Friday, March 15, 1991

Freighter to Paradise

I went to the Marquesas in March 1991, a surreal heaven after the concrete hell of Tahiti. On this voyage I met fellow passenger Ron Wright, whose superb book on Fiji I'd just read. Both of us put the actual figure of Falchetto in novels: he in Henderson's Spear (2001), I in The Land of Later On (2010). I wrote this article for European Travel & Life. Imagine my surprise at finding an article on the Marquesas by my buddy Paul Theroux in the magazine while I was at work on my own! The editor, more familiar with Europe, had lost track. This piece has never been published.


Anyone who is tired of islands is tired of life. Stevenson wrote that his first South Sea Island touched “a virginity of sense”—and even after journeying widely in the South Pacific, my first sight of the Marquesas was a profound awakening. Here were no coral reefs, no transparent lagoons and soft islets on the horizon, but a more savage beauty. Lush valleys swept up in a delirium of palms to sheer black pillars and weird spires that loomed like the towers of a surreal cathedral. Clouds hugged the highest spears of rock; wild waters surged about the volcanic coast and exploded into mist off its folds. The veined, massive body of the island lay like animals tumbled across each other in round sleep. I’d sailed nearly a thousand miles from Tahiti by copra freighter for this view.

It is ninety years since Gauguin came to the Marquesas to die and one hundred fifty years since Melville had his beginnings here as a writer. The dozen Marquesas are among the most unknown and isolated islands on earth. A fragrant world unto themselves, they shelter under the territorial umbrella of French Polynesia, along with the Austral, Gambier, Tuamotu, and Society Islands—130 in all, administered from Tahiti, spread over ocean as big as Europe, with Papeete bearing the brunt of half the entire population and France footing the bill to keep the islands going in return for atomic test sites in the southern Tuamotus. All the islands are served by copra freighters which carry cargo and passengers in return for dried coconut meat. These ships are notorious for their discomfort, dismal food, and stench, but the Marquesas are served by an exception. The Aranui (“Great Road”) is 1/4 spotlessly comfortable passenger ship, 3/4 hardworking freighter, and resembles no other copra freighter in the Pacific.

My fellow passengers for the 17-day voyage were as motley as the cargo: mainly French and American, a few Brits, a New Zealander, a Pole, a few Canadians. There were three French doctors, two engineers, a geologist; a banker with his Tahitian wife; an antiquary from Nice, a Parisian restorer of 19th century paintings; from the States, a directress of an artists’ colony, a literature professor, a boating-magazine publisher, and a Montana farmer.

The Marquesas lie three days’ steady sail from Papeete, Tahiti’s capital. Few first visitors are prepared for Papeete—once a sleepy port, now the busiest city in the South Pacific islands, “Gauguin on a motorbike.” We spent a full day on the wharf, Tahitian mountains pastel behind the tumbling city, watching muscular sailors load crate after crate that were raised by the ship’s crane and stowed in the ship’s enormous belly. The hold swallowed everything from tractors and cars to local Hinano beer and soap; and no wonder, for the 5000-ton Aranui keeps these islands alive. The ship was roughly the length of a football field, German-built twenty years ago, and refitted extensively two years ago to carry around 1500 tons of freight and a maximum of eighty cabin passengers. On an aft deck about a dozen others slept very comfortably and companionably, enjoying the same French cooking and wines, local fish and fruits, and well-guided shore explorations as everyone else at half price.

The Aranui carried about thirty sailors, mostly hard-working Marquesans like Timau, or Teiki; but all French Polynesia was there, from Toko of the Tuamotus to Pipier from the Australs. Tino from Papeete was the supercargo and supervised all the loading. They worked at maximum strength from dawn till midnight, scrambling onto fully-loaded palettes that swung down to a tossing whale-boat; or leaping in heavy waves, launching themselves ten feet from the gunwales up to a slippery wharf as if stepping up a single stair.

