that the process of saying goodbye to Pitcairn was painful, and reached a crescendo on the weekend of my departure.

Steve and Olive Christian's fridge

Steve and Olive Christian’s fridge

The day before I left, the Saturday, was an uncharacteristically busy Sabbath on Pitcairn. Hosts were delivering their guests final wishes and requests, and a new pastor had arrived on the island from Moorea on the Thursday. Saturday would be his first service, and a community lunch was planned at the square to welcome him. This meant that Keane, a church elder (Pawl Warren’s father) would be stepping down and handing over, much to many islanders’ (and Keane’s) relief. I had mentioned my own departure wish to Keane, making a special request that the Sweet Bye and Bye be sung in church as the hymn, and so was committed to attending church.

I have never been a churchgoer, but on Pitcairn I have been a few times. It’s something to do, and a social occasion, and it feels nice that there is one place where you can, theoretically, leave animosity at the door. The Sweet Bye and Bye, taken from the Seventh Day Adventist hymnal is about as close as you can get to the Pitcairn national anthem. It has been sung numerous times since my arrival, usually on special days like ANZAC, or VE-Day. It is intrinsically linked with departure, and would sometimes be sung aboard cruise ships along with the hello and goodbye songs. When the community gets together to sing it, lyrics sheets are cast aside and the full force of the voices can bring a tear to your eye and cause the hairs to stand up all over your body. When the bass voices split off from the chorus and echo the refrain, something magical happens and the sound engulfs you – you can almost believe, in that fleeting moment, that there is hope. If I have ever seen a true semblance of togetherness on Pitcairn, it is within the unbridled singing of the Sweet Bye and Bye.

ANZAC decorations

ANZAC decorations

I had thought that Keane would forget. But after I had sat in the second row, sharing Daphne’s hymnal throughout a long, in fact double length, service – part taken by Keane and part by the new pastor, Keane’s parting gift took me by surprise. “By popular request” he said, as he stood down from the lectern and caught my eye, “the Sweet Bye and Bye”. It seemed fitting – for he too would now be taking a back seat. Though I had hoped it was coming, I was caught a little off guard, and Daphne turned around and flashed me a broad and comforting smile. She held out the hymnal for me, and we both clutched it tightly though we both knew the words – it was her way of holding my hand through it, because on Pitcairn that wouldn’t have been the done thing. There was a Danish film crew, who had been on the 4 day stint filming the whole service, and I did try to hold it together. But suddenly the fact that I felt that the community were behind me, despite the rocky road I had travelled, brought me to my knees. For those few minutes, the whole of my Pitcairn experience flashed in front of me, and Keane and Daphne’s kindness reverberated through me. I hadn’t realised how important they had become until that moment. They have been my island grandparents, and a major part of my own Pitcairn tapestry.

After church, I sat in the pews unravelled. Most people had cleared out, only Jacqui remained, playing the electric organ for a member of the Danish film crew. The pastor approached me and checked that I was ok. He seemed a kind man, and said I could always call on him or his family should I ever find myself in Moorea. After I pulled myself together I walked out of the church for the last time, having waited until the usual crowd had left the square and I could make a clean exit. I headed blindly to Merelda’s house which sits just behind the Public Hall for a few minutes of sanctuary. We haven’t always had the easiest relationship, but at the end things seemed ready to thaw, and I knew it was one of the last places anyone would expect to find me, not least myself. I took refuge from the rain, and soon Merelda had left taking her Japanese house guest off for a final island tour in full waterproofs, and her mother Mavis had wandered down to the pastor’s lunch. I was left alone in the rain on their porch, watching the water run from the roof in streams like a kind of pathetic fallacy, reflecting my mood. I noticed for the first time a double handled long saw hanging over the entrance way spanning its breadth. The irony didn’t escape me.

As I was gearing up to leave and reaffix my staunch mask of unflappability, Mike appeared on foot en route to the lunch. “I’m glad I’ve run into you” he said. He thrust a plastic bag towards me, which turned out to be a going away gift – some jars of honey, a map, and some chocolates for my journey as well as some tissues – “I thought you might need those tomorrow”, he added. There are some relationships on the island that have been quite unexpected, and at the end, it has been these unprovoked acts of kindness that have let me know that my presence has mattered, that I have been valued by some, and that perhaps I have done some good, even if it was just a small amount, even I just helped to fight the loneliness for one person and just for one minute. As Mike said as he walked off, there is “something about Pitcairn that gets under your skin”.

For that 24 hours, every little thing would set me off. I had the best intentions of making a goodbye tour, of going around and saying individual goodbyes to those who had mattered most. But when it came to it, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had wanted to see Daphne and Keane properly, to see Irma, to see Nola and Reynold, to see Royal. The older generation that have, after ups and downs in some cases, been my salvation. But I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t just a matter of time – of the usual chaos that descends upon departure – but rather that I couldn’t bring myself to look in their eyes and know, deep down, that I would never see them again. I couldn’t trust myself not to break down in a heap.

