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Everyone has a Story

July 5, 2011

When traveling in a remote country, one should not be surprised to find frequently challenged the uniqueness of one’s own exploits. Getting here is difficult. Everyone has a story.

Anchored to my left at Hakahau Harbor on Ua Pou’s northeast side is a battle-ax of a boat named KAYAK. Her ancient steel hull is a patchwork of worn beige and denting between the ribs. She lacks roller-furling; old sails in old bags hang from the head stays. Her wind vane is home-built and of the type used by singlehanders in the 60s. The newest things about her are her present crew, Brian and Kelly. Brian acquired the boat in La Paz just one month before departing for the South Pacific–there he met Kelly, and she came aboard two weeks later. Neither had seen their twenty fifth birthday nor had either made a crossing. Kelly had never sailed a small boat. But for them the twenty nine day passage to Hiva Oa was a lark, the biggest difficulties they reported those of surviving the other’s taste in music and getting the vane to steer a coarse with straightness in it.

Boats at anchor below "El Capitan", Hakahau Bay, Ua Pou

Or there’s MORA MORA, anchored to my right, manned by Yves, a French singlehander most recently from Portugal who is making his way back to Madagascar where in his youth he acquired a taste for travel on the cheap. As an adult he’s rarely worked more than a year before taking off to a new place. “MORA MORA” means ‘slow slow’ because for me even walking is too fast and I like the sea,” he says by way of explaining his choice of names and mode of transport. “Maybe I go to Madagascar,” he says, “and maybe not; I like people; I want to see new places, but maybe I stay in the Marquesas. Here it is tranquil…and French.” He is approaching 50 and is built lean, the result of a simple diet supplemented regularly with hand rolled cigarettes. Except to buy beer neither his curiosity nor he often leaves the boat.

There’s DON QUIXOTE, a large catamaran containing a family emigrating  to New Zealand where the husband has found more gainful employment than he could have imagined in the States. Job accepted, his employer asked how long the move would take. Jacob said ten months. The employer’s confusion was transformed to amazement when Jacob said his home was a sailboat  in Florida that he was unwilling to sell, but the timing was accepted. Now the two sons and two daughters are having the adventure of their lives.

There’s the green sloop ATEA moored off the quay on which lives another family, the local doctor and his wife, also a doctor, and their two little girls. Years ago the couple cruised here from France on a small boat and without children, but these islands so captured their imaginations that they stayed. For her the romance is doubled because it is here she became pregnant–twice. Having two young ones required a larger boat. To afford the boat the couple had to work in the infirmary on Ua Pou, a village that has the convenience of good schools for the girls. Each morning at seven o’clock the family commutes from the quay to the dock by dingy, a trip requiring all of three minutes. It takes longer to start the outboard motor. A Marquesan flag the size of a bed sheet flies from the spreaders. The wife is thin to the point of being frail, but she’s quick. I watch her bathe the kids from the boat’s stern in the evenings, dunking each in the bay followed by a rub-down so furious it should produce smoke. The husband is small too, pale, balding, but liberally tattooed.

Or there’s Xavier who floats in the small bay on a foam board every afternoon, bobbing between boats and passing on whatever fresh rumor he has acquired. “Kelly and Brian are going to the Reggae festival–did you know this?” he asks me. “She went to the pension for internet yesterday and stayed all afternoon. I think she is unhappy. You are leaving soon, I think, yes? The doctors too–they just quit–will start cruising next month. Do you need crew? I am available.” He arrived from Paris as an English teacher, but back in Paris after his term found himself “wrecked for civilization”. He returned to Ua Pou and bought a house. “My mistake,” he says. “Now I’m stuck.” But one wonders if his stuckness, like his swimming, is more a gentle repose.

Or there’s today.

I too have accessed the free internet offered to cruisers by the pension on the hill. The main room is a roofed patio with couches and a sitting table that looks out to sea and here, for the price of a beer (400 Pacific Francs) one can sit all day undisturbed. A large coconut tiki sits in one corner. On the wall hangs a map of the island, hand drawn onto tapa. Here I become acquainted with Jerome, the pension’s owner, a compact Frenchman covered in Marquesan tattoos whose features are fine to the point of being beautiful and do not suggest his background–25 years in the French Marine Corps. On my second visit I learn that he leads hiking tours into the mountains once a week, and so on Thursday morning at seven o’clock I meet him behind the pension where another young couple is waiting, David and Audrey with young Anise already encased in a backpack. They are French professionals from Tahiti on their first tour of the northern islands.

