Gary's Travel Blog

Click here for photo gallery of the Tahiti & Marquesas Islands trip!!!!

Tahiti and The Marquesas Islands

Friday morning, April 27, ’07 - Foghorn Harbor Inn, Los Angeles, CA

My, my how domestic air travel has changed. I remember in the 1970s when I represented The Organization to Manage Alaska’s Resources and would fly first class from Washington Dulles to Anchorage, through Chicago. On the Northwest 747 the first class cabin contained a lounge, up the spiral staircase to the bubble behind the flight deck. Today, all airlines use seats in that space for more revenue. The chairs swiveled around, and after a great meal served with real Champaign from Reims, I would climb to the lounge, look out at the world far below with my feet in the window frame and ponder great thoughts. The flight crews in those days were served first class meals by the stewardess’. Yesterday, before our American Airlines flight boarded at Dulles I watched our flight captain enter the gangway holding a Subway sandwich encased in a plastic bag. The only constant is change.

I could not care a whit if I have to buy my lunch on the new, deregulated, highly competitive U.S. commercial air system. Our coast-to-coast five hour American Airlines tickets cost us $342.80 each round trip total; unbelievable! Further, our flight attendant (as opposed to the above stewardess) was upbeat, cheerful, attractive and accommodating. Lisa Johnson’s service was a throwback to the days when airlines would charge anything they could con the government into allowing and air travel was a positive experience, if noncompetitive and expensive. American Airlines should give Lisa a raise and hold her up as an example to her often grouchy colleagues.

Sunday, April 29, 2007 - Aboard the ARANUI, anchored off Fakarava, Tuamotu Islands, French Polynesia

It seems that each ship we step foot upon over the last few years misfires or in some way needs repairs. The last two voyages we undertook on the Maasdam resulted in broken engines. Of course, the Repubblica di Genova has capsized. Today, we are not underway because the Aranui has a busted engine pump that is being replaced, but that has been the least of my worries of late.

I have been re-attacked by a vile and vicious Jewell Hollow blood-sucking tick. Our daughter-in-law pulled the miniscule killer from a small spot beside my right arm pit on Jeanne’s birthday, March 31. It was for us in the Shenandoah National Park a normal tick, not the much smaller, black Lyme Disease-causing leecher. Ten days later the spot the little beast attacked had inflamed into a hot spot the size of a salad plate. To Valley Internal Medicine I marched, followed by 10 days of antibiotic therapy. Problem solved; well, not quite.

Marina del Rey
Our brief stay in Marina Del Rey was interesting: Our beach front room in the funky, 50s-throwback Foghorn Harbor Inn was perfect for us. The beach before us and a marina full of dazzling yachts and long, sleek sailboats just beyond, put us in a resort mood. The low rise 23 room Inn was informal, fun and less than half the price of the high rise, same-the-world-over Marriott down the street.

The evening of our short sojourn in Los Angeles we were hosted at Dinner by my law school seatmate friend of closing-in-on-50-years Rick and his companion Alexis. Rick and I had a couple of martinis each, some wine with the meal, which resulted in a long lecture from Rick on the absolute necessity for U.S. gun control and confiscation. He spent his career lawyering in Northern Europe and is convinced that the no-guns European model could somehow become viable in the U.S., despite an estimated 200,000,000 guns afloat in the land and millions people willing to cause considerable mayhem in order to keep them. No conversions to his religion were made, but the long friendship endures.

Firemen Playing Volleyball
The morning of our departure for Papeete, Tahiti Jeanne and I strolled the concrete banks of the vast marina and watched Los Angeles firefighters play beach volley ball in front of our patio. The firemen drive their fire trucks onto the public beach parking lot, pile out to the beach and perform their stay-in-shape chores in boisterous, sun-drenched comraderie. Only in Southern California.

The eight and a half hour flight to Papeete was uneventful except for two observations: The Air Tahiti Nui cabin crew was meticulous in its devotion to cleanliness, stooping to pick the slightest piece of trash from the carpet as they passed through the back of the Airbus and darting in and out of the lavatories to check the conditions therein and make any needed improvements. Thanks to gate manager Diane Gomez in Los Angeles, Jeanne and I were given exit door row seats with unlimited leg room, with no seats in front of us (and a near and clear view of a bank of lavatories.) A tip of the Frink fedora to Ms. Gomez.

During the flight I became chilled and by feeling my forehead with the back of her hand Jeanne came to a near-certain conclusion that my fever had returned; she was correct. The damned Jewell Hollow toxic tick had regrouped and was ferociously counterattacking my body after the original antibiotic therapy had run its 10 day course. The physician the Sofitel Tahiti Resort staff called to my aid bills himself as SOS Medicine. While he didn’t save out ship, he certainly saved our voyage through the Marquesas Islands on the Aranui-3. Trained in France, the doctor knew upon inspection of my newly re-reddened and re-heated underarm that the tick had returned to haunt me; he called it a secondary infection.

He had antibiotics in his large over the shoulder travel bag and began my new therapy on the spot; he ordered at least 900mm of aspirin a day to fight the fever, now four degrees above my normal. In the morning Jeanne returned from the Pharmacia with enough medicine to be taken three times a day for seven days.

Before Dr. SOS and because of the high fever, we discussed canceling out the voyage and making the 13 hours of return flights home immediately; Saturday, after his treatment, we gave up our room and balcony facing the serene scene of swimming pool and curved lagoon and forged forward. We were driven to the pier through traffic-jammed Papeete. Up the gangway we went, to another cargo ship and another adventure. I slept most of the first day and all night on the ship and awoke Sunday morning a renewed human being.

May 1, 2007 - Aboard the Aranui enroute to Rangiroa, 1st essay

When aboard cargo ships, as I have previously expounded on this website, you don’t know where you are going and you don’t know when you will get there. The Aranui is hurrying to Ua Huka, the furthest of the Marquesas Islands from Tahiti. We have aboard a replacement generator for the island; theirs imploded and the island is totally without electricity. We are steaming to the rescue, though in fact the islanders have already suffered the loss of their perishable foodstuffs and medicines.

It is Tuesday and the Aranui is embarked on a 2,200 mile round trip to the Marquesas Islands. Of the 20 islands or islets that make up the island group, only six are inhabited. Our ship is the lifeline to each, carrying everything from bandages to backhoes.

Whale Boat
We made a brief stop at the island of Fakarava in the Tuamotu island group Sunday. Many of the passengers traipsed down over-the-side stairs and into an oblong, flat bottom boat everyone aboard refers to as a whale boat, for a short ferry to the tiny, narrow slip of coral. I was indisposed so Jeanne and I avoided the adventure which, our dining companions that evening informed us, was mundane in the extreme. We have been underway for the better part of 48 hours since a new engine pump was installed while we remained aboard. We pulled anchor in the Fakarava Lagoon in the late afternoon and resumed the long navigation to the far side of the Marquesas Island group.

