Mo’orea, we learned in Tahitian class the other day, means quite literally ‘yellow lizard.’ The island’s jagged back dominates the horizon as we look out over the ocean from our home on Tahiti, silhouetted against the warm colors of the setting sun. Up until a week ago, for most of our group Mo’orea was just that: an island across the water, another Tahitian name to remember, a blank page.

Last Wednesday, however, we set out as a group to spend a week on Mo’orea, exploring the island’s beauty and learning about its rich culture and history. The 45 minute ferry crossing from Papeete gave us a chance to take a good look at our new temporary home: steep lush mountains rising out of wide turquoise lagoons, rooftops dotted sparingly around the water’s edge, a few canoes and motor boats making their way around the island…

Dressmann_4_4The contrast to Tahiti became increasingly apparent, however, as we drove from the ferry dock around to the back side of the island. There were no stop lights, no commercial buildings, no piles of trash lining the streets; just a few little markets and a handful of fruit venders. If Tahiti was taking one step back on the stress scale, Mo’orea was three.

“This is what I thought Tahiti would be like,” one of my fellow students commented as we followed the winding road along the crystal lagoon water. “Windows down, radio up, sunglasses on… It feels like we stepped off the boat into a postcard.”

Papa, who was driving, leaned over the seat to look back at us. “This is what Tahiti WAS like, twenty or thirty years ago. And what Hawaii was like a hundred years ago.” It’s amazing, I thought to myself, how much things have changed in just a few short decades, and how often the images we have in our heads can be so incomplete.

Dressmann_4_5The last several decades have witnessed the influence of western policy and priorities. We read about the changes in education, government, and sustainability practices in our class readings. I am left asking myself “Are the traditions and knowledge that the Tahitians valued and practiced regularly in danger of fading into history? How are organizations in the community working to bridge the growing gap between older generations and Tahitian oral traditions, and younger generations who live in a rapidly-changing ‘modern’ world? What is our role as study abroad students who are seeking to learn and respect Tahitian traditions and knowledge systems?” These are big questions, ones we are still addressing as a group and individually, and ones that we may never be able to completely answer.

Over and over throughout the week, we were challenged to look critically at our perceptions and expectations, and to think about how our experiences and interactions here are changing those perceptions. While we were excited to return “home” to Tahiti after a week away, I know we were all a little sad to leave. I think we came back, however, with a growing understanding and appreciation for Tahitian culture, and a deep gratitude for the people who have so generously shared with us their culture and their home.