Friday, August 22, 2014

The Sky Turned Upside Down

Southern Cross, courtesy of Sydney Observatory
When my husband and I flew to Tahiti in 2007, I was eagerly anticipating seeing the night sky in a whole new way. I’d never been south of the Equator but had read many times about how strange it is for northern dwellers to see the familiar constellations turned on their heads. Even the man in the moon hangs upside down above the planet’s south side, his smiling face just an illusion. Above all I wanted to see the Southern Cross, that beacon of the southern hemisphere sky. We’d travelled a long way in search of an ancient story and seeing the Southern Cross would be a symbol of how far we’d come.

I had in my mind a scene from a book by the 19th century French author Julian-Marie Viaud who wrote under the pen name of Pierre Loti. In 1872, he had spent some months in Tahiti as a young naval officer and later wrote about his experiences in a semi-autobiographical novel called The Marriage of Loti.

One night he played the piano at a ball held by Queen Pomare in the unfinished palace that the French administration was building for her. The Queen sat on her gilt throne above the throng of dancers, tapping her satin laced boot to the music, a tray of native cigarettes by her side. Her ladies sat in a row near her, all “princesses or chiefs in their own right.”  There were the Queen’s two daughters-in-law, Princess Ariitéa and the lovely Queen Moe, first cousin to the Salmons. And then there was “the splendid Ariinoore [Moetia Salmon] in a tunic of cherry-colored satin and a garland of peia.” And her sister, Titaua Brander, in “a constellation of splendid pearls” and her two daughters, Margaret and Marion, just returned from school in England, “as handsome as their mother.”  

Titaua Brander (aged 30) and Moetia Salmon (24) drawn from life by Pierre Loti, 1872

The walls of the ballroom were open to the air, and as Loti played for the dancers he looked out at the Tahitian night: 

“...In broad candle-light rose the mountain peaks, dark in the transparent atmosphere of the Oceanian night, sharply outlined against the starry sky; and in the foreground the picturesque mass of a clump of bananas with their enormous leaves and bunches of fruit, looking like colossal candelabra ending in great black flowers. As a background to the trees the nebulae of the southern hemisphere spread a sheet of blue light, and in the middle blazed the Southern Cross. Nothing could be more ideally tropical than this far-away perspective. The air was full of that exquisite fragrance of orange-blossom and gardenia which is distilled by night under the thick foliage; there was a great silence, accentuated by the bustle of insects in the grass and that sonorous quality, peculiar to night in Tahiti, which predisposes the listener to feel the enchanting power of music.”  
That was the scene I had in mind when my husband and I set off one night from Papeete in our rental car to try to escape the city lights and see the southern stars. We were visiting in the rainy season when the tops of Tahiti’s mountains were always shrouded in cloud, even on the sunniest of days, and that night the sky was murky and unsettled. As we drove, I was hearing the Crosby, Stills and Nash song Southern Cross over and over in my head. 

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way.
'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from is so small.
But it's as big as the promise - The promise of a comin' day.

When we pulled off the main highway beyond the town of Paea, the roads seemed deserted. Roadside businesses were shuttered and dark. We turned off randomly onto a quiet side road up a valley till the mountains rose on either side of us, almost invisible in the night, and just as I began to feel nervous and too far from civilization, we realized there were houses behind the walls that ran all the way down the dirt road. We could see through gateways into yards with lights on and dogs lying on the steps. A girl walked in her yard next to our car, talking quietly into her cell phone and paying us no attention at all, and we began to hear the sounds of a merry group of people socializing on someone=s patio beyond the houses closest to us.

Despite the houses it was dark enough to see the sky. The grey clouds shifted and crossed over each other against the blackness, giving only glimpses of the new crescent moon lolling on its back. That was my first disappointment. We were only on the island for 9 days and the Tahitian moon would not be full until after we’d boarded our plane back to L.A. We were anxious about having enough gas in the car to make it back to Papeete and found it hard to focus on what we’d come out to see. Craning our necks impatiently we waited again for the clouds to clear like curtains, parting just long enough to show a swathe of indistinguishable stars before rolling back in again. I tried looking in a different direction and just for a moment the sky cleared just long enough for me to catch sight of Orion standing on his head, with its brightest star – Betelgeuse – on the low right instead of the high left.

But still no Southern Cross. It was getting late and we had a lot of ground to cover the next day so we reluctantly got back in the car and headed back to the main road.

I had so wanted to feel the exoticism of being thousands of miles from home, on the island I'd  been immersed in reading about for years. There had already been many frustrations – my difficulties with speaking and understanding French, the intense heat and humidity, the extraordinarily high prices. I felt out of my depth, foolish and presumptuous for thinking I could write the story of people for whom this place was in their blood. Discouraged, I leaned close to the open window as our little rented Kia sped along the well-lit highway back to Papeete. 

But as we passed the edge of the town of Punaauia, a glorious cloud of fragrance engulfed the car and I saw that the high walls next to the road were covered with a vast flowering mass of gardenia and night-scented jasmine.

And suddenly it didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen the Southern Cross. I was breathing in the same sweet fragrance that had entranced Pierre Loti 150 years before as he sat under the “a star-sown” Tahitian sky among the very people whose story I had been called to tell.