January 22: Nuku Hiva.
When we got up this morning, the ship had anchored, and we could see the island. I had expected a flat island with lots of sand and palm trees. Nuku Hiva is not like that. It’s made of tall, rugged mountains instead, which are covered with lush green vegetation. Our view from the ship was animated by the shadows of passing clouds, flocks of land birds, and cars and pickups slowly moving along the surface roads. The tender ride to the dock took about 10 minutes over a calm sea, which the local authorities had informed us were full of sharks – so no swimming today! We were greeted by drummers, singers, and vendors selling their island products. We found our tour bus (really an extended cab pickup) and took off in a caravan of such vehicles for our tour of the island. The paved road, which was barely wide enough for two vehicles, wound up and over the mountains, including many switchbacks and wide views of the island and the ocean beyond. Our caravan stopped occasionally for pictures and commentary about what we were seeing. As it happened, our driver was the leader of the tour, so his English was good enough to answer all the questions we had for him about island life. His name was William; he was born on the island and his parents still live there; island children attend school through junior high and then go to Tahiti for high school; he has 7 brothers and sisters and 2 children; he has been to France, which he didn’t like because it was too noisy and crowded, and to New Zealand; he speaks French, island dialect, and English (at least); he is both a trekking guide and a tour guide; and his other job is as an architect. A very interesting and personable guy.
We saw such a great variety of plants along the drive. Many of the flowering plants, such as the bougainvillea and hibiscus, were brought in from Tahiti, and the nuts from the large number of coconut palms are used today as a major export crop. Fruit trees are growing everywhere along the road, and William told us that the fruit is free for anyone who wants it. Papayas, mangos, breadfruit, and bananas were some of the plants we recognized. All the animals we saw were familiar to us: horses, cows, goats, dogs, chickens. The houses were generally simple and seemed well suited to the island lifestyle, with lots of windows and outdoor space. Care seems to be taken to make the natural beauty of the area even more pleasant for the inhabitants.
The end point of the drive was a meeting space set up near the ocean with a shelter for vendors and a fresh island-fruit table for the tour guests. We could sample local fresh coconut, papaya, breadfruit, tapioca, and fresh and fried bananas. Everything I had was delicious, especially the coconut, which was so moist, compared to any that I’ve ever had elsewhere. Before we returned to town and the dock, we made two brief stops. First was a church with an appealing indoor space, very open and airy with lots of natural wood and stone. Second was a reconstructed archaeological site which is used today for local community gatherings. Back at the dock, we found an internet café, where we ordered a cold Perrier and Denise called her sister Susan. We were happy to board the tender and return to the ship to get out of the heat and away from the crowds.
January 24: Papeete, Tahiti.
We woke up to a rainy morning, but it gradually cleared, and we were dry but overcast by the time we arrived in Papeete, Tahiti, around noon. As in Nuku Hiva, the terrain of this island surprised me. It’s mountainous, not flat and desert-island like. It’s certainly more populated, and multi-story buildings are the norm. The houses march up the mountain sides just as they do around any valley I’ve ever seen. But leftover rain clouds obscured the mountain half-way up. We slowly eased into the port, which was typically industrial, not tropical. One description called it “gritty.” We left the ship, stopped at the tourist information building (where we were informed that the only fabric store in the area was already closed), and started a walk along the main waterfront street, a busy two-lane road. Picking our way over the poorly-maintained and badly-constructed sidewalks, after a few blocks we turned inland for a block and found another busy road to walk along. We passed a few vagrants resting on the sidewalks, some open-air restaurants, tourist shops, small grocery stores, and even a McDonalds. We didn’t really have an agenda, other than to find an internet café with free WiFi. We did stop at McDonalds, which was very busy and set up for ordering just like the ones in the U.S., but it didn’t have internet, so we left there. Next, we entered a small grocery store. It was very neat, with a small but varied stock of what seemed to me not very practical goods. I guess the store was really for tourists. There, we bought 3 bottles of sparkling water, which we stuffed into our backpacks. Soon after that, we found the town market, which is lodged in a two-story open air structure right in the downtown area. Many vendors had already closed for the day, but several were still open, especially fruit sellers and a few souvenir stands. As we strolled by their stations, almost everyone offered a friendly bonjour. On the second floor was a restaurant with internet, so we stayed there a while to retrieve emails, and Denise called her brother Jonathan, not without difficulty because she kept losing the call. We continued walking a little further but by this time were weary of the traffic, the heat, and especially the humidity. We returned to the ship quite exhausted and spent the afternoon in the room reading and napping. It was Polynesian BBQ night for dinner, and we met our normal tablemates by the Lido pool instead of in the dining room. There was a roast suckling pig as well as other island foods for dinner, plus normal cruise-ship vegetables and desserts. At 9:30 was a special Polynesian dance and music extravaganza, which we thoroughly enjoyed. How those ladies swing their hips so skillfully is a wonder. The drumming was a bit too loud, but I guess that’s part of the charm of the show.
