“Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency.”
― Raymond Chandler
The woman behind the desk at my hotel wears a pareo tied across one shoulder or deftly wrapped around her waist. In my hotel room, under the ceiling fan, I practice twisting and knotting my new purple pareo, following the instructions on the package—now it’s a cape! now a halter top!—but give up after a look in the mirror, fastening it firmly under my arms.
There are no short-haired women in Polynesia. Frizzy black hair overflows caramel skin to the waist or beyond, swept up, braided, or tucked behind an ear with a backward hibiscus that whispers “follow me.”
The driver of my 4x4 “safari” speeds through the fields, past birds of paradise and sweet Tahitian vanilla vines, helping himself to pomelos and coconuts, which he stashes inside a tire fixed atop the hood. He shares the fruit with us after a hike to a waterfall, seven tourists sliding down the rich red mud to the truck. But he keeps a few for himself, bragging that now he won’t need to shop.
I sit up front with the driver, and as we ride through the lush farmland inside an extinct volcano, he tries to interest me in becoming his American wife. He has an uncle who lives in California, he says. I tell him I would make a bad wife – I don’t even cook. But he is a good cook, or so he says, and speaks three languages.
When this line of reasoning fails, he tells me how he likes to pick up women at the disco at Club Med on Saturday nights. “I need to go fishing on Saturday,” he says, “so I have something to eat the rest of the week.” Unfortunately for him, today is Monday.
We stop on the narrow dirt road to let a flatbed truck coming up the hill pass by. My guide leans out to talk to the other driver, extending a massive arm that bears the many tribal patterns of Moorea. He jumps out to embrace an older woman with closely cropped hair seated cross-legged in the back. He kisses her on both cheeks, then gives her the pineapples from the hood before we drive on.
“My auntie,” he explains. “She has been in France.”
I ask how long it’s been since he’s seen her.
A year, he says. Cancer. “She lost all her hair,” he adds, as if this, and being exiled to France, were the real heartbreak.
My auburn hair barely brushes my pale shoulders. Sunscreen-coated, dotted with freckles, I have no tattoos that tell you where I come from. But a lone hibiscus tucked behind my ear says tonight, I am free tonight.
published 22 December 2012