Stick to the script

It turns out we’re spending more time in the Marquesas than we thought we would. We really haven’t sat down with a calendar to plan the rest of our sailing season so once in a while we pull our heads up out of the water and say, “Shit! We need to get moving!” Our original plan was to wait out the cyclone season — November to May — in New Zealand, and I guess that’s still our plan. What we didn’t factor in is how much we’d enjoy these islands and how nice it is to go at a slow pace, something we failed at miserably in the Caribbean. It’s a long way from here to New Zealand, and there’re still the Tuamotus to discover, and the Society Islands, not to mention the Cooks and Tonga. Four months to cover 3000 miles and scores of inviting islands and we know now why people who’ve passed this way before us say they wished they hadn’t raced across the Pacific.   

 We thought we would circumnavigate Nuku Hiva. Our guide books describe bay after beautiful bay with great snorkeling, hiking and archaeological sites. But the tick-tock of the cyclone season countdown led us to take an island tour in a van with Jocelyne to see the sights in one day that would take many days of sailing, anchoring, hiking, sailing, anchoring, hiking. 

We’d been told that with a full van load of eight the tour would cost 5000 francs, or about $50/per person. We only managed five, so we’d pay more per person but with a dwindling number of boats in the harbor we sucked it up and climbed onboard. As we left the dock, Jocelyne opened by pointing out the jail, the oldest building in town, and told us the prisoners spend all day outside in the garden, only going back to their cells at dinner time. 

Then it started to rain. Jocelyne stopped the van and asked if we could go the next day instead. Sure, we said, no problem. It’s better, she said, when the sun is shining. We were right near the hardware store so we asked her to drop us off there and we’d walk back.   

 We were marveling at what passes for hardware these days when Tim came in to retrieve us. We’re back on, he said, and we trundled back to the van. Jocelyne had called the restaurant to cancel our lunch reservation and they said it wasn’t raining on that side of the island, so off we went again. 

Our first stop was a stunning overlook over Taiohae Bay and Jocelyne gave us some background information on the town and the island.  

 Before our next stop the rain started again and it didn’t look like it would let up anytime soon. We’ll stop, said Jocelyne again. This time she meant it and she drove us back to town. 

By the next morning we’d recruited two more victims and when Jocelyne picked us up we found she’d also collected two more so we were nine altogether in an eight passenger van. We didn’t mind, though, because we understood that now we’d be paying less per person for the tour. 

Once again Jocelyne began by pointing out the jail, then took us to the first overlook. She told us her facts and figures of the town and the island, but only after we stood quietly at attention. If side conversations started she waited until everyone was quiet before she spoke.   

 At one point Jocelyne was telling us about the history of human sacrifice among the Marquesans and I asked how they chose the unfortunate victim. 

“This is not the place,” she snapped, and I shrank back with the embarrassment of an obedient student who’s angered the teacher. I wondered if we were standing on sacred ground and if it was taboo to even mention the unlucky winner.

But no. She literally meant this was not the place. We learned that Jocelyne’s tour is rigidly rehearsed — specific information at each stop — and she does not deviate from it one little bit.   

       And so it went. We drove, we stopped, we climbed out of the van and lined up while Jocelyne recited the next chapter of her treatise. She laboriously identified roadside plants, even after it became clear that our group had no more than a passing interest in them, and few of the plants were unfamiliar to cruisers sailing the tropics. Every question was pushed aside. She brooked no interruptions or deviations from the script. By the third stop we were feeling like first-graders and acting like them too, making faces behind her back when one of us got a dirty look for talking out of turn, or for asking for more information about a site.  

 On the plus side, the van was air-conditioned and it’s always nice to get to the beautiful overlooks without having to climb for hours. About an hour in, though, we thought we’d’ve been better off renting a car for the day and driving ourselves. Our tour with John on Hiva Oa covered virtually the same information on the culture of the Marquesans and we could easily have seen more of Nuku Hiva in a day on our own. 

We had lunch at Chez Yvonne, widely regarded as the best place to eat on the north side of the island. Everyone seemed to enjoy their food; I can’t comment because my vegetarian plate held yuca, breadfruit and some lettuce, filling but uninspired.

After lunch Jocelyne dumped the scraps in the stream behind the restaurant and within seconds five-foot long eels swam over the rocks to feed.  

 There were more stops and more dissertations and at the end of the tour Jocelyne told us the cost was 6000 francs per person, more than the quoted price for a full van load. When I protested she named the original price for only five passengers and told us she was giving us a discount. We were nine, overcrowded, I said. She wouldn’t budge. I didn’t want to make a scene but I felt terrible because I had arranged the tour and told our friends how much it would be. It ate at me all night and in the morning I emailed Jocelyne and asked her to refund us the difference. She wrote back unapologetic about overcharging but agreed to meet me on the dock and refund $5 per person, a meager gesture. 

“She’s not a people person,” Jack said and to that I say amen. It’s a good thing this beautiful island speaks for itself.  




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3 Responses to Stick to the script

  1. Jane DiCola

    Great read and pictures Marce! Yup, it’s unfortunate that one’s “Ambassadors” can be utterly clueless about hospitality. One might think it’s an””island ting,” but of course, it’s everywhere.

  2. basssears182587920

    Having chartered this spring in the Societies (don’t miss it and don’t let people tell you it’s horrible and expensive, it’s not if you’re on a boat!) we know that the local experience can be a crap shoot, just remember the good folks you met and move on from the the petty ones, they’re not worth your time and certainly not worth a lost night’s sleep!

    (But to try to save you more headache, if you want a tour you won’t regret we toured Huahine with Island Eco Tours and it was worth every franc, very knowledgeable and very friendly and not crooked like your experience).

    — Bass

    • I only felt bad because our friends got overcharged, and I definitely wanted to pass the word to others. That experience won’t ruin a thing for us because most people are wonderful, and we ARE finding French Polynesia quite expensive but think the Societies will be a bit more reasonable than here in the Marquesas.

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