Our cruiser friends Shelley and Mike affectionately refer to Atuona as ‘the city’. In reality there’s only just enough of it to constitute a town, but we were delighted to find a cluster of well-stocked grocery stores, a couple of restaurants and two museums. The town is perched just above a sweeping black sand beach with a constant rolling surf. It’s very beautiful, with mountain peaks rising above the bay and horses galloping along the tideline. However, it’s hopeless as an anchorage, so cruising yachts congregate a twenty-minute walk away in a more sheltered spot.
One of our priorities was finding internet access, so we called in to ‘Eliane’s Salon du The and Cybercafe,’ featured in our Lonely Planet and on the little map we picked up at Tourist Information. The long driveway was a little tricky to find and the cybercafé part seemed shut up, but the teahouse door was wide open so we bowled on in. Inside looked cozy and homely, just like someone’s living room. It was a cute idea, though the proprietor seemed very surprised to see us. We asked if it would be possible to use the internet. No, it wasn’t- the teahouse was closed, permanently, and we’d just invited ourselves in to his lounge. He was very nice and calm about it really. Retreating from our impromptu home invasion as gracefully as we could, we backtracked to Snack Make Make on the mainstreet- after ensuring that it really was open for business.
Our other priority was to get petrol- unleaded for the dinghy engine and diesel for Prism. But the gas station was out of unleaded, and there wouldn’t be any until Saturday when the Toporo came in from Tahiti to deliver it. Diesel was available, so we commenced a morning of shuttle runs with our 20 litre jerry can, keeping carefully tally of the number of times we refilled so we could pay at the end. Initially I was on heavy lifting duty to save Jim’s ankles, but I was released from service whilst he did the last few fills so I could go to the Musee de Gaugin.
Paul Gaugin spent the last few years of his life here in Atuona, in search of ‘the noble savage.’ His paintings here, scorned at the time, helped to revolutionise art. His Polynesian paintings are fantasies of colour, as he didn’t paint what he saw but what he felt. Green horses wade through tumbling steams in the shade of purple trees, whilst women laze alongside pink beaches. Sinister figures stand in the forests- guardians? Spirits? Demons? Strange as some of his choices are, they make sense when viewed here, surrounded by the landscape and culture that inspired them. Many of the scenes- women in colourful pareus (sarongs) and men in white singlets riding stocky Marquesan ponies- haven’t changed much in the last century. Paul probably wouldn’t approve of the satellite dishes and 4x4 vehicles, but I think he’d appreciate and recognise the rich and vibrant culture, and would be glad that missionaries and French ultimately failed in achieving cultural homogenisation.
The paintings in the museum are all replicas of works hanging in galleries through Europe and America, ordered chronologically from his early works in Brittany to his vibrant canvases from Tahiti and Hiva Oa. Hanging under traditionally styled high pointed roofs, they feel real enough, and the geckos calling from the eaves and scuttling along the tops of the artworks just add to the atmosphere. Outside is a reconstruction of the House of Pleasure, a two-storied hut with shutters that lift up to let in the breeze, looking down on the well that provided Gaugin with the cold water for his absinthe. The museum has a cabinet full of objects found on the site; chunks of paint, absinthe bottles, morphine ampoules, broken pottery. A time capsule of junk that sheds light onto a life which ended a century ago, and helped change art forever.
One of the highlights of Hiva Oa is its wealth of archaeological sites. We organised to hire a car with our Belgian friends Geert and Cindy, and their visiting friend Tim. The car turned out to be a truck, an enormous tank of a 4x4, and I was very happy when Geert said he would drive. The Toporo was unloading, and half the island was there to receive crates and packages- everything from speedboats to kids’ bikes to planks of wood emerged from the hold. Geert negotiated the chaos and we were soon on the road, heading northeast to the archaeological remains at Iipona. The road meandered along ridges and saddles with stunning views of teal-blue bays, then zigzagged up and down mountainsides in snaking switchbacks. We rose from rich jungle to arid scrubland, kept scrubby by the munchings of wild goats. The road changed from concrete to dust and rocks, and herds of wild horses trotted across the track. We rattled our way along, keeping an eye out for wild bananas and cheering whenever our bouncing backsides were spared by an all-to-brief concrete section.
The plunging hillsides made bananas hard to access- all too often they dangled just out of reach over a sheer drop, and the bunches which were easy to get to usually had a house lurking in the background- not so wild after all. Eventually we spotted a papaya tree in the middle of nowhere. A machete-wielding Geert balanced on Tim’s shoulders to reach up to the top. The ripe fruit were rotten or munched by rats, but he managed to get some green papayas, which we hoped would ripen in the tropical sun.
