5 A Savage on Hiva Oa
I have escaped everything that is artificial, conventional, customary. I am entering into truth; into nature…it is true; I am a savage.
- Paul Gauguin on Hiva Oa
At dawn on the thirtieth day out from the Galapagos and forty-five days out from Panama, I watched as the slender black thread of land began to solidify in the increasing light. Atom had sat out the night, drifting with jib backed and mainsail reefed, riding the waters as comfortably as a gull with folded wings. My mind had been focused on Hiva Oa Island for so long I might have conjured the island from a cloud on the horizon. Cloud or island ahead? Only one way to settle the matter: I adjusted sails and course for the cloud-shaped island.
Approaching the east end of Hiva Oa, I sailed recklessly close under high cliffs that threw back the trade wind-driven swells in thunderous fountains of spray. Unlike many of the sandy-shored, translucent, lagoon-filled isles of Polynesia, the Marquesas Islands lack a protective encircling offshore coral reef, and their weather-beaten shorelines take the full force of the Pacific rollers. Farther along the coast, lush and dark wooded shores led up furrowed valleys to jagged bare peaks pointing skyward like volcanic Gothic spires. Looking for better protection from easterly wind and swell, I passed by the first four slight indents in the coast that were optimistically referred to as “bays” on the chart – to a sailor, a bay implies some degree of protection, not merely small zigzags, particularly on an exposed shore filled with breaking waves.
Twelve miles down the coast, I entered the sheltered bay of Hana Iapa. It was comprised of a few visible grass-roofed huts at the bottom of a steeply rising valley, cloaked in a thick layer of green, floppy-topped coconut palms. On the far side of the bay, a silvery ribbon of waterfall fluttered down a vertical cliff into the sea. I passed a small islet whose weathered contour looked peculiarly like a stone carving of two profiled heads, back to back. A river of air descended from the valley, rippling the bay with the unmistakable flowered-scent of a tropical island. A single, gray cloud drifted across the bay, releasing just enough rain to form a translucent rainbow that touched the water, as it touched my soul, to complete a sailor's vision of paradise.
Tucked into the eastern corner of the bay, mostly beyond the reach of the sea swell, were three other yachts anchored a hundred yards off a short cement quay. I dropped sails, hoisted my yellow quarantine flag and motored into an open spot not far from where the other boats sat huddled together. The bottom was a mixture of sandy patches, sharp rocks and coral. Though only 15-20 feet deep, the bottom was just vaguely visible due to the run-off of sediments from the stream entering the head of the bay. I dropped my main anchor, a 25 lb plow-type with 25 feet of chain attached and another 100 feet of nylon rode shackled to the chain, onto a sandy spot surrounded by dark shapes of coral.
The problem was how to let out enough scope to get the anchor to hold while not permitting the nylon rode to chafe itself in two on the rocks as the boat swung to the wind shifts. Most cruising boats in the Pacific Islands use an all-chain rode, which partly solves the problem, but they still often get their chains wrapped around the coral heads, requiring them to dive and clear them at some point. Using my plastic dinghy, I set out my remaining two anchors in a triangle pattern: 13 lb lightweight Danforths, best used in sand or mud bottoms. Each line was fastened to the bow so the nylon rodes could remain taut and not wrap themselves around the coral where they would chafe through in a matter of hours.
A woman from a 40-something-foot Canadian-flagged boat, named Lorelei, waved at me and I rowed the dinghy over to meet them. Gwen Cornfield and her husband Mike had sailed from British Columbia and for the past several years cruised the islands of the South Pacific. The third member of their crew was Linda, who was about my age and had flown out to join them in Tahiti for a few months vacation before flying back to Canada. They invited me aboard and were surprised to find out this was my first stop after 45 days alone at sea.
“We thought you had just sailed around the island from the main port of Atuona and forgotten to take down your Q flag. Was it tough being alone all that time?” Mike asked.
“Well...umm, you're the first people...I mean...this is the first time I've spoken to anyone in a month. It is great...umm … to talk to someone.” I wanted to talk but couldn't put together a coherent sentence. I'm sure I sounded stupid at first, but I soon regained my speech and told them the highlights of my trip so far.
