(posted by Matt)
I eagerly told friends and family that Jungin and I are going to the Marquesas. The usual reply was, “Where are the Marquesas again?”
The Marquesas Islands are the furthest island group in the world from any continent. The islands are about 1,900 miles south of Hawaii, which puts them 500 miles south of the equator and 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti. They really are in the middle of nowhere. Their latitude is similar to Lima Peru or Darwin, on the northern tip of Australia. The Marquesas Islands are the last chain of South Pacific islands that spread east all the way from Australia. When sailing east, island hopping though these South Pacific islands, it is the Marquesas that are the last stop before the open ocean to the Americas (as per Crosby, Stills, and Nash in their song Southern Cross). The nearest landmass is the southern tip of the Baja California, 3,000 miles to the northeast, or almost 600 miles farther than a direct route from Los Angeles to New York. South America is considerably further away.
The Marquesas are where, in 1841, a young Herman Melville jumped from his whaling ship to escape into the Nuka Hiva mountains to avoid capture and punishment from the whaling ship’s crew. Some weeks before jumping ship, Melville met Owen Chase’s son William on another whaling ship off South America. William told Melville the true story of a large sperm whale that had head-butted and sank his father’s 240‑ton whaling ship, the Essex, 21 years earlier.
“I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots, and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way, he came upon us, and again struck the ship.” —Owen Chase
The 17 survivors did not have much time to gather supplies from the sinking ship and were left with 3 whaling harpoon boats. The closest land was the Marquesas Islands. The easterly trade winds and current would have taken them there, but the crew, fearful of Marquesan cannibals, chose to spend months sailing to South America. That fatal decision turned the surviving crew themselves into cannibals. It is not clear why they didn’t bypass the Marquesas and sail the shorter distance downwind to the established missionary and whaling supply port in Tahiti. Only four of the crew were still alive when they were found floating in their small boats several months later off South America.
Herman Melville’s adventure on the Marquesan island of Nuka Hiva won him sudden fame with his first book ‘Typee’, where he fictionalized being held captive by fierce Typee cannibals, and then was attracted to a half-dressed native woman who escaped with him to western civilization. Ten years later using the public’s fascination with a mad sperm whale that sank the Essex whaling ship, Melville wrote the great American novel ‘Moby-Dick’, where in the beginning of the book Ishmael resigns to his lodging with friend Queequeg, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
Scottish writer Robert Stevenson, who wrote about buried pirate treasure in his book “Treasure Island”, stayed in the Marquesas in 1888. He was drawn there by the island’s primitive remoteness, and later wrote of his Marquesan experiences and impressions in his book “In The South Seas”.
The South Pacific is where French painter Paul Gauguin lived for several years, which prompted his depressed friend Van Gogh in France to cut off his ear. In 1901, Gauguin settled in with the Marquesan natives on Hiva Oa, making some of his colorful paintings of nude women and landscapes. Tahiti had become too common. The remote primitive Marquesas were more to his liking.
The Marquesas is where the professor of the Gilligan’s Island TV series determined that they were shipwrecked. A fictional, uncharted island so remote that they would be there some time before being found, it was best to settle in for a long stay with Mary Ann and the movie star.
There is a South Pacific night satellite photo that superimposes three years of lights from ship, aircraft traffic and city lights. The frequently traveled shipping lanes are bright, the less traveled lanes are dimmer. Tahiti and the heavily populated Polynesian islands to the southwest are a web of bright lines. The Marquesas are not only dark but surrounded by a vast open ocean of darkness. Even though a flight to the Marquesas from the United States mainland is shorter than a flight to most of the Polynesian islands, the Marquesas are less traveled, economically undeveloped, and socially remote.
Jungin and I originally planned on meeting up with Jim for the Marquesan Arts festival that is held every four years. Jim was in the Tuamotus Islands gathering Fakarava scuba diving instructors Nico and Marine to help sail north into the wind to the Marquesas. The blue water crossing could take one or two weeks, depending on headwinds and sea conditions. The goal was to get to Ua Pou a week before the small Hakahau harbor filled up with boats attending the festival. We planned to stay on Jim’s 40‑foot sailboat Akela while attending the festival. Nico offered to let us stay at a friend’s house in Hakahau, if the blue water crossing took too long to get a good protected spot in the Hakahau harbor. Staying in a house would be preferable to anchoring in an unprotected part of the harbor where the sailboat would be constantly pitching, making it difficult to get in and out of Akela’s small rowboat for the daily shuttle back and forth to shore (I’m no better with the dingy than Daewook).
The more Jim thought about it, staying at Nico’s friend’s house looked like an easy solution to the boat arrival problem. At the last minute, Jungin got cold feet about the Marquesas evolving logistical plans, compounded with approaching Christmas family activities. She insisted I go without her, which was typical in Akela sailing adventures where the wives stay home and let their men go off to have fun in potentially stormy rough seas. We would be together on the holidays and vacation later. Multiple projects were ending at the Solar Lab. This was a good time to take a break from work, so I flew from Tucson to Nuka Hiva, met Jim and was introduced to Nico, Marine, and her friend Donovan at the Taiohae pier.
Nico began scuba diving in Reunion, where he was born and raised. Reunion is a French territory in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, Africa. Look down below your feet. That is where Reunion is. If you dug a hole straight down from Tucson through center of the earth and continued to the other side of the world, you don’t end up in China, but rather you pop out near the east coast of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. There is no next‑day Amazon delivery to Reunion. Interestingly, an aircraft flight to Reunion from Tucson could leave on any heading, north, south, east, or west and still arrive at Reunion in about the same amount of time. That means a Fort Huachuca pilot operating a Global Hawk long endurance drone over Arizona, who accidentally loses control of the drone, simply has to phone someone in Reunion to be on the lookout for the drone headed there.
Marine, who is also a scuba dive instructor working on Fakarava dive boats, is from France. She is petite, refined, adventurous, and has a bright sunny presence.
Two years ago, I joined Jim, his son Max, and friend Tony for a month sailing starting from here in the tall Marquesas volcanic islands then making a blue water crossing to the flat Tuamotus coral atolls to the south. This small Nuka Hiva town is how I remember it. I go with Jim to a market to get fresh baguettes and stop by the post office to send a post card to Roger Angel’s wife Ellinor 2nd grade class. She is always thinking of fun learning activities for the children and asked me to send them a post card.
Today, all the activity is on the Taiohae boat pier where they serve cool glasses of freshly squeezed pamplemousse. The pamplemousse citrus that prolifically grows here is similar to a sweeter thinner-skinned pomelo or oroblanco. Pamplemousse is the French word for citrus grapefruit yet this Marquesan citrus is nothing like we find in the Tucson markets. It does not have the acid or tartness of the common grapefruit and it has just the right amount of sweetness. Just like certain soils and climate in France make great wines perhaps Marquesan climate and volcanic soil are just right to make a great tasting citrus. Two years ago, when we discovered how well the pamplemousse juice tasted with spiced rum it became the pinnacle choice of drinks, causing the pamplemousse fruit to overflow in Akela’s galley food hammocks, crammed into every available boat storage space. The juice was cherished and held for only special occasions, which turned out to be every day. Time was counted and centered around when we had the drinks. When we consumed all the pamplemousse it was if we had reached the end of the Mayan calendar, chaos and confusion. What is the use to drink any more rum? We explored the Tuamotus coral atolls looking for more pamplemousse trees. All we found was lots of coconuts, no pamplemousse. That was the memory 2 years ago. Now this refreshing pamplemousse juice served cool in a glass on this pier is the first in a long time and it is gooood.
