An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
On Fatu Hiva, the sound of water is never far away. Rolling waves crash onto the beaches, and the valleys and hillsides are full of rushing cascades and burbling streams. Cool, clear and frequently drinkable, the water is testament to Fatu Hiva’s status as the rainiest island of the Marquesas, and contributes to its abundance of vegetation, and fertile soil- perfect for growing fruit.
Mangoes drip from the trees over the roads. Windfalls are free for all, tiny and sweet. Jim scoops them up off the roadside and slices them open with his knife. They are so small that they only give up a couple of bites of fruit (or one mouthful if you’re Jimmie), but they’re juicy and worth the effort. Jim keeps eying up the bountiful limes, bananas and pomelos, but they’re all on private land- not for general consumption.
To get fruit, we need to trade- pomelos in exchange for perfume samples and makeup, bananas for a packet of Paracetamol. The holy grails of trading seem to be tobacco, rum and bullets, picked up cheaply by cruisers who arrive here from Panama or Ecuador. My first attempt at trading is with Marie-Priscille, who asks for pens, flip flops or perfume in exchange for some pomelos. I’m sadly lacking in spare perfume and footwear, but she agrees to swap some fruit for 500 francs (about $5) and a few pens. It seemed easy- until I went to collect the fruit. I was presented with a huge bag of pomelos, limes and mangoes, but of course the price had gone up. Did I have rum? Tobacco? Mascara? Was I SURE I didn’t have more flip flops lurking on the boat, or a spare bottle of perfume? My offering of nail polish was grudgingly accepted, along with a handful of multicoloured biros and an additional 500 francs. The mangoes turned out to be windfalls- mostly bruised and split and quickly tossed overboard. But the pomelos are tasty and the kilo or so of limes will keep the scurvy at bay for the next few weeks- and go very nicely with the last of our rum.
We’re anchored in the stunning Bay of Virgins, next to the village of Hanavave- one of only two villages on the island. It’s not an easy place to get to; the island has no airport, and the only scheduled boat is the cargo ship Aranui, which calls in every couple of weeks. There’s a small shop which stocks the usual staples of crackers, bricks of plastic cheese, corned beef, canned fish and tins of cassoulet, but everything else is grown, raised or hunted locally. The men are eager to trade for bullets so they can hunt the wild goats and pigs around the island. The pig tusks are used for necklaces, and men wear the circles of tusks with as much pride now as they did centuries ago. The pig bones are used for carving, the goat skins stretched and tans. Nothing is wasted here.
Towering fingers of rock ring the bay, reaching up to clutch the sky. In the morning they are silhouetted dramatically. In the afternoon, they reflect the warm light in shades of orange and purple. The first sailors here didn’t see the rocks as fingers. Instead they perceived their favourite anatomical features, and named the bay “Baie des Verges”- the Bay of Penises. The missionaries who arrived a few years later did not appreciate this. With the addition of a letter ‘i’, verges became vierges, penises were transformed into virgins and the cheeky rock formations took a vow of chastity. Nobody knows what the rocks think about this, but in the Catholic Marquesas they are stuck with the status quo.
The rocks are best seen from our anchorage, their impact fades on land. We are anchored out in the gentle and constant swell, cooled by the trade winds. To get ashore we take the dinghy to the small boat harbor and tie it to the rocky wall alongside colourful speedboats. In the afternoons, the small boat harbor becomes a hive of activity. Men bring their dogs for a swim, the accepted technique being to throw your mutt into the water and hold the end of its lead whilst it does doggy paddle on the spot. I’m not too sure what the dogs think about this, but they strain at the lead on the walk down to the bay, which I’ll take as a sign of excitement. After lunch, the ladies come to wash vetiver- sweetly scented plant fibres used for weaving neck garlands. They stand in the water to toss the fibres around, spreading them out on the quay to dry whilst they swim then wash and oil their hair. In the late afternoon, the dock becomes the place of choice to play football, with the children taking one edge and the young men using another. The ball often ends up in the water, but that’s part of the fun, and swimming to get it adds to the exercise- unless a handy yachtie uses their dinghy to retrieve it before it drifts too far!