Goodbye. When Goodbye really means goodbye.

I know for instance, that in ten years time, most of the people I have been closest too will be dead and gone. The people in the next age tier down will have taken their place – Olive and Brenda, for example, will be the age Daphne is now. Vaine, my most recent host, will be nearing 80. Without repopulation, the island’s demise seems certain, and despite the number of settlement enquiries going through to the immigration email address, no applications have resulted in settlement.

The island I know will cease to exist. That is an inevitable truth. When each personality is felt so acutely, one loss is not just a personal loss, but a chunk taken from the island’s fragile identity. One new settler could change the dynamic drastically. There is perhaps nowhere on earth that is at once so adverse to change but so defined by the passage of time.

In every Pitcairn home there is a staunch yet subtle reminder of this – for in every home, you will find a ticking clock. Not just any ticking clock, but as if by communist issue, it is the same clock that graces their walls – bought in bulk by the warehouse, and resold to islanders. It’s a black rimmed, Chinese made, white faced Quartz clock. The type you find in pound shops. It has a loud and familiar tick that permeates your consciousness and follows you seamlessly as you move between houses, a pulse, a heartbeat. It is impossible to forget time on Pitcairn. Though the name Pitcairn conjures visions of Arcadia or Utopia, places where time stands still, it is only the myth that eschews time. There are probably more clocks on Pitcairn per capita than anywhere else in the world, and time marches on relentlessly, the only constant in an uncertain future.

The costs of reaching Pitcairn as they currently stand are too prohibitive to contemplate revisiting. It is now, at my departure, that I also understand what isolation means. When I arrived, I was caught up in the getting here. Over the last three months I have been wrapped up in being here. But now, leaving, I wonder about the future – about whether I could ever come back, about what will happen when I leave. I know this life so well, that I can tell you what each person is likely to be doing at any given hour over the coming week, month, even year. But while time matches forward, underlying it all deep change will rip this community apart, probably while no one notices. On departing, I now know this to be true. I try to imagine all the ways that I could ever find myself back here, all the routes and possibilities, and at each one I see a dead end, and I know in my heart of hearts that my experience has been finite. Even if there were no temporal or financial restriction to my return, this island will never be the same again.

It sounds ridiculous, but I will miss the daily challenges. Wondering whether today will be a good day, or whether I’ll find myself crying in the disused Sabbath school building at the left hand corner of the square tucked in behind the church, the only place where I can be sure no one would look for me. I will miss the fact that you only have yourself to rely on, that no one stands up for you in public. Pitcairn has taught me hat I am tougher than I thought I was, and softer too, in places.

It has been extremely arduous at times. I have been viewed with such open suspicion, that I have even started to doubt myself. At times the islanders vehemence has caused me to question my own motivations and wonder if I am as they see me after all, and that maybe I am going mad. I have experienced a whole raft of negativity, and it really has, at times, felt like carrying an anvil on each shoulder. As I leave too, aside from the sense of overwhelming loss, I also feel catharsis.

It is a true tragic ending.

The weight has been lifted, and I will soon return to being myself again, whatever that means. I feel a huge sense of release, now I can put down the weight I have been carrying with me. It seems almost alien to be able to re-enter a world where I am taken at face value, where a supposition of trust is wordlessly exchanged through a handshake. I have forgotten how easy life can be.

Without visiting Pitcairn, it is very difficult to explain how insular it really is. The world could end and Pitcairn would stand, dissident, expecting to be excepted from that inescapable fate. Somehow Pitcairn exists at the centre of its own universe. Little permeates. It is slippery, as if covered by a film of oil – nothing sticks. Visitors come and go, and only the myths perpetuated by Hollywood and history retold and rewritten remain. Now that I have left, there are only the contracted professionals and islanders left – as one local remarked “now we can go back to normal”. I wonder what he meant, as there is surely nothing normal about Pitcairn.

I think at some point, everyone who visits the island for a prolonged period, hits the hump. The hump comes at different points for everyone. I think mine was probably on day one, after a showdown with Nola outside of the store who took exception to my audio recorder. That incident set the tone for my stay – I was already on the back foot, already labelled, already marked. There was little I could do to change opinion. I was always playing catch up.

After diplomatic interjections, and a few trusted souls putting in good words for me, the wall with Nola came down, and Nola is now one of the people I will miss most on the island. So to say change is impossible would be a lie – the Nola 180 is a testament to adaptability. Though the damage her initial judgement caused did flavour my entire experience on the island – another example of how one person or one comment can cause such huge and lasting effects. But perhaps by the same token, it may take only one person to change things.

