We saw the supply ships arrive early in the morning and dinghied to shore to watch the action. I think it’s unusual for both ships to arrive together but the dock crews know how to handle it. Everything comes in by ship and it’s fun to watch the unloading. There are supplies for the pensions and resorts, cases of beer, coke and bottled water; fuel for vehicles, stoves and generators; bags of cement and other building materials; a new motorbike for someone, and even topsoil for the gardens.
What we were waiting for were fruits and vegetables. About an hour after the ship arrived we walked to the little fruit stand and bought two zucchini, a cauliflower and a mango, for which we paid $15 but we were glad to get them and by afternoon there was very little left.
The women of the Tuamotus don’t have many opportunities to earn money, a talkative local lady told Diana and me. They help with the copra production and pearl farming but other than that they turn to shell work for extra money. They can sell in larger markets at events in Tahiti but mostly they offer their work at events like this.
The Marveilles du Lagon tent held table after table of shell garlands, necklaces, bracelets and earrings. I asked one woman where they find the shells and if they were from deep water or shallow. On the beach, she said, and she pantomimed pawing through the coral sand and picking out the tiny shells one at a time. Then she demonstrated punching a hole with a sharp awl and stringing them on monofilament. It’s a lot of work, she said. I could see that, and the work is beautiful.
I bought a pair of shell earrings, then when I saw a beautiful pair Diana bought I asked the craftswoman to make me some just like them. When I came back later she’d made two pair, so I bought them both, one for my sister.
One woman had pearls. I’d given up any hope of getting black pearls after we visited the boutiques run by the big pearl farms during our bike ride and found them to be priced way out of our budget. But here was a woman who had more reasonably priced pieces she made herself, necklaces, bracelets and the same pearl stud earrings I’d admired on the girls at the dance competition. Diana and I, and eventually many of the other women cruisers, returned again and again to this corner of the chapiteau to see what pieces she displayed that day. Are they top quality pearls? Perhaps not, but they’re beautiful nonetheless and if you’re close enough to see the flaws in my pearls, you’d better have a box of chocolates.
The best part is that I bought them directly from the person who cultured and harvested them and that’s more valuable to me than the finest grade any day.
We were most excited about the music and dance during Heiva, and we dinghied to shore well before the start time on the first evening of competition. We learned during the first few scheduled events that here in Fakarava things actually begin on time and sometimes even early if everyone’s ready to go. We took seats closest to where the musical group was set up and enjoyed watching the arrival of the crowd. There were two sections marked “reserved for VIPs” and we learned later that one of them was actually for cruisers and guests of the pensions and resorts. Our seats were better, though, front row, in full view of the judges’ table and surrounded by the delegations from Kauehi and Niau, a lively bunch of mostly teens armed with cell phones and iPads doing what teens everywhere do, taking selfies and texting. I noticed that all of the girls — all of them — wore black pearl stud earrings, and some even wore beautiful strands of black pearls around their necks. Hmmm. This bears looking into, I thought.
The evening event began with a welcome from the committee chairman and a prayer by the chaplain, then the mistress of ceremonies, the pretty barefoot Tahitian wife of the clinician who runs the medical station, introduced the first act, a percussion group from Fakarava. They entered to the accompaniment of the long, mournful tones of the conch shell, then kicked into magnificent drumming that I could have listened to for hours. They were followed by a singing group who had our seat mates dissolved into giggles during a song that, judging by the hip gyrations of the singer, must have been pretty randy, not that we could tell because it was sung in the local tongue.
And then came the main event. A stout woman wearing the traditional Mother Hubbard dress introduced a troupe of dancers and we think the theme was a wedding celebration but the French explanation went by too fast for me to grasp and our French-fluent friend Diana was sitting across the floor in the VIP section with the other cruisers and tourists. Accompanied by the drum and wood block group from earlier, along with a few other musicians, the dancers launched into a performance that took our breath away.
The women danced, then the men, then solo dancers, then the women and men gyrated together. It was a nonstop, exhilarating celebration of Paumotu culture and this beautiful village. The older woman who introduced them periodically wandered among the dancers, added occasional story commentary and sometimes even did the dance moves with them. Everyone exuded joy and we could tell the dances and gestures held deep meaning for them and we in the audience shared in their pleasure. Even the teens around us put their phones away and watched in rapt attention. We can’t imagine that any well-rehearsed and polished group in Tahiti could have delighted us more than the enchanting, rapturous spectacle this tiny community delivered.
We learned later, as the committee chairman gave us cruiser women frangipani leis, that until this year the town hadn’t done anything like this at all for Heiva. The dance leader is the school headmistress and it was through her force of will and the dedication of all the drummers, singers and dancers that the village re-discovered their cultural roots. In a community this small — 850 people on the entire atoll, and far fewer in Rotoava — it’s incredible that so many men and women rose to the occasion, and a credit to the headmistress for the high quality of the performances, costumes and set decorations. We feel privileged to have witnessed it, especially after we’d berated ourselves for not getting to Tahiti in time for The Big Event. Jack and I agree it’s one of the top experiences we’ve had so far on our journey, not just because it was so unexpected, but because it was that good.
Try this: get a bunch of coconuts, crack them open with an ax, dig out the meat from the shells and scoop it all into a gunny sack before the other guys. That’s the essence of the coconut husking contest, based on a skill nearly everyone in these islands has, given that their only cash crop is copra, the dried coconut meat. There were events for singles, doubles, women and men, and we cheered the competitors along with the locals.
I’ve been reading historical accounts of these islands in books downloaded from the Gutenberg Project and found a photo of coconut husking from 1919 that could have been from today, so little has changed, except that I can post this via satellite phone.
Bastille Day is the biggest holiday in France and it’s celebrated in all the French overseas territories, too. In Polynesia it’s the kickoff for weeks of traditional music, dance and athletic competitions called Heiva. Our cruiser friends kept telling us the dancing in Tahiti was not to be missed, but on our new Go Slow schedule we find ourselves in Fakarava instead of Tahiti for Heiva and we have no idea what to expect on an atoll with a population of about 850.
Fakarava invited delegations from two neighboring atolls to their Heiva and Bastille Day began with the two visiting groups parading to the event venue where much of the town was gathered for the opening ceremonies.
We sang the Marseillaise and with that, any connection to the French Revolution was dispensed with and it was all Polynesia from then on. The boys from Niau atoll did an enthusiastic haka, and the girls from Kauehi atoll performed a welcome hula. There were speeches and songs and the ribbon cutting on the Marvels of the Lagoon tent where women display and sell their pearl and shell work.
Bordering the soccer field temporary booths were erected for food vendors and at lunchtime spontaneous drumming and dancing broke out. Jack and I are reminded again how much we enjoy small-town life wherever we go. Everyone’s happy and friendly and delighted to have us visitors.
In the afternoon we watched pirogue races from Escape Velocity, and dinghied back to the venue after dinner for the big event, the contests for Miss Fakarava, Mister Fakarava and Miss Mama. That turned out to be great fun, our favorite event being the foliage dresses of the Miss Fakarava contest. The Mama contestants competed in the Mother Hubbard dresses early missionaries foisted on the Pacific Islanders to hide their beautiful naked bodies but I can tell you that when these women start to hula — which they do at the drop of a hat — no amount of gingham can hide the intent in those hips.
When each winner was announced the drums began and they all started dancing, even the person who brought out the winners’ sashes. Boom shakalakalaka. How do they do it!?!
We’re still in French Polynesia but the Tuamotus couldn’t be more different from the Marquesas, and it goes beyond the obvious geological differences. The people are different, for one thing. Marquesans are tall and strong; you can see how they got the reputation as fierce warriors. The Tuamotans are smaller, very gentle and friendly. I can only speculate that generations of vastly different diets accounts for the distinction but what do I know?
The Marquesans are hunter-gatherers. Their land is teeming with fruit and game, there for the taking. You couldn’t starve if you tried. Here in the Tuamotus there are coconuts and there are fish. Eating takes some effort and the diet, even with food being shipped in weekly, is much less varied.
We were struck immediately by how carefully planted and tended the tiny strip of land is. The ground can’t support big trees like breadfruit or mango, but this little village is green and bright with flowers at every turn. We rarely walk down the main road without seeing someone planting a seedling or tending the garden. The Marquesas are exuberant, wild, profuse; the Tuamotus are manicured, studied, tidy. At least this one is. I suppose we shouldn’t generalize on our first stop.
The art is different, too, as we saw immediately when we visited the church. Gone are the ubiquitous massive wood carvings of the Marquesas, replaced with elaborate and colorful shell work. This is the land of black pearls and the icons are adorned with what is most valuable to the parishioners.
The Internet has reached this little town of Rotoava but it doesn’t always work out in the anchorage so we walk about two kilometers to Fakarava Yacht Services, which is a young French couple who facilitate yachtie needs and offer wifi on their front porch for the cruisers. Everyone in the anchorage eventually ends up here to check email, order parts, or Skype home.
On Saturday we rented bikes from Yacht Services and pedaled the length of the paved road and some of the unpaved, too, some 20-25 miles all told. It was a gusty, squally day so that pedaling with the wind was a joy but the return against the 18 knot tradewind was brutal. It’s been a long time since we’ve biked and our legs were barely up to it, but it felt good and allowed us to visit the many pearl farm boutiques dotted along the lagoon. We admired the pearls but even directly from the source the pieces are out of our budget.
There are several dive resorts here in Rotoava, as well as a few restaurants with limited hours. We tried the Rotoava Grill, open for lunch only on weekends, and while there wasn’t anything for me to eat, Jack had mahi-mahi with frites and we both enjoyed the soft pastel palette of the lagoon and the babel of French, German, English and Tahitian that is our current soundtrack.
We apologize that the blog has been hacked. We’re working on it but in the meantime, the day has dawned sunny and breezy, and Jack and I will dinghy ashore soon to join in the parade and opening ceremonies for a week of festivities celebrating the storming of the Bastille. I can’t imagine anyone here cares much about the French Revolution, but hey, any excuse for a party, right?
As passages go it’s been easy-peazy as you go. Winds have been lighter than expected but threatening to clock around and become a “noserly”. Not good. The sea state has been good, for the Pacific, and with the new rig we can live with less than ten knots of wind over the beam. Slowly, but with a steady stately progress toward the Tuamotus. The problem is that timing the entrance into the lagoons is critical due to the incredible tidal currents that often run at over nine knots through the passes. On a good day Escape Velocity, with both engines gasping, may push her to seven knots which leaves Yours Truly going backwards with a two knot deficit, and it occurs to same, would it be sailorly to turn around and steer looking backwards over the stern, starting a whole new trend in yachting? Why not?
So with the breeze pinching toward “noserly” we dropped the slatting mainsail, cranked-up the iron genny in favor of a spot of motor-sailing and all those timing issues went away and EV looked good for our ten-o’clock morning appointment at the pass.
I opened one eye for a precautionary peek. It had been a chilly eighty-two degree midnight to morning watch for Yr. Humbl. Svt. so I was still covered with our “on watch blanket”. Yes, eighty-two is chilly to us. Just fifteen minutes ago I had set the watch timer to the endless grays of false dawn. In that short fifteen minute span our last morning at sea dawned with a spectacular 360 degree panorama of every shade of Excello Pastels in the box. Greenish turquoise butted-up against robin’s egg blue next to oranges, pinks, and purples of every shade and hue. Breathtaking, no matter which way I looked it was misty, filmy, Turneresque, Excello Pastels.
Soon eagle-eye Marce, fresh from six hours of off-watch sleep, spotted fringe on the horizon because just the tops of palm trees are about all you can see of these low lying Tuamotus. Gone are the days of spotting soaring mountain peaks forty miles away. For our first pass entrance we chose Passe Garuae, the Northern Pass at Fakarava, not known for giving stressed skippers much stress. At three quarters of a mile wide it features less current and fewer reefs and coral bommies to run into. In fact, the catamaran Full Circle, who are not circumnavigating, left the pass at the same time we entered.
