Overseas France: Or Where You Can Find France Outside Of France

The days of colonial empires may be long over, though the United States, United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and Denmark continue each to administer a smattering of overseas territories.

Among these, France has arguably the most interesting and wide-ranging set of territories. Overseas France includes tiny St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland (population around 6,000), the Caribbean overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, the smaller Caribbean “overseas collectivities” of St. Martin and St. Barts, the South American overseas department of French Guiana, the Indian Ocean overseas departments of Réunion and Mayotte, and French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Wallis & Futuna in the South Pacific.

Officially, overseas France is divided into “overseas departments” (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, and Réunion), “overseas collectivities” (French Polynesia, St. Barts, St. Martin, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and Wallis and Futuna), and New Caledonia, which has a special status unto itself.

There are also two uninhabited French territories – a vast, noncontiguous territory with the grand name of Territory of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, inhabited only by researchers, and, most curious of all, the uninhabited island of Clipperton, which sits off Mexico and is administered directly by the Minister of Overseas France.

Tourism is a huge economic driver in many of these territories. St. Martin, St. Barts, and French Polynesia are particularly well known to Americans. Francophone tourists are also familiar with the islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, New Caledonia, and Réunion.


[Flickr image via Rayced]

Tahiti greens up its tourism

Tahiti ain’t cheap. And, at least in the past several decades, it’s also had a reputation for crappy food, cheesy resorts, a seriously sketchy scene in Papeete, and a general lack of sustainable tourism. But that’s all changing.

CNN reports that small-scale, eco-oriented tourism is thriving in Tahiti, especially in the mountainous interior, and on the peninsula of Tahiti Iti. An influx of B & B’s, guesthouses and bungalows have cropped up, making a visit to the island paradise more affordable to budget travelers (after you cough up the plane ticket, but Air Tahiti Nui offers promotional prices and family discounts). The less-populous inland has loads of hiking trails, waterfalls, and remote beaches accessible only by foot, and outfitters such as Tahiti Evasion offer guided hikes for non-DIY’ers. On the luxury end, some properties, like Bora Bora’s InterContinental Resort, are reducing their carbon footprint by using high-tech cooling systems that use pumped-in, deep-sea water, instead of A/C units.

Additionally, great public transit and a thriving local food scene make it easier for culturally-inclined travelers to get a true taste of Tahiti. Roulottes, small food trucks found along Papeete’s waterfront, offers local ingredients and traditional dishes, while the central market, Marche Papeete, sells all manner of locally-grown produce. On rural Moorea, check out family farms, and slip into the relaxed, local way of life.

[Via Mother Nature Network]

[Photo credit: Flickr user D.[SansPretentionAucune]]

Tahitian dance chronicles, part two: Going to To’ata

It was February and I’d been taking Tahitian dance classes for six months. I was now loving my twice-weekly wiggle as well as hanging out with my sometimes cranky but always lively retired Tahitian classmates. My hips were really starting to move and my rolling ueue shake was getting so fast that the teacher grouped me into the more competent half of our class.

Now the warm-ups were more complicated, with moves like the afata (hips like a box) that I just couldn’t get right. At least the previously aloof ladies in class were now being helpful.

“Follow me,” Tania would say, bringing me over to copy her. “See you bend the knee, keep it bent, straighten then straighten. Move the hips in a square to the count of four.”

We had also started learning the choreography for two aparima, slow, graceful dances with swaying hips and lots of wave-like arm gestures. The dances were less blatantly sexy than our fast otea, but embodied a quiet feminine beauty.

I still was adamant about not performing in the show until the day our teacher Heirani announced that we were going to start making costumes.”We’ll start with our more [grass skirt] belt and headdress,” she said. “All the feathers, shells and pandanus are provided by the school and we’ll be sewing together Saturday morning.”

Grass skirts, fluffy belts, big hats and a sewing circle: this was a culture freak’s girl-time nirvana. I couldn’t help it, I wanted to wear an outrageous costume made out of leaves and shells and make it myself with the help of the locals. I told everyone that I was going to make the costumes then decide later if I was going to do the show or not. They all nodded calmly as if to say, “yeah, sure, that’s what they all say.”

When I showed up on Saturday to make my first costume I encountered a new surprise. There were at least ten other classes at the dance school and on costume day everyone was there together as a group. I knew almost everyone. There was my good friend Amel, my swimming buddy Niouk and my carpool partner Karine. It dawned on me that although I knew all of these people danced, I had never appreciated what dance had meant in their lives. After 15 years I was suddenly in a club I hadn’t realized existed. For all these years I’d been missing out on this beautiful and essential part of Tahitian culture. Now whenever I saw these friends outside of dance all we talked about was choreography and costumes.

