Fresh Life: Studying Abroad in Tahiti by Courtney Liu

This past winter, I spent 10 of the most memorable weeks of my life in French Polynesia. Although this destination is typically thought of as merely a tropical location for honeymooning, I actually studied abroad with 16 other students in Tahiti through an Informatics program with the University of Washington. I returned to the United States in mid-March having gained so much knowledge and culture from Tahiti that it would take forever for me to expound upon all my experiences. To simplify things, I put together a list of major takeaways that I acquired on this amazing trip.

1. Don’t get me wrong, Tahitian beaches are gorgeous but they are not the only places to seek adventure. There are also hikes in the mountains that eventually lead to freshwater pools or spectacular views of the island. Also, the smaller communities on the outer islands – such as Ha’apu, Huahine – are great for meeting locals and delving deeper into their culture. Don’t get sucked into the postcard depictions of Tahiti by staying at an overwater bungalow. Instead, explore the shores of Teahupo’o or Maroto Valley (sacred lands), both of which are away from the bougie resorts!

Bungalows in Maroto Valley

River on a hiking path

Waterfall at the end of one of our hikes

Our study abroad group at the end of a hiking trail we did in Mo'orea. This is the scenic view that concluded the hike!

Aerial view of the island of Huahine

2. Fashion isn’t a big thing and being comfortable is key. Remember Jelly shoes?! Well, they’re still a popular choice of footwear for locals, so if you miss this ‘80s/’90s trend, then Tahiti is your place. They can be worn from the Marché (market) to the black sandy beaches or even on a rocky hike!

Jon Fuega, one of our classmates, rocking jellies at the beach

3. Bug spray, sunscreen, and Monoi oils will become your best friends (besides all the cool locals you will meet there). Monoi oils can be found at many shops but from experience, they are cheapest at Carrefour –Tahiti’s version of Wal-Mart – and they come in all sorts of scents including gardenia (tiare), coconut, vanilla, and many more. Monoi oils can be used either before or after tanning/being exposed to the sun and they give your skin a beautiful sheen and a fragrant smell.

4. Underwater cameras, especially GoPro cameras, are awesome ways to document your aquatic adventures. I’ve never seen more gorgeous water than in Tahiti! The ocean often took on a glass-like appearance with varying hues of turquoise – absolutely breathtaking. And it is so clear that you can stand in it yet still see the sand at the bottom. Side note: Take a boat tour on the island of Mo’orea to swim with sharks (don’t freak out yet!) and friendly stingrays. GoPro cameras are ideal for capturing your bada** Facebook profile picture of yourself posing in front of sharks or kissing a stingray.

The various turquoise hues in the Tahitian waters

Glass-like water in Mo'orea

Sharks we swam with on our boat tour of Mo'orea. Notice how clear the water is!

5. Taste a traditional Tahitian dish or a new tropical fruit (like passion fruit) – be daring! One of the dishes I tried was not my favorite, but nonetheless, I’m proud of myself for engaging in the culture and trying new things! This particular dish I sampled was called Fafaru, which is raw tuna that has been fermented in seawater (that consists of a combination of lobster, shrimp and crab flavors melded together).

6. Jump off a bridge or a really high rock (into water, of course). Safety first! Any chance you get and feel confident enough, take a chance and launch into a freshwater river or the Pacific Ocean by way of an overpass or cliff. I’m afraid of heights, so it says a lot that I jumped off of two bridges and a few rocks. Side note: Tahiti has its share of natural slides formed by the rocks – these are so fun and a little bumpy along the ride so wear a rash guard!

Our group jumping off a bridge into a freshwater river

7. Paddle a kayak or canoe to a motu (A motu forms when giant storms hit the islands, causing coral to break off of the reef. Waves from the storms throw these pieces of coral on top of the reef, fusing with sediment and calcium carbonate and cementing the base together.) Sorry, that was a mouthful! Anyways, you can reach a motu by small boat or sometimes, even swimming. Travel to a motu and claim your own private island for a day!

A few of us paddling a kayak to a motu in Huahine

8. Watch the stars. Find some comfortable sand to lie on, a dock to cruise on or a nice rooftop to look at the stars and just unwind. In Tahiti, you have the advantage of being away from the bright city lights so the stars are really illuminated. It’s also cool to be able to observe constellations like Orion’s Belt and if you’re lucky, you can catch some shooting stars!

9. Try centipede rum. This may sound crazy or disgusting at first but it’s actually not as bad as you may anticipate it to be! To create this concoction, go out and catch a centipede (they sometimes hide under rocks), then insert the creature into a bottle of your choice of rum and watch as it releases its venom – which adds the interesting flavor to the alcohol. Finally, sip on your creation or take a shot of it!

Photo via Google images

10. Being “bougie” isn’t everything. According to Urban Dictionary, the definition of “bougie” is: 1) “Anything that is perceived as "upscale" from a blue-collar point of view;” or 2) “Aspiring to be a higher class than one is.” This slang term has trended over the past couple of years and in America, the concept of being bougie compels people to want to buy the latest Michael Kors purse or to go to the most fancy eateries, etc. However, I learned that being happy doesn’t always mean living a bougie lifestyle. Some Tahitians obtain their happiness from living off of the land – catching their own fish, growing their own fruits and vegetables, taking care of their families, dancing, etc. Immerse yourself in the Poynesian culture and hang out with the locals to see how they live on a day-to-day basis; you’d be surprised by what you see!

The students hanging out with some of the local kids at a beach in Huahine

Hopefully after reading this, I have changed your initial notions of this paradise yet still convinced you to visit this magical place.

Manuia! (This means “cheers” in the Tahitian language.)


Courtney Liu is a Hawaii native in the journalism program at the University of Washington. She loves clothes and styling herself and her friends. She hopes to pursue a career in public relations or in the fashion industry.

Find Courtney on Twitter, and view all of her posts here.