2019, BLOG XVIII: Walks on Hiva Oa

I walked almost into the town of Taaoa and back, looking up at the mountain, then down to the sea or at roots climbing out of a cliff face, then going back in. It was a beautiful walk of ten kilometers. At one point there was a spasm of rain but I quickly dried.

The next day my goal was the Calvary Cemetery where Jacques Brel and Paul Gauguin are buried. I stopped along the way to pass time with horses tethered by the road. They are often terribly lonely and are grateful for a scratch and a little conversation. The walk up was so steep my iPhone recorded parts of it as stairs. The views were over ridges with an occasional house, coconut palms, mangoes terracing down to the white breaking of the sea. People stopped to offer me a ride but I needed the exercise particularly since I had discovered a drink cum dessert that Georges makes with coffee, ice cream, chocolate and whipped cream or something else invented for the purpose of clotting arteries.

The cemetery was a series of terraced steps. On the first terrace was Brel. He had a tall, narrow, professionally cut stone bearing a bronze bas relief with his face and the face of his companion on it. Before the stone was a shallow rectangular depression in which people left stones they had written messages on in magic marker.

A terrace or two further up I found Gauguin. He had a small, local volcanic stone, not artificially cut, with his name and dates painted on it in white paint. He had one message written on a scrap of paper slipped into a plastic cover by a Parisian sculptor. Next to the grave is a reproduction of his sculpture of a girl, The Wild One.

I continued walking up among the less famous. Many graves had pictures of the dead on them. There were a few large, fancy—decorated with wrought iron—tombs of Catholic prelates.  At the top I found a dog curled up in the rectangular depression before a small grave. We let each other be.

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There was also, inexplicably, dead on another grave, a small bird. I returned to the road continuing to walk up and found on the road a white chicken not inexplicably dead. Its neck had been broken, I’m sure, by the dog with the smug, but wary expression lurking just down a driveway.

I could see a large building a little further up and decided to walk to it and then go back down. It turned out to be a Seventh Day Adventist church. As I came down a truck came up. I automatically waved; the car stopped; it was Pifa, his wife, who always has on the most outrageous earrings, and his two boys, one of whom has an eye that doesn’t move as it should. They were all dressed for church in jackets and ties. Pifa was amazed that I’d made it up the hills.

As I walked down I moved from one area of perfume to the next—jasmine, a citrus odor and finally the ocean. There was a sign out in front of a house advertising carvings.

The carver sat under a shade roof with his tools, surrounded by his work. I looked at his carvings and sat with him for a while. When I asked about the Tevitete Cemetery Ancien, he made motions suggesting that not only was it far up hill but a long way away. Neither was true.

I came back down into town and stood on the sea wall watching the surfers and once home talked to the French couple in the room next to me who had just married for the second time. They had been taken to the Cemetery Ancien by someone they had met on the plane. They also said it was far and difficult to get to.

In the morning I asked Georges to call Pifa about going there. This was unfortunate because Georges decided that it was dangerous for me to go alone, although Pifa told me I could do it easily asking my way at houses along the road. But Georges insisted Pifa drive me saying there were dangerous dogs on the road. So we agreed to a half-day. He arrived, a little late, in an immaculate four-wheel drive whose doors opened and shut without difficulty.

The cemetery is up a narrow dirt road edged by large, shallow, rectangular containers under roofs, full of drying coconut, copra. One, when we went up, was also full of the little mourning doves feasting. On the way back it was full of pigeons from France, another introduced species.

The cemetery is small, arranged in terraces of black volcanic rock, densely overgrown, climbing the mountain. Some inhabitants have been dug up and transferred to the new graveyard. But at the top, where a Christian chief is buried, is a small charming tiki, smiling out from under a sort of roof. Many of the graves are marked by fancy bits of wrought iron that must have been imported from France. There was another grave with a roof? Was there once a tiki sheltering here? As is true in the other cemetery the views are spectacular down over the ridges of the mountain to the sea.