I have many regrets about my time on Pitcairn – not for myself, but for Pitcairn. I felt as though there were many areas that the island could have taken advantage of my presence. But Pitcairners are not terribly good at joining dots – once you arrive for one purpose, there is no reinvention, You are there for that purpose alone in their eyes. For example, I felt as though I were a good test for their repopulation plan – could I fit in? How did the community treat me? I also felt that I was able to put forward a more full and interesting portrait of life on the island, which was thwarted at every turn. I could have been used as a record keeper, preserving their history for them. I could have used my photography skills to boost the image of the island – there have been multiple photo opportunities that have been covered by the office digital camera and sent to the media. I could have been used on the island as a worker. I offered my services multiple times, and though noises were made, nothing ever came to fruition.

But more simply – I could have been a friend.

It is this that feels the biggest missed opportunity, for in spite of all the bluster, Pitcairn is incredibly lonely. A remote lump of rock filled with isolated people. If you feel lonely on Pitcairn, you are surely one of the most lonely people on earth. I wish more people had welcomed simple friendship, we both would have had a lot to gain.

As I prepared to head to the landing to leave, I had a quick conversation with Shawn. He asked me how my stay had been, and I thought that it was very typically Pitcairn – that I was being asked when I had one foot out of the door at the most inopportune of moments, when it was too late to do anything.

Afterwards, I dashed up to Vaine and Charlene’s where my clothes were still sitting on a drying rack. Still not dry, I threw them into a bag and clambered onto my quad. I started speeding down the hill, and then remembered that this would be my last downhill trip. I slowed to a stop, and switched off the engine – I looked up to my left at Christian’s cave, this triangular shape that dominates every view on the island, and I listened to the goats, and the rustle of wind in the leaves. Though it is underwhelming when you are inside it, Christian’s cave has become a kind of talisman, and I’ve spent a lot of time gazing back at its watchful eye, wondering what Fletcher Christian would think of us all now, and wondering if he’d say it was worth it.

I started the engine and went back to Steve and Olive’s home, Big Fence, where my Pitcairn journey began. I had spent my last night there, sorting through my bags, for I had left many of my belongings in one of their many spare bedrooms. I quickly packed my bags, and the cavalry formed, whisking my bags down to the landing. Before I know what was happening, I was parking my quad for the last time alongside the boat shed, and carrying the last of my belongings through the crowd that had formed at the jetty.

I was taciturn. A rarity for me. I felt that if I opened my mouth I would fall apart. It all happened in such a blur, and I was still vainly attempting to record everything. Linda and John approached my bike and I gave Linda the present I’d found her from Henderson, one job down. Daphne was my first real hurdle. She was sitting on the green park benches in front of the boat shed, and when I saw her I gave her a big hug and had to turn away before I cracked further. John had kindly taken charge of the last of my belongings, spiriting them towards the waiting long boat, though I was still clutching my recorder hopelessly like a kind of crutch.

I began my rounds and was determined to give every person on the jetty a hug. I managed, bar one. I gave Royal a squeeze, and she said that she was sorry I was going. I headed to Nola, who was all bluster, but then I heard her voice crack and a tear formed in her eye and she too looked away. I hugged Daphne again, and buried my head in her shoulder, and she said she would really miss me and that she was also sorry I was going, and then her eyes welled up too. As I turned to leave, Linda caught my arm and said in my ear “you’ve done it”.

I eventually turned away from the group on the jetty and boarded the longboat for my one last time, unwilling to prolong my torture anymore. The inevitable was upon me and I just wanted to get it over with. As the longboat pulled away from the jetty and zoomed out from the landing, I could barely believe that this was it. I tried to photograph my parting, and the camera provided a good distraction from catching anyone’s eye. I did steal one long last look at Daphne who never stopped looking back at me and then watched through my viewfinder as Keane, Nola, Reynold, Olive, Jacqui and Betty were all stood in the rain waving feverishly. I tried to take a picture with my eyes rather than through the camera – an image marked indelibly on my brain.

The Claymore was anchored away from Bounty Bay on the lee side for the sea had become rougher, and the longboat swiftly made the journey around the island. For one last time I took in the steep cliffs, the foreboding shapes, and took a last look at Christian’s cave and a vanishing Adamstown. The island was cloaked in low lying cloud, as though it had closed up already and was hiding from me. The smoke and mirrors in tangible form, the mysticism closing in, shrouding it from view. I tried to take pictures, but my heart wasn’t in it, I was just using it as a kind of distraction. At one point Shawn, seeing the tears still streaming, leaned in from the back of the boat and said “You could always lead by example and become the first migrant” – I laughed.

When the longboat pulled up alongside the Claymore, I did my boat rounds, saying swift goodbyes. A number of the islanders boarded the boat, and I had a chance to give them a proper send off too. Once I had gathered myself, I headed astern to watch the long boat wave us off till they disappeared from view, tumbling over the seas in a wake of sea spray.

Leaving Pitcairn

Leaving Pitcairn

And then there I was. Standing on the deck of the Claymore, like I had all those months ago, looking back at the island. I suddenly felt very alone. That there were too few people in the world who had shared my experience, that no one would really ever understand what this moment felt like. I felt possessive of that experience, and for a brief moment I knew what it must be like to be from Pitcairn. My island. Mine.