They confirmed what I'd heard in Panama, that all yachts arriving in the Marquesas are required to check in at one of the official ports of entry, the nearest of which was some 30 miles around the other side of the island at a crowded, open roadstead of an anchorage, at the main town of Atuona. There was also the not-so-little matter of an $850 cash bond sailors were required to post, to cover an airline ticket home in case a shipwrecked, or love-struck, sailor found himself unable, or unwilling to sail away when his 90-day visa expired. Not having $850 laying around, I adopted the simple ruse of avoiding the gendarme as long as possible while keeping the required Q flag up to comply with the only portion of the law I could afford.
After Gwen and Linda fed us a huge dinner, Mike got on his short-wave amateur radio and placed a radio link call back to my mother in Michigan, letting her know I'd arrived safely.
The crew of Lorelei planned to walk to a village a few miles along the north coast the following day to buy fruit and vegetables from the local farmers. After assuring me it was safe to roam this part of the island without running into any officials of the immigration type – the only road they could approach on had been washed out in a rainstorm a few days ago – I eagerly accepted an invitation to join them. As I was leaving to row back to Atom, I hesitatingly asked the lovely Linda if she'd like to “come visit my boat.”
“Sure, let's go,” she said and slipped her attractive, slender body into my dinghy. Back on Atom, the young solo sailor's hormones were raging, but I was so concerned not to act like a desperate dimwit that I bungled my imagined chance by sitting on my hands and talking at her nonstop for two hours. Now that I learned how to talk again, for some reason, I found it impossible to stop. She was kind enough to let me rattle on without letting on that I was making a bloody fool of myself. Sometime after midnight, she gratefully accepted my suggestion to take her back to Lorelei. I returned alone to Atom where I found a nagging shipmate called loneliness had crept aboard.
Early next morning, well before the sun had risen high enough to strike the uppermost coconut fronds in the central valley, we came ashore in Lorelei's dinghy, landing on a beach of bird's-egg-sized stones rattling in chorus with the incoming swell. Along shore was a row of open-sided huts filled with coconuts cut open to dry under the sun. A river, whose eroded banks showed that it ran deep and wide on rainy days, was now a shallow creek that flowed slowly down the valley under the branches of yellow-flowered hibiscus trees. The creek hesitated in a deep pool just before it seeped across a sandbar to mix with the saltwater of the bay. My boyhood dreams of the land of Melville's fictional South Sea adventure romance, Typee, were finally being realized and I was not disappointed by what I found.
We had no sooner pulled the dinghy ashore and started walking along the trail around the bay when a shirtless, teenaged Marquesan boy, heading the opposite way to work in his family's coconut grove, greeted us, and decided on the spot to become our guide for the journey to the village of Pau Mau. Our new companion, whose Christian name was Eric, led us up along the ruins of a road that had once been well-laid-out with hand-cut stones. Along the way, Eric told us the vowel-laden names of every craggy outcrop, or indent in the coast, from Hanapaoa Bay to Mount Ootua. For every spectacular basalt pinnacle that hove into view above the luxuriant green slopes, another fluid Marquesan name rolled from our guide's lips.
During this hike I learned that, on Hiva Oa, all paths that are not leading sharply downward, are leading equally sharply upwards. For several miles we followed the remains of the stone-lined road and passed moss-covered rock platforms in the shape of building foundations. These had once been the Marae temples where traditional religious ceremonies, including human sacrifice, took place.
Rounding a corner in the trail, we were alerted by the thumping sound of unshod hooves to a herd of wild horses breaking from their cover and racing over a sloping grass hillock flecked with fluffy white pods of flowering cotton. The cotton had been introduced here a century earlier in hopes of giving islanders a second cash crop to supplement copra. The Marquesans, who were wisely skeptical of adding another labor-intensive industry to their already-filled day, now let the cotton grow wild and abandoned to the wind.
