Tuesday, May 24, 2011

From the Spreading South Seas

An American traveler to Tahiti before the First World War describes Lovainia – the proprietress of the Tiare Hotel in the capital, Papeete.
“The Tiare Hotel was the center of English-speaking life in Papeete. Almost all tourists stayed there, and most of the white residents other than the French took their meals there... It was a one-storied cottage, with broad verandas, half hidden in a luxuriant garden at the point where two streets come together at a little stone bridge crossing a brook – a tiny bungalow built for a home and stretched and pieced out to make a guest-house.
Papeete... was a quiet little town... What exotic life there was… revolved around the Tiare and entirely so because of its proprietress, Lovainia. She was the best-known and best-liked woman in all these South Seas, remembered from Australia to the Paumotus, from London to China, wherever were people who had visited Tahiti as ‘dear old Lovainia.’
She was very large. She was huge in every sense, weighing much more than three hundred pounds, and yet there was a singular grace in her form and her movements. Her limbs were the girth of breadfruit-trees, and her bosom was as broad and deep as that of the great Juno of Rome, but her hands were beautiful, like a plump baby’s, with fascinating creases at the wrists and long, tapering fingers. Her large eyes were hazel, and they were very brilliant when she was merry or excited. Her expansive face had no lines in it, and her mouth was a perfection of curves, the teeth white and even. Her hair was red-brown, curling in rich profusion, scented with the hinano flower, adorning her charmingly poised head in careless grace.
When she said ‘I glad to see you,’ there was a glow of amiability, an alluring light in her countenance, that drew one irresistibly to her, and her immense, shapely hand enveloped one’s own with a pressure and a warmth that were overpowering in their convincement of her good heart and illimitable generosity.”
The ordinary life of the Tiare Hotel was all upon the broad verandas which surrounded it, their high lattices covered with the climbing bougainvillea and stephanotis vines, which formed a maze for the filtering of the sunlight and the dimming of the activities of the streets. On these verandas were the tables for eating, and in the main bungalow a few bedrooms, with others in detached cottages within the enclosure.
A small porch [was] approached from the street by a few steps. On this tiny porch was a large table, and behind it a couch. The table was the only desk for letter-writing, the serving stand for meals, the board for salad and cake-making, and the drink bar. A few feet removed from this table and against the wall was a camphor-wood chest on which two might sit in comfort and three might squeeze at angles. In the chest was all kept the bed and table linen, so that one might often be disturbed by the quest of sheets or napkins.
This little porch… was the sleeping and amusement quarters of five dogs, the loafing places for the girls, the office of the hotel, the entry for guests to the dining room... Through it streamed all who came to eat or drink or for any other purpose.”
On the couch at the back of the table Lovainia sat for many hours every day. Her great weight made her disinclined to walk, and from her cushions she ruled her domain, chaffing with those who dropped in for drinks, advising and joking, making cakes and salads, bargaining with the butcher  and vegetable-dealer, dispatching the food towards the tables, feeding the many dogs, posting her accounts, receiving payments, and regulating the complex affairs of her ménage. She would shake a cocktail, make a gin fizz or a Doctor Funk, chop ice or do any menial service, yet withal was your entertainer and your friend.
Underneath the table dogs tumbled or raced about the porch, barking and leaping on laps, cats scurried past, and a cloud of tobacco smoke filled the close air. Lovaina, in one of her sixty bright gowns, a white chemise beneath, her feet bare, sat enthroned. On the chest were the captain of a liner or schooner, a tourist, a trader, a girl, an old native woman, or a beachcomber with money for the moment. It was the carpet of state on which all took their places who would have a hearing before the throne or loaf in the audience chamber.
In her low, delightfully broken English, in vivid French, or sibilant Tahitian, Lovainia issued her orders to the girls, shouted maledictions at the cook, or talked with all who came. Through that porch flowed all the scandal of the South Seas – tales of hurricanes and water spouts, of shipwrecks, of accidents, of lucky deals in pearls or shells, of copra, of new fashions and old inhabitants, of liaisons of white and brown, of the flirtations of tourists, of the Government’s issuing an ultimatum on the price of fish, of how the consuls quarreled at a club dinner, and of how one threw three ribs of roasted beef at the other, who retorted with a whole sucking [sic] pig just from the native oven, of Thomas’s wife leaving him for Europe after a month’s honeymoon; and all the flotsam and jetsam of report and rumor, of joke and detraction, which in an island with only one mail a month are the topics of interest... The porch was the clearing-house and the casual, oral record of the spreading South Seas.”
Frederick O’Brien, “Mystic Isles of the South Seas,” The Century Company, 1921

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