Passage Note #78 - Marquesas Islands: Hiva Oa Island
“I begin to feel an enormous need to become savage and to create a new world..... I have come to an unalterable decision — to go and live forever in Polynesia” ----- Paul Gauguin
Hiva Oa Island
Population 2190; administrative center for the southern Marquesas Islands
So what drew Paul Gauguin to the Marquesas Islands? Hiva Oa, his final resting place, might hold the key.
Truthfully, we had enjoyed the empty beaches and small villages we had seen so far and were not all that anxious to head to the “big town” (by Marquesan standards) of Atuona, the administrative center for the southern Marquesas Islands. But we had tarried on Tahuata long enough after our initial landfall (one week) and it was high time that we officially checked-in to the country. Besides....we really needed to buy some fresh food and restock our depleted “cupboards”. We couldn’t wait for those warm french baguettes, cheeses and pâtés! Ohh la la!
On June 17 we sailed a few miles north to Hiva Oa, through Taaoa Bay (Traitors' Bay) and anchored in Tahuaka Bay, Atuona’s port. The next day we arranged to meet the representative of our Tahiti agent, Sandra, who would drive us to the Gendarmarie and shepherd us through the formalities. Why did we have an agent? Clearing the boat was no problem - by law, Jacaranda could stay for 3 years. Clearing Chuck was no problem - he entered the country as an EU citizen with his Irish Passport so he didn’t even need a visa and could stay indefinitely. But for Linda - as an American - it was an expensive rigmarole. Sandra would help us facilitate the procurement of Linda’s “carte de sejour” - the document Linda had initiated in Ecuador last January that would allow her to stay in French Polynesia for one year instead of the normally permitted 3 months. Sandra coordinated with the authorities in Tahiti and it took more than 2 months before Linda had her “carte de sejour” in hand. (More in “Other Good Stuff”).
The ancient brooding Mt. Temetiu rose sharply almost 4,000 feet above us in Tahuaka Bay, connected to the interior of the island by a dramatic crenellated ridge. The old collapsed volcano was often shrouded in clouds and mist and could look quite eerie. Although we were double anchored bow-and-stern behind a protected seawall, Tahuaka Bay can get very rolly. You have to locate your boat behind the yellow markings on the rocks to allow enough turning room for the huge supply vessels to side-tie to the wharf and you don’t want to be too close to the shore at the mouth where it abruptly shallows and a river empties its silty contents (and dangerous debris during rainy season floods).
The only gas station is situated on the wharf and doubles as a small grocery store with fresh baguettes early in the morning. Outrigger canoes glide gracefully among the sailboats daily, launched from the area where we beach our dinghies to go ashore. Tahuaka Bay is not a terribly convenient location for us cruisers since it is a 45 minute walk into Atuona proper but it is usually easy to hitchhike and get a ride into town.
Atuona is lovely and tranquil with lots of flowers and not a speck of garbage. It has one roundabout in the middle from which radiates 3 narrow paved streets leading to the post office/city hall/soccer field, the bank/AirTahiti/tourist office/gendarmerie, and the museum/craft center. The large archeological “tohua” (ancient ceremonial meeting site) with its open grassy square defined by black volcanic boulder platforms was being refurbished for an important cultural festival in December which we hoped to attend.
The three grocery stores are within a short distance of one another and we bought fresh vegetables, fruits, and lobster from the open beds of pick-up trucks parked nearby on our shopping route. Chuck couldn’t believe the selection and diversity of products now on offer in the stores compared to his earlier experience 20 years ago when there was very little to buy at shockingly high prices. Of course the French food was to be expected - sausages, cheeses, pastries, cassoulets, foie gras, escargot. Fresh baguettes were 60 cents. But there was also Best mayonnaise, Skippy peanut butter, Martinelli’s sparking apple juice, Duncan Hines brownie mix....even Old El Paso tortillas!! Asian food was plentiful - spring roll wrappers, all kinds of sauces and spices, a variety of rices and chow mein noodles, canned lychees nuts, sushi makings, etc. We even found DeCecco pasta and gnocchi! There was lamb from New Zealand, beef from Uruguay, and tiger shrimp from Vietnam.
Yes, food was expensive here but not as outrageous as we had anticipated - unless you wanted a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream for $14 (Karamel Sutra). Liquor and wine can be exorbitant which is why a bottle of rum ($80) is an often requested item for bartering from the locals. Some of the prices of food staples are subsidized by the French government.
