I don’t know at what point I began walking to the edge of the atoll. It was mere hours since I arrived in Rangiroa, and swiftly spirited away to my host’s family island. The chalet was comfortable, and I was looking forward to my stay on the motu. I wasn’t sure yet how I would spend three days on a private island, but I thought I might begin with enjoying having a house to myself for a change.

But my chalet’s windows opened out towards the Pacific Ocean, and its winds blew steadily in like an incantation. In between, the way was obscured by close patches of island shrub and ground cover. I wondered, if I answered the ocean’s call, whether there was enough daylight yet to find my way back.

But there I was on the reef, and the green-topped ground was behind, and my green-painted chalet even further beyond upon the rise. There on the sparse coral atoll, the Pacific was all around, and the spell of the ocean was strong.

Ground cover over coral atoll

Why I decided to stay on a motu in Rangiroa

What… is a motu? I had wondered, when I was choosing which island atoll to stay on in Rangiroa. The word kept popping up as a stay option in French Polynesia, and I eventually worked out that it meant an isolated island.

I was of two minds on whether I wanted to do it, because it would mean cutting short my time in Tiputa village itself, which I especially wanted to do. I wanted to stay within a Polynesian village, albeit one that is fairly accustomed to tourists.

But on the other hand, it would be nice to have some time that was more like a vacation and less like independent travel. Besides, since I was going to drop myself on a tiny speck in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, I might as well take it to the edge and see what it’s like to be fully surrounded by this landscape that influenced the worldview of Polynesia.

And it was different. I’m not unused to islands and beaches. They are a feature of my region, and I’ve been to them off and on since I was a child. But the motu was different, somehow.

The barrier reef of Rangiroa

It wasn’t even a very extreme motu. Not an island all by itself, entirely separated from other islands, far beyond sight. No, my host’s motu was just a little way over from Tiputa, and later I found that you could even drive to it across the crushed reef and gullies.

But I had never seen reef like the one I was walking on. I knew it was a reef, from the coral marks on the fossils beneath my tread. But it was like a wall, hard and dense, as though someone had poured concrete all over it, yet the cemented flat was natural. The greenery behind me didn’t so much as sprout from the ground rather than crawl upon its surface, although a few hardy shrubs somehow managed to root themselves beneath the solid calcareous stone.

The sun was to the west, glaring on the tide pools, blasting away its colour in an excess of brightness. My shoes crunch on the reef flat, footfalls heavy and noisy, cracking the coral debris underfoot as I peered for life within the coralline pools. The reef flat was wide and bare and open, like a wet desert. I can sneak up on nothing; my shadow betrays me, looming long over the pools. The tide pools seemed devoid of life.

Beyond, the hard flats continued, the water ankle deep in tide. Standing at the barrier’s edge, the Pacific breaks at your feet and its spray mists upon your face. From the sea chart of Rangiroa in the common hut, I knew that the ocean before me was deep, and yet I could walk right up to it on the atoll. It was surreal.

It was ash and white and sea foam, aquamarine and turquoise and cobalt – the colours I’ve sought in my dreams. 

Pacific Ocean breaking against a Rangiroa atoll

My host on the Rangiroa atoll

You could self-cater on these motu stays. However, I opted to request dinners cooked for me, just to have a break from cooking for a few days. Besides, I was curious about local food that a Polynesian host would cook for dinner.

On the motu, these meals would be cooked by the woman who picked me up from the airport and transported me there. She was about my age, a practical, many-talented woman who had a confident way to her. A saudari, I guess, since she’s my peer. I think of her as my host in Rangiroa, because she spent the most time with me on the atoll. But technically, she works for my actual host, a much older woman who would only be in Rangiroa for half the time I was there.

Saudari is a real local. She wasn’t from Tiputa village itself, but she is from another atoll in the Tuamotus, the archipelago that Rangiroa belongs to. A proud Pa’o’motu woman, she had nonetheless gone to school in Tahiti, and worked there for a little while. And dinner told me something about Tahitians, and I guess, also the Pa’o’motu. For I had expected a Polynesian home-cooked meal, but Saudari made curried fish for the first night’s dinner.

I could tell that she had never had an Asian guest before. I wasn’t sure if she chose the dish because I’m Asian. It seemed like she personally liked that recipe, though, and it was good, so I enjoyed her enjoyment of the novelty of curry. It told me that Tahitians have an open attitude towards other cultures, and that the image of the Tahitian lack of xenophobia is true. To have curry in Polynesia with French-accented enthusiasm – it was surreal.

Green-painted chalet on a Polynesian motu coral atoll with solar panels next to it and coconut trees around

Agriculture on a coral atoll

But breakfast was to die for (and also not Polynesian). It was French, not just in the composition but in its reliance on the quality of simple preparation. Fluffy croissants and delicious butter, fresh figs from the motu‘s own back yard. It was so surreal that it never occurred to me to ask exactly how they got such good butter all the way there, when this is the sort of thing I normally get curious about.

