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That First Day

May 30, 2011

“Sondra, Sondra, this is sailing vessel Murre,” I call into the VHF radio.

Partly because the decision to make a course for the Marquesas was last minute and partly because it was inexpensive, I have hired an agency in Tahiti to get me into the country legally. Their representative in Hiva Oa monitors the radio rather than the phone.

“Zis is Sondera. Oui?,” answers a voice after a time. I explain who I am. Without small talk, she proceeds to, “Zee check-in it is early. Zee Gendarmerie it’s open at seven o’clock and it’s closing again at eight o’clock. So I will pick you at zee dingy dock at seven certy…non, non, seven twenty it is better.”

“Seven twenty in the morning?” I complain.

“Oui. It is early.”

“What time is it now?” I ask.

“Zee time it is cinq…it is five certy,” says Sondra. Two weeks ago I set ship’s time to island time, but I got it wrong. My clocks say it’s ten to four.

Her accent is rich, and I think, without having any reason to know, very European. I imagine a French woman in her forties, thin from a certain habit of nervousness and frequent association with hand-rolled cigarettes, blond but carelessly kempt, and in the island uniform: drab shorts and a drab T-shirt. So I am more than a little surprised when the woman who meets me in a worn Range Rover next day is Polynesian. She wears a floral sarong as a skirt, brightly red and white, and a crisply white tank top. Her hair is neatly in a bun and her skin has that cleanness and suppleness impossible in Caucasians.

We exchange greetings and I point to my three bags of soiled clothing, laundry being one of many services Sondra provides. Her look suggests my clothes should be burnt rather than washed and she allows me to load them into the truck myself and without offering to assist. She closes the hatch quickly.

On the way to town I try small talk and learn she has lived on the island twenty years, has been assisting cruising yachts for ten, and has entered over one hundred yachts already this year. It’s a busy time. Her husband is French, a guitar maker who uses local woods. He ships to customers all over the world. She has two children. Her mother provides vegetables for the town each morning at nine and from a truck parked near the bank.

I remark how strikingly similar the island is in look and feel to Hawaii. She has not heard of Hawaii though she has lived in Paris.

The Gendarmerie

The Gendarmerie is a tidy, white building surrounded by a high white fence. Sondra rings the bell, we are admitted. Inside the building is quiet and clean as an infirmary. The lights are off. A young, thin, light-skinned man in a powdery blue polo shirt and wearing two pistols comes to the desk from behind a partition. He speaks softly to Sondra, pleasant but not familiar greetings are exchanged, and I am handed a form. That the boxes on the form are too small to fit the requested information is no surprise–this seems the same everywhere–but the French stumps me. Nom de Navire. “Vessel name,” whispers Sondra when I point. Date et Lieu de Naissance. “Where you were born and your day of born,” she says. Equipage. “You do not have a crew, so put ‘non'”. The passport is then stamped loudly, and Murre and I are admitted.

I had thought to invite Sondra to breakfast so that we could talk about the town, its history, and my hundreds of other questions, but quickly it is clear Sondra has other engagements. She points to the bank, to the restaurant, to the nearest market and gives directions to the lot where her mother will sell vegetables later in the day. She smiles goodbye, and suddenly I am alone. It is ten past eight.

The day is overcast, the air heavy and wet though it has not rained. My crisp shirt, saved specifically for the check-in occasion, is no longer crisp.

Early as it is, the town is bustling. Pastries are being delivered at the market–baguettes and rolls and small quiches on trays–and there is a line of customers at the bank, several of whom are in bare feet. The machine answers my request for 15,000 Francs Pacifique (roughly $150) with two colorful bills the size of post cards. How will I spend these at the vegetable truck, I wonder.

Neat, tin-roofed buildings in town

The town is two streets made up of five food markets, two surprisingly well-stocked hardware stores, two restaurants, one bank, one post office, one coiffure next to the one pharmacy, the Gendarmerie, a police station complex and one Paul Gauguin museum. Almost everyone I meet is Polynesian, and any sense of the island’s being similar to Hawaii is broken by the loud conversation entirely in French. Greetings are yelled from passing cars or across the street as walkers pass. Everyone knows everyone else and every knowing must be acknowledged. Women kiss–cheek to cheek–and men shake hands in a way westerners would consider effeminate. Hair among women is long and worn out or in a pony tail. Most men sport lavish tattoos. The most frequent themes of conversation result in smiles and laughter that are infectious though I have no idea what is being said.

I find I am famished and so purchase a bread roll and a quiche that I eat in the parking lot with other men who are taking their breakfast in the same way. To my surprise the bread roll is stuffed with beef noodles and the quiche of bacon and spinach has been poured into a sweet tart crust. At the vegetable truck I buy a small, squeaky clean cabbage, tomatoes, green beans in bunches, and tiny sweet peppers. My large bill disgusts Sondra’s mother whose bank it nearly breaks. In vain I search side streets for a bookstore or a coffee shop.

By ten o’clock I begin to worry about Murre. The bay is rough and crowded and she has not been riding her anchors so long that I can yet feel she is secure. I begin the two mile walk back to the harbor with my sack of vegetables and a limp baguette drooping from my backpack.

I crest the hill and there is the ocean all the way to the horizon. I had forgotten about the ocean these last hours. It pounds the coast with heavy savageness; waves heave up against black rock and explode like canon shot. Already it is hard to believe how we got here and how we will leave.

More photographs of town and surroundings are available here.

The bay from a rise outside of town

  1. Doug WIlson permalink
    May 31, 2011 2:33 am

    Save this for the book Randall, classic !

  2. Doug WIlson permalink
    May 31, 2011 2:35 am

    Save this for the book Randall, classic !
    Still in La Cruz, new spreader plates being fabricated, as well as new main mast shrouds.

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