On Watch

Cruising World - - Contents - BY CAP’N FATTY GOODLANDER

My wife, Carolyn, and I stood on the hill look­ing down on the pic­ture-per­fect Poly­ne­sian vil­lage of Haapu on Huahine, in French Poly­ne­sia. She’d for­got­ten her shoes aboard Ganesh, our 43-foot ketch. It was hot. The up­hill climb on the grass path had been bad enough, but now the long down-slop­ing road con­sisted of sharp, hot lava rocks. We both glis­tened with sweat. There was no way we were go­ing to man­age this next part of our jour­ney by swap­ping my pair of Crocs back and forth. The sun was bright, too bright, and beat­ing down in waves.

“I think not,” I said, con­ced­ing de­feat. We’d have to turn back.

“I agree,” she sighed. “What a shame. I’ve heard the vil­lage is lovely.”

Just then, a wob­bly bi­cy­cle crested the hill. With a glance, the silent Poly­ne­sian lad rid­ing it took it all in, kicked off his flip-flops, coasted down­ward and then pa­tiently waited for us at the bot­tom of the hill.

He had not a word of English, yet it was a per­fect ex­am­ple of the in­tel­li­gence and po­lite­ness of the proud Poly­ne­sian. His small act of kind­ness was ex­actly why my fam­ily had set off for French Poly­ne­sia aboard the schooner Eliz­a­beth in the mid-1950s, and why Carolyn and I keep re­turn­ing to this day.

There are no is­lan­ders as gra­cious, gen­er­ous, smarter, more art­ful or wel­com­ing than the Poly­ne­sians. Life here is like a lusty Gau­guin paint­ing sprung to life.

Never heard of Huahine? Well, you should have been in Lon­don in 1774, when its fa­vorite celebrity, Omai (a round-trip guest on James Cook’s En­deavor), charmed the whole town and be­came the first Poly­ne­sian to visit Eng­land. (Yes, he even­tu­ally re­tired back to Huahine. Lucky him!)

Of course, my job as a pro­fes­sional word­smith is to paint you a vivid tex­tual pic­ture of the utopian re­al­ity of ru­ral Poly­ne­sia. But I’m tempted to say that my dog-eared the­saurus doesn’t have enough ad­e­quately en­com­pass­ing su­perla­tives.

Pic­ture liv­ing within a float­ing flower, adrift on a daz­zling blue sea, with chil­dren laugh­ing, fish jump­ing and God smil­ing. That’s close, but still falls flat. How can I desribe the time­less charm of th­ese care­free isles? How do I cap­ture that lovesick heart-burst­ing feel­ing I have for th­ese sa­cred is­lands where, as we re­turned to our ves­sel later that day, a sud­den gust of wind blew fra­grant flow­ers into the air, our hair, our dinghy, and sprin­kled them gen­er­ously into the sea ahead, as if our en­tire ex­is­tence was a-swirl with the in­tox­i­ca­tion of the tiare flower?

How much does it cost to buy a boat, out­fit it and sail here? Who the hell cares. What­ever it costs, it’s worth it.

Yes, I’m un­abashedly drunk on Huahine! Smit­ten! Gob­s­macked! Af­ter 58 years of liv­ing aboard, af­ter all th­ese glo­ri­ous ports in my wake, Poly­ne­sian isles like Huahine still bring out the starry-eyed child in me, still put me in touch with the sim­ple joy of be­ing alive.

We stopped for a day, and stayed for a month. That’s what be­ing a sea gypsy is all about: rec­og­niz­ing the but­ter­fly of op­por­tu­nity as it flits by. We first heard about the is­land­wide party on the dinghy dock of Fare, the is­land’s laid-back cap­i­tal. “What’s a Heiva fes­ti­val?” asked Carolyn.

“I don’t know,” I re­sponded, “but any fete is good for Fat!”

Heiva, it turns out, means “to gather” in the lo­cal lingo, and the en­tire month of July in the So­ci­ety Is­lands is ded­i­cated to cel­e­brat­ing their indige­nous arts: singing, danc­ing, farm­ing, cook­ing, ca­noe­ing, carv­ing, draw­ing, sculpt­ing, drum­ming, ukulele play­ing, plant graft­ing, co­conut open­ing, rock car­ry­ing, flower-crown cre­at­ing, sto­ry­telling and more.