A dedicated football field does exist, but people mainly use it to moor their horses whilst they go fishing or visit the community hall. At the moment the hall is mainly used for dance rehearsals. Practices are well under way for a Christmas performance, but most of the time and enormous amounts of energy are being put into preparing for the Marquesan Festival next week. The main festival is held every four years, with groups invited from as far afield as New Zealand and Rapa Nui. Every second year is a mini festival, held for the people of the Marquesas by the people of the Marquesas. The festivals started as a way of celebrating and valuing culture and the Arts at a time when Marquesan language and traditions were being pushed aside and forgotten. Pounding drums and chanting voices drew me and Jim to take a peek into one of the rehearsals. We were treated to a sneak glimpse of wiggling hips, stamping feet and a huge amount of energy being expended.
Carving is also flourishing on the island. Taoa, one of the local carvers, showed us his beautiful bowls and tiki, created from local rosewood, ebony and stone. We also met Poi, who invited us into his home and showed us gorgeous and intricate carvings from bone, wood and swordfish. His wooden house had the semi-outdoor feel typical of Polynesian homes. The living area was largely open with enormous unglassed windows to let in the breeze. Shutters could be pulled across to shut out inclement weather. A broad verandah wrapped around the house, forming his workshop out the back. It was scented with vetiver, piles of which had been dyed with turmeric and were ready to be formed into lei for the festival. Poi’s wife also used turmeric to dye some of her tapa cloth. She made it the traditional way, soaking bark in water until it was ready to be pounded into thin sheets, then dried and painted. In the past tapa was used for clothing; today it is a canvas for beautiful geometric art.
Jim’s bike caused much amusement on the island. Bikes here are mainly toys for children- the village is too small to make them necessary for adults, and the steep and unpaved road to the other village is not cycle friendly. One afternoon it was commandeered by young Mahana, who took great delight in freewheeling it downhill, her father in hot pursuit to give her a push on her way back up. We met Mahana and her sister as they sat in a wheelbarrow, being pushed up the winding road to go to swim in the cascade. Within a few minutes she’d charmed a turn on Jim’s bike, given my camera a thorough workout and modeled my sunglasses. It turned into a party when Marie Priscille turned up with bags of fruit. She shared some juicy mangoes and pomme d’or (sweet, pink pear-shaped fruit which taste a bit like an apple), and was delighted when Mahana used my camera to take some photos of us. Mahana was desperate for us to join her on her outing to the falls, but we’d just finished a four hour hike and were ready to return to Prism and enjoy another glorious sunset over the beautiful bay. Her ready laughter followed us down the road and she continued to wave at us from under the banana plants until we went round the next snaking bend and out of sight.
The cascade is a very special spot- a thirty metre high wall of water, tumbling down a sheer rock face into a cool and shady pool. The rock wall curves into a ‘u’ shape, giving the pool an aura of secrecy- only a tiny part of it is visible from the trail. I’d had it to myself that morning, showering under the gentle spray and making lazy laps of the clear water. I could have stayed all day in this secluded paradise, but Jim was waiting for me so we could finish our sweaty hike up to the top of the hill to find a viewpoint over the harbour. It was tough going at times, and we reached the end of the sealed road, but the vista of imposing mountains dropping straight down into peacock blue water was worth the slog. The village and the bobbing boats all felt minuscule in comparison to the grand scale of the scenery
By now we were starting to feel like part of the community. Trading with Taoa was feeling more like alternate rounds of gift giving. We’d bring him some spare snorkeling gear, he’d give us a boldly painted tapa of a tiki, Jim would gift him some fishing tackle superfluous to our needs, he’d present us with an exquisitely carved rosewood bowl. I was having regular chats in my broken French with an elderly lady who lived in a lovely house of woven palm fronds, and Marie Priscille often passed the time of day and a quick joke (sometimes I even understood them). We didn’t want to leave, but the festival was drawing near, and after that we’d only have a week left in this wonderful part of the world. It was time to haul up the anchor and begin to make our way north.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.