The Aranui, with its almost 100 passengers, is navigating through one of the most remote areas of the globe: We are, or soon will be, approximately 3,000 miles from Hawaii, 2,600 miles from Easter Island, 2,800 miles from Galapagos, over 900 from Tahiti and 4,500 miles from Los Angeles. We are on our way to a few miniscule volcanic specs in the overwhelming vast Pacific Ocean. On the six inhabited islands scattered within the Marquesas group there are only 9,104 folks total living in the splendid isolation, referred to throughout the ages by the likes of R.L. Stevenson, Herman Melville, Robert Michener and even the contemporary American novelist Larry McCurtry, as paradise. We shall see.

Our ship fits its task perfectly: first, carry the necessary items of 21st Century life to people on remote drops of hardened lava in the Marquesas Archipelago; second, carry along in reasonable comfort some folks adventuresome enough to plunge by sea deeply into the Polynesian Triangle (Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island), where few have ventured before.

Our Cabin
The Aranui is 355 feet long and 50 feet wide. She can carry 2,000 tons of cargo, plus the folks to pay to occupy the 85 cabins (including 10, which I am certain are luminously luxurious, suites). She has, at the bottom rank, very compact, Spartan, efficient and clean outside single-bunk cabins.
Queen Size Cabin

She has some king bed larger cabins and the aforementioned suites. Her dining room is bright and cheery, served by good-natured and efficient Polynesians. The food is served three times a day and is well prepared. There is a bar, high atop the ship and on a deck below is a small fresh water swimming pool and a large and comfortable lounge area for the passengers, where coffee and tea is available throughout the day and night. This cargo-passenger combo even has a well stocked gift shop. The attitudes of the staff we have encountered are uniformly excellent. That is what is available on this Romanian-built cargo ship.

When I was in the midst of my 47 day voyage aboard the Repubblica di Genova I was excited to receive an email from Bruce, who was so excited by my depictions of my life aboard the ship that he read 20,000 or more of my expertly crafted words in one sitting. A great man, Bruce. He would like to enjoy at least one cargo—or freighter, if you wish—voyage in his life. Alas, Bruce’s wife enjoys the pampered creature comforts of a cruise ship. Bruce, Pal: Don’t book her aboard the Aranui-3—not her cup of tea. A cargo ship, no matter how comfortable it is for its many, or limited number of, passengers is not a cruise vessel. The Aranui does not have multiple dining sites or choices at meal times. It doesn’t have a spa, casino, or grand atrium. It doesn’t change the sheets and towels every day, let alone twice, needed or not. There is no cabin steward to bring you ice, and otherwise suck up to yourself important self. It is a close call, Bruce, but I don’t think Mom would make it through Polynesia a happy camper. Of course, it’s your call, Bruce. You know her better than I.

May 1, 2007 — Aboard the Aranui, Second Essay

Generator on Small Barge
It was thrilling to watch. We passengers voyeured from above as the crewmen fought to keep the trailer-mounted, high and narrow generator from slipping its ties aboard the small, inadequate barge tasked with delivering its load through the pulsating, pounding Pacific. It didn’t work out as planned.

Rescuing Gas Tank
The barge was powered by two large Yamaha outboard engines, each with its own large, red gasoline container. In the heaving sea, one of the gas tanks popped out of its metal bracket and fell into the Pacific. This accident left the loaded barge without enough power to reach Ua Huka. The men on the barge scrambled to snag the bobbing red tank. One crewman would lie on his belly and extend out over the edge as far as possible as the barge pilot maneuvered as best he could to cut into the path of the tank; no luck.

Large Barge to the Rescue
A second barge was craned from the deck of the Aranui into the sea. It immediately outmaneuvered the small red tank bobbing in the dusky, dark blue sea. With the help of a rope the crewmen wound around the floating tank, it was lifted onto the second barge. I thought that barge two would then return the critical gas supply to barge one and it would loudly clatter away. No.
Lashing Barges Together
As the two barges bobbed side-by-side, the deck hands lashed them together. This touch of seamanship gave stability to barge one, where three crewmen held the ropes keeping the precariously high generator from falling to port and into the sea. After the joining, barge one pulled its two outboard propellers from the water and the electrical rescue of Ua Huka proceeded under the power of barge two. Crew and passengers watched as the lashed barges passed into the port-side distance and proceeded through a narrow passage into an inlet and dock beyond.

Dining Room
When Jeanne and I take a normal cruise, with its hundreds of strangers to confront, we put forth great energy to procure one of the few dining tables for two; we simply are not willing to take the down side risk of being locked-in to dine each evening with as-yet-undiscovered boors and drunks. There are no tables for two in the dining room of the Aranui. Our luck of the draw in the dining companion competition has been over the top, jack pot-esque.

Grant and Christine
Our first evening meal was spent in the company of two New Zealand couples, who were unknown to each other. One couple, Grant and Christine, has a somewhat tangled marital history. “We didn’t bother to get married this time,” she said. They married at 19, had a son and divorced at 22. They soon spread their newly freed wings into second marriages. Christine had a son during her second bite at the apple and Grant had four daughters during his. When they attended their son’s wedding, hormones of old apparently flared and their lives have been re-twined from that day, 13 years ago. What was not made clear is their marital statuses when they arrived at Sonny’s nuptials. Were they again single? Or did they re-couple and sort out the messy marital details later?

Grant’s company develops real estate in Auckland. It owns over 300 detached houses, which are rented out. Their son heads the real estate management end of the business. Here’s a guy who has a leg up to win the World Cup for entrepreneurial Pizzazz: One of Grant’s partners in another enterprise is a Singapore Chinese dude who owns 35 million acres of land in the Philippines. He is presently planting it with a vegetable oil producing, fast growing bush. The Chinese fellow is pouring in a few tens of millions of dollars to create his own deep water port. Once completed, the plan is to squeeze the oil from the bushes and export it to the U.S., to be used as biodiesel fuel. Christine is in the tourist business in Auckland, and her non-Grant son is easing into control of it. Christine and Grant are a low key, charming couple and Jeanne and I enjoy their company.

May 3, 2007 - Aboard the Aranui after a full day on Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Isles

The skies unloaded a warm, intense rain. I didn’t melt; ergo, an important lesson was learned. It was 7:15 am and we had breakfasted and walked off the Aranui at dock and were ambling along the beach “road” past tethered horses and free-range roosters into the village of Taiohae, population 1,944, more folks that any other town in the island chain. Our path took us past the grand, pink colonial home of the French administrator for this, the northern, portion of the Marquesas. We were beginning our day-long exploration of Nuku Hiva, the largest island in the Marquesas archipelago. We were early-morning strolling in the rain in quest of a facility that would allow us to email four dispatches from far-out paradise. It was found in a yellow frame gift shop—internet outlet—in the marina, with the help of a thin Frenchman riding a mountain bike. Close by in the bay, visiting sail boats and one large motor yacht lay lazily at anchor.

Craft Vendor - Taiohoe
After shopping for wood carvings in a pavilion across the way from the marina, more than 50 Aranui passengers boarded four-wheel-drive SUVs and a pickup truck to be conveyed to our first exploration of the day: The Cathedral of Taiohae. Inside, grandiose wood carvings, including Mary holding a baby Jesus, in turn holding a breadfruit—the staff of life of the Marquesas—is but one of the artistry-in-wood biblical masterpieces created by a single Marquesan master carver. At the end of our time on the Cathedral grounds and as the passengers kept a respectful distance, Dr. Bob Suggs, lecturer on this Aranui voyage and the foremost American authority on Marquesan archeology and history, chatted with his friend, the over 90 year old bishop.

