Saturday, June 17, 2006

June 8, Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas

Atuona is one of three places in the Marquesas where boats entering French Polynesia can check into the country. I chose Atuona, the furthest windward of the three, so most of my sailing will be down wind. When we arrived May 30, about 10 boats occupied the anchorage, most with their yellow "Q" (quarantine) flags flying, signifying that they had yet to complete the formalities of entering the country.

I soon learned why there were so many. I rowed the dinghy ashore with boat papers to present to the gendarmerie, a couple kilometers from the anchorage. I started walking down the road and when a vehicle passed I turned and waved. Sure enough, they stopped and took me to town! Turns out that everybody who does have a vehicle, mostly small pickups, gives rides. It's cheap and easy, maybe the only thing that is cheap in French Polynesia. The gendarme required a bond to be posted at a bank in the amount of a first class plane ticket to the United States before I could check in. So to the bank I went. They didn't accept the types of credit card I had.

All women wear a flower behind an ear. Most men are heavily tattooed. They pay no particular attention to foreigners though they are certainly courteous and helpful. Getting back to the boat without completing formalities did not put a damper on our celebration of arrival. An American from the boat next to us dropped by and joined the party.

On the 31st I started to get culture shock. I looked around and everything was different. I wasn't happy about it. We talked of boat chores to do but had little motivation.

On the 1st of June I tried to check in again with a different strategy, using an agent to circumvent the bond requirement. For a fee the agent would essentially guarantee that I would get out of the country before my three months were up and in a medical emergency would fly away instead of using the local health care facilities. But it all takes time so we had to stay in Atuona instead of heading for a more exotic anchorage on the other side of the island. We did manage to get some boat chores done, including an ascent to the top of the mast, always at the top of my "fun things to do" list.

On the 2nd of June we started to meet other cruisers in the anchorage. This helped my feelings of culture shock immensely. A couple of guys came over with some fish called wahu that they had caught the day before arriving. They gave us a couple steaks which we BBQ'ed that evening. Meaty and delicious! And we finally managed to check into the country.

The next day I saw Alec off to the air strip on the island. We walked with his bags through the rain (it rains a lot) to the cross road where he thumbed a ride to the air strip, twenty minutes away. Feeling a little lonely and lost I walked back to the landing where a cruiser was talking to a local. I stopped and found out the cruiser is from Quebec so speaks both French and English. The local spoke French so we had a translator. Turned out the local guy is a musician and told us about a get together with food, music and dance. He wasn't clear about the time.

I went back to the boat and collected a pile of laundry to do by hand at the facility at the landing. It is no more than a water faucet and a tile bench but it's free and clean. I must confess I have never attempted laundry by hand before. There was nothing comic about it; I got all wet and the clothes got clean, I guess. A note on being wet. My first day here I was very particular about not getting wet. I stayed in when it rained. I stood under a tree if I was caught out. I used a towel to dry off after bathing. It didn't take but a few days to get over all of that. At this point I don't really notice how wet I am. I'm always wet to one degree or another. It's warm and that makes all the difference.

I finished hanging out the laundry, festooning the boat with a month's worth. It was mid-afternoon and I thought maybe the festival I had heard about was starting. I got a ride into town and started looking around for some action. A teenage boy found me. He wanted to try out his English so we sat on a stone wall for an hour talking about this and that. He had a very expressive face, putting his features in patterns that one would not see in the US. Some of his expressions reminded me distinctly of carved facial features on poles or jewelry I have seen here in the Marquesas. Not so surprising, I suppose, though it was striking to me. I asked him about the festival and he told me it was called a "quelmes."

Armed with that information I wandered around town, stopping and hanging out with whoever happened to extend a greeting. Finally after dark I found the location. It turned out to be a benefit fund raiser for the building of a church in town. It was all strictly local talent. The dance was hula in a Marquisian style, fast hip shaking, less studied movements than one might see in Hawaii. There was one dance by young men. The five of them were total hunks and danced a very aggressive, warrior style. They were accompanied by a couple of drummers. The women and girls danced to recorded music.

That's Atuona, a town of 1500. Seems as though everybody knows everybody, or are related to everyone in sight. Not much happens as far as production. It appears as though the French government supports the people. The bank is packed on Tuesdays with people cashing checks. Everything is very expensive, about twice or three times US prices. The baguettes are baked fresh daily. The vegetation is lush, very lush. A rainbow appeared one morning that was so bright the second bow was as bright as any rainbow I've seen in Seattle. At the landing are a passel of outrigger canoes. These are sleek fiberglass numbers that look like brightly colored racing shells. They are rowed by the town's males, from 8 years old and up. It's serious exercise and I imagine they feel a sense of tradition in the activity.

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