Going Native In The Marquesas
Will a tiki tattoo make a better fisherman? Only time will tell.
By Duncan Gould
We didn’t clear in at the first island we visited in the Marquesas, which are part of French Polynesia. Unfortunately, the windwardmost and easiest to get to, Fatu Hiva, is not a port of entry—a port where new arrivals must declare themselves before proceeding anywhere else. Fortunately, the local gendarme took to heart the Chinese proverb “Heaven is high, and the emperor far away.” He was also building a boat at the time, and the newly arrived yachties were generous with old line and various types of cordage. But the arrival of the supply ship Aranui was imminent, and the gendarme didn’t want the Tahitian officials on board to see his flotilla of uncleared-in boats. He asked one day if we could all be so good as to not be there effective Friday. (I should mention that Tahuata is also not a port of entry, so we’d all remain on the outskirts of legality.)
Moose, our 39-foot steel cutter, had sailed up under Tahuata in the last half of the afternoon. The wind from Fatu Hiva had been on the quarter and had, almost reluctantly, built to a fresh breeze during the day. Cape Tehopeotekeho loomed up above us, ruddy and barren of vegetation. We cut the corner and headed north up what would soon be the leeward side. The wave patterns changed; we lost the short urgent sea, and the longer-period ground swell, over which the shorter sea was written, revealed itself. Ahead, the central ridge of the 7-mile-long island ran in a jagged scrawl northward. Clouds formed as the air was forced violently up the steep windward side and its trapped water vapor condensed.
The wind hooked around the corner too, and we were smugly enjoying a push to the north when, with a crash that would have woken the dead, we gybed. I should have seen the wind line on the water. The wind had come up over the 2,000-foot-high ridge, some of it becoming katabatic williwaws and the bulk of it running on westward, leaving a low-pressure area on the lee shore. Nature, of course, abhors a vacuum—which is why witches ride brooms—and into this vacuum raced a backing wind that had indeed backed us. Nothing was broken, so we got reorganized and pushed on up the coast, keeping a weather eye on that line, off to the left, where the water seemed to dance.
Irene and I chose an anchorage in the bay neighboring the village of Hapatoni and enjoyed a beautiful cocktail hour. As the sun set, shadows progressed up the cliffs until finally only the highest peaks were lit, and then all the colors softened into evening. The waves pulled small rocks up and down the beach, the wind blew easily, and up in the jungle feral cocks crowed. Moose lay stern-to, tucked close in.
Though the morning was warm and lush, the air had a sparkle. We surveyed Hapatoni’s new wharf from the dinghy. A lazy swell rose three or four feet up the side and then fell suddenly away—just the thing, I thought, for a memorable disembarking. We carry in our dinghy a small Danforth-type anchor on 30 feet of light double-braid line. To Irene’s displeasure, I swung this around my head and let it go to its full length. Then I pulled it tight until it took the bottom. Finally, I tied it to the dinghy’s stern so the bow could almost touch the seawall, but not close enough to get shredded. Irene looped the bow painter over a cleat on the wharf and pulled hard. When the boat came in and the swell was almost at its peak, she stepped ashore and looked back with a competitive gleam. I managed to follow without drama.
On the wharf several dozen blue plastic drums stood in a line. They were marked “Noni” and were awaiting pick-up by the Aranui. A very unlikely-looking fruit (it resembles a pale-green fragmentary grenade), it is an antioxidant and is used in many medicines, remedies, and cosmetics.
“Ka oha,” called a little girl who was sheltering into her mother’s skirt like a timid reef fish. They stood in the doorway of a house made of woven coconut-leaf panels. “Would you like to come in?” asked the woman. It was midmorning; the sun had just made it up over the ridge and was warming the shady corners of the village, and steam rose in the still air. I looked at Irene and we both smiled, “Oui, merci.” Inside the house it was cool. The stone floor was swept, and breakfast dishes dried beside the sink. Did we want coffee, no thank you, but water would be fine, and did we come for the dancing, which would be tomorrow when the Aranui arrives, but the children practice today, and so on. She showed us bowls and a lethal-looking spear her husband had carved, hoping to sell them to the tourists that would come, along with the cargo, tomorrow.