The next narrow valley held the single house of a family who had emigrated from France two years previously. The young parents and two children, including a baby, lived in this remote homestead, the nearest road a two-hours walk. Their house was constructed in the native fashion using bamboo frames, palm-thatch walls and grass roof. They seemed pleased to have visitors and showed us around their home, all self-made down to the last stick of furniture and wooden serving bowls. As self-sufficient as they could possibly be, they lived with little contact from society, aside from the once or twice a month trek to town to get the few supplies that couldn't be made with their own hands, fished out of the sea, or grown in their garden. They could have built near a village or a road, but instead, they chose for neighbors the bougainvillea, croton, hibiscus, lofty mango and breadfruit trees, their vegetable gardens bordered with citrus and papaya trees, and an extended family of chickens and wild pigs. Because of the close proximity of their animals, compost pile and outhouse, there was also a healthy insect population. To live ashore in this part of the world is to endlessly endure flies trying to crawl into your eyes and nostrils. The children had numerous little sores from scratching at insect bites. While we visitors nervously swatted at the flies with our hands, our French host family were as unperturbed as cattle in a field. We were told that at night, every creature in the area is under siege from mosquitoes and the only refuge is found under mozzie nets draped over our hammocks and bamboo bunks.
Possibly worst of all are the lovely, sandy beaches nearby that beckon us, but which are rendered virtually off-limits to people due to the nearly invisible stinging gnats called nonos that inhabit the sand. We all knew when a sailor was newly arrived because his exposed limbs carried the red sores of the nono. You don't feel their bite until, a few hours later, itching red welts appear over all your exposed skin. The next time you would see the nono-bitten sailor approaching in his dinghy, he had learned enough to either be sprinting between the water and the tree line, or else he was wearing long pants, socks and shoes as he landed. Legend has it that these pests were released on the islands by a god intent on punishing the people for breaking one of his taboos. It also works well to keep developers away.
This tropical version of Thoreau's Walden Pond allowed our hosts to live as their own masters, seeking out the primitive and elemental aspects of life close to nature, though these rewards are hard-earned. The entire family were as thin and sinewy as birds compared to the fat most of us carry around. The island homesteader's relentless battle against insects made any pests associated with my own sea-steading seem trivial. When insects flew out for a visit on Atom, I was able to put up screens over the hatches or re-anchor a bit further from shore.
I wondered, but didn't ask, how they had managed to buy this well-located piece of land. Most property here is jointly held by members of large native families and they do not easily come to agreement to sell at any price. Though visitors are shyly welcomed, the Marquesans are not keen to have so many foreign settlers that they become a minority in their own land.
As our hike continued to the next bay, just far enough back from the beach to avoid those blasted nonos, was a small village of five simple houses built from the sawn wood and pleated fronds of the palm tree. We met several men working at producing copra from ripe coconuts. Fallen nuts were gathered into piles next to a sharpened iron spike driven into the ground onto which a man thrust the nut down to twist off the husk. Other men pried the oily white flesh from the inner shell and laid the pieces on slit bamboo racks to dry in the sun. Depending on the weather, after several days of drying, the copra is bagged and stored until the arrival of the government-subsidized cargo vessel – still locally called the “copra schooner” – from Tahiti. Much of the copra is refined and shipped overseas as cooking oil. Copra work is physically hard, though it has the advantage of allowing each man to work when he wants, for as long as he wants, and be paid accordingly. The trees are there waiting, each one producing some 40 nuts annually – 80 trees in a grove yielding a ton of copra each year.
While the men joked with us and continued working, a boy scrambled effortlessly up a tall palm and twisted a few immature drinking nuts until they dropped to the ground, where our guide Eric deftly sliced off the tops and handed them around. The workers watched approvingly as we slurped up the cool, slightly sweet water. In addition to the sightseeing, we had hoped to find farmers willing to sell us some vegetables, however, there was nothing to buy, just a gratefully accepted gift of a few oranges and bananas and all the husked coconuts we wanted to carry.
At this point, the crew of Lorelei turned back while Eric and I detoured inland to rejoin the main cross-island road and continued on into the village of Pua Mau. There, in a place overgrown with brush, Eric pointed out the ancient, 10-foot-high, lichen-covered stone idols, called tikis. My common language with Eric was French, he being far better at it than I, having spoken it since childhood at the island's French colonial school. I asked what he knew about the origins of these stone creatures. Eric made an indifferent shoulder shrug and said, “Je ne sais pas,” which in this case means either I don't know, or maybe, I can't or won't say. That the current generations of islanders will admit to knowing nothing – and caring less – about this ever-present and not-so-long-ago practice, only makes it all the more intriguing.
Some archeologists theorize that the people of Easter Island originally emigrated from the Marquesas, and that these weathered stone monuments on Hiva Oa were created by those same people who went on to the similar and greater works on Easter Island's famous long-eared moai statues. As on Easter Island, forgotten generations of Marquesans quarried smaller, but still substantial, chunks of lava rock weighing over a ton, and shifted them miles across the tortuous terrain to their chosen resting places. They then carved them into mysterious forms and stood them upright using earthworks, levers and coconut fiber ropes.