The good vibes were so thick you could float an eight-man out­rig­ger on them.

Why are Huahine and the Poly­ne­sians so spe­cial? One el­e­ment is their pride; an­other, their de­sire to ex­cel. They are also highly adapt­able. We know of no

We stopped for a day, and stayed for a month. That’s what be­ing a sea gypsy is all about: rec­og­niz­ing the but­ter­fly of op­por­tu­nity as it flits by.

other is­land cul­ture that has changed as quickly, with such lit­tle fuss. Best of all, they haven’t for­got­ten their il­lus­tri­ous, ad­ven­tur­ous past.

Re­mem­ber, while Chris Colum­bus and his boys were at­tempt­ing to get their cum­ber­some craft to sail into the wind at 3 knots through smooth seas, the lo­cal Poly­ne­sian lads were com­mut­ing and car­ry­ing cargo back and forth be­tween Tahiti and Hawaii with­out a thought, swiftly and safely.

As reg­u­lar read­ers of this pub­li­ca­tion know, I’ve spent many happy decades cruis­ing the Lesser An­tilles and the Caribbean. I love the West Indies: the peo­ple, their mu­sic, their laid-back cul­ture. How­ever, I would never row ashore in St.thomas and ask a lo­cal to dance for me. They would be out­raged. And I might end up dead. How­ever, Poly­ne­sians in the Pa­cific are ex­actly the op­po­site. We’ve had vil­lages send their chief out in a ca­noe to beg us to come ashore so the vil­lage could put on a show of danc­ing and singing — no charge, just for the fun of it.

Which brings us to the del­i­cate sub­ject of butt-shak­ing and re­li­gion.

Mis­sion­ar­ies ar­rived in this area in the 1800s with Bi­bles. They also car­ried germs that killed off many of the lo­cals. Yet Ton­gans, Fi­jians and Cook is­lan­ders had no prob­lem ac­cept­ing the Gospel and stop­ping their “ob­scene” danc­ing. Thus, to this day, the dancers of Hawaii use grace­ful arm move­ments to por­tray what was once done with wild hips.

I’m happy to say, the peo­ple of Huahine re­jected the whole “don’t move your hips, you hea­thens!” con­cept, and faith­fully main­tain their tra­di­tional Poly­ne­sian dances, which leave lit­tle doubt as to how ba­bies are made.

To say the woman and men of Huahine know how to shake their booties is a vast un­der­state­ment, and some of their butts are glo­ri­ous, ma­jes­tic and ul­tra­w­ide.

Think danc­ing and be­ing sexy is for thin folk? Not in Huahine! Dancers here are rated by the ton; the more, the mer­rier.

But it is the gy­rat­ing butts that truly stun. Pic­ture a 110-volt paint shaker plugged into 220 volts, and you’re close. It’s like watch­ing moun­tains un­du­late.

In or­der to fully ap­pre­ci­ate the di­ver­sity of the lo­cal per­form­ers, Carolyn and I rented a small mo­tor scooter and toured the bi-fold-shaped is­land at a snail’s pace, stop­ping at ev­ery vil­lage and marae (sa­cred place) along the way to chat. Every­one wel­comed us with open arms. We’d just wade into a group of fish­er­men and I’d ask them a ques­tion about their boats. We’d be in­stantly em­braced as broth­ers of the sea.

Each vil­lage tries to outdo the oth­ers’ danc­ing dur­ing Heiva, with the win­ners even­tu­ally com­pet­ing against each other in a cat­a­clysmic, earth­quake-in­duc­ing fi­nale in Fare. Pic­ture the Olympics with blurred, twirling, twist­ing butts and you’ll get the idea.

Don’t con­fuse th­ese af­fairs with the staid tourist shows at the re­sorts. Th­ese pageants are staged by Poly­ne­sians, with Poly­ne­sians, for Poly­ne­sians. Carolyn and I were the only off-is­lan­ders at many of the ex­hi­bi­tions. (Who knew taro-and­bread-fruit car­ry­ing could be so sen­su­ous and en­ter­tain­ing?)

