In the long years of my nerdy youth, I did a lot of reading, and I had a phase where I read copious amounts of historical literature. Not abridged versions, mind you, but the originals (or as few translation jumps as I could get).

One of the interesting things I took away was an understanding of the special situation of the traveller in centuries past. For you see, back then, even in highly stratified societies with very low social mobility, a traveller from far enough away or with any kind of education would likely get taken straight to the king of the land.

It didn’t matter whether he was highborn or not, wealthy or destitute. His value lay in the fact that he came from far away, beyond the known territory of the king. So it became a tacit expectation for the civilised traveller to be able to handle this kind of diplomacy. For back then, the impression you gave of your country to a faraway king could instigate its prosperity, or spark enmity. It could deter covetous interest, or encourage it.

But modern international relations and embassies reduced the importance of the traveller’s news. As sovereigns and heads of state began to send emissaries regularly, and global trade became safe, travel came to be associated with work, and then with leisure. Born into this age, I assumed I would not personally need my awareness of the ancient diplomatic role of the traveller. The lazy, asocial part of me was relieved. The romantic part was disappointed.

Turquoise blue lagoon in Rangiroa framed by seaside tree canopies and coral beach foreground, viewed from beneath an awning.

My experiment in French Polynesia

My French Polynesia trip was a special one in my travel evolution. In learning to travel differently I generally assumed a modern western appearance, since millennial travel norms were defined by western millennials. It was easier to borrow the culture while I acquired new travel experiences.

By the time I planned to stay in Tiputa, I felt I had enough experience to travel without presenting as westernised. I may also have been influenced by the movie Black Panther, which came out that year. I wondered how we would dress abroad, had we never been colonised and yet somehow still modernised.

So I didn’t even come to Rangiroa with the travel wardrobe of a contemporary Malaysian. Experimentally, I came to Rangiroa as a semi-Nusantara woman of the 21st century. (Semi, because you gotta pack partially western these days, just in case.)

Me on a boat holding up a triggerfish caught by hook and line

Assimilating into Tiputa

Unlike on the motu, my accommodation in Tiputa village was not close to shore. It was not far, but you had to walk a little bit to reach the water. The area near the main jetty seemed to be the local chillout spot, effectively the village square.

But, looking out into the lagoon, the view was no less outstanding. The water was vibrant and blue, even when there were clouds filtering the sunlight. When it’s bright and clear, the colour seemed to flash right into your brain. White seabirds flew by, so white that with the sun shining full on the water, their white undersides turned blue, reflecting the water reflecting the sky. 

I think the villagers thought me strange, to linger so long at the water’s edge. Tiputa Pass was a navigable channel into the lagoon and it is mainly associated with boats and ships, not beach recreation. But I’m foreign and it was new to me. The tide rose around midday and the waves pulsed against the shoreline. Its rhythm played music with the beach, the shards of coral tinkling against each other, sweeping back and forth in the surf in its sand-making dance. 

Rusty remnants of an old car frame propped up against a sea wall in Tiputa. The car had once been white. Its angle appears as though the metal were looking out to Rangiroa's lagoon vista in multiple shades of blue.

Dress code in Tiputa

Tiputa is one of the places that feel the easiest when it comes to dress code. (And perhaps this extends generally across the archipelagoes.) Now, this is not because it’s normal to go about nearly naked as per fantasy depictions of this region, because that can be just as excluding as places with a rigid dress code. It’s more that your appearance isn’t something that’s top of mind for people here.

In terms of what villagers actually wear, it’s very casual. Mostly it’s for comfort in hot weather, and there isn’t a sense that ‘fashion’ is particularly important. I’d benchmark it to the level of dress in non-metropolitan areas of the Philippines. Just like the Maldives, hardly anyone wears makeup. Even in Tahiti, I saw no makeup stores even though pearl and clothing stores abound. 

But what did surprise me were the tourists. Considering French Polynesia’s reputation for Mediterranean yacht-style living where clothing is optional, the French tourists dressed surprisingly sensibly. They generally wore T-shirts or rash vests in the water. Of course, this is practical even when you’re not worried about jellyfish, since you need sunscreen on a much smaller acreage. Even when they’re in bikinis, they’re recognisably swimwear, not architecturally questionable contraptions with dangly bits or holes cropped out for no reason.

