Sunday, August 03, 2008

Dispatch 39 Les Tuamotus

July 5 - July 30
the Marquises, traveling south by southwest there is a patch called “The Dangerous Archipelago” on the charts otherwise known as Les Tuamotus. These were once volcanic islands that have slowly sunk. Reef grew along their edges and as the island sinks, the reef remains, so, today, there is reef surrounding a large lagoon. On the north side of most of these reefs, islands or motus have been built up made of coral/sand and lots of palm trees. On the windward side where the sea waves crash on the reef, there is only reef and the water pours in over at high tide. The lagoon fills and the water finds its way back to the sea by way of passes located around the atoll. Most of the atolls have one or two of these passes, others none. These passes through the reef, if large and deep enough, provide access for sailboats to the inner lagoon where the waters are often still and beautiful.

It is difficult to describe the colors once inside the lagoons as they are brighter than a Kodachrome world. If you’ve ever used that Microsoft screen saver called “Azul” with the sailboat and the desert isle, that’s close to the look. The water is clear at times for at least 50 feet of depth and is swimming pool color in the shallows. The beach is bright white, the palm trees bright green, the sky bright blue, etc. You get the picture. We were intimidated by the pass entrance into the lagoons as it is important to go in at slack tide. The first pass we attempted was luckily on the leeward side of the atoll (away from the waves) so we did not have crashing waves to distract us. As we approached a couple hours before slack tide (calculations based on moonrise and moonset), we found a very familiar scene and relaxed a little. We’ve done this before, often in kayaks—it’s called dealing with currents in the Pacific Northwest. Good, we watched, read the water, entering just before slack and it was no problem. So those of you in the NW enjoy those well published tide and current tables.

Then came the fun. What we don’t have in the NW are coral heads most of which are not charted nor marked by pilons. In some of the atolls, once you’re away from the villages, you’re navigating in “uncharted waters”, listed on the chartplotter by large white areas. Navigation is done using your eyes to differentiate depth and obstacles by water color, at least you can when the sun is overhead. And the water is loaded with obstacles. From 100 foot depth, coral heads will rise to the surface and just break the water at low tide creating a color change and water change. If you’re not looking, they can wreck your boat! We had the stupidity to transit almost 20 miles of uncharted lagoon as the sun went from high noon to dusk and learned how hard it is to see without the high sun and with the sun in your eyes. Luckily we got away with hitting nothing but it was nerve wracking to say the least. Our destination that afternoon was a place that was idyllic. We parked the boat behind a reef that extended from shore about ½ to ¾ of a mile but once around it, it protected us from the wind waves and provided us with hours of fascinating snorkeling. It was beautiful. The reefs are in shallow water with beautiful tropical fish (our friends called it aquarium snorkeling) and gorgeous coral in which are embedded huge clams with gorgeous colorful membranes. The only difference from an aquarium was the black tip reef sharks and they were everywhere, even sometimes in two feet of water when we first walked in from the beach. They’re small and harmless though and the whole experience was incredible. Sigh.

These atolls often have settlements/villages on the islands along the edges. Again, the people are subsidized by the French government so they appear to live pretty comfortable lives, albeit incredibly remote from the rest of the world. The supply boat comes twice/month, and, at one island, we watched them unload a bunch of bikes, probably fuel in 50 gallon drums, food and, basically, everything the island people would need. The people drive new cars on the brief stretches of road that exist (we’re talking very little amount of road in these villages), they have satellite dishes for television, cell phones, nice clothing. The only similarity to the tiny villages on islands in Panama, as best we could tell were the mangy dogs. The grocery stores carry a wide assortment of junk food as well as staples and then some very French surprises. Would you expect to find Brie, Camembert, excellent saucisson, fine French wine, gourmet tea biscuits, baguettes at your neighborhood 7-11?

We settled on one atoll, Kauehi, for the 14 July celebration—that’s Bastille Day, the French independence day, but the islanders don’t seem to know that so we referred to it as Quatorze Julliet (14th of July). The celebrations are much like we experience in the US over the fourth of July and we enjoyed being in a very small town. The normal population of this town is around 200 people and, for the celebration and because the older kids come back from school in Papeete for the winter holiday, there were 370 people there. We met the mayor who encouraged us to stay. We met a visiting priest who travels among the islands and happened to be there the weekend before the holiday. He brought a friend from Papeete, a farmer who spoke with the people about trying to compost so they could enrich the soil and grow vegetables and fruit trees. And we met the traveling medic who was on this island for a couple months and would leave for another island soon.

