Apr 19, 2014

Hiva Oa Tour

Of all the paths you take in life,
Make sure a few of them are dirt.

Beautiful blue bays surround the whole island
Mike tells me that since I started speaking French daily, my writing is tainted with a French accent… As long as you understand the context, I hope you can enjoy it anyway.

The anchorage we are in is part of the nicknamed Bay of Traitor; supposedly called this way because when Spaniards stayed here, for a whole week in 1595, they were always fogged in. They left without ever seeing anything.

The anchorage is in constant flux with boats from all over the world. It is much more 'global' than what we had experienced in Mexico: Sweden, Germany, Norway, Israel, Australia, Switzerland, France, US, Canada, all within just 20 vessels. We are awaiting our fuel permit, enjoying hikes and new culinary delights while we hang around. It should arrive today. This permit allows us to pay a lower price for fuel, much welcome in this part of the world where it is understandably pricy.

The villages of Hiva Oa are too far apart to walk, some of their anchorages too roily or difficult to land on the beach, and the very narrow and steep roads, especially in the rainy season, quite dangerous so we decided it would be best to hire a guide to tour the island and learn its many treasures.

Our guide is quick to point out that there are pamphlets and posters everywhere asking not to give alcohol to people. Boaters from US and Canada (yes - we know who you are...) here last week did just that and the whole island is abuzz against their gesture towards the natives. Alcoholism is rampant and they need our help not fostering more abuse.  Because of these predecessors we are questioned even more and warned a little more sternly.  Please don't follow in their footsteps.

Tight corners, steep roads
Lush and green
We learn that some Marquesans wish to separate from France, the majority still preferring to stay a French colony. The reason given for wanting to separate is that France doesn't have their best interest at heart and are selling some of their land to China to exploit. France forces/humiliates local chiefs into signing contracts/treaties with Chinese who are looking for rare earth/metals to help manufacture computer parts, not really caring about the natives, their land, continued decent employment, their culture, etc. Supposedly the islands from here to Hawaii are high in these metals. Sadly for the Marquesans their economy mostly comes from government work, followed by tourism, then agriculture. Not sure they could possibly survive on their own.  The other reason they name for separating from France is that money first goes to Tahiti from where it is supposed to be split evenly between all archipelagos but the majority of the money stays in Tahiti heightening the frictions between them.

In 1987 island people gathered together to come up with ways to revive their culture away from Catholics and French influences, a cultural consortium of sort. Their language as well as various types of arts are being revived. While schools had stopped teaching Marquesans their own language, it has now been reinstated. When asked if the island is seeing an outflow of young people the reply is no. Many, even though they go to school in Papeete by the age of 14 return home, only ones with very good jobs stay in Tahiti or abroad.

Examples of Marquesas tattoos / symbols

Another example of a cultural loss is the disappearance of their remarkable tattoos. In 1700-1800 it was forbidden by the Queen of Papeete to get tattoos so much of the motifs/designs, unique to each island disappeared. Mostly Tahiti was influenced by this rule, the Marquesans less so. The art is being revived. It was believed that infants born at night were sacred. Women without the appropriate tattoos were not allowed to lay their hands on these infants.

We first visited "Le Tiki Souriant", the only known smiling tiki (divinity = ½ god - ½ human) sculpture. Our guide asked us to figure out if it is a Toa (man) or Vahine (woman). Some think it is a man because no prominent breasts are present, others think a woman because of the large eyes making her look like she may have make-up. 

It turns out it is a woman, not due to the eye make-up but because of the tattoos lining the bottom of her lips and behind her ears. The tiki site seems to be in an odd location, not a promontory, not a river, nothing with a view or special about it. We are told that by the time it was carved, about 450 years ago, people of the island were trying to hide rather than live in the open.

Smiling female tiki - only one known supposedly
(but we also saw one in Raivavae in the Austral Islands)
Hiva Oa and other Marquesas Islands still have Tikis unlike many of the other islands where the Catholic priests landed first. After 170 years of heading this way, priests didn't have the same passion or strength to destroy all things Marquesan.

Our guide Frida takes us to the highest drivable point on the island. At 700 meters, we get a beautiful misty view of one of the bays to the south of the island. The rocks are either red or black basalt, striking colors against the lush greenery. At this altitude we are surrounded by clouds just like Mount Temetiu near the anchorage, nearly never seeing the sun. It is misty, cool, and green.