I peeled some of the Polaroids I had taken from the longboat and they were faint and milky, I had overexposed them all in my haste to distract myself. But it seemed fitting somehow. That my lasting memory of Pitcairn should be bleak and absent. Enigmatic like the island itself.

As we hauled anchor and headed into the blue abyss, I climbed the stairwell to a picnic table on the upper level aft deck and watched as the island shrank. I photographed it rapidly, as its profile slunk into the blue pacific looking like a sleeping platypus. Smaller and smaller. And then all of a sudden it was gone in the blink of an eye. Like it had all been a mirage, and that it had never really existed, like coming out of a wardrobe of furs and leaving Narnia. I was no longer Rhiannon on Pitcairn, I was some other Rhiannon, one that I had long since forgotten about, and was about to rediscover.

Pitcairn is not for the weak. But if you were to look for an experience you’d be hard pressed to match it. It has been immersive to say the least, and now leaving I feel reborn.

Thank you Pitcairn, for testing me, for pushing me to my limits, for the hard times and the moments of joy. It’s been… an unforgettable adventure.

The vanishing island

The vanishing island

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Mangareva and Beyond

Girl, French Polynesia

I’m going to skip forward a little while now, because there is so much to write, and perhaps all isn’t quite so important. I’m sure most of you are more interested in the Pitcairn leg than any of the preamble, so I’ll be quick…

I took a few days out to regroup and left Tahiti, ending up staying on a little motu (coral island). Staying there meant I didn’t have to worry about transport, or food etc, and I could just wander along and enjoy myself and figure out how to get the most out of the technology I was taking, etc.

Clearing

Sunset

The motu was great, a boat ride from the main harbour across a stunning lagoon. The water was postcard colour, and every underwater movement could be seen as the boat glided over the prominent coral heads. Guest accommodation consisted of wooden huts with thatched roofs and tiled bathrooms. It was simple, and allowed in more mosquitoes than I liked, but it felt very homely.

The guy running the place was a Frenchman, and a Hasidic jew – he no longer wore the full gear, but honoured Shabbat and many of the rituals, or had adapted them to match his current motu lifestyle. The locals called him Jesus or Robinson Crusoe (very similar to what my Dad used to get called! that and Chuck Norris, I remember!), and you could see why.

Shabbat

When I met him, he was wearing full white – an outfit he’s bought from a Hare Krishna place somewhere in Israel. Initially, he was great. All smiles and good cheer, but I rapidly felt that good hosting wasn’t the only thing on his agenda. I was the only guest at the time, and had a couple of days until the next guests arrived, and I very quickly started counting down to when he’d have a distraction. His colleague, a younger guy born and raised in French Polynesia was great, he made me feel comfortable and it was much easier when he was around. As for Robinson, he started asking me if he could give me a massage and started encroaching on my personal space too much. So much for my quiet time away from it all. Normally I’m good at handling this, but I just felt irritated by it this time… it was the opposite of what I needed.

Visiting ray

Hermit

I took to waking up early and skipping breakfast, and heading out around the motu on walks, shell hunting, and wandering through the coconut groves and attempting to avoid the mosquitos until I ran out of water. Robinson would prepare dinner in his well stocked kitchen hut, and the three of us would eat together. I did my best to avoid the innuendo, and did what I could to deflect attention. Robinson did have some nice friends, and I met a lovely Ukrainian/French couple who were great and came over to the motu for lunch (poisson cru – a kind of raw fish salad withcoconut milk), and we all went to the yacht club one night where I met a sweet lady who made up a little toy and sweets package for the little girl on Pitcairn. I also met a couple of sailor types who were all interested in my Pitcairn trip and it was refreshing to meet some people that actually knew where it was!

Polaroids

I took a kayak out on one day, exploring neighbouring motus and collecting shells. I stuck the GoPro on the front and had an explore, and as I was paddling past a beautiful island owned by an extremely wealthy cosmetics man, I encountered one of the men from the yacht club who was project managing work on the island. He allowed me to land and stop for a few minutes and have a quick chat – that island is usually off limits, with cameras everywhere and high security so I felt a bit privileged! I saw some amazing sea life, and a ray came up and paddled in the water one day, which was a rare treat.

After 3 nights I was relieved that an American father and daughter were to arrive, with his other daughter following the next day as she had missed a connecting flight. They were great – all belly laughter and joviality. It was like popping your ears and relieving the pressure. We would all eat together, have a drink together and talk about everything – the father, Rhys, was really interested in hearing about Polaroid and the trip, and his adult daughters were great – interested and in tune with the world. If only they’d been there since day 1. Rhys came with me to the airport for my departure and we had a couple of drinks waiting for the plane back – it was such a quick ride back and more convenient that the ferry. There was no airport security or scanning, so it was quite a pleasurable experience!