After a couple of hours of rutted roads and postcard-worthy photo stops, we reached Iipona. We’d been instructed to pay a small fee at a snack near the waterfront, and were then given directions to get to the archaeological site. The grounds were very well kept, with mown lawns and pretty plantings. It almost felt too pristine, and I was most drawn to the outer edges where ruggedly cuboid rocks rested beneath the shady bows of banyan trees. Somehow the glorious sunshine burned off the mystery of the place, and I wondered how it would feel on a misty day.
There were five tiki altogether, in various states of repair after their encounters with warring tribes and Christian missionaries. They were the biggest I’d seen, the largest standing at 2.6 metres, staring sternly over the gardens. I was most drawn to a female tiki in a horizontal pose. The regular interpretation is that she is lying down to give birth, and is a symbol of fertility. With her arms stretched out in front of her, her toes pointed and a beaming smile on her face, to me she appeared to be flying, adventurous and free. Birth or flight- either way she has a new world ahead of her.
Geert, Tim and Cindy drove back to the village to try and find some lunch, and Jim and I stayed to draw then have a picnic amongst the tiki. A small French tour group came through, deciding that wherever I was sketching was obviously the best angle for a photo so could I please move. Or else I would be in their photo so could I please move. I retreated to the spot where Jim had spread out our crackers and cheese, and sat down for lunch. Of course, this turned out to be precisely THE best spot to take photos- so could we please move. We were glad so see them go so we could finish lunch in a single place. The next arrivals were a couple from New York along with their guide. As the couple set off exploring, the guide stopped to talk to us. He explained that there are dozens more tiki scattered across the island, many only known to the boar hunters who know the forests well. He saw missionaries and archaeologists as the enemies- missionaries break the tiki and archaeologists spirit them away. I hoped his opinion was a few decades out of date, but loved the thought of an army of statues scattered through the jungle. On this sparsely populated island I wondered how many are as yet totally undiscovered, their weather-beaten faces seen only by boar, goats and ponies.
The guide paged through my Tahuata sketchbook as his tourists rejoined us, and I was excited and gratified when he recognized the lead dancer from Fatu Hiva. He also identified a tattooed warrior as being his cousin. We all chatted about travel and he drew our attention to a carved animal beneath the glorious flying tiki. It’s usually interpreted as being a dog or goat, but it looks exactly like a llama. Not impossible- Polynesians quite probably made it to Peru, bringing back with them kumara (sweet potatoes) and really confusing Thor Heyerdal, who assumed that it was the point of origin for the entire Polynesian migration. It is not inconceivable that Marquesan sailors saw llamas and came back home to carve them, although I draw the line at believing the guide’s story that his ancestors built Macchu Piccu. Of course, it’s also not inconceivable that the carving is just a badly done goat.
The New Yorkers departed and the Belgians returned. We piled into the ute to rattle our way back round the mountains to Atuona. With an hour or so of daylight left, we drove round to Taaoa and the multileveled platforms of Tohua Upeke. Soft golden light filtered through the dangling tangles of the banyans, kissing the wild undergrowth and the platforms of dark volcanic rocks with a magical light. I’d found the primal wildness that had been missing from Iipona. Wandering farther into the site took us to a collection of banyan trees, where we discovered a squat square tiki with round eyes and a wide smile. The path to reach him was overgrown, we had the site to ourselves, and I felt a little like an explorer as I paused a few seconds for a very quick sketch. Then it was back to ‘the city’, stopping to photograph the sunset over the rocky coastline as we headed towards civilization and dinner. The restaurant had a Christmas tree and fairy lights, the wine was cold, the pizza delicious, and the service surly after Jim switched his side order from rice to fries shortly before it was due to arrive.
The following day was Christmas Eve, and stalls of toys had sprung up outside the largest supermarket. Disney gardening sets and robotic dinosaurs competed for space with fairy castles, and Christmas had come early for one little boy delightedly sitting in a small electric car. Our Christmas day itself was quiet. Cindy, Tim and Geert had left for the Tuamotus and the anchorage was thinning out. We celebrated with a bottle of St Emillion, good cheese and a tin of roast duck we’d bought back in New Zealand. I sung Christmas carols, somehow forgetting two lines from every song, and illustrated the letters that Jim wrote to family and friends. We enjoyed the peace and reflection as our time in French Polynesia drew to a close. Within a few days we were heading out into the ocean, accompanied by dozens of melon-headed whales who zoomed around the boat, leaping in a joyful escort as we sailed beneath another gorgeous sunset.
