The Mid­dle of Nowhere


Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS -

The Marquesas are the an­tithe­sis of a clichéd trop­i­cal beach par­adise, writes Noah Hunt. Pho­tographed by Julien Gi­rar­dot

There are 64 Types of mango on the is­land of Hiva Oa, all in­tro­duced,” says Henri, my Mar­que­san guide, toss­ing a small fleshy plum-sized fruit across the hood of his 4X4. It is ten­nis-ball green, blushed with peach. I bring it to my face and the smell is in­tox­i­cat­ing, like mag­no­lia, ap­ple pie and kaf­fir lime leaves. I bite into it. The taste is equally awak­en­ing, and sud­denly the in­side of my mouth feels like the host of what will be­come a wild party. Cue the Bol­ly­wood dancers and re­lease the conga line. Henri watches as my nor­mal rest­ing bitch face slow-morphs into a wide smile as the tastes pen­e­trate deeper, his own smile mir­ror­ing mine with a look of is­land pride. Henri and I both know that man­goes orig­i­nally come from In­dia. And that they’re prized in Latin Amer­ica and Asia. But man­goes here in th­ese far flung, im­pos­si­bly mys­ti­cal and sun-drenched Marquesas Is­lands are not just fruits—they’re rev­e­la­tions. Each one preg­nant with the pos­si­bil­ity of chang­ing your mood. Each one a Prous­tian de­light kick­start­ing a rush hour in your brain’s dopamine path­ways.

Who could be in a bad mood in the Marquesas? The late Flem­ish song­writer Jac­ques Brel, a friend of Henri’s grand­fa­ther, once wrote, “Com­plain­ing is in­ap­pro­pri­ate in the Marquesas,” suc­cinctly sum­ming up the par­a­disi­a­cal vibe of th­ese 15 (six of them in­hab­ited) green, moun­tain­ous specks of Pa­cific real es­tate. The is­lands have been promis­ing and de­liv­er­ing a rare­fied ex­oti­cism to voy­agers since they were first oc­cu­pied by Poly­ne­sians around A.D. 1000, and ac­cord­ing to some much ear­lier. And af­ter my five near-per­fect days seek­ing out the mys­te­ri­ous, fern-cloaked tiki be­lieved by many schol­ars to have orig­i­nated here, lis­ten­ing to col­or­ful ex­otic bird calls har­mo­nize with gen­tly lap­ping waves, and eat­ing ed­i­fy­ing bowls of poisson cru—raw, cherry-red tuna soaked in lime juice and co­conut milk so fresh the ma­chete blade is still wet—it’s un­der­stand­able why whin­ing here is taboo.

For me, and for the Marquesas’ iconic vis­i­tors like Robert Louis Steven­son, Her­man Melville and French painter Paul Gau­guin, the coun­try is the edenic an­tithe­sis of ev­ery­thing that was wrong about the real world. Here on Te Henua Ke­nana, the Mar­que­san name of the is­lands that trans­lates to The Land of Men, in­di­vid­ual prop­erty can­not be owned, and there’s a bounty of fruit and fish for ev­ery­one, not to men­tion a never-end­ing sup­ply of mana, the sa­cred en­ergy unique to Poly­ne­sia. Af­ter all, th­ese is­lands are home to a sea­far­ing and tiki her­itage dat­ing back 1,000-plus years. And they’re far­ther from any con­ti­nen­tal land­mass than any other is­lands on Earth. Mex­ico’s west coast—4,800 kilo­me­ters away—is the clos­est.

Par­adise can be­come parched and ragged on th­ese vol­canic, iso­lated is­lands, which are noth­ing like their sis­ter So­ci­ety Is­lands, Bora Bora and Tahiti. There are no dreamy atolls, no over­wa­ter bun­ga­lows. Ex­cept for a new Lind­blad Ex­pe­di­tions sail­ing that launched ear­lier this year, there are no mega-cruise ship crowds. The wa­ter it­self—less placid, more Cu­raçao blue than gin-clear—is deeper, both in mea­sure­ment and color, so the is­lands are not known for snor­kel­ing reef vis­i­bil­ity or glassy stand-up pad­dle­board­ing con­di­tions. Ob­vi­ously, they’re not close enough to any ma­jor city (or con­ti­nent) for easy week­end getaways, nor are they up­scale enough for hon­ey­moon­ers look­ing to splurge on over-the-top lux­u­ries. Depend­ing on who you are, this is ei­ther a god­send or a dis­ap­point­ment.

