Here on Tahiti, things are changing. The island was Covid-19 free when they decided to open for tourists. The keyword in the previous sentence is was. What a huge difference one week makes!
On July 15th, French Polynesia opened for tourism. This included the airport and local cruise ships based here. Many tourists come to Tahiti to hop on a cruise liner to visit other French Polynesian islands. The popular stops include Mo’orea and Bora Bora. The island of Tahiti was very much abuzz when an American cruise ship passenger tested positive while on the cruise. The incoming tourists are required to have a rapid Covid-19 test with 72-hours prior to boarding the plane coming here. Once here, they must perform a self-test on the 4th day. The self-test identified the infected person.
The ship’s crew and passengers were thoroughly tested and later released after brief isolation aboard. This seemed to be an isolated instance. I think the authorities exhaled a huge sigh of relief. All appeared as though they dodge a bullet. The rules for tourists were tweaked a little bit in the hope this would not occur again. Then the unthinkable happened.
A large group of French civil servants arrived for a changeover of staff. This was on a Friday. Their first night on the island included a big party at a local restaurant. Sharing food and drinks, the growing group spilled onto the street. And yes you guessed it, someone in the group was positive. A couple of days later as symptoms started to show in others, the testing revealed how widespread this quickly became. Within a week, Tahiti went from 5 cases to over 100 cases. Over 50 civil servants reporting back to France also tested positive once there. The 50 is not included in the 100+ cases here. (As I post this update, we are now at 252 cases)
On Saturday, Cindy and I attended a festival in the park near the marina. In the pictures, you will see very few people wearing masks and little social distancing. Nobody thought this was needed. After all, the island is Covid-19 free, right? We stand out as tourists, the big camera helping to solidify this image, so we respect social distancing being empathetic of their fear. The locals are wary of tourists and we try very hard not to make them uncomfortable by standing too close.
I have to say, I find it difficult to describe what we saw at the festival. People in traditional attire racing with large loads of fruit. The fruit is carried on a thick bamboo log and bound tightly with reeds. Some of the fruit does fall off during the race and this seems to be okay. On our return walk back through the park, we chuckled at all the bananas scattered everywhere. Depending on the race category the load can weigh up to 10 kgs for women and 30 kgs for men. They take the process very seriously and the loads are checked prior to the race. I watch as one participant removed individual bananas to reach the desired weight. They even measure the bamboo pole to ensure it is within spec.
Cindy was in awe of the scantily clad ripped men. I have to admit, the guys are in terrific shape. They run barefoot. Shoes are allowed but must be woven from reeds. The women, in addition to being laden with the fruit also wear colorful flowers.
From the festival web page:
HEIVA TU’ARO MA’OHI : SPLENDOUR OF ANCESTRAL SPORTS
Traditional sports competitions hold a prominent place in the Polynesian world. Organized by the ‘ muitahira’a Tū’aro Mā’ohi (FATM) since 2003, they now include more than 28 associations and nearly 850 members spread over the five archipelagos of French Polynesia. Dexterity, strength, endurance, skill, many are the qualities required for these remarkable disciplines, which attract the widespread admiration of the large public following them. Coconut climbing, rock climbing, javelin throwing, coconut shelling, copra, fruit carrier races, and the Va’a Taie regattas embody the most authentic and spectacular Polynesian traditions.
The second half of the festival was scheduled for the following weekend was canceled. This was to include a boating regatta, a stone lifting contest, and palm tree climbing. What a difference a week makes.
During the past few days, the health authorities here have done massive amounts of testing trying to identify the cluster from the restaurant and the extended contacts. Some of the people have since gone to other islands making the infection spread wider. Others attended a BBQ making the cluster bigger still.
We now have more active cases here than we did when we first arrived on Tahiti. When we arrived the entire island was under restrictions and borders closed. Since, a lot has been learned about the virus and although there is still no cure, the mortality rate reported at the early onset has proven to be greatly exaggerated. In addition, there is now science behind the key learnings about how the virus spreads. Masks are now mandated inside public areas and on public transportation, social distancing is required and large gathering (over 50 people) are not allowed. Night clubs have been closed once again. Other than that, all other businesses remain open.
Are we worried? Not yet. We wear a mask when inside public places, as required. We social distance, wash our hands an awful lot and avoid touching our faces. However, there is a little piece of me miffed now that our little corner of the world has been spoiled by a few people who thought they were beyond the rules.
Cindy doesn’t do anything on social media. She prefers a more personal communication and has a long list of friends who email back and forth. One of our friends is on the outer islands and has trouble getting the internet and news. They can receive email over their SSB radio. They asked Cindy to send updates on Covid periodically. She does so and refers to us as the masked reporters. Here is an excerpt from one of her latest emails I found amusing. Keep in mind what I said about locals being wary of tourists.
So the Minister of Health held a press conference. The captions in the news was, “Don’t Panic”. Mark feels the author was a fan and stole the quote from “Dad’s Army”. We have not seen any panic so I guess the point was mute. The Minister said all the cases so far are young, healthy people. He was quoted as saying, “There have been no ‘bad’ cases”. However, somehow two people snuck by him because the hospital count is still at two. No deaths, thank goodness. 149 cases as of today. They feel they have a handle on the cases now and that the numbers should not go up too much more. All cases except for 10 came from the party night of July 31st. Some of those people attended a BBQ and baby shower which is how the virus spread. I think a few left the island but that was not mentioned. This was all that was said about the spread in the news conference. The 10 non-party cases were 4 tourists who had no family in FP and 6 who were visiting here to see family. So, if you are keeping score: Tourists 4, Locals 145.