I wonder if maybe it’s the distance and expense of this destination. Maybe sensibleness correlates with the ability to amass the money or equivalent resource to actually get here in the first place. Maybe they save the impractical stuff for when they’re on the yacht.

Assimilating to other tourists

However, I forgot to consider one thing. I forgot to consider that, in Rangiroa, I might have to hang out with other tourists.

Now, this wasn’t a problem in Tahiti, because I was either in my generic travel clothes, or secluded on a catamaran with a New Zealander host accustomed to Southeast Asians. But I was mostly operating from my ethnic Malay brain in Tiputa, and it was a chore to flip back and forth because the ‘worldview distance’ is much bigger from there.

So, how easy was it if you only made a small effort?

Asian traveller on a guided tour

It was easy on the Lagon Bleu tour, even though almost nobody spoke English. I made a wardrobe shift to ‘generic backpacker’ and that was totally fine. I did not feel excluded (and believe me, I know what being excluded feels like.)

A tour is, of course, more impersonal. All you have to do is follow instructions and enjoy yourself. No social interaction is expected. Maybe it also helped that the tour was locally run. Since the tour hosts were Polynesian, I did not look as out of place.

Solo diver at a dive centre

Ironically, there were English-speaking people at the dive centre, and yet it was more socially demanding. Malaysia is a very hierarchical culture, so I recognise status-signalling conversations when I hear it. As far as I can tell, the social currency among tourist divers here are (1) awesomeness of dive experiences you’ve had, and (2) whether or not you have a boat. Your own buddy will lose interest in you if you don’t have either!

How do I know it’s not that they just love diving and sailing?

Passionate people want to make you love the same things. The conversation is driven by them wanting to tell you about what they love. Since I’m interested in both diving and sailing, this would have happened. I would have stories to tell right now as I’m typing, if this were the case.

Status signalling people, on the other hand, want to know which of you have the upper hand. One side might mention they came by yacht. The other then responds by saying they also have a boat. The first one asks the second to point out which boat it is. The second is forced to disclose his boat is not here, but back home. The first presses the opening and asks if it’s a sailing boat. The second admits it’s a fishing boat. Having confirmed which one has the upper hand, the first ‘graciously’ says that fishing boats are good too. You can do this with anything: cars, handbags, whatever. The dynamic is identical.

So, with this crowd, come prepared to signal something cool, or bring your own buddy.

Exploring Tiputa village

I don’t exactly know whether Tiputa village has good infrastructure, or just average infrastructure. One day, I’d like to explore more of French Polynesia and find out.

Opah took me to the village even while I was still staying on the motu, because her husband needed to go to the clinic. So I had an early introduction to the amenities on Tiputa. The clinic is small, and the waiting room was not so much a room as the open space outside. Tiputa does not have a full time doctor, for the doctor rotates between islands in the Tuamotus.

The post office was nearby, which was where I bought a few postage stamps as souvenirs. Nearer to the main jetty was Tiputa’s cultural exhibition building, where Polynesian handicrafts using local natural materials are featured.

The Tiputa City Hall building was a little further apart from all these. It was an unremarkable building except that the arch was flanked by centipedes crawling up from the top of the fence. I regret forgetting to ask my hosts what their significance was. If anyone knows, please comment below.

Entrance arch to Tiputa City Hall

Religious attitude in Tiputa

People in Tiputa are generally Christians. There are only two places of worship on the island, one Catholic and the other belonging to another Christian denomination. But they don’t seem to show devoutness in a pervasive way.

Rather, they seem religious in the trusting, well-thinking way of those who don’t worry too much. Opah says grace before her meal, but in a casual way that takes faith for granted. She does not shy from mentioning God, and expresses gratitude for having churchgoing progeny. There is little of the continental peoples’ cultural baggage around religion, here.

If I were to draw commonality between them and my own nation, they’re where we were when we had been Muslim for some time but still had some pre-Muslim religious culture left. And before we began overthinking and overcomplicating this.