I found The Land of Men a gift from the heav­ens be­cause they don’t suf­fer from the mod­ern trap­pings and crowds seen at eas­ier-toac­cess des­ti­na­tions. But also be­cause for decades I’ve been in­trigued by the rich birdlife, with 10 en­demics and more than 200 other na­tive species of flora and fauna, as well as by the tiki and tat­too cul­tures and the en­dan­gered lan­guage. French Poly­ne­sian cui­sine is an earthy fu­sion. And those lan­guorous and louche flo­res­cent green paint­ings from Gau­guin didn’t hurt ei­ther. All of this lived up to its prom­ise.

But there was so much more.

The Marquesas were NaMed by Span­ish Ex­plorer Ál­varo de Men­daña in 1595 for his pa­tron, the Mar­qués de Cañete. Shortly af­ter they adopted their Euro­pean moniker, they fell into de­spair, al­most like a curse. Their pop­u­la­tion plum­meted a shock­ing 98 per­cent from 100,000 peo­ple in 1799 to 2,000 in 1926, mostly as a re­sult of weapons, dis­ease and al­co­holism, brought on first by Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors and mis­sion­ar­ies and fin­ished off by waves of 19th-cen­tury whalers. The

pop­u­la­tion never fully re­cov­ered and the is­lands’ 8,600 res­i­dents still strug­gle with drought, iso­la­tion and a crip­pling lack of in­fra­struc­ture. Some say that with­out the sub­si­dies from France, the is­lands would com­pletely col­lapse again.

One thing that hasn’t changed since Gau­guin and Melville’s time is that get­ting to the Marquesas is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. For me, it was an epic four flights, in­clud­ing 48-plus hours of travel time, and an en­tire cal­en­dar day missed by cross­ing the date­line. On my third leg, LAX to Pape’ete, I spent eight hours fly­ing over noth­ing but Pa­cific, an in­fin­ity of sil­ver ridges bleed­ing into blue bleed­ing into green again. I sa­vored the mon­u­men­tal jour­ney from my leather Air Tahiti Nui flatbed. With a cold, oaky French Chardon­nay at my side and a rom-com on the flat-screen, I day­dreamed about the hard­ships en­coun­tered by gen­er­a­tions of Poly­ne­sians who made sim­i­larly epic Pa­cific voy­ages 10,000 me­ters below me. Nod­ding off, I laughed to my­self at the ab­sur­dity of in any way com­par­ing my time in this turquoise and ba­nana-leaf fes­tooned busi­ness-class cabin en route to a known ter­mi­nus with my pre­de­ces­sors’ per­ilous, in­trepid, in­ter­minable ex­plo­rations of the le­gendary Poly­ne­sian Tri­an­gle upon hand­made wooden wa­ter crafts. Sorry, Moana!

Af­ter a con­nec­tion in Pape’ete, I was fi­nally Marquesas-bound, though it was still an­other three hours within what is tech­ni­cally the same coun­try de­spite the vast noth­ing­ness in be­tween. On that fi­nal leg, I pe­rused Melville’s 1846 ac­count of the Marquesas in Typee. Melville’s an­tic­i­pa­tory idea of the is­lands was sur­pris­ingly sim­i­lar to mine and reads like a pro/con list writ­ten by a mar­ket­ing rep of Marquesas Tourism: “The Marquesas! Naked houris—can­ni­bal ban­quets—groves of co­coanut—coral reefs—tat­tooed chiefs—and bam­boo tem­ples; sunny val­leys planted with bread-fruit-trees—carved ca­noes danc­ing on the flash­ing blue wa­ters—sav­age wood­lands guarded by hor­ri­ble idols—hea­then­ish rites and hu­man sac­ri­fices.”

For­tu­nately, Mar­que­sans gave up their love of hu­man flesh, so I felt no trep­i­da­tion about ar­riv­ing in Nuku Hiva, the largest is­land in the re­gion. This wasn’t the case for Melville, who af­ter spend­ing six months at sea and fi­nally dock­ing on Nuku Hiva, promptly jumped ship from the Acush­net, and es­caped to the woods for the sum­mer of 1842—and al­most be­came a Mar­que­san main course. I glanced down at what ap­peared to be a scat­ter­ing of chicken cut­lets float­ing in an­tifreeze. From above, the Marquesas look com­pletely ar­ti­fi­cial. The col­ors are so bright and oth­er­worldly, it felt like a screen­saver stock im­age that’d been ma­nip­u­lated with fil­ters. If the Marquesas were an In­sta­gram user, I’d un­fol­low. Surely this was fake news. But as we ap­proached, the land­scape came into fo­cus and sud­denly we were fly­ing past emer­ald moun­tains topped with hoodoo (fairy chim­neys), cliff pin­na­cles and an­i­mal­is­tic spires of gray rock pro­trud­ing from soft green forests into sky and rocky fin­gers re­sem­bling nar­row al­li­ga­tor heads jut­ting into the ocean. It was lush, but pocked with large arid patches. And sud­denly, a tiny airstrip atop a plateau ma­te­ri­al­ized out of nowhere.

