Jul 13, 2014

Rurutu,The Island of Traditions

Be interested, not interesting.
Jane Fonda  

While very brittle, these rocks are amazing
I think following this saying is even more important while traveling. Stay open minded, ask questions, be curious, be mindful, share only when people are inquiring and you will discover much more about the community and places you are visiting. They love to know you are interested, inquisitive, very much like them, etc.

Most wouldn’t otherwise know what to share with you or what you are attracted to. You’d be amazed how many people open up with a huge smile when asked the simplest questions like “How did you make this amazing tasting coconut jam?” “What is the meaning of this small thing hanging from your rear-view mirror?” Let the doors open…
We stayed in Vitaria which means:
The absolute victors, a people who, without fail, subdue and conquer
all their enemies
Walls of ferns.  They grow very thick, stiff, and high beside the roads.
Drying pandanu before turning it into bags, hats, mats, etc
Little protection around the island.  Road is near huge seas.
Mike biking under the rock overhang flanking the road
Told you it is winter here: tree-size poinsettias in 'bloom'.
Let’s face it; we cannot fight old man winter. The weather is windy and mostly cloudy but we manage to visit almost everything we want… We can also cuddle at night – something that has been lacking in this otherwise very balmy weather. The only things we cannot see are some out-of-the-way caves too dangerous to access in wetter weather. We still manage caves nearer the main roadway. It gives us a good idea of the possibilities out further. These caves are made of corals and lime and were formed when this island, over eons, lifted not only once but twice. Unlike most other volcanic islands that recede about 1cm/year, this one has been lifted up about 250 feet due to nearby volcanic activity.

Somewhat like Easter Island, you cannot safely anchor anywhere around this island. You have a choice of a 40 meter deep anchorage in open sea or maybe at the dock facing the swells when the supply boat isn’t around - - - Unless it has been calm for many days and is supposed to be for many more, one cannot be comfortable or safe here. We watched as they dredged the small harbor and even though the weather wasn’t that bad, they were thrown around considerably despite being held down by three huge steel cables. 

Port is near the white dot at the end of the nearest point.  This is a rather calm day!!!
Dredging the small port 
Why the dredging? There is a new boat supplying the Austral Islands. It is twice as big as the last one but no one thought of ensuring it would fit the current seaport before buying it. As it turns out it is too shallow and too narrow so they’ve had to stay outside the quay and unload with whale boats, a very dangerous proposition they are trying to remedy as quickly as possible; definitely poor planning on their part.The only advantage to them is that they only need to come every 2 or 3 weeks while the older boat came weekly.That is not an advantage for the islanders who have to get accustomed to provisioning for much longer periods of time, not always easy when you have smaller fridges, freezers, or little money and space. 

Too many babies 24!
Few beaches - mostly rugged coastline fringed with amazingly clear water
More ruggedness
Fishing net hanging by the beach
Rurutu, the island of traditions, is known for its beautiful plant based weavings whether it is hats, placemats, bags, rugs, window decorations, they have the very best quality and workmanship. The hat I purchased there was later recognized by the person who made it (I bumped into her in Tahiti – can you believe it!) and many old timers in Tahiti and many of the places we went to in Hawaii know it comes from the Austral Islands.

It is also legendary for its stunning quilts called tifaifai, representing much of the everyday plants and animals that feed them as well as everyday life.

Woven insert for sliding wooden door - Notice bamboo furniture in background
Using pandanu fruits in necklace
Proud to wear their handmade hats
The one I chose - with tamanu seeds from a healing plant
Tifaifai representing tiare apetahi, one of the rarest flowers in the world
This handmade heirloom covered our bed at the pension we stayed at in Tahiti.
Rurutu is famous for its caves – one even with the name of Mouth of Dragon! They were the only troglodytes in French Polynesia. Some cave dwellers lived in them until less than 200 years ago. Some caves come with underground streams and lakes. The inclement weather didn’t allow us to visit these wonders however. The caves have many openings at the top meaning walking the plateaus can be dangerous as one can fall through one of these holes. We have to be particularly careful when off-trail roaming this gorgeous island.

One of the many caves on the island
Skylights in a cave
Mostly stalagmites but a few stalactites...
Less dramatic stalagmites
Putting things in perspective - see Mike in lower left corner?
See why a cave is called Mouth of the Dragon?  Our guide and host lower right corner.
Rurutu is recognized for its extensive watering canals started many generations ago and still well maintained and used today to water the taro, a main staple of their diet. They grow about 8 varieties of this tuber they use somewhat like a potato with even more creativity. Each valley village owns their own tarodière (where they grow taro) and each family has as many plots as they need and they proudly work the same plots for generations. As a matter of fact the owner of the plot we visited was a little appalled to see how poorly taken care of some of the plots near his were. He blamed it on people having too much else to do and less pride. These plots are considered communal gardens but they only have one type of crop. The taro also supplies fafa, a spinach like type of green leaf that is usually eaten cooked with coconut milk and meat (either pork or chicken). Delicious!

