Passage Note #77 - Marquesas Islands: Introduction and Tahuata Island
"The Marquesas! What strange visions of outlandish things does the very name spirit up...I felt an irresistible curiosity to see those islands which the olden voyagers had so glowingly described." ------- Herman Melville (1846)
The remote Marquesas Islands - Te Henua ‘Enana (“Land of Men”) as they are called by its people - is at the edge of a new world for us: the South Pacific with all its storybook aura and fascination and stereotypical ideal of Paradise. While we are awed by the magical landscapes and exotic culture, and intoxicated by the colors and fragrances that bombard our senses, it is the people who have seduced us most of all: the proud Marquesans who laugh so easily - always with a ready smile and a tiare (gardenia) flower in their hair - who eagerly welcome you and take you home with them all the while showering you with gifts of tropical fruits and their warm generosity.....these distinctive people who almost vanished from the face of the earth not so very long ago.
From the very beginning with Captain Cook’s journals and the latter half of the 19th century when word got out to the wider world, up until today, French Polynesia has embodied the definition of Paradise for many outsiders. French Polynesia - 117 islands contained within an area of the sea the size of Europe is organized into five groups. Certainly the most recognizable is that of the Society Islands with Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora at its heart. To the northeast lies the isolated Marquesas archipelago. Says an internet site: “Happily the islands are not flooded by tourists - this place is very remote and the beauty of Marquesas is not much known in the world.” Out of twelve islands, six are inhabited: three southern islands - Hiva Oa, Tahuata, and Fatu Hiva and three northern - Ua Pou, Ua Huka, and Nuku Hiva (where the administrative capital of Taiohae is located).
The Marquesan allure of romance has remained strong in the Western imagination, initially promulgated by the literary celebrity of Herman Melville’s “Typee” (until the 20th century, he was better known for this book than "Moby Dick") and reinforced by other such notables as Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Thor Heyerdahl, and Jacques Brel. But perhaps the South Pacific’s most renowned devotee was Paul Gauguin, escaping from France to search for a “simple, savage life” and capturing it in his art for all the world to see; he found it in Tahiti and then the Marquesas and died on the island of Hiva Oa in 1903. We made the pilgrimage to visit his grave in the Atuona cemetery (near that of singer Brel’s) as well as his museum and the exhibition dedicated to Brel.
Although stumbled upon in 1595 by a Spaniard, the Marquesas Islands weren’t visited again until 1774 by Captain Cook. The French tinkered with them a bit early on as did American Captain Joseph Ingraham who tried to claim them in the name of an uninterested U.S. (he gave the islands the dubious names of Knox, Federal, Washington and Adams). Finally, in 1848, they were claimed for France. Today, as a French overseas territory and one of five island groups comprising French Polynesia, the Marquesas archipelago flies 3 flags: French, Polynesian, and Marquesan. French and Tahitian are the official languages of French Polynesia but the revived Marquesan language is also spoken here.
Of the two types of island landforms found in French Polynesia - low-lying coral atolls and high craggy lush volcanic mountains, the Marquesas is characterized by the latter and looks reminiscent of Hawaii. Imagine a crumpled piece of paper in the shape of a high green pyramid; from the main peak of formidable cliffs, rock pillars and spires dotted with tall waterfalls like silky threads, radiate lush canyons and valleys sloping toward the sea, terminating in rocky outcrops, boulder shores or white or black sand beaches. Once upon a time in the days before Western contact, each isolated valley, separated by nearly impassable knife-like ridges, was filled with its own settlement and chief - strong and proud people adhering to a resilient Polynesian culture and belief system that included a strict hierarchical society, intertribal warfare, tattoos, ritualistic cannibalism, tiki symbolism, polytheistic worship, and expert carvers, dancers, drummers and musicians.
Discovery by the Western world was devastating and contact with navigators, trade ships, whalers, and missionaries just about spelled the total demise of the people themselves as well as their culture. Foreign diseases and epidemics decimated their numbers, estimated to be 80,000 at the time of European arrival, shrinking to 15,000 in 1848, and then to a mere 2,000 by 1926. There are only 9,000 Marquesans today.
