Jun 18, 2014

Goodbye Atolls – Leaving for the Austral Islands

When you are everywhere, you are nowhere.
When you are somewhere, you are everywhere.

It rained so much even the oily Tiare Tahiti became translucent
We experience our first whole day of torrential rains.  Supposedly, it is the dry winter season down under...  The locals are questioning this odd wetter than usual weather (El Niño?).  We nearly go stir crazy even though we have great accommodations.  We feel sorry for the folks in boats at anchor.  We meet one boater who escaped to go for a wet walk like us and she shared just how muggy it is in a ‘closed’ boat.  We’ve seen a few blue tarps pop up since last night, an indication of boats not completely waterproof?

Reading in our comfy little cabin
The Tuhaa Pae freighter we were supposed to take to the Austral Islands changed itinerary.  We find out about this alteration just as we entered a long weekend and cannot make changes until offices reopen.  It was nice enough that the host from our pension in Tahiti tracked us down to let us know so we could make arrangements!  With the rain we have time to research the net and have a plan to hopefully put in place on Tuesday (the day the freighter was supposed to leave)…  So far travelling without a phone hasn’t been a problem.  French Polynesia isn’t very big – people seem to find you if they need to.

Hermit crabs - part of which are used in the production of traditional monoi
Read here for more interesting facts about hermit crabs
Island life is very much that laid back.  They have many holidays and if a holiday lands on a Thursday or Tuesday the day in between will also become a day off.  They call it a bridge day but some foreigners used to longer work hours call it a whole viaduct.  Sometimes you’ll have to wait 4 days for things to open.  The locals never worry; we do pretty well with that until something like a last minute trip change happens and you need to prepare quickly.

School bus, worker bus, sometimes bus for locals or tourists around the island
We enjoyed our last bike ride almost avoiding puddles the size of swimming pools in the road.  We biked the 10km to the North pass past the airport.  Fakarava actually has bike lanes for about 25km, what a treat!  Many of the folks here travel that way.  Most right in the middle of the road (like us) for there is very little traffic except when a freighter or an airplane makes their appearance.

Our host, Papi (grandfather figure) Jacques ask if I could pay cash instead of credit card (cash is generally preferred in French Polynesia) so he can pay his staff.  We are happy to oblige.  Many have no bank accounts.  There is no bank on Fakarava, just an ATM machine at the post office (oh the good old days).  Papi Jacques prefers paying them in cash so they don’t incur unnecessary bank fees.

We ask Papi Jacques since he’s not a local but comes from France if he owns the land and he explains that he does not but that there is a law that protects his interest.  This law says that as long as he pays his dues to the owner(s) of the land as well as all the taxes, etc they cannot take the land back from him.  If a business does well and the owner can pay the landowners they can stay on the land forever.  The business can also be passed down to heirs if they continue the same pattern. 

We learn that Fakarava’s tourism industry didn’t start until 2003-2004 when Jacques Chirac (French President) was going to visit the area.  In honor of his visit, they paved roads, added street lights, phone lines, the whole enchilada.  This seeded the infrastructure needed to support a budding tourism industry.  A home was also built for him but it was never used by him…  Locals joke their taxes paid for at least one light bulb each in that house situated on prime beachfront property…

We are surrounded mostly by divers not interested in learning about this atoll, its food, its people or its culture.  Their only interest lies under water.  They don’t trouble themselves learning a few words of the local tongue like thank you, goodbye, beer, etc.  To each their own but we feel a little alienated by conversations about biggest sharks, scariest eel, largest school of fish, most colorful coral, etc.  We prefer learning about the people.

The longer we stay in the Tuomatus the better we understand the crazy Tuomatan man who, one night in the Marquesas while driving us back from our dinner, yelled at us that we were lucky to be here and not the Tuomatus and that we didn’t know what it was like to have been raised eating coconut and fish, coconut and fish, coconut and fish EVERY DAY!  Now we do but we can’t complain because we’ve only spent 11 days here.  It would get old after years!

For the first time we see figs grown in French Polynesia - unfortunately they weren’t ripe yet but there is hope!

We met a man who visited in 1991 and reported that when he asked the locals about retirement plan and such they didn’t understand what he was talking about since they live day to day only.  Now nearly 25 years later that thinking is slowly getting ingrained in their minds but still doesn’t have much hold.  They do understand what you are asking about but still don’t truly live the concept except through their kids.  Most of them spend a lot of money and efforts ensuring their kids finish school so they can have a better life.

After such heavy rain we hear many coconuts hit the ground.  The rain may have softened the way they are held to the trees.  In some ten weeks of being around coconut trees daily, we’ve only heard two fall in the woods while we were hiking, some hitting the roofs of the dining room of the pension we stayed at in Tikehau, and now here…  Each time it seemed to follow rain.  I thought winds would have more influence but it doesn’t appear that way.  We read sailors’ blogs that mentioned wearing hard hats but the coconuts are so heavy and come from so far up it wouldn’t be much help in most cases.  We watch a local turn over his copra (coconut meat drying on racks).  With the latest rains, it has been difficult to dry the copra without it molding.  It could mean losing a ton or so of coconut for its sale to Tahiti Oil Company. 

The rain has given us time to contemplate a little more in depth the various fabrics brightening our room.  We can say we now understand the various patterns you find in them.  Many are highly stylized but recognizable: hibiscus flowers, uru (breadfruit) with leaves, tiare Tahiti (flower of Tahiti), tiare Apetahi (flower of Raiatea), ferns, mangoes, pineapples, whales, fish hooks, turtles, manta rays, dolphins, some Marquesan tattoos, tikis, etc.

When we visit the pink sand beach, our guide explains that in order to save the corals no one should anchor there.  Unfortunately there are no signs stating so and we see about 8 boats in that location.  Our guide asks that I translate for the English speakers with boats anchored there to clarify the situation.  They become quite belligerent and I try to bow out before it gets ugly.  It’s a sad situation when sailors don’t understand the simplest principles of conservation and then wonder why they are not well received by the locals who are trying to save the area. 

Our small cabin at Relais Marama
Returning to our favorite pension in Tahiti was like returning home.  The mountain looks so much bigger – perhaps because we’ve been and seen only sea level for 2 weeks.  The traffic feels like an even bigger chaos than last time we were here.  It must be the peacefulness of a month in small islands or atolls.  It was so nice to be with Martine and Georgie again.  They also dream of sailing around the world one day.  We hope to be some kind of small inspiration or guidance. 

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