Let’s take the night we watched the vil­lage of Parea per­form, for ex­am­ple. Since we’d be com­ing home in the dark, we con­tracted with a lo­cal named Heipua Faahu for a taxi that cost $5 each, round-trip. Heipua was de­lighted that we were hon­or­ing his vil­lage by at­tend­ing, and asked if he could bring his wife, Ta­tiana, along, be­cause she wanted to see the show too. Of course! Ta­tiana turned out to be a de­light­ful lady, fiercely proud of her cul­ture, who gave us each a large flo­ral ar­range­ment of fra­grant tiare flow­ers to wear around our necks, so that we, too, would “smell heaven” along with the per­form­ers. Only in Poly­ne­sia will a $5 taxi ride net you 40 or so fra­grant fresh flow­ers and a kiss on both cheeks!

Now, I’ve seen some ex­otic floor shows in Paris, New York and Rome, but noth­ing as oth­er­worldly and thrilling as th­ese grass-skirted troop­ers. And the ador­ing au­di­ence in­cluded every­one in town, from the an­cients to the just-born. All thrilled to wit­ness the pageantry, the mu­sic, the danc­ing, the singing — the whole amaz­ing am­bi­ence of one big fam­ily com­ing to­gether with un­abashed plea­sure.

Carolyn’s fa­vorite mo­ment came at the cli­max of the wild­flower-crown awards, when the chief of Fare placed the win­ning ar­range­ment on an ar­ranger’s head and their smile lit up the sky.

My fa­vorite mo­ment came dur­ing the dra­matic, highly dan­ger­ous co­pra com­pe­ti­tion, dur­ing which they ax open a co­conut and re­move its meat. One of th­ese teams, about 10 feet away from me, was cov­ered in tat­toos. I looked at their hands, and each fin­ger was a mass of scars; ditto their feet. They openly prayed be­fore the com­pe­ti­tion, be­seech­ing the gods, both lo­cal and im­ported, to smile upon them. At the last pos­si­ble minute, mem­bers of the team sharp­ened their axes and knives to per­fec­tion, finely strop­ping the sur­gi­cal edges with leather to­ward the end. Im­me­di­ately be­fore the gun, they sort of swayed to lim­ber up, ea­gerly a-quiver to be­gin.

Then, bang! Co­conuts lit­er­ally flew. Ax blades whirled; knife blades flashed; and the moun­tain of co­conut meat grew. What to­tally freaked me out was that they were hold­ing the co­conuts in place with their naked toes — and slic­ing the co­conuts in half with their heavy, sharp axes. It seemed like only an in­stant be­fore the win­ners, my lads with the tat­toos, had their gi­ant burlap sack full of co­conut meat.

“Sell the boat,” I joked with Carolyn that evening when we re­turned to Ganesh. “I want to stay for­ever!” “You think?” she smiled. “Ab­so­lutely,” I laughed. “Tear up the pass­ports.”

Nei­ther of us spoke for a while, then Carolyn chuck­led. “It’s fun, Fatty, grow­ing old with you.” Ah, fi­nally! That’s it in a nut­shell. Huahine is a small green speck on our big blue planet where such words seem per­fectly nat­u­ral, where it is im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve the world isn’t brim­ming with friend­ship, re­spect and love.

Af­ter three months of so­cial­iz­ing with old and new friends in French Poly­ne­sia, the Good­lan­ders are cur­rently holed up alone, but to­gether, in the land­less atoll of Bev­eridge Reef.

Dur­ing the Heiva fes­ti­val, dancers from each town come to­gether and try to outdo one an­other. The woman rep­re­sent­ing the cap­i­tal, Fare, put on a mem­o­rable show.

Two dou­ble-hulled ca­noes, or va‘as, with 10 women in each, bat­tle for first in a Heiva ca­noe race. Ra­zor-sharp axes and knives are the tools of choice for men in a co­conut-open­ing bat­tle.

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