Marquesan culture and traditional ways disappeared through colonization and Catholic conversion, which was almost complete by 1860. Their societal foundations crumbled, oral traditions were lost, and it became a largely vanished world. What little survived was transformed. Even now many valleys remain empty where great communities once stood (archeological remains are found everywhere).
Today, traditional art forms (like tattooing) and some aspects of culture are experiencing a strong renaissance. Ironically enough, it is the journals and documentation of some early western visitors that forms the basis of reconstruction. Archeological sites are being excavated and restored, major inter-island cultural festivals are held, and traditional dance, music and handicrafts are showcased. The fine decorative arts traditions of Marquesan ancestors are finally getting their due recognition: the first museum exhibition took place in 2005 - only 10 years ago - at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY.
After four centuries as the preserve of explorers, adventurers and artists, we take our place among the collection of dreamers who have made the effort to see the Marquesas Islands for themselves first hand. We arrived on June 10 after our three week voyage from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.
This is the smallest inhabited island, population of 671. There are no tourists here. It has a stormy history of first Polynesian contact with Europeans in 1595.
Making landfall on Tahuata Island, in picture perfect Hanamoemoa Bay, was a smart decision guided by Chuck’s memory of 1991. Instead of checking-in to the country immediately in the less desirable port of Atuona on neighboring Hiva Oa as is technically required, we decided to delay the legal formalities a while and chose to hang here and rest, catch up on our sleep, clean the bottom of sludge and barnacles, swim, beachwalk, visit with cruiser friends, and just recuperate. This is a beautiful bay of a palm fringed white sand beach backed by green mountains, turquoise water, and best of all it is flat - a treasure here where the Marquesas have a well-deserved reputation for rolly uncomfortable anchorages. Manta rays glide around the boats, dolphins come to feed, and wild horses and goats are often seen on the hillsides. Hanamoenoa became one of our favorite anchorages and we returned here several times within the first months.
Our outdated guidebooks say the bay is uninhabited but that is no longer true. We met Steven, an atypically typical Marquesan we realized later, when we went ashore. A handsome young man of 33, he is tall with bronzed skin, long dark hair and a beautiful smile, looking rather like an unpretentious Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow sans the makeup and foppery. Steven is a modern day Robinson Crusoe who is cultivating his ancestral property, existing hand to mouth off the land and sea.
Although he had a house across the Bordelais Channel on Hiva Oa, he claims he swam across the channel to settle on the beach where he grew up with his grandfather rather than stay in Atuona as his parents wished. His shelter is a small shack at the edge of the beach, surrounded by his “garden” of coconut palms, pamplemousse, orange, lime, and banana trees. We often saw him fishing at night with a light; inland all the islands are teeming with wild pigs and goats for the taking and hunting, accomplished with a handful of skinny dogs, is a quotidian activity for Marquesans. “Rustic” is too elegant a word for Steven’s lifestyle.
Steven is a gentle and soft-spoken soul who gave us our first lesson in Marquesan values of respect for nature and love of self-sufficiency and independence. He was the first, but not the last, to rail against Tahiti saying “if you are in Papeete and you have no money, you will not eat; here in the Marquesas you can always eat. But we only take what we need and nothing more.” Steven enjoys befriending those cruisers who come ashore and have the considerateness not to enter his garden or pick his fruit without permission; however, he has nothing but disdain for trespassers - watch out! He often takes cruisers fishing (he knows which fish have the fish toxin ciguatera and which are safe to eat) and invites them to have dinner, cooking goat, pork or octopus in coconut milk which he rasps from the fresh coconut meat himself. In return, cruisers often support him in innumerable ways - giving him food or supplies, fresh water, charging his phone, transporting him to the next bay, whatever they can do to help.
