Despite the incessant homesickness and the daily challenges, I was happy. I could feel my brain expanding by the minute. Everything was new and interesting and I knew I was going to be forever changed – and that in itself felt strangely exhilarating.
It’s hot and sticky and the mild headache that’s been shadowing me for days refuses to go away. We’re walking through dense bush towards the middle of the island, away from the coast, and the air feels thick yet fresh. Apart from the ever present humidity, it almost feels like home.
I keep my eyes on the path, taking care not to slip on moss covered rocks. The girls are chattering loudly, their fast French slang drowning out the birds and the trees. I slip inside my own head and become lost in a daydream – this has become my coping mechanism for when I’m on the edge of conversations that I cannot understand.
Teddy, my homestay father, is quietly leading the way. It was his idea to show me this waterfall – the last tourist activity before I board the plane home back to Auckland. Home. I try not to will the present moment away, but my homesickness is overwhelming.
I’m 14 years old, in the awkward flush of adolescence. Round face, round tummy, bright pink braces, ill-fitting clothes. Since arriving in Tahiti I’ve been the centre of attention. Who’s the pale blonde girl? Why does she get so sunburnt? Why can’t she speak French?
Some teenagers have a relaxed, light presence – a youthful confidence, so to speak. Not me. Most of the time I feel awkward and exposed. I’m quiet in my own language – but in French, I barely speak a word. Because I barely know a word. My pocket-sized Collins dictionary is never far from reach.
But I’d figured out a way to communicate with my homestay brothers and sisters. Pulling funny faces. Laughing. Making jokes that transcend the language barrier. Acting like little kids.
I’d arrived in Tahiti a few weeks earlier, keen and eager to put my high school French to good use. My homestay family met me at the airport and piled my bags into the back of their pick-up truck. They asked me questions in basic French, but all I could say was “oui, oui, oui.”
They welcomed me to their home (my home for the next month), a tidy one-level, three-bedroom house surrounded by trees and wild dogs. My homestay mother, heavily pregnant with her third child, presented me with a beautiful sponge cake topped with sliced mango. I ate it slowly, trying not to throw up. The heat, the culture shock, being in a stranger’s house for the first time, and most of all, the language – it’s a lot to take in.
After a few hours of stilted conversation, I called my mum. I was so relieved to hear her voice. It had been less than 24 hours since I left, but I already felt ten worlds away.
I knew next to nothing about Tahiti before I signed up to the language exchange, at the recommendation of my French teacher. “It’ll help you improve,” he said – I was struggling in class. Apart from white sandy beaches and turquoise blue waters, I was in the dark.
Tahiti itself wasn’t the drawcard – the chance to travel was what called my name. I’d never left New Zealand and desperately wanted to see a new part of the world. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew I had to go.
From the moment I boarded the plane, it felt like a dream. There were about 30 of us from schools all around Auckland. Most of my peers seemed familiar with travel, but I was a complete novice. I was scared to accept the food and drinks from the flight attendants because I thought I had to pay – and I didn’t have that kind of disposable income. It took me a few hours to realise that all refreshments were included in my fare.
After the first night, when my host parents realised how little French I spoke, I sort of just blended into the background of their family life. We communicated about simple things – what would I like for breakfast, would you like to call your mum? – but everything else was a blur. I had no idea what each day would bring, I just followed blindly and tried to participate as much as I could.
Many people complain about the humidity in the tropics, but I loved it. I loved being able to leave the house in just a sundress and not worry about catching a cold. I loved sitting in the back of an open pick-up truck in the rain and not feeling the slightest chill. At night, I insisted on sleeping under a quilt. Everyone thought I was mad, but I slept like a baby. Trying to speak another language all day has that effect.
For the first week, I went to school with my host sister. We started class at 7.30am and didn’t break properly until lunch. I sat through all her classes – all taught in French – and pretended to write notes in my book. On several occasions, I fell asleep – I simply couldn’t keep my eyes open. By the time we had lunch, I was starving and thirsty and completely out of energy, but I could barely stomach food. Everything overwhelmed my senses – even a plain ham and cheese sandwich.
One day at school I was so dehydrated that I refilled my water bottle from the outside taps. They looked like water fountains, so I presumed they were safe. I learned the hard way that thirst is better than drinking bad water. I spent 24 hours doubled over in agony, but I wasn’t scared. I was numb. I felt like I was looking down on myself – that I was kind of detached from my body. As if I was an actress starring in a movie and the “real me” was watching from the sidelines.
When you cannot speak someone’s language, a huge part of yourself is lost in translation. I lost my sense of humour, my opinions, my small talk. I felt like I lost all sense of agency or independence. It’s an odd, dream-like existence.
A few days in, I drew a calendar in class and started crossing off the days until home. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to go home right away – I just needed to feel like I was working towards something. I wanted to feel some element of control and predictability, I needed to remind myself that this situation was temporary.
Yet despite the incessant homesickness and the daily challenges, I was happy. I could feel my brain expanding by the minute. Everything was new and interesting and I knew I was going to be forever changed – and that in itself felt strangely exhilarating.
Some of my favourite moments included attending a traditional French Polynesian wedding in Moorea, drinking fresh coconut water straight out of a coconut, eating street food from caravans by the waterfront, and swimming with reef sharks and stingray in crystal clear shallow waters.
One of my best moments led to one of my worst moments – as it often goes. We spent an entire day swimming. It was a stunning blue-sky day, and I was having fun. But that night, I got extreme sunstroke and shivered so violently I thought I might die. I remember lying in the foetal position, semi-conscious, listening to the wild dogs barking outside and willing myself to get through the night. When I woke in the morning, the shivering had subsided but I had a third-degree burn across my chest. Blisters. I applied antiseptic and a giant bandage, the size of a postcard, and hoped it wouldn’t get infected. I was in immense discomfort for days, but somehow, I was still happy. I knew I was making memories.
We’re getting closer to Fautaua Waterfall. Teddy is getting prouder by the minute. I can tell he’s excited to show me another beautiful part of the island. I try to focus my mind on the present moment, to push through the haze of homesickness that has hung around my heart since I arrived.
Tahiti is truly beautiful. Here, away from the hustle of Papeete, it’s wild and abundant. The colours and sounds are intoxicating. And the humidity feels like a warm blanket, a cocoon.
The waterfall appears in front of us. There’s no denying it’s beauty. I smile, take pictures, strike a silly pose with my homestay brothers and sisters, and just like that, it’s over. We start making our way back to the street. One foot in front of the other.
As we meander back to the car, I reflect on the past month. The highs, the lows. How it’s always about the journey, not the destination.
As we emerge from the forest and gratefully slump back into the air conditioned car, I feel a sense of lightness – it is nearly time to go home. I gaze out the window at the rugged coastline as we speed back to the city.
My homestay father and sister are chatting about me, and it takes me a few moments before realising I understand what they are saying. Something about taking me to the airport, wondering what time my flight is. To my own surprise, I find myself answering in French – and they both gawk at me, shocked that I understand.
Then we all burst out laughing and whoop and cheer. I’d come a long way.