I have a penchant for islands, and nearly any island will do. Particularly those with Maugham-type characters like Capt. Andy Thomsom, a retired copra boat skipper who was living the good life in the Cook Islands when we met a dozen years ago. Capt. Andy was from Brooklyn, and he wasn't particularly pleased with the recent arrival of tourists on Rarotonga. Swilling a glass of Red Hackle, the local Scotch, he told me: "I wish there weren't no such animal."
Capt. Andy sat slumped in a chair on the porch of his thatched shack; he was reminiscing. "This was the perfect island when I came here--the nearest thing to paradise I ever saw." But that was years earlier, and even the Cook Islands couldn't hold out forever. So when did Capt. Andy notice the change? He smiled, and one gold tooth flashed in the afternoon sunlight. "When I came home one day and saw that my wife had taken off her pareu and was wearin' panties!"
Although he grumbled about the jets and the tourists, Capt. Andy seemed about as content as a man could hope to be. Once a week he bicycled into town for another bottle of Red Hackle; he had five sons, two daughters, a wife he adored and a lagoon full of fish. And just before I left the island, one of the new hotels had agreed to supply Capt. Andy with a lifetime of Red Hackle. That made him quite happy, so he smiled again and his gold teeth flashed once more. Yes, he was about as content as a man could be who'd traveled all that way from Brooklyn to marry an island girl and skipper a copra boat in a world where the trades almost never stop blowing.
I feel a touch of melancholy when I recall the other times spent with another legendary figure, Henry Rittmeister, whom I met on Raiatea, one of Tahiti's neighbor islands. "Ritt" was searching for fire walkers to perform at the Hotel Bora Bora, and over a beer at the old Hinano Hotel he told me how he came to be in French Polynesia.
A German, he'd worked his way to Tahiti in 1938 with the intention of becoming a French citizen, but his timing was off. Soon after his arrival, Germany invaded France, and Rittmeister, still a German citizen, became Tahiti's only prisoner of war. Just like that, he was locked up. Well, it wasn't so bad, Ritt recalled. He was treated well, and whenever his guard slipped off to Papeete to get drunk--and that was frequently--he would implore Ritt: "Please, now Ritt . . . don't run away." Ritt never did. Besides, this was an island, so where would he run to? And anyway, he liked his captors and they liked him.
Little is taken seriously in Tahiti--even war. Of course, there was no fighting--not on Tahiti, anyway--so Ritt remained and married a stunning girl from the Astral Islands; the last I heard, they were living on Moorea beside a lagoon. Each morning, I'm told, Ritt slips out the door of his bungalow and dives into the water--a big blond man with eyes the color of the lagoon itself. Rittmeister is a man with a huge soul, and perhaps his search for a meaning to life will be realized one day as he lives out his time in the South Seas.
The island where we originally met, Raiatea, is simply stunning. The Faaroa River flows, sweet and pure, from mountains ringed by clouds. It was in one of its verdant valleys that the Maoris of New Zealand once lived. Grass huts hang over river banks, and wild pigs root through the jungle and buro trees spread their shade. Mountains rise like monuments, incredibly green, with coconut palms cas- cading down their slopes. On Raiatea, there is no reason to hurry. Where would one go? To town on market day, per- haps. Or possibly to Tahaa, the little island that shares the lagoon with Raiatea. Each day blends into another until it makes little difference whether it is Monday or Saturday, and after a while, not even the month or year matter very much.
Although Raiatea is the largest of French Polynesia's leeward islands, it has but one post office, one hospital, a couple of hotels and a few cars, but beaucoup motorbikes. Young men still climb Mt. Emahanie, gathering a flower that grows nowhere else; afterward, they take the delicate blooms to their favorite vahine.
When I met Rittmeister, he was staying at the ramshackle Hotel Hinano, which is named after a beer and appears to be nearly as old as the island itself. Locals were playing billiards in the lobby, and others were drinking beer. It was a hot afternoon, and I stopped to chat with Ahtchoung Chong, the bartender. Fishnet hung from the ceiling and a pinball machine was squeezed into a corner next to a jukebox, a relic left over from the Glenn Miller era, or perhaps long before that. Chong said that on Saturday nights he sells nearly enough Hinano to fill the lagoon. He waved his arms. "Whole family busy. Saturday night everybody come to town."