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Vol 2, Iss 7: Meet the Marquesans
April 16, 2023 | Baie de Taioa, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia | 8°56′40″ S 140°9′50″ W | Wind: SE 25 kts Weather: 83° Sunny with squalls
Baie de Taioa, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia
“You’re gonna love the Marquesans,” our French friend, Robert, remarked nostalgically before we left La Paz.
It was hard to imagine we would sail 2700 nm just to meet lovely people. I mean, can a group of people actually be that nice?
Oh, but then we met them for ourselves.
The Marquesans were hands-down the best part of the Marquesas.
But instead of taking my word for it, I thought I’d introduce you to some of the lovely people who inhabit these beautiful islands.
Village of Omoa on the island of Fatu Hiva
‘We arrived on Fatu Hiva on our sailboat. A fisherman brought us here to Omoa from Hanavave so we can hike the 14 km road through the island,’ I try to explain to the Madame at the boulangerie who studies me quizzically, obviously wondering how an American is in her bakery at 6:30 am.
Her face brightens, ‘Oh it’s a tough hike but BEAUTIFUL. You’ll need food.’
I hold up the baguettes she’s just sold me and smile.
‘On this side of the mountain there should still be mangoes on the trees you can pluck and eat. But hold on, I will give you some just in case there aren’t many.’ She disappears out the back door as I leave out the front to pack the bread into the backpacks. She arrives in front with 2 grown men following her, each with the fronts of their shirts cradling a half dozen ripe mangoes just plucked from the trees out back. Our mouths begin to water until we realize we will be carrying them on our backs for the 8 miles to Hanavave. Still, we are already imagining snacking on the juicy fruit as we trek across the island.
I’ve always heard ‘Generosity begets generosity.’ The more generous we are with our gratitude, the more generous she becomes. A few words in Marquesan from the Madame sends the men scurrying to fetch a long stick with a basket on the top. They poke at fruit towards the top of a tree and down come 8 mamoncillos. She hands these to us with a smile. Thrilled, we pack some away and munch on a couple right there on the spot.
Delighted with our delight, Madame sends the men to fetch la pièce de résistance, reserved only for the guests who will truly appreciate it. They return with handfuls of gumball-sized fruit. ‘This is our best fruit. Most of it is sent to Tahiti to be sold for $10 a bag. But chez moi, we enjoy them ourselves.’ Madame teaches us to crack open the hard shell to reveal the most delicious pulp. Imagine the best gummy candy in the world, textured but not chewy, sweet but not sugary. Delectable!
Our friends, Carsten and Vinni on s/v Capri, had heralded this kind of generosity. “You’ll walk up to a Marquesan and ask to pick some fruit off their tree. They’ll say, ‘No….but here, have this whole box of fruit I have already picked.’” Their world-renowned reputation of generosity is well deserved!
‘Bienvenue!’ Over fifteen years after living in Toul, France as a Rotary Youth Exchange student, it feels magnifique to live once again in a Francophone country. All those hours invested in conjugating verbs in the imparfait and flipping through mountains of index cards to memorize vocabulary words are once again paying dividends.
There is a part of my soul, my identity, that was birthed in France, the part of my soul that is open to new experiences, the part of me okay with making a fool of myself in an effort to understand and be understood, the part of my soul that is curious and inquisitive. Speaking French again has reawakened that part of me. Speaking French with the Marquesans, who have responded with such warmth, has caused this curiosity, this openness, to blossom like the tropical plants surrounding us.
“Nothing is comparable to the new life that a reflective person experiences when he observes a new country. Though I am still always myself, I believe I have been changed to the very marrow of my bones." - Goethe
Village of Hanavave on the island of Fatu Hiva
We’ve followed the sound of music echoing in the Hanavave valley. It’s so loud it’s baffling it’s not bothering someone in the village. But now we understand: half of the village - or at least all the young adults - is on the soccer field, running and doing drills to the upbeat music pumping from a JBL.
We hang back, watching them practice from afar. ‘Are they any good?’ I ask for Andrés Jacobo’s assessment.
‘They’re not professionals but they’re not bad. They must have played together forever. Look at their coordination. And they know exactly what drill they have to perform when the coach blows the whistle.’
‘Do you want to go play with them?’
‘I can’t. I’m wearing these sandals.’
‘Maybe they’ll practice another day this week and you can play with them.’