But whereas a $50 invoice in Ecuador would have sent you home with plenty of food for main courses for a week, here you had trouble escaping with anything substantial for under $120. The fixings for Marquesan food were generally available for sale in open-air markets or for free. Canned coconut milk is readily available although the locals make their own. Breadfruit, pamplemousse, coconuts, bananas and all kinds of tropical and citrus fruits were given away freely - if you aren’t offered them by generous locals (complete strangers!), you need only pass by a tree and ask. Fish (pelagic only like tuna and wahoo to avoid ciguatera from reef fish) is purchased directly from the fishermen at their cleaning tables when they arrive in the mornings with their catch; a local can arrange to obtain fresh goat or pork.
Atuona's Famous Celebrities: Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel
High above town overlooking the Bay is Calvaire Cemetery where we made the pilgrimage to see the flower-strewn graves of Paul Gauguin and Jaques Brel. Just as their tombs lie footsteps apart from each other, so do their exhibition halls in the center of town.
The Paul Gauguin Cultural Center commemorates the post-Impressionist painter with a “museum” of reproductions and a reconstruction of his two-story thatched Maison du Jouir (“House of Pleasure”) where he lived the last two years of his life. While informative, there is nothing authentic about it, the genuine stuff scattered in museums throughout the world. The only real associative things that still exist in Atuona today besides his grave are the general store to which Gauguin owed money for wine when he died, the well outside his home and the artifacts dug out of it (china, wine bottles, and a jar with 4 teeth), and St. Anne’s Catholic School (which decreed mandatory attendance for all young girls within a radius of 2 1/2 miles to keep them out of Gauguin’s lecherous reach).
Everything about Paul Gauguin in Atuona fit into one big A-List --- Art (painting, sculpture, carvings, writing), Addictions (alcohol and morphine), Ailments (a painful lame ankle and venereal disease), Abandonment (of his family and roots in the “civilized” world), Alienation (abusive behavior toward colonial and Catholic authorities), and Adolescents (sexual proclivity for 13-year-old girls).
Having worn out his welcome in Tahiti, the Marquesas was the kind of far-flung spot that would provide him the escape from the world he was searching for. “I think in the Marquesas, where it is easy to find models (a thing that is growing more and more difficult in Tahiti), and with new country to explore - with new and more savage subject matter in brief - that I shall do beautiful things. In Tahiti my imagination has begun to cool, and then, too, the public has grown so used to Tahiti,” he wrote to his agent in France in June 1901. He died in Atuona of syphilis in 1903.
In 1975, Belgium-born singer-songwriter Jacques Brel also arrived in the Marquesas looking for an escape. His “emotionally-charged performances made him one of the most popular French-language singers of all time” and he was revered in France. Tiring of media pressure and the exhaustion of touring, he settled in Atuona and died three years later, aged 48. The focal point of an airplane-hangar-cum-exhibition-hall is his small Beechcraft airplane, Jojo, surrounded by a display viewed while his famous French chansons play in the background.
A Wealth of Archeology
“Most archeological sites are still untouched in the Marquesas, and there’s an exceptional diversity - statues, gathering places, ceremonial centers, house platforms, all set within powerful landscapes. And there’s not a soul in sight,” observed French archeologist Pierre Ottino. And....there's lots and lots of them! Why wouldn't there be when these islands were at one time very densely populated with large settlements in almost every valley.
So off we went across to the other side of Hiva Oa by car with Puamau as our destination. Here sits Iipona, one of most sacred ancient temples and best preserved archeological sites in French Polynesia with five large tikis restored by Ottino in 1991. It is a Marquesan “me’ae” - a “religious site built from basalt blocks places side by side and piled up...a place of worship, burial, and human sacrifice. It was strictly tapu (forbidden); access was restricted to a few priests or chiefs endowed with mana (spiritual power)”.
Know of a local drinking hole called the tiki bar? Or eat at your local “Polynesian” restaurant decorated with a “waterfall” trickling behind some potted plants with a tiki in front of it? The tikis in the Marquesas are the real deal - the place of origin - and they spread from here to other places such as Hawaii and Easter Island.....as well as becoming a pop culture fad back in the 70’s. The humanlike figure has special significance as a religious symbol and is “one of the most pervasive images” in the Marquesas. Besides appearing as statues that warn of tapu (taboo) places, they are a common decorative motif found in tattoos and Marquesan adornments, carvings, weapons, canoes, basically anything that is made. Tikis are believed to be possessed of “mana” or spiritual power and many locals believe that evil will befall anyone who moves or handles an original.