Five min­utes af­ter land­ing, rain started pour­ing out of steely clouds that also ma­te­ri­al­ized out of nowhere, turn­ing the Tech­ni­color into black-and-white. As if my jour­ney hadn’t been long enough al­ready, it was a 90-minute ride from the air­port to the is­land’s main vil­lage Taio­hae, said to be one of the world’s most scenic drives, with panoramic vis­tas of the lush Toovii Plateau (the Marquesas’ Grand Canyon) so sweep­ing you’ll want to pre-delete your iPhone photos to make space. One travel blog­ger wrote “Pray there’s no fog be­cause if there is, you’re to­tally miss­ing out!” So of course there was fog. Thick fog. For the du­ra­tion of the drive around the seat­belt-lock­ing loops and switch­backs of the is­land’s one road, which was only sealed over in the 1990s, we didn’t see an­other per­son or sign of hu­man ac­tiv­ity. Nuku Hiva may as well have been Nep­tune.

Fi­nally, we reached the Keika­hanui Pearl Lodge and were greeted by the re­cep­tion­ist, a cheer­ful rae rae, (men who iden­tify as women and of­ten run ho­tel re­cep­tions). Twenty breezy, thatched bun­ga­lows snaked around a brushy hill­side, each fit­ted with tapa-cloth art made from bread­fruit tree bark, and king-sized beds scat­tered with hi­bis­cus flow­ers. I moved to my spa­cious deck to make sure my view of Taio­hae Bay was real. My bun­ga­low, No. 10, was a fiveminute walk up a steep path­way lined with can­dlenut and noni trees, alive with ze­bra doves, tropic birds and en­demic Mar­que­san swiftlets. It was worth the walk for its bet­ter sea views and prox­im­ity to waves rhyth­mi­cally lap­ping the empty beaches below, but was an an­noy­ing schlep when I needed to ac­cess the lobby-only Wi-Fi.

Af­ter a lunch of smoked Mar­que­san fish salad with Espelette pep­per, I rode to town on the ho­tel’s com­pli­men­tary bike, bar­rel­ing down the steep dirt road the lodge sits atop, be­fore cruis­ing into town. The flat, breezy, ocean-side ride was su­perbly beau­ti­ful, with the af­ter­noon sun ig­nit­ing the fluorescent green land­scape around me. I watched wild horses on the beach, browsed jars of am­ber Mar­que­san honey and

wood carv­ings at the port’s some­what dour ar­ti­san mar­ket and me­an­dered through the mod­ernist stone and rose­wood church.

Like torii in Ja­pan and totem in indige­nous Pa­cific North­west cul­tures, tiki—hu­man-like stat­ues carved from stone or wood—in­di­cate sa­cred places and can be as large as the iconic mo‘ai of Easter Is­land or small as a foot stool. Th­ese Poly­ne­sian trea­sures are found ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing Te­me­hea To­hua, the grassy cer­e­mo­nial grounds and an­ces­tral home of Queen Vaekehu, Taio­hae’s last chief­tai­ness. The plaza’s moss-cov­ered stone fig­urines are ren­dered in­tri­cately to show­case the Marquesas’ prized carv­ing tech­niques, but were mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tions of an­cient tiki. Next door was a ceme­tery marked with white crosses. It was here Melville jumped ship and fled to the Taip­i­vai.

f ully ad­jusTed To Is­laNd

time, I lin­gered the next morn­ing over a break­fast of guava juice, crepes with ba­nana con­fi­ture, and flaky crois­sants stuffed with pa­paya be­fore de­part­ing for my next isle, Hiva Oa. The 45-minute flight gave me just enough time for a cup of pineap­ple juice and a few Jac­ques Brel tracks, who was buried on Hiva Oa in 1978 next to Paul Gau­guin, who died of syphilis there in 1903. All do­mes­tic Air Tahiti flights board from the rear and fea­ture open seat­ing. While board­ing, I asked the at­ten­dant which side of the plane of­fered bet­ter pho­to­graphs. She smiled and un­buck­led a safety belt for me that was block­ing off a par­tic­u­larly choice, be­hind-the-pro­pel­ler seat on the right rear. While mak­ing our de­scent, the crew an­nounced that elec­tronic de­vices were not per­mit­ted un­til af­ter land­ing, but I sim­ply couldn’t stop pho­tograph­ing it. All the Marquesas Is­lands were pho­to­genic from above, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Hiva Oa. It had the ex­act same shades of ar­rest­ing flo­res­cent green that Gau­guin cap­tured in his paint­ings, with nary an arid pocket in sight. Sud­denly, I heard elec­tronic snaps be­hind me. Both flight at­ten­dants were fu­ri­ously snap­ping photos of the is­land. Like Melville and Gau­guin, even the lo­cals were com­pelled by the is­lands’ mag­netism to break the rules.