Before his introversion can stop me, I take off towards the field. I spot the Coach, a middle aged man with earrings in both ears, covered in the traditional tattoos, wearing shorts that barely survived a shark attack, pacing barefoot in the middle of the field, chain smoking hand-rolled cigarettes as he barks instructions in Marquesan to the guys practicing on one side of the field and to the girls warming up on the other side. I wait for the moment I am least likely to take a soccer ball to the head and jog up to him.
‘Bonjour Monsieur, my husband plays soccer and would like to know if he can practice with your team this week.’
‘À toute à l’heure,’ he sends me off the field with a nod.
I jog back to Andrés Jacobo who has followed me to the sidelines. ‘He said to wait, but I think it’s a yes!’ We hover awkwardly near the bench, not sure exactly what we’re waiting for. Coach blows the whistle and all the guys come over to the bench for a water break. Chatting with them we discover they are the island’s soccer team, practicing every day this week for a big inter-island tournament on Saturday in Hiva Oa.
Coach blows the whistle again and the guys take last swigs of their water before once again taking the field. Coach points directly to Andrés Jacobo, barks more Marquesan, then points to the defender position on the far side of the field.
‘Oh he can’t play today.’ I try to explain in French. ‘He doesn’t have shoes.’
‘Pas de souci,’ says one of the players, holding up a pair of rough, smelly cleats. There’s no way my OCD husband is going to wear a stranger’s smelly cleats.
But his appetite to play must be roaring because he takes them from the player, determines they’re more or less his size, puts them on, laces them up, and jogs briskly to his assigned position.
For 45 minutes, Andrés Jacobo is in his element.
On the grass field flanked by the Pacific Ocean on one end and towering spires of rock on the other, he scrimmages with the team. He’s a gracious guest, passing the ball often, fetching it when it goes out of bounds, always trying to be an asset rather than the star ball hog. They’re polite players, but driven to be at top performance for Saturday. It’s the most fun Andrés Jacobo has had in awhile.
By the time Coach blows the last whistle, the team is affectionately calling him ‘Amigo’ and asking him to come back to play tomorrow and every day this week. He joins the end-of-practice huddle, his arms around their shoulders and theirs around his as they recite the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary in Marquesan, before giving a celebratory WHOOP!
We had been told Fatu Hiva is paradise but playing your favorite sport with the locals on the most beautiful pitch in the world…well that‘s truly heaven.
Getting to know the lovely people of these beautiful islands has indeed been the highlight of our month. Yet, it’s also presented the biggest challenges.
In Talking with Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the challenges of talking with strangers and warns of the perils of underestimating this challenge. The stories he includes in the book have often come to mind this month as we’ve tried to navigate tricky situations with our hosts. Though I speak one of their languages (most here speak French, Marquesan, and Tahitian), their society and culture are distinctive. Their cultural norms, their hand gestures and non-verbals, their values, their etiquette all developed for centuries upon centuries before the arrival of Europeans. We often found ourselves at a loss when trying to interpret meaning and intention.
Have I done something to so egregiously offend the Fatu Hiva girls’ soccer team that they refuse to acknowledge my existence at the soccer field? Should we have offered to pay for the fruit in Omoa or will it offend Madame’s generosity? Why are those people on shore yelling in our direction…and why is one of them wearing a turtle costume? Can you believe she not only looked into my wallet but practically reached in and took money out? Paying 60 bucks for a boat ride to Omoa - are we getting ripped off or is that a fair deal? Do these parents suspect we might try to kidnap their children when we relent to taking their young kids on kayak trips around the bay?
It’s tough to know what to do and how to respond.
But how else do strangers become friends besides talking and spending time together?
So we sit in their carports and try to get to know them and their culture. We ask questions about their lives when they seem open and respect their privacy when they don’t. We listen as they share their opinions on everything from Ukraine (‘Putin is evil for slaughtering civilians’), to the effect of global warming on their weather (‘It’s the fault of USA and China’s pollution’), to famous people who have loved the Marquesas (‘Jacques Brel is our hero, but Paul Gauguin just got our women drunk, had them take of their clothes and violated them for the world to see’). We practice imitating the beat they put in between the second and third syllables of their hello: ‘Ka oh *pause* ha’.
We give them the benefit of the doubt and hope they grant us the same grace.
Village of Hapatoni on the island of Tahuata
‘Excuse me, do you know Tehina?’