We cram into Jerome’s small truck and are driven by Jerome’s wife, an islander born in Tahuata, over rough roads that climb and climb until, just short of the cloud layer, we are disembarked in the dripping jungle. The truck and the wife return to the pension leaving us alone in the silence.

Instruction begins immediately. While we stand swatting mosquitoes and black clouds of nono, Jerome explains,

“Ze hike it goes up for 100 meters and zen down and zen up 200 meters and then down; zen at 300 meters we have a nice view and zen down for ze lunch in ze next village.”

The trail, he continues, is an abandoned horse track used by those who harvested first coconut for copra and then coffee beans from the steep hillsides. But it was abandoned when most of the islands switched to raising Noni, which is easier, which requires no work beyond that of planting the tree. The fruit of the Noni is the size of a plum but with nodules similar to pineapple. When ripe it looks like a ghostly pale exploding golf ball, smells strongly of Limburger cheese and tastes worse. The entire French Polynesian Noni harvest is purchased by a Utah based company that produces from it a tonic said to benefit the immune system and slow tumor growth. So the trail was abandoned when Noni, happy in the more easily farmed valleys, boomed in the late 90s. Over planting lead to a Noni price fixing by powerful Tahiti, and now little Noni is harvested in the Marquesas, but few have returned to harvesting coconut and none to coffee.

All this before I’ve got my pack on.

Audrey and David on a steep ascent

As promised, the trail’s incline is immediate, and though Jerome has said it is maintained, over growth is such that Jerome frequently clears a way with his machete. Here and there low hanging branches require David get on all fours so that baby Anise on his back can pass without being scraped. He does not always succeed, and from my position at the rear, I can see scratch marks on her legs to match the mosquito bites, but she does not cry. She pulls at David’s hair, bounces in her seat. Now and then I retrieve one of her shoes kicked off without David’s knowing.

At the first ridge we have a partial view of Hakahau Bay, now so far below I can’t see Murre at anchor. Jerome climbs a Guava tree and dislodges a few fruits, and while we eat, sifting the soft, fragrant pulp from the extravagance of seed, Jerome retrieves a large yellow flower from another tree and begins to talk.

“Beach Hibiscus,” he says. “Coconut was ze most useful plant to ze ancients, but zis was second.” The flower has a maroon interior and a purple stamen which he removes, rubbing the anther on his arm. “A good antiseptic,” he says, “and used as eye shadow by ze ladies.” He pulls down the tree’s large, leathery heart-shaped leaf. “Very nice oven mits,” he says. Or also used as plates or drinking cups. Or in bunches they are good bedding or a final covering over a fire pit. The back side, which is rougher, becomes toiled paper, and the leaf’s stem “iz nice for to clean ze nails after”. The bark, peeled in strips, makes a crude rope strong enough to tie several kilos of banana to their carrying pole. It can also be used to make tapa, mats, grass skirts. On and on.

The uses of Hibiscus

His explanations are always in English and without translation for the French couple. Occasionally he gets stuck. “Oh, how do you say…” And usually Audrey will provide the answer. “Float,” she says. “Yes, ze wood of Beach Hibiscus is used as ze float for ze pirogue, but not ze …” He makes a round shape with his hand. “Hull,” says Audrey.

We descend into a valley that once had a bridge crossing its tiny stream and steep gorge, but last year’s rains washed it out. Now we descend and climb the sheer sides with a piece of knotted rope tied on one side to a stump and the other a large metal stake. David negotiates both sides while Anise snoozes, head lolling to one side as if a good shake would send it rolling down into the ravine.

Husking a coconut

At a turn in the trail dominated by overhung boulders we pause for a lesson in coconut husking. Earlier I had mentioned the hour required for me to get at the meat using only my Bowie knife, at which Jerome smiled. “You must ask yourself if you are made for survival,” he says cryptically. On a flat spot in the rock he sets the coconut with stem-top facing away from him and with his machete he hacks out a “V” in the husk. Then he pries the rest of the husk off with the knife’s tip. Pointing to three small indentations in the now bare nut, he digs at each, finding the one that gives-up white meat. “Sink of zis as ze mouth–ze other two ze eyes,” he explains. Then he draws an imaginary line from the eyes over the forehead to the top of the nut. He positions this line so that the back of his machete blade meets it perpendicularly. One strong whack and the nut splits exactly in half. Eight minutes, start to finish.