It was a long 2 1/2 hour journey to Puamau with John Ozanne, a well-known local, as our guide. Taking the paved road that climbed out of town towards the airport, we first came into a great view of Taaoa Bay (Traitors' Bay), sitting in the collapsed crater of Mt. Temetiu. About 10 km. later we stopped on the side of the road next to a tree with a small, barely discernible cardboard sign that read “Smiling Tiki”. We had heard people had a hard time finding it so we were glad to follow John as he walked down a rutted and often muddy track to a small clearing in the midst of the overgrown jungle, next to walls of neatly stacked black volcanic boulders that are the standard indicators of an ancient site of some sort. There the 3 foot tall tiki sat alone, smiling to itself with eyes outlined in John Lennon-type glasses and a large grin. It looked as if its tiny little hands were holding in its laughing belly while trying not to tip over from chuckling so hard. If it weren’t certifiably authentic you might think it a joke with its giddy expression.
We returned to John’s truck and continued climbing up the road, past the airport turnoff. At the island’s much cooler and breezy summit we were surprised to find ourselves in a conifer forest of pines. Descending down switchbacks on the other side, we had beautiful vistas of the northern side of the island with several turquoise bays and verdant valleys. At a viewpoint over scenic Eiaone Bay we shared some pamplemousse from John’s garden while he pointed out the acacia trees which had become so invasive now on the island, the once domesticated wild goats roaming everywhere throughout, and the graceful birds - brilliant snowy terns - that flutter and swoop in pairs, like giant white butterflies standing out against the lush green backdrop of island foliage. We stopped at a carver’s home to see his crafts and buy banana vinegar, salted brown limes used in cooking, and dried bananas bundled in papery brown leaves and tied like fat sausages.
Finally dropping down and skirting the northeastern coastline, we passed through the picturesque hamlets of Motuua and Nahoe following the curve of the black rock beaches. Small colorful concrete houses sat in a peaceful grove of tall swaying coconut trees, surrounded by immaculately trimmed lawns and flowering bushes with fragrant copra sheds dotted about. Copra is dried white coconut meat that is the islander’s main occupation and export; it is turned into coconut oil.
The Bay of Puamau came into view and we noticed one small sailboat anchored, rocking from side to side in an uncomfortable looking swell; Chuck had anchored here in 1992. We turned inland a short distance toward the archeological site, paying our $3.00 entrance fee at a store and making a few stops for John to deliver some baguettes to various family members and pick some overripe mangoes for a salsa.
Iipona was reached by a slight incline which flattened out to a grassy platform at the base of an enormous sacred banyan tree where the 5 great tikis stood. Tiki Takaii, almost 9 feet high, is the largest tiki in Polynesia and is a warrior chief known for his strength. Linda’s favorite was Tiki Maki Taua Pepe, a woman lying on her stomach which experts believe represents a woman giving birth. The locals meticulously maintain the site which is constantly threatened with encroachment by the insistent surrounding jungle. For now the tikis sit in the open air, reminiscent of how they must have originally appeared; but there is talk of safeguarding them from further deterioration from the elements by erecting a roof over their heads. Maybe this is a necessary protective measure but what a shame to ruin the atmosphere as they exist today, where you can actually feel their “mana” or spiritual power in your body as you stand before them under the tropical sky.
Northern Side of Hiva Oa
We explored a few bays on the northern, dry side of Hiva Oa some weeks later on our way to the northern Marquesa Islands from Tahuata.
Hanamaneu on the northwest corner is a bit like the American southwest meeting the sea. It is dry with sculptured brown barren canyons and ridges rising up on both sides. At the head of the bay is a family home which belongs to our guide John and where he grew up. Chuck’s sister Maureen and brother-in-law Buzz spent a lot of time here in the early 1970’s with John and his family when they were doing a circumnavigation on svGambit, their Lapworth 36. Although John now lives in Atuona, he still maintains a boat and often spends time fishing there. It is well-known for the little oasis of a flower-bedecked natural spring which forms a pretty swimming hole. One night we heard loud splashes around the boat - the sound of predators - and when we looked out over the side saw sharks feeding on the fish attracted by our anchor light.
