Marquesas and The Smiling Haka
Marquesas: The Case For A Thesaurus
I don’t know how many miles we were from a place that might have been showing the Third Lions Test Match in New Zealand on Saturday, but whether it be a dozen or a thousand it was too many. The dramatic series joins a growing list of sporting events that sailing to far-flung places has kept me from enjoying.
I fully realise that sentence hardly justifies even the plucking of a single violin string. Indeed, everyday I count myself fortunate to be flung-afar, and I know televised sport will still be there after these damp potterings come to a close, but it irks me to miss the coeval ones nonetheless. Especially when they only come around once every 12 years, as is the case with the Lions meeting the All Blacks. For those of you who did watch what I have since read with green eyes to have been a titanic battle, it benefits me in explaining a spectacle I was witness to on Nuku Hiva, the biggest island of the Marquesas archipelago where our South Pacific chapter began.
Picture that ferocious opening Haka performance from the Maori on Saturday morning. The eye-bulging, tongue-stretching, limb-slapping war dance that invokes the genuine concern that not all opponent players are sure to leave the pitch with head and neck still adjacent.
Suppose though, that this growling, stomping, walloping tribal exhibition is synthesised with the foreign-tongued anthem that precedes it, of soaring choruses and booming voices, amalgamating to produce something that is both brutal and melodic, rousing but sweet, adrenaline-pumping yet soul-soothing.
We are now part way to likening the scene we stumbled upon in the Community Hall of Taiotea (pronounced Ty-oh-tee-ah) Bay, having spun the hire car around to discover what could possibly have been the source of such enchanting sounds we’d heard as we drove by.
As with almost anywhere one goes in the Marquesas, we were warmly welcomed into the packed hall by the locals. Within; some twenty females of varying ages – all with the obliged flower behind the ear – sat swaying rhythmically on the floor to the sound of their own powerful and harmonised voices, and around them a dozen men committed to war dance moves with the same exuberance (although it has to be said not quite the equal physical prowess) as seen on the TV on Saturday morning. And at the front of this inward-facing ensemble, children dictated the rhythm on tall and fine-looking drums, beating with a rapidity that juxtaposed the ringing female acoustics but complemented the vibrant male movements, to complete something wholesome and true.
And everyone was loving it. Smiles stretched across every face like the canvasses over the handmade drums: from the gyrating adults to the beating youngsters to each member of the growing audience filing in from the street, there was such delirious happiness it was on the point of inebriating. It was as if the two sets of international players on Saturday had handed over to the already-six-plastic-pints-deep-and-slightly-overweight fans, who had enthusiastically taken to the field and produced a display of such excitement it bordered hysteria. I hasten to add, the music was the only intoxicating source.
At its close we stepped out into the fresh evening air, and reflected that even after a day spent exploring this glorious island by car the monumental sights of the land were outshone by that Smiling Haka, as I like to think of it.
I would endeavour to explain to you the scenery we’d gazed upon that day, but it has come to my attention that either I myself or the English language – likely the former – is deficient in superlatives to do the Marquesas justice.
“A painter is better armed to convey the majesty of the Marquesas than a writer.” So wrote Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian man who floated on a raft all the way across the vast Pacific Ocean for no reason other than to prove one could. As unhinged as this Scandinavian’s holiday plans might sound, his observation is as true as it is mellifluously and pleasingly put. Our acquaintance with these isles was an eye-opening, jaw-dropping, neck-craning introduction to the new heights of beauty to which planet earth is beholden.
Indeed, my attempts to describe such sights to my journal became little more than a glaring case for a thesaurus, as I futilely turned to the same adjectives over and again: magnificent, mountainous, verdant, rich, stunning, rugged, immense, looming. Quite frankly, I urge you towards Google Images because, as per Thor’s verdict, I am of little use to you here.
I can, however, venture to provide something of a taste for Marquesan life, which mimics the land in its fertility, affording a bountiful supply of stories ranging from the sweet to the spicy.
First, the spicy. it came as not a small shock to my two unattached crewmates – who lest us not forget had just spent near-on a month at sea – that transvestism, of all things, is a common feature to Marquesan society. Not only that, but it is intrinsically ingrained into family life, much to the distaste of the early missionaries. Indeed, in many Pacific cultures those parents who produce several of the same-sex children will be inclined to raise one of the later ones (number four, allegedly) as if they were the opposite gender. The missionary message of “Go forth and multiply”, it appears, failed to oust the incumbent “Go fourth and transgenderfy”.
(On another rugby note, for those of you familiar with Manu Tuilagi and his entourage of heavyweight international rugby playing brothers, their Samoan heritage might help explain to you why Julie Tuilagi is a strapping 6-foot man wearing a bra and heels.)