A day’s sea passage brought us to the Tuamotus, the largest archipelago of coral atolls in the world. Once known as the Low or Dangerous Archipelago because of their treacherous currents and reefs, these atolls have an unimaginable simplicity: long ribbons of sand and palm trees, often only a quarter mile across and ten feet above the surface. Sparsely populated, tremendously vulnerable to hurricanes, some have only a family or two and many are uninhabited. They are all beach, islands more of sea than of land, looping in a circle around gigantic interior lagoons that sometimes have perfect passes from the ocean. (Rangiroa’s lagoon, which we entered on our way back, could hold the entire island of Tahiti.) At dawn we passed Arutua and Apataki; while supplies were unloaded at Takapoto we snorkeled the afternoon away in the lagoon by the stilt-built shacks of perliers, for the Tuamotus survive by undersea farming of black pearls. It was a night and day and night’s sea passage before we reached the Marquesas, six of which are inhabited, six not. We saw no other ships.

On Ua Pou, our first Marquesan landfall, at Hakahau we walked up a winding trail that split the spine of the island. At the summit, by a lone cross I had a view across tumultuous valleys and soaring peaks belted by clouds. Known as “The Cathedrals” for its spires which are extreme even in the Marquesas, Ua Pou was the subject of a song by Jacques Brel.

That afternoon the Aranui slipped around the coast to Hakehatau, Ua Pou’s smallest village (pop. 199). This was our first entry via a double-ended whale-boat, which we reached by going down a metal gangplank hung along the ship’s side. At the dock a volleyball game was going on near a myriad of rock pools carved by tides from the lap of the cliffs. I met the Monsignor Le Cleach, a retired Boston priest who, after twenty years in the Marquesas, had translated the New Testament into Marquesan and was now working on the Old Testament. When I pointed out how busy the little village seemed, the Monsignor laughed and said, “But these islands are empty! We have only seven persons per square mile in the Marquesas.”

The Marquesas have not always been so unpeopled. The Te Fenua Enata (“The Land of Men”)—originally settled a century or two before Christ in the first wave of Polynesian expansion—had, despite their isolation, flourished. The culture, one of the most developed and refined in the Pacific, was probably at its height when the Europeans arrived in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Spanish, French, American, and English explorers, followed by their countries’ navies, brought death by military means on a small scale and death by imported disease on an unprecedented scale. As one historian wrote, “The age of exploration was the age of contamination.” By 1883, the population had fallen from a height of perhaps 150,000 to less than 5,000, the result of smallpox, tuberculosis,  and venereal diseases. By this century only 1,500 Marquesans were left. Though the population hovers around 6,000 today, European disease, muskets, and missionaries had achieved the near-total destruction of Marquesan culture.

Until the European invasion, the Marquesans surpassed all other Polynesians in their carved stone figures, some eight feet high (second only to those of Easter Island, which was settled, like Hawaii, by voyaging Marquesans). They also carried farther the elaborate art of tattoo. Men were entirely covered (even their heads) with intricate geometric designs representing Marquesan history, legends, and genealogies. Except for their faces, women might be just as decorated, and anthropologists visiting in 1920 still found old Marquesans tattooed from head to foot. Tattooing was done slowly and painfully with bone combs dipped in an ink of soot or pulverized charcoal, then given a sharp blow with a tapping stick to knock the teeth of the comb into the wound. To set off the designs, they wore scanty coverings of white tapa bark-cloth, flower and feather headdresses and mother-of-pearl ornaments.

They lived in open houses of breadfruit or palm logs, with thatched roofs sloping at the back. The houses were built on huge paepae, or stone platforms, which evoke the enormous building projects of Central American peoples like the Maya. These paepae are everywhere in Marquesan valleys, composed of massive boulders of up to several tons each fitted ingeniously into place, often built ten feet high to compensate for a valley’s slope. They built small fishing and large war canoes, stabilized with outriggers, powered by large carved paddles or sails. They caught sharks with nooses and used the teeth to carve ornate wooden drums and nose flutes. It was a very rare polyandrous society—women took several husbands.

Marquesans are still fond of tattooing, and they maintain resolutely their own language, related to but very different from Tahitian. (Unlike most destroyed societies, they have held onto title to their land and their language.) As a people they are probably hardier and perhaps more child-like, less invaded by the outside world’s personality, than other Polynesians. And unlike the rest of largely-Protestant French Polynesia, the Marquesas are 95% Catholic. Despite the missionaries’ best efforts, couples often live together twenty years before getting married.