Gary and Pat, the driver
Jeanne and I and some other English speakers seemed to have missed the signal. When we emerged from the craft pavilion and walked across the street to the SUV filled parking lot the most desirable, enclosed and air conditioned vehicles had been staked out by the French. We wandered around for a while inquiring if all four seats had been taken in various Land Rovers, Jeeps and big Toyotas. There was no room in the inn, as it were. Nine of us English speakers claimed the very last vehicle and laboriously climbed into the tail gate-up truck bed of the older pick-up truck. The eight in the truck bed sat four to a side on bench seats. There was a canvas roof over the bed and flaps on one side to be lowered when the volume of rain reached pelting level. Perhaps because of my charm or the fact of being the far ahead winner in the age derby, I got the passenger seat in the cab beside Pat, our head-to-toe tattooed Marquesian driver.

All Marquesas Islands resulted from volcanic eruptions out of the sea. As the exploding lava reached its highest point and began cooling, it created peaks and pillars at the top of the lava pile forming a particular island. The Aranui crew’s excursion plan for the day was to drive the passengers from the port of Taiohae up over the lava mountain peak and down to Hatiheu, a valley town on the other side. I don’t know what was going on with the French within the air conditioned SUVs, but from the back of our truck laughter often burst out as we hit pot holes, one after another, in the rocky—not ready for highway designation—mountain path/road. “We had great fun in the truck. It was open, we could see all around us and the air was fresh. We all laughed at the bumps,” Jeanne said later.

Near the end of the drive to Hatiheu, our caravan halted in haphazard fashion at the Kamuihei Ceremonial Center, an ancient site of human sacrifice offered to Marquesan pre-Christian deities. To the relief of many, the Aranui beer and soda truck pulled to a stop at the head of the procession. While some of the ship’s bar habitués remained with the beer truck, most passengers followed Dr. Robert Suggs into interior of the ceremonial center.

Pig Dance
When our new friend, Archeologist Bob Suggs began excavating the area in 1956, he discovered human bones and sculls among the roots of the giant banyan tree standing guard over the boulders which form the open “theatre.” Today, dark, heavyset Marquesan men danced for the assembled visitors; following, Suggs gave a lecture. Then the men and women of the Aranui carefully climbed up and down rain-slick boulders to reach the green “stage” below.

On to Hatiheu and the Church of the Sacred Heart, first built in 1879 and destroyed by a tidal wave in 1946. Wooden reconstruction of the church, on the original site and with the old plans, was begun in 2003. In front of the beach, next door, is Mayor Yvonne Katupa’s restaurant. The big deal here, beyond the fact that the staff of the wall-less dining establishment could feed so many Aranui passengers and cruise staff, was the earthen oven (umu) that contained the two pigs that would be our main course. In the pit, a wood fire heated volcanic rock, the pigs and bananas were wrapped in banana leaves, placed on the hot rocks and covered with more banana leaves, burlap and earth. The mayor’s cooks let it all simmer, and when the grave was opened, well-done, delicious, smoky fall-off-the-bone pork was ready to be plated. A ukulele band played throughout.

Tino and family
Then it was back into the truck for another drive over part of the mountain and down to the small port town of Taipivai. Some went hiking to see Tikis. Jeanne and I and three others, gave that up for an early departure for the ship. Tino, the dour, dark Marquesian cargomaster who has a German woman and their infant son aboard, was overseeing the unloading of pallets of food and beverage from an Aranui barge on the beach. At my request, he summoned an open launch from the mother ship. Jeanne and I waded out into the surf and climbed aboard and after crewmen carried a small woman and a very small man bride-over-the-threshold-style into the green, wooden outboard motor-propelled boat, we were soon again aboard the Aranui.

May 4, 2007 - Leaving the island of Hiva Oa for the first time

The Aranui retreated from Atuona Bay barely under power. Bob Suggs explained that the captain has to “feel his way” because of the very shallow bottom. Suggs and I moved from starboard to port on the main deck and saw a second reason our exit from the Bay was uncommonly slow: In the dusk, one of the ship barges with four men aboard was being plucked from the sea by the crane operator above. We were unloading at dock all day, so the mission of the barge is a mystery.

Today was Calvary Cemetery day for the Frinks on Hiva Oa, yet another tropical island in the remote Marquesas. The French painter Paul Gauguin is legendary in French Polynesia. He came to these islands in search of the “savages” as my physician in Tahiti referred to the Marquesans. Suggs assures me that the Tahitians consider the inhabitants of the Marquesas to be inferior and that it is deeply resented by them. Gauguin found inspiration for his work and the love of a number of Polynesian women who, in turn, produced little Euromarquesans. Gauguin is a French Polynesian brand: his images and words are exploited endlessly (Gauguin’s words were even woven into the sheer curtains of our hotel room in Papeete.)

Gaugin's Grave
Crude wooden school buses, mounted on truck cabs and long steel chassis’, conveyed us up the steep mountain road to the sloped, tiered Calvary Cemetery. To the right, up a few steps was the painter’s grave site, with “1903”, the year of his death, carved into a large stone and painted white.
Brel Grave
The Belgian singer-composer Jacques Brel is interred under a huge shade tree nearby. With one’s back to the grave stones and sculptures, the view down the green—all nature is richly green in French Polynesia—mountainside to the white wave fringed, deep blue bay below is spectacular. Then it was a long, winding and leisurely walk down the paved street to sea level and the Gauguin and Brel museums, thoughtfully placed next to each other. The short cemetery visit was a victory of sorts: I’m sure to be the first kid on my block to have stood before Paul Gauguin’s gravesite, Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia.

Gaugin Museum
The Gauguin museum was weird. There were no original renditions by the brand of French Polynesia. Copies were painted by other—one would assume less talented—painters. The intensely small notations accompanying each imitation alerted one to the public museum in which the original could be found. That’s it. Adios.
House of Pleasure
Inside the museum grounds stands the replica of Gauguin’s home, The House of Pleasure—get it?

When Gauguin arrived in Atuona he was befriended by Ben Varney, an American merchant who vended his wares from the Yellow Store; it is located across the road from the land that Gauguin was finally able to con the Catholic Bishop into selling him, now the site of the museum. The Yellow Store lives. The Yellow Store is real; real, open for business selling cold, 16 oz. bottles of Tahitian beer. After the imitation Gauguin museum, the Yellow Store brought us pleasantly back to reality.

Brel Plane
The Jacques Brel museum is perhaps unique because its only physical exhibit is a real Beechcraft twin Bonanza named Jo Jo balanced on an obelisk; no copies here. Brel, best known in the United States for a Broadway musical named “Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris,” used his airplane to assist islanders during times of sickness and crisis. The singer-song writer died on Hiva Oa in 1978.

