Marquesas Islands A Cruise to the World's Most Remote Archipelago I think it was plane geometry that first started

me thinking about the Marquesas Islands and French Polynesia. dreams they were. Tahiti and islands of the South Seas have long been the image of paradise on earth, impressions sown by early seamen, whose stories extolled their breathtaking beauty, lush tropical flowers, pagan gods, and exotic dancers with uninhibited movements. Here was a Garden of Eden where self-indulgence and succulent pleasure was the norm, and the constraints of Western civilization were checked at the door. French Polynesia consists of five great island groups, totaling 35 islands and 83 coral atolls, in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Although the total land area could be squeezed into the state of Rhode Island, they are scattered over an area nearly the size of the continental United States. My wife and I recently took a two-week cruise on the cruise ship, Paul Gauguin, to the rarely traveled Marquesas Islands, with stops at arguably the world's most beautiful islands of Bora Bora and Moorea, and the second largest atoll in the world, Rangiroa. The Paul Gauguin is a cruise ship that specializes in one- and two-week cruises throughout French Polynesia. Normally, passengers generally spend a few days in Tahiti getting accustomed to "oooing" and "ahhhing" at the tropical scenery before boarding the ship. We only stayed a day in Tahiti, doing most of our "oooing" and "ahhhing" at the high prices in downtown Papeete. I was always dreaming And what about places at the other end of the world in that class.

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It was only the first day of the cruise and already we were being thrown to the sharks. "Don't worry," Marina tells us the first day in Bora Bora. sharks are supposed to stay on their side of the rope." "The

I wondered if

Marina forgot to instruct this one little fella on proper shark-feeding etiquette when my wife, myself, and two couples from Cincinnati, went on the Shark and Ray Feeding Tour. He is definitely not on his side of the rope, I am thinking to myself. The six of us, attired in brightly-colored snorkel gear, were hanging onto a rope which Marina and two companions had tied between two corals, and were watching Marina dish out fish scraps to several frenzied reef sharks. But this one little bugger obviously hadn't learned the routine since he kept swimming over on our side the rope. Maybe he was thinking why settle for scraps when there were bigger fish in the sea. My wife added a little wry shark humor when she paddled around behind me and pinched me on my tootsies. I'll admit to having my toes nibbled on before, but never with the same effect. "No, we don't eat people any more," Patrick, our entertaining jeep driver told us that afternoon when he took my wife and I, and our newly found friends from Cincinnati on a jeep tour into Bora Bora's steamy interior, under canopies of giant orchids, sherbert-colored hibiscus and mammoth ferns. The interior valleys were filled with the scent of vanilla and hibiscus. "We only eat dogs now," he laughed. He then grinned and told us that American tourists were too tough anyway. If I hadn't been hanging onto the jeep for dear life, I could have stuck out my hand and grabbed everything from bananas, lemons, limes, mangos, papayas, pineapples, oranges, coconuts, and breadfruit right off the trees. It was once a Polynesian custom to plant a breadfruit at the birth of a child to ensure food for the infant for life. "Two breadfruit trees is enough for a lifetime," Patrick told us. A native girl gave me some breadfruit earlier in the day, and it tasted like wallpaper paste. I think I would have lived on pineapples and bananas.

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"Nuka Hiva ," my wife shakes me awake a few mornings later. I dress, grab my brownie and race to the top deck where fellow travelers are already hugging the rails, peering through the steamy morning mist. Before us lie Nuka Hiva, the first of five Marquesan island we would visit. Its cragged volcanic spires, draped in jungle green, loomed up from the sea, piercing the clouds at three thousand feet. No doubt it was raining cats and dogs at the top since tiny waterfalls laced the mountainsides eventually crashing into the sea, carrying vegetation of every conceivable type, including coconuts and breadfruit, that bobbed out to the ship, giving us a real jungle welcome. It was at this confluence of muddy runoff water and the dark blue ocean where we watched two huge manta rays with 10-foot wingspans having breakfast of what seemed like everything they could get their mouths around. The Marquesan archipelago consists of ten islands, six inhabited by a total of 7500 people, that lie just south of the equator four thousand miles south of Hawaii. They are far from the shipping lanes of the world's freighters, and are the most remote archipelago of any on earth. They have been called the Forgotten Islands of the South Seas. "No wonder Melville was infatuated with this place," my wife said, referring to the fact that in 1842, Herman Melville, while a seaman on the whaler Dolly, jumped ship and later wrote the novel Typee based on his experiences living with local natives. Melville wrote, "Nothing can exceed the imposing scenery of this place." Melville had hoped to find the friendly Happar people, but instead stumbled into the valley of the fiercest cannibal tribe in all the South Pacific, the feared Typees (TI-pees). But as luck would have it, instead of being beheaded he was befriended, and Typee describes his idyllic stay with the Typee people. But his tropical idyll came to an abrupt end when he suspected his hosts were more interested in his body fat than on his pleasant personality, so he beat a hasty retreat, eventually getting back

