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Thursday, August 16, 2012

In the Middle of the Pacific!!!

 Saturday, August 11

Up bright and early, bags packed and repacked, breakfast eaten (baguette and cheese, of course) and we headed off to board the Aranui at 8am. We were grateful to Beni, our hotel host for providing transportation. Although we left one suitcase at Hotel Suisse, no one could accuse Jim and I of travelling light.
As we departed Beni’s van, there on a high deck were Barb and John Hurst. It was a bit of déjà vu because we last saw them a year ago in Reykjavik, Iceland and they greeted us from the deck of a cruise ship that time too.
Before many minutes passed, Sue and David and Jim and I were onboard the Aranui and hugs were shared all round. Following the necessary check-in procedure, we went straight to our cabins and were delighted in the size, the design, the cleanliness and the fact that we have narrow French doors that open to the outside. Ahhh, fresh air and great views. We wandered the ship a bit and all ended up in Susan and David’s cabin where the conversation was a bit congested as we all tried to talk at once.
We were also able to watch the final preparations for sailing. Since the Aranui is a combination freighter and cruise ship, we were most interested in watching the loading of the cargo using two very large cranes that are visibie from David and Susan’s cabin. Small boats, a front end loader and even a jeep were lifted on board and lowered into the hold of this ship.
Passengers were all invited to a welcome reception on the deck above the pool and treated to a presentation by a Polynesian drum and dance troupe. Tattoos abound on the scantily clad bodies of both men and women. Native costumes featured grass, flowers and shells as adornments.
And finally we set sail!! A pilot guided us through the busy Papeete harbor and left us we entered the Pacific Ocean. We sailed past Moorea, our home last week, and soon left land behind.
Lunch was served and if this meal is any indication, we are going to be very happy with the quality and variety of the food we will eat.
Events of the day included a safety drill in which we all tried on our lifevests and learned the procedure for fire, lifeboats and medical emergencies. I was pleased to not their commitment to safety on board this ship. There was some time in the afternoon to get settled and unpacked. Jim and I even had a few minutes for a nap on our ‘new bed’. And just before dinner, Jorge, one of th cruise employees, made a presentation about Life on Board the Aranui, followed by describing the plans for tomorrow. We were going to trave through open water all through the night and disembark at Fakarava Island, one of many islands in the Tuamotu Islands. It was going to be exciting to go ashore and explore this tiny and remote island when we arrived.

Sunday, August 12
When dark fell last night, we were in open water with not a speck of land within sight. We travelled all through the night and were thrilled to wake up to the view of Fakarava Island right out our window. This island was formed millions of years ago by and underwater volcano that erupted. Over time the caldera of the volcano has filled with water and is now a lagoon surrounded by tiny strips of land with occasional breaks through which ships can pass. The mountaintop has disappeared and the island itself is less than 1/2 kilometer wide. As global warming continues and water levels in oceans and lakes rise, this island and others in the Tuamotu archipalego are in geat danger of disappearing back into the sea forever.
After breakfast, we disembarked the Aranui by tender and had about 2 hours to explore the landscape of the island. The others in our group decided on a longer walk to the lighthouse but Jim and I preferred to remain close to town. We located the school, the administrative buildings, a small market and the post office. All these services were within a two block radius from the peer. We admired the beautiful flowers in private gardens and took pictures of the array of coconut palms. Dried coconut meat and coire, the exterior shell of a coconut which can be transformed into sturdy carpets and other products.
We walked across the island to see the ocean view, We were struck by the enormity of this body of water and really how little land is within it. The beach in this area is strewn with old coral pieces which made for interesting picture-taking.
We explored an old cemetery, came upon what appears to be a crumbling memorial.
We returned to the lagoon shore and wandered through the little market that had been set up expressly for us, the cruise passengers. Seashell jewellery was abundant and some of it was actually quite striking. Black pearls were abundant with several vendors offering their pearls. There are at least three black pearl fams in the island lagoon. Lots of pearls are produced there although the highest quality pearls are sold for export..
We walked down the paved road to the Catholic Church about 30 minutes before the service was to begin. Worshippers had already started to gather and beautiful music poured out of the church and filled the air with song. As on other south Pacific islands, the residents of Fakarava could produce 4 part harmony music without benefit of a musical score. It was beautiful to listen to.
All too soon our time of Fakarava was over and we tendered back to the ship. It had been an early morning and we were back on board and on our way again by about 10 am. It was already a hot day so a cool swim in the fresh water on board pool was very refreshing indeed.
The rest of this day was unstructured for the most part as the ship continued its journey north toward the Marquesas Islands, our next destination. It is a long way because we will be travelling for 2 days and 2 nights before we arrive at our next island.
Lunch and dinner were delicious; my afternoon nap luxurious; and the Polynesian dance lesson just plain fun. I look forward to another lesson tomorrow.

