Tag Archives: BPO

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!


Our friends in Vaitahu told us that there are both manta rays and dolphins at the next village/bay south, Hapatoni. They said it is a breeding ground for the dolphins, and they are there nearly every day. This morning we motored there (all of about 2 miles). The hills were very steep, and the water depth dropped off quickly. We anchored in about 40 feet, but it felt like we were almost on the rocks. And the wind coming down the hills kept changing direction, so sometimes it was blowing us toward the rocks. We not would want to spend a (sleepless) night like that, but Bill planned to remain aboard, so Tim and I felt safe going exploring in the dinghy. (Later we moved back to our first anchorage further north on Tahuata.)

We went out to the mouth of the bay, where we had seen some black shapes from a distance. But when we got there – nothing. So we headed further south along the coast. And what a coast! Hills more steep and rugged than we had seen, lava cliffs and gullies and chutes and seams down to the waves, caves and odd shapes carved into the lava walls by the sea. Atop the cliffs were shapes that looked like tikis, but I think they were just natural lava protrusions. Either way, the spiritual forces seemed strong and present here. We motored around a point to the southernmost bay on Tahuata (unnamed on our chart), and it seemed we had arrived in the Bay of Eden. Hills and valleys and coco palms and clouds spilling over the mountain tops and cliffs and caves and green and blue…and not one sign of humanity. Well, no, there were some hard-to-make-out letters painted on the rocks, perhaps the name of the place. But no huts, no boats, no buoys, no gardens, no clearings, no trash, no engines… I said to Tim, “If I were a dolphin, this is where I would come to mate.”

We went into the bay just to explore its edges – natural rock carvings; one cave in particular attracting our attention. And then as we turned to go, there were dolphins nearby. I slipped into the water, and there they were — looking up at me from 30 feet below, swimming up to the surface, and swimming away. There were maybe twenty. They mostly kept their distance, and calmly swam in several groups, though twice we saw individuals leap out of the water. We would come close to a group, and shortly after they would disappear. A minute later they would reappear 50 yards away. At one point they seemed to be swimming in a circle about 50 feet in diameter. Was that herding fish to the middle? Was it a defensive stance against us? Was it a way of relating to each other? Or was it just by chance? I don’t know what they were doing or thinking, but it was a treat to be in their midst, an honor to be allowed to view them for a little while in their Eden.


Late in the afternoon, after seeing the Manta rays, a small powerboat came to us. Aboard was a couple with a son, perhaps eight, and daughter, perhaps nine. We had our usual language barrier, but they indicated that they wanted a small amount of gas for their outboard, and they would trade a short stock of bananas for it. We syphoned at most a gallon out of our tank and into theirs. They indicated that tomorrow we should sail to their town of Vaitahu, only two miles away, and they would have more fruit for us. Tim communicated that he would buy ice cream for the kids.

So today we did. The bay off of Vaitahu is even more dramatic/beautiful than where we were before. There are three other sailboats in it, and room for fifty more. Fantastic rugged slopes crash down from the clouds to the sea, but they are lush green, with coconut palms in all the valleys, and a tiny village at the bottom.

Tim and I took the dinghy to the landing (where you hope a stern anchor will prevent damage on the sharp rocks in the swells), and stepped ashore. There was the boy from yesterday, and a man who said that the boy’s family had gone to pick grapefruit (pompelmous?) for us. Tim gave the boy a box of snack/energy bars. The boy didn’t seem to know what to make of that, but as we all walked toward town we apparently passed his house, because he scampered up a little hill and ducked inside, and reemerged with just one bar in his hand.

Initially we had no luck trying to communicate with the boy. But he understood ice cream, and he led us to the store (no sign on it). As we were buying his treat, his family showed up with a bag full of fruits and vegetables. We tried to discuss where best to see mantas, but communication was very difficult. Until Cameron showed up…

We had been told to look up Cameron. I assumed he was a local, but in fact he is a surfer dude from Hawaii, who has spent much of the past 20 years in Polynesia. He seemed to be friends with everyone, and we chatted at length about the goals of the Blue Planet Odyssey, and whether or not there is any direct evidence of sea level rise in the area. (He says no, even though he has no doubt it will be happening.)

I asked about Internet access in the town, and he said, “Here.” We got the wifi password and tried it out, but it was even slower than what we had found in Hiva Oa. Certainly not going to support uploading photos; barely supported email.

Cameron let us know that the store owner was inviting us to lunch across the street. We hesitated, because Bill was still aboard the boat, but we decided this was an opportunity not to be missed. It turned out that LOTS of people were invited to lunch, including the crews of the other 3 boats (one of which was Cameron’s). What an amazing spread! Ceviche, whole raw fish sliced so you could eat it off the bones (with coconut milk, it was explained to me), breadfruit in a goo like poi (in coconut milk), cooked bananas, rice, grilled chicken, sausage, olives, nuts, mangos…

Luckily we had brought along one of the soccer balls that we carry to give as gifts. With Cameron’s help we asked our host if we could give it to his son. He said to give it to “all the kids.” Cameron said this could be tricky, but he knew which kids we should present it to. By now the kids had run off to swim, but Cameron walked to the landing with us and explained the gift to the boys there. The gift was well received! We had some trepidation about soccer being played on the edge of the rocks, but as far as we could tell no one got hurt.

As Cameron said, we were in the right place at the right time to get a real Polynesian experience — and it was quite a treat for us! We even packed lunch “to go” for Bill, plus took two mangos to augment our bag of fresh fruits. Back at the boat we ate one of the grapefruit, which was without question the best I’ve ever had. I can’t help but wonder, can it get any better than this, or is this the best day of the entire circumnavigation!?