This July is a veritable whirlwind of sporting events, what with the Tour de France, the Ashes, and, er, the giddy anticipation for the upcoming football season, which will take place exclusively in Madrid.
In France, le quatorze juillet is a particularly important sporting day. Regular readers of Mimi's excellent columns here will be aware that this is the day French riders specifically target for a stage win in Le Tour, only to be thwarted by some Manx upstart, obviously. Others will argue that the main sporting event of the fête nationale is the military parade down the Champs Élysées, followed by the garden party at Carla's place, sorry, palace.
Meanwhile, a little corner of France tucked away in the middle of the Pacific is hosting a totally different, but no less sporty, kind of party. Tiurai is Tahitian for "Juillet", the month of traditional festivities.
(Note from the Pakalolo Institute's Department of Archeo-linguistics: if you say "Tiurai" out loud, with the soft rolling "r", you'll realise it's part of the lexicon the Polynesian language, reo ma'ohi, inherited from the London Missionary Society, along with a host of terms like "Painapo" (pineapple), "Hamara" (hammer) or "Moni". The Department of Archeo-linguistics would like to seize this opportunity to thank and congratulate Professor Hula-Hula Greengrasse for his ongoing missionary efforts, and to apologise for the digression.)
Tiurai, then, is the time for Heiva, or "Festival". This celebration of Tahitian identity and culture through dance and sport does revolve around the 14th of July, a date fostered upon unsuspecting locals by ocean going frogs who insisted on celebrating the storming of a state prison even though they were 18,000km away from Paris now and didn't have to wear socks anymore.
But where the French take a single day off, get pissed on cheap red and watch the fireworks, the Tahitians keep the party going for an entire month. Measure and temperance are not necessarily the first words that come to mind when trying to paint a portrait of this island people. They just don't do things halfway here. The Heiva extravaganza is testament to that.
In Papeete, dancing and singing schools compete in colourful shows that light up the Place To'ata every evening. During the day, Tuaro (traditional sports) take centre stage. javelin throwing, stone lifting, fruit carrier races and coconut tree climbing all draw enthusiastic crowds.
Athletes come from all over Polynesia, from the Marquesas, the atolls of the Tuamotu, and even those tiny, half-forgotten, southernmost dots on Tahiti's ocean territory, the Australes, where a couple of dozen men and women, out of a population of a few thousand, take a break from the watch they keep over the migrating route of humpback whales and come up to the capital to show the world who, exactly, is the best at grating half a ton of coconuts by hand or at slinging a 300-pound pebble over their shoulder.
But the really big events, of course, are the canoe races. For a month, the outriggers, or va'a, are out in force in Papeete harbour. The races are held just off the seafront promenade in the heart of town so that everyone can enjoy the show.
All participants must wear traditional dress: the pareo, or loincloth, and a crown of greenery or flowers. Sadly, I could not make it this year, and so won't be able to give you a first-hand account. Trawling through all the different racing categories in writing would be tedious, so a few pictures will do the job just as well.
The centrepiece of all this paddling is Te Aito, The Warrior's Race, in which about 600 paddlers slug it out on their individual canoes, the V1, for 28km of a shoulder-wrecking ocean and lagoon course. This year's winner, Clovis Trope, hails from Bora Bora, but the sensation came from unknown youngster Steeve Teihotaata.
Although he had won the under-18s race the day before, he entered the main event and gave the more experienced competitors a proper fight. The lad capsized four times and was even thrown on the reef once, a tricky situation he wriggled out of by running along the top of the reef, carrying his canoe over the coral until he found a spot where he could slip into the ocean without being thrown straight back by the waves. He finished fourth, missing out on the podium by mere seconds. Te Aito, indeed.
Another twelve nautical miles further away from Paris, in Moorea, Bastille Day isn't usually much different from, say, the third Thursday of October, or Christmas even. Nothing much is going on, the lagoon being its old blue self, coconut trees gently swaying, the islands' volcanic peaks patiently crumbling away on their way to atollness in a couple million years, the sun stamping its unwavering mark over everything. And the odd gathering, under whatever pretext.
This year, I got a call from my friend Paddleman (a Pseud of I-Ku fame over at Zeph's place). The newly founded Maharepa Va'a Club is organising its "corpo" race and holding it under the Heiva label. We might be able to slot into a V6 crew with some of our Pihaena training partners, in the over-40's category, or "vétérans" as we call it.