Monday, August 13
This was our day at sea. The Marquesas Islands are a l – o – n – g  way from Fakarava and even further from Tahiti. It is difficult to imagine living in such a remote location with so few people around and no where to go, even for a weekend. Many of these small islands do not even have an airport and are totally dependent on the Aranui and other watercraft to transport goods to them or to take the off the island to get anywhere else. This lifestyle takes isolation to a whole new level. More about that in later journal entries though.

I have to say right away that the size of the Pacific Ocean is absolutely amazing and humbling. We have already travelled for 36 hours at a fair speed across calm waters and we are still at least 10 hours from our destination. And along the way we have seen not a single spot of land!

After breakfast this morning, Victoria , an archeologist with specific knowledge about French Polynesian history and culture, presented an introductory lecture for the Aranui passengers. While much of what she spoke about was a bit dry (it will be more meaningful once we have seen the islands), the statistics she shared about the size of French Polynesia and its land mass were startling. For instance, the entire land mass of all the islands in French Polynesia, if compressed together, would fit in a space about 1/3 the size of the state of Connecticut. You probably do not even have to look at a map to realize just how small an area that would be. And the area of the Pacific that they occupy is less than 10 % of the entire ocean. I walked around our ship today marveling at how small we are in this vast body of water and how we are trusting our captain and crew to get us safely to our destinations. Early explorers were indeed brave souls as they headed out in wooden ships with little navigational knowledge, save the sun and stars, to seek destinations they had only heard about. What high risk voyages those were and how remarkable it was that any of them were successful.

After the archeology lecture, I chose to go for another swim in the pool on board.  Others in our group participated in a hat weaving workshop, in which long tropical leaves are used to create fresh green headwear. It is said that a Polynesian person can create one of these hats in less than 10 minutes with one hand tied behind their back. Watching the non-Polynesians take on the challenge of learning this craft made me very happy that I was floating in the lovely pool water under the blue sky with not a care in the world. As I got out of the pool and sat on the ship’s deck to dry off, I did take note of some pretty peculiar hats that had been created. I guess it does take some practice to create a thing of beauty.

Lunch, another delicious meal, was followed by a second presentation, this one given by the cruise director who provided very detailed information about the excursions that we will have available as we visit a number of the Marquesan islands. Once again, a great deal of detailed information was shared without much context. Each day will take on its own character as we visit the islands that were described.

Tomorrow we will visit Nuku Hiva, the first of the Marquesas Islands that we will visit. A hike, a jeep ride and a delicious-sounding lunch all lie ahead.

There was a moment this afternoon when we wondered if we were going to make it safely to land (kind of ironic given that I was thinking about the perils of earlier journeys this very morning). Our group of 6 was sitting in a cabin enjoying a beverage of choice when the ship seemed to change direction and then simply stopped moving forward. The engine was ominously silent. As we watched through the cabin windows, checking David’s compass to ensure that our sense of direction was accurate, the captain made an announcement throughout the ship. All announcements are first made in French, followed by English. Sometimes we can decipher the French and sometimes not. This time we understood that there was a problem and that the captain hoped to have it solved and be underway in about 15 minutes. During the English announcement did not add a single detail to that information.

So, we calmly drank our beverages and reflected about being afloat in the midst of this vast ocean. Since no alarm was sounded, we held firm to the stance that all would be well. Really, what other choice did we have? In due course, about fifteen minutes later, the engine started again and the captain corrected the direction of the ship and we continued on our journey. However, we were asked if we would mind rescheduling our trip to the bridge of the ship to another day. 

Following dinner and our emerging practice of moving to the lounge for a cup of tea after each meal, Barb and Sue and I made our way to the video room on A Deck to participate in our second Polynesian dance class. The young man who is instructing the class makes it all look so easy – just move your hips but not your shoulders, move your arms so they tell a story (he demonstrates) and then put it all to music. No problem!!! But it is gracious dancing (at least, the way he does it) and it is also lots of fun.