Jeanne and Regular at Yellow Store
After the museums immmersion, a smattering of shopping and, of course, the 16 oz. cold beer at the Yellow Store, it was on to lunch at an island eatery. Luncheon was served Buffet style. My favorite entrée was goat in a light curry sauce. Then a wooden school bus carried us back down the tight, winding road to the sea and the Aranui.

May 5, 2007 - Off the island of Fatu Hiva, aboard the Aranui

Today, perhaps, we reached Paradise. Fatu Hiva is only nine miles long and three and a half miles wide. Less than 600 men, women and children populate this lush, foliage and palm-tree covered dot in the Marquesas chain. Its tallest peak is 3150 feet. The only strangers to ever reach this verdant lava chunk jutting out of the South Pacific, with its vast, sheer-walled valleys reaching up to the peaks, are a very few visitors from foreign sailboats anchored in the bay and the passengers the Aranui disgorges for two hours or so every three weeks. “There is no place like this in the Caribbean,” Jeanne pronounced as we were about to climb the mother ship metal gangway, after visiting our second Fatu Hiva village this day.

Election Official
It is Election Day in the Marquesas. It is held a day earlier than European France so that the results would not be known before French Polynesia voted. There were posters of the two presidential candidates on a bulletin board, just as our parade turned right and headed to the Omoa village square. The eyes were torn out of the conservative candidate’s picture, but the eyes of lady socialist smiled beatifically; perhaps an early indicator of the Omoa results. In the small town hall a solemn man stood at attention, an official medal on his chest held there by a tri-color ribbon draped around his neck, guarding the translucent ballet box. It was an irresistible photo opportunity.

The green launch bobbed up against the slippery concrete dock. Passengers were individually discharged on the up-swell, firmly grabbed by strong Aranui seamen and passed seaman to seaman until safely on the dry concrete. It was then a short uphill walk and a stroll down and behind the long, mildly agitated beach. The homes along our path were tidy; one fenced in by metal posts set in concrete connected by wire fencing, the yard virtually covered with pots of flowering plants. In this tiny village, was the owner keeping out animals or persons?

Making Tapa
Fatu Hiva is the only Marquesian Island where the residents still make tapa cloth: Inner bark of the limbs of various tree species is removed, beaten by a strong woman against a flat rock using a heavy wood club, to flatten and enlarge the bark. After four hours of beating, it is sundried and designs painted onto it with human hair and natural tinctures. We had purchased some pieces even before the demonstration, carried out next to the polling place. We also bought a hand-carved wooden bowl and a tiki. Then a short stop at the beach to inspect two large, sculpted tikis and back into the hands of the seamen, into the green launch, up the gangway in front of our starboard side porthole, and on to lunch.

Anna and Hubert
“Did you go into the village?” asked Hubert, the Polish Deutsche Bank investment banker and former U.N. development official, among other chores for the once-Communist Polish Government, as he arrived on the deck in swimming trunks. “No,” I replied, laid out flat taking the late afternoon sun. “You must go. It is the most beautiful yet. The way the deep valleys cut through the mountain, it is beautiful. The last boat is leaving. You can catch it.” Jeanne and I scurried.

Approaching Hanavave
Hubert was correct. The ship had moved a short distance north to the small bay sheltering the village of Hanavave. As we approached the landing in our “whaleboat” (more like a smaller WW II landing craft with benches) we exchanged greetings with an American couple lounging on their sailboat. We were taken by the beauty of the pillars jutting out of the mountain, the deep valley cutting through it and the seemingly more lush green than other Marquesas isles, already checked off the list of scheduled stops.
As we landed, 12 or 15 children were catching small fish with their hands, to their whooping delight. Adults appeared to Jeanne and me to be smiling more broadly than at previous islands. Regardless, we were soon back on the whaleboat on our way to the Aranui. Relaxing with a beer and a Coke, Jeanne and I noticed slowly moving tiny white specs near the top of the sheer mountainside: Wild goats. Sitting there on the open bar deck, I noticed that the long-neck coconut palm trees grew a third of the distance up the side of the mountain and then gave way to less elegant verdant ground cover.

May 6, 2007 - Aboard the Aranui off the Marquesas Island of Tahuata

Bone Carver Family and Suggs
The drill this morning in Paradise was more of the same: arise early and prepare to face the perfect bright tropical sun and clear azure sea; breakfast of eggs, fruit and delectable flaky, freshly baked French pastry; down the metal steps into the whaleboat; out on the dock; into the center of the small community (in this case, Vaitahu); make purchases (this time bone carvings); check out the Catholic Church (this one a modern stone structure with a magnificent stained glass window high on the back wall;) slow stroll; back in the whale boat, up the steps, down the steps and into the cabin on A deck.

Our afternoon excursion was different. It was billed as a “barbeque.” The community was Hapatoni, in a different valley but very near Vaitahu, the largest village on Tahuata, which can lay claim to the dubious honor of being the first Marquesas Island to be touched by a European, in 1595 by a Spaniard, one Sr. de Mendana. Capt. Cook didn’t get here ‘til 1774. In 1838 a French admiral sailed in with some missionary priests, took possession and the rest is French (sometimes very bloody) and Roman Catholic history.

Welcoming Committee
When our whaleboat load of French, English, Canadian, U.S., New Zealand and Australian adventurers arrived to claim the small valley community of Hapatoni for an afternoon, not a shot was fired; not a flag planted. In fact full-throated and enthusiastic musicians and singers, children and adults, were clearly pleased that for a few, short hours theirs would be a valley alive with strangers, many eager to leave behind wads of one thousand Polynesian Franc notes in exchange for local carvings.

Children Dancing
The youngsters stole the show. After our welcome songs, a sturdy, woven green leaf crown—recall Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar—was placed on each of our heads. We then made the short beach front walk to the thatched, open community center. The children sang; they danced. They obviously were elated to demonstrate their skills and stamina. On and on they went, one darling little girl no older than three and turned out in a bright orange dress. They were accompanied by a fast-strumming ukulele and guitar quartet and a heavy set lady not expertly thumping a stand-up, five foot tall drum. The food was prepared by the Aranui cooks and was, as usual, excellent. Offerings included lamb chops, fish, skinny hot dogs, string beans, couscous, baked potatoes and excellent banana bread for desert. The string quartet provided rhythmic offerings throughout our “barbecue.”

Gary and Jeanne Ceasar
After lunch, some of the invading international force walked the beach front, lava-rocked road, as it curved slightly, following the bay where the white Aranui gleamed brightly in the mid-day sun. I was walking alone when I met Jean. As he walked by me holding an aluminum foil container of our luncheon food, I asked him if he were a member of our crew. “No, I’m camping out here. That is my tent ahead. I have blocked the end of the road.” The level of his English surprised me. “I visited my brother in Australia for three months,” was his explanation. He was a sturdy man, of the European gene pool, with a ready, contented smile, wearing a colorful sleeveless shirt and sporting a multi-day growth of grey beard. “I was born in Tahiti,” he explained.

“Eight children, five boys and three girls, and now they are all gone, to learn and to work.” He amended that statement later, explaining that his 16 year old son was still at home. Most of his children are in Tahiti. “I have been camping for three weeks. I have friends here.” He lives in Vaitahu and was about to break camp and walk home over the mountain. “I like to walk.”

