Coconuts and cannibalism in the Marquesas Islands | November 18, 2012
Position: 08°55’S, 140°06’W – Nuku Hiva
Ua Pou turned out to be a real Polynesian paradise. After our encounter with the local children, we popped into Chez Pukuee, a guesthouse in Hakahau, to make a reservation for dinner. When we asked for a menu, the lady of the house called defiantly from the kitchen “It is I who creates the menu. How about langouste?” The Skipper has long since given up learning French but funnily enough he didn’t need a translation for this and almost hugged her as he quickly replied “Oui, oui, merci, merci”. So we dined on lobster with potato gratin, followed by crepes with Grand Marnier and whipped cream. Heaven!
Our hike ended with a swim under a waterfall
Over dinner we discovered that Jerome, the man of the house, was a tour guide for Ua Pou. He invited us to join him on a hike the following morning with some other tourists and we jumped at the chance to see some of the island’s interior and stretch our legs. Starting at 6am, we hiked for six hours to reach the base of one of the famous peaks of Ua Pou. Along the way Jerome pointed out many trees, leaves and berries which are used to make medicine or cosmetics, or simply to serve as good platters for food. Together with the abundance of fruit, vegetables and fish, the islanders really do have all they need here. And a communal style of living, where everyone contributes to feeding their extended family, makes sure that nobody goes hungry.
Our hike started and ended at the home of a friend of Jerome’s, a fellow Frenchman called Piroue. He is a retired French naval officer and has been on the island for many years but comes originally from L’Orient in Brittany. When he heard that the First Mate had spent time in Brittany on language exchanges as a student, he rejoiced in your typical French style, throwing his arms out to his sides as if to welcome home a long lost friend. When he heard of our route, he threw his head and hands to the sky as if to say ‘Where do i start?’ and told us of his naval experiences in the region, stopping at the deserted and dangerous Clipperton Island three times to replace the French flag there. By the time we had returned from our hike, he had big bags of bananas, avocados and grapefruit for us from his garden, and refused to take any money. The next day, one of the other hikers came by the boat with yet another bag of fruit from her garden - passionfruit, coconuts, limes, bananas - again refusing to take anything in return. There’s so much, we don’t know how we’re going to get through it all. This must be how the Marquesans feel.
Rather you than me for dinner, mate
Leaving Ua Pou behind us, we sailed overnight to the island of Ua Huka which is known for its 10:1 ratio of horses and goats to people. A small museum in the village of Vaipaee was quite interesting and gave us a good insight into life on Ua Huka and the Marquesas Islands of old. Cannibalism was practiced here until the early 1900s, originating from the simple fact that humans were the only available meat to eat - the only indigenous foods in the Marquesas are coconuts, taro and breadfruit. It was only when the Christian missionaries arrived in the mid-1800s that an alternative source of meat was provided through pigs and goats. Eventually the missionaries persuaded the locals that a roast pork was better than chowing down on their neighbour. Lucky for us eh?!
Another interesting aspect of ancient Marquesan culture was the mating ritual. A man could not marry until he had at least one tattoo. Women could not marry until they had been to a special school to learn the art of lovemaking and housekeeping. When a man found himself a woman to marry, he simply said ‘You are mine’ and that was it, no wedding or ceremony required. It was so simple that the men would end up with several wives so it was no wonder then that the diseases introduced with the arrival of the Europeans in the late 1500s spread so quickly to cause the rapid decline of the 100,000 population in the 1900s to just 9,000 today.
On Friday we arrived in Nuku Hiva, the third and final island we will visit in the Marquesas. This is also the last landfall we will make in French Polynesia before embarking on our next ocean passage across the Pacific to Panama. As the administrative centre for the Marquesas Islands, there are more government buildings and officials than on the other islands. There are also lots of other ‘yachts in transit’ in Taiohae Bay where we are anchored. When we checked in with the local police, we glanced through the book entries for other visiting boats. Many have arrived from Panama, taking the traditional ‘milk run’ after having started their trip in Europe or the US. However there a few yachts heading in the same direction as us. The locals call this ‘a l’envers’ (the reverse) as there are much less boats who buck the trend and sail east from Australia or New Zealand, crossing the Americas via the Panama Canal or Cape Horn.
We will stay here for a few days, preparing and provisioning for the 4-5 week trip ahead. There is a hotel in the harbour and a few B&Bs so we may even splash out with the last of our Pacific Francs and treat ourselves to a night or two of luxury on land. It has been a fantastic seven weeks in French Polynesia and we will be sad to leave this part of the world. But as Piroue said to us as we waved goodbye to him in Ua Pou – ‘Seules les montagnes ne se rencontrent jamais’ (Only the mountains never meet).