Once back in Tahiti I had to face the nightmare of repacking again, because I still had excess luggage – I’d had to make all sorts of deals with Air Tahiti and make a special luggage delivery flight and all sorts of complicated and convoluted arrangements. But despite it all, my bags still ended up being over what I’d booked, I think they must have put on weight with the in-flight meals or something! Anyway I got through it after a bit of reshuffling, but it swallowed the whole day of the 9th, meaning I missed out on seeing much… I had planned on visiting the Tahiti Museum seeing as it was opposite but a French minister was over and I saw the pomp and ceremony and motorcade from the road leading up to where I was staying, so it was a no-go anyway.

Skipping forward to departure day…

Leaving Tahiti

I left Tahiti on the 10th of March – the flights to Mangareva leave early – a 7:15am departure. I checked in, got myself sorted, and then tried to make a last minute phonecall before I lost all signal and internet. I spent a good 20 minutes trying to connect to one of the useless Tahitian ManaSpot hotspots. It takes yonks to go through all the menus and because the wifi was so slow, the windows needed to operate the internet weren’t popping up correctly. That meant you couldn’t disconnect either, so if you wanted more than one device to connect, you couldn’t – so I ended up having to purchase hotspot access for both phone and computer. This was a pain in the neck and ate into the time I had left to do anything.

I grabbed a quick coffee and took a seat and kept my eyes peeled for the Pitcairn contingent. They weren’t hard to spot, but I didn’t go over for a little while, just so I could make the most of my internet time while I still could. Once I’d gotten through the security check and was in the queue to board, I went and introduced myself to two women who turned out to be Darralyn and Michelle, and they pointed out Heather from tourism who I’d been in touch with, and the new island social worker Jim. Once I’d sat down on the plane, I also saw Andy, a British guy also over for the 3 months, looking at sea birds and conservation for the RSPB.

The plane ride was smooth and easy, I was sitting next to Heather who was great company and made the journey so much quicker. I was getting a bit fed up of planes by this point! We stopped off for refuelling at Hao, a coral island in the middle of nothingness, where we disembarked and took our hand luggage with us, and then moved on to Mangareva, flying over some of my most beautiful lagoon island I have ever seen.

Flight to Gambier

The total flight time was just over 6 hours, and we encountered a group of Norwegians who had just been to Pitcairn (adorned with Pitcairn t-shirts and hats) and were headed the other way at the airport after landing. I faced the dire blocked toilets (go on the plane people!), and hung around waiting for my luggage to all find its way to be collected. It took a while and my heart was in my mouth again, but finally got it all together (miracle!) and loaded it onto the waiting ferry which takes you over to Rikitea village (don’t forget your 1000 XPF for this bit!). It’s a nice ride across from the airport, which is on a separate island, and all the locals were fascinated by the Polaroid 180 camera I was wielding as we crossed.

Claymore

The Claymore II was visible just as we were pulling up to the dock, and the crew were there to greet us and load our bags off the ferry and straight onto the boat. It was all amazingly swift, efficient and seamless. We loaded them in at the cargo deck and I grabbed one suitcase that I assumed had clothes in it, and left the rest in a cargo container with the fruit.

Claymore II

We headed across the vessel to a safety briefing, going over the muster station and life jacket drill, and got the rundown on ship times for meals, etc. Jane – the ship’s cook had laid out a nice spread of welcome food and drinks – I was half starved by this point as you don’t get anything on the plane, so was delighted to see a chocolate cake set in front of me. As soon as we left dock we were to set our watches to Pitcairn time which is an hour different. It was all feeling very tangible now – just one more step on the journey!

Dog cross

Rikitea

The guys hefted our chosen bags down to our cabins and then we had a little while for a wander around the village before having a light dinner and setting off around 5pm. I headed up to Mangareva’s famous old cathedral and took a quick look inside, and then wandered back through the village.Cathedrale Saint-Michel de Rikitea

After school, Mangareva

It was just at school tip out time, and I met a group of 4 kids who wanted to know all about my Hasselblad and Polaroid cameras, and were asking me questions about London and tested me on whether I knew who the US president was. I showed them how all the cameras worked (note to self – must learn better French!), took some pictures for them to keep and some for me – it always amazes me how even with all the new fangled digital technology people who have never seen a Polaroid bond instantly with it. In the process of all this, I was rather distracted from the time so I made an unceremonious quick exit and dashed back to the boat with about 5 minutes to spare before I risked being left in Mangareva!

Mangareva kids

I didn’t have a chance to buy anything or explore the other wide of the hill, which I would have loved, but c’est la vie. Maybe next time, if there is a next time.

Once back on the boat, we had another Jane spread (you’d never starve on Claymore), and I wandered to my cabin to take a look. I had a cabin alone on this rotation as a whole raft of people had cancelled their trips, so I got lucky. It was huge by comparison to what I’m used to boat wise.

First meal, Claymore II

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There were two bunks, a sink, plenty of storage space, plug sockets, and a table with padded seating. I did ‘a Rhiannon’ and managed to make the place look like chaos had hit instantly as I tried to get organised with my equipment. I went around recording the sounds of the vessel as we were pulling off, then headed up to the aft deck to wave goodbye to French Polynesia and watch the sun go down.

