Paradise Recovered

Hiva Oa is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever visited. Mountains shoot out of the sea and into the clouds, palm trees and bright flowers abound, and the people are unbelievably friendly. The island is largely undeveloped with only a small downtown featuring a few grocery shops, a single bank, a pharmacy, and a couple of pick-up trucks selling fruit and vegetables. Transportation around the island is achieved by hitchhiking and friendly locals nearly always pull over to offer a ride to anyone walking on the road. Instead of a handshake or wave, the local greeting is a fist with only the thumb and pinky finger extended while rotating the wrist. For some reason, it is almost impossible to make this gesture without breaking into a huge smile, as is evident by all of the beaming natives. In the evenings, the children play in the yard or frolic in the water, young men play soccer or row a French Polynesian version of a canoe around the harbor, adults jog through the rolling hills, and older couples go for scenic walks. Whatever the activity, the women always have flowers in their hair and everyone wears bright clothing with floral patterns. It is easy to understand why everyone is in such a good mood here. Surrounded by such transcendent beauty it is difficult to get too depressed about anything, even a boat that is slowly falling apart. The main drawback of this island, and I expect of all of the islands in French Polynesia, are the egregious prices. Laundry is $15 a load. A bottle of coke is $6 while a can of beer is $5. Since almost everything must be shipped in by boat, the costs are exorbitant. Fortunately, we still have pasta, rice, and pancakes to live on. The past week was spent working on the boat and exploring the island. After arriving on Monday, we spent the afternoon commiserating about everything that had broken on the boat and periodically checking our anchor to assure that we neither crashed into the boat next to us nor dragged on to the lee shore. Still depressed on Tuesday, my spirits were buoyed when some kind souls from the other two Valiants in the harbor bought me ice cream in town. The friendly gesture lessened my growing aggravation resulting from my inability to fix anything on the boat and my difficulty in posting the roughly $1,300 bond that is necessary to check-in to French Polynesia (the islands require that all visitors deposit the amount of a one-way airplane ticket back to their home country to assure that people don’t overstay their welcome). While I was scrambling around trying to make boat repairs and handle our check-in, Anna was busy cleaning the boat. Although nothing aboard works, at least everything looks really nice. On Wednesday morning, we received word that there was an earthquake in Tonga that registered 7.8 on the Richter scale. A tsunami warning was in effect for all of French Polynesia and cruisers were advised to stay on their boat in case the rising water caused the anchor to come loose. The large wave was predicted to arrive around 11:00 AM and we sat in the cockpit eagerly awaiting our first tsunami experience. The waves did seem to grow and the anchorage became even more rolly than usual, but we were unable to identify any single wave that could have been caused by the earthquake. Now that I have successfully survived my first tsunami, I’m hoping to avoid any further encounters with tsunamis in the future. After a productive and somewhat anticlimactic morning, we went into town and hiked up to the cemetery where Paul Gauguin is buried. The artist made Hiva Oa famous as a result of his paintings of natives and once he found this beautiful island, he chose never to leave this tropical paradise (they probably didn’t have the expensive deposit when he visited). After settling here, his days were cut short when he contracted syphilis from his 14-year-old native wife. Well done, sir. Still, the fame that he brought to the island was probably welcome since its previous notoriety derived mainly from the reputation of being the last island in the South Pacific to dabble in cannibalism. Thursday and Friday were spent working on the boat and exploring the island. Anna did the laundry ashore using the native method of rinsing under a faucet of river water, churning the clothes by hand in a soapy bucket, and rinsing thoroughly before hanging the damp clothes on the boat to dry. Meanwhile, in one of the greatest achievements of my lifetime, I successfully repaired the windlass after hours spent curled up in the tiny anchor locker attempting to understand how the contraption works. An entire afternoon was also spent cleaning the filthy hull, which managed to accumulate an astonishing number of mussels, barnacles, and hairy growth during the month long passage. Aside from making the boat indescribably ugly, the marine garden growing below my waterline helps to explain the slower than usual speed of the boat. On Saturday, we stocked up at the grocery store for the long weekend. All of the shops close for the weekend at noon on Saturday’s and apparently Monday is some sort of holiday. As a result, the soonest that I will be able to withdraw my bond money and officially clear into the Marquesas will be on Tuesday. After that, we will likely proceed to other islands in the Marquesas. We can only hope that the rest of this island chain is as beautiful and friendly as Hiva Oa.

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