Going Native in Atuona

On Sunday morning, I woke up early and hitchhiked into town to attend mass at the Catholic Church in Atuona. Throughout my travels, I usually try to go to a service at the most impressive looking church in town, no matter what the denomination or language spoken. My churchgoing is less of a religious experience than an attempt to participate in a community activity, to politely observe the way in which locals worship, and to enjoy an hour in a relaxing environment. Mostly, it is an opportunity to look at the architecture of the church and, for reasons that I prefer not to investigate, I always feel better about myself after having attended. The service on Hiva Oa was informal with all of the churchgoers wearing shorts and either t-shirts or floral patterned shirts, often without any footwear. People held private conversations among themselves throughout the service, although they did seem to pay attention and join in when it came time to sing the hymns. Since the service was in French, I have no idea of the subject of the sermon, but everyone seemed uplifted when they left, so it must have been more inspiring than the attention of the crowd initially suggested. Monday was a holiday to celebrate the end of World War II in Europe. It is somewhat odd that French Polynesia celebrates the date of the victory in Europe considering that the war in the South Pacific continued to rage on. Being a French island, they do not seem to raise too many questions about the validity of a holiday and do not require much in the way of a reason to take a day off of work. Last Monday was a holiday to celebrate European Union day, even though they don’t use the euro here. In any case, as a result of the bank being closed, I was yet again unable to withdraw the money necessary to post the bond. Although the money is available in the account, the limits and deficiencies of the sole ATM on Hiva Oa has made it difficult to clear in. I have now been in the Marquesas for almost two weeks without officially checking in. Fortunately, everyone here seems pretty laid back and no one has raised any objections to our semi-illegal status. The anchorage in Atuona became even more uncomfortable than usual on Tuesday with large swells constantly rolling through. The surge made landing in a dinghy nearly impossible since the dinghy dock is nothing more than a wall of rocks that must be scrambled up to tie off the painter. This process nearly always results in at least a partial dowsing and excessive abuse to the dinghy. Despite a faucet that provides potable water available ashore, our plan to fill our water tanks was thwarted by the harsh conditions in the harbor. Instead, we have to rely on rainwater that we catch on the deck and direct to the water tanks rather than draining overboard. This system works well assuming that it rains, that the decks are clean, and that we remember to close the valve before getting salt water or dirt in the tanks. Unfortunately, after collecting about 25 gallons of rainwater on Tuesday, we forgot to close the valve when we took showers on the deck and our good water is now polluted with salt and soap. While I am aware that the solution to pollution is dilution, it is going to take more than a catchy phrase to convince me to drink the soapy water. On Wednesday, after yet another failed attempt to withdraw enough money to check in, we decided to move to a different anchorage. However, before we could escape the treacherous harbor, we had to free up our stern anchor and the bow anchor, both of which were well dug in after a week of being under constant tension. Adding to the difficulty of raising the anchor was the fact that a catamaran in front of us set their stern anchor right over our bow anchor and another boat was anchored almost directly in front of us. As luck would have it, no one was aboard the catamaran when we wanted to leave and the other boat was unable to move since they lost their propeller while making the passage from Mexico. Luckily, a team of elderly Speedo-clad French men came to the rescue and helped us to slowly wind our way through the labyrinth of obstacles without hitting any boats, fouling our anchor, or getting one of the many lines stuck in our propeller. We then sailed 14 miles across the Bordelais Channel to Tahuata, a tiny island across from Hiva Oa. The island of Tahuata was the only place in the Marquesas that Captain Cook stopped at during his voyages throughout the Pacific. He complained of the thieving natives and was continually blown from the harbor and out to sea whenever a squall passed by. Fortunately, we had a much better experience on the lovely island. Anchored in the calm, crystal clear blue water near the village of Vaitahu, we were reunited with Peter and Jesse on Geodesic, two friends that we know from Panama and the Galapagos. Aside from