Working in Paradise
When we sailed into the lagoon of Raiatea, we never imagined that this would become our home for the next seven years. We had done some locum work in Tahiti and then sailed back to the Marquesas. We knew Papeete wasn’t the place for us, too many people, traffic jams, pollution. It wasn’t what we had come to the Pacific in search of.
Working in the Marquesas gave us some great openings and exchanges with the locals. We swapped treatments for wooden sculptures of tikis and manta rays, bowls, hand painted tapas and fresh fruits. We borrowed horses, went to collect coconuts and helped out in the copra plantations (the locals make opening and carving out coconuts look like a piece of cake, but its back breaking work when you don’t have the knack and it’s an art of remove all the coconut flesh in one large satisfying slice).
Our treatment room in Nuku Hiva was in the home of Pere, a local “guérisseuse”, a herbal healing lady. Her son was using a room as a tattoo studio and the walls were covered with playboy pictures that he had tattooed to inspire his clients. Our patients would have something more interesting to look at than pictures of the skeleton and nervous system!
Pere is such a kind person. So kind that she allowed her two sons to practice their art of tattooing all over her body…each time we visited she would insist that we had something to eat from one of the three casseroles always bubbling away on the stove. It’s hard to imagine anyone going hungry in these Islands, the trees are overflowing with fruits. We would breakfast on grapefruits as big as footballs, mangos and tiny finger bananas. Walking through the forest paths we would suck tiny mangos, making a hole in the top and squeezing out the juice, the pigs snuffling around eating up overripe fallen fruit and the hot humid air smelt of sweet fermentation.
Tapioca, breadfruit, sweet potatoes and manioc grow in abundance in this rich volcanic soil. And dishes of wild goat and pig are made sweet with coconut milk and tender through being cooked slowly in an underground oven pit covered with banana leaves, the Marquesan oven.
As we travelled to different Islands we would stop at the ‘marie’ the local town hall, to offer our services. Working as osteopaths allowed us the unique opportunity to see how people lived as we were invited into their homes to carry out our treatments. Through our work people often open up and confide in us their struggles and life’s ups and downs.
The Polynesians are strong and proud people, known not to be good at verbalizing their problems. When you live in such a close knit community where your neighbour’s are often relations and there is little possibility of moving away, it is understandable that tensions often go unsaid.
Grandparents or relations often help in raising young children as its not uncommon for girls to become pregnant before finishing school. We wondered why it was that pretty girls would dress in unflattering baggy t-shirts and large shorts, but later realized that this was because they did not want to draw unwanted attention to themselves.
The dark side of this paradise is that violence and abuse go on behind closed doors, often accepted as normal behaviour. This is thankfully being addressed and spoken about more openly and attitudes are starting to change.
In the Marquesas there are no lagoons, once at sea you are directly in deep pacific waters. Thick and black with plankton, these waters are home to masses of marine life and an early morning dip can leave you feeling dirtier than before you went in.
It’s possible to have close encounters with large sharks, manta rays and orcas that come in close proximity to the shore. We were told of how one beach in a bay on Nuka Hiva is soaked red when the orcas feed on manta rays just off shore.
Snorkeling in Nuku Hiva one Christmas day, we were given the gift of watching a spectacle of tens of huge manta rays sucking up plankton just off the beam of the boat. Like cars gliding up and down a highway, checking us out and then continuing on their journey. We felt very small in the water. Small in the world, far from loved ones, but connected through nature.
Even in paradise everyone has their worries and stresses and here like anywhere else, everyone has the same need to be heard and listened to and the same need of a little love and kindness.
Although we really enjoyed our time in the Marquesas, moving between Islands and often rolly uncomfortable anchorages made us start looking for a destination where we could set up a more permanent practice. Raiatea with its larger population and beautiful lagoon seemed the ideal location.
When we arrived in Raiatea our budget was at an all-time low. Luckily we had friends in Tahiti, who also arrived by boat and whose adventures had inspired us to sail to Polynesia. They kindly lent us some money for a down payment on the first few months’ rent.
We found an ideal location for a practice in the center of Uturoa, however the Chinese business lady who was in Tahiti, wasn’t too keen on renting to us as she wasn’t sure our clinic would be a success. We did however get the go ahead, and cleaned, painted and decorated the practice in local fabrics and our souvenirs from the Marquesas.
The local Physio told us that there wasn’t any work for us and most of the doctors were of the older generation that saw us, not as professionals, but as ‘rebouteux’ or bone setters. Luckily there were a few doctors open to working with us, and the hospital physio was happy to send some work our way, and before long we were seeing the hospital staff as patients. The local Chinese population who run a lot of the local businesses embraced us and we were beginning to gain a good reputation.
We were living a pretty relaxed, island lifestyle and split the working day between us, alternating mornings and afternoons. We always made time for either a leisurely lunch with friends or a good siesta. This was the life!
Free time was spent enjoying ourselves, Guillaume playing rugby and getting broken and battered, but making friends on and off the pitch. Surfing before work and learning to kitesurf with cheap ever deflating sails. We both joined the Va’a rowing team and weekends were spent with friends picnicing and playing pétanque at the motu, snorkeling and spear fishing lunch. Sipping cold beer or coconuts whilst sitting in the warm water on a white sandy beach, surrounded by beauty, listening to the ukulele being played or some never ending electric keyboard Tahitian style remix and shrieks of infectious laughter. Children splashing about in the water.
Jo began to learn Tahitian dancing, which became a full time occupation as festival season came close. Learning to make costumes and trying to remember choreographies that kept getting more complicated.
“I learnt a few Tahitian words through songs and was lucky to have such a patient teacher. When I said that I didn’t think I was good enough to go to Tahiti to dance with the group, she told me a story of how she taught to dance a handicapped child, who really enjoyed being part of the troop. I’m not sure if that was meant to reassure me that I had what it took to dance, but Rohina prides herself on including all that want to learn, no matter your shape or size, everyone wiggles their hips the best they can, and we all have a good laugh.The experience of dancing at To’ata, Papeete, with eighty other ladies and children to the beating of drums was the highlight of my dancing experience. And I was so pleased to be accepted even with my poor memory, poor coordination and lack of Polynesian beauty!”
Looking back on it now, we had so much free time….life before children!!!
Guillaume started up an annex clinic in Bora Bora, traveling to work by ferry and we sailed once a month to Huahine, the Island opposite us, about 30 miles away (48 kilometers or 26 nautical miles). Rarely a comfortable sail as between the Islands the water is always choppy, and sailing mostly against the wind it would often take about 8 hours to arrive. But hey, we’re sailors…life on the waves is often slow…We would row the dingy boat to shore and walk barefoot to the clinic, working with sand still between our toes.
Guillaume had taught himself through trial and error to kitesurf and before long friends were asking him to teach them too. He decided to get qualified to teach and we went to New Zealand where he passed his I.K.O course to be a kitesurf instructor. We invested in a big van, more sails and boards, a motor boat and Raiatea Kitesurf School was born.
Jo had been used to sending her patients to Pilates classes to reinforce good posture and build up muscle strength and felt that this type of gentle exercise was missing in Raiatea. She decided to get her qualifications back in England to become a Pilates teacher and took on the daunting task of learning to teach in a foreign language. Before long she was running nine courses a week of mat work and small equipment. Jo was teaching at the local hotel in a conference room on stilts over the water. There was air conditioning, the most amazing picture postcard view and fresh fruit cocktails at the bar after the session. Pilates studios don’t get much better than this!