The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Atuona, Isle Hiva Oa, Polynesie Française, Friday, 04 June 2010

Even cruising life can encompass both good new and bad news. The bad news has been the TIAs while at sea some 400 Nm and quite a few days still from land, the emergency air trip after arrival here after 37 days at sea to the big hospital in Papeete on Tahiti, and the ten-day stay there, part of it flat on my back. All of that could have been a catastrophe.

The good news, however, is that we made it without me experiencing a major brain-stroke at sea, that TIAs are well-known to neurologists, that the situation was dealt with in time, that the French and Tahitian medical staff were knowledgeable and competent and that I am back on the boat with Kathleen and well on the way to recovery. For a week after returning here I was still getting ‘spells’ (sudden double-vision, paralysis in legs, arms and my tongue; tingling in left extremities; and loss of my sense of balance; etc.), but provided the dosage of the anti-coagulants is correct (they are still trying by trial and error to find what the right amount should be), I am all-in-all getting along quite well, thank you. I am still not able to undertake long cruises, heavy lifting or other physical work. The French doctor told me to avoid banging my head hard or climbing trees. Sic! I am sticking to this, but I do manage to do a little boat work in the mornings and take it easy in the afternoon. My road to recovery is at least due as much to Kathleen’s ministrations. In time I shall be eating a well-buffered daily time-release aspirin and leading a quite normal life, say the neurologists.

The hospital bills have still not been paid. My German Travel Health Insurance says it will pay for everything. But it has still not happened. It is private (German state health insurance only covers the actual E.U. countries, Switzerland, some of North Africa, etc., but not French Pays d’Outre-Mer [i.e., French Overseas Dependencies]. Why the Swiss get included, though, and why North Africa, also, surely raises a question or two). Let’s hope that the insurance comes through, because otherwise we are in deep financial kaka.

Every cruiser that we tell about our at-sea crisis relates all-too-readily. They are all in the same boat with normally a two-man crew made up usually of retirees. The skipper is often knowledgeable and does most of the boat-work, on the one hand, and his/her spouse who would be almost immediately overwhelmed if faced with the prospect of handling the boat totally alone on a long passage. We have discussed what Kathleen should do if at sea I am hit by such an attack or a similar emergency occurs. Other shorthanded cruiser-crews should do the same. You would be surprised at the range of possibilities, but the scare factor is big.

At present Vilisar has been lying peacefully at anchor in Atuona port. The ocean swells still manage to creep into the long cove despite the breakwall, and until we could finally get the stern anchor to set properly, we were often rolling around at night. After several very dry weeks with brush fires on some other islands, it has begun to rain almost daily for thirty minutes or so. Dry days are now less frequent than wet ones. But the squalls, brought about by the approach of the rainy season (high point in July and August) and the magnetic attraction of the high mountains all around us, have perked up the vegetation. We just have to remember to close up the boat when we go ashore and to put away or cover all the tools at night.

Atuona is a village that keeps French-village hours. But although there are Frenchmen about, the locals outnumber the French. This is true all over French Polynesia (physically, FP is made up of islands groups spread out over an area larger than Europe): Polynesians or Polynesians of mixed races represent 78%; ‘Chinese’ descendents, usually of mixed race, 12%; and pure French, 10%. There are no income taxes, but indirect taxes are huge and are added on top of high import and the long-transport costs. FP has got to be one of the most expensive paradises in the world, which is why their tourism is fading. The French Pacific Franc is tied to the Euro and guaranteed by the French. This means that prices have gone out of sight as the Europe has climbed against nearly every currency. The French Government pours in about €150 mio every year just as a lump sum (this works out to about € 500 per head on a population of under 300,000) before they even start paying to back up the Pacific Franc or ‘investing’ in special infra-structure projects (the building standards are high; all the public buildings and highways are of top quality; education is free [though exclusively in French]; healthcare is free. At the post-office the other day (month-begin) there was a stack of government cheques waiting to be distributed; the pile must have been thousands of cheques high. This doubtless explains why nearly every local is driving a brand new Toyota-Hilux pick-up truck. You would be very hard pressed to find a really old car on the island; if you did it would be driven by an ex-pat Frenchman; the locals seem to have the money. Nearly all the professional staff in FP are contracted from France, i.e., medical staff, teachers, administers, businesspersons, etc. There is no income tax so therefore top earners (French professionals) are basically being carried by the poorer ones who have to pay sales tax to keep the regime afloat, but who in return seem to receive government cheques from the central administration and jobs from the infra-structure or real-estate projects, and therefore from l’etat (i.e., France). The FP model of economic development is therefore about as useless for Third-World emulation as the Israeli one, and for much the same reason: the standard of living is kept up and guaranteed by a rich First-World uncle.