Today's Marquesans may have been part of a second migration that arrived here several hundred years after the builders of the stone roads, temples and tikis. Another theory has the stone carvers arriving later and enslaving the local population to do the work for them. Either way, at some point, a conflict took place in which the stone artisans, whose culture included sun worship (no, not your typical tourist's version) and human sacrifice, were themselves carved up and eaten. The victors, who were either slaves or invaders from other islands, knocked down the tikis and temples. The present population is mostly made up of the descendents of these cannibal tribes that survived the battles with the stone artisans. In Pua Mau, three fallen tikis, probably symbols of deified ancestors or other gods, have regained their feet. If not exactly in their full past glory, they stand as weathered, mute symbols of the Marquesan people's long struggle to survive invasions of other warring tribes.
The natives used to call these islands Te Fenua Enata, The Land of Men. The six inhabited islands of the group lay in two clusters of three each, spreading across 250 miles of ocean. The depopulation and cultural devastation of these islands began in 1595 when Mendoza – the Spanish discoverer sent by the Marquesa de Mendoca of Peru – got into a scuffle and slaughtered several hundred of the natives.
Until Captain James Cook's rediscovery of the islands in 1770, the Marquesans had gone about their cultivating of food crops and occasional raids of neighboring islands to pick up guests for their human feasts, with little outside interference. Despite their savage state, Cook noted the Marquesans were “without exception the finest race of people in this Sea.” Cook traded nails, cloth and hatchets for hogs, fruits and vegetables to nourish his ailing crew. One of Cook's officers recorded that the heavily tattooed men were “exquisitely proportion'd” and the women were “very beautiful” with long hair “worn down their backs in a most becoming and graceful manner.”
Within 50 years of Cook's visit, the population he estimated at over 100,000 people was reduced by four-fifths. The guns of European raiders claimed far less than the insidious European diseases and the consequent famines. Others were carried off as slaves to work till death on the dry guano islands along the South American coast. The ensuing social turmoil resulted in even more devastating intertribal wars and the end to their seafaring expeditions.
When the French took control of the islands in 1842, they nearly succeeded in exterminating the remaining population. By 1936, the one-time Land of Men contained only 1,300 people, a population reduction of some 98 percent. In recent years, through better governance, or at least less-bad governance, the main islands are slowly being repopulated.
The French missionaries did succeed in wiping out nearly every trace of the islanders' original culture, with a special emphasis on eradicating the wildly erotic fertility dances described by the South Seas whaler turned writer, Herman Melville. In his fictionalized book Typee, based on his very real visit to the Marquesas in the 1840s, Melville states:
The term 'savage' is, I conceive, often misapplied, and indeed when I consider the vices, cruelties and enormities of every kind that spring up in the tainted atmosphere of a feverish civilization, I am inclined to think that so far as the relative wickedness of the parties is concerned, four or five Marquesan islanders sent to the United States as missionaries might be quite as useful as an equal number of Americans dispatched to the islands in a similar capacity.
We returned to Hana Iapa and Atom where I heard that the road to Atuona was open again and I thought I'd better turn myself in to customs and immigration before they decided to come looking for me. A long coastal navigation around the island would surely have been dogged by periods of calms behind the mountains. Atom's ailing engine might get us through the calm bits if it felt like working, but it would not help once I turned the corner along the south coast and came face-to-face with a brutal beat against wind and current for several miles. Instead of making that risky passage around the island to anchor in a marginal harbor, I decided to report my arrival by walking across the island carrying my passport, boat's registration and clearance papers from my last port.
As I walked up and away from Hana Iapa, a fresh wind swept down the valley, rustling the coconut fronds and breadfruit tree leaves overhead. Across the bay on the exposed shore, a blowhole at the base of the cliffs timed the pulse of the sea to eject fountains of spray with a deep bass “boom” of a distant cannon shot. On my side of the bay, men paddling two canoes dropped a long semi-circular net into the water and then brought lines tethered to the ends to another group of men and women standing in the surf. The two groups at either end of the net exchanged instructions and encouragement as they pulled the net up the stony shore where shouting children picked out its few small fish and dropped them into baskets. To suit the occasion, the fish might be marinated and eaten raw as ika tee, or baked in banana leaves in an earth oven.