Water channel surrounding a taro patch
Very lush and well maintained
Taro leaves - young ones eaten like spinach called fafa
Waterproof leaves...
Picking the first kind of taro (out of 3 this time around)
Most everything is done barefoot
Washing the root tubers
Preparing natural cordage to tie up the loot
Several taro roots tied together
Also picked fafa and wrapping young fafa leaves inside banana leaf
We meet interesting folks here.  A retired professional golf player who is part Japanese and now raises chickens and ducks, one of the latter just had 24 babies!  A gentleman who works at the music conservatory in Tahiti and is now, illegally, building a house on the coast (no one is supposed to be allowed to build right on the coast) to be a B&B when he retires. 

Lots of horses dot the hillsides and we are asked if we know a horseshoer who would like to teach them how to take care of their feet.  We respond that our son Adam is one.  They would like to arrange for him to spend time on the island (at their expense) to teach them the basics.  Of course I offered to be the translator for the whole operation…  We’ll see where this goes.

Rurutu grows excellent coffee.  We were very dubious to find decent coffee grown anywhere in French Polynesia but finally found it here.  They still do shade grown crops and pick by hand.  Later when we speak of coffee in Hawaii you’ll understand how rare that is becoming. 

There is a much smaller double island nearby (Ile Maria approximately a day’s sail away) and once a year the people of the island used to go there to clean it up, pick the coconuts, and fish its lagoon.  Government is now forbidding people to go there, not sure of the reason but it definitely upsets these people who benefited from such activity.

The pension we live in has been built by the owner (Viriamu) and his brothers and father.  The main beams are all made of coconut wood.  I hadn’t realized you could mill coconut and build with it.  It is a beautiful and extremely heavy wood.  The trick is to only use the mature trees.  He had ladies weave inserts for wooden doors and cabinet doors, very tasteful, original, and LOCAL…

Viriamu believes that everyone should have access to home grown food so he has been instrumental in planting fruit trees along all the roads on the island.  Should you need citrus, bananas, mangoes, papayas, etc you are welcome to pick from these trees.  Of course since so many people already grow their own this usually comes in handy when there is a wedding or a large family celebration and someone needs extra to feed the sudden crowd.

Since there are fewer fresh flowers at this time of year (it is winter after all), the necklaces we usually receive are mostly made of leaves, fruits, seed pods, and berries instead of flowers.

Cuisine at our pension is excellent.  From fafa soufflé to squash soup, and hot papaya in coconut milk to coconut jam. 
Pilon to make poi, a type of thick paste made from taro roots.  This pilon is made
of coral and needs to be soaked the whole night before use so it is heavy enough to pound
the taro tuber What else did you think it was for?
The day we leave is really windy.  I marvel at the beautiful hand woven hats everyone is wearing while waiting at the airport.  Many hats go astray and people chase them before embarking, delaying the plane somewhat but it’s all in good fun.  I wasn’t aware that they were going to Tahiti for the yearly Artisan Festival that lasts 3 weeks.  Not only are they wearing their best work, they also bring along bags and bags of their creations to sell in Tahiti.  The whole plane smells of flower/fruit necklaces and various plants used to weave hats, bags, carpets, or wood carvings, etc. 

We are lucky to fly above the eye of the storm to watch a round cloud funnel-like formation circling over the sea between here and Tahiti.  Glad not to be sailing under it.

A last note about Rurutu: now that we have visited 4 of the 5 archipelagos of French Polynesia, we notice some differences between them.  The ones that were invaded by missionaries later on (i.e. Marquesas) still have character, art, life, dance, music, tattoos, and people proudly looking you in the eye and willing to converse with you.  On the other hand, the islands that were ‘missionarized’ earlier on have more zombie-like folks scared of offending anyone and locked into one way of thinking.  It is very sad to see just how much hold religion has on these people.  Probably one of the last bastions (due to their remoteness) where religion can have a true hold.

In most cases churches have even more power than mayors, governors, etc.  You will not succeed in politics if you are not part of the dominant church.  No separation of church and politics here. It is truly sad.

Before heading back we are shown how to dig taro roots for our last dinner on Rurutu.  What a nice way to be in balance with nature.  We are thankful to be part of this small ritual. 

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