But even the French, or even especially the French, seem happy and content in this island. Life is much more easy-going than in Latin America, everyone is so relaxed that they can stop on the roads and pick up hikers, they have time to exchange pleasantries and smile indulgently with you over your broken French, laugh and smile continually when they are chatting amongst themselves. The ex-pats are probably happy to find other ex-pats to talk to, but they have probably been infected by the happy-go-lucky Polynesians. Out for a walk into town, there is enough ripe mango or papayas or mulberries on the ground to make the cruisers happy. The fabulously delicious pamplemousse and bananas cannot even be imagined until you taste them for yourself. The volcanic soil is fertile but there seems to be almost no truck gardening, and when we found vegetables for sale they cost roughly the same as purchasing the crown jewels. The very few farms that exist are apparently run by Frenchmen; I don’t suppose the locals must or are eager to be farmers and there are precious few fishing boats around.

Of course, Atuona on Hiva Oa is a village and nobody moves fast or locks things up. Papeete on Tahiti is a city and I was told there is street crime and drug problems. I didn’t notice it when I was there, but on the other hand I was just out of the hospital for a few hours of furlough.

But, of course, there are problems in paradise. The government has become very corrupt and the ex-president has been had up in court after 25 years in power and after creating a very well-off elite class of mixed-raced locals (Chinese and Europeans mixed with Polynesian = métis) Half the population is under the age of 20 years, so the expectation is that the population will keep on exploding and the infrastructure is doming under pressure (e.g. hospitals, schools, workforce, etc). Drugs and sexually-transmitted disease is increasing rapidly. The western diet has introduced the population to Coca Cola and McDonalds; 25% of the population, I was told authoritatively by a French high school teacher, now suffer from sugar diabetes and the incidence of amputations and blindness is reaching proportions like those of the native populations in the U.S.A. and for the same reasons. It is amazing how many obese young-ish Tahitian women as well as teenage Tahitian children there are about. I never met a fat French person, though. A Frenchman told me that when he arrived here 25 years ago everybody was slim (including his wife!) The high FP franc has priced the island out of the tourist market (they compare themselves unfavourably to Bali, which gets many more Europeans and American tourists).

There is a small Polynesian Independence movement. But, if France were to stop spending money here, it is not hard to imagine that prosperity would end in a flash and the standard of living would sink rapidly below that of the poorest Latino countries. Most people here seem to realise this. The French go on paying, possibly as repayment for their damaging nuclear tests and partly perhaps because they still fancy themselves as a colonial power. When the European Union was formed (back then called the EEC), the other members objected to supporting any European overseas colonies. A special deal was cut for the French pays d’outre mer, however (in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, South Pacific, etc). In the end, however, I suppose it could be German money that is paying for it all.

It is a lovely place here and we shall be here for a few more weeks, I suppose, until the doctors finally say my “condition” has been stabilised with anti-coagulants. I feel terrific at present and hope to pilot Vilisar to Tahiti to greet son Andrew when he arrives to help us on the boat on June 30. That will be fun, I am sure.


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