Fatu Hiva, the most eastward island, was the first discovered (Captain de Mendena of Spain, 1595). It receives the most rainfall and remains a lusher world apart even within the group. With about 500 people divided between two villages isolated by the difficult coast, (and with some hints of a traditional enmity between them), the island’s only outside contact is with passing ships.

At dawn we passed Hanavave, a village pocketed in the Bay of Virgins, perhaps the loveliest bay in all the Marquesas, with black basalt pillars rising from mango groves and palm beds, the light majestic across the glowing cliffs and trees. We hugged the coast until the bay and village of Omoa. In niches in the cliffs hung half-ruined wooden stages with bananas drying, a local delicacy. A whale-boat brought us in to a small stone quay, spray crashing and churning over it—the sailors in their plastic granny-shoes leaping the height of a man to land surely. A brief trail led into Omoa: a grey-black beach with boys surfing on makeshift boards in the hallows, a church, a soccer field with a brown horse, and the whole village running to see what had been sent and unloaded.

Fatu Hiva is the principal island still making tapa cloth. Here we saw women busy at the complicated process by which mulberry or breadfruit bark is pried and stripped from a branch, pounded, wetted, stretched, dried, cut; the designs pencil-sketched or stencilled on the cloth, then inked-in. Unlike, say, Tongans, Fijians, and Samoans, the earlier Marquesans were notable for rarely decorating tapa at all except for religious or chiefly fabrics.

I walked down the village path, past simple houses in lavender and yellow with ruined stone paepae in their neat gardens. A bare-chested man standing outside one house beckoned me in—a carver of rosewood ukeleles. I suggested he wander the quarter mile down the village path, as several fellow passengers wanted to buy a Marquesan ukelele. He said with a mild shrug, “It’s a bit of trouble to go find them, no? But tell them where I live.”

On my way back I fell into step with a woman who asked what I thought of the island. I said it was the most beautiful I’d seen.

She said, “If you say so. We wouldn’t know. We stay here.”

I asked if she wished they had an airstrip.

She laughed. “What do we want an airstrip for? Then we’ll have all those sick people coming in on the aeroplane!”

By sick people she meant tourists.

“How do you make a living here?”

“Copra,” she said. “Fish. Tapa cloth. Some people carve wood. What else is there to do here?” She smiled. “There’s nothing else.”

The sea passage by night to Nuku Hiva was exhilarating, the ship’s body like a horse plunging ahead by moonlight, the huge island gradually filling more and more of the immense sky with a black silhouette. Then came the lone lights of the harbor quay, for in the Marquesas people turn in early. Electricity is always at a premium; one of the freighter’s most important cargos was oil drums of generator fuel. In the morning I awakened to the unloading and the broad horseshoe bay of Taiohae, the largest town of the Marquesas, large enough to have a post office and a jail—even though the prisoners are given keys and only have to spend nights there.

From the highest point of Nuku Hiva, up a difficult winding road, I looked past brooding foreheads of cloud across valleys proceeding in green disorder to unexpected farther views of the blue Pacific and forested pillars and crags, all so miragelike that at times I couldn’t tell if I was looking at clouds or sea or mountains. I stood on a ridge of the Taipivai Valley. Here in July, 1842, a young sailor named Herman Melville, deserting his unsuccessful whaling ship the Acushnet, gingerly made his way down with a comrade, looking for a safer valley one ridge over. Instead he found himself among the most dangerous and warlike tribe in Nuku Hiva, the Taipis. Melville’s three or four weeks of friendly imprisonment among them (he claimed it was four months) inspired his first book, Typee, a fictionalized memoir and his most successful work in his lifetime.

As we descended by another rough road, the valley opened like a palm-forested rib cage with a river meandering thinly at the bottom, kept out of sight by impenetrable trees. At the valley’s foot the river flowed past the mile or so of village and became a wider creek opening to the bay and the sea. Inland, a makeshift track sliced across the valley’s ribs from the point where the village and the river parted company. The track wound tortuously through solid wilderness where Melville had wandered, all the way to the valley’s head. There two slender waterfalls hung down from mountains flattened by clouds, with trees tracing their heights like troops en masse.

