Land, Sea, and Air

The day before we left Mo’orea, Seven and I went to pay a call on Marimari Kellum, whose grandfather came out to French Polynesia from the States at the beginning of the last century and, for a time, owned the whole ’Opunohu Valley (her father ended up giving most of it to the Territoire). Kellum’s son, Hiria Ottino, has just embarked on an amazing journey, retracting the ancient Polynesians’ migration route in reverse all the way back to China, and he actually IS sailing! Here is a photo of the canoe he will be  traveling in:

O Tahiti Nui Freedom

and a link to the website for anyone who wants to know more: http://otahitinui.com/vaa/en. Here’s to a safe and enlightening journey. Bon voyage!

Our own little party, meanwhile, also finally managed to get out on the water, albeit for a 5-minute lagoon crossing, but it might still have been one of the highlights of our time in Mo’orea. We went out to the Lagoonarium (not to be confused with the lagoonarium at the Tahiti hotel), which is a little motu out on the reef with places to sit and drink coffee and snorkels and kayaks that you can borrow. Here is a picture of us going across in the boat:

at sea

As per our normal routine, Seven and the boys went snorkeling and saw tons of cool things while I sat in the shade and worked. Lest anyone think I am just idling away my time, I am posting some evidence of my activity.

Here I am working in the forest:

me working in the forest

And here I am working in a restaurant:

me working at a restaurant

It’s okay though, I’d as soon read as snorkel, and, to be honest, I am a little afraid of the sun. One of the ironies of the trip so far is that the only person who has managed to get sunburned is Seven (the hubris of the naturally dark-skinned), whereas I have been neurotically careful.

But to get back to the lagoon, the color is just astonishing. As you go from the beach to the reef and back again you pass through a spectrum of blues from the palest aquamarine through series of deeper and deeper turquoises to a dark ultramarine. This isn’t quite as vivid as what we saw, but it gives you an idea:

water colors

The colors of Polynesia are, generally speaking, difficult to exaggerate – they are already exaggerated. This is, incidentally, one of the interesting things about Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings: how dark, even gloomy, the palette is when you consider the vividness of the colors in these islands and the clarity of the light. There are lots of interesting possible explanations for this, some having to do with Gauguin’s state of mind and some having to do with what was going on in the islands. Many Polynesian populations reached their nadir in the late 19th century; in the Marquesas, for instance, a smallpox epidemic in the 1860s is said to have wiped out 2/3 of the population.

The thing about boats is that they enable you to see these islands as they were, until very recently, always seen. I have been preoccupied with this idea for quite a few years now, though how far it gets you along the path toward understanding what an island rising from the horizon actually meant (to voyagers, raiders, explorers, castaways, etc.) is unclear.

Now, of course, we have this other way of seeing islands — from above. I wonder how that changes our understanding of them?

island from the sky

An Atoll at Last

More Mysterious Stonework in the Forest

Up in the ‘Opunohu Valley on Mo’orea there is a very intriguing marae complex with a large number of excavated platforms (many with large trees growing inside),

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and, if you wander a bit farther away, lots more of what look like unexcavated platforms.

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It was obviously an enormous complex back in the day. The valley itself is wide and deep and has a river running through it, so it seems not at all surprising that there would have been a large and powerful population residing here. The platforms are scattered through a glade of mape trees — this is the tree with roots like drapery, sometimes called the Tahitian chestnut — which seems to lie at a certain altitude on the mountainside. As you get up out of the glade, you also leave the marae area behind. The fact that there are large trees growing inside the platforms suggests how long they have been abandoned, but it also made me wonder if these trees grew here in the days when the platforms were in use. They are particularly beautiful, tall and sinuous, with these astonishing roots:

mape tree

As to whether there were such trees on the marae compound 200 hundred years ago, you could probably answer this question by looking at the engravings from the early European expeditions (no copies of which I happen to have with me at the moment). The 18th and early 19th c. explorers had artists with them who recorded — I think remarkably faithfully — the places they saw. I have been struck by how much the coastline in this bay looks like the drawings that were made on Cook’s voyages — in fact this is one of the places he stopped. They also shot the 1984 Mel Gibson/Anthony Hopkins Bounty movie here, which we watched the other night. I thought the scenes with the Tahitian girls were ridiculous (were they instructed to giggle hysterically as they were being hauled by the sailors onto the ship?). It was fun, though, to see the line of the mountains in the movie exactly as it looked off our deck.

