July 15-29 2009 / South Pacific: French Polynesia, Cook Islands, and an Eclipse
In Which We see the Ravishing Water-and-Landscapes of Some South Pacific Islands, and Experience Our 8th Total Solar Eclipse
The flight is uneventful—some turbulence at one point, and the ocean, the big Pacific ocean, is mostly covered by clouds the whole way, but finally lights appear in the dark vastness, and we land in Tahiti. There is a polite European spatter of applause at the landing. We in the US never do that, but they seem to in Europe. Maybe we just have more faith that the thing will work, or something.
A lot of the eclipse people are on board, with their t shirts and their blue travel company bag tags, but we haven't worn our shirts, and don't really want to talk to any of them. By this time lots of people have done what we have done and it becomes a “can you top this” affair, which John particularly loathes.
It is so exciting to emerge into the first air of a new place! Intoxicating, wonderfully thrilling. Here it's meaty somehow, some faint scent of something heavily organic, and heavy with humidity. I can feel myself opening up. You love that, says John. Oh yes I sure do.
We walk across the tarmac into the small building and as we enter each one of us is given a single fragrant white flower by a tall pretty woman in a sarong. After a few moments of looking around at others, I put mine behind my ear. I see that the Polynesian men ornament themselves this way too, and even the little boys. How wonderful to be in a place where this is the appropriate thing to do.
Two hefty shining men with bare feet and blue sarongs play and sing for us as we wait in line, and I suddenly remember so long ago, on our way to Australia, stopping at this same airport in the earliest morning, and being greeted in this way, wondering that these musicians should come out so early. How I sat in the open-sided room in the pre-dawn, writing on my big old laptop, the jagged cut-out mountains on the horizon, with the pale blue sky behind them.
All works quickly, our pair of purple duffels is about second onto the carousel, we get through customs expeditiously, and trot through to the exit and open the door...
An enormous burst of scent rides the air, and there are flowers everywhere and on everyone. People with piles of leis around their necks, crowns of flowers. I am filled to swooning with delight! We find the group gathering place and before we are sent to the buses, each is given a lei of white and red flowers and cleverly folded leaves.
On the bus in the dark, the air fills slowly with laughter and scent. Two days later, here in our cabin, our leis now fading, I can still catch their intoxicating sweet fragrance.
And so to bed, and around 1 a.m., I hear the ship’s engines start and we move, and I sleep immediately, so very far from my home.
I have had no end of trouble with the company that runs this ship (as have many many others of us, to the point where in our final documents we received a long paragraph of apology from our travel company), with among other things the result that a shore excursion to some sacred sites on this island was not available to us. But at home, angry and frustrated, I did some research and found that perhaps we can visit these places on our own, renting bicycles. I am a little pleased about this because for once I want to do something of our own making. It is too easy just to go off on what’s on offer and not do your own thing.
We anchor offshore, and board tenders. When we disembark at the small dock, there's Le Truck to take us into the little town of Fare. The Le Truck is a kind of wrecked old open-sided vehicle with benches down both sides and the middle—it's pretty wrecked but it's ornamented with sprays of fresh leaves.
In town, something is going on—there are huge piles of some kind of roots, big brown thick things, arrayed on pallets of what looks like bamboo. People seem gathered for some event, because many of them are wearing white t shirts with a stylized image of these big roots, and something in the local language on it. There are big stems of bananas too, and women sitting around talking, while the men look over the collections of roots.
But I am anxious to try to find the bike rental place. We ask a pair of policemen. To my complete astonishment and chagrin, the first one does not speak English, and the second one only barely. Yes, girl, not EVERYBODY speaks your language! But he sends us off in the general direction I had thought was right, and shortly we find ourselves first in the local pharmacy, yes, it's just down the road, and then there we are at Europcar, and certainly we can rent a pair of bikes.
The bikes are pretty crummy, especially John’s, and of course I am very nervous about the road and how hilly it might be, but John encourages me, and it is only 6 km to where I want to go, so off we go.