I was barely out of the village when the rain began. Within minutes the dirt road became a steep mass of mud and earth-stained rivulets. Grabbing a banana leaf as a disposable umbrella, I sloshed my way up the island's backbone of black lava, basalt and red tufa. In most places this island's rock foundation was so overgrown with vegetation that from a distance the crenellated land looked to have a gentle rolling form. Up close, its bony structure showed deeply scored cliffs, the naked scars of recent landslips and bare peaks so sharp that the lush tropical growth fell away in a losing battle against gravity and the erosive forces of wind and rain. Away from all signs of human existence, under a veil of cloud and rain, somewhere near the abandoned stone tiki quarry, the dark forest undulated with water and exuded something foreboding.
The higher elevations resembled a temperate zone forest where the ragged pandanus trees gave way to troops of close-ordered ironwood trees guarding a ridge. In the pre-Christian era, the ironwood or toa trees were carved into skull-crushing war clubs. At the crest of the ridge the rain lifted, the clouds blew away and I looked out over the windward coast beyond the vegetation-choked valley for several miles across a white-flecked blue sea to another brown and green volcanic upheaval – the sister island of Tahu Ata.
In half the time it took to climb the north side of the mountain, I ran and occasionally slid by the seat of my pants, down the equally muddy southern side. In Atuona, the harbor was crowded with a supply ship sitting as Mother Goose to a flock of some dozen yachts rolling uneasily and pecking at their short-scoped anchors. Down the road, shimmering red bouquets of poinciana and yellow-flowered hibiscus trees bordered the main street and its brick homes, general goods store, bank and the gendarmarie.
There are a couple of different ways for an English-speaking sailor to transact his business with a truculent French official. You can adopt the Englishman's habit of insisting the Frenchman speak, or at least understand, English. The idea being to wear our Frenchman down so that he submits to the indignity of speaking English, which he usually knows, more-or-less, but is loathe to use, as if each incident were a replay of Waterloo. That approach may not work so well if your papers are not entirely in order. In my case, I decided on the tactic of the hopeless groveling fool (one that I can play perhaps too well), with a smattering of incomprehensible French pulled from a phrase book.
My knock at the door of his residence caught him in the middle of a late lunch or early dinner or perhaps an extended lunch/dinner. The gendarme looked fresh off the plane from France, only a few years older than myself, and no doubt still in shock over his good fortune at landing this coveted Polynesian post. When he saw me on his stoop covered in mud and carrying a backpack, he stepped outside and led me at arm's length back down to the lawn to speak with me. He seemed truly amazed, and then a little irritated, to find out I had walked across the island to check in. Once we established my boat was not in the harbor, he proceeded to tell me I would have to move the boat here and then visit the bank next door to post the required $850 cash bond.
Back and forth we went, with the gendarme insisting I move my boat and pay the bond, and myself pleading ignorance and penury and a broken engine thrown in to settle the point. Being a reasonable man (and what could he do about it anyway?) the gendarme finally agreed I could remain two weeks to make repairs and then must sail directly to Tahiti to arrange bond payment there. Fortunately, “passing the buck” is as alive in colonial Polynesia as anywhere else. The terms of our truce were especially agreeable to me because they could be safely ignored. In later years, sailing through Asia and Africa, I learned avoidance is the best tactic with some officials. The gypsies of both the land and the sea know the rule: never ask permission, never be denied.
The Marquesas, like all of French Polynesia, are ferociously expensive. They are not a welcoming sort of place for a low-budget traveler. I noticed that a single bottle of Tahiti's Hinano brand beer at the grocery store cost six dollars. I made one necessary indulgence and bought a baguette and some cheese for the better part of ten dollars, converted at the counter into francs by the Chinese shopkeeper. In fact, my entire budget for an expected two months of cruising among the French Isles could easily have been blown here in two days.
At the cemetery above the bay, I sat down to enjoy my baguette and cheese at the overgrown grave of the French painter and sculptor, Paul Gauguin, who spent the last two years of his life here on Hiva Oa. Years ago back in Detroit, I had been captivated by his stunning paintings of Polynesian life and I had determined then to make a pilgrimage to his final island home – and perhaps catch a glimpse of the Polynesia he had painted.