And here is a little mystery. Up by the marae Seven and I read about something that was described as an “archery platform.”

archery platform image

This was news to me; I had always understood that bows and arrows never made it to Polynesia. The text at the site suggested that the ancient Polynesians used the bow for contests only, i.e. not for war (and that this was a measure of their good sense). But, if it had been me, I would certainly have used it for hunting. An excellent way to catch the birds they brought with them, which, despite being nominally domesticated, run wild all over the islands, crowing from dawn to dusk. Ah, the sound of Polynesia…

Polynesian rooster

Land, Sea, and Air

The Eclipse

It turns out that 98% is a little anti-climactic when it comes to solar eclipses. No one understands how I managed to schedule our stay in the Tuamotus, where the eclipse was total, for a few days after the event, but we did see it from Mo’orea, where it was something between 98 and 99%. It happened between about 8 and 10 in the morning and it definitely got dimmer, but what it  really got was colder. Abraham says that during the Silurian (or some other pre-Permian era) there was a 20% reduction in solar radiation and the whole earth froze over. I can believe it. (Btw, these facts may be slightly off; I didn’t bother to corroborate; it just seemed like an interesting idea).

Anyway here we are, observing the celestial event:

watching the eclipse

and if that isn’t an album cover, I don’t know what is.

More Mysterious Stonework in the Forest

It’s All Relative

Compared with the Marquesas, and even sleepy Ra’iatea,  Mo’orea feels positively metropolitan. Our first attempt to go to the beach took us through a hotel compound of bungalows and paved paths, a restaurant by the water, a place to rent kayaks, a dive center, etc. Dani (who has certainly been spoiled by his first taste of a Pacific Island beach in the Marquesas) had an almost violent reaction to the level of development. You may judge for yourselves, however, just how bad it was (that’s the four of us in the center):

Les Tipaniers

Maybe 20 people on the beach, 5 in the water, and another 10 sitting at the restaurant or wandering around – not exactly Wingaersheek on a July weekend…

There was, however, quite a lot of activity in the water. The wind was high and there were some astonishingly acrobatic kite-surfers flying around the lagoon and leaping over the dock, which was amazing. Dani, Matiu, and Abraham took a couple of kayaks and set off down the lagoon.

boys in kayaks

They were headed downwind and it occurred to me that they might have some difficulty returning. Indeed, in almost no time we lost sight of them. So Seven jumped into a kayak and set off in pursuit. About an hour later they reappeared, trudging through the lagoon, dragging their kayaks behind them.

This question of access to the beaches is interesting. We have been told twice by locals that you can just go into the big hotels and go to their beaches, but the larger hotels are obviously trying to stop people from doing this because they’re gated. We made an experiment along these lines the other day and were instantly stopped by the guard who asked Seven where he was going. I then got out on my side of the car (I don’t think the guard could see me; I was in the back seat on the opposite side) and spoke to him in French:

Was there a beach?

It was not public; there was a public beach down the road.

Was there a restaurant at the hotel?

Yes.

Then we would go to the other beach and come back to the restaurant later.

It’s funny about these encounters, I never know exactly how much they are genuinely charged and how much I am bringing to them in the way of expectation. But I certainly did get an adrenalin surge, or, to put it another way, it didn’t feel very friendly. From there we made our way to the public beach which was full of picnicking Tahitians (a little bit more of the Wingaersheek feel). That has its own challenge in a way. As Abraham noted, our local cred is better when we have Seven with us. (Matiu, who is the brownest of our children, is rapidly darkening in this sun and will pass for local pretty soon).

Finally, a nice shot of fish from off the dock somewhere…

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The Eclipse

Abraham Joins the Crew

We arrived back in Papeete after our whirlwind tour of Ra’iatea to find Abraham waiting for us at the airport. I wasn’t at all convinced that the rendezvous would come off, but there he was, just outside the domestic arrival area, bedraggled and a little edgy (as who would not be after nearly 25 hours?). He’d flown direct from Boston: 6 hours to LA, a 4-hour layover, 8.5 hours to Tahiti, and another 5 hours in the airport at Papeete waiting for us to turn up. And we still had to catch the ferry to Mo’orea, get a car, and drive to someplace called Fare Hamara, which was where I had arranged for us to stay.

