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Two years ago I left London for the bijou islands of French Polynesia, a country with a small population of 270,000 spread over an area the size of Europe. A short boat ride from a car-free village of 50, I joined two people who had set up camp on an atoll – a collection of small coral islands encircling a lagoon.
The island (which shall remain nameless to preserve the peace of its inhabitants) is part of the largest group of atolls in the world, the Tuamotu, and here life revolves around nature. You go snorkelling among the corals, tiny fish and sharks. The sun forces you into the shade. You get lashed by warm rain. Clear skies allow you to watch the multicoloured stars.
Winds of 100 km/h shake the wooden house and whip up waves that crash a stone’s throw from your sleeping quarters. After the tsunami in Japan last year, some 6,000 miles away, the tide came up to the coffee table.
We collect rainwater to drink and wash. Sand and ocean water is great to clean dishes and we use a well to wash clothes. At dusk, petrol lamps are lit and we walk around with headlamps. Solar energy enables us to listen to music and to watch films. A few hours are spent each morning making minor repairs and sweeping leaves from the beach. We bake bread in a wood fire oven. Dinner is a feast: over a year I had 40 types of fish prepared in a dozen ways, cooked or raw.
I only touched money to buy phone cards and stamps. As there was no internet connection, for the first time in decades I wrote letters, and I painted seascapes to send as postcards. We had hundreds of books and a radio set for news.
“I only touched money to buy phone cards and stamps. As there was no internet connection, for the first time in decades I wrote letters”
When Robert Louis Stevenson sailed past the atoll, the Tuamotu were called Paumotu, or ‘dangerous archipelago.’ He wrote: “The roar of The Strand and the roar of the reef were the same.” The atolls themselves are now endangered as sea levels rise with global warming, and this lifestyle is only sustainable if you stay put.
Trips to the only city, Papeete, take an hour on a plane from a nearby atoll, and if you are homesick, a 24-hour flight will double your carbon footprint and you will end up polluting as much as someone in Europe. You should also be content with basic foodstuffs; groceries, like medicines and everything else, are imported from France, Singapore, the US and China. They are delivered by boat every fortnight from Tahiti, about 300 miles away.
There is a health officer in the village but the yearly visits of the roaming Tuamotu doctor and dentist are keenly awaited.
A wedding was the social highlight of the year. Women in bright pareos, their hair adorned with flowers, performed traditional dances. I sat next to the policeman who also says mass but whose main job is to handcuff violent drunkards to coconut trees.
At the school Christmas party, the children sang in Paumotu, French and English about fir trees and cold wind. Santa, in full red gear and a cotton wool beard at the height of summer, complete with sunglasses and flip-flops, was a telecoms engineer from Tahiti awaiting his plane – the only man the children would not have recognised.
Part of the area has been designated by the UN as a reserve for the preservation of rare species, and the beauty of the turquoise lagoon is intoxicating. Today, you can still watch a whale two feet away or swim past a turtle or a leopard ray. You cannot go back unchanged to western life.
Written by Marie Gabriel