“We don’t need much to live,” he said in replying to my question about the lack of jobs on the island. “When I first came to this island, there were no stores, no electricity. We fished everyday and ate fish and breadfruit.” To my inquiry as to his ownership of a boat, he replied: “I had a boat, but no more. The gasoline is too expensive.” When he must operate on the monetary economy, he makes copra (smashing coconuts, removing the meat and air-drying it.) In a follow-up conversation in French, Dr. Fine, our ship doctor for this voyage, learned that Jean makes $10 for a burlap bag full of copra. Obviously a man who enjoys parenthood, during our conversation he offered: “I would like to find a younger woman so I can have a family of children again.” Dr. Fine told me that Jean said that he liked to move around a lot. We agreed that meant Jean and crew probably had never possessed a permanent residence. Dr. Fine opined the Jean might be unstable; given Jean’s primitive life style in far-off Paradise, I disagreed. The sum of this Tahiti born Frenchman, who probably has never had a wage job in his 54 years, was his statement to me early in our conversation: “I am a happy man.”

May 7, 2007 - Aranui anchored off the village of Hanalapa, Hiva Oa Island

Ceremonial Tikis
The Aranui, and its complement, is back at Hiva Oa, the largest island in the southern section of the Marquesas and the second largest in the archipelago. We are on the backside of the island from Atuona and the Gauguin hoopla. Today is the day of Tikis.

Dr. Robert Suggs
We don’t know what business the ship has with the good citizens of Puama’u, but for ship archeologist Dr. Bob Suggs and the passengers a terraced site up the mountain road contains the largest tikis outside of Easter Island and is a must-see on our exploration of the Marquesas. The Webster dictionary embedded in my laptop software defines TIKI: “a stone or wooden image of a Polynesian supernatural power.” Good, we have that road block to understanding out of the way.

Most passengers were hauled up to the two-tiered 200 by 275 foot ceremonial site in pickup trucks; some took a mountain walk (Steffi, a German woman, assisted by two metal telescoping walking sticks that look exactly like ski poles). “Planning on skiing, were you,” I asked. It was a weak attempt at humor.

Bob Suggs gave a lecture in English that was translated into French by one of the staff. The Germans and Austrians got a paraphrased version, given by another staff member. It is believed that the Naiki Tribe (think athletic shoes for pronunciation) began to build the site in the 15th or 16th century. Again, it is believed that three chiefs of the Naiki Tribe living in the tiki neighborhood captured, cooked and chowed-down upon the chief of a neighboring tribe. The consumed chief’s brothers came after the Naiki boys, killed many and ran the rest off. It was the survivors of the cannibalized chief, Tiuoo, who, in his honor, began construction of the site. Now, on to the tikis.

Jeanne and Cheif Tiki
Chief Tiki is eight feet tall and made of stone from a quarry nearby (Suggs claimed it took three month to drag the stone to the site.) This tiki is one of a powerful chief and warrior. I assure you, he is a very imposing fellow.

Tiki Heads
In all, there 18 stone sculptures (ten heads, five statues and three fragments) and two petroglyph boulders. All of the other sculptures are considerably smaller than the statue I have called Chief Tiki; others call him TAKAII

Heyerdahl Defacement
A weird sidebar to the Puama’u tikis: Thor Heyerdahl, who honeymooned on Fatu Hiva in 1937 and wrote a book about it—Fatu Hiva, Back to Nature—developed a theory that Polynesia was settled by South American Indians. To substantiate his theory, which runs in the face of all other archeological thought, which postulates that the South Pacific was first settled by coastal Chinese, he floated a raft—Kon Tiki—from the Pacific Coast of South America to Polynesia in 1947. Dr. Robert Suggs has evidence that Heyerdahl arranged for the defacement of a motif on the side of Tiki Maki’i Tau’a Pepe, in an attempt to make it look like a llama and, therefore, prop up his theory.

Bob Suggs’ life has been interwoven with the Marquesas Islands. While working for the American Museum of Natural History in 1956 he was sent to the little-know island chain to begin the first archeological excavations in French Polynesia. He has returned to the archipelago regularly in the intervening 50 plus years. His degrees through the PhD were earned at Columbia University, which he attended after the Korean War, in which he served as an enlisted Marine. His has been a professional life of service. Now 75 years of age, he retired from the Navy as a Captain.

It was luck of the draw that Bob Suggs would be the lecturer on our Aranui voyage. He only does three voyages a year on the Aranui. His knowledge of the Marquesas is encyclopedic, aided by his fluency in Marquesan and French. He is a short, wiry man, sometimes seemingly coiled for action. His humor is wry and wit quick. He has been a very welcome traveling companion for Jeanne and me.

The sea was relatively rough today. The passengers were conveyed to Puama’u on the green launches instead of the whaleboat. Again, wet concrete and stones to contend with as the launch bobbed up and down with great authority. We were grabbed by seamen on the up-bob and pushed out of the launch into seamen’s hands ashore. On the return, Trevor, one of our New Zealand friends no longer a young man, slipped on the concrete steps and took a flop; it caused a considerable gasp among us, but the Aranui seamen grabbed him and firmly placed him where is bottom belonged, on a launch bow bench.

May 8, 2007 - Under way on the Aranui, off the village of Hane, UA Huka Island, Marquesas

“It is too bad that you don’t speak the language; you miss a lot. The people of the Marquesas are so gentle, so trusting. Two nurses at the hospital even asked me how they should vote for president.” French Doctor Xavier Fine and I were chatting as we waited for a launch to take us back to the Aranui. He is at 57, a tall, thin, bespectacled man with a calm, at-ease-with-himself manner. Perhaps he is the one who has found Paradise in French Polynesia.

Dr. Xavier Fine and Wife Beatrice

Dr. Fine’s medical specialty is orthopedic surgery, but in the small French Public Health Service hospital where he works all of his medical skills are needed. “I live on the hillside, overlooking the bay in Taiohae on Nuka Hiva. It is very nice.” He lives in far-out Paradise, but as a practicing physician he is a productive man. He is a French public servant, still technically under the jurisdiction of the French Health Service on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, where he once lived and worked. Xavier’s Polynesian wife, Beatrice, is as calm and quiet as he. She speaks English, learned in Sydney Australia, as well as French and Polynesian. She is an importer. They appear to an outsider to be very suited to each other. So there you have it: Dr. Xavier Fine, living far from the artifice of the modernized world, in the perfect climate where he sees the sea each day, working in his profession, which is much needed by the Marquesians, whom he respects, married to a Polynesian woman, he loves. To me, it all seems to fit perfectly.