Going to Ua Pou Island
Nuka Hiva has a larger airstrip than Ua Pou, and so can handle up to an 80‑passenger turboprop airplane. Ua Pou’s shorter airstrip can only handle considerably smaller aircraft and requires landing in a dangerous box canyon. All people flying in for the festival flew to Nuka Hiva. This put the local ferry boat working overtime to get everyone to Ua Pou island for the festival. Our ferry boat had mechanical problems on its way to Nuka Hiva, so it turned back to Ua Pou for repairs. When a smaller local fishing boat agreed to take on passengers, there was a chaotic crowd that ran to the dock and quickly overfilled the boat to standing room only. I doubt there was anyone counting life preservers. Marine was unable to buy a ferry boat ticket and was worried. Jim started mulling over the logistics of getting a late start sailing all of us to Ua Pou on Akela, sailing back to Nuka Hiva then catching a ferry to Ua Pou the next day. Just when Jim made up his mind to sail Akela, the ferry radioed that the mechanical repair was completed and was now motoring to Nuka Hiva. Marine was now able to buy a ferry ticket. There was a large crowd gathered on the pier, more than the ferry could carry. Some of us would not be able to get on.
The ferry arrives and a woman standing next to the ferry luggage loading area starts shouting out names of whose luggage is to be loaded onto the ferry. She is immediately surrounded by people pushing to get closer. She is speaking French with a heavy Marquesan accent. With the loud sound of the ferry diesel engine and the shouting crowd in front of me, I was not sure I would understand her pronunciation of my last name, Rademacher.
Just then Nico calls Jim and me over to the front of the ferry, away from the crowd. Nico is standing on the ferry with a ferry crew member and signals us to throw our duffel bags onto the boat. No names are given. We are with Nico. Marine, Donovan, Nico, Jim and I made it onto the boat with our luggage. We are the first ones on the boat. It became immediately clear that Nico has this friendly, gregarious charm that opens doors with the ferry boat crew and anyone else he meets. The crew does not overfill the boat, leaving a large crowd on the pier to wait for the ferry boat to return in the evening.
The ferry is clean and well painted. Safety equipment in good order. Captain and crew appear alert, competent. Ferry seems relatively new. After exploring the boat and given a tour of the hot engine room I go up to the air‑conditioned bridge to look at the navigational computer screens. Today the weather is mostly clear. Pointing the boat where to go is easy with Ua Pou tall mountains clearly visible in front of us 30 miles away, yet the navigation screen shows the ferry on a zig zag path as the pilot steers around waves that adversely slam and pitch the boat.
I join Jim sitting in the back of the boat, enjoying the fresh air. Sea water occasionally sprays into our faces. Most of the ferry passengers are Marquesan, but some are French. Jim and I are the only people speaking English. I see flying fish skim along in the air on top of the ferry’s wake, gathering of sea birds marking a fish boil, gray speckled dolphins surfing the boat’s wake. There are no other boats in this mildly rough water as far as I can see.
As we approach Ua Pou, the tall volcanic pointed spires come into view. On my last trip here two years ago, the spires appeared mysterious constantly hidden in the clouds. They were only briefly exposed when there was a break in the clouds, yet they were still darkened by a thick mist hiding their detail. Today, although occasionally hidden by clouds, the air is clearer. I can see the spires in vivid detail for the first time. Maybe the ferry is now crossing over the tip of one of these tall spires hidden in the deep channel below us. The Ua Pou majestic volcanic spires conjure images of a Hollywood King Kong film. Filming here would provide the mysterious lost world setting.
As we enter the Hakahau Bay, we cannot believe our luck as Nico proudly points to his friend’s waterfront house where we will be staying. As Jim expected, the good sailboat anchorages are all taken. We are excited to come back to this town.
Dozens of ice chests are unloaded from the boat. A smoke‑blackened set of barbeques made from oil drums are lifted from the boat onto the dock. Ukuleles and wooden carved drums are unloaded. Our luggage was deep in the boat’s hold. Being first on the boat means we are last off the boat. After having thousand pounds of barbeques and ice chests loaded on top of my duffle, I cringed as it is pulled up from the hold. I have large glass bottles of alcohol in my duffle. To my relief, the duffle came out of the hold intact No alcohol-soaked clothes sprinkled with glass chards.
We arrive at Rendel and Meree’s house, where Nico has arranged for us to stay. The house is directly on the bay, about 60 feet above the surf on the side of a hill. Mature tropical trees shade their yard. The humble small house consists of two rooms and a corrugated sheet metal roofed patio that looks over the bay. The kitchen is in the open covered patio along with the dining area. The toilet, shower, and laundry enclosure are a separate structure 50 feet from the house.
Rendel and Meree have three children, one teenage girl and two young boys, and Meree’s mother living in the house, all of whom adore Nico and run in excitement to greet him. There is an outdoor table surrounded by chairs, benches, flowers, a grass lawn, and shaded by a large tree. The table enjoys fresh ocean breeze and has commanding view, making it a natural focal point for family and friends. The large tree next to the table supports a collection of surfboards, salt corroded mountain bikes, and fishing poles. Below, next to the open surf, is a fire pit for the occasional outdoor cookout. There are a few chairs under a small spindly tree on a flat area next to the surf. Rendel sometimes sits there with his children with his fishing pole catching fish. Other times it is a nice place to just sit and relax listening to the crashing ocean waves while watching the small fish swimming at the rock edge.
Across the bay, local people are pole fishing from the end of a long jetty that protects the boat pier from storm waves. The Marquesas volcanic islands do not have coral lagoons as do their neighboring French Polynesian islands to the south. The end of the jetty gives fishermen easy casting access to deep-sea fish such as tuna. There is no shallow water around the island. Nico explains there are some hidden shallow coves here that have coral, but the scuba diving here is exploring the magnificent steep drop off walls that are alive with big pelagic fish.
Stretched out in front of us, perpendicular to the shore, are a set of waves breaking onto the sand beach to the right. There is one group of local children surfing on short surf boards and another group surfing the same waves with colorful outrigger canoes. The youngsters in the canoes paddle amazingly fast. Their canoes are long and narrow, hydrodynamically efficient to effortlessly slip through the waves. The narrow float outrigger is set parallel to one side of the canoe. It provides the narrow main hull stability in the ocean waves. The outrigger canoes are light and easy for a child to carry on the beach yet strong enough to hold together in rough seas.
Seemingly in a blink of an eye, the canoes are beyond the bay jetty and surfing the large ocean swells off in the distance. Their brightly colored canoes briefly appear when they crest over the top of the large swells. Across the bay, on the beach, there is a canoe school with a large fleet of outrigger canoes hanging on racks. The local children learn canoeing skills early. Paddling daily to build strength for sports competition.
The outrigger canoe was the first open sea going vessel. Traveling amazing distances before the Europeans stopped hugging the coast in larger single hull ships. There is a long history Marquesan exploratory expeditions. The first Hawaiians were probably Marquesan or Tahitian.
We do some exploring of the small town of Hakahau. The festival brings in a lot of visitors that need to be fed. Outdoor grills and palm‑thatched, shaded eating areas are set up in residential front yards near the festival grounds. In Tucson, we are used to the smoke smell of mesquite, pine, or oak for outdoor wood fire cooking. Cooking here is either done with propane or by burning tropical woods. Burning breadfruit, mango, banyan tree wood has a unique root beer sassafras smell that dominates the Hakahau valley. Some of the food is slowly cooked in a buried pit of hot basalt rocks. Breadfruit, rice with grilled pork, chicken, or raw tuna served in coconut milk is served in these festival front yard temporary kitchens.
There are four main concrete paved roads extending from the bay up the Hakakau valley that also serve as rain drains to prevent storm flooding. Along the road edge is an open deep drain about a foot wide and 2.5 feet deep. Parking a car on the side of the road is tricky. If one wheel goes into the drain, it would render the car useless. Accidently stepping into the drain while walking could sprain an ankle, or worse. The concrete drains look very old and weathered, giving a feel of walking in an ancient Roman outpost.
