4/27/2012 Hiva Oa, Marquesas Archipelago
Close your eyes and conjure up the image you had as a kid of a tropical paradise: high lush mountains, rushing waterfalls, bananas and coconuts growing wild, mangoes dripping from trees, papaya ripening in the sun and pigs running wild in the woods. Now throw in dark haired women with Frangipani flowers tucked behind an ear, big brawny men covered with tattoos and smiling giggling children -that's the Marquesas, our first landfall after 23 days at sea.
The dark of night robbed us of our "Land Ho" moment but waking up as the sun rose, drenched in the scent of land with the dark silhouette of Hiva Oa peaking through the cloud cover was still a moment to treasure. The scent is amazing after so many days at sea: a rich intense combination of dark earth, jungle dampness, hints of flowers and smoke all layered over the clean scent of the sea. The scent changes subtly every time the island is washed with tropical showers -which happen often- or when you step from mid day sun into the comfort of deep shade. The smell is simply luscious. I wish I could bottle it up and keep it with me so then whenever I opened the stopper I would have my fix and be transported instantly back to these islands.
We motored in as the sun rolled its way up and had the quarantine flag up and the hook dropped by nine. We just missed a ride to the Gendarmerie and expected to be confined to quarters for a day but our agent Sandra said we should grab a ride into town and find a fresh croissant before we took a much earned nap. Twist my arm!
We are anchored in Taahuka Bay, nestled at the base of a stunningly beautiful valley. The town of Atuona, the larger of the two villages on Hiva Oa is a two mile walk or hitch away. There is a melody of roosters from the moment the sun begins to rise and beautiful turtle doves flitting from the branches. Horses stand in the street and goats and pigs hide in the underbrush. There really are small groups of locals playing ukulele and singing in the shade during the afternoons and most evenings bring paddling practice to the anchorage -the brightly colored plastic outriggers flying over the water with a cadence shouted from the aft seat. Town essentially closes down tight from 12:30 to 2:30 every day except for the "Snack Snack" where you can get a cold drink, a very expensive snack and a short lesson in French and Marquesan.
The town of Atuona is surprisingly modern. There are three or four grocery stores, one restaurant, a cemetery where the French artist Paul Gauguin is buried, a patisserie, a post office, bank and hardware store. Wi-Fi comes if you sit on a bench in front of the store across the street from the post office. There is no bus service so the 2 mile trip into town is by foot or by thumb. Our first trip ashore we were caught in an island shower and were soaked to the skin in a blink. We must have looked pretty pathetic because when we decided to try hitchhiking we were picked up right away but on our way back to the boat in the sunshine no one answered the call of our thumbs. Since then we have learned the tricks to hitching: you must be thoroughly committed and enthusiastic to hitchhike here. Just sticking out your thumb as you trudge along gets no result but if you turn around to face the oncoming vehicle and fling your arm out and smile like an idiot you are soon whisked up the hill in a very French silence.
Speaking of which, we really miss being able to speak the language. It's clear now that we were relatively proficient with our Spanish and equally clear that we know next to no French and no Marquesan. Our tiny vocabulary of words: hello, goodbye, thank you, please, yes, no, ham, cheese, baguette, tattoo, taboo and idiot don't allow for much of a conversation. Worse, the day we arrived we could barely come up with bon jour. Neither of us took French in school so we don't even have a rudimentary grasp of the pronunciation. The French quietly sneer at our attempts but the Marquesans seem pleased to help us with our tries and it never fails to get a grin or a giggle out of them.
The tourist season here is almost nonexistent. For reason unknown Tahiti is the only port of entry into all of French Polynesia. Travel to all other islands in French Polynesia requires a trip to Tahiti and then a second ticket to your destination. The inter-island fares are very high and the Marquesas are at the farthest reaches. A ticket here will cost you as much as your original airfare from the US and flights are heavily booked and often unavailable. The only alternative is an inner island cargo boat or sailboats like ours.
Every spring for a few short weeks a small fleet literally drifts in from Mexico, Panama and California on their way through to other destinations. The Marquesas don't even draw any of the lucrative business of international divers because the islands have little in the way of reefs or coral and as a bonus the waters are full of sharks. All this has left these islands and her people virtually untouched by the business of tourism.
We wanted to meet the locals and hopefully experience a bit of island life so Bill asked our agent Sandra if there was anything going on in town that we could attend. She was perplexed but then came up with two ideas: we could meet her at quarter of two at the dinghy dock and she would take us to see her daughter dance group and the next night her husband who makes guitars would be meeting with some friends to play music and we could tag along with him if we wanted to.
The dance group turned out to be a dance class. Twenty or so gals age 6 to 40 who meet weekly at the community activity center. They were a mix of French and Marquesan and they performed in groups mostly divided by age. They seemed surprised that we were there but basically ignored us and went about their business. The instructor would cue up a song from a computer and a group would dance then sit down and let the next group perform. Between dances the younger girls practiced a game that I could never quite understand. It was played with a single strand length of elastic band that was held by two girls like a jump rope. The girls would take turns running to it as if they were about to do a jump rope routine but then would jump over and grab the elastic with their foot in a sort of toes version of cat's cradle.
