French Polynesia is run in a way that confounds the imagination. In a nutshell, the French are determined to hang on to this empire, which covers a huge tract of the Pacific. To this end, they subsidise enormously and then set a ridiculous exchange rate on the local currency, so that nothing locally produced, could ever be exported. The inhabitants are kept tranquil by easy living and no incentive, but for foreigners, the place is ludicrously expensive. Prepared for this, we – and most of the other cruising boats – had stocked up in Panama, to such and extent that we actually found French Polynesia one of the cheaper places to cruise! When you were about to be charge £1 for an orange, it wasn’t a difficult decision not to buy.
French xenophobia is displayed by the attitude they have towards foreign yachtsmen. There was a time, probably before the Second World War, when yachts would sail into Papeete and stay and stay. They were generally harmless and looked after themselves. Somewhere along the line, the Authorities decided that This Must Stop and insisted that all visiting yachtsmen, excepting the French, would put down a bond equivalent to the cost of a plane ticket back to their home country. That the only yachtsmen who are likely to stay and become a burden are the French, is something that apparently was never accepted. Some years ago, this policy was questioned in Brussels as being against the principle of free movement among European countries, so the French reluctantly had to scrap the bond for Europeans. However, it still applies to the rest of the world and in our case, this meant Trevor. The bond amounted to 95,000 Pacific francs, or £545 and in theory could be paid through the bank. This was just as well, because the magic money machines only allowed you to draw out 40,000 francs in any one week. So we went along to the bank to arrange this. As ever, there were long queues and in the first bank, the lady leant over and whispered to me that she thought I should try another one, as they would charge me about £20 for the privilege of handling our money. So we went to another bank and queued for about 45 minutes at the end of which the young man couldn’t help us, because the necessary forms were in his colleagues locked draw. We had to go away and kill time over his lunch hour and then ended up waiting in line once more. At last we got to his counter, filled in the forms and passed over my credit card to be swiped. It wouldn’t work. After several attempts, we tried with Trevor’s card, which we avoid using because of the charges that come with it. No luck. After some discussion and several phone calls, we went outside and tried my card in the magic money machine. Out came 40,000 francs. Trevor’s also worked and we had about 20,000 in cash, so we could now pay the bond. It turned out that the swipe machine would only deal with French credit cards! We lost greatly on the artificial exchange rate and lost again when the money was returned to us in Bora Bora, because we had to change it into another, more usable currency. We were lucky. An Australian couple we knew had only one credit card and were therefore unable to withdraw the necessary money. All they could do was leave. It goes without saying that a lot of foreign yachts simply didn’t bother to clear in at all, but this was a risk that many were not prepared to take. The best move seems to be to avoid Tahiti altogether: apart from Bora Bora, which is almost ‘the end of the line’, none of the other islands can deal with the issue of bonds.
After this wonderful welcome, it is perhaps not surprising that I never grew fond of Tahiti, but in addition, the island has been badly mauled about. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with such unsightly buildings, jerry-built of concrete and corrugated iron, badly designed – if designed at all – and poorly maintained. The shopping strips were hideous, Papeete itself boasted no more than 3 or 4 attractive buildings and even expensive houses seemed to be gratuitously ugly. But we did find a lovely anchorage down by the Botanic Gardens, where we enjoyed a lovely walk through the woods.
We went back to an anchorage near Papeete known as Maeva Beach. This was crowded, deep, and at times very uncomfortable, if a big swell was running and flooding over the barrier reef. However, it was the best on offer. Joan and Michael arrived on schedule – well at least on their schedule: somewhere along the line, Michael had got muddled over the dateline and they arrived a day earlier than we’d anticipated. This meant them having to stay a night ashore, but they were very lucky: a young man at the airport gave them a number to call and a charming man had driven down and taken them back to his group of holiday flats. I went to see one the next morning and it was in a glorious setting, with a cantilevered balcony looking over luxurious vegetation out to the ocean.