Most of the others vanished to their cabins and Andy and I sat on deck till the light dipped, Gambier vanished from view, and there was nothing on all sides but the vast Pacific Ocean and the endless sky…. We were well and truly on the way.

Sunset leaving Gambier

The elusive Tahitian bus

bus

So I’m playing catch up again. Blogging is difficult without consistent internet! I’m on Pitcairn now (yes!), and Tahiti has been and gone, but as promised I’d fill you in.

Where had we got to?

After my walk into Pa’peete, I headed back to the airport motel and hung around to wait for Pascale and Julien, friends of friends, who had very (very) kindly offered to let me use Julien’s empty apartment in Puna’auia. They were flying in from another island where they’d been for a long weekend, so I had headed back to the motel to make use of the internet while I still could and wait to be collected.

Cat

The woman in reception saw me sitting there for an hour or so and then came out and pointed to a sign saying in effect, “no loitering”. I couldn’t quite believe it, particularly as I was sitting there with my huge 4 suitcases, etc.

I told her that I was waiting to be picked up, and she complained about how long I’d been sitting there saying the owner allowed guests to stay 30 minutes after check out. The reason, allegedly, is that the owner doesn’t like you using their wifi after you’ve checked out, which is a bit tight. I’d paid around £110 to stay there, and had only been in the room 12 hours due to my arrival time, so I argued it and told her I would have been using wifi from the moment I checked in till check out which could potentially have been 22 hours of usage. Nil Points for customer service. She did eventually back off, but spent the nest hour of waiting glaring at me through the reception window.

One thing you learn quickly about French Polynesia is how they are sticklers for rules (however illogical), and it’s a bit tedious. As I mentioned in the last post, that morning they had already been calling me down to check out before the actual check out time, they’re that eager… anyway – be warned. Tahiti Airport Motel is strict on everything, so be prepared for an argument.

Pascale and Julien arrived after a while and we couldn’t get all of my luggage in their car, so Pascale went and smoothedthings with the reception lady who then allowed me to put some luggage in the store (for a fee) till the next morning. We headed out to Puna’auia – Julien’s apartment is great. A two level place, with large bedroom, kitchen, excellent shower, balcony and landscaped gardens in a gateddevelopment opposite the Museum of Tahiti. It’s a 10 minute walk to shops, supermarket, a few restaurants, and the food vans that pop up all over Tahiti of an evening. It’s also a short wander to a stretch of beach – not the most amazing bit of beach, but access to swimming all the same. There is no internet in the apartment, so that evening I wandered the complex seeking out a wifi network, and found one on the ground floor which didn’t require a password. It means basically sitting on someone’s doorstep to get signal, and being eaten by mosquitos on the stairwell, but still. Beggars can’t be choosers.

I crashed out and slept like a log,finally feeling that I had a few days to gather myself and sort my luggage out in one place before heading off on the next stage of the adventure. I’m relived that everything had gone so well so far (touch wood) – and that I made it with all bags to Tahiti. It had been such a stress standing at every carousel, praying that my luggage shows up with wheels intact, and voila – only one more luggage ferrying trip, then the Claymore II and before you know it, I’ll be on Pitcairn!

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So the first day in the apartment passed – bags were collected from the motel, supermarkets were visited for provisions, explorative walks were made. By the end of the day, I’d decided I didn’t want to feel hemmed in, so decided to be brave and take the bus around the island the following day. I read up a little about the Tahitian bus service (terrible, by all accounts) but thought I would probably only be in Tahiti once, so I should just go for it.

At 5pm the next day, when I’d been waiting for a bus for more than 3 and a half hours I cursed my decision. It started off easily enough, I walked up the road to where the shops and garage were located, asked a petrol station attendant about where to wait for the bus, he vaguely pointed to the supermarket, and I made my way towards it. As if by magic the bus appeared in front of me, so I skipped to make it, paid my 400 XPF to the end of the line, and sat. I felt rather smug about all this being so easy, but it’s very true what they say about never counting your chickens.

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We headed off round the coast which was quite a fun drive, and helped me to get my bearings. This way I could see enough of Tahiti not to feel as though I was missing out on too much. The trip took about an hour and a half to reach Taravao – the last village on the route, which is also where you can change buses to go into little Tahiti, or “Tahiti Iti”. I got there at about 11:00, and decided Taravao didn’t look very interesting – there was a huge McDonalds sign which immediately put me off, and a supermarket and a few other eateries etc, but it seemed just to be a bit of an “end of the road” hub. It had the energy of a place in transition, people getting on and off buses, drunks hanging around, everything felt a little grab and go.

McDonalds

Taravao possibly has more going for it, but first impressions weren’t that positive, so I decided to board another bus before really knowing where it was going which looked like it headed into Tahiti Iti. Turns out it did, so I caught it in to Tautira, the end of the line on one side of Iti. It was a more picturesque drive – that side of the coast was more rugged, with beach breakers and locals bodyboarding and surfing. It was sleepier and more provincial feeling. I suppose more what you’d expect when you think of Tahiti maybe 20 years ago.

