A patch of Eden

In heaven, the women do the cooking. That's not some chauvinistic male fantasy, it's the truth. I found this out at L'ile d'Eden, in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia.

That's heaven, at least according to the religious group that calls the tiny island home. They've set up their own version of paradise right there in the middle of the Pacific.

All these guys want to do is live organically off the land, the way they believe God intended when he created the Garden of Eden.

Some might label the New Testament Church a sect; those with a harsher eye might just go with plain old cult. But if it is a cult, it's certainly one with reasonably good intentions. As far as I could tell, there are no inclinations towards Branch Davidian-style carnage - all these guys want to do is live organically off the land, the way they believe God intended when he created the Garden of Eden. Hence their island's name.

You really do discover the strangest things when you travel. Who would have thought, out here in the middle of nowhere, you would find a small group of devotees of a Taiwanese-based church living off the land, as instructed by their prophet, a guy called Elijah Hong?

Their encampment is adorned with signs stating the church's story and beliefs, with choice epithets such as: "In 1992, he [Hong] was moved by the Holy Spirit to restore the lost Eden for mankind! To free all people from the harm of degenerated society! ... The small step for the Prophet has become a giant leap for mankind! Hallelujah!"

Unfortunately the prophet hasn't managed to free all people from the harm of degenerated society, given most of us still dutifully roll up to the office every Monday morning, but he has persuaded a handful of mostly Malaysian souls to save themselves in Tahiti. (As places in which to save yourself go, you could do worse.)

Almost everything the New Testament Church disciples eat is grown organically, in line with one of those painted signs: "Here, we plant and cultivate according to God's First Creation." Rice is flown in from elsewhere, as are the noodles that are a staple of the Malay diet, but everything else is reaped from the sandy soil and ocean.

There's a huge vegie patch with everything from chilli to broccoli to vanilla beans. There's also a chicken coop, a big pen holding large pigs and an evaporation tank for harvesting sea salt. The devotees even ferment fish sauce to sell to resorts on the surrounding islands.

One of the residents, whose Western name is Jacob, gives tours of the island for those tourists who are staying in the nearby resorts. You putter up in a little boat, moor in the clear, green waters of the lagoon, walk up the wooden pier and enter the Garden of Eden, which, whether by chance or design, seems to have a distinct lack of apple trees.

There are five men and four women living on the island, plus a few children here and there. All have made the pilgrimage from Asia to live the way they believe God would want them to. It's during Jacob's tour that we come across the island's kitchen facilities, with a few wok burners fired by dried coconut husks. I figure in a God-given utopia such as this, it would be a one-in, all-in sort of situation when it comes to chores.

"So, who does the cooking?" I ask Jacob. "Do you share it around?" Jacob smiles and shakes his head.

"No, the women do the cooking." Oh. Well, hardly utopia for them then, is it? Although maybe that's the way their God intended things to be: the men doing the farming and providing the food, the women then preparing it for them. I'm not really at liberty to argue the point.

The rest of the island's layout reflects the New Testament Church's belief system: simple and organic. There are the gardens and livestock pens, there are a few bare huts to sleep in and a small boat to fish from. That's it. This should be anyone's idea of heaven, regardless of which sect you belong to. It's the classic model we're all supposed to idealise: living on a sun-drenched island, eating pure, organic food, leaving a carbon footprint of zero, with no mind-rotting distractions such as TV or the internet. That's "the life".

Of course, that ideal rarely translates to the real world. If that were the case, right now you would be throwing down your newspaper, calling your travel agent and booking a one-way ticket to the Garden of Eden to spend the rest of your life farming or cooking, depending on your gender. But you won't do that. You'll sigh, think, "Wow, that's the life," and then get ready to roll up to the office again tomorrow morning. Same as I did. I guess most of us just aren't ready for heaven yet. Lucky, really - it would probably get a bit crowded.

bengroundwater@gmail.com; smh.com.au/thebackpacker.