The residential houses have fences but they are not necessarily placed to establish property lines. One houses yard blends into the neighboring yard. People’s front yards are simple, clean, flowered with tropical flowers such as hibiscus and fragrant gardenia, and shaded with large mature fruit bearing trees. The most common front yard tree is breadfruit. Cooked breadfruit is similar to a starchy potato but with better flavor. The fruit hangs from the tree and is about the size of a pineapple. The wood and bark from this tree have many uses. There are whole books just on this one fantastic tree. Other common front yard trees are mango, noni, banana, all types of citrus, guava, papaya, and star fruit, along with various nut trees.
Coconut palms are everywhere. We are warned that a heavy coconut can fall from a tree at any moment without warning. Having a coconut hit you on the head could be fatal. The locals say not to worry, that it only happens to bad people.
It is hot in the tropics. People gather and sit in the shade outside of their houses where there is a breeze. Except for the government buildings, few houses are air conditioned. Government buildings are the best painted and populated with smartly dressed professional‑looking locals. Private business proprietors are more relaxed in their attire and grooming.
There is local and international cell phone service, but limited internet service. Even though there is a well‑maintained diesel powered 2MW electric generator near the harbor pier, the town is relatively dark at night with few streetlights. On a cloudless night, the stars are easily seen. A ship comes once a month to deliver diesel fuel for the town electric generator. The town water is of good drinking quality. Rainwater, filtered through the porous volcanic rock above the town, has a good refreshing taste, yet water storage is minimal. During the dry months, water conservation practice requires that the town water lines be pressurized for only three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. Water to homes is unmetered. Peer pressure keeps individuals from wasting water. Homes and businesses use septic tanks with underground leach lines.
The town and the island are free of discarded trash and waste. This is not because the conscientious Ua Pou people cleaned up their town for the festival, because this is how I remembered the town when I visited two years ago when there wasn’t a festival. Marquesan consumerism is limited with no drive through fast food, grocery store plastic wrappings to discard. Alcohol is crazy expensive. Limiting the consumption of beer and discarded cans. Even with reduced trash sources the culture here is to maintain a tidy community and home. There is no graffiti or pasted advertisements. Restaurants, bakeries, groceries, or hardware stores do not require signs when all the customers and shop owners know each other. The building signs are not needed to attract customers as they speed by in their cars. Everyone walks.
There is some gasoline‑powered vehicles, mostly Toyota 4×4 pickups. There is only one gas station in town, which makes more money selling groceries than selling gasoline. Buying gas for your car or truck involves driving into a narrow driveway next to an above ground fuel tank supported on a 6‑ft tall stand. The gas is not pumped but gravity fed into your vehicle. You read the fuel hose meter then walk into the market and tell the cashier how much gas you took. You then back out of the narrow driveway in reverse to get back on the road.
We walk past a prominent well pampered Catholic church we remembered visiting on our last visit. It has an awesome wood pulpit carved out of a single massive tree trunk. The large Holy Water Fonts (bowls) at the doors are real clam shells. Ninety percent of Marquesas are Roman Catholic. Church pews are usually filled shoulder to shoulder every week. Christmas and Easter masses are a cultural blend of Catholic and Marquesan rituals of singing and dancing. Some of the local festival participants are hard core believers in the ancient Marquesan deities, yet the majority of the dancing participants are practicing Catholics who also proudly maintain their Marquesan heritage.
Unlike the traditional Catholics back home, the Catholics here are tolerant of premarital sex and the use of contraceptives. In the market is a basket of free contraceptives below a poster of a woman handing her partner a condom. The contraceptives are provided by a French health agency to prevent spread of disease and reduce teenage pregnancy. Nico commented that in a festival like this, he can have four women per evening. With Nico that could mean sleeping with four women simultaneously.
French Polynesia spans thousands of islands that do not share a common native language. French and Tahitian are a common language that most islanders understand. The Marquesan language is very similar to Hawaiian and dissimilar to Tahitian. Each of the Marquesan Islands share a similar language, but some Marquesan islands use different words and accents.
In 1795, the Hawaiian Islands were united by King Kamehameha, yet the Marquesan Islands have never been united by any island chief. Historically, each Marquesan island had one tribe occupying a valley with a completely different tribe occupying the neighboring valley. Each valley tribe was usually at constant war with the neighboring valley tribe. Only here on Ua Pou Island, the Ati Papa tribal chief Teikitaiuao successful united all the Ua Pou Island warring tribes. For this reason, Ua Pou Island holds the special elevated status of the Marquesan royalty. This special status is recognized among the other Marquesan islands, because the only way a chief could unite his island warring tribes is if he were favored by the Marquesan gods.
Today, each Marquesan island tribe has unified into one functioning group of people ruled by modern laws and locally elected communal government under the economic support of the French federal territory. Each island is proudly independent and has its own tribe of dancers performing at the festival. Each island has its own unique style of costume, dance, singing, and chanting. Also attending was a Rapa Nui (Easter Island) group. Rapa Nui language and culture are more like Marquesan than other Polynesian island groups.
We hear loud drumming in the distance. People are gathering up the road and heading into the festival fairgrounds. We follow along with the crowd. Substantial work has been done to the fairgrounds since our last visit. A Polynesian‑style open air amphitheater, a large, shaded dance floor, and a market for handcrafted goods have been built around an open soccer field. The new construction was done by 2 dozen unskilled French military soldiers directed by Marquesan craftsmen. Along the edge of the soccer field are temporary wooden structures that were constructed locally. Each wooden structure has a Marquesan island name, where free food representative of that island will be served for the festival feast.
Jim has a collection of drums at his home that he and Max enjoyed playing over the years. Jim could not walk past a collection of enormous wood drums without admiring the finely detailed Polynesian art wood carving and examining the details of the mechanism that tightens the drum skin over the top of the drum. The larger and heavier drums require a team of men to lift and carry a single drum. The drums appear to have been made long ago and each drum is carved from a single piece of wood. The drummer must stand on top of a stool to position himself properly at the top of the drum. Jim enjoys seeing that the local youth are all over these drums, having the time of their lives making loud booming drumbeats.
Most of the people at the festival are native Marquesan. There are some French, but it is rare to find someone speaking English. Every French person I came across spoke English. Perhaps half the Marquesan I spoke to could speak some English. Most of the information I learned about Ua Pou was from a French Marquesan point of view.
The dancing will not start for a while, so we explore the busy fairgrounds. We came across the tiki stone carving contest. Tiki is the Marquesan god who copulated with a heap of sand to create the first man. Tiki is the god of sculptors, carvers, and tattoo artists. A carved tiki is often used to mark the boundaries of ritual sites. Large, refrigerator sized volcanic red tuff rock was frantically being formed with electric power tools. Clouds of red dust blanketed the area as teams of men worked on each rock simultaneously. A handheld cement cutter was used to cut a series of parallel thin slices perpendicular into the rock. A brick chisel was used to snap off each thin rock slice to rapidly remove large volumes of rock. Carbide grinding cups were used to smooth the sculpture into shape. One team from Rapa Nui was carving the Easter Island head (Moai). They were making the most progress, as if they professionally carved five heads a day. The large‑jawed Moai stone surface is smooth and easy to carve, where the Marquesan stone Tikis are more complex and have a lot of surface detail.
Next to the stone Tiki contest was the wood Tiki carving contest. Carving wood goes quicker, so fewer team members are required. These guys were amazingly fast. Thick layers of wood chips carpeted their work area. Not only did they made it look easy to carve a tiki, but they looked like they were having fun doing it. I started wondering if I should make a few for the back yard of my house. I find that Polynesian wood sculpture art style attractive.
Marquesan Traditional Tattoo
We move on to the Marquesan traditional tattoo conference area where fellow Marquesan tattoo artist gather to discuss the historical meaning of geometrical symbols, designs, traditional tattoo rituals and techniques. Many cultures have used tattoos. There are 5000-year-old Egyptian mummies with tattoos. The Marquesan culture is seeing a booming revival in this practice. Attractive Marquesan traditional tattoo geometric design patterns are now globally considered fashionable and commonly seen here in the United States.