On a sunny afternoon that suddenly turned grey with characteristic tropical fickleness, Steven and Linda sat on the beach together in a robust but ephemeral downpour, exchanging stories of their love of the sea. Steven had brought out a half coconut shell filled with sweet grated coconut meat for them to snack on. Steven told her about the Bay: “Lots of dolphins come in here and push the fish to the rocks”, he said motioning to the north shore. Then they fish until they are full and go, leaving the mothers behind with their babies so they can teach them how to do it.” “Manta rays swim over the reef,” he continued, pointing to a spot behind Jacaranda. “Some cruisers chase the dolphins and manta rays in their dinghies and come and kill sea animals only for their shells, not for food,” he sadly shook his head. Linda spoke of whale nurseries and riding the giant manta rays of Socorro Island, of shark-finning, octopus hunting with bleach, and overfishing she had witnessed. Steven spoke of his grandfather. Linda spoke of her sons. Then he got up, went into his garden, and returned with three cowrie shells as a gift and a flowering sprig of basil for her to wear behind her ear (any fragrant flower will do). When Linda asked him if she could take his picture, he declined, gently touching her head and then her heart, and told her to remember him that way.
Our admiration and friendship deepened with each subsequent visit to Hanamoenoa Bay. Steven joined us for lunch one afternoon on Jacaranda and we joked that all he needed now was a good pirogue (outrigger canoe) and a pretty woman (vahine po’otu).....or a pretty pirogue and a good woman. He laughed and said his grandfather was building him a canoe.
****Latest news and breaking gossip: We heard from friends that some time later he skipped off for a short tryst with a European cruiser who left her husband and kids on her boat to be with Steven.
Other wonderful memories of Hanamoenoa Bay included:
• swimming for hours with manta rays, joined by the girls on svMuneera
• an evening on svSpace and svOrion - two catamarans rafted up together - both owned by the same intrepid and crazy young Australian, Jeff, and his French girlfriend, crewed by a changing international gang of 6-8 youths - sharing fresh tuna sashimi and having a look at the goat that was going to be the guest of honor at an imminent beach barbeque. Since they had a dog on board named “Doggie”, they called the goat “Goatee” at our suggestion.
Two days after our initial stop in Hanamoenoa we got sidetracked by the enticement of a church festival in the small nearby village of Hapitoni and joined an exodus of a dozen sailboats to relocate 5 miles down-island to Hana Tefau so we could attend the celebration. This beautiful anchorage was at the base of a high steep cliff wall that trickled with several small burbling waterfalls. A large pod of dolphins were feeding in the bay among the group of sailboats. Steven had said it was a dolphin nursery.
If Steven was our first introduction to the Marquesan persona, Hapitoni was our first exposure to Marquesan society.
We took the dinghy to the Hapitoni wharf where a handful of young boys hung out to help us with our line, yelling “kaOha!” in greeting. Chuck was delighted to see that the town had built a protective riprap breakwater since he was here last in 1991 which made our landing easy and no longer made anchoring the dinghy and swimming in a necessity. Colorful outrigger canoes called vakas were pulled up on shore.
This was a picturesque village with the unique feature of Queen Vaekehu’s “royal road” paralleling the seafront, overhung by an arbor of large gnarled century-old tamanu trees. We walked down this distinctive 19th century dirt road, past houses with woven frond fences, an ancient religious site (me’ae), copra-drying sheds, community artisan space and cemetery until we reached the small church and adjacent school in the center of an open grassy field, the epicenter of activity on this Saturday.
Spirited teams of men and women played pétanque, a French game of lawn bowling similar to boules or bocce. There was serious competition judging by the intensity and seriousness of the play which lasted all day and the number of people who sported team shirts. Elsewhere young children were engaged in “fishing” for prizes, similar to our familiar carnival games. They stood behind tables tipped on their side to create a barrier, holding a fishing pole with a ring hung on a string at the end of it, trying to maneuver the ring around the top of a water-filled bottle. On the steps up to the field from the road, a dozen women sat with boxes of flowers in their laps, weaving traditional crowns or garlands called hei, to wear around their heads for the evening’s dance and the church service the next morning. The sweet fragrance of the tiare, a gardenia which is the national flower of the Marquesas, can knock you off your feet. We ogled over a display of carvings of wood, bone, swordfish bills, and shells by the famously expert Hapitoni artisans.
