Getaway Guide: Travel The South Pacific Islands
For Masa Takei, a trip to the Remote Marquesas aboard a luxury freighter is both a step back in time and a jump into the present.
What I like most about the man’s getup is the human skull that he’s using as a handbag. “Sometimes they would put small stones in these skulls,” says Jorg, our lanky, ex-pat German guide, “and rattle them to scare their enemies.” He grins as he leans on a traditional U’u, an ornately carved ironwood war club, which is slightly taller than the woman standing closest to him.
Our group, representing a handful of nationalities from around the world, is huddled together in the one-room museum on Ua Huka, examining a 19th-century line drawing of a Marquesan warrior. The Polynesian man illustrated is covered neck to knees in ornate tribal tattoos; bones pierce his ears, and his shaved head is studded with two curled buns, which approximate horns. He and his colleagues routinely sacrificed and ate neighbouring villagers. Today, interpersonal relations on these Pacific islands are substantially less fraught.
Really, I should feel like I’m at home here. I too live on a remote archipelago in the Pacific. True, Haida Gwaii, off the north coast of British Columbia, is a hemisphere and over 7,000 kilometres away, but the Marquesas Islands are far away from everywhere. Situated about 1,400 kilometres northeast of Tahiti—as the frigate bird flies—they are the farthest group of islands from any continental land mass, making them the most remote islands on the planet.
And that’s part of the draw, to travel to the wild fringes in search of raw living. I had looked forward to seeing what I would find in this distant corner of French Polynesia, where people were still eating one another just a century ago. (“Ethnic food” had a drastically different meaning back then. By one account, a Marquesan cannibal reported that “a white woman’s forearm” was the tastiest cut of “long pig.”)
Like most people, I had to look the islands up on a map. There they were, a dozen specks of land adrift in the mind-blowing blue expanse of the South Pacific. That Spaniard Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira had “discovered” these islands in 1595 is a small miracle. The vibrant green apparition of Fatu Hiva, with its improbable basalt spires and super-saturated lushness, must have been a sight for scurvied eyes. The place is the archetypal rendering of a tropical island. Palm trees strike jaunty poses; aquamarine surf pounds black-sand beaches. Clouds catch and tear across the incisor ridges of the skyline.
I’m taking this all in from the deck of our own version of a galleon, the Aranui 3.
It’s midway through our two-week round-trip voyage from Tahiti’s capital, Papeete; I’m tagging along as the ship does its milk run through the islands. The only way to get to this particular island is by boat. Only four of the 12 Marquesan islands have airports. The vessel we ride is a descendant of the islanders’ first regular connection to the outside world. The original Aranui was a torpedo boat bought by the Wong family for the purpose of trade back in the 1960s. Now, almost a half-century later and through a succession of ships, the business of freight and passengers has skewed in favour of human cargo. Nevertheless, it’s still a working boat rather than a cruise ship. It’s a floating mullet: cranes and business in the front, pool and party in the back. The 117-metre freighter comes 17 times a year bearing supplies: pallets of food, cubes of fuel, trucks, horses, outriggers and, for some, prospective husbands and wives.
While the heavily tattooed French Polynesian crew unload their cargo and load sacks of copra—the dried coconut that constitutes the chief export of this archipelago economy—we go ashore to explore, snorkel and work off the multi-course lunch. As we step on land, ebony-haired women in floral headgear and bright dresses hand each visitor a tropical flower, which we, by custom, place behind an ear (left for taken, right for single).
I see a couple of locals sitting on a low wall in conversation. The one in board shorts and a T-shirt looks up and greets me—kaoha. His friend, shirtless, whose torso looks like it’s been carved from local rosewood and etched with blue ink, remains impassive. Looking to make conversation, I ask—in my fractured French—the population of their town. Three hundred, he tells us. Further down, the thoroughfare we’re on turns into a caricature of a winding mountain road that climbs up and over to the other side of the island, where they say another three hundred Marquesans live.
My first thought is that dating here must be tough. I begin to ask him if it’s difficult here, but he cuts me short and says, emphatically, “Non.” It’s not difficult here, he says. Life is easy. Everything you need is here. He sweeps his arm across the steep slopes in front of him. This is our supermarket, he says. Mangoes, breadfruit and bananas for the plucking; feral goats and wild pigs to hunt. And from the ocean, giant trevally, parrotfish and skipjack to be hooked and speared. Everything you need you can pull directly out of the woods and the water. Waves included. (An 11-time world surf champion, Kelly Slater, made a special trip to surf the point outside this particular harbour.)
The picture that he paints is bewitching. He just reinforces all that I’ve seen and experienced so far. I consider the option of jumping ship here and living out the rest of my days in this apparent Eden. I close my eyes for a moment and breathe in again the savoury waft released by a pig baking amid banana leaves in an underground oven. I feel the blissful coolness, diving deeper into that luminous equatorial underwater scene, every bit as fantastic as the screen-saver images that taunt office workers worldwide. I taste the cool slabs of unbelievably fresh sashimi that grace our tables every time one of us meets with deep-sea fishing success. The heady exoticness, the lush plenty, the vibrant beauty is overwhelming. Could it really be as perfect and natural as it all seems?
I finish my question about dating. Yes, it can be difficult, he allows. But we go off-island to look around. And some people come here. Anyway, we have the Internet and date online. “You know, Facebook.”
Just a century from eating people to meeting them online. The Marquesas may still be remote and wild, but for how much longer?
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