And so he picks me up at eight, and we drive halfway round the island to the deep, steep, fjord-like Bay of Pao Pao. It's called Cook's Bay on the guides, but that name isn't used locally, since the Endeavour was never actually at anchor there, but in the next bay, Opunohu. (Note from the Pakalolo Institute's Department of Uselessfactology: did you know where Captain Cook was eaten by cannibals? The Sandwich Islands. Now, that's what we, at the Institute, call proper English Navy humour.)
When we get to the seaside lay-by near the old Catholic church, our friends are there already. But there are five of them. Looks like I'm the seventh wheel of the va'a. There are two other teams of "vétérans", who will be having a race within a race, as part of the men's V6 event. And among these two is another crew I might slot into, put together by Ed, a bull of a man with a million dollar smile and a perpetual twinkle in his eye, whom I know from my early va'adventures. Their sixth paddler hasn't arrived yet, and if he doesn't make it on time, Ed will let me know. It's early still.
But it doesn't look too promising. There may be a couple of last minute berths to claim, but there is no shortage of available arms that are much more impressive than mine, and just as eager. No worries, I still get to enjoy a day out at the races, in this mind-bogglingly spectacular setting. And there's plenty to take in.
The gymkhana of pick-up trucks, their trailers carrying brightly coloured V6 outriggers, manoeuvring round the lay-by, through the alert crowd, with no need for a traffic warden or the sound of a horn. Things are fluid. Smaller cars are unloading their roof-strapped V1s, which will open the day's racing. Forty-foot canoes weighing over 300 pounds are passed from hands to hands, and set in neat parallel rows along the shore without a scratch on them.
People move with the grace that comes from a near unbroken line of generations who spent their lives walking, running, swimming, paddling, diving, fishing and generally tackling wholebodiedly everything a truly extraordinary natural environment could throw at them.
A couple of tents have been erected for the organisers' signing-up table and food stall. The main object of a "corpo" (or district club) race is to raise funds the club will use to participate in the official races organised by the Fédération Tahitienne de Va'a, most notably the Hawaiki Nui Va'a in November, three days of high-sea racing between the islands of Huahine, Raiatea, Taha'a and Bora Bora, the logistics of which can be costly.
The food stall is a guaranteed financial success. Paddleman and I stump up our modest contribution by buying a couple of sandwiches and drinks. It's a bit early in the morning for lamb's heart on a skewer, deep-fried spare ribs, smoked chicken or even chips.
As the V1 races get underway, the Vahine, the female crews, are getting ready for their V6 event. Some of them have participated in the official Heiva races in Papeete and have had matching outfits made for the occasion. Some of the crowns of flowers on display are highly elaborate, fragrant compositions.
Throughout the centuries, seafaring experts on aesthetics from all over the world have come to the unanimous and timeless conclusion that a vahine va'a race is very easy on the eye and who am I to argue. As Paddleman gets to work on his own vegetal crown, I wander around, looking for familiar faces in the small groups of people scattered around the place, sitting huddled in every last pocket of shade from which to watch the day unfold.
Under the officials' tent, the MC bellows into his mike: results of the first races, encouragement for the paddlers, the cut-price lamb hearts skewers, the licence plate of that car that really needs to be moved now rather than later, messages of thanks for the sponsors, results of the next race, on and on and on and at full blast.
The president of the organising club is well connected in Moorea's small world of business and a lot of the island's banks, shops, hotels and restaurants have pitched in to offer prizes. There will be shiny golden cups for the winners of each main event and plenty of vouchers and goodies for winners of lesser categories and runners-up.
At 1,000 Pacific francs signing-up fee per paddler, the club should be doing brisk business today (still 119.33 Pacific francs to the euro). The income from the races and the food stall will even be supplemented by a raffle, with tickets going also for 1,000 francs. First prize is a 40,000 Franc piece of jewellery and there's also a breakfast for two at one of Moorea's five-star hotels to be claimed.
I never win anything, and so don't usually bother, but either prize would be a nice surprise for Mrs Offside, the tickets are being sold by a Miss Tahiti contestant and a young va'a club needs every bit of help it can get, so I try my luck and end up with ticket number 37. I've only just put it in my pocket when Paddleman comes out of the crowd, looking for me.
"Pedro has gone missing, you're on. We're on. Now."
The canoe is already on the water. I race back to the car to grab my paddle, tie the loincloth over my shorts, and realise I don't have a crown. I had given up on the idea of paddling and so didn't worry about the headgear.
Our helmsman hastily plucks a long leaf of Hauti, shreds it into thin strips along the stem and ties it around my forehead with a couple of quick knots. I can't see anything and refuse to even think about what I look like. I head for the water. Friendly voices call me back.
"Hey, hey, Offie, hey, you can't go like that, this is Heiva". So what? "No t-shirt, no sunglasses, no hat. They're not traditional." I point at the merciless two o'clock sun, but they won't be swayed. No quarter for palefaces. And how they grin.