Marquesan cuisine consists mainly of Uru (breadfruit), bananas, plantain, manioc, fish, and pork. They live mostly off the land growing pineapples, mangoes, copra (dried coconut), vanilla, bananas, star fruits, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, pumpkins, cucumbers, squashes, papayas, rombutans, grapefruits, citrus, etc. This makes it difficult for visitors to purchase produce. Stores do not need to carry much of them since natives grow their own. Visitors can connect with locals or sometimes pick their own with permission. On the other hand you can find very fine cheeses, wines, patés, foie gras, if you are willing to pay the high prices. Only copra is sold to Tahiti as an income crop. It takes a person about 16 days to gather 2 tons of copra for which they will be paid approximately $2,075. (these are not verified, but based on one persons report… we will attempt to verify).

Speaking of food, I bumped into a French Chef who teaches cooking on the island and he has been saddened by the way people cook now that more packaged items come by boats more frequently. Marquesans' diet has suffered with the inflow of new foods and beverages.

Great topography for goats
They raise goats, pigs, chickens, and cows. When asked if they make cheese from the goat's or cow's milk, their answer is that it is too much work. Fishing adds needed protein to their diet. When asked about getting eggs from the chickens, the majority also say it's too much work.  They would rather buy than collect.  Sigh.

Like their diet, their music is really simple, only using drums originally made with wood and shark skins. They do not play other types of instruments.

Many of the plants we see are not from here; they have been imported from the Caribbean, India or Africa. Many we recognized from visiting Mexico: mangoes (26 varieties), papayas, bananas, etc. The holy tree of the island is the Banyan Tree. They used to put their dead, after embalming, mummifying, enrobing with tapa cloth, and then drying in the sun, in their branches. There is one lone baobab (from Africa) in the town square in Atuona.

We supposedly have to be aware of elephantiasis and dengue fever, diseases carried by mosquitoes. After speaking with the local pharmacist, we are told to take the needed drug after we leave these infected areas, not before or during our visit. The risk is low and it shouldn't be too much of a problem. The locals who live here take a drug on a yearly basis to prevent infections.

We stop for lunch and discover the succulent tastes of fried breadfruit (used very much the same ways as our potatoes but starchier), plantain, poisson cru (ceviche), star fruit juice, pork in a brown sauce, goat in coconut milk, rice, pamplemousse (grapefruit-like) and po'e, a dessert made with thickened coconut milk and pumpkin (or whatever fruit - could be mango, banana, etc).

Archaeological site with various tikis
Tiki looking up to the sky (uncommon)
The most important part of the tour is the visit to Me'ae' at the foot of Toea Peak, a sacred place built 1,037 years ago but restored in the 18th century. The area had water so people from other areas needing water would exchange an infant boy in trade for this essential staple. When it was clear there were too many people for the island's resources, 50 pirogues with 12 people each headed for Easter Island. Not all made it.

Very large tikis
This sacred space had forbidden (tapu) access. It was reserved for people with very high mana. "Mana, the highly fickle essence of everything that be." The quantity of mana given at birth depended on how much the ancestors had acquired. It gave supremacy to the families of expert artisans, chiefs, priests, or warriors. A chief with lots of mana was able to secure abundant crops and wellbeing of his clan. Women were usually not allowed here.

Without their manhood
It was used for rituals, especially funerals of high ranking lineages or depository of clan member's bones. Caves quite a ways from this site have been found filled with people's remains arranged in neat order. There were no established standards or locations and it wasn't used between rituals except perhaps for the occasional hermit priest living here.

These types of sites usually contained a minimum of 2 buildings, one for the regular priest, the other for the high priest, and at times a third one to store the ritual objects.

Materials used to make ritual objects included plants for woven cloth or mats, wood (sculptures), shark skin (drums), conch shells (trumpets), carved boulders (tikis), petroglyphs, and slab altars. Breadfruit was fermented and the drink would be served to the divinity.

The main tiki here is of Chief Takaii, a great warrior. It represents strength. Chiefs would use a fire platform to read the smoke to foresee the future of the clan. There is a female tiki named Fau Poe who, uncommonly is in a seated position looking up at the sky. Most tikis are standing. A lama can be found at her base supporting the idea of a possible South American influence. It is also believed that around 1830-1860, Peruvians brought about 60 boats to take away Marquesans as slaves. Another female tiki was thought to be the medicine person. At the back of all the tikis is an area shaded by holy trees where they tattooed people.

During WWII, German soldiers lived here and took the head of one of the tikis to Germany. It is now in the Berlin Museum and the locals are trying to repatriate it.

Here too the Catholic influence can be found in that all male tikis have had their penis broken off.

On a last note, the last 'known' cannibal was found in Nuku Hiva in 1909… Most do not like to speak of that dark era.

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