Even for me, asking these random strangers for another stranger takes a bit of courage. We had been instructed in a cruisers’ guide to look for ‘Tehina who will make you some of the most delicious food you’ll ever eat.’ Imagine if you arrived in a tiny town in a remote area of the US and you just started knocking on doors asking for a housewife to cook you dinner. Strange, right? But there are no restaurants in many of the anchorages and there are hungry cruisers with cash so black market restaurants have popped up in carports on every island.
A chain of four strangers eventually lead us to Tehina’s blue house. Still dressed in her Sunday best, she explains she can make dinner for us tomorrow night but a friend of hers is already making a traditional lunch for cruisers today at noon. Would we like to join? Sure, why not. Cost is $20 per person. Is it worth it? We have no idea. Guess we’ll find out.
At noon we arrive at Rose’s carport with the 4 French cruisers. There is quite the crowd gathered with probably a dozen Marquesan adults and a gaggle of children running about. Quite unexpectedly, we recognize many of the faces. The artisans we had seen this morning at the village market and the strangers who had led us to Tehina were there. So were the children who had met us on the kayak at the quay and begged so pleadingly for a ride that Andrés Jacobo finally relented and spent 20 minutes giving them kayak rides around the bay as they squealed with excitement.
We discover we’ve been invited to the Sunday Supper Rose cooks for her 9 children and numerous grandchildren each week. But today is not just any Sunday. This Sunday is a party celebrating a little boy’s 6th birthday. We kick off the party with a gigantic homemade sheet cake with candles and rounds of ‘Happy Birthday’ in French, Marquesan, and Tahitian. The kids squabble over who has to pray for the little boy then everyone prays the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary.
The birthday festivities officially started, we are led to a buffet table and oh my goodness there are literally MOUNTAINS of traditional food. We devour the chow mein, ‘poisson cru’ (French Polynesian ceviche), beef stir fry, fried breadfruit, steamed taro and caramelized taro, steamed bananas, bananas braised in coconut milk, goat braised in coconut milk, pork braised in coconut milk, a raw seafood platter, crabs boiled in coconut milk and curry, grilled chicken, pommes frites with a Roquefort sauce, octopus, and birthday cake.
As we feast, we talk to Rose and her children. We learn how to properly suck the juicy meat from the crabs. We learn how Rose’s son met his wife in the Australes archipelago. We learn about their woodcarving craft. We learn about the kids’ school in the town 5 miles away.
It’s a big risk to sail to French Polynesia. It’s a big risk to anchor in rolly bays in front of tiny villages. It’s a big risk to ask to eat at a stranger’s home, especially when you’re eating strange seafood. But for the risk and just $20 each, what a reward!
After spending a year in the Baja desert, we now find ourselves in the Garden of Eden. The islands are COVERED in fruit trees. Mangoes. Pineapple. Coconuts. Limes. Guava. Gigantic grapefruit. Bananas. We’ve tasted sweet fruit, plucked straight from the tree, and our palates will never be the same.
Town of Taiohae on the island of Nuku Hiva
‘OpenStreetMaps says there is a barbershop here.’
‘Here???’ Looking around at all the houses, I know that can’t be right. A truck is passing slowly so I hail it. Four smiling faces greet me giving me courage to ask such a random question.
‘Bonjour! Est-ce qu’il y a un coiffeur près d’ici?’
They nod energetically and point to the house across the street. ‘In THAT house?’ I confirm and receive a chorus of ‘oui’s in response.
Cautiously we walk up the driveway to the carport full of scooters and motorbikes. ‘Bonjour,’ I call out questioningly while still quite a few yards away.
A fit man with short hair, shorts and a tattered ‘Air Tahiti’ shirt pokes his head out of the house.
‘He needs a haircut,’ I gesture towards Andrés Jacobo. ‘Is it possible for you to cut it tomorrow or Saturday?’
‘I’ll cut it right now.’
Relieved that we are indeed in the right place and he seems to be often asked to cut hair, I explain ‘Oh we are running errands but we can come back tomorrow or Saturday.’
‘I’ll cut his hair now,’ he insists as he pulls one of the chairs lined up as a ‘waiting area’ of the carport into the center and gestures to Andrés Jacobo to sit down.
Being accustomed to the long waits at Great Clips in the US and a bit shocked at the rapid turn of events, Andrés Jacobo hands me his backpack and sits down in his plastic barber chair.