Back in the four-wheel drive we headed onto narrow mud tracks coming upon people on horseback. I realized to my annoyance that I had forgotten about doing that. Pifa, of course, knew all these people.  The horses came in an interesting variety from small ones, to one very handsome chestnut of normal European height. It would be the perfect way to get off the roads and into the jungle. We crossed a stream. Pifa showed me where, when it rains, there are waterfalls coming down into the valley. Unfortunately we at this point could see an enormous rock in the road. That killed our drive. We did stop at a carver’s —tikis, doors with tikis on them, nose flutes covered with designs adapted from tattoos. He showed me on his iPod a picture of a small pendant, finely carved, that is in a museum in New York, probably the Metropolitan if someone would like to check it out—a pig ivory pendant from the Marquesa Islands. I intend to look next time I am there.

My last day in Hiva Oa I walked in the other direction, to the left, to the harbor where we took the boat to Tahuatu. I decided to take the lower road to the harbor, Moto Anakee, that passed a beauty salon, there are a number of these in Atuona, behind a bamboo gate covered with signs advertising various services, and then more surprisingly past a vegetable stand selling cucumbers, salad leaves and some fruit the length of a banana that is orange-brown-black. I ran into the people who a few days earlier had been mowing the verge of the road in front of the Relais Moehau now cropping grass and weeds further along. I wondered if they circle the island keeping the road edge trimmed, an occupation not unlike the moss tenders in Japan.

As I came to the harbor I could see through the leaves down to the beach, where a man was scrubbing his big, handsome horse. He enjoyed his bath. A dog was dancing in and out of the water encouraging this. They came up from the beach and walked ahead of me for a while before turning off, as I continued on to the harbor where nothing much was going on and sailboats bobbed on the swells in the heat.

It was a good walk but the day was dangerously hot on a route with little shade. On my way back to the Relais Moehau I talked briefly to a woman going in the opposite direction who was carrying ice in her daypack to stay cool.  The heat, indeed, made walking risky.

The next day I thought I was leaving at 9 but the plane was at 11. Georges gave me a baguette with ham and chicken, a bottle of water and a banana. He also gave me a bottle of honey. I was fairly sure I would never make it to Bangkok with the honey, that the sniffer dogs in Auckland would find it and slaver all over me at the airport. Since I was carrying other contraband through the airport, the oil I had bought in Atuona, some ginger lemon grass tea, a packet of leaves A had given me to boil up as a remedy for lung congestion, I decided to sacrifice the honey.

The young, gay waiter, with big brown eyes, who had decided I was someone he wanted to know, drove me to the airport. I think what he really wanted was to learn English. We had a lesson going to the airport on tree and fruit names.

I ate my baguette in the airport. The plane did not arrive until 2pm, presaging events to come. I was very happy to have that baguette.

A girl of perhaps three, blonde with delicate, elfin features, had been racing, twirling and jumping for joy around the airport with her slightly older, more brunette sister while they waited for another flight. She had not understood what circumstance was about to occur. When she saw her sister and mother climb the stair onto the plane, she had a split second of astonishment, followed swiftly by a sodden collapse into inconsolable tears in her father’s arms.

The father comforted her with kisses and a sympathetic smile. I had watched him earlier in the day brushing his wife’s hair. Thai men don’t zip up their wives’ dresses. An American man would never brush out his wife’s long midnight hair in an airport. Here it caused not a glance of interest as he, with enjoyment in the sensuality of the task, took her luxuriant hair down, brushed it out to its full length and helped her twist it up again and pin it.

I hated leaving Hiva Oa. I felt cranky and had a bad attitude that lasted through a fair amount of my stay in Pape’ete where conditions and events systematically worked to frustrate and irritate but the real problem was not Pape’ete; it was Hiva Oa. I have fallen in a depth charge of love with a South Pacific island.

3 thoughts on “2019, BLOG XVIII: Walks on Hiva Oa

  1. Beautiful, evocative words Karen. Your love for Hiva Oa shows in your (always) sharp observations and delight in so many aspects of life there. I love the simplicity of Gauguin’s grave. Your photos are good. What a fantastic experience you’ve had.


  2. Cemeteries are chock-full of treasures and surprises. And I am not surprised that your equine friends served as your guides. They are magical beasts that we rely on for comfort and caresses. So why not give it back?
    Dauntingly beautiful canvases at every turn. Of course you fell in love again!


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