Wood Carver in Hane

The theme during the day was rain. We visited three villages on the island of Us Huka. Through welcoming dances, a short speech by the mayor of Vaipaee, Bob Sugg’s explanation of the artifacts collected in the town’s tiny archeological museum and a tour of the (now muddy) botanical garden, it rained. With Peter and Heidi, Don and Nancy, Jeanne and I were again touring an island in a pickup truck, buying more wooden “stuff” as we stopped at the craft center in each village. “We probably won’t ever get this way again,” was Jeanne’s mantra as the money flowed. After our observation of the huge stone tikis at the site of Sugg’s first Marquesan archeological dig, Jeanne and I have become tiki-addicted. There is not a wooden tiki, large or small in the populated Marquesas isles, that has not caught our eye; yesterday, there was a beautifully carved three foot guy, with mother of pearl eyes, that was too large to pack and, at $1500, too large for our remaining cash. No credit cards accepted on the more remote islands of the Marquesas, period.

To lunch in Hane

Chez Celine Fournier in Hane was the best off-ship luncheon of the voyage. The raw tuna was firm and very fresh. The goat meat was tender and its curry sauce the tastiest yet. The plantains (cooking bananas) were cooked in the restaurant’s Marquesan earth oven and came out firm and with a delicious smoky-banana taste.

Each day our Aranui voyage has provided extraordinary adventures. Yesterday, it was our method of boarding the waiting launch in the surf of the wide beach, down the winding road from Hane. We passengers waded up to our knees in the active surf, out to the waiting green, wooden launch. We taller folks then stood with our backs to the launch and bounced our bottoms onto the stern.

Boarding the Green Launch
We were then grabbed by a seaman or two and, with loud authority, told exactly where to sit. The smaller lads and lasses among us were lifted onto the launch stern by seamen standing in the surf. Our morning arrival at the seawall in Vaipaee entailed the usual launch-bobbing-in-the-swells and awkward scrambles up the slippery concrete steps and stones. Ship to shore and beach to ship adventures in far out Paradise.

May 10, 2007 - Aboard the Aranui, enroute to Rangiroa, Tuamotos Archipelago, 1st Essay
Boy on the Beach

Yesterday, we re-visited for a short time two villages on different islands: Tahiohae on Nuku Hiva and Hakahau on Ua Pou. Jeanne and I repeated our walk along the beach into Tahiohae in a vain attempt to get my daily essays e-mailed to Tom Sand, my editor in Minnesota. Outside the marina shop, wherein the internet access is located, we met Dave and Peter. They had just arrived after an 18 day sailboat voyage from Santa Barbara. “We had a pretty good run,” Peter replied to our surprise at such a short time to cover such a vast distance on the big pond with a small sailboat. “We hope to be in New Zealand by November,” he concluded.

Wooden Pulpit - St. Etienne

We walked again in Hakahau, along the beach and up on the concrete streets, the principal settlement on Ua Pou, a ten mile long volcanic island with a 4,042 foot peak in the middle; the first westerner to see it was Boston trader Joseph Ingraham, in 1791. We bought a beer and some Coke and tonic water at a familiar shop, but did not have the time to re-visit the magnificent church, Eglise Saint-Etienne, with its huge eight foot high wood pulpit, a carved ship bow at the top sitting over an intricately carved fish net containing observable fish and reptiles. This, the most stunning wood carving we have seen among many in our march through the Marquesas, is the product of one wood carving family, the Teikitohes.

On our return walk to the Aranui, being unloaded at dock, we chatted with more American South Pacific sailboat adventurers. One Seattle couple and a friend had just completed a 27 day sail from the west coast of Mexico. “It’s not too bad if you don’t mind being bashed in the head while you’re on the john or slammed around while you’re trying to cook,” the woman said of conditions during the crossing in their 42 foot long watercraft. When I inquired about their jobs ashore, the husband, a retired computer consultant, said: “We’re not going to work again if we can get along on $2,000 a month.” Listening to them recite the $6,000 they recently paid for engine repairs and their $10,000 fresh water-making device, the jury would appear to be out on that question.

Our journey through the Marquesas is over. Presently, we are on at sea heading for Rangiroa, in the Tuamoto island chain, the last stop before our return to Papeete, Tahiti. Before our experience in the Marquesas fades from consciousness, a couple of comments. First, we were struck by the prosperity evidenced on all but islands with the tiniest of populations. Everywhere else, there were new expensive 4X4 pickup trucks and SUVs. I suspect much of gross domestic product of the Marquesas results from subsidies from the government of France. What else, copra, the few tourists the Aranui brings by every three weeks, visiting sailboat occupants? Unlikely. The second comment is about tattoos.

Bernard's Tattoo

Volumes have been written about Marquesan tattoos; suffice it to say that when the first western ship set anchor in the Marquesas it was met by warrior men tattooed head to foot. The more a man’s body was tattooed, the greater his wealth and power. Various tattoo motifs had meaning. In the case of warriors (and the history of the Marquesans is rife with battle) large eyes were tattooed on their thighs to allow them to “see” more and therefore better protect them from their enemies in battle. For over a hundred years tattoos were banned by the Catholic missionaries; the ban existed from 1867 to 1985, when the bishop lifted it, declaring “Marquesans need something to identify themselves.” Today, many Marquesan men and women bear tattoos of various motifs. Photos on our website accompanying the essays of our South Pacific sojourn will amply illustrate examples of modern tattoos used throughout the Marquesas Islands.

May 10, 2007 - Aboard the Aranui enroute to Rangiroa, 2nd essay

From the beginning there has been a modicum of tension between the French and English speakers aboard. Some tension developed because of the passive-aggressive nature of more than one French couple, shoehorning themselves ahead in lines, slipping into sightlines of others already established to watch a dance or other tourist event. Early on, they were clannish in the extreme. One example, at meals one of them would rush into the dining room to claim the largest table and lean chairs against it, impliedly proclaiming: KEEP OUT.

Nancy, a retired California postmaster and wife of Don, retired Los Angeles County forest firefighter in the process of moving their home to Maine (HELLO-culture shock) talked about a revolutionary takeover of the French table. Plans for the revolution were made; but the evening came and no shots were fired. Nancy explained that during the day one of the French had performed a kind act for a member of the English Speaking Union, as I have labeled our collection of Brits, New Zealanders, one gritty Australian woman, a man and wife Polish pair and a passel of Americans.

The next evening without notice, Hubert, the Polish investment banker struck. He rushed into the dining room and claimed the chair at the head of “French” table. The English Speaking Union quickly filled in behind him. The French were dumbstruck; as would be expected, many pouted. We were gleeful throughout the meal and wondered aloud if the French would present us with terms of surrender, in order to get their table back. A point having been made, during the following meals the ESU withdrew to its member’s customary tables.

ESU - Polynesian Night
The tale of the takeover of the “French” dining table brings our narrative to Tuesday evening, Polynesian Night aboard ship. In addition to a buffet of Polynesian specialties and crew dances it was learned that passengers were expected to perform. For some of the ESU members this was the night to avenge all slights from the French, from De Gaulle down to this day aboard the Aranui. The French would perform en mass, therefore we must strive to out-do them. Nancy wrote new lyrics to Sweet Chariot—the chorus: Sail Smooth, Sweet Aranui, Coming For To Carry Me Home—lauding the crew; they were adopted to the music by Carol, an enthusiastic retired junior high school teacher, who, with her husband Roy, lives 15 miles from Rochester, where I grew up in Michigan. The frontline lady singers were a takeoff on the Supremes. The backup singers were the bulk of the English Speaking Union, with one nice French couple (only four American elderly barflies failed their call to duty.) Song sheets were written and copied. Choreography was designed and practiced.
Master of Ceremonies
I was appointed master of ceremonies and drummer (the ship possesses a large Polynesian standup hand drum). Rehearsals were held.