Music festivals are supposed to be grubby, and the one at Tahuata was no exception. Instead of the traditional British field of mud, we were confronted by dust (which would happily turn into mud if a handy downpour gave it the chance). Consequently, a few of my sketchbook pages have a browner tinge than I would like, but I guess I need to look on it as incorporating a little bit of the island into each image.
It took us a day to sail to Tahuata from Fatu Hiva, and there were already a few boats anchored in the little harbor when we arrived. It was a rather rolly anchorage, and the swell coming in added to the excitement of dinghy landings, bringing a high risk of getting swamped. The small quay had no breakwater, and we were forbidden to tie up to it due to a constant flow of local boats and naval tenders dropping off people, instruments and supplies ready for the festival. Initially we were allowed to tie to a rocky outcrop and use a stern anchor to keep the inflatable zodiac off the sharp rocks, but soon even this was disallowed and we were forced to anchor a distance away from the wharf and swim ashore, or brave the breaking surf to attempt a beach landing (we decided to control how wet we got and anchored out rather than risk the boat in the surf). An added incentive for avoiding the wharf was that the policing of dinghies didn’t extend to keeping the local children under control, and they often used tenders near the wharf as swimming platforms and playthings. Apparently our rubberised craft were more tempting than the local wooden or fiberglass boats- or perhaps the consequences of messing with them were rougher! The kids were always quick to help us unload bags, bike and water jugs when we came alongside the quay, so I could forgive their playfulness- though Jim preferred to anchor far enough out to remove temptation from their sights.
Watching the festival set up was entertaining in its own right. Each afternoon a naval ship would arrive in the bay with a new contingent of villagers, who were then ferried ashore along with carefully wrapped costumes, clubs and enormous drums. The residents of the village of Vaitahu joyfully welcomed each boatload of arrivals with singing, drumming and blowing horns and conches. People and packages were loaded into waiting trucks, which formed a snaking procession over the hill to the next bay, where a large hall provided communal lodgings. Soon the waterfront became home to a community of stone carvers, who set up generators and set to work with grinders, hammers and chisels. Lumps of red lava rock transformed into metre tall tiki, which visiting islands would present to Tahuata to grace their tohua- the large stone dance platform. The carvers were happy for us to watch as the features of the figures emerged- bug-eyes, grinning mouths and protruding tummies. Females are often given a long braid or a baby on their belly. Boys are easy to spot. Weavers sat in shady spots, as men and women created skirts, loincloths, tops, headwear and armbands to adorn themselves for the dances.
The festival opened in spectacular fashion, with greetings and dances given by each island in costume. We spotted some familiar faces from Fatu Hiva, garbed in yellow-stained tapa cloth and that fragrant vetiver we’d seen being processed. Representatives of other islands wore skirts of leaves or grass, which fluttered and rippled with every movement. Long hanging strands of moss made graceful tops for the ladies of one island, women from another wore intricate crowns made of ebony and carved bone. Some wore enough vegetation to cover themselves from neck to knees, others preferred to show a bit of midriff and leg. Masculine costumes were even more varied. The chiefs were the most spectacular, with towering headpieces of bone or shell, spectacular black ruffs which broadened their shoulders and thick skirts of frizzed black horsehair. The effect was to awe and intimidate, to convey mana and power- and it worked, especially when topped off with a boar’s tooth necklace, intricate tattoos and a carved war club. The other end of the scale had an equal impact- a few tufts of grass, leaves or feathers as a loincloth, a necklace of tusks or carved bone, and very little else. This minimal attire was perfect for showing off extensive tattoos (often combined with a nicely toned physique)!
Each island presented a chant, song and dance in welcome, usually led by a flamboyantly dressed chief or two and supported by the soprano singing of the matriarchs. It was an impressive sight- and sounded incredible when voices layered with the drums. In between, I tried to see how much of the Marquesan announcements I could understand- some words such as ‘pakepake’ (clap) and ‘kaoha nui koutou’ (many greetings to you all) are similar or identical to New Zealand Maori. Visiting dignitaries had their chance to speak too- but the heavens were not impressed and promptly opened, causing many of us to seek shelter under nearby marquees whilst the politicians waffled on in the deluge. The rain stopped when the waffle did, and we enjoyed the last performances with slightly muddier backsides as we sat on the tiered rocks and grass of the amphitheater.