When Gauguin left his wife and young children in Paris to go to Tahiti in 1891, he told a friend, “I'm leaving to live in peace, to be rid of the influence of civilization. I only desire to create very simple art. In order to achieve this I must immerse myself in virgin nature, to see no one but savages, to share their life and have as my sole occupation to render, the way a child would, the images formed in my brain, using exclusively the means offered by primitive art, which are the only true and valid ones.”
Gauguin fantasized about the approaching day “when I'll flee to the woods on an island in Oceania: there to live on ecstasy...there on Tahiti with a new family by my side far from the European scramble for money. In the silence of the beautiful tropical nights I will be able to listen to the soft murmur and music of the movements of my heart, in harmony with the mysterious beings around me. Free at last – without financial worries. Able to love, sing, and to die.”
Gauguin moved into a Tahitian-style hut a good distance outside the capital of Papeete and took for his new wife a teenage vahine, named Tea'Amana (Giver of Strength). His numerous paintings of her became the embodiment of his South Seas fantasy. Of her Gauguin wrote: “She seemed to love me, but did not tell me so. I loved her and told her so, which made her laugh. She knew it very well. Naked, she seemed clothed in an orange-yellow garment of purity – a beautiful golden flower...which I worshipped as an artist and a man.”
Two years later, Gauguin returned to France with dozens of paintings of a of dream-like, idealized Polynesia, but his inspired, unconventional genius went largely unrecognized at the time. He returned to Tahiti where he continued painting and began writing anti-government editorials in local publications.
Gauguin had listened to the islanders' stories of wrongs done to them: a girl trying to report a rape who was then raped by the magistrate who dismissed the case, gendarmes arresting girls for indecency after searching out their bathing places, natives wrongly accused of all sorts of crimes merely because their culture was not the French ideal – and Gauguin himself was threatened with expulsion from the islands when he tried to intervene.
Tahiti had become too civilized and corrupted for his tastes so he moved to the more remote Marquesas. He built a home and art studio here in the center of Atuona village that he called the House of Pleasure, and carved on its wooden frames his favorite maxims, “Soyez mysterieuses” (Be mysterious), and “Soyez, amoureuses vous serez heureuses” (Be in love, you will be happy).
Having been rejected by Tea'Amana after his return to Tahiti, he took here a new 14-year-old vahine he had lured away from the local Catholic mission school. This monstrous behavior, and his continued public protests against the colonial government and church, soon made him the enemy of the local priests and police. The European colony shunned him as a heretic and salacious traitor. The islanders on the other hand, loved Gauguin and saw him as the only European who never tried to exploit them or treat them as inferiors. But the villagers were soon forbidden by the priests and gendarmes to visit the home of the white painter. Only Tioka, the island's old witch doctor, refused to be scared away. Since Gauguin had interceded and gotten Tioka's prison sentence reduced after his conviction for cannibalism, the fiercely independent old man spread the word among the islanders that here was one good white man who could help them.
Between increasingly serious bouts of illness, Gauguin completed several more paintings that he sent back to his art dealer in Paris. A degree of recognition and money began to trickle back to him. His running feud with church and state was exacerbated by his published newsletters railing against the intimidation, ill-treatment and denial of elementary justice done to the natives. For his trouble Gauguin was convicted of libel against the government and sentenced to a large fine and three months in prison. Before the sentence could be carried out, he died alone in his house from heart failure complicated by his various ailments. As the hated priests removed the body of their adversary for burial, it was reported the old Tioka cried “Gauguin is dead: we are lost!” and then sang the Marquesan death chant.
The islanders were said to miss seeing their odd friend, barefoot with colored pareo around his waist and an astonishing silver-tasseled green beret pulled over one eye, traipsing off to some lonely part of the valley to capture the tropical scenes on canvas. Speaking of his legacy to art and not necessarily about his behavior, Gauguin said he wanted to provide future generations of artists with “the right to dare anything.” If there were similarities between Gauguin and myself, they were mainly limited to a mutual distrust of the minions of bureaucracy, and perhaps a desire to cultivate the savage within.