I wanted a better idea of Melville’s terrain, and at the edge of the village I got lucky and fell into conversation with Jean Baptiste Falchetto, a light-skinned, burly man in his sixties with a headlong gait, a wooden cross dangling at his neck, and a face of great vivacity. At first I took him for a missionary half gone native; he denied this but admitted he’d had several visions. He spoke a native French, a bit garbled by being here so long, but the accent was unmistakably southern France. He had come as a boy, brought by his father Sebastien, a beekeeper in Nice, back in 1936. His father’s lungs had been damaged by gas in World War I and, given a choice of France’s overseas colonies to settle in for his health, he’d come out here. Falchetto lived on Ua Pou, but he had grown up in the Taipivai Valley and returned for a few weeks’ stay on behalf of his late wife, a Taipi woman who’d died a month earlier. One of Falchetto’s daughters ran housekeeping on the ship.

We followed the track by the jungle to the head of the valley and the twin cascades. Here Melville—who plagiarized chunks of Typee with verve and style—claimed he made his difficult way down. Astute scholars question how many of his so-called adventures were actually his own experiences, but it is difficult to be in the Taipivai Valley and not be persuaded by much of Melville’s narrative. The valley slopes on both sides were littered with more ruined black paepae, stone-house foundations, than I’d seen elsewhere, supporting the idea of a once-huge population.

Even in Melville’s time, every tribe was at war with its neighbors, rarely for territory, generally for sacrificial victims. Battles were fought with slings, spears, war clubs, and heavy stones. There was much cannibalism, and the skulls of enemies were decorated and preserved. Usually each tribe had its own valley. By early this century Taipivai, once home to perhaps 10,000 Taipis, had only a few families left.

Fired by the idea of searching for Melville, and perhaps rediscovering trails and paepae he’d known as a boy, Falchetto ran me ragged. Barefoot, he clambered down the steep jungled hillside, under and over all muscular vegetation, with such agility that, scrambling after and thirty years younger, I couldn’t keep up. I caught him where the ground levelled into a well-made winding path through dense trees—the ancient Taipi road of black rocks, in use until two decades ago. We went scrambling again and here, just below the ancient road and following the tiny trickling river for mile after mile, were the endless and imposing ruins of the Taipis whose last era Melville caught. Their staggering paepae were made of carefully-fitted boulders, some the size of a small car, moved down from the cliffs where they’d been cut and lifted into place without the use of a wheel.

We spent a good two hours exploring the mosquito-haunted and vine-choked stone metropoli. Here, in shaded pools, Melville had bathed with the lovely nude Fayaway, a dream of a Marquesan girl whose image—invented, half-invented, or not—inflamed the U.S. and British imaginations, made Typee a bestseller, and sent dozens of hopeful painters to the South Seas long before Gauguin. It is hard now to comprehend how steadily Melville’s career went downhill. Moby-Dick was considered a disaster and nearly finished him, and when Melville died in 1891, he hadn’t published a novel in 35 years, The New York Times spelled his name wrong, and his only remaining fame was as the man who had lived among cannibals. He was, in fact, one of hundreds of vagabond sailors the Marquesas took in; many families are descendants of deserters. The difference is that Melville wrote and published, without fear of bitterly criticizing missionaries or Western powers. “Thrice happy,” he wrote, “are they who, inhabiting some yet undiscovered island in the midst of the ocean, have never been brought into contaminating contact with the white man.” Stevenson, trailing Melville in 1889, was more succinct: “Death,” he wrote, “coming in like a tide.”

Later Falchetto led me to three enormous platforms of grey-black rocks in a glade high up the valley slope, a temple marae with twelve tikis—divine statues of obese men clutching their bellies, phalli dangling down, by women with great breasts and welcoming bodies. I could only assume this was the tabu, sacred marae that Melville wasn’t allowed to see till the end of his stay.

By the river the small village of Taipivai was flourishing, lined with banana, frangipani, and mango trees. A massive hillside of palms swept back from a pale blue wooden church with a rust-red tin roof and two hearts above the door. The whale-boats came up the creek to load the month’s copra sacks and, the tide going out, became too laden for the shallows and got stuck. We got out and helped push, and as twilight settled down we roared into the bay of open sea, past the dark beach where Melville had been rescued, to where the ship similarly awaited us.