The moment of truth arrived. The French went on first. They sang a song or two without passion, no choreography, no zip to their performance. The English Speaking Union followed. I announced the act. Then we hit it, with verve and vigor: Sail Smooth, Sweet Aranui.

Backup Singers
The “Supremes” belted it out, their backup singers coming in heavy (if slightly off key) on the chorus. At the end, with notes provided by Nancy and mike in hand, I thanked all of those deserving of our gratitude, not already mentioned in the song lyrics. We were a smash hit. All French slights avenged and forgiven. We gathered together on the open stern of the pool deck to celebrate our victory. We probably should have sung a verse or two of Hail Britannia.

May 11, 2007 - Enroute Papeete, Tahiti aboard the Aranui, final leg
Dolphins at Play

The dolphins came to play. The passengers were alerted to the possibility that the amazing seagoing mammals would “attack” the ship as we were about to enter the lagoon off the atoll of Rangiroa, at 47 miles long and 16 miles wide the second largest in the world. Jeanne caught four dolphins in one photo, as they swam with the ship on the starboard side. As they played with us, some of the dolphins—correctly small toothed-whales—would break the water surface as their backs arched. Soon they were gone. I will not soon forget Damiano, a third mate aboard the Repubblica di Genova, proclaiming his admiration of the dolphins, which had come to play that day, with that ship: “They are so wonderful because they are free.”

Jeanne and Bernard

We enjoyed lunch on the lagoon beach today, part of a multifaceted excursion under the direction of Aranui cruise director Bernard Naas. Of Alsace origin, he is a shaved-head, burly bundle of energy, who speaks all three languages featured aboard ship: French, English and German. He has given off positive vibrations, wherever we have encountered him aboard ship or ashore. The 47 year old father of a 19 year old daughter and 12 year old son, he and his wife and family now make their home in Papeete. A retired 21 year veteran of the French Navy, which stationed him in French Polynesia for two years ending in 2001, he returned to Tahiti at the urging of his children. He hooked up with the Aranui through an ad in a Tahitian newspaper and has been with the ship for two and a half years. This year the Aranui will make 16 voyages through the Marquesas, next year 17. Bernard works each two week voyage and takes a week off ashore between them.

Bungalow at Rangiroa

An atoll is a flat coral reef, so different from the volcanic mountain islands we have been experiencing throughout the Marquesas. The shallow water beaches are wide and the bottom clearly seen through the clear, clean azure water. A small group of us walked a few yards down the beach to the Kia Ora Resort. It appeared to me to be exactly as Hollywood would create a Polynesian resort: Thatched roofed bamboo bungalows facing the lovely Rangiroa Lagoon, some on stilts sitting over it. I obtained a resort brochure from a woman employee speaking Japanese with a young couple; the backpack on the young man announced in English that it was made in Japan. Three Italian couples waiting to check in sipped fruit punch nearby. The brochure revealed that at the Kia Ora Resort an over-the-lagoon bungalow will exact 570 Euros a night from your net worth, or approximately $700. Food, of course, is extra. “And that doesn’t include the air fare,” Jeanne said. I replied: “This place is for people who have all the money in the world.” She ended the topic: “If I had all the money in the world I would be on a ship going around the world.” We hightailed it back to the whaleboat, a short spin on the blue lagoon, up the ship-side metal steps and we were back on the Aranui.

Tomorrow this marvelous, nearly flawless (on the beach today I heard one of the bar flies complain that it wasn’t organized enough ashore) adventure ends. These two weeks aboard the Aranui have been a traveler’s dream come true: being introduced to a far away Polynesian culture few westerners have ever encountered, while living in comfort aboard ship with a variety of civilized, interesting people, passengers and crew alike. It is difficult to pack up and face the fact that it is over.

May 12, 2007 - At the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort, near the airport, Papeete

He was the first barefoot bellman I have encountered in 55 years of travel. Bare-chested and tattooed, he wore a pareo, a Polynesian wraparound. Life is different in Paradise. We are ashore and ensconced in a slick Tahitian resort.

Papeete Resort
We breakfasted with our friends and said our goodbyes at 7:30 am aboard the Aranui. We were off the ship by 8 and into the large van of South Pacific Tours for the transfer to the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort, where we have taken a room for the day. It is the resort we briefly visited yesterday in Rangiroa on steroids. Within view are elegant, large swimming pools, subtly slopping from the children’s end into the deeper, serious-swimming portion. Our room and balcony face the deep blue lagoon, which hundreds of yards in the distance transforms into crashing, white capped breakers. Coconut palms accent the resort’s 34 acres. As was the case yesterday, this place operates for people with all the money in the world. Cocktails in the lobby bar are $15.00 and change.

The tropical weather and sea breezes mean you never have to heat or air condition your dwelling in Paradise. The piercing sun shines relentlessly. Polynesians predominately are kind and giving. We are going to miss The South Seas.

As the passengers were gathered in the bow of the Aranui yesterday anticipating the dolphins show, Dr. Fine told me a story illustrating the gracious nature of the Polynesians. “Thirty five years ago, in the last year of my medical studies, I was on holiday on the atoll ahead, Rangiroa. I had a spear gun, four feet long, and was on my way to dive. I passed a man who signaled to me that my gun was too short. He went to his house and came back with a gun two meters (six feet) long and insisted I use it. When I returned it he asked where my luggage was. I told him that is was in the hotel. He told me to bring it to his house, that I must stay with his family. I stayed a month.”

Jeanne on balcony
Our adventure today was to begin walking to a large commercial center with a supermarket. It was promised to be a 15-20 minute walk. Jeanne and I were in search of picnic supplies, in an attempt to duplicate the romantic picnic dinner on our balcony in Venice, after we disembarked the Repubblica di Genova and had dashed through the Balkans. Ten minutes into the walk, after we had descended a long hill and were already dreading the uphill return, a wooden jitney (similar to the school buses that transported us around Atuana, in the Marquesas) stopped and the driver insisted we get aboard; we climbed on. After a considerable drive, he delivered us to the shopping center for slightly more than $3. We acquired our supplies: French bread, which Jeanne carried sticking out of the top of her shoulder bag like a Parisian housewife, red French wine, cheese, salami, Coke and bottled water. We then walked up an elevated crossover, got on another jitney and avoided the long, hot, uphill walk to the hotel. The French bread was particularly delicious.

The food aboard the Aranui was spectacular. Our last dinner was a first course of genuine, warm foie gras, followed by rack of lamb and a baked concoction with raspberry sauce for desert. One evening, a somewhat strange German woman special ordered pizza, if you can imagine. The serving staff was cheerful and efficient. The wine supply during the midday and evening meals was inexhaustible (and we had some heavy hitters on the wine bottles at our table.)

