Tiaou waves his arms and raises the volume of the music to let us know that we are welcome to anchor in front of his home. He lives in a small house on the shore of the lagoon, a hut sheltered by the fronds of coconut trees which bend towards the emerald green water of the sea.
The mountain behind – from which a cascade of fresh water flows – rises up, dividing into rock pinnacles and steep valleys that penetrate inside the island. Tiaou is the last of three generations of French missionaries who arrived in the Tuamotu islands in the last century. Now he has retired to this coast called Fenua Aihere – which in Polynesian means ‘wilderness’ – on the southeastern side of Tahiti Iti (the small island), attached to Tahiti Nui (the large island), by an isthmus of land.
We arrived here sailing along the coast, stopping in bays of incredible beauty. They are all sheltered by the coral reef that protects these lagoons from the waves of the ocean and are rich in tropical fish. Every time we snorkel these waters it is like being in an aquarium – yesterday I swam with a manta ray, I approached a brightly coloured moray eel, I played with fish of a thousand colours and I stopped motionless, waiting for a 1.5m shark to pass. The water temperature is always pleasant, as is the air outside. In Tahiti you can live wearing only a bathing suit, both day and night. It is never too cold nor too hot and there is always a light breeze to caress the skin and help you sun-dry when you come out of the water.
The long flat coast is covered with vegetation and fruit trees: banana trees, mangoes, papayas and breadfruit trees. In ancient times, before the arrival of the westerners, the inhabitants of these volcanic islands lived with incredible simplicity, feeding on fishing and reaping the fruits that nature spontaneously produced. The breadfruit tree was the basis of their nutrition and was cooked using varying methods. Even today you can eat it fried from roadside sellers. A real delicacy! The taste is similar to the potato, but definitely better.
How do you describe an earthly paradise? All my life I have imagined the Garden of Eden as an unreal place, which can only be imagined. I have never seen it like the one represented in the medieval or Renaissance frescoes in Tuscany, (for example Masolino in the Chiesa del Carmine or Beato Angelico in San Marco): a magnificent hortus coclusus (enclosed garden), of a noble residence in the Florentine countryside; instead I saw it as a wild place full of vegetation so thick that it took your breath away. I never thought I could find the paradise of my dreams and then live in it everyday. This is Tahiti: a blessed island, where Nature seems to have bestowed its gifts with abundance.
Life is simple, even today you can lead an existence that is not very different from the natives of the past. So it is for Mira, when she comes to meet us with her canoe as soon as we have anchored in a small bay along the outermost part of Tahiti Iti. Wearing a sarong, she approaches to ask us to respect the area and the marine environment. We begin to speak in French and English, but when she realises that we are Italian she tells us to speak a little of our language because her daughter lived in Bologna for a few years. We reassure her of the respect we bring to the places where we stop with Milanto and Mira responds with a grateful smile. We understand from her that not all the boats that arrive in these remote places have behaved well and therefore the inhabitants have been forced to take precautions.
Like all the volcanic islands in the Pacific, Tahiti has a rugged profile consisting of high mountains, the largest of which reaches 2,241 meters. The interior is rich in fresh water and the vegetation so thick that most of the valleys and mountains are uninhabited and impenetrable. Only along the coast and amongst the first hills can you find small villages.
Papeete, the capital, is a lively, but not beautiful, town. Located here is the main port, the airport and the major economic and industrial activities. The local government has tried to remedy urban shortcomings through an annual street art festival that invites artists to create an urban work of art. Over the years, a true open-air museum has been created where you can admire large murals or graffiti that often represent female faces who look down on the unchanging swarm of city streets.
There is a big contrast between the city and the remote areas of the island. First, there is poverty in the street that leads some to commit acts of petty crime. Even one of our party was asked for money from a group of kids. In contrast, in the south of the island, people live with what nature grants and with very little else; it is strange to note that poverty acts differently in civilised places than in wild places.
The greatest attraction is obviously the water activities. You can surf where the ocean waves crash on the reef and kite surf inside the lagoons. The diving centers are numerous and I organise a dive to go and see the wreckage of a small plane sunk in the lagoon.
Polynesian canoeing is the national sport and it is fun to see the boys training at sunset. One of these in Phaeton Bay let himself be carried by Milanto’s wake whilst we cheered him on.
And then there is boat life – this is a sailor’s paradise. The trade winds blow constantly and inside the reef you can always find a safe anchorage for the night. Maybe that is why many surfers stop here for a long time. So it was for Bernard Moitessier, and for the great Tituan Lamazou, who we met and who is building a villa near the beach house that we rented for the few days when Milanto was in the boatyard. Some people stop forever, like those abandoned boats that we see in the lagoon below Papeete. ‘Tahiti is a place where boats come to die’, a local sailor tells me.
The temptation to stay in Tahiti has been strong for us. We dream up projects that would keep us here indefinitely, and after a month staying in this paradise, we understand why many others have done so before. But then we go back to dreaming of carrying on our world tour and hope is rekindled stronger than ever. We still don’t know when the other islands of French Polynesia will reopen, but it is now a matter of days, and Milanto is ready to slip its moorings and take to the sea again.