The only street of this village of a dozen houses was made of cobblestones, elevated in some places as much as ten feet and literally old beyond knowledge. It ran along the water, past the canoe house where old men sat talking, past an archaeological restoration of the marae, the large stone platform that served as the community’s formal and spiritual center, and finally narrowed into a rocky path that climbed to a striking promontory, Pointe Matautu. In some Polynesian languages utu means repayment or revenge. Matautu had a sinister air, like something very unpleasant had happened here, and that mood was not lightened by a high Christian cross. It was greatly at odds with the village spirit; we climbed quietly back down.
At some spots along this old road, stone walls terrace up on the landward side, and it was over the top of one of these that half a dozen young Polynesian women appeared, with hibiscus in their hair and tiare, the fragrant gardenia of these islands, behind each ear. Behind these young beauties in folkloric costume, and sounding a far more somber note—for all of his six years—came a warrior, bare-chested and wearing a breechcloth, his head crowned in plaited leaves. The girls giggled at us, and he scowled down from his rampart. These were the members of the dance troupe. Behind them, with guitars and trunklike drums stood several ladies of the village—massive, cigarettes elegantly dangling, and wearing tent-sized floral dresses. We entered this open-sided community center. “Did you come here by boat?” asked an artisan, arranging her wares for the Aranui people.
Somehow, and I’m not really sure how, the question of tattoos arose among the several boats that were anchored at Tahuata. It was from Polynesia, of course, that tattooing reached English and European shores, coming in on decorated sailors as early as Captain Cook’s voyages in the 1770s. The art of tattooing reached its culmination in the Marquesas, where certain priests and nobles were tattooed over their entire bodies, including eyelids and tongues. Tattooing is painful, even when it’s not being done in the traditional manner by tapping a shark’s tooth repeatedly into the skin prior to inking. Part of the original rite was the passage through the pain, the other part being the totemic, protective value of the symbols. Facial tattoos also made warriors more frightening.
Tattooing frequently falls along well-defined socioeconomic lines, but in our little fleet there was a groundswell of opinion that it would be a pity to be here and not get tattooed. Thus eight people agreed to present themselves to Fati, in Baie Vaitahu, the next indentation along the coast, to receive a Marquesan tattoo.
Fati was large-boned and well-fleshed in the way of most Polynesian men. He wore his black hair in a topknot and spoke French, Marquesan, and just enough English to make this a fairly alarming proposition.
The wharf at Baie Vaitahu made the one at Hapatoni look like a day at the beach. This one was a mass of rounded slime-covered concrete, so full of iron reinforcing bars that it looked like a sea urchin and was fully awash. It was more a hazard to navigation than a wharf. I opted to land the dinghy on the black-sand beach, through surf that I hoped would be less formidable when we got into it than it appeared. Irene had on that face that surgeons use when they say, “It’s out of our hands now.”
I studied the incoming breakers. There was no soft spot I could see, no pattern. They just crashed in, ran high up the sand and shingle, and rattled back in a stony backwash. But this shouldn’t be insurmountable; I’d read many stories in which timing and courage had won the day in such circumstances.
And so I (courageously) put the dinghy up to speed on the back of a wave and kept riding in, just behind its break. All was going well and we were sitting in a frothy sort of backdraft, just about to exit, when the dinghy rose a full four feet, surged ahead at a speed that could have no happy ending, and flipped craft and passengers sideways on the hard-packed sand. The motor was still on, in gear and somewhere above me; I could hear it through the foam. (Courage we had; it must have been the timing.) I hit the bottom hard, my right ear breaking my fall. The dinghy came down on top of me, and somehow in the midst of all these things, I thought that perhaps Irene was right, we really did not need a 10-foot dinghy. My ear was so packed with sand that it had to be washed out, and that, together with my unloading the pound or so of sand that had taken up residence in the attached underwear of my shorts, created something of a scene at the village spigot.
