Monday, May 21, 2012

The Body of the Unspoiled Polynesian


My favorite writer is Willard Price, whom I am sure I have written about before.  I discovered him through his Adventure series of books for boys, which I loved, and from there moved on to appreciating his adult travel literature.  One of these books is the volume, Adventures In Paradise:  Tahiti and Beyond.  The four countries he describes in this book are French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Samoa, and Fiji. I have been to French Polynesia and Fiji.  The Cook Islands, which for sure I would love to go to someday, I did walk on their ground for half an hour...the flight from the South Pacific back to Los Angeles had a stop at the Cook Islands, and we all got out.  I bought several sheets of gorgeous stamps, there.  But I guess I can't really say that I have been to the Cook Islands, not from a half-hour stop at the airport.

I read Willard's book, which he published in 1955, this past autumn.  Of course he is describing places that don't exist nowadays the way they did in 1955.  He traveled to these islands via freighter.  Commercial air travel to these islands was not the norm at that time, so tourism was still rare. He is describing places that had not yet been "spoiled" (although he felt that Papeete, the capital city of French Polynesia was spoiled.  People love to denigrate Papeete, and I guess have been doing so for a long time.  As for me, I rather enjoyed it).  To me it is fascinating to obtain an understanding of places like this from "a dimension back", for while they may not be exactly the same, now (after all, people here in the U.S. are sometimes nostalgic for our own 1950s), it still does help understand some of the "roots" of a place, and to emotionally connect with a time that people can yearn for yet still see some of those elements remaining today.  I definitely have a South Pacific dream, myself, which I have carried in me ever since being a child. I am thankful to have been able to go to the Polynesian islands of Oahu and Kauai in Hawaii, North and South Islands and Stewart Island in New Zealand, and Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora in French Polynesia, the Melanesian Islands of Fiji, and the Micronesian Islands of Palau.

And this summer, as described in my previous entry, I am going back to French Polynesia, but this time, to Fakarava, an unspoiled coral atoll in the Tuomoto archipelago.  I am sure that my reading of Willard Price's chapters on Tahiti planted the seed of my going back to French Polynesia, but in search of a Polynesia that was more in keeping with his experience.

Part of that desire is a special admiration for the Polynesian people, well-known for their beauty, but much more for their daring, adventure, and skill as oceanic navigators, to have covered half the globe's surface, which is the Pacific Ocean, via outrigger canoe, discovering every little pinprick of land in all that watery immensity.  The Polynesians spread themselves out in a triangle that can be drawn from New Zealand to Easter Island to Hawaii, and all the Polynesian people in that triangle speak essentially the same language, which is, fundamentally, Tahitian.

Why have Europeans, and people from elsewhere in the world, wanted to leave their highly developed societies for life in a more "savage" Pacific?  (By the way, there are way more French living in French Polynesia than there are Polynesians living in France.)  For one thing, flaws in civilization glare brightly when compared with a way of life of a people whom, while certainly suffering problems of their own, did not make the same mistakes.  I wonder, who, if given the chance, wouldn't want to become one of these people, if it is possible to do so?  For example, on the subject of human beauty (and also physical abilities), here is an impressive description by Mr. Price that I found inspiring, in that he is clearly describing what I think of as an ideal, but one that had existed in actuality.  Can that be achieved again with cleaner and more natural living?  Unfortunately, much of that Polynesian beauty that he describes does not exist now.  Instead of fresh fish from the sea, the average Polynesian would rather eat canned meats imported in, such as Spam.  Travel writer Paul Theroux lamented that a constant favorite in some Polynesian country, I forget which one, was bag-fulls of Cheese Doodles stuffed in the wide-open mouth by ham-fisted hands.  Of course those people were obese, which has become a Polynesian standard.  However, where I am going, I imagine that there may not be an epidemic of Spam and Cheese Doodles.  But we will see.

I often want to reproduce in my blog passages from a book that have impressed me, so here, for the first time, I am doing just that.  Meet the Polynesian of only about 60 years ago:

The unspoiled Tahitian is a Greek god in sepia.  The less money he has, the better his physique and health—for then he cannot afford imported white flour, jam, coffee, sugar and whisky, but must live as his ancestors did on coconuts and breadfruit, yam, taro, bananas, mangoes, pork, fowl, and fish.

All these are fresh and always fresh because he has no means of refrigeration and no need to preserve food against the winter in a land where winter never comes.  And they are abundant.  No Tahitian goes hungry.  If he's unable to gather his own food because of sickness or age, his neighbors will gather it for him.

Thanks to good food, equable climate and an outdoor life, the Polynesian is a strong man, a born football player, wiry, slippery and quick. When two cars locked bumpers a Tahitian rose from his rest under a breadfruit tree, ambled over, lifted the front end of one car and moved it three feet. Then he yawned and returned to his tree.

The women are strong too. We saw a woman pick up a sick man considerably heavier than herself and carry him to a relative's house a hundred yards down the road.