Today the clocks moved ahead by 30 minutes so tomorrow morning will start even earlier. 6:30 breakfast and 7 am disembarkaction. I guess it is time to close our eyes to another day and gently roll side to side into slumber.

Night, all.

Tuesday, August 14

At last we can see land!! The island we will visit today is called Nuku Hiva, one of the Outer Marquesan Islands approximately 1400 kilometres north of Tahiti. We slept much better last night, having become accustomed to the gentle rocking and rolling of the ship as it travels. So we were ready to go exploring!

We landed at the peer at Taiohae which was bustling with activity. The Aranui not only brings passengers to support the tourist trade but it also brings cargo for the residents. It seemed like every vehicle on the island was at the peer. Some of the residents were there to collect cargo; some were there to distribute merchandise from large shipping containers; some were there simply to watch the action (or so it seemed) and some were there to collect the Aranui passengers and take them to town.
There were really two options to get to the centre of town, about 2 kilometres from the peer. One was to walk along the coastal road and the other was to ride in a very quaint school bus. We opted for the school bus which was a long bus with open windows with 3 long boards for seating. One board was attached to each side of the bus and the third formed a bench right down the middle. By the time we got onto the bus, the only space available was on the middle bench. The roads in Taiohae were not in good repair and the bus lurched from pothole to pothole as it made its way toward town. My right hand became very well acquainted with a gentleman’s right knee as a means of remaining on the seat rather than landing on the floor.

In Taiohae, we were able to visit the small fruit and vegetable market and the larger handicraft market before commencing on our tour of the island. I was thrilled to find fresh local bananas in the market and have been enjoying them in our room ever since.

We then joined Hursts and Morgans and crowded into a 6 passenger jeep as a means of transport for the rest of the day. It was quite a parade of jeeps that travelled through the countryside carrying the Aranui passengers from place to place.

The topography is mountainous and the population is sparse on this island. The roads were rugged and narrow, meandering up and up and up the mountainsides requiring treacherous hairpin turns and tight curves around corners with plunging cliffsides. We asked our driver how often the roads got repaired and his immediate and emphatic response was, “Jamais!” “Never!” We all laughed …. And held onto the armrests even more tightly!

Our first stop was the ruins of an ancient indigenous village, Tohua Kamuihei. It saddened us to learn that most of the history of this place was lost due to one European governor who, during his tenure on this island, banished all native culture and language.  By the time, he was replaced and the next leader reversed that attitude, much memory was lost and there is no written language record. Nonetheless, archeologists have done a great job of researching the site and restoring at least some of it to its original form. Large signboards describe the process of restoration and provide detailed information about the customs of the village. One significant feature of this place is an enormous banyan tree, with a circumference of 60 metres and a diameter of 15 metres. It was magnificent. The earth below the tree served as a perfect platform for a dance presentation by some local Nuku Hivan men. Their deep voices and their rigorous dance routines were magical to watch.

Our next stop was the village of Baignade. It only took 45 minutes by jeep to reach the village that was less than 10 kilometres away. More hairpin turns, treacherous curves and steep slopes punctuated the trip. We were rewarded with breathtaking views and many Kodak moments along the way
Baignade is a tiny village, literally located at the end of the road. A pleasant black sand beach is an attractive feature for bathers. And Chez Yvonne is the restaurant known throughout the Marquesan Islands for its delicious local fare. Yvonne is a 70-ish year old woman who established the restaurant many years ago. She has also become the mayor of this part of the island and her work in that capacity are quite evident in the quality of the town road, the street lights, the park benches etc.

Chez Yvonne had prepared a traditional feast for us. We tasted taro, wild banana, red banana, two forms of breadfruit, poisson cru (raw tuna salad – delicious!!) and smoked pork which had been prepared by cooking 3 young pigs in an underearth oven. No one left the table hungry!!

After lunch, we relaxed for a short while in front of the beach before heading back across the treacherous roads to rejoin our ship. We had a more communicative driver on the way back and he was quite happy to indulge our questions (even if they were stated in poor French). We made a pretty good effort in understanding the answers and generally enjoyed the journey a great deal.

A swim when back on board took the dust and heat away and we settled in for a relaxing Bloody Caesar (yes – Jim and I brought all the necessary ingredients to share this Canadian treat with our Australian friends), another delicious ship dinner and our now habitual cup of tea in the lounge.

