Nineteen days of monotonous blue made our senses particularly sensitive. Or had we truly arrived in some sort of paradise, somewhere between Avatar’s surreal landscape and Gauguin’s tamed wilderness? Nature made itself feel all mighty with breathtaking vertical spires giving way to rolling hills, countless waterfalls, and an explosion of vegetation. Yet there was also an incredibly controlled and orderly aspect to this raw beauty. Was there a god with a green thumb keeping all this green so neat and the flowers blooming everywhere? An enormous stone tiki (Polynesian figure of a god) with voluptuous curves guarded the Bay of Virgins and extended an irresistible invitation to the village of Hanavave. In this idyllic place, we began to open our hearts to the fiercely proud and welcoming Marquesians.
The Marquesas call from deep inside: it is not the beaches (full of nonos- nasty sand flies) or waters (murky and full of dangerous sharks) that are appealing but the core of the islands, with each level sucking you further in. Whether it be a higher peak, or a hidden waterfall, there always seems to be something behind the clouds or the dense vegetation attracting you further in. The ancient villages used to be settled inland and the remains surge like lost treasures in the overgrown bush. Stumbling on petroglyphs, paepaes (stone platforms that used to be house foundations), tikis, and ancient burial sites in Hatiheu (Nuku Hiva) had our imagination running wild. At the base of a colossal banyan tree, tribes used to perform rituals before sacrificing people and throwing their remains in a trench dug up at the roots. Our guide explained that just a century ago, human eyes were considered to be an exquisite delicatessen . Just as I bent forward to look inside the hole where the “chosen one” was held captive, my attention switched to some gobbling sound in the trees- it was just a bunch of wild roosters but this mysterious island definitely kept me on my toes. Later I was startled by two wild horses peaking behind thick trunks. On another occasion, in Fatu Hiva, a simple hike turned into a mountain climb, and evolved into a goat hunt. Guided by our newfound Marquesian friend Sopi and his dogs, we followed the road out of the village of Hanavave to a path in the woods and across a river. All was easy and straightforward until a barefoot eight year old, took the lead and showed us the way up the steep slope of a mountain through a dense tropical forest. Luckily our kids were not with us and we held on tight to roots, foliage, and rocks to ascend the peak. It made me dizzy to witness the steepness of the slope and the height of the trees and vertical spires around us. Majestic banyan, mango, breadfruit, banana, papaya, cashew, pandanus and guava trees, to name just a few, offered their shade. At the top, the view was beyond belief: even higher mountain spires completely covered in virgin forests with waterfalls accentuating the vertical aspect of the landscape. Cutting through the thick ferns, Sopi caught a glimpse of a wild goat. He was determined to come down the mountain with the goat around his shoulders so his wife would prepare a savory coconut stew. Gonzalo was completely enthusiastic about the mission. Unfortunately for the poor animal, the blow in the head from a rock did not end her suffering, and they pursued her for a long time at the edge of an overhanging cliff where she kept escaping to unreachable peaks. Instead of a goat, Sopi carried down a trunk of banyan tree. The next day, he carefully striped the bark, pounded it flat, and turned it into a tapa cloth to be later adorned with native motifs and used for traditional costumes.