For those of you who don’t know Abraham, here is a picture of him (after a shower and some sleep):

Abraham

Fare Hamara was another of  my gambles. It’s hard to find anywhere to stay with 5 people, and back when I starting making the arrangements for this trip, the first challenge was our comparatively long (6 days) stay on Mo’orea. In part I wanted to get this right because Abraham is only joining us for 2 weeks (he has to work the rest of the summer) and I wanted us all to be comfortable. I did a lot of looking around on the internet and was just beginning to despair when, late one night, I came across a link to this house you could rent in the ’Opunohu Valley. I fired off an email inquiry, not expecting very much, and fifteen minutes later I got a phone call from a guy named Bob Hammar in Seattle.

I told him a little about my project and it turned out that he was friends with Robert Suggs, one of the foremost archaeologists in French Polynesia, that the house was not far from the richest archaeological site on Mo’orea, that he had a huge and interesting library of books on the South Pacific (a catalogue of which he sent me, including a recommendation for a book which is NOT in Widener Library — imagine that!). He proved not only a fount of information but an extremely nice and generous guy. There was a touch of kismet to the whole encounter and it had a decidedly calming effect on me during a period of steadily building pre-departure anxiety.

So, we got the ferry to Mo’orea, picked up our rental car, and drove past the Sofitel and the Hilton and on around the island, with the kids gradually uniting in a chorus of mistrust, until we finally arrived at a steep, narrow, rather unprepossessing driveway. I was really holding my breath at this point; two kids in revolt are hard to handle, but three is a serious problem.

Here, then, is what we encountered: a fabulous two-bedroom cedar house built in the round with an open ceiling in the main room, an encircling deck, and a freestanding bathhouse with a sunken tiled double shower. Like the very best of Northern California transplanted to French Polynesia (minus the hot tub; which is fine by me). None of the pictures do it justice, but this should give you an idea.

This is from the outside:

Fare Hamara

this is from the inside:

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this is the view up the valley from the deck:

Opunohu Valley

and out to the reef:

view from Fare Hamara

Needless to say we are all completely happy, as you can see from this photo (shot through the screen door) of us playing Scrabble…

playing scrabble

It’s All Relative

A Linguist’s Paradise

Thought you might enjoy this photo of Seven a la mode Tahitienne. Actually, I believe only the women wear flowers in their hair, but I think it suits him.

Seven with hibiscus flower

Seven is definitely still provoking interest, especially among the Islanders, and all our most interesting encounters have been with people who want to know who he is and where he comes from. One person guessed Hawaiian; another thought he might be Rarotongan. No one yet has thought to suggest New Zealand, which seems like the obvious choice, or Tongan or Samoan for that matter. This would seem to indicate that there aren’t too many non-French Polynesians traveling in these parts.

Our encounters really emphasize how separated the Pacific is by this English v. French colonial divide, but it’s frustrating seeing people with so much in common separated from one another in this very fundamental way. Maybe if his Maori were better they would have a Polynesian lingua franca, but I don’t know. Everyone tells us that speakers from different island groups are mutually unintelligible.

Or, rather they tell us that people from other islands can understand each another, but that they can’t understand them. Marquesans, we are told, sound like Maori; or Tuamotuans sound like Marquesans; or Easter Islanders sound like Hawaiians; but no one, apparently, sounds like Tahitians, at least from the Tahitian point of view. We have, however, met an interesting assortment of people from the eastern Pacific, including a  guy from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) who spoke to us in a mixture of French and English, taught us a few words of Rapa Nui, and counted out our change in Spanish!