We were invited to the Saturday night church service. Most of the islanders are Catholic. The service is conducted in French and Tahitian and the hymns are also sung in both languages. The singing in French Polynesia is sublime. The whole congregation sings and all singing is done in at least 4 part harmony. I don’t know how they do it, when in their lives they learn it, but it is just beautiful. After the mass we were invited to the church luncheon the next day, and we decided to attend. We were seated at the “visiting dignitaries” table with the priest, the farmer and the medic (sounds like the start of a joke according to my brother). They were all very warm, friendly and interesting people. The food was typical local food with poisson cru, pork stew (they told us it was pork, but they are well known to eat dog as well and I’m sure they wouldn’t have told us that), rice, pasta and taro (the carbohydrate triad). There was also a seafood dish that we both enjoyed. After we ate it we were told it was sea turtle. Well, we very well know that sea turtle is endangered, but we were assured that this is a delicacy they enjoy only 2 or 3 times/year and that the single turtle is prepared for the whole village. When in Rome…still, our consciences made us feel we should go to confession for eating turtle!

I had offered to see patients with the medic, mostly out of my own interest so that afternoon he showed us the infirmary. It was a nicely stocked little place. We looked in the clinic freezer expecting icepacks and found a large frozen lobster, however. Island life is a little different. The next day was the 14 July and there was a parade in the morning. All the kids and some of the adults got dressed in traditional costumes and did traditional dancing, the mayor gave a speech and it was over. After the parade I went to the clinic and saw 2 patients with the medic. One was a diabetic, apparently diabetes is very common among the population (as it is among all Pacific Islanders) and the diet doesn’t help. I was told by a nurse on another island that the problem is the villagers can’t afford the fruits and vegetables brought in from Tahiti as they’re very expensive. The farmer didn’t get much response to his talk about composting and growing your own, so I also think the people are rooted in their traditions and fruits and vegetables are not much a part of their diet where carbohydrates are. The “junk food” at the stores in these villages takes up a lot of shelf space and seems to sell very well despite its expense!

The afternoon was filled with town games. The playfield was the scene of the celebration. They started with javelins thrown at a coconut suspended on a pole about 20 feet in the air. It was amazing they hit that small a target in the first place but they hit it many times! First the men competed and then, I was pleased to see, the women stepped up and took their turn. Next was the copra preparation race. Copra is made from the coconuts—the meat is dried to be ready to be pressed for coconut oil. The men, in teams of two, axed coconuts in half (milk flying everywhere), then quickly carved out the meat from the shells. They had to bag the coconut in burlap sacks, pick up all the little pieces, neatly stack the shells and then they were done. The winners were the oldest guys who had done it the longest. Then they all went and helped the young guys who were way behind. I’m sure the copra will be sold—that is the major source of their livelihood. The women then took their turn at the copra race. The event the women did alone was palm frond weaving which was judged on quality, not on speed. Then the men did a race with coconuts tied to poles. In Tahiti they do “Men Carrying Fruit,” which, although it sounds a little Monty Python-ish, is nothing to sneeze at as we were told the fruit weighs 50 kg (110 lbs!). The young men ran with the coconuts on this island (Richard picked up one of the poles and was astonished at how heavy it was but not 50 kg) and they ran fast! Meanwhile, as at any July picnic, the children were organized into games of carrying eggs on spoons, burlap sack races, and tug of war. There were booths where the kids “fished” for prizes, a “disco” for the evening, food booths, everything on a very small scale though. It looked like the whole town had fun. We took pictures, printed some of them and presented them to the mayor the next day.

The mayor, the husband of the woman who runs the store (singular), also owns and runs a black pearl farm and offered to take us on a tour. He cut a colorful figure. When we first met him he was in shorts, shirtless, tattooed, with gold chains around his neck that would please a mafia kingpin and with a dive knife strapped to his calf. I suppose the dive knife was the equivalent of a gun in a holster for a western sheriff or something. Then he appeared at the parade as the paragon of propriety, long black pants, a long sleeved white shirt and the French tricolor draped over his shoulders but then went back to his usual “uniform” the rest of the time. He took us to his pearl farm where we watched technicians implant individually the graft and the nucleus in each oyster for the hopefully future pearl. Their oysters produce 4 pearls each, taking 12 months to do each one, and then they are no longer good to be used so they are eaten. We watched the technicians graft each oyster, the men cleaning and sorting the shells for the viable oysters, went out in the boat to watch them hang the oysters and then we ate some of the oysters at the end of the day. It was fascinating and the technician work is amazing.