Fati had a kind and self-assured manner, an admirable trait in a tattooist, and by the time I arrived at the shed behind his pamplemousse tree, he was well into a stylized Marquesan whale on the back of Dave’s neck. I settled in to leaf through the magazines and photocopies that showed various birds, fish, and human forms, all in the spiderlike tattoo style of the Marquesas. It was hard to decide, but the dark-blue raccoon stripe across both eyes was probably out.
“Is it hurting, Dave?”
“Not really,” he replied through clenched teeth.
Fati’s cluster of needle tips buzzed away, in and out of Dave’s skin, and the whale took form. The work was excellent. Fati freehanded the entire drawing, and he had a clean, confident hand.
Ron twitched through the application of a bracelet of thin Marquesan male figures with big cartoon feet. Suzanne opted for a sea turtle, the size of a silver dollar, on her shoulder (where her mother was unlikely to see it.) Irene got a tiny cat. “Le chat marquesan,” offered Fati. Its whiskers point up and down, and it appears a friendly sort of cat.
A shop next door sold big, cold cans of Hinano, that most excellent Tahitian beer, and we soon had a fair party going. I was cold and still a bit gritty, but I knew what I wanted. I told Fati that I would like a tiki on my back, a tiki that would lend its mana, or power, to help me become a deadly fisherman. Fati started in. The figure has a plaited coconut-leaf headdress, just like the one the young warrior wore, and, on its curled arms, tattoos of tattoos. It has fishhook and wave motifs, and between its chest-high hands it holds a representation of the mana of the great fisherman. Perhaps, in retrospect, I should have fished more with my shirt off. We all left Fati with enthusiastic farewells; and Fati, I think, went over to the little grocery store and paid off his annual account. We left with dire warnings fresh in our minds: “Don’t get the tattoos wet!” This probably meant not leaping from a wharf to a surging dinghy or launching a sand-filled dinghy into a growling surf line, both of which we were likely to do.
There was a growing feeling in the group that we really must get over to Nuku Hiva and clear in with the authorities, but fate was conspiring to bring the mountain to Mohammed. And there was one last bay that we wanted to visit on Tahuata before we set off to the northwest and legality—one of Eric Hiscock’s favorites, Baie Hanamoenoa.
The bay was sandy, and the beach was perfection. Grassy hills ran down from the central ridge and came up against the scrubby growth behind the leavings of some long-forgotten storm. Friends were already here, snorkeling and frolicking in the shallow water; of course, none of us could joint them because of yesterday’s tattoos, but we sat in pleasant resignation, nursing early rum punches. The grass on the hills swayed with the breeze, sending waves of sheen down to the rocks at the end of Pointe Matau. And it was around this point that steamed the gray, angular (and highly official) shape of the customs patrol launch. A collective hiss went through the fleet, like the sound of air being sucked through many teeth at one time.
The patrol launch kept steaming past, out beyond the anchored boats; perhaps it would continue. Three-quarters of the way across, when it seemed that the axe might not fall, it turned and entered the bay. It fell back to its anchor and leisurely put two big RIBs in the water. Calamity! Why hadn’t I just gone and cleared in? “If you do the crime you must enter the time”—the words to an old song played in my head. I looked across to Ron and Suzanne on Tapasya and saw her applying an elaborate bandage to Ron’s new tattoo. A cunning strategy, I remember thinking.
The customs man was from Marseille, jovial, interested in people, and inclined to believe the best; every boat in the flotilla had, apparently, arrived the day before and would be off at first light to Nuku Hiva to clear in. “Pas de problme,” and he was gone with his completed forms. But I have never seen so many bandages, long-sleeved shirts, and sweaters (casually looped around the neck) as I did that sunny day at Baie Hanamoenoa.
Duncan and Irene Gould are currently exploring Australia as they make their slow way home to Curaao. They can be reached at their blog, www.getjealous.com/svmoose/.