our boats, there were only two other boats in the harbor, one of which was a 120-foot mega yacht and the other was a steel boat owned by a Dutch a couple that have completed the impressive feat of sailing around Cape Horn and up to Alaska. After a brief exploration of town, we had a pleasant dinner aboard Geodesic with Peter, Jesse, and Shannon, who is Peter’s girlfriend. On Thursday, we went ashore in search of the local tattoo artist. Thanks to the bilingual Canandian school system, the sailors on Geodesic possessed enough French to find the small hut where the tattoo artist works his magic. From what we had read, tattoos originated in the Marquesas and the continuing popularity among residents is obvious after a brief visit to the islands. As they say, when in Rome … After browsing the portfolio of traditional designs, the man set to work, creating original designs for Jesse and Peter who opted for ankle tattoos. After nearly four hours of work, the man said that he would do my tattoo the following morning. My only previous experience with body art was of the self-inflicted variety. When I was in high school, some friends and I branded our soccer numbers into our arms. Since I was number seven, I carved that lucky numeral into my flesh. The brand looked good for about a year until it faded away. When I decided to replace the brand, I used a paper clip, a lighter, a mirror, and a fair amount of booze. Heating the paper clip until it glowed, I proceeded to carve a new “7” into my upper left arm. Unfortunately, I consumed too much alcohol before I began my work and I awoke the next morning to find a backwards seven etched into my arm. It looked good in a mirror, though. As a result of my idiocy, one of my friends came up with the clever nickname of “neves.” On Friday morning, I was sure to stay sober and I could only hope that the tattoo artist would make the same choice. Before starting, I struggled to communicate the vague idea of what I wanted tattooed on my body for the rest of my life. The tattoo artist did not speak much English, so it was left primarily to faith that he could come up with some attractive design. If pain is weakness leaving the body, then I am a much stronger man after getting a tattoo. He spent an hour and a half drawing the design with a marker and then three and a half hours making it permanent with the needle. The design is interesting and takes up most of my upper left arm, although it is just barely hidden by the sleeves of most of my t-shirts. Although there are parts of the design that I would change, I like the idea that the tattoo is an original work of art and that it reflects the traditional design elements of this particular group of islands. The challenge will be keeping that part of my arm out of the sun and away from salt water for the next week, not the easiest task on a sailboat in the tropics. After completing the tattoo, the tattoo artist ushered Anna, Shannon, Peter, Jesse, and I up through the hills to his home above town. He proceeded to give each boat about 50 bananas and 50 lemons from the trees around his house. His yard also contained a large number of coconuts, mangoes, and other potential food hanging nearby, making it evident that his family is able to live very comfortably off of the land. Besides which, it is hard to imagine a more beautiful place to live. Wishing to see more of the charming island, on Friday afternoon we moved several miles north to a small bay surrounded by rocky cliffs, a long sand beach, and densely populated with palm trees. Further commending the anchorage was the privacy since we had the entire bay between Geodesic and us. Saturday was a relaxing day spent reading and fishing. Despite several hours of trying to catch dinner, we failed to land any respectable fish. Instead, we slowly baked under the hot sun and lamented the fact that we could not go for a refreshing swim to cool off because of the tattoos. In the evening, the salon of Audentes was converted into a full-to-capacity cinema and we enjoyed a showing of “Rushmore” followed by sitting around and talking until the wee hours (11:00 pm). On Sunday, we bid farewell to Geodesic as they are clearing out of the Marquesas and heading south for the Tuomotu islands. Meanwhile, Anna and I are heading north to Nuku Hiva, the most developed island in the Marquesas. The passage is roughly 90 miles and we hope to arrive on Monday. If Nuku Hiva is anything like Hiva Oa and Tahuatu, then we expect to enjoy our visit immensely. It has been nice to be reunited with the friendly sailors of Geodesic and we hope that our paths will cross elsewhere in the Pacific. After two weeks on these idyllic islands, it is now apparent why the expensive and inconvenient bond is necessary for French Polynesia: otherwise, no one would ever leave.

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