Small roadside tin roofed “bars” would occasionally appear, and the roads were rougher – the chain restaurants and large supermarkets vanished and there were no other cars on the road we travelled down. People walking along the road or tending to their business stared in at me sitting on the bus, and a few waved. I think if I were to go back to Tahiti itself, this is where I’d head. For want of a better word it was more “authentic”. Once I’d reached the end of the road in Tautira, I stayed on the bus as it turned around and headed back to Taravao, as local advice had been that the buses are irregular and schedules often don’t match up, so the best plan is to take a bus when you see it. I’d done my window shopping, and Tautira is tiny anyway – there wasn’t really anything to do per se, and so few people about to photograph. At Tautira I met a Belgian guy who boarded the bus – the only other passenger. He has been living there for a few months teaching in a local school, figuring out what he was going to do next. We had a nice chat, and at Taravao he kindly asked the bus driver what time the next bus going the other way around the island to Pa’peete was leaving and from where. The driver said 1:30, so I took the opportunity to grab some (disappointing) lunch and then wandered up the road to where I thought the bus stop was. I was standing there by 1:10, and was already congratulating myself on a successful sojourn. It was not to last.

1:30 came and went, then 2:30, and 3:30. I decided to start walking in the direction the bus would travel so I could catch it further up the road, and wandered down a hill, past a construction supplier and a few industrial businesses to what looked like a small marina. I waited there sheltering from the sun under a large tree.

By this point frustration and lack of water was starting to get to me. I’d tried hailing every bus that had gone past carrying a school bus sign, in the hope that one of them might have forgotten to take their sign down but to no avail. I waited till 4:30, optimism ebbing quickly, and a local who had cycled past me about 10 times as I’d be standing there so long said it would be very soon. It wasn’t to be.

I walked back up the hill to Taravao with one thought: water. After a quick supermarket sweep where I ended up with about 3 litres of fluid that vanished down my throat within minutes, I used my awful French to ask the local drunks about the bus schedule. The last bus had left was their resounding conclusion. I don’t know how this was possible given that I’d been standing there half the day, but I took their word for it. I asked around to see if there was somewhere to stay, but nope, no accommodation either. Walking was also out of the question, and darkness was soon to loom. I saw a couple of people hitching and decided that was my only option. I’d read about hitching in Tahiti, and that it was pretty common and accepted, so I gave it a go. 4 rides later and I found myself back in the civilisation of Pa’peete having gone the full way around both coasts. We passed the bay where the Bounty first landed, and passed some amazing bits of coastline. It’s much more beautiful and wild down that East side of the island.

I arrived in Pa’peete exhausted but thankful. I couldn’t face anymore hitching and trying to communicate, so I sought out the taxi rank and headed home the expensive way. The traffic was awful as there had been an accident and all I wanted was to get home and have a shower… when I finally got home, I put they key in the door and felt a huge sense of relief to be in the cool in front of a fan, with a sofa and some dubbed episode of an American cop show to relax in front of. Nothing like some bad dubbing to take your mind off of painful feet and sunburn.

Moral of the story: don’t trust Tahitian buses.

After a day like that I’d pretty much decided that after my Mangareva luggage trip (to come) I’d need to go somewhere for a few days to relax that didn’t require a car – so that became my next mission….

New York, New York

So where was I when I last wrote?  So I reached Virginia, picked up my equipment and film that was waiting for me, packed another wheeled suitcase, bought a rather large army backpack that’s even bigger than my North Face bag (which happened to be North Face’s largest backpack!), bought Captain Crunch in Walmart to fulfil my special Pitcairn request…

Captain Crunch!

and travelled across the Bay Bridge Tunnel to Norfolk to replace my Mac battery which was on the blink. Better to replace it now than end up on Pitcairn with no computer battery!

Norfolk, VA

Then began the schlep back to New York on the Greyhound. It was slightly concerning as a huge snow dump had been predicted in Virginia, but luckily for me it started pretty much as I left and I got away in time. The ride back was much more eventful than the way there. One arrest, and two people locked in the bathroom. I wish I had recorded the argument that caused the arrest because it actually was quite comical. A woman got on, I think in Wilmington, and was rather shirty with the driver over her bags and was making her displeasure felt as she grunted and puffed down the aisle and took up her seat two rows behind me. The driver took great offence at her new passenger disturbing the peace and waking up those around her and told her she wanted a word outside, which didn’t go down well and an argument ensued where the drivertold her to get off the bus. She refused to move, and then the driver said “ok m’am I have a solution to our problem”… at which point she headed downstairs off the bus and found the state police. Meanwhile our fellow passenger was calling customer services on loudspeaker and trying to cajole those around her to testify to her good character. No one was forthcoming. The state police, who were at a rest stop busy getting their fill of midnight grease, then boarded the bus and promptly handcuffed her and took her away for disturbing the peace. Don’t piss off the bus driver.

