The Times, 10th December 2011
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My wife and I have just spent two weeks on board a cargo ship called the Aranui. In a life-time of travel, this has been one of my most unforgettable experiences. Each month the Aranui steams some 800 miles across the South Pacific from Tahiti to a remote group of French Polynesian islands known as the Marquesas. There are six inhabited islands altogether and the Aranui is literally their lifeline to the outside world, bringing supplies of all kinds and picking up copra ( dried coconut) and noni fruit.
The ship also carries passengers on its two-week voyage, but this is not your typical cruise. The service on board was exceptional, and the level of comfort in terms of the accommodation provided was excellent. The food was superb – a combination of French and Tahitian cuisine. But from my point of view at least the unique selling point was the way we were able, at almost every moment of our stay, to make contact with the Marquesans themselves.
Because the monthly visit of the Aranui is the high point of their calendar, the islanders most often came down en masse to greet us at the dock as we moved from island to island. While half of them helped with the unloading, the other half entertained us with dance and song. Of course, there were purchases to be made at the stalls set up by the water’s edge and the income the islanders earn when the Aranui’s passengers buy the local offerings - predominantly pareos or sarongs, tapas (bark-cloth), or wood or stone carvings - is massively important to them. If France ever reduces the subsidies it pays to its overseas territories, these commercial transactions will become even more significant.
But what struck me more than anything was the sheer niceness, the overwhelming friendliness of the Marquesans. Did any of them ever grudge, I wondered, the hours they must have put in making the necklaces of shells or the garlands of flowers which they hung about our necks? They certainly didn’t seem to.
On the last Sunday of the voyage, we put in at Tahuata, the Marquesan island which in 1595 was first ‘discovered’ by the Spaniards. This same island was also the site of the first French settlement – in 1842. Catholic missionaries followed a few years later.
Along with several other passengers, and virtually the whole population of the village, I attended mass that morning in the tiny village of Vaitahu. The church itself was built a few years ago with funds provided by the Vatican. Brilliantly designed, it is a light airy structure. If your attention wanders, you can indeed lift up your eyes to the surrounding tree-covered hills. High above the altar there is a stained glass window of surpassing beauty depicting a Polynesian Madonna and Child.
There was a wonderful cheerfulness about the service that morning. The men wore their best pareos; the women all had flowers in their hair. Several of the Marquesans had brought drums and ukuleles. The congregation broke into song, or so it seemed to me, on every possible occasion. At the end of his sermon, the priest turned to us to us to apologize for not speaking English very well but he gave it a go anyway. “We do not know” he said, “what is the time and what is the day the Lord will come to take us, so the only thing we have to do is be prepared.”
Point taken, Holy Father, I murmured.
After the service, I spoke to the priest in person. The whole of the Marquesas, Father Buchin told me, was his parish. We were lucky that his visit to Tahuata that Sunday morning happened to coincide with ours.
Of course, the arrival of the Europeans in what is now French Polynesia was – to put it mildly - a mixed blessing. In the Marquesas, contact with the white man and the white man’s diseases – precipitated a population collapse. There were 100,000 people in the Marquesas in 1774; by 1921 there were only 1500. Even now, the population of the Marquesas is under 9000.
Inevitably there was a cultural collapse as well, as old traditions – including some ceremonial cannibalism! - were brusquely displaced. As we travelled from island to island, visiting one ancient site after another, the almost cataclysmic impact of European ‘civilization’ on the indigenous culture was only too apparent.
“Do you want to find an undiscovered tiki or petroglyph?” our guide asked us. “Just head off into the jungle and scratch around!”
In spite of the tsunami caused by the arrival of the Europeans, it seems to me that these delightful Marquesans have managed to retain – or at least to have reinvented - a strong cultural presence. On the fifth day of the voyage, the Aranui put in at Taiohae, a spectacular bay on Nuku Hiva, the largest and most populated of the islands. While cargo was loaded and unloaded, we rode in Jeeps up winding mountain roads to the Taipivai valley. With the possible exception of Easter Island, this must be one of the finest examples of Polynesian culture in the whole of the South Pacific. Though only a fraction of the site has been cleared, you are able to gain a clear impression of what must have been an immense archaeological complex.
For me the high point came when a group of Marquesans stood on a vast paepae (stone platform) in front of the biggest banyan tree I have ever seen to perform a ceremony known as the Pig Dance. How much of that dance was genuinely traditional, how much was newly invented wasn’t quite clear. And I never found out precisiely what the dance symbolized. But there was no doubting the enthusiasm with which it was performed.
On these islands the past merges with the present. In a dry spell recently, one of the giant banyan trees caught fire revealing the skulls and skeletons of Marquesans whose bodies, according to tradition, had been concealed among its roots.
When you are moving, as we did, from island to island on an almost daily basis, you tend to ask yourself, as Paul Gauguin did in one of his most famous paintings: “Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Well, on Hiva Oa, you can actually visit Paul Gauguin’s grave. Though his most productive period in the South Pacific was probably spent in Tahiti, Gauguin came back from Europe for return visit at the beginning of the 20th century and settled in the Marquesas. Giant though he was in artistic terms, you get the feeling, talking to the Marquesans, that Gauguin was a rather suspect character. He seduced the local girls, argued with the church and didn’t pay his bills.
Jacques Brel, the famous Belgian singer, also died and is buried in Hiva Oa. He is much more popular than Gauguin, at least among the Marquesans. He brought a plane with him when he came to live on the islands, a Beechcraft, which has been carefully restored and is on display in a specially-constructed hangar in Atuona village. During his lifetime Brel probably did more for the Marquesas than Gauguin did. He flew sick people to Papeete in his plane, for example. But I suspect it is the magic of Gauguin which, in terms of international visitors to the fascinating Marquesas, will in the long run prove to be the bigger draw.
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- Covering 800 miles over fourteen days with daily stops, discover the intoxicating beauty of these lush and untouched islands. Includes ample opportunity to swim and snorkel in these marine rich waters
Cruise French Polynesia and the Marquesas Islands, including six inhabited islands which are so remote that the Aranui III is their lifeline to the outside world, bringing supplies and picking up copra, dried coconut and noni fruit. There will be 14 stops, so you will have plenty of time to explore. Little has changed in these untouched islands, which have few roads or cars. Visitors are rare and very much welcomed by the friendly Polynesians. Visit mysterious jungle ruins, where you will see the largest tiki gods outside Easter Island, along with sacred ritual sites and enigmatic petroglyphs of birds, fish and sacred turtles carved on boulders. Retrace the escape route of Herman Melville who jumped his whaling ship here in 1842 a decade before he wrote Moby Dick. Well suited for those who like to travel at a leisurely pace to a tropical destination that is beyond the ordinary.
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The Polynesian domestic airline, Air Tahiti services 41 of the islands. There are daily flights from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands. ‘Air Tahiti Passes’ are also available which enable you to travel between several islands. For further information or to book visit www.airtahiti.aero or call + (689) 86 42 42
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