Hatiheu’s square symmetrical bay with crashing six-foot surf was overlooked by a white statue of the Virgin, so high it was only a tiny white doll against the green. Put up on a black basalt pillar nearly a century ago by the first priest here, it was brought down painstakingly every year to be repainted. The mayor, a woman named Yvonne, ran a restaurant beside her general store and house, where she laid on a Marquesan feast: pig baked in a ground oven beneath leaves; marinated fish; fried tuna steaks; and kaaku—Melville’s favorite, breadfruit pounded into a dough and soaked in coconut milk. To make poipoi, a fermented paste, the women still pummelled the breadfruit with a stone pounder of ancient design. We were all given crowns of flowers to wear through the meal and the music that went on all afternoon. Later a boat-hand told me, “On one voyage at Hatiheu people were too drunk to get out of the whale-boat and up the ladder, so we lifted them up by crane in copra sacks.”

At Hiva Oa the Aranui could actually dock, just along the coast of prodigious mountains, at one end of the vast Bay of Traitors with an islet in its center. The second largest island, this was where the Frenchman Gauguin, who painted Polynesia for everyone forever, came to live at the turn of the century, and where little more than a decade ago the Belgian singer Jacques Brel made his home. Both came in the knowledge they were dying, and buried twenty paces from each other, they share a final view.

Atuona was, in Marquesan terms, a bustling town, with nearly a thousand inhabitants. Going to the cemetery, the road winds up the valley, past the small, squat, zinc-roofed wooden house Brel rented, surrounded by orchids in his day, still with the small pool he installed. Gauguin’s simple grave lies beneath a white frangipani tree, a single stone with the name and “1903” in white, and looks out over a rugged coastline and surf crashing on the beach where he often painted. No cross surmounts the grave. Instead a reproduction of his own pagan androgynous figure, Oviri-moe-aihere (“The Savage who sleeps in the wild forest”), stands beside him on a pedestal, a god/goddess charged with death. The gravestone, a round block of clay sculpted by Gauguin, was found in the artist’s studio and set in place by a friend, Tioka, who carved in the name and date. More than most, Gauguin was always actively shaping his gravestone.

Gauguin first arrived in Tahiti in 1891. Six months later he was already thinking about abandoning it for the Marquesas, where life would be less expensive, less civilized (“I am a savage,” he wrote repeatedly), and he would have a chance to study Polynesian art, which he thought might’ve survived in the Marquesas. By the time he actually made the move, in September 1901, he had been back to and returned from France in frustration (1893-5) and gotten fed up again with Tahiti. Syphilitic, dependent on laudanum and morphine, tormented with eczema, walking with great difficulty, he knew he was near the end. He would have twenty months on Hiva Oa.

And yet in his Marquesan period, Gaughin lived comfortably off a contract with a Paris dealer—his first near-affluence since throwing off his life as a stockbroker eighteen years earlier to become an artist. He worked all day, and his output in this time is astonishing for its variety of themes. He purchased a horse trap, the only vehicle in the Marquesas. He refused to pay his taxes and encouraged his neighbors to do the same; got the locals drunk and was sentenced to three months’ prison for disorderly conduct; even tried to convince girls to avoid attending the convent school and visit him instead. His paintings had more of a fable in them than ever, like “Riders On the Beach” showing two Marquesan horsemen with two spirit figures beside them. When he died in May 1903, either from an overdose of morphine or a heart attack, his neighbor Tioka bit him on the head—the Marquesan way of verifying death. The shopkeeper across the road bought Gauguin’s house (perhaps his Marquesan masterpiece, for Gauguin did as much wood-carving as painting) and tore it down. Most of the contents were auctioned off in Papeete. (The well-known story that a last, unfinished painting on his easel was a Brittany village under snow is a fabrication.)

I went looking for Gauguin’s house-site. It lay between the old Catholic mission and the Protestant church, and in a sense it was Gauguin’s largest work of art. He called it his “Maison de Jouir” (House of Pleasure) and decorated it with elaborate wood-carved panels, pornographic photographs, and, of course, his paintings.