There was such a large turnout of tattooist for the tattoo symposium it was moved to the amphitheater that could seat all the participants. In the covered dance floor area is a Marquesan traditional tattoo exhibit where an elderly man lies on his side while Aranui boat passengers photograph his grimacing face as two young Marquesan men use traditional tattoo tools to ink his body.
The traditional tattoo method looks straight forward. Burn tree nuts into a soot ash and mix with sterile coconut water to make black ink. Take a very sharp wood stick. Hit the end of the stick with another stick with enough force to puncture the skin. Make a series of holes in the person in the desired pattern. Wipe away the blood, then wipe and press with an ink-soaked rag to push the ink under the skin. Hope for the best the body immune system can fight off any infection.
This slow ‘stick and poke’ puncture process is very time consuming and prolongs the pain compared to today’s multi-needle rapid oscillating electric tattoo guns. Controlling a constant 1/16th inch puncture depth using a fat wood needle requires considerable skill compared to using a modern electric tattoo gun.
Ahitiri, talented tattooist that lives just down the street from Rendel and Meree, is a well known and has customers flying in from Tahiti. He uses an electric gun and follows modern clinical procedures to prevent infection. Out of all of the hundreds festival haka participants it was Ahitiri who was choosen by the Marquesan festival administration to be photographed on the promotional poster.
Nico proudly showed off a large tattoo that Ahitiri gave him on his last Ua Pou visit. It spreads across his back and left side. When we arrived in Hakahau one of Rendel’s friends took us to Ahitiri’s house so Jim could schedule getting his own Marquesan tattoo. His small house was down a long driveway hidden in trees. The front porch is a bryologists heaven with cultivated long strands of hanging ‘Grandpa’s Beard’ or Spanish Moss enclosing his front porch for privacy.
I think to myself the earthy humid atmosphere setting looks just right for a tattoo wound infection and sarcastically tell Jim, “This looks like a good place for a tattoo, don’t see any alligators or swamp snakes.” Actually, the place is fine. Just nervous I may end up with a tattoo that years from now I will regret. Being old fashioned, choosing a tattoo is not taken lightly, like marrying a woman you plan to live with all the way till your skin gets old and wrinkled. Nico passed around a pipe as a greeting gesture while the Ahitiri discussed his festival Haka dance group that he leads. Ahitiri agreed to schedule in Jim’s Marquesan tattoo.
Marquesan handcrafts, laid out on tables, were for sale in the same area of the covered dance floor area. Jim wanted to go native and purchase a brimmed hat made from woven palm fronds. To Jim’s dismay he discovered only high-quality woven straw hats for sale. A Nuka Hiva man wearing a crudely woven wide brim coconut palm hat takes it off his head and gives it to Jim as a gift. The hat is old and worn but it is just the rough laidback fashion Jim is looking for. Jim proudly displays his new crown signaling he has comfortably settled into the local relaxed island life.
The market had tables of tapa (pounded bark paper) with attractive traditional Marquesan symbols and geometric designs, plus bottled Marquesan tropical fruit jams, vanilla, and nut oils. There are tables of shells, beaded necklaces, and black pearls, and also many tables of wood carvings of warrior club weapons and other carved wood bric-a-brac.
There were a few tables with carved swordfish rostrums (swordfish pointed bill or sword shaped upper jaw). An intricately carved rostrum caught my eye, so I picked up the unusual carving and asked the woman behind the table how many francs. The woman replies that she carved it herself while not having sex. She then looks disapprovingly at the woman selling carvings next to her implying she had sex while carving. Being in a new and unfamiliar place, perhaps an unusual amount of sex going on here, I immediately go to that woman’s table, wondering how she could be having sex while at the same time having the controlled dexterity to carve these delicate intricate designs. Her carved lines were straight. No rhythmic jagged lines. Then I remembered my high school coach telling us to abstain from sex before the football game. The woman selling the rostrum was following the Marquesan traditional practice of abstaining from sex while focusing her energy on making a ceremonial object that would hold spiritual qualities.
I shamefully realize I’m a little disappointed that there aren’t any jagged detail carvings (lacking spiritual qualities) to purchase and go back to the woman selling shamanic crafts. Her carved rostrum price doesn’t fit my budget. Concerned if I haggle on price, she may curse me, allowing a coconut to fall on my head, I ask her to point out the less expensive items and what they are. She goes on explaining the supernatural power of each small item. “This one keeps birds from eating your food. This one gives your tree lots of coconuts. This one will keep your house roof from blowing off.”
I tell her to stop right there. Charms that protect your house? Now she is talking my language. I ask if she has something that makes the house repair itself, prevents the clothes washer from breaking, or supernaturally keeps sewer drains from clogging. She shakes her head no.
She asks nicely if I would like to buy a charm that will help catch fish. I feel a sudden goose bump sensation. Maybe she is casting a spell, compelling me to buy a fishing charm. I answer, “Oh yes, definitely.” She asks what type of fish, points to different charms for specific fish. I’m unfamiliar with her fish names and ask her to describe the fish. Her descriptions are confusing. I ask if she has a tuna fish charm. She sternly asks, “What kind of tuna? Now you describe.” I reply, “Uh, I don’t know, Yellowfin or Albacore, that I can catch off San Diego.” My brain has become scrambled. I’m suddenly at a loss for words, “Fins, they swim in the water.” She looks at me blankly, shakes her head no, and says, “No charms for that.”
She now has me spellbound, under her full control. She now appears strangely beautiful and alluring. I want to buy her carvings, so I pick up a curious looking small fishing charm. It’s a peculiarly shaped, oil‑rubbed wood carving imbedded with tiny seashells. Her eyes light up, indicating I made a wise choice. She says that the charm is for a fast swimming silver blue fish, very good tasting. She pleasantly points to tiny shell carvings pressed into the charm and says, “These will help speed your ancestors when they need to travel.” Although I’m not sure what she meant by that, I make the purchase. She then releases me, allowing me to leave without buying everything on her table.
People are gathering to get good seats to watch the dancing. The dancing starts with the men doing the Haka dance. Imagine hiking in the mountain jungles of Africa, being charged by a huge adult silverback gorilla who is beating his chest, and is wildly upset, roaring, displaying his long canine teeth, and breaking and swatting tree branches at you. The Haka dances are multiple levels above that. It is the human version of a threat display perfected to make a heavy silverback or anyone else run away. Some of the dancing men have an attention getting verge of uncontrollable insanity look in their eyes. Someone you can’t reason with. No more talking, right now their adrenaline-charged car‑overturning powerful bodies are going to physically rip you apart limb from limb, not concerned with any consequences right now look. They communicate to you on a primal level that they are dangerous and not to be ignored.
The pounding of the drums resonates in your chest, amplifying the threat display. The men make menacing facial expressions, growl, shout out warrior calls, insults, swing wooden clubs in mock battle moves, and occasionally leap into the watching audience that cower away. Being a tribal community dance, there are young and old participating with some who do not dance with much wild eye conviction. That could change in an instant if asked if their grandfather ate anyone.
As the dancing continues, there is a sudden contrast as the barefoot and grass skirt‑clad women move to the front of the men. The men’s threating body language repels, yet the warm, smiling, inviting gazes of the women ask you to come over into their waiting arms.
Arms, wrists, fingers curling and unfurling, sexually suggestive soft rhythmic side to side rocking hips, long flowing dark hair, swish of the grass skirt exposing the bare thigh. Long ago when the whaling ships visited here, it is easy to see how this seductive intoxicating dance can remove a sailor’s ability to think clearly, sending him into the air over the side of the ship, dodging sharks to make it to shore to the waiting woman, without a thought for the eventual consequences.
There is an innocence to these female dancers. They are not paid professional performers. They are mothers, daughters, grandmothers, schoolteachers, and so forth, who live here, performing an array of daily routines and occupations that keep the community functioning.