Making friends with my hosts

There’s a slow travel trick I stumbled upon accidentally. If you don’t ask for much, people tend to respond by volunteering things from themselves. That’s how I found out that my hosts, Saudara and Saudari, were both Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It was near the end of my stay in Tiputa and we had been on several fishing trips together. Saudara sat me down, his normal jester personality composed to as close to solemn as he could manage, his wife looking on with pride. And he asked me whether I knew about the message.

Now, I wasn’t looking for a religion. I had made my decision long ago. But they weren’t people who go around knocking on doors. I knew they were sincere. It meant they liked me well enough to share the thing they valued most. So I listened, and then told them I was happy with my faith, and promised to look at the website he gave me in case I changed my mind. I haven’t always been good at this emotional intelligence stuff, but I can manage this now.

Speaking of emotional intelligence, hosting me was a source of light bickering between husband and wife. I didn’t always want to do something out of the catalog, which stumped Saudara. Saudari, on the other hand, is much better at reading the mood and personality of visitors. She instinctively knew my travel style, and that all I wanted was to… live in the village.

Later on, she confided her ideas for new tourism offerings. Tourists could learn to make leis, she thought. Perhaps learn to cook Polynesian food. She could teach them Polynesian dance. I told her these were great ideas, and asked her to teach me to dance.

Christmas parties in Tiputa

I visited Tiputa in the weeks before Christmas. A Santa procession passed in front of the house, and Saudara told me that soon, the kids who go to school in Pape’ete would return for the end of year holidays. Big happy everywhere, said Saudara. I smiled, having worked out ‘big happy’ was his term for ‘party’. But he didn’t smile. It surprised me. I’d assumed that a large personality like his would go for parties.

Hard drinking and shooting drugs. Be careful, he said, even though I wouldn’t be around by then. This is when people leave the kids at home and party at the seaside. Saudara goes too, to sing and play the ukulele. But he would only drink beer. No big alcohol. 

Wow, I guess people here party hard. Just not all the time.

Line artwork on a wall in Tiputa of a turtle comprising images of other sea creatures and Polynesian motifs. A line of fish curves to its left and a trail of tiny turtles follow behind.

The VIP guest at a dinner party

A friend of the family came by again for dinner, this time early enough that I hadn’t had mine yet. He is the boss of the island, said Saudara, introducing him. I wasn’t sure if he was joking, but the dinner guest did look the part of a village headman, a Penghulu. The man was portly, looking somehow a bit more stately than the other villagers despite his casual wear.

As the fish was baking in the barbecue, Saudara told him about our plans to go to the Aquarium for a picnic. I had wanted to snorkel in the local marine reserve zone, and had agreed to a Polynesian picnic on the islet. With a grand gesture, Saudara announced there will be punch for tomorrow. I shall be given a big surprise, a ‘big happy’ on the motu of the Aquarium. Noting that I hadn’t touched alcohol throughout my trip, he assured me that the punch will only have a little bit of rum.

This diplomatic impasse is one reason why many of my countrymen simply avoid visiting places where we’re forced to explain why we’re turning down alcohol. It is very difficult to do so without coming across as rude. Traditional Southeast Asians would go to great lengths to avoid such unpleasantness.

In my travels, I normally keep it simple and don’t explain. So I simply said that I don’t drink alcohol – at all – and if I could have something else instead.

The diplomatic role of a traveller

This was the point when I realised that since I came as a traveller, the expectations were now more traditional. For Penghulu interjected at this point, asserting mildly that to come to Tahiti* and not to drink Tahitian drinks, I might as well not come.

Ah. I’m in the audience of the leader of the land. This requires a different set of manners. Like the travellers of long ago, I cannot be sure if my people had come before me to Tiputa. I had to give a damn good reason to abstain from their culture, that it isn’t rejection.

So this time, I explained that I belong to the Muslim religion, and that we don’t drink at all. Penghulu was on the verge of a reply, but paused to consider. The diplomatic code landed in my favour. He nodded and pressed no more.

The boss of Tiputa

If I had doubts before, over whether Saudara was kidding, they gradually dissipated over dinner. Penghulu was much more worldly than the others in Tiputa, without being foreign or westernised. He had a gravitas to him, like you would imagine a chief to have.