We people-watched, captivated by our observations......and frustrated by the communication gap we suddenly found ourselves in. Step off the boat and wham! a language barrier hit us in the face! It shouldn’t have taken us by surprise but it did. We had forgotten: after living so long in the latino world, we were no longer accustomed to being unable to communicate in a foreign language - but now we felt like fish out of water not knowing French. So many wonderful new people and things we were seeing with no way to actively participate, get adequate explanations or carry on conversations!! Envious of our French cruising friends who helped us with translations, we relied on them and contented ourselves with quietly taking it all in. We began to pick up a few Marquesan words and phrases here and there.
At six o’clock, a free dinner was served to all (about 300) in attendance. It was a delicious plate of pork and lentil stew over rice with a piece of buttered bread and a sweet finger banana for dessert. The evening performance of religious dramas enacting bible stories commenced an hour later, incorporating a modest taste of Marquesan dance, music and song. Steven had warned us that this was a church festival rather than a traditional one but it was not until later when we went to Hiva Oa that we understood what he meant.
One thing that really delighted us was watching the Marquesans with their babies and toddlers. The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” could have been coined here. The little ones are so loved and shared by everyone - picked up, held and kissed, played with and cooed at. There was one adorable little girl in particular: each time we saw her she was with a different woman and we never did figure out who her mother was although we kept asking. In church the next morning, small children were handed up and over from one pew to the next, passed from one person to another, until they made the rounds of the entire congregation during the service.
Sunday morning we returned to the village early to attend the church service and listen to the a cappella singing in complex harmonies that the Marquesans are renowned for. This is now our Sunday routine no matter where we are - we enjoy the superb harmonizing, drumming, family interaction, and women dressed in their finery with flower crowns.
As we were sitting outside waiting for the service to begin, a woman and her family sat next to us and she introduced herself. She wanted to practice her english and we were excited to connect with her and spend time together both before and after the singing. Her name was Tahia, meaning “Princess” in Marquesan, and she was the school teacher of another village called Motope on the north shore of the island. We have now learned that the schoolteachers are the people to seek out in each village if you are looking for someone who speaks english!! We were sorry to part ways and curtail our budding friendship with Princess, as we called her, but weeks later saw each other again by chance - twice - in Atuona on Hiva Oa.
After formally checking in and several more weeks of exploring we returned to Hanamoenoa Bay on July 2 yet again to welcome our friends David and Kim on svMaluhia to the Marquesas from their tiring Puddle Jump of 18 days (from the Galapagos) where they had to handsteer for 8 days due to autopilot malfunction. They were a bit weary but in great spirits! We had a fun combination birthday/happy landfall dinner on Jacaranda complete with crowns and “Hand Steering” awards Linda made out of aluminum foil (her specialty).
Two days later Kim and David joined us to take Jacaranda down-island for the day to the main village of Vaitahu, known for its beautiful Catholic church and great carvers. Besides, very significantly, Vaitahu is where Europeans first arrived anywhere in the South Pacific - in 1595 the spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendaña made a most murderous entrance, shooting inhabitants on sight. Captain Cook arrived 200 years later in 1774 but was shunned. Admiral Abel Dupetit-Thouars took possession for France here in 1842 despite strong resistance.
Less than an hour after leaving Hanamoenoa, we were entering the large open Bay and anchoring next to the Aranui. Ah yes - about the Aranui: This working supply ship, a delivery lifeline between Tahiti and the Marquesas built as a cargo ship in the front, doubles as a cruise ship in the back with cabins, decks and a swimming pool. It accommodates 200 passengers and offers tourists an iconic 8-14 day cruise to the islands that is supposed to be one of “the world’s best adventure cruises”.