The scheduling was definitely operating on island time. The two versions of the timetable only existed in French, differing substantially from each other and from reality. Workshops often failed to materialise if the people scheduled to lead them were too tired, location was often vague and timing was more of a guide than an expectation (a bit like bus schedules in Auckland or Basingstoke). There was no point getting anxious or cross, as the way of life here is to just go with the flow and there was always something to watch- dance and drumming practices on the tohua, bands in the artisan’s centre, wood carving, tattooing, or the young man who rode through the village with a Bluetooth speaker strapped to his horse, piping out R’n’B. When events happened, they were wonderful. One morning there was a demonstration of traditional tattooing- called ‘patutiki’ in Marquesan. The subject lay on woven mats whilst the tattoo artist sat next to him, applying the ink to his skin using a sharp rock. This was tied to a long rod, which was tapped by a second rod to incise the skin and let the ink flow in. A third man gently fanned the subject, and a forth periodically wiped the blood and ink away. It was a much messier process than the modern needles and machines that buzzed away for the rest of the festival. Marquesan patutiki artists are known for the beauty and delicacy of their geometric artwork, and were highly in demand by locals, as well as by tourists wanting a permanent souvenir. So far I remain undecorated…
I also thoroughly enjoyed the lunch put on by the islands. We were told to ‘bring a plate,’ which in New Zealand means you bring food to be shared. I started planning what I could make, figuring out what vegetables needed to be used soon and trying to decide whether curry or couscous would be better received. Fortunately Cindy from Zensation set me straight before I started cooking- the instructions were literal and we were only expected to bring something to eat off of, preferably something natural and organic. Jim rustled up some coconut shells and we climbed the hill to the next bay.
Marquees with trestle tables were set up waiting for the feast. The food had been cooked in umu- underground ovens made by digging a pit. Fires are lit in the bottom, whilst pigs, taro, plantains and bananas are wrapped in taro leaves and placed in baskets woven from long green pandanus fronds. The baskets are placed in the embers and covered with more layers of leaves, to slowly roast overnight. When it was time for lunch they were unearthed and ceremonially carried to the waiting trestle tables with chanting and dancing. The leaves were unwrapped and their contents transferred to long wooden bowls with beautifully carved handles. Platters of crabs and shellfish were spread out alongside woven banana leaf plates full of fruit and firi firi (coconut doughnuts). Lengths of green bamboo, split in half, made perfect tongs and scoops to serve the dishes, and some people used them as rather stylish-looking plates. Coconuts were also popular- though as one unfortunate soul discovered, they don’t work so well if they have a hole in the bottom…
When lunch was announced, I commenced queuing in an orderly British fashion (with only two people in front of me). It soon became clear that politeness wouldn’t fill my coconut shell any time soon- not when I was competing with an endless stream of hungry Polynesian males! So I stood my ground and ended up with a chunk of pork and some plantains in my coconut, along with a good dollop of coconut milk with onion and fish sauce. Everything was lean, tender and delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed the sweet rich plantains- though by the time I’d finished, the platters of fruit and firi firi were nothing but peel and memories! Our coconut shells went in the compost, and we spent a pleasant couple of hours chatting with Shelley and Mike from Avatar whilst I sketched the goings on.
Each evening the islands took it in turns to perform in the tohua, culminating in a collaborative dance on the third night. Offerings ranged from seated dances of sedate and elegant hand gestures to energetic performances with much hip wiggling to my favourites- the men performing high-octane cousins of the Maori haka, which sent shivers down my spine with their power. Through it all beat the drums, fast, layered and mighty, thundering as the warriors stamped and chanted with deep, throaty voices. The air was scented with sweet frangipani and vetiver, and the coconut oil that glistened on the performers’ skins. I made huge strides in my figure drawing as my hands flew across the paper, trying to reflect the mana of the performers.
My favourite performance was by the islanders of Ua Pou. Flaming torches were passed round and a fiery battle commenced. The flames whirled and clashed together, then flew as the torches were tossed between performers. No one could doubt the bravery of the warriors, energetically brandishing their torches as their grass skirts whirled about them. A quick visit to the tap by the post office was enough to sort out one young man whose costume was glowing, and a few buckets of water after the performance doused a small patch of grass which was smoldering. The next island, Ua Huka, tried to compete by including two cockerels and a live pig in their performance. The animals seemed quite unimpressed and the pig, tied upside down to a pole, vocalized its displeasure, but everyone survived the dance- although only the human cast members were invited to take a bow at the end.
The festivities were cut slightly short- the islanders from Ua Pou and Ua Huka were due to leave earlier than expected, aboard the Aranui. We left before the closing ceremony, keen to avoid the manic traffic that would accompany the departures. It only took an hour to motor to Atuona on the neighbouring island of Hiva Oa, and the Aranui arrived a couple of hours later. It berthed on the quay, and we were treated to the sounds of singing and drumming as we sat outside on Prism, watching the sunset. I don’t know when I’ll get to hear Polynesian drums again, but relished this chance to enjoy the rhythm for just a little longer.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.