Penghulu asked where in Malaysia I’m from, and he knew of Kuala Lumpur. He even knew that the Polynesians may have originally come from our region. Our eyes are the same, he observed. I affirmed the truth of it, the distant relatedness of the Malay and the Polynesian.

After we polished off most of the dinner, we got to talking about the food of our ancestors. And the chief of Tiputa took it upon himself to tell me the Polynesian cultural history.

Plate of rice mixed with corn and flakes of baked fish at a Tiputa picnic

What is common ground, off the beaten track?

When they explored new islands, he said, the ancestors of the Polynesian watched their pigs forage, and whatever plants the pigs ate, the people ate too. That’s actually pretty smart, I thought. Penghulu continued.

They had no flour or rice or sugar back then either. But they could make flour with arrowroot instead, and sugar from boiling coconuts. I asked about palm sugar, which we had in Malaysia. Penghulu recognised what I was speaking of. In Tahiti* there is that, he said. Not Tuamotu.

Then he asked me about Malaysia. Fortunately, though a suburban girl, I’m an ecologist. And, being reasonably well-read in my own classical literature, I had an instinctive sense for how we historically obtained food. So I started with our jungles, and of the higher stakes associated with them, for in the jungle we have many edible plants but also poisonous ones.

Big trees too, Saudari cut in, eyes wide. Earlier, I had told her about the dense trees of the rainforest when I explained the hornbill at the back of a Malaysian 5 ringgit note. Cobra, added Penghulu with calm knowing.

Indeed. The cobra is one of the most feared creatures in Malay folklore, with its menacing hood and lethal strike. But Saudara insisted he could win over the cobra; his plan involved marijuana and ukulele music.

He turned to me and asked if I’d seen one. I started to say no, but then remembered the time when my mother found me frozen before a cobra that somehow ended up in the bathroom with me when I was little. A mother can move faster than a cobra, and she had bashed the snake’s head in.

The matchmaking offer

Saudara asked where my husband was. I divorced him, I replied. This revelation caused my fellow diners to remark between themselves. Then he turned to me, and asked if I would like to be matched to a local man.

Smiling in amusement, I thanked him and declined. Saudara nodded.

Nowadays, I feel like I’m supposed to go on a rant about what the offer means, about how sexist it is to expect me to have a husband with me, or to have his permission to travel alone, or something. But I just don’t have that kind of baggage. I don’t see the world only from a gender lens.

For sure, I’ve experienced the sexist version of this line of questioning. But if you focus on the questions rather than the intent, you’ll be blind to a different motivation. In this case, I knew it wasn’t a criticism of my singlehood. Rather, it meant they considered me a suitable partner for one of them. To join the tribe, so to speak.

Here’s a secret. In the worldview of family-oriented people, if you’re single and they don’t offer you a spouse, they don’t like you.

Coconut grove in Tiputa with patchy island undergrowth.

The first Malay in Tiputa

In tropical nations, it is easy for me to be taken in by locals. All I need to do is stay where they are, and ‘be Malay’. As long as you’re not westernised, even urban Malaysians can do it. (And the less westernised the locals are, the better this works.) As Gen X, I know how to sleep in a mosquito net, and I know how to light a mosquito coil. Bring fruit and share it around. Stuff like that.

Another villager came to join us for beers after dinner. Conversation continued mainly in French, and though he was curious about me, it was easier for him to be told about me due to the language barrier. But he was soon tipsy, and stood to declare global amity with all who came to Tiputa.

And, he declared in a sort of French-English hybrid, for the first Malaysian I meet, especially. He placed his arm next to mine. Wary of his drunkenness, I was a little nervous. But he seemed earnest, pointing to our arms in turn, repeating a phrase. And finally, finally I recalled maybe a French makeup brand or something, and recognised the word.

La peau, he tried laboriously to express. In a kind of frenchified English, he continued, It is the same, is not blanche. And waves of feeling washed over me, as I understood his emotion. Our skin was the same.

I pulled out my phone. The next door WiFi we borrowed was still connected, and I pulled up a map of the Pacific. Scrolling, I showed him how the territory of Melanesians are next door, and Nusantara next to it. He gazed at it, pleased. Let it not be said that my country sent forth a daughter with no culture.