By the time I rose from Gauguin's grave (not that I actually rose from his grave in any metaphysical sense), it was too late in the day to return all the way back to Hana Iapa. On the edge of Atuona, I pitched my one-man tent alongside a shallow stream next to a fruit orchard. Entering my thin fabric tent, which was held open by two little fiberglass rod hoops, was more like slithering into a loose-fitting garment laid out on the ground. Soon after sunset, a rain began that continued through the night. I became aware I was too close to the river when it rose and wetted my feet inside the tent. Adding to my discomfort, a chill night air flowed down the mountain, forcing me to slog around in the unhappy combination of cold, rain and darkness as I struggled to relocate my tent to higher ground.
At dawn I attempted to drive the chill from my bones by marching briskly back up the mountain towards Hana Iapa. Along the way I passed an abandoned four-wheel-drive jeep stuck up to its axles in mud in the middle of the road. Where the road crossed a high ridge, I detoured onto a trail that took me up the chine to what could have been one of the island's highest peaks, but it was engulfed in a rain-filled cloud that blocked what surely was a stunning view. A series of sharply dropping trails, much harder on the knees than an uphill slog, brought me back to Hana Iapa.
During my absence, my friends on Lorelei had moved on to another island and two other yachts had arrived in the anchorage. I was relieved to see Atom appeared as I had left her. However, once I got on deck and checked the anchor rodes, I saw one of the lines was loose. When I pulled it in, there was no anchor on the end, just a frazzle where the coral had cut the line in two. Diving with fins, mask and snorkel, I located the missing anchor and freed up the other two rodes, which had also worked enough slack in their lines that they too were nearly chafed through on the sharp rocks. The rest of the afternoon I spent splicing the three-strand nylon lines and resetting the anchors with fender floats attached in an attempt to lift the slack from the lines above the reach of the rocks. This was not the last time a lack of all-chain rode would nearly cause the loss of my boat.
I became friends with a Hana Iapa family who lived above the stream in a simple home of bamboo, plywood and thatch, located on the sole road passing through the village. The father, Tehoko, almost daily paddled his canoe out to visit Atom with his children and to bring me food from their garden. In return, I gave him fishing tackle and an armful of T-shirts I'd bought by the bundle at a flea market back in Miami. Out here in the Pacific Isles, far from a clothing store, they were now worth something as barter goods.
Besides the garden around their house, many Marquesans have an inland garden on land they use, or ignore, according to their needs. Tehoko invited me to join him on a horseback trip to his second garden. My backside was relieved when I finally dismounted the hard wooden saddle. Sensing what would interest me most, Tehoko's cleared some vines away from a rounded Volkswagen-sized boulder revealing ancient carved symbols, the meanings of which were now lost, at least to words.
At the garden, Tehoko brought down a whole banana tree with a single swipe of his machete. Then he cut off a stalk of the rare and delicious red bananas. I smiled then as I always do whenever I see a banana tree cut down, remembering the first time I saw a man do this on Tobago Island in the Caribbean. This destruction of a whole tree for a single bunch of bananas seems a terrible waste to the uninitiated Westerner, but each tree produces its bunch of bananas only once. From the base of the cut trunk, another tree will grow and bear fruit again within a year. I still laugh as I remember what a fool I looked like when I ran forward and grabbed the man's arm to stop him from cutting the whole tree down to get me the bananas I'd asked for. He had a good laugh as he explained the necessity of it. He might be laughing still, when he gets together with friends to recount stories of the dumbest white men they ever met.
As we moved into a partly flooded stream bed, Tehoko showed me how to select and cut the potato-like tuber of the taro plant, which is a basic staple of the Polynesian diet. The purplish-white flesh of the taro is more dense and chewy than a potato – probably more nutritious as well – and became a favorite ingredient in my vegetable stews whenever I could get them.
Another incredible food found in the gardens of Hiva Oa is the pomplemoose, a grapefruit-like fruit nearly the size of a basketball and as sweet as a Mandarin orange. There are few pleasures like biting into a fresh, ripe pomplemoose, mango, papaya, or pineapple from a tropical garden. I'm not talking about the horrid Hawaiian pineapple grown on chemical feed, sprayed with insecticides, picked green, injected with chemicals to retard spoiling and then refrigerated for thirty days while being shipped to your antiseptic supermarket. For anything like the real flavor of a pineapple, you must snatch it from the dark volcanic soil at the peak of ripeness and eat it unrefrigerated.
