An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
We've had a rather mixed stay in Papeete. Having Jim’s wallet stolen off the boat was a major frustration, as was being sent on numerous wild goose chases around the wider town as we tried to get Jim’s carte de sejour to extend his stay here (fyi- go to the Haute Commissaire, NOT border police). And waiting for the new bank cards to slowly make their way from Canada by courier was agonising. But there are bright sides- Papeete is a colourful town where one of the great pleasures is watching the world go by.
My highlight in the city has been the market. It opens every day, full of stores selling clothes, handicrafts, long skinny pods of Tahitian vanilla, tropical fruits and huge bunches of vibrant exotic flowers. Along one side are ladies making lei, beautiful floral crowns of bougainvillea, spikey leaves and fragrant cream tiare. They smell as wonderful as they look- a contrast to the fish section, where silvery trevally, emerald parrotfish and slabs of red tuna nestle on beds of ice, and the air smells of the sea.
On Sundays the market really comes alive. The vegetable stalls spill out from the covered market onto the surrounding streets, interspersed with stalls selling pain au chocolate, cinnamon swirls, and coconutty fried fiafia in their distinctive figure of eights. Chinese butchers weigh out portions of chopped pork, and tourist stalls are replaced with tables laden with dim sum, samosas, honey and passionfruit. The rest of the town is shut, and by 9 am the market too will have dispersed. The streets will be deserted, everyone either at home or relaxing with family in the Jardin de Paofai.
The gardens stretch along the waterfront, another city highlight. Paths link activities along the fitness trail, then wind past lily ponds and children's playgrounds. Shady benches are the perfect place for lunch, and if you're planning a party you can hire a covered picnic area- bring your own pizza or raw fish salad, get the cousins to bring their ukuleles and make sure that everyone sports a lei, or at least a flower behind the ear.
It's been a great place to sketch. When I'm drawing lots I work through my little 40 page sketch books quite quickly, and it was time for a new book. The paper swiftly proved a terrible choice for watercolour, absorbing the colour and making a wash impossible. My Noodlers pen blotted as the ink was sucked out of it, and everything seemed keen to soak through and appear as ghostly smears in the next page. I didn't care about this book- in fact I actively disliked it- so embarked on a week of intensive sketching so I could finish it and move on to something with nicer paper. The book soon filed up with people- my ambivalent attitude towards it meant I didn't care if my blind contour went wrong, if I had to turn the page and start again. So when Wolfram pulled out his guitar and began playing, I drew pages of him, accompanied by song lyrics. I sketched in the park and at the market and drew the ladies working on their leis. A ‘rubbish book’ may need to become a permanent part of my travellers sketchbook- somewhere I can scribble and scrawl and practice, practice, practice.
People have reacted wonderfully to my drawings. Wolfram took a sketch home with him, the waitress at the roulotte where I drew as I dined was very excited and gave me little hugs through the meal, and a gentleman who saw me drawing at Trois Brasseurs presented me with his phone and asked me to draw his friend, a dancer (she's the lady in red below). He bought a pitcher of beer in thanks, which made me very popular with our cruising friends. My squiggly sketches of the dancer in yellow, done as she performed for a group of tourists off a cruise ship, were also well received (for the record, Tahitian dancers are amazing but they move so fast- drawing them from a photo is definitely easier! ).
Jim’s cards have arrived and we got his immigration paperwork sorted, so we're now free to cruise again. We're going to explore the northern side of Tahiti and probably head over to Moorea. I've enjoyed our ten days in a marina - the warm showers have been a definite bonus- and we've loved meandering down to the food trucks at the Place de Roulottes, but we haven't seen a shark in a while now and it’s time to be out at anchor! Off we go to the next step of the adventure!
We've been on the move since my last blog post- fantastic places but slow/ no Internet. The lack of interweb is quite refreshing- people look around and smile as they walk along the street and kids entertain themselves by playing outside, riding their bikes and swimming. Wandering around in the afternoon, it's normal to hear ukeleles or people practicing the drums. Life without Internet isn't so bad. Having said that, I do get pretty excited when we find a decent connection, but then lots of formerly everyday things have become exciting and rare, like peppers and fresh water and bok choi and eggs. Eggs are a mystery, occassionally sighted but always seeming to arrive ‘demain’ (tomorrow). Perhaps they're related to bread and unicorns- only seen by pure souls who get out of bed very early.
The secret to baguettes in Rotoava, the small town in the north of Fakarava, is to order them the day before from the bakery. They also make tasty pain au chocolat- the only challenge is getting to mine before Jim can. There is a fruit and vegetable stall selling cabbages and onions, and I was very excited to get the first green pepper I’ve tasted in French Polynesia. There were a few and it was tempting to stock up, but peppers don't last well in the heat and Island Prism doesn't have a fridge. So one pepper it was- and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I did a few dives on the pass here. The coral’s good, and there's a decent shark population. It would have been breathtaking if I hadn't just come from the south, which was even sharkier. The Garuae pass was atmospheric, with sandy slopes full of Moray eels and flat fish. On one dive, I descended into a huge school of goat fish, and drifted along with them just above the sand as if I was a goat fish too. The sharks swirled in front of us and I felt very small. Later, the current picked up and I flew above coral gardens where butterflyfish flitted and squirrelfish gazed out from dark caverns with big baleful eyes.
