The Marquesas Islands
30 September 2008 | French Polynesia
The passage from the Galapagos to the Marquesas was long, but surprisingly pleasant. It took three weeks, but we didn't touch the sails for days on end. We read books, did boat projects, and cleaned flying fish and flying squid off the deck by the dozens. We were actually sorry when the passage ended, it was that comfortable.
We again made landfall at night, and awoke to the islands the next morning.
The Marquesas are tall, craggy, and lush. Not unlike Hawaii. We wish that we had internet connection here, so that we could investigate whether they are about the same age. We also guess that there is a close linguistic connection between Hawaii and the Marquesas. (You say "Aloha," I say "Kaoha.") The biggest difference, quite random in so many ways, is that the influence in the Marquesas is French, as compared to the U.S. and other anglo- influences in Hawaii. So here, you are more likely to find French baguettes than you are McDonalds. And French Marines in camouflage hot pants and sleeveless tops, set off against black boots and black socks (we tried not to giggle), as compared to the more regularly outfitted U.S. marines. The French are probably more comfortable, even if no right-minded warrior would be caught dead looking like GI Joe after the Village People took a scissors to his outfit.
We've now been in the Marquesas for just over two weeks, and are departing today.
We're leaving too soon.
We've written before, such as after our visit to St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, that it takes time to soak a place up, to see underneath the veneer of tourist-land and get to know folks. We haven't been able to do that so much here. Even at St. John, where we stayed for a month, we had just scratched the surface. Here, sadly, we've only stayed long enough to recognize the surface for what it is.
For example, yesterday, Sunday, we took a rather rough dinghy ride a mile and a half up the coast to visit Vaitahu. A one-road village, it sits along the water, showing to those who enter by sea some anchored fishing boats, a tiny grocery, some small homes, and an oversized Catholic church. We'd been to Vaitahu the day before. We accompanied Fred, a cruiser on another boat, while he had a giant manta ray tattooed onto his left foot. We met a local school teacher on the road, and he told us about the village and its history. He urged us to come back the next day. "The freighter comes with supplies, but also with about 150 or so tourists. There's a Mass in the morning, some singing afterwards, the museum is open, and the local artisans show their stuff. C'est un bon temps." (Don't be fooled by my various quotes of the French language in this blog; my French is exceptionally poor, and I must hunt and peck to express myself. Sima, on the other hand, babbles away, fooling some that she is a native.)
So back we came early the next morning. The 120-foot cruise ship/supply freighter was there, in the process of dispatching visitors in an inflatable launch. Once ashore, they tripled the village's population. Sure enough, after morning services, a group of three musicians stood on the church steps and played traditional songs. Two of them. The visitors from the cruise boat lined up in a phalanx of raised cameras, a bit like the press at a Senate hearing. Snappity snap snap; clickity click click; whirrrrr, went the cameras. Then they walked around the village for another hour, hustled back to the launch, and by 10:30 a.m. were steaming away to their next town. They were really nice people, and we spoke to one, who told us that the cost for room on the freighter goes for something like $6K a week. They see, on average, an island or two each day.
Seeing the town before the cruise boat visitors came, what it was like when they were there, and what it was like after they left, made us aware of the veneer we speak about.
But are we so different? We have cameras too, and were snapping some of the same photos.
After the last of the cruise boat launches departed, however, we were able to laze around the village. We passed by a family having a Sunday meal on their porch, and they invited us to join them. We politely declined, telling them we were going hiking. They provided us with a water bottle, and showed us where we could collect water from a local spring.
We began a four hour hike through the island's steep, craggy hills, back to Hapatoni, the village near which Leander is anchored. It began to rain, and a boy on a bicycle joined us under an overhang as we sought shelter. His name was Jean Charles. He wouldn't smile at our jokes (probably Paul's poor French!), but he was very nice. As we started to walk out of town, he joined us on his bike for a bit.
We stopped again underneath a pamplemousse tree, which, we think, bears the most delicious fruit in the world. Could we pick some? Jean Charles would ask the owner. He rode 30 yards down the street, popped into a house, rode back, and said, "Sure." We stuffed our backpacks full.
We walked another twenty yards, and an old fellow sat on his back porch, down a long, dirt drive. We waved. He waved back. So we walked down the drive. We struck up a conversation. He laughed easily. We didn't notice at first the red wine stains on the front of his t-shirt, or the box of Chilean merlot tucked beneath his chair. His son, Wilfred, stepped out of the house, wearing a Los Angeles Lakers game jersey. We told him the error of his ways. He laughed too.
Did we want some mangoes? Uhm, yup.
From under the eaves of the small house, he grabbed a long stick, at the end of which was a hook and a small canvas bag. Sima took it, and began swinging at the tree. Seeing his opportunity, the old man put down the box of wine, popped up, and took over. Plop plop plop, came the mangoes. Wilfred came back out of the house with a plastic shopping bag for Sima to use. It filled quickly, but the old man wouldn't stop. It overflowed.
Wilfred, could we have your address? These mangoes are such nice gifts. We'll send you a shirt from a basketball team from the other coast of the U.S. Wilfred disappeared back into the house, and returned with a post card. His address was only partially filled in. Did we have a pen? Sure. Wilfred returned the card. The first half was written in crayon.
We continued on, or, in truth, started our walk. We'd not yet left Vaitahu, all 200 yards and 40 houses of it. Hmmm, maybe not a smart idea to load up on many pounds of oversized fruit at the start of the hike! But we're game.
Just past the outskirts of town, we pass the local soccer pitch. It is bright green and beautiful, cut into of the side of a hill, and protrudes out into the sea, where a retaining wall holds up the outer 25 yards of the field. Today, there is a stiff offshore wind. If it's like this when they're playing, errant shots to leeward would easily float 50 yards into the water. I'll bet that a kayaker roams the waterfront on game days, a catcher in the surf.
The road climbs quickly and steeply. We see birds. First white, almost translucent ones that float high above the coconut trees. We had seen them from the boat. They almost seem to be glowing. Then a bird with a bright blue underbelly zips by, too fast for us to get a good look. Nor can we identify the big, bright yellow bird with black streaks that alights nearby. Or the flat-black bird with the long, curved beak that hides in the bushes as we pass, hoping not to be noticed.
We hear goats crashing through the growth on a ledge high above us, as the road (now just dirt and rocks, with tall grass growing down the middle) switches back. We had seen them earlier, on the dinghy ride over, grazing impossibly high on steep ledges.
We pass by a deep gorge. We stray off the road, and see that the gorge is surrounded by the ruins of ancient dwellings, now heavily overgrown. We pause to walk among them. We think that it would not be surprising if we were the first to visit this particular spot in years. We linger, and walk among the ruins of the old village. The stone ruins of dozens of terraced houses litter the hillside, remnants of Marquesan homes before Captain Cook, before the French, before, even, the west discovered these islands and gave them the ill-fitting moniker "Marquesas." (Named, after the "discovery" of the islands by a Spaniard, to honor the wife of his sponsor. Talk about random. But no more random than the nearby "Sandwich," "Cook," or "Society" Islands. Or, for that matter, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and St. John. I suppose we didn't even have to stray too far from Boston, where English derived Gloucester, Lynn, and Revere squat nearby towns with indigenous names like Nahant, Swampscott, and Saugus.
As we walk among the dwellings, we see some large, flat stones that make up part of the foundation, which have two or more tennis-ball sized depressions, one slightly larger than the other. We had seen in the museum some tools for grinding food, and suppose that these are the receptacles in which the grinding took place. More internet access needed! When we tell another boater of our find, she says that these holes were for mixing tattoo dyes. At almost every home? We also hear that they are for burning oils that light the home. On the floor? At the edge of the foundation, where the wood and leaf walls would have been? Food grinding seems more plausible. We see another stone with deep grooves cut into it, which we read was for sharpening adzes, or hand axes.
The village is mystical and magical, allowing us to imagine what life may have been like not so long ago.
On we go with the hike. The rain returns, hard. But it is warm and not unpleasant. The "road" turns into a torrent of rushing water. We see a bluff above the road, and climb up. It's topped with a huge, white, Christian cross. Having just left the ruins of the ancient village, with the the brooding spirit of the Tiki and other ancient deities almost palpable, it feels as out of position as the Old World place names. You can't blame the old deities for brooding a little unhappily over the ancient villages. The missionaries came in Cook's footsteps, and convinced the locals to abandon their dwellings, destroy centuries-old monuments, and move to the coast. Add to this the deaths of 98% of the population that the missionaries and other westerners caused through the import of small pox and other diseases, and the export of natives for slave labor, and the connections with Polynesian history and culture was, for all intents and purposes, severed. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the missionaries who came here hailed mostly from France, a country that, as a whole, has become more secular over time. Many of the Polynesians, on the other hand, are feverishly devout. More irony? Westerners come here to have ancient symbols tattooed on their arms. The locals do too, but we also seen giant crucifixes covering entire torsos. The local tattoo artist, asked which of the many ancient totems now covering Fred's foot would provide him protection, paused from his work, gazed out the window at the heavens, and said, "Only He can protect you." Come down where you wish on the good or bad of these western influences, but it would be a shame if, for example, the giant stone figures on Easter Island had been replaced with a field of white crosses.
We take out our lunch atop the bluff -- a banana croissant and a ham and cheese pastry pie purchased out of the back of a car near the church in Vaitahu, followed by some cheese and crackers. It is good food. And because we are famished from all the hiking, it becomes scrumptious.
From our vantage, one can see many miles out into the Pacific, which looks endless and, in the rain, somewhat foreboding.
We hike on, and come to a pig balanced on a wooded slope that extends from the side of the road. She's too fat to hide completely in the trees. Three little piglets, which had been hidden, come running out to see us. But they scurry back to mom after they've closed half the distance, apparently their hunger-driven curiosity losing a see-saw battle with their timidity. When we break out the remaining cheese and crackers, the sea-saw begins to tip, and the piglets close the gap again. Soon, they are feeding at our feet.
We look up and realize that mom can't come closer, as she is tied to a stake by her back leg. But she is pulling with all her might to come toward us (No see-saw with her!) We throw her some cheese. Oink oink oink. One lands too short. She pulls at the stake, back leg protruding, looking like she'll pull it out of the socket. OINK OINK OINK! We move the cheese to within snout-shot, and and she gobbles it up.
We leave. The piglets follow, until we turn the corner up a big hill, and then they are gone.
We go through a pass, and see our bay, and Leander, below. Finally! Dozens of dolphins are swimming around the boat, as they have been for the last several days. When we return, we'll see some of them doing spins in the air and smacking down hard onto the water. To scare up fish to eat? To show off to potential mates? We continue walking on to Hapatoni, another two miles or so through the hills, our fruit-laden packs feeling heavier by the step. These mangoes better be good!
We arrive in Hapatoni, four hours after our start. The tourist boat, which had come to visit here after leaving Vaitahu, is already pulling out of the harbor.
As we approach the small dock, ten or so children stop playing jump rope (with a discarded plastic strap used to load freight), and edge toward us. Waving at the departing freighter/tour boat, one, with a quizzical look shared by them all, advises, "Hey, madame et monsieur, you missed your boat!"
"No, no. We have our own boat. See? The white one, over there."
"Oh, OK." And then another asks, "Hey, do you want to come swimming with us?"
Paul goes in, following a handful of them down a slippery boat ramp. "Attention, monsieur! It is very slippery. Here, hold on to the railing. Like this - see?!" Paul ignores them, and, arms outstretched, slides down the slippery boat ramp like a surfer. The kids howl, and the games have begun. Sima joins in. A stone skipping contest, followed by teaching the locals how to snap small stones like bottle caps, then pulling them around in the dinghy.
One of the children, Henri, is hilarious and adorable. He's about seven, a little stocky, and itching to please. "Monsiuer, would you like to see me dive?" You bet. He does. "Autre fois" Sure, do it again. Further and further down the dock each time. Except he's not such a great swimmer, and seems a bit too tired in the midst of his return from a big dive off the end of the dock. Paul gives him a lift back in, and he smiles, after he has caught his breath, and dives deep like a porpoise. Was he playing possum?
We get out of the water. Our fellow cruiser, Fred, comes by, sporting his new tattoo. It'll be several days before it becomes infected, and so he is still playing freely, at one point sliding down the ramp just like Paul did, albeit not on purpose. At 6' 7", 240 pounds, he makes a good rope swinger, but is not so good at jumping. The girls are gifted. But the game is temporarily interrupted when the rope smacks the face of a toddler, naked as a jay bird, who wants to play too, but doesn't quite understand the concept of the swinging rope. He begins to bawl, Sima takes him in her arms, and he quiets down nuzzling in Sima's embrace. Was he playing possum too?
The rope jumping ends. Paul and Sima, missionaries of a different sort, introduce yet another new game to the kids. They teach them how to play the hand-slapping game, where two players face each other, one palms up, the other palms down, with the palms-upper trying to slap the tops of the palms-downer before the hands can be pulled away. No doubt their teachers and parents will be thanking us tomorrow! The kids are all paired up, whacking and giggling, but mostly forming lines in front of Sima and Paul, so that they can get whacked repeatedly, grimace, giggle, and come back for more.
Alors! The children, who had been asking the time every five minutes or so, have let it slip. A father angrily calls from down the road. Some of the children scurry after him, and the rest follow suit. They ask if we'll be back again tomorrow. But after several days like this on these islands, unfortunately we won't be.
Fred dinghies us back to our boat. More marine life. We pass near a fleet of enormous, spotted rays, each twice as big as home plate, swimming in geometric formation. They dive under the inflatable as we approach.
Passing by another boat anchored nearby, we say hello to Florean and Alexandra, a French couple staying in the Marquesas for several months. They have been urging us to give up our plans to travel so far in such a short time, and hunker down in French Polynesia for a while. It's tempting.
We get back to the boat at dusk, watch the sunset, eat dinner, and collapse into bed.
We think back to the visitors we met from the cruise ship, and what they missed having visited these small villages for only a few hours. But we also reflect on Florean's comments to us, that we too miss quite a bit staying only for a few weeks. The Marquesans are the true residents here, though, and might think that Florean's visit is too brief as well.
But the final irony is that the Polynesians here are moving in the other direction, the young increasingly leaving these islands for the bright lights of nearby Tahiti or the financial opportunities of far-off France. Maybe Paradise isn't for everyone.