A week with Tahiti's transexual rae-rae
When it comes to holidaying in Tahiti, most people know what to expect: sugar-white beaches, superb resorts, beautiful French Polynesian men and women and a hyper-hospitable, well-trained staff who go out of their way to make every visit great.
But one thing that’s rarely spoken of is the large number of cross-dressers and transvestites living on the islands.
That's too bad, because they've become an integral, and treasured, aspect of the service industry here.
Look, don’t touch
My first sighting of rae-rae, as they're called in Tahitian, occurred in the capital Papeete.
Among the everyday folk that frequent the central portside district were men dressed in tight-fitting floral-print dresses that extenuated their broad shoulders, manly height and false or implanted breasts.
The locals ignored them, but they drew wide-eyed looks from tourists visiting the Tahitian capital -- myself included.
Their main hangout is Rue des Écoles, home to a number of bars catering to gay and lesbian clientele. Chief among them is Le Piano Bar -- a legendary drinking hole and popular tourist haunt that puts on Western-inspired drag shows every weekend.
But as things turned out, my efforts to engage -- and interview -- them were met with indifference if not outright rejection.
Unlike the outlandish "katoy" or ladyboys of Thailand, the rae-rae of Tahiti -- and those of other Pacific islands like Samoa, Hawaii, Tonga and even New Zealand -- are not fixtures of the sex trade and can be quick to dismiss tourists who make obvious approaches.
I had more luck in Bora Bora, where a significant number of rae-rae work in some of the honeymoon island’s most sophisticated hotels and resorts.
Are you being served?
Rae-rae are the contemporaries of ma-hu, Polynesian men of yesteryear who dressed like women because of their effeminate natures.
A respected segment of Tahitian culture whose presence dates back hundreds of years, they often took on the roles of servants, cooks and nannies because of their convivial nature and aptitude for domesticity.
These same characteristics have made the ma-hu’s descendents the darlings of Tahiti’s service sector.
“I was surprised when a companion pointed out one of the female breakfast staff was in fact a man, simply because I'd thought such a resort would steer clear of the transsexuals due to the sensitivities of international guests,” says Philippa Lees, an Australian current affairs producer on a working holiday in Bora Bora.
“He/she -- I'm not sure what's correct -- was one of the most polite and attentive hospitality staff I’ve ever come across: well dressed and groomed and quite effeminate and softly spoken."
While soaking up the surrounds at the ultra-exclusive St. Regis Bora Bora Resort, I had my first breakthrough when I met Raireva Tiatia.
A 23-year-old from the island of Rairatea, Raireva described himself as petea -- an individual who lives as a man during the day and a rae-rae at night.
I also spoke with waitress Miledie Moo, a statuesque transsexual who underwent gender reassignment surgery in Papeete last year: “I was rae-rae, but now I am a woman.”
Lost in translation
According to Christiane Kelley, a technical adviser at Tahiti’s Minister of Culture in Papeete, group sub-classes and definitions have changed the once-prestigious name of the ma-hu.
“Today we mix everything up," she says.
"We talk about ma-hu, rae-rae, transsexual. But in the beginning a ma-hu was not necessarily gay, just a person who had a special function in society."
Whichever way you look at it, there’s no escaping an encounter with Tahiti’s third sex in the islands.
“They provide a very high level of service and they do it gracefully,” says Anne Roure, operating manager at the Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Beach & Private Island resort.
“Being attended by one is part of the experience of visiting French Polynesia.”
Faa'a International Airport is five kilometers west of Papeete, and served by various airlines including Air France, Qantas, Air New Zealand and Air Tahiti Nui.