I hear the grins widen behind my back as I set foot in the water and begin to wade towards the canoe. Near the shore, the bottom is silt, which would be fine if it hadn't been stirred all day to the point of utter murkiness and wasn't littered with thousands of now invisible broken pieces of sharp coral.
The strips of Hauti in my eyes are not that much of a hindrance, since I can't see where I'm stepping anyway. It's laughter I hear on the shore now. Like they've never seen a lettuce-coiffed heron on acid before. Always a pleasure to provide mirth for a friendly, good-natured crowd. Is that a gunwale I feel? I hoist myself on board, sit down, and fold the strips of Hauti leaf behind my ears.
Sadly, no cameras were on hand to record the moment for posterity, except Mr and Mrs Wilmington's from Minnesota, but they were back in their rented Peugeot and had gone off to discover other wonders of Moorea before I could ask for their number (or name, in fact, as I've just made it up to illustrate the point that there were quite a few bemused mainlanders of various origins wandering around this highly organised pandemonium). Sorry.
There are ten six-men canoes on the line when the starting flag is lowered from the safety boat. The race itself is a brief, breathless affair. Across to the far side of the bay, up that side, around the buoys at the pass and back down the other side to where we started from. Less than half an hour of paddling, a three-mile sprint. I'm in fifth, two seats behind Paddleman, which means we'll always be paddling on the same side, so I must focus on his paddle and try to achieve perfect sync.
A truly synchronised stroke is what makes a canoe glide on the water. It beats pure power every time. I wish the bits of salad on my head would stop getting into my eyes and flying into my mouth every time I breathe in.
I'm conscious that some canoes are ahead of us and some behind, as I can hear their captains calling out the switches and orders, but I have no idea how the field is shaping up. All I can think of is "this is going to be short, give it everything", and "whatever you do, don't swallow that".
On a va'a, the fahoro, or leader, gives the cadence that everyone must follow. The paddlers in 3rd and 4th are the engines, supplying the most important part of the canoe's power. The peperu, or helmsman, steers from the back, and joins in the paddling when the racing line is good. The positions of 2nd and 5th don't have a name, since those paddlers don't have any special function, apart from the obvious.
Any one of the six can be the tare, or captain, who signals the switches with a sonorous "Hep!", which also demands a certain type of stroke and intensity according to the energy with which the cry is delivered. The tare thus, crucially, demands more or less effort from his paddlers at certain times and hence regulates the supply of power and the exertion levels throughout the race.
This course is too short for any kind of meaningful tactics or changes in rhythm, but our silver-haired peperu has been around the block, and the island, quite a few times. On the home straight he takes a very central line, nearly down the middle of the bay. In order to remind us that we must pass between the shore and that yellow buoy over there, the safety boat catches up with us at full throttle. And in doing so, creates a lovely swelling wave in its wake.
This is exactly what our peperu was planning on. At his signal, we push that little bit harder on the paddle to catch the surf, he gently curves the racing line towards the buoy with a nod of thanks to the safety boat and we cruise to the finish line. The canoe in front is too far ahead to be caught, I can still hear shouts behind us, but I have no idea how well we've done.
It's only after we've crossed the line that I look up and assess the damage. Six canoes are already at rest by the shore. A quick look at the three we've left trailing confirms that the other two teams of "vétérans" are behind us. We're seventh overall, but we've won our category and that, Ladies and Gents, is a first in your correspondent's va'adventures.
We're even more chuffed that we've left one of the younger crews in our wake. As I gingerly pick my way back to shore through the coral minefield, the MC announces that a few raffle prizes are still to be claimed, 13, 29, and 37. Ha, maybe I can treat Mrs Offside to that dream breakfast…
I slip into more sensible attire and walk over to the tent to hand over my winning ticket. Who's grinning now, eh? She fishes around a large plastic bag. I catch a glimpse of a jeweller's wrapping paper, but her hand comes out holding a supermarket-style plastic bag. I've won two cartons of vanilla-flavoured iced tea, courtesy of Moorea's fruit juice factory, a subdivision of Tahiti's main beer brewer.
But I'd forgotten there was another prize to claim. The winner's prize of the "vétérans" race is not a shiny pot, but, you guessed it, breakfast at the Ia Ora hotel. For the six of us paddlers. It seems the romantic morning meal I had envisaged will be a more virile proposition altogether. Hey, no day is perfect, as we reflected later, sipping vanilla iced tea in the evening cool of the home deck with Mr and Mrs Paddleman, but some come mightily close.