Marquesians live a rich life indulged in nature and tradition. They are proud to be from this beautiful land, hold on dearly to their past, and do not miss a chance to remind us that Marquesian men are the strongest. Women wear the emblematic gardenia flower (tiare) elegantly behind their ear or crowns of exotic flowers. Men follow the path of their ancestors by telling their story through tattoos all over their bodies (by the way, Gonzalo got tattooed-a band around his arm telling his story!). Both celebrate being Marquesian by rehearsing traditional dances every evening around sunset. Contrasting dramatically with the grace in “La Danse de l’oiseau”, danced solely by women, “La Danse du cochon”, danced by half-naked tattooed men, is a tribute to the strength of the tribal warriors. In the powerful “Danse de la fertilite” they stomp and roar their sexual superiority. In Taipivai (Nuku Hiva) at a “Danse du cochon”rehearsal, an elder commented that the blows and grunts performed by the younger men were weak and disappointing. They should come deep from the stomach and be so terrifying as to provoke the village dogs to growl back in fear. At one of these dances in Hakahau (Ua Pou), I was surprised to recognize behind this tribal warrior mask, the gentle artisan who had created a beautiful necklace out of seeds and shark vertebrates for me the day before. A stroll in Hanavave (Fatu Hiva) had us meet a dozen stone, wood, and bone carvers creating tikis, javelins, axes, and “casses-tetes” ( a weapon literally made to break the skull of the enemy) to the image of the ones used by their ancestors. In Taihoae (Nuku Hiva), we were lucky to see the beginning of a wedding ceremony. The couple, native from the village but living in France, had insisted in coming back home to be married the traditional way. To the sound of banging drums, the couple trotted down the road each on their own horse, accompanied by tattooed shirtless men screaming and riding Marquesian-style. The horses seemed wild and the men rode them without a saddle in a rough and extremely proud manner. Once again, the men asserted their physical strength and Marquesan identity.
Equally striking, was the friendliness and generosity of the Marquesans. From the smile on their faces to the never-forgotten “hello”, to the easy dialogue ending in a gift or an invitation, the Marquesans were open to connect. In the same way we were curious to know more about their culture, they had dozens of questions for us. There seemed to be a real interest from both sides. Many stepped out of their house to offer pomelos, lemons, papayas, guavas or bananas. Never did we end a conversation with a Marquesian without being offered something, whether it be a bread fruit, a bouquet of ylang ylang, or a twig of basil. Giving is deeply entrenched in their culture and we had to learn how to “receive” without reaching into our pockets instantaneously. In fact, in Fatu Hiva we were obliged to forget about our dollars, because nobody was interested in them. Instead, they were thrilled to receive earings, glasses, make-up or perfume in exchange for some fruit. We traded rope and walky talkies for a beautiful ebony sculpture of a tiki. Time and time again we were offered lifts when walking alongside a road or coming out of a store with heavy bags. I was profoundly moved by the service at Sunday Mass in Hanavave (Fatu Hiva). Although I could not understand what was said in Marquesian, the notes of the ukuleles, guitars and voices conveyed a message of peace and joy. The priest in shorts and flip-flops under his imposing long white robe was also a memorable detail!
We met a couple, Teiki and Hua, in Nuku Hiva that embodied perfectly the image we kept of the Marquesians. They live in a remote bay, full of manta rays, at the foot of a colossal cliff, where an impressive waterfall pours into a river that runs through a dense forest to the bay of Hakatea. Their humble house lays in the middle of a garden of Eden where fruits, hibiscus and bougainvillea grow like weeds. They have a good level of education, could have lived in a big town but choose to be farmers in this fertile land they cherish so. When we stumbled on them the first time, she was making Pani Pushi (coconut oil scented with sandalwood) and spontaneously shared with us her family recipe. He pounced out from nowhere half-naked and approached us in a determined stride. With half his face and body tattooed, a bone through his ear, his piercing black eyes, his severe facial expressions, and exaggerated gestural, we could have imagined he was a tribal warrior about to sacrifice one of us. But he put his arm around his wife and his words were kind. He invited us to check his “pig trap” on our way up the mountain to see if one had fallen in and promised a good roast if he had been lucky. He later picked guavas, lemons, pomelos, and bananas for us.
We have been blessed to share most of these unforgettable moments with our friends aboard “Zorba”. We met along the way, wonderful sailors with extraordinary stories inspiring us to keep on traveling. Coincidently many of them are Belgium! “Zorba” started their journey in the Seychelles at the same time as us and have documented their travels beautifully (http://be.nomads.be). Also, check out the website of “Sept a Vivre”, another Belgium family with five children who traveled in a converted army truck from Brussels to Cape Town before embarking on their catamaran (www.septavivre.be). Finally, our latest Belgium influence in the Pacific is Brel, who spent the last years of his life here and captured so vividly the spirit of the Marquesas: “…gemir n’est pas de mise, aux Marquises”…