I found the site across from a decrepit and lovely grey-green trading-post stocked to the rafters, with a shaded colonial balcony, where Gauguin had grocery-shopped and been be-friended by the American owner. Inside, in one corner, hung an antique clock. There is a certain mystique about this clock, so I asked.

“Yes, m’sieu, it was the clock of Monsieur Gauguin.”

“How long has it been here?”

“Since he died, I suppose.”

But it was simply another old clock. Across the road a gentle woman named Catherine pointed out the glade of palms where Gauguin’s house had stood. When I mentioned the controversial clock, she shook her head. “Nothing of Gauguin’s is still here,” she said. “Except Gauguin.”

Until recently that hadn’t been so. The kind Monsignor on Ua Pou had told me about Gauguin’s Marquesan daughter, born in 1902, who died two years ago on Hiva Oa. Her mother, age fifteen, left Gauguin when she got pregnant and never allowed him to see his daughter.

The Monsignor had also known Brel, the French singer and composer whose verbal deftness, by turns tender or sarcastic, loses much of its bite in translation. “He was a turbulent, sympathetic man,” said the Monsignor. “A poetic man, even in daily conversation. And tormented by the fate he knew was coming: cancer.”

Brel sailed here on his boat with his wife Maddly, a Guadeloupian, in 1976. They liked the Marquesans’ friendly indifference, and soon rented their modest bungalow with the convent school below, Gauguin buried above. Brel’s talents as a mimic were popular with Marquesans, expert mimics themselves. A qualified pilot, he had his small plane brought to the island and helped out in an emergency or by bringing passengers, mail, and medicine from Papeete. He also brought out a big open-air screen and feature films for the locals.

In August 1977 he went back to Paris to record. On his return he asked the convent girls up to his house to hear the suite Les Marquises, which mentions them—“songs of love that the sisters don’t know they don’t know.” His lung troubles ever increasing, in July 1978 he went back to France for treatment and died there in October, aged 49. He was brought back to Atuona for burial; his grave’s plaque shows him and Maddly. Les Marquises, the last song on his last record, captured the Marquesan state of mind:


They speak of death as you would speak of a fruit
They look at the sea as you would look at a garden well
And because there is no breeze, time stands still
In the Marquesas...
The pirogues go, the pirogues come
And only the oldest will remember me —
Do you want me to say it? Lament is never allowed
In the Marquesas....


Our society deifies its most popular artists; in the Marquesas, the gods took the form of men. At Puamau, on Hiva Oa, we went ashore to see a marae (temple) glade of the largest tikis in French Polynesia: one upended, two standing beheaded, the heads lying nearby. All had been castrated by the missionaries. The largest, with big saucer eyes looking out from every angle, stands triumphant. Nearby was a squat horizontal figure with a cartoon body that was nearly all smiling head, its meaning obscure—flying or swimming or giving birth. Just down the road, at the edge of someone’s garden, was the sacred paepae and now the grave of the valley’s last queen, Te Haumoenoa, who died around 1900. She was buried along with the bicycle given her by a French sailor, the first bicycle in the Marquesas.

The island of Tahuata, with 500 people spread over several bays and villages, lay only a few miles from Hiva Oa. An hour’s sea passage and an hour out of dream: the sharp-cut rough coast swooped on by wraiths of clouds, the deep sea worrying at the majestic flanks of the mountains beneath the slopes where wild horses grazed. Dolphins played about the ship. Pale desolate beaches appeared in tiny fiords, and suddenly we nosed into the small bay of Vaitahu—improbable, the sense of humans at all in this deserted beauty.

At the little landing-stage for the whale-boat the waters whirled furiously around barely submerged rocks; all the same, the boys pushed each other in and went leaping after. Vaitahu was an old white church, a new church of stone arches and polished-wood gables with a wood sculpture of the Virgin set in the steeple, a hillside punctuated by the ruins of an old French fort, small houses like terse comments on the landscape; little else.