I suppose it might have occurred to me to ask on the second or third day, except that my ‘actual’ host joined me for the next breakfast and distracted me with the miracle of growing fruits on the atoll’s coralline ground.

She was elderly, spry and spirited, and her skin was Polynesian brown but her face hinted at a Gallic heritage. And when she drew my attention to the actual fig trees on the atoll, and the ripe figs you can just pick along the way back to your chalet, I forgot to wonder about the croissants and butter. They were the best figs I had ever tasted, and somehow this grandmother, this opah, grew them on what appeared to be crushed corals.

It wasn’t just figs either. She had coconuts and papaya and yams, and flowers besides. Ground coconut husk in metal cans, she confided. The plants are grown in the buried cans, and you just let the cans rust in the ground. “The iron is good for them,” Opah said, in excellent English. She asked if we do the same in Malaysia. I didn’t think so, but I couldn’t vouch for all the islands.

Fresh water on a coral atoll

But you can’t bring up agriculture without also bringing up water. The atolls were so small, and the sea on either side, and the sky so clear… did it ever rain on the atoll? I was told that rainwater is collected in tanks, and not to be wasted since you were never quite sure when the next rains would come. But was it enough to supply both people and an orchard?

But, incredibly, the motu actually had a fresh groundwater aquifer! It was one of the reasons she grew fruit here, said Opah. She knew many of the islands across Rangiroa, always digging around for fresh water.

Some of them get depleted, she said. After a while it becomes salty. There was a pool on the motu that has been spoilt already. I nodded, recognising saltwater intrusion. It is a common problem in coastal areas, where you must be careful not to over-extract groundwater.

Fish inside the ground

Seeing my interest in the natural hydrology of the Tuamotus, Opah told me more. “Sometimes, you dig and dig, and freshwater comes into the pond, and inside there are fish and eels already! In the ground! You didn’t put them there, and yet the fish are inside.” Wonder was apparent in her voice.

What. It boggled my mind. How could this be? Were there holes in the ground, where fish could squirrel in and live a life in hiding? Fish eggs carried into fissures by the tide flux, hatching in subterranean coral tunnels?

“Where? Can I see it?”

“Sure,” she said, promising to take me to her garden in Tiputa when I moved there in a couple days. She had a pond there where she had found fish miraculously pre-present.

Unfortunately, the water was too murky for me to see any fish within. The water surface was partially blocked with weeds, and somehow dragonflies were all around. Don’t ask me how dragonflies appeared on an atoll far from other freshwater bodies.

Climate change and concerns over freshwater

Boat anchored on the beach looking out to aqua blue Rangiroa lagoon

I can’t remember if I asked, but Opah confided that the weather we were experiencing was already hotter than all the previous year, even though we weren’t into the hottest months yet. Uh-oh.

Climate change, I thought, as Opah told me about the change in rainfall. She had been noticing lower rainfall, and was concerned about fresh water. She cautions her husband against over-pumping the groundwater, venting as women do between ourselves when our significant others do not listen to our wisdom as much as we would like.

Opah is a technology adopter; the motu had solar panels installed with battery packs. She thought of getting a desalination machine, but it seemed too expensive. Sometimes I still wonder if her enterprising spirit won out, and she’s done it by now.

Reflections on assimilation and identity

But at the time, I mostly wondered at my situation. Coming from a country mainly colonised by the British, there are certain things you extrapolate from that experience, for European colonisation in general. And you don’t really think about whether you should, until you gain an experience that allows you to look back and see it from outside your own worldview.

There I was, listening to a Polynesian grandmother with a vaguely French face, talking about life in Polynesia with hardly a trace of Europeanism. And I remembered my Airbnb host for my Tahiti layovers, with his European height and features yet speaking like a Tahitian of his grandfather’s place in the south, exactly like my own people would talk about our hometowns. His home was partially wooden and felt just like a Malay house – so much so that I shared a photo of the bedroom to my friends to highlight the remarkable resemblance.

In my own region, only the Filipinos have this assimilation by the European, but only from their Spanish period, not the American. Somehow it was only then that I realised that Anglos generally didn’t assimilate into native culture in their colonies, but the Spanish – and it seems the French – would. Individuals might, but that’s about it. And the realisation made me question how many invisible things I had at the bottom of my worldview, for a long, long time after.

The islandscape of Rangiroa

A motu stay is about idyllic quiet days and long swims in the lagoon. I would have been content, but Opah and her husband had an errand in the village and invited me to come along. That was when I found out that the motu was not strictly separate from adjacent atolls. We went by pickup truck, not by boat.

I was lucky to be hosted in French Polynesia by a host who spoke fluent English. I learned many things. Her husband spoke little, as he was mainly French-speaking, but Opah had travelled the world when she was younger. She had grown up in Tahiti, and spoke of horseback riding in its valleys (that was when I found out Tahiti has valleys).