Another early start awaits us tomorrow so it was early to bed.

Wednesday, August 15

Overnight, the Aranui transported us to another Marquesan island, this time Ua Huka Island. The entire population of the island is 570 people. It is quite tiny but a totally different landscape than yesterday’s well forested Nuku Hiva. Ua Huka is a dry island with quite a barren landscape. Like other nearby islands, it was formed from a volcano but rather than a crater in the middle, on Ua Huka, there is a large flat plateau. Dry grass covers the landscape with few other natural plants. Throughout French Polynesia, people take great pride in their homes and gardens so there are some beautiful gardens, brilliant with blossoms around homes.
We were also happy to see some animals and birds on this island. Horses and goats roam freely throughout the landscape. And roosters and chickens, of course.
As we found yesterday, the dock at Vaipae, where we landed, was bustling with activity. There was a delicious smelling barbeque underway and many people were purchasing take-away packages of meat, noodles and vegetables. Cargo from the ship had been brought to shore and distribution was underway. And, of course, 200 cruise passengers and enough jeeps to transport us around the island also added to the party-like atmosphere.

We were to sort ourselves into groups of 4 and hop into a jeep. One of the drivers stood out in the crowd, an attractive, tall, slim transvestite. I decided immediately that we could have an interesting day on the island and in the jeep, so we rounded up 2 other passengers (New Zealanders) and climbed into her vehicle. She introduced herself as Vicky and soon proved herself to be a very competent driver and a great conversationalist. She was patient with my broken French and we managed to have several good conversations as the day progressed. I enjoyed her company enough to have a photo taken along the way.

Upon leaving the peer, our first stop today was the village of Vaipae. A few neatly maintained homes, a town office complex, a handicraft shop and a wonderful little museum was the main part of the town. Upon our arrival, we were each given a necklace made of local seeds. And a group of local people shared some of their dances and music with us. Of course, we delighted in browsing the handicrafts. But the museum was the best thing in town. It was filled with local artifacts that told the story of life across the ages in Ua Huka. Replicas of boats, fish hooks, cooking tools, containers, housing, weapons etc were displayed in a tiny building. It was difficult to move around in the crowd yet totally fascinating to look at the items on display.

Following our visit to Vaipae, we travelled by jeep with Vicky to a botanical garden. It has one of the largest collections of tropical fruit trees anywhere in the world. It seems that the intent is to find fruits that will flourish in the dry climate of Ua Huka. Some have been very successful and others have not. Coconuts and bananas are prolific here and used as a staple in the local diet as well as for export.

Another jeep ride across the plateau took us to a breathtaking look-out over the ocean and then to another small town for lunch. Of course, before lunch we had the opportunity to explore their handicrafts and Jim and I did indulge ourselves a bit at this shop.

Lunch “Chex Celine Fournier” in Hane was a feast extraordinaire!! Local dishes prevailed …. Poisson cru, goat with vegetables, barbequed chicken, roasted pork and goat, red bananas, plantain, vegetable salad, and rice …. All served buffet style. What a feast!! The table was decorated with colourful flowers as usual. I was lovely and delicious too. (A side note is that Celine, the proprietor is our driver, Vicky’s. grandmother.)

After lunch, Vicky took us down to the local beach where a whale boat was waiting for us to return us to the Aranui. I am appreciating more and more the skill and confidence of the boatmen on this cruise as they support and guide nervous passengers up and down gangways and on and off tenders and whaleboats to get us to and from land. All I have to do is trust them ….. and they tell me they have not lost anyone yet. Just give them my hands and have faith!

A lovely late afternoon swim followed by an exquisite sunset accompanying drinks with friends has brought us to dinner time.

We shared dinner tonight with Daniel and Rachel, a young couple from Switzerland, who are celebrating their third anniversary aboard the Aranui. They are a remarkable young couple (he is a dentist and she is a doctor), fluent in at least 3 languages and skilled in all sorts of useful ways to make travelling fun. We had a lively conversation over dinner with an Australian couple, s New Zealand woman and Daniel and Rachel. The meal culminated with a Polynesian band serenading the table and giving them a beautiful chocolate anniversary cake.

Later this evening, a film about wood carving in the Marquesas Islands was shown in the lounge. We were disappointed to miss most of it because we were enjoying our dessert.

Another day has come to an end and a plan is already emerging for tomorrow.
Time to get some rest.

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