Hanaiapa - We struggled to go east from Hanamaneu to reach this gem of a bay located in the center of the northern coast, bashing into the prevailing wind and sea. We didn’t think the anchorage was going to be calm enough to anchor but, after passing a beautiful high waterfall that cascades into the sea, several large sea caves and rounding a large island (called a “motu”) almost in the center of the Bay, we were surprised at how it flattened out and afforded us a most comfortable stay for a few days.
The village is very picturesque, full of flowers and fruit trees with a meandering river that runs the length of the verdant valley. Part way up the road, after being invited to coffee by a friendly man we met, we saw a sign at the bottom of a driveway that read “Hanaiapa Yacht Club”. We shouted a hearty “ka’oha” up at the house. William greeted us and, clearing off his table of the fish he was cleaning and the fruit that was piled high on it, entreated us to sit down and sign his notebook filled with the photos, boat cards, and messages of hundreds of cruisers who have anchored in his Bay. He had been keeping these books for years and years and when Chuck told him he had signed his book in the early 1990’s on his first trip to the Marquesas, William told us that he had unfortunately suffered a fire in his previous home and had lost all the old volumes. We left a short time later with an armful of fruit and some watercress from his garden.
Special July Festivities
After galavanting around, we were back in Atuona for “Fete”. July is Fete in all of French Polynesia - a month-long celebration of traditional dances and music throughout every island. We spread ourselves around during the month, visiting several places and thereby got a taste of each island’s talent and special brand of choreography, costumes, and drumming. Hiva Oa’s Fete this year was relatively subdued and curtailed - downplayed because they were saving all their resources to host the special all-Polynesia festival that takes place every 4 years later in December.
But a traditional dance performance was scheduled for one night and one night only - July 10. We planned to attend but had to cancel since Linda didn’t feel well. By now you should know Linda is passionate about sweet pamplemousse, grapefruit 3 or 4 times the size of those grown in the U.S. And that’s how we found out firsthand that the locals prescribe eating an entire one of these large grapefruits if you need a laxative. Bad timing indeed!
Disappointed that we had missed the dance, Linda mentioned this to the teenager who was working in the gas station store when she went in to buy a baguette the next morning. He informed her that in two more days, on Monday, there would be some dancing at “Miss Maman”.
"What is “Miss Maman?” she asked.
“It’s a beauty contest for old women,” he explained.
“Really? Like how old? Old women like me?” she asked.
“Oh no,” he replied, “not that old.”
He never noticed how deflated she was..........but that’s how we came to see some dancing after all.
On Monday evening we assembled with the crowd in the recreation building by the soccer field. Under the awful yellow cast of the cavernous building’s ceiling lights, we watched the dancers and the drummers as a prelude to the contest. “Maman” translates to “mama” and there were five very hefty gals in their 30’s vying for the title....maybe this is where the slang term “broads” comes from.
There was definitely not going to be a bathing suit event in this contest. But each woman strutted her stuff in a traditional outfit, street clothing, and a dressier evening outfit. They answered questions from an emcee which we didn’t understand at all but had the crowd laughing and clapping. Our pick for Miss Maman didn’t win but according to our vivacious French cruiser friend, Daniel, who happened to be hand picked as an honored judge, she was a close second.
The very next day was July 14 - Bastille Day - a big deal in all French overseas territories. The festivities began in town with the raising of “the colors” by a complement of tattooed Marquesan Navy men in their camouflage fatigues, attended by the tall thin very white French naval commander, made paler by his dress whites (complete with legionnaire hat) who towered over the mayor, a short round brown Polynesian man wearing a black suit coat. He looked like Jack Sprat next to Tweedledum. Both were decked out in their medals and looked as official as could be.
The truncated “parade” composed of the fire brigade, surf club, horseback riders in ancestral dress, and Navy led the onlookers (including the dancers and drummers from the previous evening and Miss Maman) to the soccer field where the traditional dancing began. Scary men, sensuous women, and a few children in training performed for the large audience. Afterwards, the crowd flocked to a giant display of free baked goods (mostly corn bread) under a gay orange and white striped tent where free drinks - soda and Hinano beer - were also given out. The hot sunny afternoon, made bearable by the cool breeze from the nearby sea, continued with games such as tug of war and sack races for both children and adults. The winners got to collect a small cash reward.
On the beach, the surf club had commandeered the waves. We left as most people reclined in the shade along the outskirts of the eating area and a band began to play music in a nearby building attracting couples who filed in to do the Marquesan waltz. The day was a very interesting melding of French and Marquesan cultures to observe.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #78