2019, BLOG XVII: More Hiva Oa

It was Sunday. I was writing when I heard, maybe around ten am, the sound of a drum. Looking over the edge of the verandah I saw horses and people going toward the soccer field. I asked the chambermaid, who is what in Thailand one would call a boy-girl, with magnificent, black hair right down to her bottom, what was going on. Her English is not fluent but by now women in scarlet dresses had joined the parade. I grabbed my phone and hurried down into town.

I need to digress for a moment. In French Polynesia the spectrum of sexuality is startling to a Westerner, as is the fact that no one seems to pay much attention. Perhaps there is murmuring around the family hearth about “those people,” but there seems to the outsider to be little attention paid to behavior and dressing that would certainly be noted in Europe.  Besides this a friend told me about a Mahu. This is a man who lives and dresses as a woman, although he may be married with children or he may be gay. Usually a Mahu is a second son in a family of high status but inadequate income and property. Only one son can inherit and continue the family line. By becoming female the Mahu can stay within the family but he cannot inherit, nor can his children, from the principle family line. It is a way of coping with too many sons and to little resources.

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The Tibetan way of dealing with a similar problem of inheritance is polyandry. When a family of substance has no son, the eldest daughter marries all the brothers in a family who take her family name and become through her the inheritor, if they are married to her at the time of her father’s death, the head of the family. If the eldest son dies, the next son takes his place as her husband.


Phone in hand I took the long way down to town because I wasn’t sure whether their destination was the soccer field or the big dance field. It was the soccer field. A crowd had gathered, a man in a suit, no tie, was speaking in French. When he finished the drums started; two lines of dancers, one women and girls, the other men came out dancing and singing in costumes and hair ornaments of leaves and grasses. It was not the Rockettes but it was fun. Next were the ladies in scarlet with some little girls, some dark some blond who shimmied with happy suggestiveness. A small brunette danced glancing over her shoulder to stay in sync with the older women in scarlet. But this developed into a dilemma whether to dance or turn her back on the audience and watch the older dancers. It was a difficult choice since she found her fellow dancers enthralling.

Next came the police trainees in camouflage workout uniforms, they waved every morning passing the verandah on their morning run, to do a haka type dance, incredibly sexy with spread knees, shouts and grunts. Not a spare ounce on any of them, all grinning with the joy of dancing.

The drums of different heights, some were just good drums, but others had that deep tone that makes a fist in your abdominal cavity. Some were four feet or more, close to shoulder height, carved, painted and carefully tended.

Monday Jonathan was to pick me up at 8:30 to go to the petroglyph. A little after 8:30, Pifa showed. It had rained all night; the paths would be slippery. We did some errands in town—bank, post office and the airline office to ask about my address book. Things were not looking good in that area. Then Pifa drove me to the airport, a fools errand, but I was in a “no stone unturned” mood.

While we drove, I asked Pifa to tell me story about the Prince, the Princess and the giant boar or pig. It is interesting that Jonathan felt it necessary to dress this story up in European royal clothes. Is this another lick of the colonial brush, did he feel we would understand the story only if people had the rank we were used to? There is no Princess, nor Prince. It’s about a warrior and his forty-meter pig, kept in a stone walled enclosure a kilometer in circumference on Hiva Oa.

There was a feast on ‘Ua Pou to which people from all the islands came bringing food. A warrior from Hiva Oa went with his people. After days of feasting the food ran out; people were hungry. The warrior said he would call his pig but would have to chant all night to get him to come.  He did.

The people on Hiva Oa watched the pig become more and more restless, until he leapt over the wall, diving into the sea. Arriving at ‘Ua Pou he lumbered on shore, fainting from exhaustion. Fish were trapped in his hair. People ate those right away. The warrior came to the pig at the edge of the sea, explained that the people were starving, that he had called the pig so they could eat him. The pig immediately collapsed and died. The people ate him and finished their festival.

The warrior taught them the pig haka, and asked that they perform it on the anniversary of the feast.  He went home to Hiva Oa sad, missing his pig.

The idea that an animal, human or otherwise, would give up its life for the community’s benefit is a recurrent motif. I was told that people who were sacrificed to the gods willingly agreed to be killed for the future good of the community. Whether true or not this means the ideal of the society was not the life of the individual but the survival of the community. Near annihilation by Europeans has reinforced that ideal

Back in Atuona I insisted on paying Pifa, pointing out that there was no oil well in the center of Hiva Oa and all gas was imported. He accepted the equivalent of 20US.

He dropped me off at the Gauguin Museum, one of the odder and more unlikely museums in this world. It is filled with reproductions of Gauguin’s paintings, not just the Polynesian ones, by local artists. It is totally bizarre. There is also a narrative of Gauguin’s life in French, Tahitian and English. Outside is a gently rotting canoe with nice carving on it under a tree, next door to the Jacque Brel Space that was closed by the time I got to it.

The next day a grey curtain of rain draped sea and mountains the entire day. No one was going anywhere if they didn’t have to. My address book was delivered. Joy on a grey day. I had a date, however, for the following day to go to the island just below Hiva Oa, Tahuatu.