Peter and Heidi

Our dining companions were story tellers, or at least the men. Peter is a former British Bobby, as is his wife, Heidi. They have been on a three month sojourn that has taken them to South Africa, Australia and, of course, to French Polynesia. Peter seemed to have a new Bobbying-run-amuck story each evening. Unfortunately, he and Heidi were stung by jelly fish while snorkeling in the Rangiroa Lagoon and Heidi had an uncomfortable medical reaction.


Don, our retired Los Angeles County forest firefighter, told stories about the convicts he wrangled as members of his firefighting crews. His wife, Nancy the retired Postal Service postmaster supervisor, told us of the crooks on the outside and within post offices and how they prey on mail recipients. With Grant and Christine, their stories of their lives in New Zealand were fascinating. Rick, a law-degreed investment advisor, chimed in intelligent comments on whatever was going around the table. Bob Suggs was the anchor of our dining table. There were always new stories of his decades of involvement in the Marquesas Islands. It will be lonely for a time in Jewell Hollow, as Jeanne and I sit down for our evening meals.

May 13, 2007 - Los Angeles Bradley Airport

Our adventures continue: We are marooned in the vast Los Angeles international airport (LAX.)

The return leg of our fascinating journey into far Polynesia began with a caution. Mai, of South Pacific Tours, was 20 minutes late picking us up at the Tahiti Intercontinental for the short trip to the airport; that meant we had no possible claim on the most desirable seats on the Air Tahiti Nui flight, which was, unlike our LAX to Papeete leg, chock full. It was as good an eight hour flight as the back of the bus allows: genuinely gentle and attentive flight attendents, adequate back-of-the-bus food and as much Champagne as I wished to imbibe. The trouble began after landing in Los Angeles.

The American Airlines 737, bound for Washington Dulles, was loaded, carry on gear stowed in the overheads, the passengers buckled in. Then came the deep baritone voice from the flight deck. “Well, folks, I want to apologize for our late start today. The equipment was a little late getting to Los Angeles. At the moment, technicians are doing a little maintenance on the aircraft. A couple of flight crews have noted a problem with the reverse thrusters; they enable us to slow down more quickly upon landing. Of course, we really don’t need them at Dulles because the runway is so long. Stay in your seats and I’ll get back to you in a moment with an update.” In a few moments, before the captain opened his mike again, I heard from passengers across the aisle from us: “They’re taking our luggage off the plane.” The captain’s exit speech began with: “Well, folks…”

American Airlines staff did a remarkable job assisting their stranded clients: Extra personnel quickly appeared at the gate podium, instructions given were clear: “for those of you at the back of the line, those of you with cell phones might wish to call reservations directly; the number is 800…” Jeanne reached Richard Raut, DRR, in Raleigh NC. He initially put us on an American flight leaving tomorrow at 2:15 pm, through Dallas-Fort Worth, arriving in Dulles after midnight Tuesday morning (it is Sunday evening in Los Angeles as I write this.) Jeanne pled with Mr. Raut that she had serious business in the Page County Sheriff’s Office Monday. After a 15 minute pause, the able Richard Raut came back and said he could put us on a United flight to Chicago that hopefully will put us on the ground at Dulles just prior to 9 am Monday. We got a baggage transfer from Kirk, an affable blond fellow on the American counter, claimed our luggage as it bounced out of a carousel a flight down; we wheeled it four terminals away, signed on with United, rechecked the bags and again passed through security, shoes in one plastic bin, the computer in another. We await our 11:15 flight to Chicago.

May 20, 2007 - Jewell Hollow, Page County, VA
Jewell Hollow Cabin

Yesterday I spotted a long snake swimming the length of the pond. I knew it would disappear into one of the cracks below the rock wall that half-moons the west end of our petite body of water before I could scramble into the cabin, load the shotgun and return. Regardless, I procured the shotgun from its cabin corner, loaded it, walked around the pond a bit in vain hope, then placed it, loaded but with the safety on, on one of the tables in the summer house. When I next spot a swimming snake I will be better prepared. From the Aranui and a classy Tahitian resort, to a snake swimming in the pond: We are home.

Upon reflection, little changes. Jeanne and I are travelers. We have passed through and witnessed much of the world contained in the Americas, Europe and Asia. To have the privilege to venture into the little-visited Marquesas Islands—the archipelago farthest removed from any continent—in far off French Polynesia with the comforts of voyaging aboard the Aranui was an extraordinary, if not unique, experience. As Jeanne often reminded me: “We probably won’t pass this way again.”

We have people to thank. First and foremost, our lavish gratitude goes out to Leila Laille, of the Tahiti Tourisme North American office in Southern California. She worked tirelessly with us, over many weeks and through a seemingly endless string of emails, to bring our wonderful sojourn in French Polynesia to fruition. Any reader contemplating a trip to Tahiti and the other islands of French Polynesia, I suggest you begin with the Tahiti Tourisme North American office. Our thanks to Air Tahiti Nui for the courteous staff, both ground and in-flight, who assisted us and for their high standards of in-flight cleanliness. We thank Jules Wong, Tahiti, marketing director of the company which owns the Aranui-3. We thank Tino, the 25 year veteran Aranui cargo master, who was in charge of not only the loading and offloading of the cargo, but the passengers when they were disembarking and returning to the ship and while we were ashore. Tino gave an emotional lecture aboard near the end of our voyage. I was writing and not able to attend, but Jeanne was in rapt attendance. Tino spoke of his deep pride in being part of the seaborne lifeline to his, the Marquesan people. On our voyage, Tino’s infant son was aboard, and we observed him more than once playing with the boy or proudly holding him. Our thanks also go to Captain “Ted” for a smooth voyage and a safe return. Our special thank-you to Dr. Bob Suggs for his friendship and knowledge of the Marquesas imparted during our journey.

For those wishing to further explore the Marquesas Islands and a voyage aboard the Aranui, I suggest “Manuiota’a Journal of a Voyage to the Marquesas Islands,” by the often-aforementioned Bob Suggs and Burgl Lichtenstein. It contains some of Bob’s lecture material as well as an interesting recount of an Aranui voyage.

Successful novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry has written a book that has something to do with an Aranui voyage into the Marquesas. It is a strange book. He set out to write about his parent’s incompatibility in the bleakness of Archer County Texas; in it we learned that his mother was a “soiled dove” (a hidden previous marriage) and the crude birth control method she used when condoms (probably called “rubbers” in those days) were too expensive during the Great Depression. The material on the Marquesas is in great part boilerplate that McMurtry picked up aboard ship, reading in the ship library. According to a crew member I queried, McMurtry spent his voyage in his cabin or as my witness said: “reading every book on Polynesia in the library”, or when other passengers were ashore and incapable of bothering him, in a deck chair. He rarely ventured ashore, convinced in his intellectual haughtiness that anything worth experiencing in the Marquesas could be observed from his favorite Aranui deck chair. The passengers aboard during his voyage were oink-oink, piggish craft shoppers or wanton Europeans virtually forcing him to guzzle unwanted wine. Don’t waste your time or money.

© 2012 Frink Media LLC. All Rights Reserved - Designed by A. Comer