The following day is the festival feast. The purpose of the festival is to allow the gathering Marquesan to embrace their culture, have a good time, provide a place to show an array of Marquesan arts. Marquesan coming from other islands can use the local Hakakau school gymnasium that provides a free place to sleep, plus access to restrooms, laundry, and outdoor cooking facilities. The feast is free to everyone as well. Each Marquesan island provides their own unique type of cultural food in quantities that feed hundreds of people.
Feeding that amount of people on paper plates creates a lot of trash (difficult to dispose of on a small island). In order to be served food, you must provide your own biodegradable plate. A plate can be anything that works, such as a banana leaf, a woven palm plate, a coconut shell, or bamboo trough (a large diameter bamboo cut in half, making a long trough). Rendel and Meree provided us with a bamboo trough for our feast plate, and we used it to sample various island foods such as poisson cru, crab, bread fruit, chicken, pork, goat, plus various yams, poi, baked banana, coconut, and all types of exotic local island fruit.
The Fatu Hiva Island food stand has an interesting sea food crab serving that smells good. Nico and I find an opening at the counter where we can reach in with our bowls to the busy servers. We recognize one of the servers that recently performed in the dancing. Nico leans in and tells her something that makes her burst in laughter. She motions for Nico to wait and she goes back to an ice chest and brings a large container of food and then scoops the creamy contents into our bowls. It’s a delicious mixture of some sort of yam and mashed breadfruit with pork and coconut milk. I ask Nico what she found so funny. He replies as he is gobbling down the food, “I told her that if she cooks as good as she dances, I’d eat all her food and lick her container.” I nod in agreement and say, “This food is great. If she is ok with you licking her container, how about you take my bamboo with your coconut bowl back up to her a few dozen times, you know, so Jim can have some of this food. Jim would appreciate it.”
Nico hands both bowls to her and she filled my bamboo then started filling Nico’s coconut bowl when another woman pulled the container away and told us we had to eat crab like everyone else. She pointed to the Hiva Oa Island food stand and said they were serving the same pork and yam dish which we tried but was not made the same way and not as good. Their Hiva Oa breadfruit dish was good. Later, we try to get another Fatu Hiva refill but the woman shooed us away again. Nico did get a friendly smile and wave from the dancer.
The table under Rendel and Meree’s tree is a gathering point for friends and extended family from morning to late into the night. We are greeted, offered whatever is being passed around, and accepted as if we are part of the local tribe. Marquesan have more exposure to American media than actual Americans. When American tourist go to French Polynesia they go to Bora Bora, Moorea, or Tahiti. Other than Aranui cargo boat passengers the Marquesas Islands are off the American tourist radar. We are also not considered occupying French that conducted nuclear bomb tests in their French Polynesian waters.
Nico warns that we should be on guard for a potential fist fight. He consuls that a fight in this Marquesas town is like the Australian outback bar fight, just drunken brawling stuff. Afterwards there is bonding and lasting friendship. Perhaps a trip to the dentist, rarely stabbing. Even with all the drinking, it seems to me nobody is in a fighting mood. Everyone appears to be in good spirits. If Nico is getting too much attention from someones girlfriend then Nico will be alright as long as he gets a good running start to get away from the offended man. It is unlikely Jim and I will be offending anyone at any of these gatherings. We are more of a curiosity as if we are Eskimos enjoying a winter break. Harmless because we left our hunting equipment cooling on the ice. One of Rendel’s friends proudly shows us a picture on his cell phone of his wife’s recent vanilla harvest. It is an impressive large pile of glistening vanilla bean pods that will bring a large sum of money now that the Tahitian vanilla market has sharply risen.
Traditional Dancing on a Pae Pae
Traditionally, the Marquesan ceremonial dances were performed on a pae pae (a raised rock platform). Almost all of the pae pae in the town of Hakakau have been built over with modern homes and buildings. The only remaining Hakakau ceremonial pae pae is in a residential neighborhood that has limited audience seating. The island of Ua Pou has multiple valleys, some with tiny villages that have ancient ceremonial pae pae that can accommodate larger numbers of people. Ua Pou is a relatively steep mountainous island. The cost of dynamiting the cliffs to make roads and switchbacks up the sides of the mountain to join villages costs more than grading small airport runway and building modest boat pier facilities. Until recently, travel between Ua Pou villages was by boat. The French government recently built a primitive dirt road connecting a dozen tiny villages, but the road does not yet fully circle the island or reach all the bay settlements. Coordinating festival road traffic on a single lane steep dirt road with infrequent pull out areas and hairpin switchbacks was too much to allow access for all the dance performers and festival participants. Food, water, restrooms, and emergency facilities outside Hakahau are non-existent.
The festival organizers wanted traditional dancing on an ancient pae pae, and so the dancing was scheduled for the Hohoi ceremonial pae pae four valleys to the east. Most of the large dance groups had to reduce their group size so they could fit on the smaller pae pae dance floor. Accommodations for public travel to watch the dancing at Hohoi were not made available.
Jim, Nico, and I want to attend, yet we were uncertain if we will be turned away without an invitation. I suggest we go see the woman at the bakery who rented a car to us two years ago. A different woman was at the bakery counter, but she said that her aunt will give us a ride after she drops off her children. A dive boat French scuba diver instructor at the bakery overheard our Hohoi plans and asked if he and his young New York City girlfriend could join us. The aunt arrived with a Toyota 2 seat crew cab pickup truck that the 5 of us could fit into.
Going to Hohoi
Nico has bumped into numerous dive boat scuba instructor friends at this festival but this new French dive instructor he had never met before. They immediately start talking about shark attacks, seemingly trying to one‑up another. To be polite, they speak English, yet are too caught up establishing their diving rank to realize we are listening to the gruesome details. These guys scuba dive for a living and are constantly in the water with dangerous sharks. Their tone is as dark and serious as gravely wounded soldiers returning from lost battle. The shark attack stories start in the Marquesas, and then spread to the Tuamotus and beyond. Nico discusses how back home in murky Reunion water, the swiftly attacking bull sharks are never seen. Your dive buddy just suddenly disappears leaving you helpless, swimming in red ink. Each diving instructor’s mood comically lifts when they feel it is understood they are not rated as tide pool babysitter.
People fly in from all over the world to scuba dive the pristine Tuamotus coral atolls of Fakarava or Rangiroa hundreds of miles south of the Marquesas, creating an abundant supply of adventurous professional scuba diver instructors that move from dive boat to dive boat. The festival has attracted a great number of dive instructors enjoying time off.
The drive to Hohoi is beautiful. We climb up high on the side of the forested mountain. Ua Pou Island is considerably smaller than Nuka Hiva and Hiva Oa, yet Ua Pou has the highest Marquesas mountain. The sides of the mountain are steep. The higher we climb, the wetter the landscape, with streams crossing the road and dense dark cloud forest all around. Above us are massive towering volcanic spires and waterfalls, while down below lie remote turquoise bays and uninhabited sandy beaches. Nico points to where on his last visit to Ua Pou he and Rendel tracked and killed a wild goat for food for Rendel’s family. He boasts that he did not use a rifle, only a large knife. We tease him he probably killed someone’s pet. Wild goats are hard to approach. Nico claims he is a lover not a killer but when needed he has great hunting skill.
We pass the Haka Moui valley below us, where the Ati Papa tribe lives. This valley is also called the Valley of the King, because in 1860, without the help of western weapons or influence, the Ati Papa chief Teikitaiuao successfully united all of the island’s tribes through several battles and clever political maneuvering. Some of the more prosperous or heavily populated tribes in the southeast part of the island were passivists and never participated in any tribal warfare. King Teikitaiuao also had the advantage that his father, Te Atua Heato, was considered to be a living god that manifested supernatural powers. Heato was at constant war with other tribes and successfully drove off Tahitian Christian missionaries and western influences. The Ua Pou people did not suffer population loss from western diseases as greatly as the neighboring Marquesan Islands that did accept foreigners. Because of this the Ua Pou Island had the highest population out of all the Marquesas islands until the 1960’s when the population migrated to other islands. The Haka Moui valley we see below is considered the most sacred area on the island, because it is where Heato, who indirectly saved the lives of many people from disease, is buried.