At 8:30 the next morning, when Pifa didn’t show, I was used to his being on time, I had Georges call him.  He was there in five minutes.

We drove to the next harbor to the left of Atuona with the same amazing topography of hills rising right up from the water to get on some kind of motorboat driven by a hefty man in a tee shirt liberally decorated with holes front and back.  His assistant was a young man in his early teens, agile and obviously in love with boat and sea. The other passengers were a French family. Maman was quite lovely to look at, Papa nice enough, Grandpa, age seventy-five, not bad and the two kids—a girl, in her teens, standardly pretty with a new upper arm bracelet tattoo, a boy, younger, with his hair in a fashion-statement, bleached topknot.

The man in the holed tee shirt brought us out of the harbor into the ocean, someone has commented that Pacific is a serious misnomer for this ocean, where we crossed swells. At first it was fun to bounce off a crest of one and slam into the trough of the next. But the slams got harder and harder until we did one that hurled me up from my seat. Some years ago In Tibet I broke a vertebrae by going over a potholed road at speed so I spoke up sharply and we slowed down.

Once we slowed, small dolphins surrounded us. They did not leap up, but swam beside us companionably. There was cove after cove with pretty beaches along the shore of Hiva Oa and in the cliffs shallow caves dug by the sea. We stopped in one of these coves for the French to snorkel. Only the parents went. Apparently, because there is no reef, the unprotected water is turbulent making visibility short.

We crossed the little strait to Tahuatu stopping at a village where we visited an ascetically severe church; a long, plain crucifix is its only ornament. There are four hundred people in the village that has terraces but no tikis. Living on this island you would have to want what you have to be happy.

The next village was further along the coast, Vaitahu. I think there are 700 people in this town. There is a handsome stone church with a mother and child above the porch. Inside it has a ceiling with a series of arches. Both ceiling and arches are made from strips of wood a little wider than lath in blond and reddish brown tones.  It is beautiful. The stained glass above the altar is of a Madonna and child, not Caucasian. Near the altar there is a large sculpture with many entwined and overlaid forms. The one I could make out was a turtle. Above the Madonna’s head in the window Pifa pointed out another turtle. This is a local symbol of longevity, virility and endurance. There was also a large drum at the back of the church that Pifa caressed as we left.

It seems that sometime in the 1970’s or 80’s, after more than a century of censoring the local iconography and forbidding ancient customs, the Catholic Church relented and sent out a sensible priest who said there could be drums in churches and tattoos were acceptable.

Both these churches were built with sea mumbled stones whose soft roundness enhanced the texture of the walls.

We went to lunch at Jimmy’s Restaurant run by a woman—age difficult to tell—maybe in her 50’s in a flower decorated hat.  It was an excellent lunch—poisson cru au lait coco, some kind of meat, maybe goat with coconut milk, sashimi with spicy sauce, another dish with fish and breadfruit that we had seen on trees around town cooked two different ways. I am not a breadfruit fan.

To go to the bathroom you walked around the house where a man was lounging under a tree on a circular stone bench with his pig, and her piglets, almost a dozen, in shades of black with white splotches and ginger with freckles. Although a bit shy of strangers, once you scratched them they lay down and, closed their eyes in ecstasy. Mama, snorting, was busy making herself a good muddy wallow. She seemed pleased with her fecundity; the man, sitting and talking to the multicolored litter, scratching the little ones, seemed proud of her abilities as well. I could hardly help but connect this relationship to the warrior and his forty-meter pig. I scratched the piglets too. Their hair is coarse and stiff; you get exceedingly dirty fingernails scratching them.

The bathroom was an existential statement of pipes and faucets. There was a toilet of the usual Western variety with a tank. However, there was no lid on the tank and a faucet arched up and over the edge of the tank wall. You flushed by reaching into the tank mechanism and pulling a wire. You filled the tank up again by turning on the faucet.  It all worked perfectly well.

When we came back to harbor on Hiva Oa I drove with Pifa and the French to where they are staying, up hill and out of town. They had sensibly rented a house; there were five of them. They were quite indifferent in their goodbyes, which was disappointing. Although it unfortunately backed up what Pifa had said about his experience with the French whom he believes, “have hearts of stone.”

The next day, wiped out by the sea air, I did nothing but write, eat George’s exquisite shrimp curry and nap.

I expected the following morning that Jonathan, about whom I was okay but not enthusiastic since he muddled his stories, would pick me up. Instead, at 8 am Pifa showed to say that his brother would come at 8:30 to take me to the petroglyph.

At 8:30 a vision of masculine virility appeared on the verandah in the form of Bly, baptismal name Brian. He resembles Pifa but Ireland is not as pronounced in his face and he is younger, in his thirties. He is full of humor, and fiercely curious about everything.

At a supermarket that was new to me, we bought ham, lettuce and tomato baguettes and water for lunch, and, by heaven, fifteen postcards, the first I had seen in town.  If you received a postcard from Hiva Oa of Hiva Oa it was from this store, unless it was the weird postcard of the nymphs around the waterfall.  That was from Pape’ete.

Bly’s car was a four-wheel drive Land Rover, of beyond a certain age. My seatbelt was broken but I tucked it around me because Bly is training for the police and it wouldn’t due for him to be seen with an unbelted passenger. A small lamp on the left front fender was broken and about to fall off.  A drawer on the dash kept opening. I had to hold onto a cloth strap to keep the door from swinging open—it only did this once—and I had to give my door a blow with elbow or a kick with foot to get it open. The car worked well on the muddy roads we traveled.

We went off tarmac and onto a track where one could see the prints of cows and pigs. I hadn’t been able to do this trip because the rains had made the area too muddy. The road was badly over grown; branches came in the window from time to time. A horse was tethered alone in the forest, plenty to eat but lonely.

We stopped at a barbed wire fence to start walking. Bly unwrapped some strands of barbed wire and then hefted up two of the posts. Now we were on an overgrown mud road shuffling through weeds, pushing away scrub. Bly had his machete out and was swiping at beginning trees. We passed big banyans dripping roots, coming to a clearing where I could see the dark volcanic stones of a terrace with more climbing the mountainside into the darkness of the jungle.

The terraces are built of big rocks rammed into place with smaller stones to wedge them. The upper surface of the top row of stones is flat. At the base of the terrace that rose four or five feet above me, I was balancing on stones that had fallen from the terrace, slippery with moss and lichens. Bly went ahead to see if he could remember the location of the boulder with the petroglyphs. I could see the grey tiki and his grin between two of the rocks. I climbed up to walk around the tiki as Bly came back. He is my second favorite. He also has a smile.

We lunched on our ham baguettes below the tiki. Bly talked about his family—three brothers, four sisters—growing up without toys. A stick was a spear, a telescope, a gun, a wand. As a child he thought he was invincible, immortal. He thought it fun to be chased by steers or wild pigs. In his teens he intended to go into the army to be a sniper. He was big on single-handed glory. His mother worried a lot. He went to the University of Hawaii intending to become a doctor in order to return and help his people but he could not afford the tuition and did not qualify for the scholarship. He didn’t want to get into debt so he gave that up.

Back in Tahiti he applied to be a nurse but the woman psychologist on his panel said, ironically, that he was too much like a doctor to be a nurse. He is now a fireman and training to be a policeman as well. He has three children. He has been to France, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the U. S. He commented that the French are the biggest complainers in the world. What is impressive about these men is that they are traveled people. They know the world and they want to live in their part of it.

Bly showed me candlenuts looking like stone walnuts. Cut open they have a waxy, yellow interior, which burned gives a faint light.

I told him about trekking in Nepal, dealing with leeches, about circumambulating Mount Kailash with Tibetans saying their prayers on their beads or muttering mantras as we all climbed to the pass at 18,600 feet where the wind chased the colors of the prayer flags wrapped around huge rocks.

Our baguettes eaten we left the tiki to the jungle’s green silence—big eyes and grey grin—to walk down toward where we had left the venerable Rover. Bly thought he had remembered where we should turn. He went to investigate. He returned triumphant. He hacked at the scrub when it made the path obscure, down hill and there, beside a dry stream-bed well, as dry as anything is here—was a great boulder green with moss. Lines were deeply incised into it.  What I could make out looked to me like three figures swimming. There were other things, other lines, but I could not make sense of them. Bly said there are legends about men with lizard tails. Maybe there were tails on these figures.

We walked back to the car, replacing the barbed wire and the fence, out of the green land of myth and legend.

As we drove and walked I asked him about tattoos. He told me that they have to do with identity and achievement. You start getting them when you are fifteen if you are a boy. They are symbolic, as for instance the turtle. But if you become skilled at something, as a fisherman, a hunter, a drum maker or warrior, that will be part of your tattoos. The idea of the warrior is strong here as strong as the memory of coming close to annihilation by massacre and disease.

My life sang inside me this day. Walking in the jungle, not really difficult, climbing up to the tiki’s terrace, a mild physical effort, being alone with a guide and what he had to show me that I don’t understand, that’s new intellectually, emotionally, an adventure beyond myself makes me joyous. To be confronted by the alien and then to have to find my way to its universal human center, that is the most fascinating maze in this world.

As we said goodbye at the Relais Moehau Bly said to me, “I am going there some day. To the mountain.” I don’t doubt it.

3 thoughts on “2019, BLOG XVII: More Hiva Oa

  1. Dear Karen,

    I appreciated your lovely card. I’m just back from 10 days in Italy—lago iseo and Torino. I would love to see you when you next are in nyc.

    Send with my love,


    Lynn C. Goldberg
    Goldberg McDuffie
    945 Fifth Avenue
    New York, NY 10021


  2. I see this pig motif everywhere. Such an intelligent animal that has given so much of itself to make us happy. Leaving man and beast aside, your summary paragraph really spoke to me. Moving outside oneself to discover who you are on the inside. Albeit, you had an insider’s perspective (no pun intended) that we readers can only imagine. Of course, it’s imagination that keeps the spirit alive. What could be more alive than to experience linked moments of contrasting adventure?


  3. Wow! Here’s to more adventures beyond oneself. To joy, to intellectual, emotional and I think, spiritual renewal.


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