exmore

on the road again

The journey was even more eventful because two people got stuck in the bathroom – I don’t think their of them understood the concept of sliding the lock instead of just panicking and punching the door, again, much to the driver’s displeasure. On the first occasion she headed up the bus to give “instruction”, bellowing “is thatachile in theyer? Sliiide, no maaan don’ push that dawer. What part of this cain’t you understaind? I’mona leave you in theyer all’otha way to New York City in yer awn stink”.  Eventually the poor guy figured it out, and exited, and no, he wasn’t a child but a man of around 30 who was about as red as a black man could possibly turn. The lady in front of him loudly berated him for his “stink” which prompted her to take a spray can of deodorant out and blast the bus aisle, which then brought the driver stomping down to give her a ticking off about people’s allergies and made her clean up the slick of coverage that the deodorant had left on the floor.

About few hours passed and then another person locked themselves in the bathroom. The driver didn’t bother this time just shouting “I’ll teyl ya th’same as t’other mayn – sliiiide don’push. Ya’ll know whatodo, ya’ll cain get haim outta theyer. I’mmanot getting involved”. On this occasion, the toilet overflowed, which had to be fixed at the rest stop  – thankfully we were pretty close and it didn’t take long!

So that was my journey back to  snowy New York. Once I got into Port Authority, I suffered a mini stumble, and tripped over my suitcase wheels which flipped me onto my back because my army backpack was so heavy. And then I had to roll from side to side to right myself, until a lady came and helped me up. I think it was once of those moments when everyone was too tickled to actually help! Apart from my ego, everything else came out intact.

Then I headed off to my friend Rachel’s apartment (hi Rachel!) to drop offbags before heading out to run some errands like buying a spare camera battery, plus seeing my dear friend Rommel Pecson (a supremely talented instant photographer himself!) who showed me some interesting new kit he’d acquired and made sure I had all the finishing touches to my kit bag. I had great plans of going out for food somewhere, or going for a drink, but once I got back into the apartment at the end of the day, and faced the task of consolidating and repacking my 3 large suitcases, I couldn’t face it and flopped.

New York, Central Park

My flight to LA was at 11:39 the next day and so I spent the evening phoning up Delta airlines trying to get them to allocate my bags as media bags (therefore a cheaper excess baggage rate), which after an hour of being on the phone via Skype seemed successful.

Getting a cab to JFK didn’t prove so easy. I left the apartment at 8:00 as the baggage thing takes so long as each airline has different requirements, and stood on the corner in the bitter cold trying desperately to hail a cab. I now know what Carrie Bradshaw meant about cabs in Manhattan – easy to get when you don’t really need one and nearly impossible when you do.The three that did stop all refused to take me because of the amount of luggage, so before I caught frostbite and missed my plane being frozen like a Medusa statue on a street corner,  I caved in desperation and sat in Starbucks and called a cab which ended up cheaper anyway, and I wonder why I didn’t just do that in the first place. Maybe doing it the authentic way had been part of the challenge…I had a really nice Peruvian driver who couldn’t have been nicer, despite the fact his rather nice Mercedes had cream leather seats and my bags were basically ruining them. He asked me if I’d ever been to Peru, and I said I hadn’t, but then told him about Paddington bear, and that Peru was rather beloved in Britain because of a small marmalade-eating, talking bear in wellies and a duffel coat. He seemed a bit confused but pleased that Peru had entered the realm of pop culture.

cab

When we got there  I was pleased to say that the “here’s one I prepared earlier” media pass did the trick and I paid the media rate for my bags. As an added bonus, that meant I didn’t have an airport repack to do. So for future reference photographer/filmmaker friends – do try and get the media rate with Delta – they’re accommodating and charge a flat rate for overweight bags when you get the media rate, plus they’ll carry up to 200lbs per bag, more than any other airline I’ve come across.

Moral of the story: it’s always worth asking.

some of the filmRight, so my next blog will probably be when I land in Tahiti – I can’t imagine there’ll be much to say about my LA leg, as I’m only there for a day, and judging by current patterns, I’ll be too wrecked to leave my hotel, but if anything eventful happens I’ll write sooner!

Once the LA flight is out of the way, I’ll feel like I’m really on my way, as I’ll be completely on my own. New York never quite feels like I’m on my own, it just feels like an extension of London, but LA is where I’ll start to  feel that it’s started, once i see that first glimmer of the Pacific Ocean.

No more equipment to buy, no more errands to run, just me, and my journey to reach Pitcairn…

Hasta tarde! Rx

P.S.

I wanted to thank my rather lovely supporters – Powertraveller – because as I write I’m plugged in via their rather ingenious power pack which comes with every attachment known to man. Silly me forgot to charge my laptop last night and I’ve been saved from the communication abyss – so thanks guys!

Here’s a bonus pic or two from Virginia…

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Subway, VA

Corny Ho, VA