We tied our sacks of fruit and vegetables on the horses and led them back to Tehoko's home where I was given a bagful of taro and other foods that would keep well, to take on the next leg of my passage west. Much of the so-called farming here is little more than plucking the food from the ground or trees. At least I saw no planting, just an endless cycle of harvests. This is part of the reason for the apparent indolence and carelessness that Westerners see in the native Polynesian – he needn't worry himself with our misplaced notions of “make hay while the sun shines.” Winter never comes to Polynesia.
Nearly daily I went to visit Tehoko's home where I spent happy days with his family. Tehoko's wife and eldest daughter, Celestine, prepared meals for us containing the South Seas staples of roasted cassava, poached breadfruit and taro root baked in an earth oven and slathered with coconut cream, with side dishes of those fantastic little red bananas and papayas sprinkled with lime juice. Tehoko said, “It's a shame you just missed the July,” as Marquesans call Bastille Day, which is celebrated throughout French Polynesia as their National Day. “We had a great feast with music and dancing.”
Celestine was a lively teen-aged girl; a slender, beguiling beauty with dancing black eyes. Laughing at my flawed pronunciation but encouraged by my efforts, she helped me compile a short phrase book of the Marquesan language, which as she spoke it, sounded more like music than words. With my rough French, we strained at times to communicate with each other, sometimes by my pretending to understand when I could not. I thought now of extending my stay here, despite the gendarme's curt orders to leave.
Taking me into her garden, Celestine led me past bunches of white morning glories in full bloom. We passed under giant leafy breadfruit trees, slender trunks of the green mop-topped papaya trees, and over to the climbing vanilla orchids wrapped in a leafy embrace around the trunks of young kapok trees. In vanilla's native Mexico, pollen-questing bees help fecundate the orchid. On Hiva Oa, there is no bee enterprising enough to do the work and the flowers must be pollinated by hand. Showing me one of the delicate yellow-green blossoms, Celestine held the bloom in one hand, and with the other, transferred pollen between stamen and pistol with a sharpened twig. On another plant she lifted a dangling bunch of seed pods beginning to ripen. When fully ripe, she picks them and lays them out in the sun to dry. In America, a faint resemblance to vanilla flavor is extracted by steeping the pods in alcohol. In the islands, the women cut the dried pods into small bits and put them in desserts imparting on them the true, full vanilla flavor.
I followed Celestine through the garden and a short way into the forest to a waterfall so gentle and well-concealed by hanging vegetation that I did not even see it until we were standing knee-deep in the pool at its base. We sat on a smooth-topped stone with our feet dangling in the pool as the cool, misty air swirled around us. She picked some ripe yellow guavas and placed one in my mouth to eat whole – skin, pink flesh and tiny hard seeds all together.
Like most Marquesan vahine, Celestine wore only the pareo, a colorful printed or tie-dyed piece of light cloth wrapped sarong-like around the body once and tied behind the neck. Her long, silken black hair framed an Asian face, trimmed with the smiling eyes and lips of Polynesia. I felt the savage Gauguin whispering in my ear: “Ah, here is the essence and ecstasy of Oceania.”
“Would you like to see the ancient burial site?” Celestine asked in French. At this point I'd follow her into a temple of human sacrifice without hesitation. We walked a short way further into a place of dark silence where the aerial roots of banyan trees pushed up through the flat-topped stones of what had once been a pyramid-shaped temple. At the center of the ruins, I looked down into a space between the rocks and spotted a human skull staring back at me through empty eye sockets. Looking farther, I saw complete skeletons entwined in the web of tree roots. Not so long ago, the tattooed witch doctors, like Gauguin's friend Tioka, had led islanders to place their dead on this sacred temple, much to the consternation of the Christian missionaries who insisted they bury their dead. Having your remains buried underground was considered a horrible fate to the Marquesans, though many have accepted it now. We spoke in hushed tones and as we left, I had the vague feeling that if we lingered too long the ancient skeletons would reach out and pull us back into their world.
My allotted two weeks in Hiva Oa had passed. The next day I untangled my anchor rodes yet again. As I lashed the dinghy on deck under the boom and prepared to hoist sail, Tehoko and Celestine came out by canoe to wish me “Bonne chance” and heave aboard another basket of fruit. Moments later, a light breeze wafting down the valley pushed me slowly out to sea. I said farewell to The Land of Men (and Women) with a long, deep blast from my conch shell horn.