“Now you,” he says, pointing to me. “If you will survive, you must practice.” I take his machete, position another nut, and raise the blade overhead. “Wait!” says Jerome. “Maybe you make your friend very sad,” he says, pointing to my left hand which still rests on the husk. “In the islands we call machete ‘coupe-coupe’, which is ‘cut-cut’–when you cut with machete, you cut twice. Cut coconut and cut off hand. Cut at grass and cut off leg. Cut at high branch and cut off head of man behind you. Be careful with coupe-coupe. Remember, in survival, you are the big enemy.”

It takes me twelve minutes to husk the nut, find the white-meat eye and whack the top of the nut’s head. But nothing happens. I whack again. The nut bounces out of my hand and rolls away. “Harder! Ze coconut she is laughing,” says Jerome. Harder, and harder, and then the nut splits. We lounge, eating our snack as Jerome explains that under these boulders the old hunters slept when it rained.

Giant Pototainui

We soon exit the jungle and begin to hike a spine of lichen-covered rock up to a high and windy point from which our view expands to take in several of Ua Pou’s spiring peaks. “Eight of the twelve,” says Jerome proudly, “including ze big two.” Suddenly he is telling the Marquesan story of creation. God’s wife is unhappy; she is weary of living in cloud above blue ocean, so God builds a home at sea level. The island of Ua Pou (two pillars, two spires) is created as the supporting posts between which an Hiva Oa (long pole) was placed and connected by Nuku Hiva (roof beams) and then covered with Fatu Hiva (nine woven palm fronds). Jerome expands his chest and calls out the island names with the voice of a warrior.

On the descent Jerome stops to point at a seed the size of a small avocado resting in the trail. “Zis is ze seed of ze Belle Mama…” he says. I pick it up, smell it. “…it is poison–don’t touch it,” he says. He snaps a leaf from the tree and white sap oozes from the stem. “Locals used this for their enemies. Maybe zis is for ze tea of your wife’s mozur?” he asks me. Audrey explains that “Belle Mama” is French euphemism for mother-in-law. She hands me one of the flowers, white, round and delicate as Plumeria, but with black veins. I explain that my mother-in-law is English, so I would have no use for such a tree. No one laughs.

At our next rest stop I ask Jerome about his tattoos, black-ink graphic designs that cover his shoulders, chest, back and legs. In answer he retrieves a brown nut no larger than a peach pit from a nearby tree. “Ama,” he says, “Or you say Candlenut.” Dried and strung together the oil-rich nut was burnt to light the inside of homes, and half a coconut shell placed over the flame collected the thick soot. This soot, mixed with water, became tattoo ink. Among Polynesians, the Marquesan love of tattoos is legendary. The ancient practice was both painful and expensive–tattoos came to signify both bravery and wealth and conferred status. Warriors were so covered in tattoos that their bodies were mostly ink, and even today most locals one meets in town are tattooed. Jerome points to the designs on his shoulder: the Marquesan cross, hatch marks like fishing net, round designs are coiled shellfish, these triangles are Pandanus, these others are shark’s teeth, those curves, edible fern. The designs tell no story but are combined in ways the artist or wearer considers to be beautiful. There are few artists left, says Jerome, so he makes his own design combinations. And he tattoos himself…where ever he can reach.

In the valley at last Jerome leads the way to the waterfall in whose pool we bathe as little Anise sleeps under blanket between two rocks. And later in the village, we feast on goat in coconut sauce and roast duck with breadfruit. Over lunch I ask Jerome how he, a military man, ended up a civilian on a tiny island in the middle-of-nowhere South Pacific. His answer is that he and the wife bought the pension from her parents upon their retirement. That wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I had meant to ask what drew him to these islands he knew so well. But on reflection that was obvious.

Back at the harbor two new boats, two new stories, have arrived while we were away. Red-hulled GUPPY under command of 16 year old Laura, who is attempting to be the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe and GALACTIC, a boat I know from San Francisco but whose new owners are using her as a base for their explorations in marine biology as they slowly make their way home to Tasmania.

Hakahau Harbor from ridgetop

  1. August 3, 2011 11:33 am

    thanks for the shout out Randall…the story continued on for a little ways after our last brief encounter in Nuku Hiva (ps the reggae fest was epic!)…and we left the twist in the plot on an atoll nearby your flirting affair with Makemo…it’s probably too late, but you could check out Motu Kayak on the south end of Raraka. Please be safe, be careful, atolls are incredibly solid but the people that inhabit them have soft hearts the size of coconuts. One day soon I’ll get my handwritten journal onto hard copy and share it with the world. Keep up the curiosity and bon chance avec le francais aussi!

  2. August 3, 2011 11:34 am

    (ps I’m older than I act!)

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