I was at the airport by 6:30am, which was good because there was an enormous line. Just behind me was an American woman, her totally silent, happy husband playing with a spherical version of the Rubik’s Cube, and her two daughters. I am impressed by these men who stay out of the delusional force field around their wives, like the husband of the ray-hater on Mo’orea. She was consumed with worry about making their flight to Mo’orea. She almost rammed me with her cart several times in her eagerness to get to the check in counter. When she wondered if she was on the right line I suggested she ask. It turned out she was where she was supposed to be. But the flow of, “What will happen if we don’t make this flight?” “We might not get there today and they would cancel our reservations,” angst went on in its self-important delusional clamor. Her girls not yet in their teens began to worry. I said to them, “These people know what they are doing. You will get to your flight.” They did.
We were an interesting mix—Europeans from expensive hotels wearing leis, Tahitians wearing scented flower crowns. One little girl was in a halo of red flowered spikes striking out from a green leafed circlet around her dark hair.
It was a three-hour and a bit flight over the Pacific. The Atlantic is sizable the Pacific is enormous and very, very different. An hour out of Pape’ete I looked down with wonderment on an almost rectangular space of reef, atolls dotting its serene center. I saw clutches of houses at wide points of the reef. I didn’t see a runway. Were these people only approachable by ship? What do they do for water? Are they dependent on rain? This must be one of those places I have read about that will be destroyed by submersion with climate change. It struck me that this was as remote, as dangerous, a location as a mountain village in the Himalayas.
I learned this is Rangiroa, a reef with uninhabited atolls, its 2,000 to 2,500 people dependent on rain and desalinization. There is a runway. Rangiroa means Cloud in the Sky. Just the right name, isn’t it.
When I deplaned at the airport in Hiva Oa no one met me. Flocks of people were herded to a van by a French hotel owner. Wistfully I approached and asked if anyone was there from the Relais Moehau. He called them, saying, “No one is left at the airport.” They said they were on their way, which I doubted, but a woman came and put me into the cab and my bags into the rear of a flatbed truck.
I left my bags in my Spartan, clean room with windows on two sides to go to an excellent lunch of salad with cheese and a shrimp curry that was perfection. After a post flight nap I went into the tiny town of Atuona to investigate supermarkets selling everything from yogurt to brake fluid.
I came to a little woven bamboo house labeled TOURIST INFORMATION and entered. A comfortable looking woman, dark hair pulled into a loose bun, flower behind her ear discussed with me archeological sites and options. She said the petroglyphs were hard to get to. This isn’t really true. The cost of a driver to just one site was posted as 250US. I gulped. She suggested joining another hotel group. Then she remembered a guide was taking a group the next day. She called Robert, whose local name is Pifa. He must have been curious because he came down to the little tourist house.
By the time he arrived I had bought a shell bracelet and a bottle of Monoi Kekaa oil my landlady on Mo’orea had recommended as body oil.
Pifa is a strapping man of 40, large in the way the islanders often are, but also tall, with a face not of this island, but of Ireland. He speaks English with an American accent.
In minutes I was on a tour for the next day with nine others to several archeological sites. Monday was also scheduled. I would go with his sister to see one of the petroglyphs.
Back at the hotel George, the owner, French married to Marie-Joseph who is local, told me of a dance that night. I went into town, hung out until after six but nothing was happening so I went home to bed. After nine I heard drums, exciting. But I slept and woke through them. What I missed was a regional contest of male dancers. I was sorry but I could not have stayed up until one am watching them and gone out to see tikis the next day. I had to give up something.
The only bad thing all day was I left my address book, my entire international social life, on the airplane. George called the airline, listened to my explanation in a French, as lumpy as my mother’s oatmeal, of the book’s appearance, and translated it into a French of béchamel smoothness.
I woke to a grey haze of rain and breakfasted on pomello, papaya, banana, and a baguette slathered with, what I thought, due to its color, was strawberry compote, mango juice and good coffee. I discovered the compote, made by George, is bananas marinated in vanilla and sugar. The vanilla, for which Tahiti is famous, turns them a pinkish red.
At 8:30 Pifa showed with two cars and a red truck. Everyone was, of course, French speaking except me and an Australian, young, with blond streaked hair, who had been traveling around the world by boat, which they, she and her boyfriend, had picked up in South Africa. They traveled on to Namibia, which she recommended, journeying in stages to Tahiti.