The pace of life is slow in the Tuamotus, and people look around them, so sketching is harder to keep under the radar than when I'm in the lands of attention-consuming online connections. People are interested and positive, and it's been a good way to strike up conversations with other cruisers, tourists and locals. When it's hot, popping a fold up stool in a shady spot and drawing crabs or boats is a pretty good way to spend time. And if I get to hear someone's story while I do it, that's an added bonus. Seeing my sketches may have inspired someone else to start talking a sketchbook and watercolours when she travels (do it, Louise- a sketchbook, fineliner and paintbox won't take much room!). I was very excited when Anne-Marie, another cruiser, liked my drawings enough to ask me to paint her some post cards. We'd dived together the day before so I painted her underwater with the sharks and manta ray we saw on our dive. She insisted on paying for the commission and I was able to treat Jim to delicious ice cream sundaes at La Pailotte, a gorgeous eatery on the waterfront. It's exciting to think of two of my artworks winging their way to France!
Toau was just a day sail away from North Fakarava. Our departure was carefully timed with the outgoing tide- we wanted enough current to help us on our way but not so much that we risked facing turbulent waters as tide fought with the prevailing wind. We made our way through smoothly, and made it to Toau by mid afternoon. I loved it- turquoise waters, great coral and fantastic snorkeling with eagle rays, tiny pipefish and enormous Napoleon wrasse. Jim, however, noticed a change from when he was here nine years ago. He felt that fish numbers were down and the schools of reef sharks which had wowed him previously were noticeably absent. Just one of those things or poor fishery management? We certainly found a well-stocked fish trap, some of whose victims were showing negative signs from their captivity. I was glad to learn that the trap didn't belong to Valentine and her husband, but to an absentee nephew who refused to let them touch it. It's tragic to think of paradise being destroyed by human thoughtlessness, but I suppose that's a story the world's over. I avoided the depressing traps after our first snorkel, and Jim mourned for the declining glory of the ocean. For me, the fish life and eagle rays still made it worth a visit, and I hope that they manage to hang on to what they have.
On Toau I spent a happy half hour watching and sketching hermit crabs whilst Valentine, who owned the motu where we were moored, told us about the local tsunami early warning system. The crabs are good at sensing impending disaster and climb the trees- this is a signal for the locals to do likewise (there is no high ground on the coral atolls of the Tuamotus). Hermit crabs are therefore treasured friends. I loved the bright red ones, though some of the smaller creatures were delicate whites and pinks with pale shells to match.
Also in the anchorage at Toau were Nick and Jess on Te Mana, whom we'd meet in South Fakarava. They invited us to their boat for dinner, and revolutionised our cruising lives by showing us how to make our own coconut milk. Husk and split a coconut, drink the water if you want and use a nifty device called a rape de coco (pronounced ‘rap’) to grate the white flesh. The rape de coco looks like a flat spoon with fine teeth on one side, and is screwed on to a board which you sit on. You rhythmically scrape your coconut against it to remove the flesh, which you then put in a muslin bag and squeeze. An amazing amount of creamy milk comes pouring out, and you can eat the grated remains if you want to. The fresh milk is rich and sweet and had a fuller flavour than the canned stuff I've always used. Jim spent the next morning joyfully grating and milking, leading to an excellent lunch of fish with coconut milk (the cruiser’s dilemma- if fish stocks are under pressure, is it OK for us to take the occasional fish too?). There's definitely no shortage of coconuts, and a rape de coco has gone to the top of our shopping list when we reach Pape’ete.
We stayed at Toau for a couple of nights before moving on to another tranquil atoll, Ahe. This was an overnight passage- and with a beautiful beam reach we made great time, arriving at 8am instead of our predicted 2pm. We misjudged the slack tide in the pass slightly, and I had a couple of knots of current against me going in, but engine and headsail kept us going (even if it was only at a rate of two knots). We found a well-marked channel to the main village of Tenukupara, and anchored snuggly in a sandy space between coral outcrops. We were glad to be out of the way when the supply ship Dory came in, and happily sat ashore watching the hustle and bustle as bikes, trikes, wheelbarrows and a ute joined Dory’s forklifts to unload and restock the vessel. There was a bit of a party atmosphere and small boats zipped in from across the lagoon.
The following day was Bastille Day. The celebrations were a riot of colour at the flag raising. Residents of each suburb wore brightly coloured t-shirts and most people sported colourful and intricate lei on their heads. There was singing in Reo Maohi, then the Marseilles, followed by a feast. We were presented with leaf plates with sweet cakes and slices of baguette. I pulled out my sketchbook and once again failed to stay under the radar. A father soon asked me if I could draw his infant son, Moana, and this was soon followed by further requests and I ended up under a tree with a queue of families! Jim was sent back to Prism for more paper as my sketchbook grew thinner. The babies reactions varied from fascination to total disinterest ( little Tiare especially was infinitely more engaged with the sand than with me- her parents ended up with two drawings, a hard-won portrait which I think caught her mischievous gaze and a sketch of her fully focussed on the sand). The older children were more excited and the parents had a tough time prising the competed pictures from their hands. I wish I could have drawn the whole families- the parents’ proud and adoring expressions said everything you needed to know about families in French Polynesia! I'll have to share the photos at a future date, but it was definitely a good opportunity to practice my portraiture, and was a fun way to say thank you to this welcoming community for allowing us to join in their celebrations!
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.