We saw the gray Toyota Helix truck from afar as it cruised down the concrete paved main road of Taiohae Bay. It had the tour company logo plastered across the side and the bed was converted into a tour bus with padded benches, a sun shade, and roll down sides in case it rained. I thought, “Oh man, Dad is going to hate this”.
We met the guide, Richard, who I had read only positive reviews about from Trip Advisor. He was a typical Marquesan, friendly, tattooed, and massive. He has been giving tours on this island for 20 years and is the only person I have ever met that speaks English, French, Spanish, Marquesan, and Tahitian fluently. My dad and I climbed into the truck and we rolled out of the parking lot, past the vegetable market, and out of the small town.
As the truck worked its way up the mountain on switchback roads, we met the other passengers. There was a family from France with an eight year old daughter, a French mother daughter tandem roughy our ages, and a solo traveler from Reuinion Island off the coast of Africa- which coincidentally is our destination this November. Most of them were in the cab of the truck, with just the eight year old, Meilise and woman my age, Valentine, riding in the back with us. Valentine is an anesthesiologist in France who has been traveling in New Zealand and other Pacific Islands for the past three weeks with her mom. She needed a vacation after nine years of school. Meilise didn’t speak any English, but I know how to ask people how old they are in French so we had a very brief conversation.
The first stopping place was a ridge looking down on the harbor. There, Richard explained local life. The children go to elementary school on this island at either the Catholic or public school, then Tahiti for high school and university. Technology has recently been introduced. They had no electricity when Richard was a child. Now, they have hydro as well as burn diesel for power. The internet is satellite so it is still slow – to my dad and my frustration – but even that is a huge upgrade that connects them to the rest of the world.
We continued to Baie Du Controleur and the town of Taipivai. We could see over 1000 coconut trees covering the valley. Richard told us the villagers farm copra here, which is the dried fruit of the coconut. It is a difficult way to make a living since they get $1.43 per kilogram, or 3-4 coconuts. They cut notches in the trees with machetes to climb them more easily, and cut the coconuts off. Next time you are cooking with coconut oil, or smell coconut after washing your hands, you can feel good knowing you are keeping people on these remote islands employed.
Taipivai contained one store, a church, and oddly the tallest hibiscus tree in the world – according to Richard. We toured the church, which was a mix between Catholic and Marquesan. The pulpit was beautifully hand carved and the wood finish looked like it belonged in a yacht interior. They have very talented craftsmen on the island and we even entered one small home workshop.
By then we had covered half the island, and only had one more currently populated town on the north side. We saw more spectacular views, including vast areas with no trees that contrasted with the lush foliage covering the rest of the island. Richard explained to us that during the peak of Marquesan society, there were too many people and food was scarce. This led to raids and cannibalism. They burnt the forest in some areas so the sentries could see rival village raids coming from further away.
We stopped in the town for lunch and had a feast. My dad and I ordered Hinano, the Tahitian beer and the seafood platter. It included Sweetwater shrimp from the river, Barracuda filet – known to have ciguatera – and another unidentified fish that we think is likely a reef fish. Since neither of us are sick and I am writing this several days after the meal, I think we are safe, even though we saw a cigutera warning poster for that bay on an adjacent building right after lunch, which was discerning. The meal also included our new favorite food, breadfruit, as well as the root from the tapioca plant, a tasty new food for both of us.
After lunch we went to the Nuku Hiva museum. It was hardly two rooms, but contained enough information to keep us entertained. There were war clubs, spears, fishing hooks made of shells, harpoons made of bone, stone bowls for tattooing, the nuts used for ink, and replicas of petroglyphs among other artifacts. There, we learned that tattoos were a status symbol, as well as a survival mechanism. The more you had the more you blend in in the dark forest and at night. It was common for older people to be covered head to toe, and an honor – probably because you managed to survive so long.
I asked Richard about his tattoos and what they mean. He said his tattoos are petroglyphs about the spirits combined with Marquesan life. He added that there was a period when the French took control and tried to extinguish their culture. They forbade tattoos, the Marquesan language, and traditional dance. Now, the tattoos have additional significance for the Marquesans trying to re-identify with their past.
Richard saved the best for last. We went to a partially excavated site that housed an ancient village. It had several large Banyan trees with massive trunks. The one we saw had a pit dug under it and was used as a prison for their soon to be sacrifices. The biggest building in the village contained tikis and was where they had ceremonies and sacrificed captured prisoners with the whole town watching. There were red rocks to distinguish where only the religious leaders could go. Behind these rocks the sacrifices took place.
We hiked up hill and saw the priest’s home. We had to use our imagination since only the stone bases remained. The rest was constructed from wood and decayed. This was a taboo area too. In 1997 they discovered petroglyphs carved into rock. One was cleared of moss and depicted a Mahi Mahi among other things. Across from it, there was another boulder covered in green moss. Upon closer inspection, I noticed depictions of humans and other symbols. I could imagine being an archeologist and stumbling upon these ruins. There were 40 of these sites in that valley alone, but they are overgrown with jungle. Only two have been cleared of trees.
It is incredible that a population of over 50,000 existed on these tiny islands, now home to 9,000. After Europeans visited, 98% of the population died. Richard was able to explain the culture and history enough that with a little imagination, you could be there, in the Great halls during a ceremony, or on the battlefield wielding a massive, intricately carved club. I have a new interest in Polynesian history and cannot wait to continue my education in the Society Islands.