The Aranui’s appearance at each Marquesan Island is a major event and the whole village/town mobilizes around it - cars queue up to meet it at the dock for offloaded goods or small boats ferry out to it to pick up goods and deliver copra or fruit; artisan markets are brimming with articles for sale; traditional dancing displays and special meals are all arranged ashore; taxis line up to take passengers here or there; tour guides await their charges for short excursions around the island. We used to run away when the cruise ships came in to Mexican towns to avoid the crass commercialization that transformed them into schizophrenic places with hordes of tourists. On the other hand, here in the Marquesas, it is the best time to see a sleepy town show off their stuff.
A big swell was running this day and Chuck and David did a reconnaissance in the dinghy to determine where the best place to get ashore would be. The northern concrete loading dock and several rough beach areas were untenable so we decided to try the rocky shore in the southern part of the Bay. Chuck skillfully maneuvered the dinghy as Kim and Linda disembarked on the rocks and scooted higher to safety. David got out of the dinghy next but the timing was bad and he almost got swept away by some big swells, suffering some scrapes and barely recovering his hat and backpack. The only choice for Chuck now was to anchor the dinghy 30 meters beyond the breaking waves and swim over to us. What a gnarly landing! We all scrambled over the rocks to reach the shore, watching the dinghy over our shoulders as it lifted and fell with the incoming swells but seemed secure enough. By the time we walked around to reach the village proper, the tourists had returned to the Aranui, the artisans had packed up their wares and departed, and the town was deserted and still.
We explored the waterfront, entered the beautiful Church to see the wood carvings and stained glass windows inside, and climbed the hill from the creek to reach a famous artisan’s house and workshop - the main destination for the day.
Teiki Barsinas is considered one of the best bone and shell carvers in the Marquesas. His work is in the British Museum, a French museum, and several other impressive collections around the world. A big, shy man with large hands, Teiki led us into his small, dark and cluttered “studio” - we all had to duck down into the dark recesses of a shed that led to his table and work area. His chair and worktable faced an open window which let in some natural light to the dark space. It was filled with an array of materials and tools; bones were piled high in one corner and animal skulls hung from the ceiling. Mother of pearl shells lay in a heap in another corner. There was a whale tooth, helmet shells, and swordfish bills. Under a lamp and next to a dremel and some carving rasps and files lay some intricately carved pendants and tikis. He modestly showed us his work - available items he had completed that were for sale, a few things in progress, and an extensive loose-leaf notebook filled with older previously purchased works, letters of customer appreciation, and business cards from various museum curators. He was justly proud.
David and Linda each picked out a favorite bone pendant and asked if he would trade for some cash and some large tagua nuts Linda had brought from Ecuador. This was a new material he was interested in and he showed us some recent carvings he had done in tagua, obtained from other cruisers. The exchange happily made, we left the cramped semi-darkness and emerged into his sunny open yard. Teiki summoned Thelma and Louise (that’s what he said their names were with a broad smile) - his 12 year-old twin daughters - to help him pick some fruit for us. Adorned with our new treasures around our necks, David and Linda posed for photos with Teiki before we all shared a juicy pamplemousse, followed by an orange, and a new type of mango. We left with armfuls of fruit and a lot of pleasure from meeting such a talented master and his wonderful family.
As we started back down the hill from Teiki’s house, a man in an ubiquitous Toyota pick-up truck stopped to ask us where we were headed and if we wanted a ride. Sure! This saved us a 40 minute trek back through the town and across a large football field to the rocks where the dinghy was still bobbing in the swell. Chuck swam back out but had trouble getting the anchor up - it was stuck on some rocks and he was just about at the point of cutting the line when his jockeying around broke it free! The anchor was saved! He motored over to the rocks where we waited; we patiently timed the waves, and carefully but swiftly piled in with no mishaps this time. We were back on Jacaranda for a late lunch and afternoon departure for Hanamoenoa to re-anchor for a few more days.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #77