Story and photos by Bo Zaunders
A Polynesian Odyssey
Voyage to the Marquesas Islands
Hiva Oa. I still shudder at the memory of what might have happened this morning. Whaleboats brought us ashore, to the village of Puamau. From there we continued on foot or by jeep to Meae Lipona, the most famous archaeological site in the Marquesas. Standing under huge breadfruit trees, admiring various tikis – especially the 8-foot tall Takaii, the biggest chief/warrior of them all – we registered a darkening of the sky, a slight increase of wind. Suddenly, it was all over us: a torrential downpour. Never mind about getting soaked to the bone. It was my Nikon that I was worried about. My kingdom for a plastic container! I crammed my equipment into the camera bag, and, with Roxie’s help, put brochures and both our hats on top. Pathetically, we then hunched over it to provide some extra protection.
The rain stopped as quickly as it begun. Camera equipment undamaged, we left the site with a sense of great relief. Back on the ship, in a book borrowed from the ship’s library, I found a footnote on Meae Lipona. It seems that, in the 19th century, this was the property of Rev. James Kakela, a Protestant missionary, who once rescued an American whaler whom the Marquesans were preparing to roast in an earth oven. His bravery was rewarded. Years later, President Abraham Lincoln presented the cleric with a gold watch.
Atuona, Hiva Oa. This is the town where the French artist Paul Gauguin spent his final years. His gravesite is on a hill overlooking Atuona, and nearby is the final resting place of the Belgian singer Jacques Brel, who, like Gauguin came to these islands in search of a South Sea paradise. The cemetery was first on our agenda; next came a trip to town with a stop at Paul Gauguin’s Cultural Center, followed by a visit to Jacques Brel’s Center.
The center commemorating Gauguin was quite large and included several buildings, among them a replica of the famous – or infamous – Maison du Joir, House of Pleasure, in which the artist, increasingly at odds with the authorities, lived out his last days in hedonistic abandon. Above the entry, he’d placed wooden panels with the inscription, “Be mysterious. Be in love, and you’ll be happy.” Before serving a 3-month prison term, imposed by the church and the government, he died of syphilis, his body weakened by alcohol. He was 54 years old.
Songs from old recordings greeted us at the Jacques Brel’s Center, and from the ceiling of its big hall dangled the singer’s restored airplane Jojo, a Beechcraft D-50.
Fatu Hiva. As Paul Gauguin is affiliated with Hiva Oa, so the Norwegian archaeologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl is associated with Fatu Hiva. He and his 20-year old bride Liv came here for their honeymoon in 1937 to escape from civilization and, to quote Heyerdahl, “Go back to the forests. Abandon modern times… Leap thousands of years into the past.” “We were never to see a more beautiful composition of natural scenery,” he wrote when describing the island, and it’s easy to see why. Fatu Hiva is the most remote of the Marquesas, and incredibly lush.
In one of its villages, we watched as a woman hammered the bark of a banyan tree on a log, shaping it into a tapa cloth, later to be decorated with ancient Marquesan designs. Two other demonstrations followed: Umu hei, the making of a fragrant bouquet of flowers rumored to be an aphrodisiac, and monoi, Marquesan-style coconut oil.
Tahuata & Ua Huka. Tahuata is one of the smaller islands, with fewer than 700 inhabitants. It is Sunday morning and two churches, one Protestant and one Catholic, are holding services in the village of Vaitahu. In Polynesian fashion, the doors are kept open. At least 150 worshipers have gathered in the Catholic Church, which has an elaborately carved wooden pulpit and beautiful stained glass windows. The Protestant church is an unadorned wooden hut with three or four patrons.
In the late afternoon as we headed for Ua Huka, the smallest of the islands, the engines suddenly stopped. From the reception came an announcement: manta rays sighted - to see them, proceed to the bow of the ship! Many did, pressing up against the bulkhead for a closer look at these spectacular sea creatures, some of which must have been 25 feet across - and shining white as they turned themselves upside down. Julia and Manuel, a German couple we had befriended, were ecstatic. “This is what I came half around the world hoping to see,” exclaimed Manuel, bursting with joy. Meanwhile, as the ship lay anchored some crewmembers, lined up with fishing rods along the sides of the ship, caught exotic, colorful little fish, which they would put in a freezer and take back home to their families.
Ua Huka and Polynesian Night. A busy day, with visits to a Botanical Garden, a museum, a handicraft center, and bumpy jeep rides to various villages. One of the highlights came at the end of the day in Hane, where we watched with fascination as the brawny crew, knee-deep in water, carried sacks of copra (dried coconut meat) into the whaleboats for further delivery to Tahiti. Because of rough waters, the crew then grabbed the lady passengers in their arms and tenderly placed them in the boats as well. There were squeals of delight. “Gentle giants,” these men have been called, and one could see why.
The area around Aranui’s swimming pool was decked out with flowers, and tables had been set up for a buffet dinner. Tonight was Polynesian Night, a celebration for crew and passengers alike, as the cruise drew to an end. Rum punsch flowed freely, many were dressed up in their best Polynesian garb, speeches were made, then it was time for contributions by the French, the Aussies and the Americans. The Aussies sang “Waltzing Matilda,” the Americans responded with “I’ve been working on the railroad,” and a Frenchman sang a love song to his wife, celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. The crew ended the show with a fiery Polynesian war dance, with husky shouts of “Hi, Ho, and Ha.”
Back to Tahiti. The cruise still had a few days to go. Before heading back, we revisited Nuka Hiva and Ua Pou, after which came a day at sea, and a stop at Rangiroa, the largest atoll in the Tuamoto archipelago. One day, Dr. Georges – who had kept warning us about the no nos – gave a lecture on, of all things, pleasure!
Titled “The Case for Pleasure,” it was based on rather extensive medical research, and made a wonderful case for having a good time eating and drinking and, generally enjoying life. With diagrams and pictures, Dr George showed how, when you eat a good meal, your immune system becomes more effective, how a good view from a hospital room can contribute to your recovery, how chocolate thwarts Prozac, and wine beats Valium. The lecture was most enjoyable, and quite convincing. Not only were we having a wonderful time in the South Pacific, our health was improving.
Of course, in the case of Paul Gauguin, pleasure appears to have backfired.
General information: The Marquesas Islands are a group of twelve volcanic islands in French Polynesia, six of which are inhabited. They’re located some 500 miles south of the equator and approximately 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti. The climate is subtropical; the population between 8 and 9,000. First discovered by the Spanish in 1595, the Marquesas became an territory of France in 1843.
How to get there: Although it is possible to get to the largest island, Nuku Hiva, on regularly scheduled flights by AIR TAHITI, the recommended way to see the Marquesas is by Aranui, a cargo/cruise ship. Fifteen times a year, it brings cargo from Papeete, Tahiti, to all the inhabited islands, and accomodates up to 200 passengers.
Numbers and websites:
AIR TAHITI NUI
(Inter Island air service is also provided by Air Moorea, Air Archipels, and Polynesia Helicpteres.)
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