South Pacific Stories: Modern culture in French Polynesia

Latest update June 22, 2018 Started on June 20, 2018
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South Pacific Stories is an outsider’s journey into island life. We will learn from the people who live here, where islands are so far flung they rarely appear together on one map.


We will listen, follow, and ask the people we meet to choose new sources and locations. The stories you find here will come from those experiences.

Journalist and National Geographic Explorer Jennifer Kingsley will work with photographer Eric Guth and filmmaker Matt Mastrantuono.

June 20, 2018
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Preparation

I stood on the deck for a long time last night as we left Pape’ete, Tahiti’s big city. I couldn’t get used to the warm air. After three years visiting the Arctic and Antarctic, I kept waiting for a blast of cold to hit me. I gripped a cardigan thinking that - any minute - I would need it.


I’m on the National Geographic Orion, a Lindblad Expeditions ship, the company that has been sponsoring my journalism since 2015. Photographer Eric Guth and I will spend two weeks working as guides on this ship as it spins through the coral atolls of the Tuamotus archipelago and then up to the high islands of the Marquesas. It will be a scouting mission for us; we'll find places to come back to once our filmmaker, Matthew Mastrantuono, arrives next month.

By morning, the first atoll we will visit shows itself on the horizon. These rings of coral are barely higher than the coconut palms that grow on them, so they can’t be seen from far away. Even though French Polynesia covers an area the size of Europe, several European ships, centuries ago, blew through this region without seeing land.

The first island rises like a shadow from the water. So many outsiders consider these islands paradise, but conditions are harsh. How did people learn to make a living here?

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I wrote Dorothy Lubin-Levy a month and a half ago on Facebook messenger. I didn’t know her, but I wanted to. She was the first person recommended to me, and she wrote back within a couple of days:


“I am very honored to find your message. I am looking forward to have a cup of tea and talk story with you. . . Dorothy.”

So my mission on Day One was to find her apartment in downtown Pape’ete where the streets are full of bustle and exhaust and re-mixed music. Once I entered her courtyard and started climbing the stairs, I knew I had found an oasis.

Dorothy’s place was full of art, most of it by her children or by Bobby Holcomb, her dear friend who became a cultural ambassador for this part of the world, even though he was not originally from here.

Dorothy’s whole place, her pied-a-terre here in Tahiti, feels homespun, and it was somehow cool even without air conditioning. Dorothy hugged me immediately, and I sank into the couch as though I’d been there a hundred times before.

For the next two hours, Dorothy gave me a crash course in both Tahitian history and her own. Dorothy’s father was Tahitian, and she really felt her roots when she came here for the first time at the age of 12. When she returned as a young woman, she dedicated herself to a cultural resurgence in art, music and language, and she fought against France’s nuclear testing.

“Tahitian people were the beautiful people,” she told me, and she has worked with this message for many years.

Our conversation sprawled from her children to Moana to environmentalism and back to her great grandfather who came here in search of a pearl for Queen Victoria’s crown.

Speaking of the 1980’s, when cultural resurgence began to take off she said, “We were looked at as revolutionaries.”

Dorothy took me out to meet people in the neighbourhood, and then we ate fish burgers for lunch. She seemed to know everyone. “Unity is our survival,” she said. “We will only survive if we are one village.”

I promised to come visit at the end of my journey to tell her all of the stories I would find over the next six weeks. Then she reached up and took out her earrings – a homemade set of tiny, dangling pearls – and gave them to me. “These will keep you safe,” she said.

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Preparation means packing. I'm away from home five months per year, and I'm still terrible at packing. Especially when I've spent the last three years working in the Arctic and now ... heat!!


I have agonized over sunscreen (reef safe), sun hats (tourist alert), rash guards (new for me), and bathing suits (ugh). I've finally got it all in a bag which I know will be larger than Eric's. He's our project photographer and even though he has plenty of camera gear while I only have a notebook and pencil, he always has less luggage than me. Admirable and annoying.

You see? Exploration is sometimes about the little things.

Aside from packing, I prepared for this journey by choosing an amazing team. These guys have got my back. But before we really get rolling, I will spend a few days in Pape'ete on my own, looking for our first connection.

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Expedition Background

This project is driven by the power of personal stories to build cultural understanding. The islands of the South Pacific may be known to the outside world for their spectacular beauty, and I'm interested in modern tales from the people who live there.


My commitment is simple: be curious & listen.

My work relies on meeting one person at a time and asking that person to introduce me to someone new. By following this trail, I will welcome the unexpected and share it with you. After three years of following these threads throughout the global Arctic, it's time to go somewhere new.

Most importantly, I have found my first connection, that single person who can welcome me and get me started along a trail of stories. I got a message from D.!

“I am very honored to find your message. I am looking forward to have a cup of tea and talk story with you. Aroh ia rahi.” – D

It’s that simple. A cup of tea to begin the story that will range across the ocean. (I’ll tell you more about D. when I meet her in Tahiti.)

I’m very happy that my three-years-and-counting collaboration with photographer Eric Guth will continue, and I’m thrilled to welcome filmmaker Matt Mastrantuono to the team.

My sponsorship from the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Alliance enters a new phase in a landscape of palm trees, sharks, coral … and more stories you will only find by following us!

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Jennifer this looks so amazing! Can't wait to see updates. When do you head out?

I'm already here! Getting used to the heat :)

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