In Pape’ete, a predatory woman slipped him out from under her. He moved the new woman on the boat and she left. This had happened a week before; understandably she was talking about it to try to figure out what to do next. As we drove from site to site that day she decided to at least delay her return to Sydney and hopefully cancel it. She had friends in Polynesia and New Zealand who were putting their hands out. I thought she would recover more quickly, with a stronger sense of self, if she continued to travel on her own.
With us in the car was an English speaking French woman, also young, very thin, who had been here for a few years working, indeed, on Rangiroa. She had loved it. She was flatly demanding and usually got what she demanded, although she did not get liked.
In the red truck, were local people who wanted to hear about their own culture. Spending time in Hiva Oa I became aware of three qualities of the people. First, they have something that has almost disappeared from the face of the earth, community. They help each other. They don’t wait or ask. They give what is needed. The second, which may have initiated the first, is a powerful awareness of having almost been eradicated. Between Spanish massacres, disease from sailors of all nations, alcoholism, massacres by various passing European powers, there were 2,096 Marquesans left in 1926. They have survived near annihilation with a vigorous sense of identity and vehement attachment to their islands. The third, apparent throughout what I saw of French Polynesia, is a defensiveness resulting, perhaps, from the assault upon their collective psyche by French colonialism. All, colonial powers—French, English, American—tell the subject population they are inferior; the only people who know how to do things, are the colonizers.
I think I witnessed this when the postcard seller in Pape’ete market said to me, “You are not in charge, Madame.”
Pifa guided the French. The Australian, the French and I were guided by Jonathan who had good English but was angry, angry with the French specifically. He was not as adept at stories as Pifa, a real Irish taleteller with a flare for the emotional context of a narrative.
Jonathan told the Marquesan creation story, which to his disappointment I knew. Two gods flew about the South Pacific enjoying sea and fish. One day the female god said, “I’m tired of drifting. I want to belong some place.” They created the Marquesas. As they were a home, each island is named for a part of a house. Hiva Oa means long ridgepole.
Three volcanoes formed the island. We could see the remains of the calderas, the youngest dead volcanoes on the earth. With no reef, Hiva Oa is exposed to the sea’s unimpeded force against the vertical walls of its volcanoes.
Jonathan told another story which I could not follow at all, about a pig. When I was out with Pifa another day I asked him to tell me this pig story that is, I think, an explanation of how a particular chant came into existence. Later for that.
I am fascinated by Pifa’s great grandfather who came to Hiva Oa in the late 19th century from Ireland during the potato famine. Was he a sailor? Is that how he got to Polynesia? Was he just a man of exceptional imagination? He seems to have been on his own. Ninety-nine and nine tenths of those leaving Ireland headed for the US. Why did this man go in the other direction? He married a local woman, over years acquired land on which he planted a copra plantation and, in the mountains, more to graze sheep, cows and horses.
Circling the island we saw the family plantation covering both sides of a valley with coconut palms, the house snug in the bottom of the valley near the sea, a huge place.
Red chickens, more roosters it seemed than hens, scattered before our wheels. Hiva Oa chickens fly. I grew up with chickens. None of ours could get above four feet and couldn’t stay at that height for over two. Here I saw a rooster in panic rise to eight feet and flap for twenty. Amazing if you are used to flightless chickens. There are wild goats, which is not good. We saw many. Jonathan said there were wild sheep too, although we saw none. There are occasional steers and cows. Frequently horses were tethered near the road.
A billionaire bought a large tract on the island. He died but his son comes. He has hired a Marquesan couple whose silence and secrecy he has bought. No one knows what he looks like. Anyone approaching his property is shot at.
Invasive species, mostly mynahs and little mourning doves have reduced the local bird population but the monarchs, who come in different colors on different islands, are increasing. There is also a small, indigenous bird that can be seen in gregarious flocks in trees near the road.
We had lunch at a seaside place that was okay. Having had poisson cru en lait de coco, I tried the Chinese spiced poisson cru. Okay, but I prefer the coconut.
In the restaurant, gathered around a table, was a group of teenaged boys, a bit glassy eyed but elated and bonded to each other. Outside under a tarpaulin roof was a group of older men, glassy eyed, but from what they’d been drinking. Jonathan said the first group was the young men who had won the dance competition I’d missed the night before in Atuona. They hadn’t been to bed yet, explaining both elation and glassiness. The men outside were their fathers who had tutored them; it was their triumph too.
Each group celebrated, not together as fathers and sons but separately: adults—children. It thought this meant the hierarchy of age was more important than the father-son relationship, emphasizing the exclusivity of the elder. I did not have a sense of the bond between father and son but of the bonding of the young group among themselves and of the elders in their unity.
