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When is a country not a country?

  Data

Banque de Tahiti
Banque de Tahiti
Bora Bora without the azure waters
Bora Bora without the azure waters
Bus stop in Papeete
Bus stop in Papeete
Church in the centre of Papeete
Church in the centre of Papeete
Colour and crafts
Colour and crafts
Colourful cloths at the market
Colourful cloths at the market
Hyper U supermarket
Hyper U supermarket
I found paradise in the Southern Pacific
I found paradise in the Southern Pacific
I found this giant crab in my hotel room in Bora Bora
I found this giant crab in my hotel room in Bora Bora
Looking down on Papeete Market
Looking down on Papeete Market
Lots of vowels going on here
Lots of vowels going on here
Marche de Papeete
Marche de Papeete
Paint. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
Paint. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
Palm tree swinging in the breeze
Palm tree swinging in the breeze
Papeete is a very colourful place
Papeete is a very colourful place
Perfect waters with bungalows
Perfect waters with bungalows
Perfect waters with palm trees
Perfect waters with palm trees
Polynesian style street art
Polynesian style street art
Rainbow over Papeete
Rainbow over Papeete
Shadow in the midday sun
Shadow in the midday sun
Speedboat in Bora Bora’s lagoon
Speedboat in Bora Bora’s lagoon
Sunset at Bora Bora
Sunset at Bora Bora
The collapsed volcano of Bora Bora
The collapsed volcano of Bora Bora
The front of my boat in Bora Bora
The front of my boat in Bora Bora
These hotel bungalows can cost around USD 1000 a night
These hotel bungalows can cost around USD 1000 a night
The waters of Bora Bora
The waters of Bora Bora
They have Scouts in Tahiti
They have Scouts in Tahiti
Traditional dyed Polynesian cloth
Traditional dyed Polynesian cloth
Traditional Polynesian welcome at the airport
Traditional Polynesian welcome at the airport
Yachts in Papeete’s harbour
Yachts in Papeete’s harbour
Yes that's a shark in the water
Yes that's a shark in the water

In a recent episode of the BBC quiz show, Pointless, the football pundit Mark Lawrenson answered “Alaska” when asked to name a country beginning with A, T, L or S. Although his answer was humorous to many, I found the ignorance rather sad. Similarly, when I was a child it used to annoy me that some people thought Africa was a country. These two cases are extreme examples to me of fairly common ignorance when it comes to knowing when a country is a country or not. So, when is a country not a country?

Sunset at Bora BoraThere are many locations in the world which people assume to be countries but in fact are not. Common examples (and far more acceptable to not know than the above two) are Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Macau, Puerto Rico and Greenland. In fact, of the 456 Cost of Living locations which ECA publishes, there are typically 20 which come under this banner of being incorrectly classified as a country. They are almost exclusively historical colonial outposts of larger countries, which spent centuries marauding around the world and claiming pieces of land to add to their empires. Today, they have various official titles depending on which country previously colonised them.

The United Kingdom has 14 British Overseas Territories, four of which ECA publishes data for – Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Gibraltar (The Channel Islands are neither overseas territories nor part of the United Kingdom but are in fact self-governing possessions of the Crown!). The USA’s previous conquests are rather confusingly called unincorporated organised territories or unincorporated unorganised territories, with ECA publishing two of the former (Puerto Rico and Guam) and one of the latter (American Samoa).

Descriptions of locations that were previously French colonies are even more confusing. They have 11 overseas territories, five of which are departments that are essentially a part of France (and the European Union) but just happen to be thousands of miles away from the mainland, five overseas collectivities and one special collectivity. These collectivities have their own statutory laws and have more autonomy than departments. ECA publishes data for six French overseas territories – the departments of Reunion, Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana; the overseas collectivity of French Polynesia and the special collectivity of New Caledonia. Phew! I hope you’re still following me!

There are two self-governing states which are in 'free association’ with the Realm of New Zealand, one of which ECA publishes data for, the Cook Islands. Other locations we publish information on are Greenland (a self-governing country of Denmark), Hong Kong and Macau (Special Administrative Regions of China) and Curaçao and Sint Maarten (which are countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands). Well, I hope that’s cleared things up and wasn’t too hard to follow! In essence what I’m trying to say is that these various territories are not independent nation states, but neither are they (in most cases) politically part of their controlling states.

This all links very nicely in to the second part of my post! This is because, lo-and-behold, the latest location that I collected data in was, you’ve guessed it, not a country but a dependent overseas territory! Far, far away from my homeland, on the other side of the planet, is a vast ocean which is probably the last remaining area of the world which I’ve yet to explore (except, perhaps, Siberia). The Pacific Ocean covers over a third of the planet’s surface area and is larger than Earth’s land area combined, but amongst all that water there are tiny dots of land where life goes on and there is a need for expatriates. My first port of call was Papeete, the capital of the island of Tahiti, which is the largest island of French Polynesia – an overseas collectivity of France. French Polynesia actually includes 118 islands and atolls that stretch over an area of 2000 kilometres. Tahiti is home to over two thirds of the population, with over 185,000 people squeezed on to its 403 square miles.

Once I had landed at Fa'a'a International Airport, I saw none of the paradise island idyll one might expect when they think of Tahiti and the Pacific islands. Instead, I was greeted by very friendly locals and a journey filled with rush hour traffic. Papeete (meaning ‘water basket’ and pronounced Pa-pee-tee or Pa-pee-ay-tee) certainly does not appear on postcards of the region but is very much a functional place. It is complete with hypermarkets, hospitals, schools, stadiums and a busy port area. Not a grain of sand or beach in sight! I, of course, knew all this before arriving as part of my research, and so it didn’t come as a surprise to find myself walking down aisle upon aisle of Western goods in Carrefour or Hyper U. Supermarkets aside, it would be wrong to paint the picture that Papeete is like any typical French town - it is in Polynesia after all! There are many French people and Westerners living in Tahiti, but the majority of people are locals and their spirit and hospitality is very much alive and well. The Chinese population is also quite high (as much as ten per cent) and excluding the likes of Carrefour and Hyper U, the retail sector of Tahiti is dominated by the Chinese. So much so that locals say that they are going to ‘la Chine’ when they say that they are going shopping.

Walking around the town there is a certain 'carefree' charm to many of the side streets - it’s actually quite a colourful place. There is graffiti everywhere but most of it appears as ambitious works of art rather than gang tags or messy scrawls. The people you pass always seem to have a smile for you and they almost all have their arms or other parts of their bodies covered in tattoos. Not the sort which adorn David Beckham or heavy metal fans, but tasteful Polynesian style arty tattoos. In fact, the English word tattoo originates from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ and they even have their very own god of tattoo, called Tohu.

Tahiti is a very long way from London and so I thought that while I was in this part of the world it would be nice to take some time out and visit one of the postcard Pacific Islands. Bora Bora, a favourite holiday spot for the rich and famous, is only a 45 minute flight from Papeete but a whole world away in terms of what it looks like. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit many of the world’s so-called paradise destinations such as the Seychelles, the Maldives and much of the Caribbean, but I have to say that Bora Bora tops the lot. Swimming with sharks and stingrays in clear blue waters and sipping a cold beer on a deserted palm tree fringed beach is not the worst way to spend the weekend. I hope that you like the pictures in the slideshow from Bora Bora and please remember that I did actually work while on Tahiti -  before you get too jealous!

Next up I will be blogging about Hawaii, the next location on my Pacific odyssey.

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