January 25: Papeete, Tahiti.
We got up to rain again today, and this time it continued all day. Our tour was a drive entirely around the island, with several stops, and a truly informative guide. His English was a little rough because of his French accent, but he talked to us throughout the trip and provided the following kinds of information: political relationship between French Polynesia and France, school system, political parties, best surfing beaches and why, plants, animals, types of fish, island history, Gaugin, the French military presence, nuclear testing, cost of living, health care system etc., etc. While he was talking, the ocean was on our left and on the right were communities, homes, and natural areas full of lush tropical plants (duh!). Things generally didn’t look particularly prosperous, and many buildings were in need of major maintenance. This observation actually applies to everything we have seen in the South Pacific.
The first stop on our tour was at a lighthouse with some history attached. We walked around the grounds next to the ocean and came upon a surfing beach, which was full of surfers, despite the rain. The second stop was at a restaurant named for Gaugin where we were offered mango juice, restrooms, and an opportunity to walk on a pier bordering pens populated with several different kinds of big, colorful fish. At this stop, the clouds parted, and Denise was able to get some pictures. Back on the bus for only a few minutes, we got out at a botanical garden next. The guide started walking down the path and explaining plants to us, but then the rain started up again in earnest, and our group broke up. I and a few others continued following the guide around the garden, but Denise and several others decided to stand under a shelter for a while. The rain never let up, so we all eventually got soaked. The garden had a waterfall, many interesting and unusual tropical plants and flowers, gravel paths, and ponds with water plants. Too bad the weather was so awful, but I enjoyed the walk anyway. Our fourth stop was at a surfer beach on the west side of the island. The bus driver pulled into the parking lot, but none of the passengers wanted to get out of the bus to look at it. Too wet and tired at this point. So we then drove back to the ship. Denise said she would have gone out again, but the rain and the closed stores (it’s Sunday) were good deterrents.
January 26: Bora Bora.
The view of Bora Bora from the ship was a lot closer to my idea of a South Pacific island. There were still tall mountains, but at least we could also make out lots of palm trees, beautiful blue water, and white sand beaches. Even though the sky was threatening rain all day, we didn’t get any until we were back on the ship. We tendered to the dock, looked briefly into a handicrafts shop, then started walking to the right. This was not a wholly satisfactory experience: there were no sidewalks, many rain puddles with lots of mud, and a poorly maintained road with a lot of traffic – a lot of very slow-moving traffic. We stopped in a couple of stores, some of which had high-quality goods. Of particular interest to me was a hand-made bed covering fashioned with reverse applique and incredibly even and well-formed stitches. The clerk told me that “mammas” do this kind of work in Bora Bora. It was exquisite. My first fabric purchase of the day was a pareo of many colors – good for a shirt, I think. Looking for internet, we ran into our new friends Ernie and Jim in the post office. Deciding to scrap the internet search for today, we left Ernie in the post office and continued with Jim down the street in the opposite direction. By this time, we were quite hot and wondering whether walking in this heat was a good idea. Fortunately, we found a very nice restaurant with a bar next to the water. It had a sand floor and a thatched roof – very authentic. It was a great place to sit and savor our bottle of sparkling water. Jim and Denise enjoyed speaking French with the proprietor. After our break, we were refreshed and started back towards the dock. Along the way, we found a local store with a ton of fabric. It’s the same fabric that I’ve seen elsewhere in Polynesia made up as curtains and table coverings, so I feel like all the new shirts I’ll make are going to be good souvenirs for our trip. It’s not high-quality fabric, and it was made in China, but if it’s good enough for the everyday Polynesians, it’s good enough for me. We were glad to be back on the ship, where it was cool and uncrowded.