I did make one interesting observation at dance class: the French don't have the hips for dance that the Polynesian's do. Even the littlest girl with long dark hair and liquid brown eyes had a jiggle in her wiggle that doesn't seem possible to duplicate. About half of the gals were French and even the ones who were otherwise great dancers simply are not in the same league with the Polynesian's. Our small glimpses whet our appetite for the summer Fete (party) in Bora Bora we hope to attend. There, every year for a couple of weeks the best of the best from islands all over FP go to sing, dance and paddle in competitions that are highly competitive. It's definitely a don't miss celebration.
The music with Sandra's husband David turned out to be interesting. We invited several other boats to come with us telling them that David makes guitars and meets with friends to play music every week. We expected island music and ukulele and guitar. What they were playing was rock-n-roll; electric guitars, amps, drum kit and electric keyboard. It was good don't get me wrong it just wasn't at all what we expected. Like the dance class they had a talent for moving along with their evening as if we weren't there at all. David picked us up and drove us to the community center then no one spoke to us or said "you should sit over there" or anything at all. We slipped off our shoes and grabbed some chairs and listened politely but eventually it turned into a cruiser gab fest with a little dancing thrown in for fun. The dance class gals and David I think didn't really know what to do with us. Oh well ever onward and you never know if you don't ask.
Friday night we attended our first pig roast. A local came down to the anchorage and said if we could gather together at least ten of us he would roast a pig for us at his house -twenty five yachties signed on. We were picked up in batches and ferried to John and Mary Jo's house. Were they served us pit roasted pig and goat, breadfruit, roasted bananas, bananas in coconut milk, dumplings, baguettes and "Poisson Cru"( the FP version of ceviche.) After dinner their daughter danced for us and did the expected grabbing of the uncoordinated old white folks and dragging them in to dance. It was fun and interesting to taste the local food and we met some boats we hadn't had time to yet but it wasn't a chance to experience a real fete. Hopefully we will be able to wrangle an invitation to some local celebration once we are out of the "city."
After meeting John and Mary Jo we decided to take one of Mary Jo's cross island tours. It was an all day van trip along with friends from two other boats from the anchorage. Our first stop was at the Taaoa mare on the south side of the island. One of two on the island it is a ceremonial site that was carved out of the earth and built with the local volcanic black rock. The mare's were for people of high class and rank only - no women allowed. The remains of the complex is scattered over a few acres of land high in the hills. There are specific places to worship, to make sacrifices, to eat, to gather and to sleep. According to Mary Jo the only people who were eaten were enemy warriors and it was for both ceremonial purposes and as food. The Chief decided who was eaten and who wasn't and there was something akin to power that was transferred with the sacrifice of an enemy. She explained too that the act of cannibalism in the islands was never a harvesting- the hunters weren't coming home from a good hunt. The cannibalism was a byproduct of war in which only those of high rank would participate (no women allowed.) Though to those being sacrificed and eaten the ceremony and exactly who was going to eat them probably didn't really matter.
After the mare at Taaoa we drove across the island to Puamau the only other town on the island and the sight of the other significant mare. It took several hours to reach and Mary Jo stopped often for breath taking views and presentations of various plants and fruits. We gathered and nibbled on breadfruit, giant grapefruit, limes, bananas and coconuts, drank green coconut water, and saw hundreds of trees dripping with mangos, jackfruit, papaya and several others I can't name. We drove along paved roads, gravel roads, dirt roads and then amazingly fir trees. We topped out into the clouds unable to see even a glimpse of the water. We careened around steep corners and putted up switchbacks watching the goats scamper up the sheer rock face. The birds' song was amazing in the woods and there were wild horses all through the hills.
The mare in Puamau is the biggest in the island and dates back at least 2000 years. It is similar to the mare in Taaoa but has the lofty distinction of being home to the largest tiki west of Easter Island. There were several standing tiki's there as well as the organized outline of the original spaces for worship, celebration and sacrifice. The grounds are so lush and beautiful. The islanders leave them tended but as nature has left them but to my eyes they looked almost landscaped. There were more shades of green there than I knew existed. For the islanders the words to describe the shades of green must be like the words for snow for Eskimos. There is just no way to describe the colors. The black volcanic rock is a sharp contrast against the vines and leaves. Every imaginable color is represented in the variegated leaves and the multitude of flowers all towered over by fifty foot fruit trees.
Tomorrow we are off to the island of Fatu Hiva an 8 hour passage to the southwest. Yep, despite the illusion that we have all the time in the world to explore the South Pacific as US citizens we are only allowed 90 days in all of French Polynesia: which means a whirlwind tour of the Marquesas, the Tuomotus and the Society Islands that will keep us on the move through the end of July. After having Hiva Oa as our destination for so long it feels a little empty to know we will probably never come this way again. The only way back really is to go all the way to Hawaii across to the States and back down the coast -again- to California or Mexico, then another long passage.
But then again....who knows? kat
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