I can do this! There is hardly any traffic, so even though the road is narrow it is okay, ‘cause it's not rutty either. We pedal past neat houses with flowers and laundry hung out, and your odd skinny dog lounging about and scratching itself. There are fires around, I don't know what people are burning but there's smoke here and there. It's humid and warm but not intolerable. I am so happy that I have made this happen, a long way from my computer in my office where I looked it all up and made a plan.
Yes, here's the lagoon we are to go by, just as on the map, and in a really short time, actually, we come to the museum of the marae, the sacred places. It's a large thatched oblong building just on the lagoon, and out in front are a bunch of men drumming, complex rhythms that make your body move.
It's $2 and take your shoes off to enter the museum, the floor of which is woven leaves. It's dark in here, and around the woven walls are glass cases each with a few objects—various carved wooden things, some big hooks carved of wood, some old photographs. The life of this place a hundred years ago. How startling and astonishing that people came to these tiny chunks of land so long ago, and are still here, and we are here too today.
The drummers continue almost without stopping. One of the museum attendants, a woman in a pretty long dress, gestures to a wooden bowl with some fruit pieces in it, to help ourselves. It's papaya, and it's sweet and juicy. There's an outrigger, only about 14” across and elegantly shaped. Here and there fresh fern fronds ornament the displays, and the glass cases have single red or white flowers laid on them artfully. Tokens of the world-apart-from-humans.
But I am anxious to find the trail in the woods that goes to the marae up the hill. I show her the map I have torn from my guidebook: Where is this? It seems to be right across the road from the museum. You want to go up the mountain? she says in some surprise (you are OLD!). Yes, we do. So she gestures across and down the street to where the trailhead will be. We can leave our bikes here, it's ok
Yes, yes, “hiking trail” the sign says. I can hardly bear the delight! Here's something I know how to do no matter where I am. We set out. The profusion of greens and forms of the tropics takes over our eyes. Fills them. It's humid and lushly fragrant. We pass by some vanilla plants (which I recognize from a movie on the plane coming over—thick smooth stems, almost vine-like). Roosters are heard. A dog or so.
Lizards slither and dart on the rocks and roots trailside. They are red and shining blue, or striped. We follow a side trail to a large marae overlooking the lagoon or perhaps that is the sea. The marae is basically a large rectangular low platform made of volcanic rock, flat on top, like a small terrace or plaza. There is a stele, a tall flat rock, standing up at one end, and a row of lower standing stones, perhaps backrests, says one source. The forest encloses all this. I take some pictures. The palm trees rise gracefully above it all, their lovely fronds waving in constant motion.
Marae were sacred open spaces, sometimes sacred to one deity, and used for religious or community purposes. This one would be a good one to come to, in its fine spot at the top of the hill, overlooking the water. I wonder if the people cleared the trees round about, to get a view of the ocean.
Here farther on is another big marae, but a huge banyan tree has encompassed one end of it, rising like an upside down waterfall of roots that spills onto the rocks so carefully placed so long ago. We follow what appears to be a little trail beyond it, but this peters out shortly and we turn to go back.
When we turn around, suddenly I see what I didn't see before: fabulous rich pink sprays of flowers, standing up from the green. I take their pictures and greet them. I sniff one, but no scent—mostly I think only the white flowers have scent. The flower I move to my nose is inhabited by thousands of tiny ants which now rush down the stem in fierce haste, another waterfall but this one in miniature.
And so we ride back into the small town, leave off our bikes, me feeling quite triumphant that I have figured this little expedition out and managed it. We look at the piles of tubers again, and I take some pictures. Back on the ship, we are told variously that they are taro or manioc. Or something else??
The Le Truck is stuffed with people going back to the pier for the tender. At the pier while we wait we look into the water and there are numerous gorgeous fish—electric blue, banded, spotted, and combinations thereof. Tomorrow we are to snorkel and I can't wait.
The socializing is difficult, John is so very unfond of it, and although I do my best, it is hard. There was a kind of fun thing in the early evening, a “block party” where when they sounded the horn, you all went out into your corridor and wine was served and you met the people around you. We are in the absolute basement (cheapest cabins) and there weren't that many of us, but I found it fun.
I am feeling pretty disoriented, lonely and estranged. But we managed, amazingly, to call our daughter from this isolated place halfway around the earth, and I was overjoyed to hear her voice.
OK, enough for now.