Travel Writers: Maiden Voyage to the Marquesas Islands

by Rossana O’Brien

I have to admit the first time my friend suggested ‘sailing on a freighter ship to the Marquesas Islands’, the first thought that entered my head was “Must verify where in the hell that is on the map.” The name Marquesas evokes images of exotic lands but few people can name off the top of their head what part of the world these old, majestic sprouts of volcanic rock emerge from, yours included. And not being an avid fan of “Survivor”, one afternoon I Googled the name and found the ten speck of islands located about 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti in French Polynesia. Then I remembered something else – freighter ship. As a self-proclaimed landlubber who has never set foot on a passenger cruise-liner, the idea of sailing on a vessel, loaded with cargo, suddenly called to mind romantic images of the tramping days of Mark Twain and Herman Melville, who sailed off to mysterious lands in a bygone era. It didn’t take long to realize that I was hooked.

A semi-translucent moon hangs above the lagoon in downtown Papeete, Tahiti, competing with the bright lights reflecting from the hotels and restaurants near shore. A cool tropical breeze wafts by, sending the aroma of tiare from the lei around my neck gently to my nostrils. Intoxicated with this perfume, I stand on the deck of the Aranui 3, a passenger/freighter vessel, waiting to embark on her monthly voyage to the Marquesas Islands. Each month townspeople greet the coming of the Aranui (its name means ‘Big Highway’), which returns, like a faithful comrade, to bring bounty to the islands’ peoples and serves as the lifeblood of its commerce. 386 feet in length and weighing 3800 tons, the Aranui 3 is dwarfed by the other cruise ships lined along the quay, hulking behemoths that one of my fellow passengers aptly dubbed as ‘giant water slugs’. Ironically, I soon discovered, the rustic settings I imagined I’d be living in gave way to a rude awakening of passenger luxuries such as air conditioning, French wine and cuisine (including yummy pastries), washers and dryers, a DVD/movie room and even an on-board boutique. “C’est quoi?” Well, if this is going to be my first experience at sea, then “C’est la vie!” and “thank you, I think I will have another glass of Bordeaux”.

We are scheduled to make landfall around 6:30am in Ua Poa, the first island of the Marquesas, on the fifth day of our journey. Ua Poa is the most populated of the six islands that are inhabited and is known for its craggy peak,Oave, in a constant shroud of mist. I was excited for this moment, so I ran to port deck, armed with my old trusty AE-1 camera, to catch a glimpse of the island. I was not disappointed. The sunrise was peeking over the water’s horizon and against the crag of rock that would serve as our entrance point towards the lagoon, as an assembly of brooding clouds looms overhead. The shot I captured of this moment, would epitomize what I’d come to discover about the Marquesas – mysterious, wild, untouched, majestic – and something else. Was it a case of déjà vu, perhaps? I knew from my prior research that Paul Gauguin came to the Marquesas in 1901 and eventually died on the third island we would visit, Hiva Oa. Perhaps it was that same siren song that drew him to these lands that I felt now, a mixture of exhilaration, reverie, somber contemplation and familiarity. As far as virgin adventures go, this is turning out to be quite unique.

After a rather slippery landing on the dock, several of us embark on a two-mile hike to a vantage point overlooking the bay at Hakahau, a precursor to whet our appetites for a traditional lunch served at a local restaurant. After about 20 minutes of tramping up a muddy trail, we stop to admire the view atop a holy shrine. Imagine my surprise when the first thing I spied on the summit was not the outline of a crucifix but the distinctive shape of a satellite dish! Despite this obvious encroachment of modern Western civilization, my eyes swept across the landscape and became transfixed again to the natural wonder that is the Marquesas. It reminds me of a vintage calendar photo, unchanged by time. If you are impressed with the Hawaiian Islands, you will be in awe of the Marquesas due to its overwhelming sense of remoteness and unspoiled timeless beauty. Below the expanse of greenery, the Aranui 3 appears toy-like and the crew men even more out of proportion as I watch them unload the bundles of cargo for the welcoming villagers.

Back at sea level, we gather at a little town square to watch the local boys and girls perform traditional dances for us (‘les touristes’). Several village youngsters, dressed in Western clothing, eye me curiously. They must see hundreds of fair European-looking passengers each month during the Aranui’s visits. And yet, I am an anomaly amongst this motley crew of strangers. With my brown skin, straight dark hair, and Asian/Polynesian features, I appear physically ‘closer’ to these local people, as though, if asked to join in song and dance, I might somehow know the words, the movements, the stories of their ancient Polynesian ancestors. I wonder if I remind them of a long lost cousin – a dead relative? I suppose that isn’t so strange when you realize in the grand scheme of things, I probably do share bits and pieces of the same genetic makeup as these South Pacific islanders.

One precocious little boy approaches me with two sidekicks, speaking in half-French and half-Marquesan from what I can make out, eying the glass of wine in my hand (yes, the wine never seems to stop flowing around here, to the delight of the French passengers as well as yours truly). I wasn’t quite sure what he was asking me and shortly, a bystander, jokingly, asked me if the little fellow was asking me for a date. Seeing that the boy was probably no more than ten-years-old, I replied, “No, but I do think he wants me to buy him alcohol!” I knew underage drinking wasn’t confined to the Western nations but this is a little extreme!

Lunch at Rosalies‘, a local establishment, proved to be a welcome surprise, not just for the present opportunity to satisfy our hunger, but, for me, it was like a glimpse back in the past.

Now, me, I love to eat. And I eat a lot, for my small frame. It must be an unconscious remnant of the guilt instilled from my mother during our early immigrant days in the United States, “There are starving people in the Philippines so you better eat all your food!” They say smell is the human sense that is associated with memory. That’s partly correct. One mustn’t forget to mention her close cousin: taste. The taste of Marquesan cuisine reminds me of home, whether home in the present or home in the past. The succulent pork during our Ua Poa lunch, marinated in garlic and soy sauce (to create a rich dark brown sauce) transports me to holidays at my relatives’, eating adobo, a staple entrée on a Filipino table; the goat, cooked in a curry type sauce, brings back memories of an afternoon barbeque in our neighborhood in the Philippines, as I romp with other toddlers around our backyard, flanked with banana leaves and taro plants, the smell of smoke and roasting goat permeating the air; the bananas we would later eat inTahuata – caramelized, deliciously soggy with its slight burnt sugar taste – reminds me of my grade school years in Carson, California when mom would serve these as an afternoon snack on weekends. As I polished off my third plate of pork (washed down with a cold bottle of Hinano beer), I wondered if the others at my table thought my goofy smile was caused by an oncoming wave of food coma. I suppose unless you had a little bit of ‘native’ in you, you wouldn’t experience the same kind of amusement from these private musings.

And with that lingering thought in mind, we head back onboard the Aranui 3, which would be our home for the next eleven days, as we sail through the other islands of the Marquesas, stopping through the Tuamotos, and finally arriving back to Papeete. It will be a journey filled with breathtaking scenery, boisterous laughter, palpable pain (thanks to a horrific day suffering from an intestinal bug) and indescribable memorable moments. It didn’t take much for me to realize, as I look at the outline of Ua Poa against the fading light, that this voyage, my own maiden voyage, would leave an indelible mark on me and all my senses – in more ways than one.

Text & photos © Rossana O’Brien 2005, All Rights Reserved


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