On a completely different subject, I have become painfully aware (from questions put to me by people at home) how little I know about birds and plants and I’m sorry to report that I cannot be at all interesting on either subject. However, I did see the most magnificent pair of breadfruit trees the other day. They were so huge and glorious that I made Seven turn around and drive back about a 1/4 mile to take some pictures. (The kids were utterly bored by this; “Hey, let’s stop and take a picture” is becoming code between them for anything time-wasting and stupid). You can’t really get a sense of how big they were (this is shot down from the roadside above) but they had to have been 40 feet high at least.

breadfruit trees

This is what the leaves and fruit look like up close. Beautiful, isn’t it?

breadfruit

Breadfruit is, of course, the cargo that Captain Bligh of the Bounty was supposed to pick up in Tahiti and take to the Caribbean (where it would be grown to feed slaves) before his crew mutinied and left him to perish in an open boat. It is prepared in various ways, including most famously a fermented mash, which is, I believe, an acquired taste. Dani wouldn’t get near it…

Abraham Joins the Crew

 

 

Mutiny on the …

We all liked the mood lighting on Virgin America, but for sheer old-fashioned service I think Air Tahiti takes the prize. Our plane back to Tahiti from the Marquesas was 3 hours late, which meant that we missed our connection to Ra’iatea and Air Tahiti paid for our taxi, put us up in a good Papeete hotel, paid for our dinner and faxed through to the hotel in Ra’iatea where we were supposed to be staying so that we wouldn’t get charged for the night. When was the last time anyone got that kind of treatment on a domestic flight in the States? Mind you, I think we also paid almost as much for our domestic flights within French Polynesia as we did for the whole rest of the trip, still, it was a pleasant surprise.

Or would have been if it hadn’t been for the mutiny it almost incited. We are staying in a lot of different kinds of places on this trip: pensions, hotels, bungalows, condos, even a house in one place, and even though our accommodation in the Marquesas was definitely on the upscale end, the boys seem convinced that I am going to land them in a fleapit. “We just don’t have that much confidence in your choices, Mum,” according to Abraham.

Dani, who has a taste for large international hotels, refers to these dubious and unsatisfactory establishments as “Motels.” So, when Air Tahiti put us up in a large expensive hotel chain with multiple bars, restaurants, and a lagoonarium (!), he and Matiu were in hog heaven. Soft bed, nice sheets, huge flat screen TV, room service, the works. Unfortunately there was no time to enjoy any of it because we got there about 8 pm and had to get up at 5 the next morning for the next flight out to Ra’iatea.

No one got enough sleep; the airport was mobbed with people flying out to all the islands; we were a bit late and barely made the plane; all the seats were taken and we had to sit separately (no assigned seating on these flights); and to top it off, the place I’d booked on Ra’iatea turned out to be a spartan one-bedroom cottage with linoleum on the floors and thin mattresses, set in a pretty coconut grove on the water. The owners were very nice and, under the right circumstances, it would have been perfect. We had a terrific card game on the veranda, watched the fish jumping in the lagoon, made friends (in a manner of speaking) with a gecko who lived on the ceiling and even managed to make a meal for ourselves (ramen, cocoa, grilled toast and cheese, not exactly gourmet, but kid-friendly). But you may imagine what we endured along the way. “You took us away from that to bring us here?”

We did. I just had to get to Ra’iatea to see the Taputapuatea marae — which is similar to the Kamuihei site on Nuku Hiva, but different in interesting respects. One big difference is the location: Taputapuatea is built on an east-facing promontory, looking out to a major pass through the reef. It’s a commanding position, wide open to the sea and the sky and very visible from several directions. At Kamuihei you are up in the forest, it’s dim and green and there are huge trees with great twisting roots and big tumbled blocks of black basalt. It’s a really different feeling; though the basic structures are quite similar.

Here are a couple of pictures of Taputapuatea:

Taputatpuatea marae

and another with Dani in the background, picking his way over the coral (that’s a motu in the distance, a little islet on the reef):

Dani at Taputatpuatea

Luckily for me there was a really lovely beach by the marae, which is itself set in a beautiful garden, so we spent most of the day there, me wandering around looking at rocks…

taputapuatea

…and Seven and the boys swimming. Seven opened some kind of huge mollusk and fed it to the fish, which I think is what they are looking at so intently here:

snorkeling

Finally, I thought you might like to see “George” the gecko who kept us entertained for quite a while…

George the gecko

A Linguist’s Paradise