Most of the road so far has been newly paved with concrete and is wide enough for two cars to squeeze pass each other. As we approach a high ridge, the road becomes narrow and unpaved. We maintain good traction because the road today is dry. Where the narrow road crests on the high mountain ridge, the trees give way to a full ocean view of the other Marquesan islands in the distance. There are whales out there but we are way too high to see a whale waterspout. We are now on a new part of the Ua Pou Island that we have not seen before and the highest up the mountain we have ever been. The vertical cliff base of the spires above us is close enough where I now can identify recesses and what looks like cave entrances. That type of rock outcropping is beckoning me to hike up there with ropes and caving equipment to find and explore a hidden cave.
The massive, six‑million-year-old pillars of rock above us are the result of surrounding soft volcanic ash and tuff that has eroded away, leaving vertical throats of hard olivine basalt that came directly from magma deep beneath the earth’s ocean basin thin crust. The Ua Pou people have been exporting the hard-garnet phonolite rocks from this area to the other Marquesan islands and surrounding Polynesian islands for over a thousand years. This hard rock, also called ‘clinkerstone’ because it makes a subtle metallic ring sound when struck, is used to make adze, axe, and hammer heads, as well as grinding tools. These highly sought-after quality tools brought this area economic wealth and prestige before the arrival of European metals. Stone tools unearthed on archeological digs on remote islands as far as 1500 miles away have geochemical signature that match the rocks that come from here.
The small village of Hohoi, less than 50 people, is perched on the side of the mountain. It has a community building, a school, a small market, and a few scattered houses. A steep road continues down the mountain from Hohoi to the bay below. The bay shore area has no buildings, pier, or beached canoes. The Hohoi beach is made of surf rounded rocks and pebbles. This is where the flower stones are gathered. They are flower‑shaped golden crystals embedded in a dark garnet fine-grained matrix. The flower stones are only found on Ua Pou and in one location in Brazil. On the far side of the valley, just above the beach in a sunny, wind‑exposed area, is a large complex of pae pae that is overgrown in short dry shrubs. Long ago many people lived here.
We are pleased the Hohoi festival traffic attendants do not turn us away. They direct us to walk up a road above Hohoi to the ancient pae pae in the forest above. The ancient Tohua Mauia pae pae complex has been rebuilt by French government contractors to its original condition. Detailed carved wood beams support palm‑thatched roofs. Stone and wood tikis are located in their traditional places. Towering trees that must be hundreds of years old shade the area.
A few groups of dancers are organizing themselves next to a mountain of drums. Marquesan dignitaries and an old dignified administrator in a clean pressed French military uniform, wearing a scrambled egg decorated kepi hat, like those with a flat circular top seen in photos of Charles de Gaulle, sit in front, perhaps where the ancient Ua Pou Chief sat. French television camera crews are setting up equipment. We feel special because there are not that many people here to watch the dances. Interestingly a good portion of the people here are mostly French speaking Caucasians. There is a reverent deep feeling of respect to the ancient place. No shouting or laughing. All the effort to carefully rebuild the ancient pae pae shows that this area holds a special place in many people’s hearts.
After the dignitaries make a powerful and emotional speech, that we do not understand, the men’s Haka dances start. Their forceful stomping raises forest mulch dust into the air that glows gold in the sunlight, giving the dancers a spiritual aura. The female dancers sing beautifully, like angels. A tear runs down the cheek of the French woman sitting next to me. The pae pae dance floor area is about the size of a tennis court, so we are close to the dancers. The dances have symbolic movements, chanting and storytelling, that we do not understand. I wish we had an interpreter. It is such a waste of opportunity. Jim jokes that this could be the cannibal feast dance, “All the Marquesan tribe performers outnumber us here. Slim chance of escape back to Akela.”
The ancient pae pae complex is spread out making an L‑shape of three main dance areas. The dances are organized so the one dance group and musicians perform on a pae pae, while another dance group and their musicians get ready to perform on another pae pae. The audience moves to the next pae pae where the following group performs. Jim was able to get a great seat on the dance floor, right next to the performers, that would normally be cordoned off for dignitaries. He had a front row seat for what I believe was the best dance of the day, the bird dance.
Over many hours of watching hundreds of dancers at this festival, just a few women were skilled enough to perform as if in the Moscow Ballet. These gifted women would briefly float across the pae pae with minimal movement of their legs. They do this by placing their toes from one foot just in front of their toes from the other foot, and then they make graceful repetitive steps without jerking or shaking their legs. One foot is hidden under the other while the hidden foot makes a subtle crab motion that moves the woman across the pae pae. The woman alternates her body weight from one foot to the other without much apparent movement of the upper visible foot. She keeps balance by extending her arms out like a bird. Most of the time while she is gliding faster across the floor by using larger steps, her legs are visibly moving while she gently sways her hips in a seductive ocean wave movement and her upper body softly moves as if she is flying. Not only was it beautiful, but in the remote raw jungle setting it was unforgettable.
Ethereal White Tern
There are many birds flying above us, calling out. The ones we recognize are the large frigates and the numerous smaller White Terns. I believe the ethereal White Tern is among the most elegant and graceful of the world’s seabirds. White Terns, also called Angel Tern, Fairy Tern, or Lover Tern, fly strongly with an undulating motion and slow, deep wingbeats. They are capable of sustained graceful hovering. Other sea birds hover in one place with a fast, jerky, labored wingbeat. The White Tern effortlessly hovers with slower graceful wingbeats as if their bodies are made of helium, or as if they are floating massless bird spirits.
The White Tern can live for a long time, over 40 years. They tolerate the close approach of humans and will raise their young around human activity. Their courtship involves elaborate aerial displays in which the male flies high up followed by the female. The pair then glides and slaloms side by side, drifting downwards, before “strutting” together on the ground with tails raised and wings dropped. Pairs also appear to whisper to each other, hence their other name, Lover Tern.
Jacque and Victoria earlier planned to be at this Ua Pou festival but then suddenly found out Felicia (Jacque’s daughter) was able to come to Tucson from Russia for the holidays. If Jacque was sitting here, he would be studying these birds flying overhead to see how the ocean air is being pushed, pulled and twisted up these canyons. Planning how Jim and Jacque could catch the rising air to circle the the volcanic spires in their ultralight aircraft.
Haka Dance of Submarines and Bombs
As the Marquesan tribes begin their dance in different locations in the cluster of ancient pae pae stone structures the audience must constantly weave through the forest shaded buildings to be able to see the next ritual dance. At one of the dances I sat next to a retired French military man who was stationed in the 1970’s on the Marquesan Island of Eiao 90 miles northwest of Nuka Hiva Island. His unit supported the top-secret logistical efforts of the French geological survey agency BRGM that drilled exploratory boreholes into Eiao Island to determine the rock structural characteristics for underground nuclear testing.
France in its vision to become an independent global military superpower seriously considered making Eiao Island a duel use nuclear submarine harbor and nuclear bomb testing area. That might sound crazy to have the two so close together on a small 12 square mile island but at that time during the Cold War the United States (Project Plowshare) and Soviet Union (Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy) were actively developing methods to fracture rock for massive earth moving excavations. Dr. Strangelove French strategists planned a series of nuclear submarine bunker caverns created by underground nuclear explosion. This would make the French Navy’s nuclear warhead armed submarines safe from Soviet nuclear missile direct hit.
The United States and Soviet Union were making progress on nuclear arms reduction talks. The French who were not involved in these reduction agreements took the opportunity to boost submarine nuclear missile development to make their nuclear capability globally relevant. The nuclear missile armed submarines that could lurk hidden off an opponent’s coast were the most feared weapon.
