A spiritual venture in Rangiroa

Sunday in Rangiroa is as sleepy as it gets. I shake off my languor in the tropical morn and dress in my combo of white clothes - lightweight pants and a sparkly Indian-style top. Not quite a dress but dignified nonetheless.

I'm off to find the spiritual side of Rangiroa, a coral atoll way out in the Tuamotu Archipelago, 350 kilometres north-east of Tahiti. I yearn to see the women in their home-made straw hats and white dresses and hear the Polynesian hymns I've begun to mythologise.

Despite the heritage of French Polynesia, most inhabitants are Protestant, owing to the arrival of the London Missionary Society, whose members set about converting residents just a few decades earlier than the Catholics. I'm told the Protestants are always turned out in sartorial splendour, so I decide to attend both church services.

I cycle the five kilometres into the little "capital", Avatoru, to the coral-and-lime Catholic church with orange steeple and cross.

To my disappointment, not one woman is wearing a hat and there are no white dresses. There are colourful muumuus and the men are decked out in boardshorts and I spy the occasional Billabong and "No Rules" T-shirts. Not what I'd imagined. I slip out quietly, hoping I have enough runs on the board after years of attending Mass to compensate for this misdemeanour.

I head to the other church, which although marked simply as Protestant on my map, has a French sign denoting it as a Church of the Latter-day Saints. I peek inside, and although I've never been into a Mormon church, I gather there is "witnessing" going on.

Not knowing the ropes and unsure of the sort of reception I'd get as an interloping camera-carrying tourist, I decide to leave.

But as I sit down on the church steps to pack away my camera, an elderly woman rounds the corner, gets a fright to see a Westerner in her path, goes for an almighty tumble and collapses on the ground in front of me.

I help her up the stairs and at the entrance she beckons me to come in. In we go and walk up to the fourth row as people nod to her and look quizzically at me. The witnessing is over and everyone bursts into song, beautiful harmonies filling the air.


Looking around, there's just one little girl in a white dress but all the ladies are wearing lovely straw hats or have flowers in their hair. I quickly pull on the squashed travel hat I've dragged all over the islands.

The minister, attired in a black suit, is speaking in Tahitian and I begin to notice that all the men are wearing heavy dark suits and ties - their Sunday bests. There's not a Hawaiian shirt to be seen.

Using basic French, I whisper to my companion that I'm a tourist and sit back peacefully, attempting to hum along to a hymn. It's then she leans towards me and kisses me once on each cheek, as is the French custom. I return the gesture.

Other congregation members come and kiss me and the minister makes his way down the rows to us and does the same thing and thanks me warmly for coming.

I get my little postcard moment - the hats, the clothes and the singing - and a bit more than I bargained for. I cycle away with a warm glow in my heart.