Marché Papeete, Tahiti

Three years ago I was in French Polynesia where I visited the Papeete Market (Marché Papeete) with its abundance of local Tahitian products and produce; including, rather strangely, a lot of Chinese fare and sloppy noodles being pilled into baguettes.

Anyway, I've been working on a collection of travel assignments which is due to be published early next year, and as my visit was three years ago this month, I thought that I'd share with you a few paragraphs about the market from the Tahiti and French Polynesia chapter. I hope you enjoy.

Marché Papeete

The fish market is a generic low-rise industrial building deep inside the marina. In fact, it's set far back from the docks and it's really only yachts that you see there anyway, no fishing boats or trawlers, none of the working boats or old and chipped shippers who bring in the morning catch.

The industrial unit could really be anywhere: concrete block walls, split-level, corrugated steel roof, a mileage of stalls in a hodgepodge space. Under tables and in corners are the empty white polystyrene boxes, not long emptied of ice and fish. There are crafts and tourist bric-a-brac, too. All of the things you think you need, but when you get home and unpack, can't remember why the hell you paid for such useless scrap.

There's no better place than a market for an introduction to a country. Markets can't lie. They show you what a country has and doesn't have. They educate you in what a country can grow, catch and harvest; what they import, export and flog to tourists.

It was here where I'd hoped to learn more about Tahitian culture and its history. Instead, I'm met by a foreign influx of tourist congestion. Flip-flop island hoppers who bargain and haggle for holiday gifts and honeymoon mementoes, who shout and bicker over the price of a pineapple. Wobbly-bellied men in vests and woman with torn and blistered skin navigate the market lanes, drinking from straws dipped in coconuts and wearing bumbags that sag around floppy-flesh bellies.

Vendors would be disgusted if they knew the true cost of what tourists were really paying for flights, dinners and high-brow accommodation – their getaway slice of paradise. I witness it for myself: a middle-aged British couple, to my embarrassment, are standing face-to-face with a plump old lady; a local fruit vendor who is almost dwarfed by the rising mound of coconuts and mangos in front of her. The Brits gesticulate and point at the fruit, using their digits to highlight two prickly specimens and arguing over the price of a pineapple.

I take a wide-birth from the fracas and speak to another local vendor selling fruit. It takes me several attempts until I'm able to find someone with a good grasp of English. We talked about Polynesian cuisine and how fruit is present in nearly every Tahitian dish, not just poisson cru, but sliced mangos with freshwater shrimp, and Poe - a sweet pudding made of taro root and flavoured with vanilla, papaya and banana, then dipped in coconut milk.

Her name is Roxy, a beautiful woman wearing an orange shawl wrapped around her waist. The colourful cloth is rolled up and tucked under her armpits like a bed sheet-cum-dress, then tied behind her back. She has a garland of white flowers on her head and a single red flower behind her right ear. Her arms rest on the table, behind twenty or so pineapples. She laughs often, revealing teeth as white as sea shells.

I was standing behind her stall, behind the steepled cornucopia of beautiful things; the breadfruit, lychee, prickly pineapples and pamplemousse; the coconuts, taro, ginger, lemons, mango, limes and ripe papaya. All around was the colourful fruit of paradise. Towards the back of the market are the fish counters and the loaded troughs of ice where the dead jelly-eyes of tuna and grouper stare out. Most have already been cleaned and filleted, but a few remain, sticky in the ice, silvery and shiny, still oily and wrapped in ocean filth.

- David J Constable, July 2013 

David J Constable