And I remember reading that when the explorer Wallis was ailing, a Tahitian princess took him up bodily and carried him like an infant. Another Tahitienne stole the great anvil from the Spanish ship Aguila. It has frequently been recorded that a Polynesian woman has been back at her work within half an hour after bearing a child.

But Tahitian muscles do not bulge. They lie quietly under the skin, as invisible as the muscles of a cat. Nor is the Tahitian unusually large, but his proportions are excellent. His torso is shaped like a lyre, narrow at the waist, broad in the shoulders. His head is properly set and his legs are those of a dancer. (True, his feet are too large, and flat.)

His greatest charm lies in his eyes. A French traveler says of him: "His eyes are the most beautiful in the world, at least in the human world: I know none more velvety, more seductive, except among the antelopes."

The pupil and the iris are usually quite large and the white delicately tinted, giving the glance the sweetness of a caress. The beauty and mystery of the eyes are enhanced by the shadow cast by remarkably long black lashes.

The mouth is generous and the lips full, but not thick; they part in a smile that for richness and warmth cannot be matched by the residents of colder climes. In the case of the town Tahitians the smile may be marred by blackened or missing teeth. Natives who have not had access to the refined foods of civilization are likely to have strong white teeth.

The Tahitian nose is Greek. It strikes a happy medium between the squashed nose of the Mongolian and the "canoe" nose (as the Tahitians call it) of the Anglo-American. The nose of the Polynesian is one indication that he is a blend of Caucasian, Mongolian and Malay strains. In the process of blending he has happily avoided the extremes of all three.

The Polynesian skin is golden brown, of exactly the tint most zealously coveted by bathing beauties on American and European beaches.

The attractiveness of Tahitian women has become a legend. We now see that it is a legend founded upon fact. Not that they are all beautiful--far from it. They age quickly. The men seem to stand the ravages of age better than the women. Old men, especially the chiefs, often take on a dignity of bearing that makes them seem even more handsome than the young.

Captain Cook wrote of the Polynesians that they were not only the finest race in the Pacific but probably surpassed in appearance any other people in the world. We don't need to go that far. It is enough to say that the Polynesians are as beautiful as their islands.

Their beauty is functional. Their bodies look well because they work well. Polynesians seldom wear glasses. They have binocular vision. In fact I have failed to see with binoculars objects that were plainly visible to the naked eye of the Polynesian.

His sense of hearing also is acute. His ears are full-blown and incline forward like those of a dog. He picks up sounds out of what appears to be complete silence.

A man of the city has little use for the sense of smell and it has largely atrophied. The man of the mountains and the sea depends almost as much upon his nose as upon his eyes and ears. In the forest he can smell his way to plants and herbs concealed in the brush. He can identify many animals and birds by smell. He recognizes human beings also by their odor. That is one reason why he makes such a point of personal cleanliness.

Polynesians often complain of the odor of white people. They amuse themselves by inventing smell-names for their white acquaintances. A visitor learned that he was called Tohe-repo and was quite pleased with his Polynesian name until he learned that it referred to a portion of his anatomy which he did not keep spotlessly clean.

The Tahitian is dissatisfied if he cannot bathe twice a day.

Even in a close-packed native crowd under a hot sun there is no offensive odor. A man's first thought upon returning home from work is to bathe under the shower or in the river and put on a fresh pareu.

A Tahitian father was asked by the French writer, Serstevens, why he had withdrawn his daughter from a boarding school of the Sisters of Atuona. He answered:

"Because they are dirty. The sisters allow the little ones to wash only two times a week, and then not all over but only here and there so as not to show their nudity."

The cleanliness of the Polynesian extends to his house and garden. The Tahitian woman, in spite of her devotion to love, conversation and dancing, finds time to keep her house clean enough to satisfy a Dutch housewife. Some communities have instituted periodic inspection of houses: a fine of fifty francs is exacted from the owner of the worst-kept and awarded to the owner of the best-kept.

We took for granted the clean gardens until we realized the amount of labor it must take to keep them clean. In this land of eternal autumn wedded to eternal spring, leaves are always falling. Many of them are large--the breadfruit leaf is a foot or two long, a banana leaf may be six feet long, a palm leaf, from ten to twenty feet. The natives have a phobia of fallen leaves and every day one of the chief tasks of the children is to pick them up and carry them away to be burned. If the Tahitians were as lazy as they are painted, this work would be the first to be neglected.

A lot of nonsense has been written about the laziness of the Pacific islanders. As we have seen them in Micronesia, Hawaii, the southwest Pacific, and now here, they seem to have a sensible attitude toward work.

They will work hard and long to make a canoe, build a house, catch fish, gather coconuts. As Furnas says in “Anatomy of Paradise”, they cheerfully perform backbreaking jobs "that would make an Irish railroad gang go on strike."

But when their work is done, they quit. They see no point in working merely for the sake of working. If there is plenty of food on hand, and no needs unsatisfied, they relax and enjoy life. Nervous disorders are practically unknown and a psychiatrist would starve for lack of patients in the brown Pacific.  --Willard Price, 1955

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