Think of this what you will, but there appears nothing coercive or cruel in the matter, it is simply that gender in this part of the world does not conform to the dualistic boundaries with which we are familiar. As such, make-up exhibiting, dress-donning, leg-shaving blokes are so common about the streets and buildings of the Marquesas that – much to the displeasure of Blue’s Bachelors – they probably outnumbered the available women.
Whilst we felt it easy to demarcate these women from the not-really-women, at a bar we met a salty seadog of an Australian who assured us he had known several a sailor to, at the eleventh hour of courtship, find that an evening’s pursuit harboured an unexpected surprise below the belt. His tales (of which there were several) were somewhat alarming, but at least we felt well-guarded for our future destination of Tahiti – a place where our increasingly intoxicated friend had once drooled over a bikini contest only to belatedly realise the Sheila’s were actually Bruce’s. To my mind there would be one very telling sign that this was the case, but as he loudly and misguidedly harangued the missionaries for a legacy of transgenderism within earshot of the cross-dressed barman(maid), his alcohol-altered awareness levels became apparent and we left him to it. One can’t help but think that over the course of twenty years of island-hopping, booze-indulging and skirt-chasing, he might have encountered a few eleventh-hour surprise packages himself.
Drunken Antipodeans aside, sweeter stories pervade throughout Marquesan life. Back on Nuku Hiva, the day after the car ride we sailed in convoy with a cruising boat of friends around to Hakatea Bay, a towering and magical concavity which can only be accessed by sea.
We were there to hike to one of the many waterfalls of the Marquesas, this one being the tallest-standing at a great 800-metres. Firstly, though, we had to traverse the quaint village that sat peacefully at the river mouth against the backdrop of rising mountains. Rightly so, this little piece of paradise has been earmarked as a Garden of Eden by other visiting sailors, given the colourful flowers and tropical fruits that occupy every corner of the eye as you amble over the soft and moist earth. And it is the precursor to a stunning walk through jungle, rivers and wilderness, which concludes with a tremendous canyon that has been carved over the millennia by water cascading from nearly a kilometre above.
Even this natural wonder, however, was dwarfed by the friendliness and generosity of Teiki and Kua, a couple who live in the sleepy village and host travellers for home-cooked meals at their dining room table, which seven of us from the two boats, along with the couple and their son, squeezed around for a feast one evening.
Chatting over homemade guava juice before dinner, Kua explained to us that her, her husband Teiki, and their son Makeo had moved there from the bright-lights of Tahiti to live the good life: her extensive garden fed them all and then some, whilst Teiki fished in the bay and river, and hunted in the mountains. The village was supplied by spring water that we were welcome to fill up our boats’ tanks with, and twelve solar panels on their roof supplied ample electricity.
Well, usually they did. That evening there was a wiring problem that plunged us into darkness, but a couple of torches strung up soon illuminated the sumptuous food Kua had prepared: Poisson Cru (raw fish in a coconut sauce), sautéed pumpkin, fried breadfruit, homemade mango chutney, and barbeque-obliterated goat, of which the heart was also available and quite persistently offered around by Teiki who seemed very pleased to be able to provide this organ of his capture. Most of us gracefully declined, some had little say in the matter.
Once satiated by the vast quantity of delicious and organic food, we sat enjoying the charades of Teiki for hours. (There is, after all, little common ground between the English language and the Polynesian tongue.) At first intimidated by his traditional facial tattoos and athletic frame, we soon learned he was a kind-hearted soul as he humoured us and himself with foreign sounds and dramatic actions to convey what he meant. When asked about the fish that we had shared over dinner, he grinned and quickly scampered back into their modest hut to fetch what transpired to be the most enormous speargun I’ve ever seen. But just as he was proudly passing it around for commendation, his 13-year old son – having achieved corresponding levels of excitement with those of his father’s – sprang out into the torchlight, knocked his father aside, and beheld his own equally impressive gun, which was met with roars of laughter and delight by those of us sat around the table.
The scattering of these most easterly Pacific islands and their wonderful inhabitants were our pleasure for only a fortnight, before we weighed anchor and re-found ocean routines by sailing over another 550-miles of water. To linger a while longer was no-unwelcome notion, but alas the South Pacific islands are many and far between and require our constant moving. We were Tuamotus-bound: the world’s largest collection of atolls aptly named ‘The Dangerous Archipelago’, where we would find wicked tidal currents, a lot of wind, and even more sharks.
Here there would be no mountaintops to survey the splendid scenes below, no fruit to pick up along the roads, and certainly nowhere to buy a thesaurus to try and help describe the “majesty of the Marquesas”.