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to Tahiti, where he was unfortunate to arrive on the exact day that the French took over Tahiti from the English. His book Typee was published in 1846 and regales the kind of juicy South Sea tales the outside world was eager to lap up. Although not a trained anthropologist, Typee gives a peep into early Polynesian life, and is still fascinating reading today. It was Typee and Melville's sequel, Omoo, that gave rise to much of the South Sea mystic of the day. Only in 1851, when Melville wrote the symbolic Moby Dick, the story of a captain's obsession over a whale, did Melville loose his following. Thunk! I jump a foot seeing a coconut hit the ground five feet in front of me and a foot behind my wife. We look up and see dozens of coconuts dripping from a coconut palm almost a hundred feet up. After that, we obeyed the old Polynesian saying, never walk head down under a coconut tree. And if it isn't an old saying, it should be. We had just gotten off the tender at Nuka Hiva, and were trekking along a muddy road to a clearing, where local Marquesans were going to perform native dances, including the Pig Dance. The pig has always been important to Polynesians. Other than being an important source of meat, the pig has always been thought to have special powers of navigation. on the pig. than people. When early Polynesian explorers, who relied on the stars, It was believed a pig thrown overboard will always swim But then again, one could argue that only persons with wind, and currents to navigate them across the sea, got lost they relied towards the nearest land. The theory being a pig could smell land better lucky pigs ever lived to tell the story. The next afternoon, my wife, myself, and the two couples from Cincinatti took our own trip in the Typee Valley. "No more cannibals," our Marquesan driver, Pascal, jokes.

Bringing up the gastronomic eating habits of early South Sea inhabitants always seems to evoke a laugh from us sophisticated Westerners. As if

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we didn't have ancestors with less than impecible customs. Coming into the valley, we see smoke coming rising from the valley floor. "Wonder what's cooking?" someone jokes. The early cannibals didn't think of human flesh as a kind of Polynesian Big Mac, but it was believed by devouring your brave enemy, you would inherit his courage. The valley seemed more like a South Seas "ghost town." When Melville was here, the valley was full of thousands of happy Polynesians, but now sailors, whalers, traders, and missionaries brought such a plague of Western diseases, the population dropped to just a few. Nowadays, it isn't Small Pox that is reducing the Marquesan population, it is the lure of the modern world. returns. "In this tropical climate, cultural artifacts decay fast," our guide, English archeologist Mark Eddowes, tells us when we arrive in Typee valley. "This is the most of what remains of Typee culture." He showed us stone platforms where houses and religious ceremonies were held, stone tikis (human images of Polynesian gods), and some large stone ovens used in the preparation of ceremonial feasts where local priests baked the piece de resistance, often an enemy warrior from another valley "long-pig" as they were sometimes called. Early Polynesian culture is difficult to study since missionaries have along ago destroyed most of the pagan artifacts. local people could hide are still in existence. "Here's a trivia question," Mark asks. "What two English words come from the Marquesan language?" He answered his own question: taboo (from tapu), and tattoo (from tatau). The Marquesans tattooed their bodied, many from head to foot, and in some very unusual places. The tattoos basically told the story of a person's life: his rites, his ancestors, his battles, sacrifices, and so on. Although missionary forces Only the ones Once a young Marquesan goes to Papeete and cooks his meals in a microwave rather than in a stone pit, he often never

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outlawed the practice in 1858, it is now making a comeback among younger Marquesans, whose goal is to revive many of the pre-missionary customs. Most Marquesans we saw, both men and women, had at least one tattoo. Early whalers showed an interested in the practice, and the tradition of tattooing among seamen is now popular the world over. In addition to Melville, several other well-known writers gained have inspiration in the Marquesas, including Robert Lewis Stevenson, Jack London, Somerset Maugham, and James Mitchner. But if there is one person responsible for Polynesia's lasting reputation as a paradise of earth, it is Paul Gauguin, the great French postimpressionist, whose brightly-colored paintings depicting idyllic tropical life, are displayed in art galleries the world over. Born in 1845 in Paris, Gauguin abandoned his wife and children and traveled to Tahiti to devote himself to a life of painting and sculpting. As with many great artists, success was not achieved in his lifetime, and to make a long story short, in 1901 at the age of 53, he left Tahiti and settled down in the remote Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, where he died two years later. "Yes," I am a Gauguin, the young girl of about ten told my wife. We had asked her if she was a descendant of the famous artist, and she told us she was a great-great grand daughter, named Olivia Gauguin. In fact, it seemed the ship, aptly named the Paul Gauguin, was crawling with Gauguins, 63 to be exact. They were great people, and had come all the way from Denmark and Norway (Gauguin's wife was Danish) to celebrate the 150th birthday of their famous ancestor, and to meet the Polynesian descendants of Gauguin. admitted. We talked with 50-year old Clovis Gaugin, a great grandson of the great artist, who is a painter himself. He told us he plays in a rock band in Denmark, and is one of Grateful Dead's biggest fans. "I am a hopeless Deadhead," he laughed. I guess the rebel in Paul Gauguin lives on. "I can't draw though," Olivia

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So on June 6, 1998, on the 150th birthday of Paul Gaugin (the man), the Paul Gauguin (the ship) dropped anchor at the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, where 63 descendants of Paul Gauguin, along with most of the other passengers, attended a huge open air mass and songfest at the local Catholic church. The ceremony even had a touch of irony since Gauguin had always objected to the way the Church was destroying Polynesian culture. After the service, we all went to the graveyard where Gauguin is buried. Olivia, asked me if I wanted to take her picture beside the grave. I did of course. I think I have the largest collection of pictures of Gauguin's descendants as anyone on earth. After the graveside ceremonies, we all retired to the village green for an authentic Polynesian feast and more Pig Dances. A pig had been packed in banana leaves and lowered into in a pit of hot rocks along with a lot of other tropical goodies. Then, when the pig was cooked, drums suddenly beat and graceful girls, bedecked with fragrant leaves and flowers danced while husky Marquesan men removed the pig from the pit and cut it into little pieces, which was served with tropical dishes too numerous to mention. breadfruit. Well, ok, I didn't really have the foggiest idea what they were, but they were all good 7 except for the wallpaper paste I think Paul Gauguin would have been pleased with his birthday party. - the end -

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