Feeling we had exhausted the excitement in that town we moved on to Fakarava, a much “bigger” town of 1000 people. The infrastructure there is markedly better—more stores, several hotels and resorts, a few dive shops, excellent roads and, voila, internet! Fakarava is a tourist destination. There we did some e-mails, arranged airfare home and walked the streets. We met a couple from Tahiti who were there running a restaurant for the July celebration, (one month only), and, after a lovely dinner, I admired the wife’s black pearl bracelet whereupon she walked in the back and returned with 4 black pearls that she gave to me as a gift. We were speechless, but very pleased. We came back the next day with some crayons and pens for their daughter and spent some time chatting with them. Our last night there we went to a traditional dance presentation at a local snack shack. The owner’s 3 year old daughter unofficially started the entertainment as the musicians were doing introductory music by doing a solo spontaneous dance that was a real crowd pleaser. At one point when the musicians were taking too long a break between numbers, she stood watching them with hands on hips and even stamped her foot in frustration. A diva in the making! The initial presentation was a food tasting of various coconut preparations. Then a woman demonstrated about 12 different ways to tie a pareo to make various outfits—I was mesmerized as I have a pareo and wanted some alternative ways to wear it. Finally the dancing started. There were nine girls/women who danced to a combination of drum music during which they twitched their hips wildly and ukulele music where they danced in a more fluid way (like at luaus in Hawaii), likely telling stories with the hand motions. Either way, the men were drooling. It looked like an intense aerobic work-out judging from their wet-with-sweat bodies and rapid breathing. What a wonderful evening.

Our next adventure took us to Toau, a tiny settlement with a family of 10 people who have made a wonderful destination for cruisers. Alas, we had a headwind all the way there and ended up arriving just after dark with a much more exciting than desired entrance in 14 knots of wind, dark and swell. When we saw where we had arrived by the light of day in the morning, both of us were astonished that it all ended well, but we were assured by a friend on a boat inside the cul-de-sac that the entrance was well marked, as it was, and he held a buoy for us with a strong light from his dinghy and helped to tie us up.

Toau was enchanting. First, the family is lovely and generous. Valentine and Gaston offer dinner for any cruiser who arrives. Other members of the family run a set of bungalows that are clean and beautiful and there is a dive operation from this little motu as well. Testimonial to how kind the family is are the delightful and affectionate dogs. Whereas everywhere else we had been the dogs cower if you approach them and slink away in fear, these dogs are affectionate and obviously cared for pets. One large retriever actually swims ¼ mile across to another island and “fishes” along the way. He stands on coral heads and watches the fish swim by and whines if none of them are shallow enough for him to catch. The others accompany various cruisers on walks around the island. On our walk, I was “attacked” by a tiny furball of a puppy who wanted to play and jumped on my feet as I was standing admiring the bungalows. Awwww, can I keep him? They had also “rescued” a frigate bird who they were feeding until she was old enough to be independent. They feed one of the Napoleon wrasses (a fish!) each morning and he comes when he is called! And each of us got a chance to test the sharpness of their kitten’s teeth and claws as she attacked each one of us in turn over dinner from under the table.

I offered any medical advice that they needed and, as it happened, they were having a couple issues and I gave them medicine for those, in exchange for which, they made sure we had fresh fish for dinner that night! Lovely people. We love how the Polynesians laugh so easily. A German friend celebrated his birthday while we were all there and Valentine and Gaston put on a gorgeous feast. Gaston collected 20 lobsters from the nearby reef the night before and roasted them on the grill (using a satellite dish to deflect the wind—we couldn’t think of a better use for a satellite dish!) and Valentine prepared poisson cru, breaded baked fish, coconut bread, and a scrumptious birthday cake. They joined us for dinner en famille and we laughed a lot that night. The following night we all brought potluck dinner and helped Valentine in the kitchen including doing our own dishes. We loved every minute.

The snorkeling in this cul-de-sac is the best ever. In one outing we saw at least 15 new fish—the water is clear, the coral is beautiful and healthy. The family maintains some fish traps and, in one of them, we saw 3 reef sharks and several huge (5 foot long) Napolean wrasses. We were strongly encouraged away from one coral head by the 5 foot moray eel.

These islands have been absolutely enchanting and it is so hard to leave to hit the “big city” of Papeete, Tahiti, but the time has come to make preparations to leave French Polynesia. We plan to leave the boat here and return to the US for the storm season, this time for a much longer stretch, possibly as long as 8 months. That will give us a chance to vote in the Presidential elections at the very least!