The travellers from the Alps

Near the end of my trip I was joined by a Swiss couple. Bjorne and Monica had been on a multi-island trip with Rangiroa as one of the stops. Instead of staying in Tiputa, they chose to stay on the motu that I was on at the beginning.

Saudara had an idea. He announced that we would have a bonfire dinner at the motu. So I was invited back overnight for the big happy.

Over lunch at the motu, my hosts asked their new guests about themselves. Bjorne and Monica were fairly typical, albeit on the liberal side of their rural Swiss town on the border with Austria. Even so, a pair of European millennials from a small town of 2900 people at the doorstep of mountains could swap news with Tiputa locals on an equal footing, because they’re not city folk. They could talk about the customary food of Europe, its snow and mountains, the landscape of wild Europe, how things are grown and what things are in the wilderness that they trek across and camp in.

Indeed, distant travel opens up the world for the traveller. More than the world and sameness of cities we came from. But the gracious traveller opens up the world for the host as well. And that requires that you know your own land; not in the sense of ideologies, but in relatable ways of survival and routines.

The ‘big happy’ at the motu

The bonfire, when it was lit, was satisfyingly large. Even Saudari was mollified, after a day of accusing her husband of shirking the motu chores on the pretext of gathering firewood.

The food was good and the company better. Saudara pulled out his ukelele and held a concert. Meanwhile, Saudari taught Monica and I a few basic Polynesian dance moves. The trick is in the footwork, she said. And I thought I’d just about got it, when she added arm movements. It really is quite strenuous to have your arms do completely different things than your legs!

But we danced for the men anyway, and I suppose with the field of stars above, it must have looked somewhat romantic.

Notes

* I noted that Penghulu used ‘Tahiti’ in different senses. At the start, he seemed to use it in a wider sense than just Tahiti-the-island, kind of like the way tourism uses it. But later, he used it the way locals usually do, referring to Tahiti island which is distinct from other islands.

Carbon offsetting information to Rangiroa, French Polynesia

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Rangiroa via Auckland and Fa’a’a produces carbon emissions of approximately 10,713 lbs CO2e. It costs about $54 to offset this.


I guess this article is a long way of saying that you make the most of a travel experience, the more you’re able to switch between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ worldviews. If that’s food for thought, pin this for later.

4 Responses

  1. Madhu says:

    That’s a wonderful post ,I liked the thoguht and perspective. Would have loved to see you in what you dresses as there 😊

    • Teja says:

      Oh that’s a great idea! Thanks for mentioning it. I should add a photo of what I wore (not that I typically have many photos of myself!). Basically what it meant was that I went around in a batik sarong, which is our version of the Polynesian pareo. I also packed a pareo, but in Sarawak ‘pua’ print, to represent our Borneo side as well.

      In urban Malaysia, nobody wears the batik sarong anymore, increasingly not even at home, because it’s just seen as too embarrassingly provincial (except maybe in fine fabrics, in which case it’s part of formal or office wear). So I don’t actually have full Malay dress in fabrics and cuts suitable for the hot island lifestyle. But in Tiputa, I even went fishing in a sarong + t-shirt, and it felt right.

  2. Susanna says:

    I really appreciate this post. The introduction about diplomacy and how travelers were representative of their country was fascinating. It makes sense, but I hadn’t really thought of that. In regards to clothing, I usually just wear what is functional, and in line with the overarching dress code of a region, so it was good to read about the nuances that went along with clothing. While I enjoyed reading the story, your last summary really packed a punch. Being able to switch based on context is valuable and something I also picked up on as I travel – great lesson.

    • Teja says:

      Indeed, being able to choose different modes that best suit the context, rather than being stuck in your personality preference is sorely needed in the world right now.

      There’s certainly a lot less pressure on the signalling purpose of clothing these days, with a lot more communication between people. But I still feel its relevance because being brown means I can pass for a wide range of people – everything from Mexican to Nepali to Polynesian. Depending on the dominant biases of where I happen to be travelling, if I dress without regard to them, I could be mistaken for everything from migrant labourer to nurse to elite diaspora to drug smuggler to terrorist. In fact I’ll probably write about that when I’m writing about Tonga, I just haven’t figured out yet how to frame such a sensitive subject!

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