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Today was the first new place we will be visiting. We had been to Hawaii a few times, but never any of the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. It’s a tiny dot, and you really have to admire the ancient mariners who were able to move about this vast expanse. How did they first stumble upon it? Were there already people there? I do know that Herman Melville was here in 1846 and wrote Typee, a Peek at Polynesian Life, giving the world a look at life in the South Pacific. This lovely island also hosted Paul Gauguin, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London.
Today was our turn to visit, and we were really looking forward to our four-wheel drive excursion. Frankly it was the only excursion offered and there were four time slots – so the natives would not be overwhelmed by everyone all at once.
But first we had to get over there – by tender. Since our tour began at almost 3:00, we took advantage of the slow morning. I spent about half an hour in the pool with another passenger, as she taught me how to “cross-country swim” for water aerobics. Then it was off to lunch, pack up the backpack – including a towel – and off we went to the tender.
If you have ever done a tender, you will be able to visualize this. If not, let me explain. The lifeboats double as tenders for these shallow ports. They are maneuvered into place at a door on the lowest deck. At best, the water is fairly calm, and the two vessels match their roll and sway. At worst, the crew ultimately decide that it is too dangerous to allow passengers to board and they cancel all shore excursions. Today was not at the cancel level, but neither did we match. There were numerous crew members at the exterior stairs and at the door to be sure no one went into the water. You got “Wait… wait… okay,” as a hand was extended for you to take and step aboard. With luck, the timing is good and there is no gap. Otherwise, the boat rocks and you have to leap – not only distance but height. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Since no news was flashed, it is safe to say everyone who wanted to get aboard and to the island made it ashore.
The greeting we got was exactly what I had been missing from Hawaii (where there was no greeting at any port). Here, women were singing a welcome alternately between each other. A man welcomed us with a jasmine flower. Other young men were drumming, while one blew a greeting on a conch shell. Our basic research had told us that most islanders do not speak English, but they do speak French. Well, hey, Russell speaks French! I was really taken with the drummers and went over to talk to them. But at this, point Russell had gone off to take photos of the harbor. After establishing that indeed they only spoke French, I told them in my broken French that I would get my husband to help our communication. Okay, it was more like “My husband is over there; I will be right back.”
With Russell as interpreter, we were able to ask questions about their tattoos, the Tiki goddess and warrior statue. They asked us questions in return. They agreed to a photo, and had fun posing then looking at the photos.
Since we had time before the tour, we walked up to the Tiki Goddess and then down to the beach. I had worn my swim shorts, so I was able get thigh-high in the warm water. Russell headed back to get more photos of the town, and I laid a towel out on the sand and watched the tiny crabs scurrying along. The ship bobbed out in the harbor, the breeze was warm, and I was alone on my piece of paradise. I lasted exactly ten minutes when I suddenly realized that even though I put on sunscreen I might be getting a sunburn. I threw the towel over my shoulders like a cape and there it stayed for the rest of the tour.
Because there are no buses here, this tour was as a huge caravan of private four-wheel drive pickup trucks that could seat four guests and the driver. Every single passenger vehicle we saw on the island was the same make and model. The tour description was clear that the driver likely would not speak English; they were only the driver not the guide. It also indicated that the road might be rough. It also talked about steep drop offs. That last one worried me. As we were boarding the tender at the ship, people who were returning said it was hot and rough. Some even refused to go when they saw the trucks. So we were a bit concerned, but we were not going to cancel.
I have no idea why folks were concerned about the trucks. Every single one looked fine to me – nearly new. With windows rolled down, we headed out in a caravan of about a dozen trucks. This was just our group. There was still one group out and another right behind us. So, likely 50 or so trucks driving passengers on a set course. That means 50 drivers too. People come from all over the island on ship days to drive.
We all introduced ourselves, then Russell introduced our driver, Evelyn, to us. We were lucky to have her. She was able to answer questions along the way, and we got a bit of a feel for the area. The roads were perfectly fine – smooth and paved the whole way.
When we stopped at the archeological site, I went to take a photo of the carved lodge poles and Russell went to the farther sites. I met Maria. She was one of the other drivers, and again spoke very little English. She offered me a fresh whole mango and we got along very well, eating with juice dripping down our hands, laughing about how biting directly into mango gives you fibers in your teeth. We were able to communicate enough to have a nice chat; and when Russell returned it was even better. It was one of those magical moments that comes with person-to-person connections. Sadly, she does not have internet, so staying in contact is not possible.
Would I come back here? Yes! Every curve, every vista, every stop was an “Oh wow look at that!” moment. The people ae charming and welcoming. We barely scratched the surface. Even today the population is just about 3,000 people. When the really large ships come in – or there is more than one – it can nearly double the number of people on the island. There is no real infrastructure to support large groups. Our ship is less than 700 right now, not everyone went ashore, and still we crowded the port. Thankfully, I saw no one treating either the people or the town as if it was Disneyland there just for us.
As our tender was returning to the ship, I noticed a fully manned outrigger waiting at the mouth of the harbor. As we drew even, they started to pace us and followed very near beside or behind almost all the way to the ship. Just before we got to the ship, they broke off waving goodbye.
Nuku Hiva truly feels like Paradise Found.
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