In the South Pa­cific, it’s hard to un­der­stand one is­land’s as­sets un­til you’ve fully ex­pe­ri­enced a sec­ond one’s. Con­trast is ev­ery­thing here and the love of one is­land can make you like the pre­vi­ous one slightly less. Such was the case with Hiva Oa, which is ev­ery­thing Nuku Hiva is not. Lo­cated in the North Marquesas, it is cooler, lusher, older and more fer­tile, and of­fers that rare, per­fectly-off-the-trav­eler’s-radar vibe that is in­creas­ingly hard to come by th­ese days. It’s also the Mar­que­san point of en­try for vis­i­tors

ar­riv­ing from Gala­pa­gos by yacht on tran­spa­cific sail­ings, so un­like Nuku Hiva, which at times felt dis­tant and cash-strapped, Hiva Oa re­tains an arty, in­trepid and warm af­flu­ent vibe. The own­ers of both the

Keika­hanui Pearl ear­lier and Hana­kee Pearl here, Jean-Jac­ques and his glam­orous Parisian Mar­que­san wife Josephine, greeted me and a few other guests at the air­port with fra­grant leis. Ex­act repli­cas of the Nuku Hiva vil­las, the prop­erty’s 14 bun­ga­lows stretch across a ridge over­look­ing Ta­hauku Bay and with ter­races of­fer­ing views of the is­land of Hana­kee, which floats on the hori­zon ab­sorb­ing sun­light and manna like a sponge.

I wan­dered the town of Atuona’s shops, juice ven­dors, and ar­ti­san mar­kets run by cheery and chatty lo­cals sell­ing hand-dyed hand­ker­chiefs and carved and painted tagua nuts (as op­posed to Nuku Hiva’s ar­ti­sans who scowled when I didn’t buy any­thing). I popped into the Gau­guin Mu­seum to pe­ruse the hun­dreds of repli­cas they ar­ranged in a sprawl­ing gallery on the site where he lived and died. It’s right next door to the Jac­ques Brel mu­seum, a slightly eerie air­plane han­gar that houses his beloved twin­prop Jojo plane and pipes in his mu­sic. And I ad­mired the birds and flow­ers from my ho­tel’s spa­cious bal­cony—which did have Wi-Fi, but which I glo­ri­ously no longer craved in my new Is­land Time state of mind.

The next morn­ing I planned to visit the is­land’s fa­mous smil­ing stone tiki, the only tiki that wears such an ex­pres­sion. I met Henri, built like a rugby player—fierce but full of jokes. He told me he spent time in the mil­i­tary in France, and spoke French, English, and some Ger­man, Ja­panese and Chi­nese. “But my na­tive lan­guage is Mar­que­san, an en­dan­gered species,” he said. Dif­fer­ent from Tahi­tian, it’s only spo­ken by the is­land’s re­main­ing 8,600 peo­ple, a re­minder of what was once lost from this great Pa­cific so­ci­ety. And a warn­ing of what else could go miss­ing in the fu­ture.

The smil­ing tiki is hid­den deep in the woods on an un­marked dirt road. We passed a gate and walked down a path un­der gi­ant ferns and banyan trees in the green­est woods I’d ever seen. “There!” he pointed. In a shaft of fil­tered for­est light sat a moss-cov­ered stone carv­ing that looked more like a Min­ions char­ac­ter than a tiki—the 93-cen­time­ter-tall, oval-shaped crea­ture had carv­ings said to rep­re­sent tat­toos, which also have ori­gins in the Marquesas, and a look that could only be de­scribed as a shit-eat­ing grin. It was 700 years old. “Tiki sculp­tures rep­re­sent Ti’i, a half-hu­man half-god ances­tor,” Henri con­tin­ued. “The mis­sion­ar­ies de­stroyed many tiki,” he said plainly. “There are 151 known tiki to­day, but we think there are at least 600 more wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered.” Then he clar­i­fied: “Re-dis­cov­ered.”

Headed for the high ground on Nuku Hiva.

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