I tried to be really smart, calculating how much it would cost to take taxis to and from our hotel and then added in the value of having a car to tour the island on our own (instead of booking a tour). Renting a car at the airport – which we could then use to get to the hotel, to go sightseeing, and to drop off our luggage at the cruise ship seemed like a no brainer.
Of course, our flight got in almost an hour late and it took us quite awhile to get through immigration (four lines for island and EU residents, one for the rest of the world) and then get cash.
The woman working at the rental counter was very friendly – especially so in light of the fact that she was probably waiting for us so she could close up and go home. We got our keys and did the paperwork. . . and then I made my real mistake: I asked her where the hotel was located.
I know, I know. I should have looked it up on the web and come prepared with a map, but I’d been really busy before we left and the hotel is a well-known local night spot (its restaurant is well-known for hosting live music on weekends) and Papeete isn’t a huge place (it’s similar in size to Fargo-Moorhead) so it never occurred to me that there might not be someone at the rental counter who could tell me where it was located. (Just like it never occurred to me that we might not get to the rental counter until one a.m. or that we would be in a culture that seeks to please and, thus, tends to give you the answer they think you want even if it isn’t actually the right answer.) Had I been thinking of these things I would have been suspicious when – after initially telling us she didn’t know where the hotel was located – she ponders awhile and then marks an x on our map, telling us to follow the main drag until we get to the hospital and then make a left.
Sounds easy enough.
The first thing I learn about the transportation system in French Polynesia is that there are a lot of roundabouts and not very many street signs. . . ok, in the dark, signage appears to be non-existent. It is impossible to tell whether we were still on the main highway or not — until we find ourselves downtown by the harbor. (At least we now know where to find our ship tomorrow, as it is by far the largest thing around.) Apparently we missed the turn that would have kept us on the main drag, but that’s ok, we just need to follow one of the main streets back to it.
I’m supposed to be navigating, but it is dark, there is very little street lighting, the street layout bears little resemblance to that on the tourist map we are using, and there are no road signs to tell me where we are.
Even when there is a road sign (at two major round-a-bouts) it isn’t very useful, but now we are pretty sure we have found the street marked with the x on the map. Unfortunately, we can’t see anything resembling a hotel. (I give up on locating the hospital after asking Lane what the word for hospital is in French and getting a rather surly “I don’t remember. Just look for a hospital.”) Lane expects there will be a big, well-lit sign announcing the hotel. I’ve quickly come to the realization that the hotel will be set back from the road along the water, poorly lit, and poorly marked.
We are in a mostly residential neighborhood that backs up to an industrial area. . . the hotel can’t be here, but we keep ending up here, going over and over the same few streets. – so much so that, about the fifth (or maybe it was the 7th or the 9th or 11th) time we pass by, a group of guys having a party in their front yard actually cheer. (I’m sure someone won a bet on whether or not we would drive by again.) Despite my guess about the bet, I want to stop in the hope that one of them speaks English and can tell us where the hotel is. However, Lane has decided to go up the road to a Mobile station we saw earlier and ask there. Since he’s the French speaker, I acquiesce.
(Did I mention we couldn’t figure out how to get the car into reverse? Or that there are a lot of narrow dead-end streets in this part of Papeete? I’m not sure why I don’t just drive and let him navigate – when he isn’t pushing the car out of some odd corner we’ve stumbled into – but by this point we’ve endured an 8 hour flight in coach, an hour or more standing around the airport, and now an interminable amount of time and a great deal of frustration driving back and forth without any hope of finding our hotel. There probably isn’t a lot of clear thinking going on. I’m just glad there isn’t any other traffic to contend with.)
After about 40 minutes of this (I would have sworn it was a couple hours) we end up back at a Mobile station we had seen earlier. This appears to be way past where we need to go, but it is open and Lane thinks there might be a better map available here. Assuming they may speak only French, he goes in to seek guidance.
The hotel is a block from here – literally – the woman at the car rental office marked it wrong on the map. We head down the side street, Lane proclaiming that this still CAN’T be right because it is residential and there isn’t any light and you can’t see any hotels and there aren’t any signs. . . and what sort of hotel did I book anyway. . . A small light down a narrow side street right behind the gas station seems to indicate where the hotel is located. Lane continues straight until he comes to a dead end.
On the way back to the Mobile station he takes the turn I recommend and there is the hotel, neatly tucked into a quiet residential neighborhood, the large glass windows of the office glowing softly from the single incandescent lamp burning within.
Lane wonders how a hotel can stay in business without signage. I remind him the rest of the world isn’t the United States. (We will discover the next day that there is a sign just off the main road – a beautifully carved wooden sign with no lighting that is hard to see even in daylight.) At the same time I apologize for recommending we rent a car and drive to our hotel in the dark in a city that is a little notorious for being difficult to navigate.
It is not an auspicious beginning, but the hot and humid night air makes me think I will like it here. . . despite the lack of road signs.