There was a Gala rehearsal and I went. We learned how we needed to move around the stage while doing our moves in relation to the other dancers. I was used to my class of around 15 women but now we were a group of 200, ranging from age five to 75 in all shapes and sizes.

After this rehearsal there was another and then another. A live percussion orchestra played the songs we’d been dancing to in class and suddenly we were a complete, massive and organic piece of performance art. Heirani added a Monday class so we could practice more often and one morning a week was dedicated to costume making. I had a list of plants I needed to gather for my show skirts including strips of red banana trunk fiber and 50 green ‘ti leaves. Every time I was invited over to someone’s house I’d troll their garden for material.

“Yeah I’ll have a beer, and you don’t happen to have a red banana tree or some of those elephant ear vines in your yard do you?”

My fingers were sore from sewing and my legs and abs were sore from dancing so much.

During rehearsals we began to see what the other classes were up to. One day instead of practicing with my group I sat and watched the Advanced-Pro class of beautiful young women. Suddenly my class’ dances were put in perspective: we were the background music. These sirens were so outrageously lovely and moved so fluidly with such sexuality and grace that I realized no one at the Gala would be watching — could be watching — anyone else but them. It dawned on me that the athletic suppleness of Tahitian dance is made for young and limber bodies but the open-hearted culture allows everyone to take part in the fun. We all had our place in the show in the way that suited us best. Every aparima and otea told a story and created a frame in which the Advanced-Pro girls could set the stage on fire. And these dancers were literally going to set the scene aflame with giant fiery batons for one of their fast otea dances; my group would perform a gentle aparima with humble little candles just afterwards.

Our show was supposed to be at the Gauguin Museum Restaurant in the low-key village of Papeari, but there was some problem and the location was no longer available. Heirani announced we would now be dancing at To’ata Amphitheater in Papeete, the biggest venue in the country where all the big professional dances and the Heiva I Tahiti performances take place. Posters were put up all over the island, Heirani, was interviewed about the show for several local TV shows and articles were written about our troupe in the newspaper. Our show would be one of the biggest and first performances of the dance season leading up to the Heiva. Some of the Advanced-Pro dances would go on to the Heiva.

Without really being conscious of what had happened, I had gone from casually taking dance classes to committing to dance in five different numbers in front of over 2000 people in the capital city. But I was ready — I was having a ball and couldn’t have cared less if my hips made thousands of people giggle.

Yesterday: Tahitian dance chronicles, part one: Getting hooked
Tomorrow: Tahitian dance chronicles, part three: Dancing towards a new adventure

[Photos: Celeste Brash]

Tahiti Graffiti

You don’t expect rampant urban culture in the sultry South Pacific, but it’s there. That’s because like it or not, Papeete is a relatively big city that’s home to about half the population of French Polynesia, or about 130,000 people. Also, the city will never run out of reinforced concrete walls and frustrated youth.

Tourists are funny about graffiti-we like it in places like Berlin or in Banksy’s latest coffee table book but tend to get uppity if it’s the backdrop to our tropical honeymoon. But judge not. Graffiti is a fairly honest art form-the subjects and sayings that get sprayed across the blank walls of any city says a lot about the place. In Papeete you’ll find a mix of adolescent tagging to bigger displays of initials and elaborate paintings with Polynesian motifs. Word on the street is that the Polynesian graffiti renaissance is on.

Some come one, come all! Pack up your stencils and spray cans, Tahiti’s open for coloring . . . except that it’s not. Anyone caught “vandalizing” anything bigger than a broken cinder block gets an automatic 4,000 Euro fine. Last year, 35 aspiring artists were charged en masse.

Better to enjoy the artwork of the risk-takers by day. A walk through the downtown backstreets of Papeete reveals the signs of many busy artists, as does the skate park and surrounding areas in the suburb of Faaa. But venture out into other islands and you’ll find good and bad art scribbled everywhere. Even the abandoned swimming pools of Moorea are fair game for les graffitistes.

To get connected with the Tahitian street art scene, visit the island’s Kreativ Concept Association, which is an innocent collective of “fresco and mural enthusiasts.” They also happen to sell spray paint, stencils, and T-shirts that read “Graffiti is not a crime.”