Polynesian women really do wear flowers in their hair. Really. It’s not just a touristy thing. In fact, there is little touristy about the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesan Islands of French Polynesia. It’s also rather refreshing that there is little American about it. The cruising community here, as expected, is much more international. No, Barbara, you’re not in Mexico anymore.
The Great and Mysterious Polynesian Migration is believed to have occurred somewhere around 3500 years ago when the first settlers left Southeast Asia, Taiwan or China in sailing/paddling canoes (the forerunners to our lovely catamaran) with chickens, dogs, pigs, veggies and their kids. They used celestial navigation, and read cloud reflections, bird flight patterns and wave formations (ancient techniques long lost) to arrive who-knows-how-many-days-or-months-later to the western islands of Samoa and Tonga. French Polynesia was settled somewhere around 200 BC via Samoa, beginning with the Marquesas Islands. The first Europeans to discover this side of paradise arrived in the area in 1595, but Nuku Hiva where we are anchored was untouched by Western influence until 1791. The French claimed what is now French Polynesia (made up of the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, and the Society Islands including Tahiti, Bora Bora and Huahine) in 1838. While European settlement all but decimated the Polynesian culture with disease, alcohol, firearms and evangelism, there has been a resurgence of national pride since the 1980’s. I’ll try to include other tidbits of this fascinating history as we go.
The people are lovely. As we walk through the streets, they will stop to ask about where we come from, and will readily tell us about their lives here. Almost everyone (men, women and teens) is tattooed, an ancient Polynesian art that was adopted by sailors when Captain James Cook first arrived in French Polynesia in the late 1700’s. My friend Dianne got one on her third day here. I was supposed to go with her to help her translate and just give moral support but the tattoo artist wanted to ‘feel her vibe’ as he designed the motif and worked with her to create something personal. The artwork was spectacular.
I am loving speaking French. And I’m really speaking French, none of the tongue-tied stuff I attempt whenever I travel to Quebec. I’ve surprised my entire family with my skill, but not more than I’ve surprised myself. I haven’t been in French conversations for nearly 35 years. And I’m doing my fair share as I act as the translator for most of our cruising friends here.
We have had to get over sticker shock since we’ve been here. There are only a handful of restaurants which are very pricey. We did sample the local specialty of ‘poisson cru’ which is raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk – amazing, even if it was served without a vegetable. This should have been a foreshadow for us: While fruit is abundant on the island, vegetables are a bit more scarce.
That doesn’t affect the cost of produce either way, however. We spent about US$50 on a mere few pieces of produce when we first arrived, and have supplemented here and there with other very expensive pieces of fruit and vegetable. The various ‘magasins’ (stores) are well stocked with canned goods, however, including ‘haricots verts’ (green beans) that I so desperately but unsuccessfully sought in Puerto Vallarta. Any items in the store with a red price label are subsidized by the French government, which apparently pours millions in to these islands. Unfortunately for us, laundry here is not one of those red-stickered items: It’s about four times the price as it was in Mexico, weighing in at a mere $12 per load (about 4 kilos). At those prices, we’re doing it all ourselves – but after a 19.5 day crossing and a lot of rain since, it’s one step forward and two steps back. I think after 6 days at anchor we’ve managed to do about 7 loads, including very stinky towels and sheets, and we have about 3 more to do to catch up. That would have been about $120 in laundry had we given it in to be done for us.
One way around the prices for fresh produce is to pick it yourself, which we’ve gotten really good at. There isn’t much choice in the way of vegetables (although we’ve seen avocadoes growing – only too high or far for our reach). We’ve had incredible pamplemousse (grapefruit), starfruit, mangoes, papayas, bananas, and guavas, many right off the trees. We call it foraging. Simply luscious.
This place is pure paradise. No dangerous life-threatening animals to fear (other than sharks in the water – a story unto itself) - even the dogs take it slow. Lush green steep mountains rising up from sea. Fertile volcanic soil. More fruit trees than one can imagine. Beautiful people. Beautiful singing. Beautiful dances (we were lucky enough to watch a practice one night passing the community center). It truly must have been the ideal life before the white man turned things around – although it is still pretty incredible.
It does rain a lot here, usually only for a few moments and usually only a few times a day, but we have gotten used to the drill. Close or vent all hatches whenever we leave the boat, even if it’s clear sunshine. Sleep with hatches vented. If drying anything out, be ready to take it all in when it starts to rain, and then take it back out to finish drying – and then multiply this by a few times. We’re also trying to dry out our heavy comforters and decorative pillows, so that we can store them in vacuum sealed bags. We’re hoping to achieve this before mold sets in, which is a huge problem here, and this has proven to be a multi-day task as well.
We’ve been a bit relieved with the mostly overcast skies, given the alternative hot and humid sunshine. Because it’s been so hot, we’ve been getting up with the sunrise around 6 a.m. or before, so that our boat projects and school are done by noon. The Saturday market begins at 4 or 5 (we’re still not sure) – we got there at 5:30 a.m. - but we do know that all the good produce was gone by 6:08 a.m.
It took us a good 5 days to finally melt into normal sleeping patterns. We’ve been spending our days on boat projects, school and exploring the island with a couple of hikes under our belts and some visits to some archeological sites. We’ve now had all three of our sails repaired - while the mainsail was the major job to have the headboard re-attached, we also had some tears in both our jib and our screecher. The sail repair here was well done, and at fairly reasonable prices too. So far so good.
One more to add to the incident report: We did discover that water came into our forward crew’s quarters which we’ve been using as our garage. Likely, the water came in where a seat on our bow is screwed in, but after 19.5 days of being hit with high seas, it slowly dripped what turned into about half an inch of water in the compartment. We’ve now almost dried out from that and are slowly putting ourselves back together.
Our days are full and we are feeling very content.
P.S. Michael has updated our photos to the right of this blog post. Enjoy snapshots of the crossing, including Michael in his sexy sailor attire, and of our first few days on Nuku Hiva.