Once inside the lagoon you are still not done because Fakarava lagoon is thirty miles long and ten miles wide, give or take, which means you can’t see the other side even when you’re inside. Six miles later we dropped the anchor right off the charming village of Rotoava. Quite a few yachts at anchor here with rumors of two boats with BBC and French film crews here to film the yearly grouper spawning, and, as you Escapees know, lacking that fishing gene, it still sounds impressive, but, well you know, I guess one man’s nature film is just another man’s fish porn.
The pass and lagoon are well marked in the French fashion and nobody does colonial islands better than the French. Charming village with black pearls in every shop, although M. says they just look like ball bearings without the stigma of low cost. Cheap date that M.
Excerpts From: Robert Louis Stevenson. “In the South Seas“
“FAKARAVA: AN ATOLL AT HAND
“By a little before noon we were running down the coast of our destination, Fakarava: the air very light, the sea near smooth; though still we were accompanied by a continuous murmur from the beach, like the sound of a distant train. The isle is of a huge longitude, the enclosed lagoon thirty miles by ten or twelve, and the coral tow-path, which they call the land, some eighty or ninety miles by (possibly) one furlong. That part by which we sailed was all raised; the underwood excellently green, the topping wood of coco-palms continuous—a mark, if I had known it, of man’s intervention. For once more, and once more unconsciously, we were within hail of fellow-creatures, and that vacant beach was but a pistol-shot from the capital city of the archipelago. But the life of an atoll, unless it be enclosed, passes wholly on the shores of the lagoon; it is there the villages are seated, there the canoes ply and are drawn up; and the beach of the ocean is a place accursed and deserted, the fit scene only for wizardry and shipwreck, and in the native belief a haunting ground of murderous spectres.” ……
“We were scarce well headed for the pass before all heads were craned over the rail. For the water, shoaling under our board, became changed in a moment to surprising hues of blue and grey; and in its transparency the coral branched and blossomed, and the fish of the inland sea cruised visibly below us, stained and striped, and even beaked like parrots. I have paid in my time to view many curiosities; never one so curious as that first sight over the ship’s rail in the lagoon of Fakarava. But let not the reader be deceived with hope. I have since entered, I suppose, some dozen atolls in different parts of the Pacific, and the experience has never been repeated. That exquisite hue and transparency of submarine day, and these shoals of rainbow fish, have not enraptured me again.”
The sail from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus is our first ocean passage since The Big One in March and April. It’s easy to become complacent — it’s only 500 miles, after all – – but we dutifully stowed, cooked, inspected, planned, topped up all manner of engine fluids, and filled and staged our “go bag,” the giant duffle holding all our important papers and valuables we’ll want in the event we need to abandon ship in a hurry. The weather looked good, mild steady winds for the first few days, then lighter breezes as we approach the atolls.
But of course it was not to be. We had a good sailing day, then no wind, then lumpy seas, then high winds, then no wind again. We went from sailing full and by — all sails up — to a triple-reefed mainsail. Sails up, sails down, sails up again. We’re now about 80 miles away from the pass through the fringing reef at Fakarava, which we must enter at slack tide with the sun high in the sky for maximum control and visibility, and we’ve had to start an engine to assist us because the wind dropped to 6 knots, not enough to get us there at the right time. If we miss the daylight slack tide we’ll have to stay outside the lagoon until the next day, so we don’t want to miss our first opportunity to drop the hook in calm water.
On the other hand, the weather is perfect, crystal blue skies with cotton-wool clouds, and today at least, flat seas. We had banana pancakes for breakfast with nutmeg syrup we bought in Grenada, and this afternoon cooled off with homemade mango and coconut popsicles. We’re both reading, occasionally discussing what to have for dinner, and I loaded a few movies on the iPad for tonight’s distraction during our overnight watches.
If all goes well we should be in sight of Fakarava at dawn, then we’ll watch and wait outside for the right moment to run the pass into the lagoon. This will be our first atoll and I’m nearly giddy with anticipation. These fragile reefs may be gone within a few generations if the sea level continues to rise. I feel privileged to be here.