Americans started testing nuclear bombs in the Pacific in the 1940’s, the British in the early 1950’s. In the early 1960’s the French military began above ground nuclear bomb testing in the low laying coral atolls of the Tuamotus Islands south of the Marquesas. Spread of atmospheric radioactive fallout and public protest forced the nuclear testing to be conducted under the coral lagoon reefs. These massive nuclear explosions shattered the ancient coral reef and basalt rock structure allowing a continuous thermal cycling of the radioactive seawater to rise up the fractured borehole chimney and surrounding upper areas and seep into the open ocean. At that time the environmental effects were unknown, certainly not positive. The effects were left up to the imagination. Science fiction movies used this DNA altering radioactive cocktail as just the right environment, teaming with sea life, to grow a large atomic ray fire-breathing Godzilla to trample Tokyo.
The French were committed to a nuclear bomb test program that would go on for decades. They needed a publicly acceptable test site that would not leak radiation into the ocean. The tall volcanic Marquesan Island of Eiao is high and large enough that underground nuclear testing would not have the radiation contaminant seeping into the ocean. The planned submarine base would be made by hollowing out Eiao with nuclear blasts to make room for a row of nuclear submarine pens. The highly radioactive rock tailings dumped nearby at depth of at least 3000 ft. Lesser radioactive rock entombed in place with thick layer of cement. The cement bunker enclosure cannot rely on being 100% sealed from radioactive material so to prevent radioactive seawater from leaking into the ocean the submarine pen gates would always be closed and only briefly opened to allow a submarine to pass. The gate seawater hydrodynamics engineered to minimize the outward flow of radioactive seawater as the submarines passes through. Everything safe and thoroughly thought out, what could go wrong with using nuclear bombs to make a submarine base?
After a few years of building a nuclear test support facilities and drilling 1000 ft deep exploratory boreholes at 3 locations on the island, it was determined that Eiao island base rock structure contained a network of below sea level open cavities and rock that is too brittle. Repeated underground nuclear blasts would create a radius of fractured rock that would connect too widely to the open ocean, not adding much radioactive water containment from existing conditions at the Tuamotus islands bomb test sites.
Reason finally prevailed at the highest levels. The French Navy could not commit to such an extensive plan that required expanding new nuclear test sites when the French citizens, embracing the budding environmental movement, was strongly opposed to nuclear bomb testing. Growing need to reduce radiation exposure levels quickly overcame bomb excavation cost savings. It became obvious the push to use nuclear bomb excavation technology was more for furthering the nuclear arms race than for reducing excavation costs. Peaceful civilian nuclear bombs were recognized as a failed public relations effort to lull the angry public into accepting military nuclear bomb testing as normal as building new harbors, canals, carving out mountain pass for an interstate freeway. Among other political concerns the whole Eiao submarine underground base idea lost traction.
Today those nuclear bomb excavation ideas are universally dead. Eiao and its neighboring Marquesan Islands never experienced a nuclear bomb test and escaped being a permanent Russian or Chinese nuclear missile target. Constant public protest forced French Polynesia into a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. This was our Cold War haka dance threat performance, warriors forcefully shaking spears, …insane look in their eyes, someone you cannot reason with, not concerned with any consequences right now look.
Eiao and its surrounding nearby satellite of small islands are now uninhabited. They have been made into an off-limits nature reserve, becoming mysterious from decades of isolation. Marquesan tales of hidden Spanish Peruvian gold and another of a World War II German U-boat moored there to secretly hide stolen riches have lured trespassing treasure hunters, who believe there is evidence of truth to the stories, are occasionally seen digging on the island and using new technology that can peer deep into the ground.
Perhaps the treasure hunters wonder why the French singled out that island for digging and why it took a long time for the French to dig just a few exploratory holes in commonly known geology while maintaining strict secrecy and military security. Unmotivated to add what might be only a few coins to the national coffers the incompetent French pencil pushers could not even think up a better ruse than a wacky underground submarine pen story to conceal the real purpose for the digging. The government with all its vast resources were too unorganized and buried in administrative top-secret red tape to find the treasure because they did not have the smarts and modern technology that the treasure hunters now have. …..Uh huh.
The Marquesan natives question the integrity of an off-limits nature reserve that has not made much effort to remove a population of now wild sheep that strip the island of vegetation and in droughts die of starvation. The island also has been invaded by European rats that feast on the sea bird colony eggs. Some Marquesan natives see the nature reserve as a French land grab, a remote French Guantanamo foot hold to do as they wish, free to change the designated land use.
Marquesan grumbling is tempered by the fact that their economy is not self-supporting. They need the French to literally keep the lights turned on. Yet, if French nuclear bomb guilt money dries up the Chinese who need this strategic location for satellite communication stations and military satellite retrieval posts are ready to step in with Marquesan and French Polynesia aid. If no longer obligated to France, French Polynesia could negotiate with China long term military base land leases that would most likely come with harsh far reaching airspace and ocean restriction enforcement agreements. Changing one landlord for a worse one. Chinese tend to bully weaker nations and claim their islands. French Polynesia has the worlds largest contiguous exclusive economic zone, 2 million square miles, an ocean area as large as the continent of Europe. It has vast resources of unexploited ocean floor cobalt, manganese, nickel and copper.
For now, French Polynesia elects its own assembly and its own president, and controls all its affairs except education, justice, defense and foreign affairs. Polynesians also send two members to the French national assembly, one a senator, and can vote for the French president. Although French Polynesians have their own flag, the French flag takes prominence over public buildings.
In World War II French Polynesia joined Charles de Gaulle’s Free French and oppose the Vichy government. With Charles de Gaulle’s defeat in 1940, French Polynesia decided to side with the Germans.
After Pearl Harbor, the Americans quickly took advantage of this schism and constructed a military base on Bora Bora, which helped resupply ships and planes headed for Australia and Guadalcanal to the southwest. Five thousand Americans came to an island with a population of 1000. Four years later they departed, leaving behind 60 children whose descendants live there today.
Not all French Polynesians want independence. France provides heavy subsidies, making its Pacific dependencies, French Polynesia and New Caledonia, better off economically than all the Pacific island groups except Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. France aids French Polynesia in various industry and tourism development programs, subsidizes transport of goods between islands to strengthen its economy so it can eventually achieve full economic and national independence.
Return to Nuka Hiva
As beautiful as the Hohoi dancing is, we have had enough and plan on getting back to Akela on Nuka Hiva. We say our goodbyes to our new friends, Rendel and Meree. They give us each a shell necklace and a ring made from a polished nutshell.
Rendel gathers enough courage to remove and toss away Jim’s heathen palm hat and replaces it with his own palm woven hat that was of better craftsmanship. Jim did not realize Rendel viewed Jim’s crude palm hat as unsightly. Maree then runs into their house and returns with Rendel’s nicely made straw fedora hat. She removes my well-worn grungy baseball cap and replaces it with Rendel’s clean fedora. Maybe after assessing our low-brow juvenile behavior, she wanted to prevent any possibilities of Jim and I fighting over a palm hat, the same way she keeps the peace with her 2 small boys. With new hats there is a chance we might appear more dignified and respectable for our ferry ride back to Nuka Hiva. Though I am quite comfortable with my old baseball cap I respect Maree’s wisdom and take the adult supervision.
Wearing our new hats, we board the ferry to Nuka Hiva. To Jim’s surprise, the man sitting next to him is Pori, the skilled craftsman, instrument maker, and awesome musician who sold Max one of his ukuleles two years ago. It turns out that when Pori is not making ukuleles, he likes to go fishing. After catching up visiting with Jim, Pori spent a good 30 minutes telling us about his favorite fish, the legendary monster fish, and all the different types of local fish, their characteristics, how to catch them and where in Nuka Hiva coastal waters to find them. I love fishing and was all ears.