The Barber, also named Jacob, returns with a bright pink sarong which he wraps about Andrés Jacobo and a cracked plastic pail children use to build sand castles at the beach. His pail is full of the tools of his trade: razors, combs, and *fingers crossed* not lice. ‘He wants it shorter but not as short as yours,’ I instruct and the Barber gets to work. After only a couple of minutes I worry I should have given different instructions as the Barber nearly shaves off all of Andrés Jacobo’s curls. Oh well, too late now.
With the Barber making quick work of Andrés Jacobo’s head, I have only a few minutes to take in our surroundings. This is one of many carports we’ve randomly found ourselves in since landing in the Marquesas. The Barber has a ‘waiting area’ but no mirror. Not sure if this is better for Andrés Jacobo’s anxiety or worse. Instead, the Barber has hung goat hides from his second career as a prized goat hunter. Equipment and tools for the scooters and motorbikes take up lots of the real estate so maybe he is also a mechanic. A huge ‘Air Tahiti’ sign hangs from the side of the house which, combined with the Barber’s tattered ‘Air Tahiti’ shirt, makes me wonder if he has a fourth career as an airline representative. I don’t want to distract him from the important task at hand by asking.
Ten minutes and $15 later, the Barber gives Andrés Jacobo a big smile and two thumbs up. Definitely a different experience than any other haircut he’s had before, but Andrés Jacobo looks sharp and ready for Easter.
‘I can’t believe it! You are in the Marquesas one day and already you get to see mantas!’ Dirk and Silvie, our welcoming committee on s/v Lison Life, couldn’t believe our luck. ‘What’s the big deal?’ we wondered. Manta rays were a near daily sighting in the Sea of Cortez.
Then we saw them.
These mantas weren’t the spry but small mantas we’re accustomed to seeing. Mantas here are mammoth, with a ‘wing-span’ of 12 feet. While anchored in Fatu Hiva, the mantas provided the dinner time entertainment, swimming graceful circles around Ana María, barely skimming the surface of the water as the sun set over the anchorage.
We arrived at the tall, volcanically formed Marquesan islands at the beginning of rainy season. After 22 days at sea, our legs have loved taking on the challenging hikes to waterfalls.
Miles of trekking up hills, across streams, through swarms of no-see-ums, underneath acres of fruit trees, listening to the exotic birds sing to one other.
All the effort to arrive at the basin, cliffs towering high above us, fresh water cascading down fifteen hundred feet to gather as an inviting pool before forming a river that will babble its way down to the sea.
The reward? Well besides the view - which has always been worth the climb - we enjoy the treat of a home-cooked meal of fried breadfruit, marinated and grilled tuna, and steamed bananas at one of the villager’s homes.
Town of Taiohae on the island of Nuku Hiva
We’re awake early on Easter morning so we can kayak to shore, change into ‘nice clothes’ on the beach and walk the half mile to the Église de Notre Dame for Easter Mass. Throngs of Marquesans arrive at the Nuku Hiva cathedral with us. We didn’t get the memo but everyone else did: They’re all dressed in beautiful all-white clothing. The women have crowned their heads with beautiful arrangements of pink and red tropical flowers. They greet each other with the Paschal greeting and a French ‘bisous’ (a quick kiss on each cheek).
They have dressed up the cathedral for the hopeful occasion. Pews are lined with bouquets of pink, green, and yellow plants. The various hand-carved wooden figures of Jesus hanging at the altar have all been adorned with garlands of fresh white flowers.
A parishioner graciously hands us the bulletin. It would be helpful, except it’s entirely in Marquesan. Besides the completely foreign language, the mass is familiar, especially to Andrés Jacobo. Where it differs from all other masses, though, is the music. This is neither the day nor the place for somber music and half-hearted singing. Pews of musicians expertly strumming guitars and ukuleles and beating traditional drums lead the congregation in the most beautiful, harmonious, exuberant singing I have ever heard. The Marquesan voices fill the stone cathedral with joyful singing and our hearts in turn are filled with joy.
Tomorrow we start a 5-day sail to the Tuamotu archipelago. We hear we’re about to enter a totally different world. Track us at https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/AnaMaria/ and stay tuned for more adventures aboard Ana María!
Fair winds and following seas,
See our photos of the Marquesas on Instagram @CoCaptainsLog