We drove across the barrier reef, sometimes descending into tidal gullies. The atoll landscape was not devoid of vegetation, yet it still somehow managed to appear lunarlike. I found it so strange that the ground was cemented over in places, as if it were an abandoned construction site, but it’s completely natural. You could see both coasts as you drove along, one side gently sloping into the lagoon, and the other a wall against the ocean dashing upon it.

Opah told me that at the end, dolphins leap across the pass in the evenings. “Whales come into the lagoon too,” she said. In the right season, mother whales were known to bring their babies into the lagoon. But not anymore, Opah said. They come, but do not cross the pass anymore. She blames the divers. “Too many bubbles,” she intoned. I wondered why the whales came into the lagoon in the first place, and hoped it wasn’t too important.

Vehicle path across Rangiroa atolls

Learning herbology on a Rangiroa atoll

The atolls were so small, the ground so hard and bare, and land-based life seemed so scarce, that I marvelled how the people here managed. Although I suppose only those who aren’t adapted to it think this landscape is without provision.

I don’t just mean in the sea either. It turned out even on land, and even not counting the infinitely useful coconut, there are medicines to be had.

I can’t remember why we got out of the truck, but I wandered near the waterline with my host. She talked to me about the native plants around us, and I remember thinking how my mother would enjoy this deluge of botanical knowledge.

There was one tree in particular that I remembered. It grew all along the coastline, fairly close to the water’s edge. Opah told me that the leaves were medicinal. If you got injured on the reef, you can chew on the leaves and apply them on your wounds. I thought it was really handy that it grew so close to the water.

Medicinal shrub in Polynesia

She also showed me another tree, the tamanu. It yields oil that apparently eradicates scars. I was curious enough to buy a bottle from Pape’ete market when I returned to Tahiti, but I can’t tell whether it works or not.

Nonetheless, I’ve begun seeing tamanu oil in facial care here, and it reminded me of Opah’s plan to grow tamanu and have an oil press to export the oil. She just needed a manager for the plantation. It couldn’t be a family business because her grandson wanted to be a comedian. She was baffled by his rejection of a sure and comfortable livelihood. I tried not to smile at the boomer-millennial values clash.

Settling into the atoll life

But the motu life does not just mean the barrier reef landscape, which Saudari calls ‘the Oceanside’. On the motu I was in between the lagoon and the open sea. My chalet was ‘oceanside’, and while it gets the best breezes – nearly constant, in fact – the best views are on the lagoon side.

The Rangiroa lagoon was the bluest water I’d ever seen. It wasn’t just one blue, but a layering of blue. And the blues were so bright against each other, and the rippling so fine, that the colours seemed to blur in a glow of turquoise brilliance.

Varying shades of blue in Rangiroa lagoon

I don’t know how it is that the sea ensorcels me, but the sight made me deeply contented. It’s hard to find a reason to do anything but lie here to watch the surf.

I marvelled at that. People here have fewer natural resources, and face bigger risks. Yet, because they know how to use it and just by a resilient attitude, they make life look easy and abundant even here, at the extremes of land.

Whereas some of us let ourselves be defeated in our minds so that we can’t be merry even while surrounded with more resources.

And you know, that’s how you live on the edge. Always guard your resources. Work, but not to be superior to others. And most of all, lighten up and have fun.

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.

Rangiroa lagoon atoll

8 Responses

  1. Lekha says:

    I missed the Polynesian culture in Maui which is more commercialized. It’s good to know we can experience the culture like a local and immerse ourselves in their day to day life. Great find! Look forward to visiting the island some day.

    • Teja says:

      The great thing about Tiputa is that you can easily switch between both. The next-door island Avatoru has the resorts and tour companies so if you want tours and activities it’s nearby. But at the same time if you want to just live for a bit, well, you’re in a village!

  2. Katy says:

    What a fascining glimpse of life on a Rangiroa Coral Atoll. Your descriptions do a great job of painting a mental picture of the experience. I love the focus on sustainable travel too. I hadn’t thought about carbon offsets before. I’ll have to look into that.

    • Teja says:

      It was a very balanced experience, simultaneously light but deep at the same time. I try my best to do it justice. Every place I visit has a different taste to its stories, as if a different person is speaking, and that’s so fascinating.

      If you’re interested to learn more about carbon offsetting, do check out my Carbon Offset series on what it’s about, and my practical guide.

  3. Carley says:

    Such a cool post! It is certainly an area of the world I’ve never been nor know much about, but its cool learning more though what you share. Thanks!

  4. Emma says:

    What a beautiful description of your experience. I love the idea of the solitude of the island life, but I think I might also have been curious enough about the local food to request the meal prep option. I’ve long been interested in French Polynesia, it looks like a dream trip. Hopefully one day, and now I have an idea of a unique way to experience it

    • Teja says:

      I think unless you’re a strong extrovert, it’s well worth spending 2-3 days secluded on a motu. One tip to have it even less ‘typical’, I recommend being hosted by a female host. I generalise, but so far I’ve found female hosts more willing to go with the flow rather than suggest activities from a catalog.

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