Pori spontaneously effervesces with joy, singing short Marquesan tunes and occasionally playing his ukulele when it is not being swung around in the air while he jesters with his arms describing a fish. His sun weathered face has deep permanent smile creases and looks scuffed and worn like well traveled luggage. His sparkling eyes beam and are on the lookout for where the fun is to be had and where it is not. He is wearing brand new blinding florescent T-shirt sporting the latest fishing equipment logos. There is no angle or hidden agenda. He is unique and genuine. Someone to seek out and spend the day with if you value your time on this earth.
Before we went to Ua Pou, Akela’s long length of anchor chain laid out on the bay floor was getting dragged around by shifting winds and currents. To keep Akela safe while we were at Ua Pou Jim set a fortress anchor with long scope of heavy chain from the bow and another anchor attached to Akela’s stern. On our return to Taiohae bay we rowed the dingy back to Akela, we were relieved that all the anchor gear was secure and in the same place where we left it.
Jim is going to leave the sailboat Akela in Nico’s care while Jim is back in Tucson for a few months. Nico is free to sail Akela to any location. Jim keeps testing Nico with ‘what if’ questions. What are you going to do if the engine power goes out when you are near a reef? How will you raise the anchor if the electric winch stops working? The discussion somehow changes to books we had read. I get excited that Jim really liked John Steinbeck’s ‘The Log from the Sea of Cortez’ that I had read years ago. Jim disappears into the boat cabin and returns with Steinbeck’s Cortez book and starts reading aloud a section in the beginning of the book, which describes the boat Western Flyer that Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts used on their 1940 Sea of Cortez marine biology expedition, and how humans can become so emotionally attached to a boat. Jim really connects to Steinbeck’s words, becomes overwhelmed by emotion, starts tearing up, gets a lump in his throat, and cannot finish reading the passage. I look at Nico and jokingly tell him, “Ok, Jim made his point. Akela better be in good shape when he returns in a few months.”
Jim loves Akela as we all do, but we understood this has more to do with Jim’s recent loss of his son Max. Jim, now at a crossroad reassessing his life, is looking where to go from here.
A strong wind picks up and blows a forest fire out of control. It is hidden behind a mountain ridge north of us. We cannot see the flames or reflected orange glow. The thick rolling smoke is thrust straight up from the hidden steep mountain ridge like gasses forcefully blown upward from a volcano. It has a complex cinnamon spice smell, a burning realm of tropical trees and plants all unfamiliar to us. We drink rum while watching the cloud of smoke grow larger and closer, until forest foliage start landing on the boat and surrounding water. Nico chases after the larger ashes and foliage that land on the boat and throws them in the water. The partially burnt tropical broad leaves, some of them ten inches across, are cool to the touch after being blown a long distance. As the fire keeps getting larger, it is possible that a large volume of leaves could arrive still burning. Akela and her canvas sails are far from fireproof. I point to an anchor spot that is close by free of falling debris. Jim assays that the fire is too distant to be a threat. He is more concerned with the dangers of losing his good anchorage in this slippery mud floor bay, where radically shifting winds could cause a collision with a neighboring anchored sailboat. Achieving a good foothold in this bay is tricky. Akela’s anchors have held well in this location. We agree to keep watch and move if needed.
Visibility is perfectly clear down where we are on the water but above is a narrow swath of smoke stretching directly over us, bounded by blue sky on each side. The sun glows red behind the smoke, casting a bright red shimmering reflection on the bay. The late afternoon sun is low enough that without the smoke, the sun’s reflection on the bay would be too bright to look at with the naked eye. With the smoke, I can look directly at the sun’s bright red ocean reflection, but only briefly. The laser intense brightly shimmering ruby red bay with blue sky above is an image I will never forget.
The destructive fire burns itself out. The smell of spice smoke clears. The wind blows the ashes off Akela. The wind and water eventually calm. The sun quietly sets behind the forested peaks providing a star filled night sky. In the middle of the night, floating motionless out in the bay on Akela, I take time to refamiliarize myself with the strange constellations above that are hidden from our northern hemisphere home. Reflect on our constantly changing world and remembering the CSN lyrics, “When you see the Southern Cross for the first time. You now understand why you came this way.”
Sometimes you do not see the obvious from where you are standing. In order to get a moment of clarity you have to take the time and go somewhere else, get some space. You then might get a better view of the world and see what you could not see before, perhaps find what was lost.
Return to Tahiti
Nuka Hiva plane tickets sold out months in advance because of the Ua Pou Marquesan Festival. I was able to get a plane seat back to Tahiti but not on the same flight with Jim. I say my goodbyes and get a lift to the airport, an hour’s drive to the other side of the island, Ua Pou drums still beating in my head.
At the airport ticket counter, the man standing in front of me is holding a strange, delicate, wood bowl that has four legs. It looks too big to fit into the airplanes overhead bag compartment, too delicate to check in as baggage. I ask him if he is going to hold the bowl on his lap during the whole three-hour flight to Tahiti. For the next hour, the interesting and friendly man eagerly explains everything and then some about the sedative and anodyne effects of Kava root drink that is communally served in this curious four-legged Polynesian bowl. Our casual discussion piques the interest of others standing nearby. A crowd forms around us as we talk that eventually makes an impromptu airport terminal Kava lecture. Since I am standing next to the man I am somehow confused as a kava expert and asked various kava questions. I parrot what the man told me earlier in our discussion and continue replying to questions amused to kill time in this way waiting for our plane to arrive.
The turboprop plane arrives. While we wait for the luggage to be loaded the now fully clothed Rapa Nui (Easter Island) dance group huddles around a New Zealand family next to me that filmed their dance on their cell phone. Evidently, this was the first time the Rapa Nui dance group had viewed their Marquesan festival performance. Rapa Nui dance group stood out because the women wore what might be considered entertainment dinner-show type costumes. Some of these women could win in a Miss Rapa Nui swimsuit beauty contest. They also were the only festival dance group with frank sexual intercourse dance moves. The woman bent over with the man standing behind vigorously thrusting his groin into her while cradling her breasts. A show more direct than just suggestively swaying of hips. The surprised crowd laugh and applaud.
The Rapa Nui dance coach, under the impression I am an expert on Polynesian ceremonial kava consumption, tells me they were not paid to perform at Ua Pou. They had to handle their own traveling expenses and not held to any festival organization prearranged performance.
The Rapa Nui traditional dance has limited traditional cultural continuity. Their population has been tragically decimated by ecocide, Spanish slave traders, and western diseases. The remaining small Rapa Nui population was converted to Christianity by missionaries that forbade traditional customs. The Rapa Nui are free to tailor their traditional dances to a modern entertainment tourist industry.
The Marquesas had a large enough population that they were able to resist missionaries and maintain their traditional cultural continuity. The festival organizers encourage the Marquesan to not only embrace their culture but to define what their culture is, traditional or modern, no restrictions. There was actually 2 separate Ua Pou dance groups. One group, very popular with young anti-establishment types that call themselves the Cannibals, had a haka dance battle move that pinned a man down on the ground and used a wood knife blade to forcefully slash the opponents throat. The other Ua Pou dance group had a haka dance where the warriors fiercely threw empty soda bottles and trash at the audience in a show to respect the environment.
Jim and I meet up in Tahiti, fly together on the same flight to the United States, and make it back to our families in Tucson before Christmas, bags laden with exotic gifts and returning with stories too inappropriate to share here. The festival was a great adventure and good time, able to experience wild unspoiled landscapes and look through a unique Marquesan window of time of an enduring people enjoying their evolving fascinating culture.
Click below to see videos of the December 2019 Ua Pou Marquesas Festival dancing
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tntfOtRaAsM Marquesan traditional boat arrives with sacred tiki.
https://www.facebook.com/polynesiela1ere/videos/1423180154523387/ President of French Polynesia opening ceremonies