Such a small place had suffered more than its share of European imperialism. It was here that the first missionaries had arrived in the Marquesas, in 1838. Tahuata then was 500 people, in several villages. Captain Halley landed in 1842, under Admiral Petit-Thouars, and annexed the island as a French protectorate—before Tahiti, in fact. A small dispute with the chief, who signed the treaty then retreated his people up the valley, rapidly escalated into a series of battles that ended with 200 Marquesans and the French captain dead and the chief’s power devalued. Such scenes would be repeated, over the next century and under different flags, on other islands.

Here the Aranui bought lemons, forty-pound frozen tuna, bananas, and burlap sacks of copra. By now I enjoyed the sickly-sweet smell of the dried coconut meat that, massed in heavy sacks, bullies all other scents for a quarter-mile. (For copra, France pays nearly 4 francs per kilo, even though the commercial price is only 1 franc.) On the stone landing-stage were piled the staples Aranui was selling to the village, along with the fuel: soy sauce, bags of cement, washing powder, spaghetti sauce, crackers, noodles, cheese, glassware, chicken legs (whole), and mackerel (in cans).

What would it be like, I wondered, to stay on here when the monthly ship left, bearing all its commerce and excitement away? It was evident we were seeing these quiet communities on the busiest day of the month, when the hand of the world touched an isolated village for a few hours, then withdrew. How would it be to watch the village return to its old round of hours, the children going by small boat to the other island for school, the daily sense of slow nothing peacefully happening except for the local arguments and gossips, the news by radio from Tahiti every night, the occasional boat putting in, the more occasional births and deaths?

Back in the village, a boy on a bicycle much too big for him pedalled in circles by a stream while a horse watched with infinite patience. Hibiscus blossoms and sand blew everywhere. That evening we sailed down the coast and anchored so the crew could fish.

At dawn we neared the spartan coast of Ua Huka; light seeped across the ocean, giving faces to the island’s shadowy profiles. Ua Huka was unlike the other five inhabited Marquesas. Barer, the scalped vegetation looked almost Mediterranean. The people had an appropriate dynamism. Vaipae had a small museum, run by Joseph Vaatete, one of the preeminent woodcarvers in the Pacific. This touching little museum at the end of the world was an assemblage of old photos, shells, stone artifacts, and Joseph’s recreations of old Marquesan objects: oars, hoes, war clubs; baskets carved of wood imitating every filigreed hair on a palm leaf; elaborate stilts with heads carved on the stirrups. “An old man in Nuku Hiva taught me how to carve,” he said. “With the stilts, the object was to balance on one stilt while knocking the other man’s stilts from under him. Or else they ran races. Sometimes we still do.”

In a four-wheel drive truck we bounced along a track that mounted steeply near the sea. Wild horses watched us pass. In Hokatu were more woodcarvers, and men playing boules with silver balls. At Hane, after the usual extravagant Marquesan banquet, we hiked through mud up a steep trail to a marae with three fine tikis in the midst of jungle, discovered only a few years ago.

When we came down from the palms the surf was rolling in with power to the pebbly beach and little boys were tossing a soccer ball and leaping on each other. The ship was still at other bays, so we spent the afternoon playing in the surf. These boys thought nothing of leaping through eight-foot waves and being dashed on the rocks if it would gain them the ball; we would watch five or six of them leap and go under, all refusing to relinquish their grip, get pounded on the rocks and come up grinning and shouting.

When afternoon waned we retreated from the water to a field and a soccer game with the big boys. Exhilarated, we barely noticed a light rain had begun to fall. The ship rounded the cape, lit up magnificently, and whale-boats rode into shore to get us. The surf was so rough that sailors had to carry several passengers out to the whale-boats like babes in arms as night came swiftly down.

It is hard to know what to make of the Marquesas; they seem to carry a meaning far beyond themselves. Rising in the farthest reaches of the Pacific, inhabited by a rugged and dignified people with a forgotten past, their spires of blasted rock and green-jungled hills, their lost bays, shattered capes, and unanimous sunsets still impart an ancient wonder. They are as strange as anywhere on earth, a vision of powerful and uncorrupted beauty that the imagination comes to humbly and leaves unwillingly. No one can sail among them and emerge unchanged.

No comments:

Post a Comment