Uturoa, Raiatea, Society Islands – April 21, 2009

Uturoa Wharf on Raiatea
Uturoa Wharf on Raiatea

With only a short distance to travel north from Papeete, we arrived at the wharf of Raiatea sometime in the night. The wharf of Uturoa, the capital city, is deep enough for big ships so the tiny colonial town welcomes cruisers on a fairly regular basis.

The whole island has just over 12,000 inhabitants, strung like beads of a necklace on the narrow strip of land that quickly rises into rugged mountains. It is not surprising they are a bit overwhelmed when the population suddenly increases by the more than 2500 passengers and staff who pour off a cruise ship. This morning rental cars and scooters were quickly scooped up, leaving the rest of us to take an organized tour or wander on our own.

We decided to wander. There is a bus service on Raiatea, but it’s like the one in Papeete – unstructured, unscheduled. When the bus is full, it starts its run. With only a short day on the island, we didn’t want to find ourselves halfway around the island, sitting on a bus while our ship sailed away.

The Raiatea cultural market is one of the most attractive on the Pacific islands
The Raiatea cultural market is one of the most attractive on the Pacific islands

Neither Robin nor I is much of a shopper. Although we wandered past the cultural market on the wharf, we did nothing to help the local economy. The center of Uturoa offers a few more gift shops, several banks, a hospital, a handful of restaurants, a discotheque, and not much more. That’s not a lot of entertainment for hundreds of experience-seeking tourists.

Taro, yams and bananas are common offerings at island markets
Taro, yams and bananas are common offerings at island markets

Fortunately for me there was a produce market steps from the wharf. Robin wandered off to explore the rest of the town while I hung out for a bit in the market. My French is pretty fractured since it was forty years ago that I spent a year as a graduate student in France. But French isn’t the first language of the Polynesians who occupy the market stalls either. That combined with their natural warmth meant they were patient with me as I asked about various fruits and vegetables, how they taste and how they are prepared.

Seeing a mound of what looked like a cross between potatoes and mushrooms, I asked what they were and set in motion a long conversation with the women who worked the two, side-by-side stalls. The strange vegetable turned out to be mape, which is roasted and then eaten like a potato.

When baked, mape can be eaten like potatoes
When baked, mape can be eaten like potatoes
Friendly and helpful vendors at the market
Friendly and helpful vendors at the market

The two women in the photo were selling a lot of things that were unfamiliar to me – manioc and tarua (both starchy vegetables that are boiled or baked), jams of guava and tamarind, green beans five times longer than any back home, giant cucumbers that can be cooked or eaten raw, squash with bright yellow and orangey red flesh, huge papayas, yellow-green avocados three times larger than any I’ve eaten, as well as more familiar vegetables and fruits.

The bananas in the next stall ranged from fingerlings that were thin and about three inches long to fatter and longer versions and to green fruits grown for cooking. The eating bananas had been picked ripe and were sweeter than any I’ve tasted (at least outside Australia).

The woman selling them gave me samples of two of them so that I could experience the difference between them. She wouldn’t take money for them. They were a gift because I spoke fractured French to her. In return, she asked if we had any photos of Canada she could have as souvenirs.

These freshly caught fish were selling quickly
These freshly caught fish were selling quickly

Robin had joined me by then so the two of us walked back to the ship to find the three Kelowna photos we had with us. Or at least did have with us. We must have left them in Sydney. Fortunately, we still had three Canadian flag pins so went back to the market to give them to the three women who had been so gracious. That led to an exchange of addresses with the woman who gave us the bananas. We’ll send her photos when we get back home, and she has promised to call when she comes to Canada in early summer.

From the market, we wandered along the waterfront and found a place to sit in the shade of palm trees, cooled by a sea breeze. Maybe one of our fellow passengers, sitting nearby, was right. Gazing out at the lagoon, the catamarans, the fishing and cruise boats, and our own floating home, he said the only way to absorb a place, to catch its spirit, was to sit still. He figured those who take a tour or hop a bus or drive a car around the island cover a lot of miles but see very little.

Cathryn and Robin absorbing the ambience of Raiatea
Cathryn and Robin absorbing the ambience of Raiatea

Today we covered little ground, but we saw a lot.

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