We walked on the volcanic, black sand beach, waded in the water and watched white, coral sand drift its pale veil over the black to be pulled away by the withdrawing sea. Not having walked in the sea for years I had forgotten that sensation as the sea pulls sand from under my feet, lovely to relive that sensual memory.
A plastic bag tumbled in the breakers; Jonathan fished it out; a woman from the restaurant watched with astonished eyes.
Jonathan, who had a triangular scar on his hand from a childhood lobster bite, told us there are lobsters here. Lobster traps, considered unfair, are unlawful. You catch your lobster by hand, grabbing it behind the head so it cannot reach you with its claws.
At lunch the Australian and I discussed the under-table no-seeums that where troubling us as we ate. Australians call them midges. She told me, I had forgotten, they are not biting but, as she demurely put it, “weeing” on you. If you scratch the “wee” gets under your skin, exacerbating the itch. If you don’t, the itch stops. However, this leaves the question of what benefit do they get out of “weeing” on you.
We went to two archeological sites. Our first was, Lipona, a series of platforms climbing the hill—for ordinary people, for the elite, and for the chief, not large. They were places of assembly. The village would have been around the platforms built from bamboo and leaves, presumably.
There were a number of tikis, one large, missing his penis, with his arm repaired. It broke when he was moved. He is large, forceful, carved from red stone that was covered with moss until recently—pretty but not good for preservation. I could not connect with him. He was just a hunk of stone to me as were two tiki heads in grey stone with huge eyes, reminding me of microscope pictures I have seen of flies eyes. Inexplicably, and there’s a lot that’s inexplicable in this site, there is a human sized statue that stood above the chief’s platform. There is no explanation for this breach of hierarchy. Another statue, also in red stone, is of a man without legs. No explanation. There is a woman tiki in grey stone lying on her stomach, arms extended, teeth either grit or in a wide grin. Experts think she is giving birth. I doubt this, not lying on your stomach. But what is she doing? At this site and others are large flat stones, cupules, with shallow bowls scooped out of them to mix herbs for medicines. Another female figure is traditionally called Fau Poe, Takau’s wife. No other information was given to me.
The smoke from the fire on the chief’s platform was used to prophesy. Besides this a slab of standing stone, perhaps five feet high, was the chief’s mirror. He looked in this mirror each morning to see what the day would bring. Jonathan was eloquent about how people would have dreaded the chief’s visions, expressing powerfully the fear of a leader whose actions could be directed by incomprehensible forces.
The site was sacred, imbued with mana, power, where rituals, including human sacrifice took place. There was also some cannibalism. Since you acquired the mana of the person you ate, a high-ranking person was in more danger than a lower person. This reminded me of the discovery that earthworms when fed fellow earthworms that had mastered certain mazes learned more quickly how to do those mazes.
Tikis are the incarnations of important people or deified ancestors. I found most of this confusing and alien. I was not taken with the tikis, except for the legless man who touched me. It is difficult to find your way into art unconnected to your tradition. But I was unhappy in my lack of rapport.
Driving to the next location, another tiki, we passed a horse tethered by the road. Jonathan told us when boys want horses their fathers get together to take them to the area in the center of the island where there are wild horses. The boys climb into trees with lassoes. The fathers drive the horses under the trees for the boys to lasso them. They are brought home, not easily I imagine. A horse is broken by driving it into the sea, slowing its movements so it is more easily mounted. Once you are able to ride it, it is your horse.
We pulled off the road at a dirt track with barbed wire across stakes barring the way. Pifa lifted a stake ushering us through. The dirt road was muddy, slippery, covered with dead leaves. There was scrubby jungle on both sides of the road. Pifa had us taste a plant with small blue flowers on an arched stem. Supposedly it tastes like mushrooms. I didn’t think so. We turned off the road onto a steep, muddy path through jungle; the light was green, shifting as leaves overhead moved in a desultory breeze. I was concentrating on my feet so I did not glimpse him, if he is a he, there is some question about this, until we were on top of him.
On his platform, he is small, mossy, columned by tree trunks, arched by branches, corbeled by leaves in the subaqueous light of his cathedral. He may be enshrined in the jungle but there is nothing solemn about him. He grins jauntily out from his sanctuary in what appear to be aviator glasses, delighted to make your acquaintance. He enchants partly because you feel you discovered him on your own, because he isn’t cleaned up, but mostly I suspect because he is happy.