Ua Pou #1

Yesterday we sailed the 60+ miles from Tahuata to the island of Ua Pou, and thus from the southern group of three Marquesan islands to the northern group of three. Here, the BPO reps had arranged for two very full days of activities.

Today started with a “welcome” — each person presented with a bead necklace and a leaf necklace/drape, and an amazing spread of fruit. Mangos, pomplemousse, bananas, dried bananas, breadfruit chips, star fruit, pomegranite, guava, watermelon, and probably more that I have forgotten. We used noni leaves as plates, and “toothpicks” made of banana leaf spines to serve ourselves. We barely made a dent in it all. There was a time, maybe 40 years ago, when fruit was not cool here. The companies that were importing canned and other goods pushed their wares as better than the local foods (which they suggested were for the animals). The economic hard times within the past 10 years have led to a revival of local foods. Now the Marquesans are proud of having locally organically grown fruits, harvested ripe, with no preservatives — not like what is in our supermarkets in Maine!

We did a guided walk around town, from a local’s point of view. This island seems wealthy to me. The streets are good (in town, not up in the mountains); there are street lights; there is a hospital; there is a school and a new (and old) soccer field; there are horses; there are lots of 4WD cars; the houses look to be well built; everyone looks healthy and happy. Much of this is from French subsidy, as the infrastructure is done by the French administration, paid for with the taxes collected in France. Is there a poor part of town? Or people struggling to survive in the hills? If so, we saw no indication of either.

We stopped at an ancestral meeting place — a sort of village green with stone walls. Our guide described some of the activities that used to take place here. In particular she described the dance where the young men and women would meet and perhaps choose mates. The women, she said, would spend several days preparing in the hills, searching out fragrant flowers to use as perfume, especially, she said, “For their most intimate place.” She said at the dance the women would be in a circle, and the men would be inside the circle. With great animation (chuckling with macho-ness), she proceded to demonstrate the men’s dance. Squatting low and grunting and jumping from side to side, bobbing and swaying, and then bending low and sweeping upward she planted her face in one of our lady’s “most intimate places.” Thus if the man liked what he smelled, he might choose his mate. Kissing, by the way, was not part of the process. People kiss now, because they have seen it in movies or on TV.

One highlight on the tour was the Catholic church. It was big and beautiful. There are no stained glass windows. There are large openings aloft looking out on the amazing peaks of Uo Pou. You have to see them to believe them — what could be more spiritual!?

We’ve had several discussions about how/why the Marquesan paganism gave way to Catholicism, back in the 1800’s. According to today’s guide, the original Catholic missionaries were eaten. But the white man brought diseases, just like in other parts of the world, and a large portion of the Marquesan population died from them. That apparently was an indication that the white man’s God was more powerful than the many Marquesan gods, and the tribal chief converted. (One person told us that even now many Marquesans do not like to visit some of the old spiritual places, because they are afraid of the angry spirits of old lurking there.)

Next came a presentation about the history of breadfruit, including a breadfruit “creation myth.” (In a time of drought a father magically turned his body into a tree trunk, his limbs into tree limbs, and his head into the breadfruit, and so provided for his hungry family; and from this first tree all breadfruit trees have descended.) We saw how a sea shell could be used to skin the fruit, and we learned how to pound the cooked fruit into a “poi.” We also learned how to carry it out of the hills without bags, and how to bake the breadfruit whole. You can cook it pretty much any way you would cook a potato.

Then a huge lunch. Dishes we hadn’t had before included dried octopus and curried goat. Lots of breadfruit!

We had some boat-related distractions at that point. A French guy showed up asking who was the owner of a certain boat, and despite that person speaking no French he proceeded to yell at him at length about how he had anchored too close. While there may have been some basis for his upset, he was a jerk. (We’ve subsequently heard that other people have had bad experiences with this jerk, too.) But the crew went off to move their boat. At that point the cargo ship from Tahiti was seen to be approaching, and our boat had swung on its anchor such that it might be in their way. Off I go, too late to move out of their way (they got through with no problem), but nevertheless to set the stern anchor that we should have done originally. Hopefully we are now well out of their way if they leave before we do in the morning (which, it turns out, they did — uneventfully).

We had a chance to look at (and buy) local crafts. Many of the items were stone carvings made with “flower stone.” This is a reddish-brown stone that appears to have little flowers in it, that is unique to this one island. (A similar stone exists in one place in Brazil, but it is sufficiently different that Unesco deems the Ua Pou flower stone to be globally unique.) It was tempting to purchase a flower stone carving, but our next activity was to go to a beach to hunt for flower stone ourselves. I’m content with the little specimen that I found on the beach. However, I did buy a wooden Tiki after talking at length with the artist about the different types. The tiki I bought makes no rational sense, because it is a style from another island that we aren’t even visiting. But it “spoke to me,” and I now have it on the corner of my berth, and I smile whenever I see it.

Piling into three 4-wheel-drive vehicles (actually ALL vehicles here are 4WD — they have to be!), off we went to see some of the sights, hunt for flower stone on the beach, and visit an ancient partially-restored site. Beautiful, fun, educational, and exhausting.

I learned about the Marquesan creation myth. A male god and a female god traveled together, always over the sea. Until the female god said she wanted a home. So the male god started creating a house, which is the six Marquesan islands. Ua Pou is the upright pilars, another island is crossbeams, one is the roof, etc. Somehow in the process of doing this the gods lost their godly powers, and they became the world’s first people, in their Marquesan island home.

I asked our guide why he had no tattoos visible, and he lifted his shirt to show me his tats. (We’re told that tattooing originated in the Marquesas, and that “tattoo” is in fact a Marquesan word.) Our guide explained that a Marquesan tattoo tells your life story, using ancient symbols. It starts when a boy turns 15, and every 4 years the tattoo is expanded to tell the “next chapter” of the story. So his tattoo is a work in progress. He said that warriors of old would have tats telling of their conquests, and if you werethreatened by a warrior whose body tells the story of heroic deeds you might want to simply “obey” rather than confront the man! Women also get tattoos, but theirs are mostly done around their ears, their mouth, their nose, and in fact around every bodily orifice, to protect themselves from evil spirits. Recently some men have been getting tattoos around their ears, which our guide derided, saying those men are getting “girl tattoos.” He explained that Tahitian tats are very different (not as macho), but recently Tahitians have been copying the Marquesan tattoos, often without giving credit where credit is due. He says anyone is welcome to use the Marquesan symbols to do tattoos, but everyone should recognize that these are Marquesan. He was clearly fiercely proud of the heritage, and wants it to remain distinctly Marquesan.

We returned for a barbeque dinner on the beach. Now I need a day to recover, but no — we have another full day of activities planned for tomorrow!

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