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Published: January 24th 2016
Jan 22, 2016 The Marquesas Islands
Probably you have never heard of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, but it was one of the most famous islands of Polynesia in the 19th century. It is where the hero of Herman Melville’s first novel, Typee, jumped ship and had many adventures and a famous love affair. There were two tribes, the noble Happar along the coast, at war with the cannibal Typees of the interior. The love interest was a beautiful Hippar child of nature, quite racy and naked for 1846, and it was an instant best seller. Some people consider it better than Moby Dick. Melville lived on Nuku Hiva for about 28 days, a very long time compared to the three hours we have scheduled.
Nuku Hiva could have been ours. It was claimed for the United States in 1813 by a U.S. Navy Captain, who built a fort and renamed the port village as Madisonville. But President Madison and the Congress never acted on his claim; no doubt on some fine point of American-French relations during the War of 1812. So the French slurped it up in 1843, along with the rest of French Polynesia.
One other island of the Marquesas is known for something. It is Hiva Oa, where Paul Gauguin is buried. I always thought he died in Tahiti, but that is apparently a simplification of his story. More later.
The Marquesas are twelve high volcanic islands, eight days from Panama; the first islands one encounters. They are relatively close, and you can almost see one from another. They are steep and rocky and black, with few good anchorages. Six are so hard to land on that they remain uninhabited to this day, and the six others have only a few places where you can get ashore safely. The total population is about 7000. Our ship will stand well away from the rocks, in the caldera of an ancient volcano which is today open to the sea on one side. The remaining interior side provides a relatively gentle slope for a town named Taiohae (pronounce all the vowels; no diphthongs). A tender takes us from the middle of the caldera to a short concrete dock, a ten minute ride. The water is murky with plankton; between that and some unpredictable sharks, there is no diving. Then we ride, in a caravan of various conveyances, to see all the notable sights of the island. It takes about two hours.
While the French bureaucrats were deciding whether to let us onshore (they had to make sure we were not a plague ship) we performed an unexpected maneuver. Ms. Amsterdam turned 180º in place, ready to head out to sea again, presumably by the use of heretofore secret underwater jets. The transfer from ship to tender to shore was all very easy, designed for those who can barely walk.
There are two roads on the island, well paved and wide enough for cars to pass. One goes around the island along the shore; the other goes switchbacking up the side of the caldera and down into a central valley, then across to the opposite side. We took the switchback. The vegetation is very lush and jungly, and the road up is lined with small farms, each a house and garden with various animals. We saw a lot of horses, some beef cattle (no dairy cattle), innumerable chickens, a herd of goats, one pig, and lots of dogs. There were loads of flowers and fruit trees, some banana trees. And then of course there are the fishing boats in the harbor. The island seems to feed itself, except for milk and crunchy snacks like potato chips.
As we started down the outside of the caldera, a little stream began to form, very clear and pure runoff from the rain in the jungle. We followed it all the way to the bottom, as it became bigger and bigger. We passed the place where Melville had stayed, no longer standing but well remembered. This valley is called Taipivai. Vai means water, and Taipi is the modern spelling of Typee. So now you know how to pronounce Typee; it is Type-ee, not Tippie. Melville’s most provocative scene takes place on a “circular lake, about 300 yards across, in the Typee-water”. I asked if we could see the lake. There is no lake, our driver replied. But she knew exactly where Melvile stayed in 1842.
The stream is called Ho’oami, and it swells continually as it descends. Finally we began to cross it, back and forth, on a series of submerged concrete causeways, each forming a little pond upstream of the causeway. At the last one, the biggest one, just before it fell into the estuary, two Polynesian girls were having a swim on the deeper, upstream side. Along the estuary there was a shed with free samples of the local fruits and lots of homemade jewelry for sale, mostly of carved wood and black and red berries that served a beads. I bought Carol a fine necklace of these beads.
On the way back, and I swear this is the unadulterated truth, the girls had been joined by three more, and they had all gone topless in that crystalline jungle stream. As we splashed across the causeway, we waved at them and they waved back, having a fine time. So I’m telling you, Melville’s and Gauguin’s Polynesia is still here, just out of sight of the missionaries. You have to believe me; I never thought about my cursed camera at the moment.*
Nuku Hiva is an island paradise, though to live here would be about as bad a life sentence. Out in the forest, there are many ancient remains of a much larger population: platforms to make a level place, and toppled and mutilated stone statues called tikis. They are tabu to the natives, and we were not shown any. I greatly regret that; it is the only thing I really wanted to see. It is said that the stonework is as good as the Maya’s, but with a much smaller audience it will probably never be restored like some of the Maya pyramids. These big level platforms are the first stage of pyramid building.
Back on board, we are sailing for the Tuamotu Islands, one more sea day away, a very remote place. We will stop at the port of Avatoru on the island of Rangiroa, where there is a very pristine reef with snorkeling and diving for those who know how, and a glass bottom boat for those who don’t. The only Tuamotu island you could possibly have heard of is Moruroa, which the French pulverized and made uninhabitable forever by exploding over 160 nuclear bombs before the test ban treaty. It is way at the other end of the Tuamotus from Rangiroa.
*Gauguin liked Polynesian girls about 13 or 14 years old. I have to admit, these girls might have been a bit too young for him. But still, every word I say is the absolute truth: We saw Polynesian maidens bathing topless in a pristine jungle stream.
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