Chapter 20: June 20th- July 31th, 2003:
Mythical Bali Hai, Revisited: The Society Islands of French Polynesia--
Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, and Bora Bora
Mi Gitana in Bora Bora
June 20th, 2003: Safe arrival in Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia
On last writing, we were leaving the Tuamotu atoll of Rangiroa heading on a 2-day passage southwest towards our last group of French Polynesia, the Society Islands, with our first landfall into Papeete Harbor on the island of Tahiti. The Society Islands are divided into 2 groups called the Windward (the eastern group) and the Leeward (the western group) Islands. Tahiti, in the Windward group, is the largest and best-known island and with it’s international airport, is where most tourists make landfall when visiting. Many people even speak of Tahiti as if it were the whole of French Polynesia however it is only 1 of 10 islands in the Society Island group and 1 of 118 of all of French Polynesia.
We had a wonderfully smooth 2 day passage for a change, reminding us what sailing is really supposed to be about… great trade winds from the RIGHT direction (for a change) so we did not have to fight to get to our intended direction… that were not too strong, but enough to fill our 4 sails and propel us at a good speed. And on top of that the seas were fairly smooth and also from a comfortable direction. The sun was shining and we had no squalls. And NOTHING broke enroute, so in other words, everything was perfect and renewed our love of sailing Mi Gitana… exactly what the psychiatrist ordered after our recent miserable weather passages in the last few months and resulting soggy spirits.
We were even going fast enough to put us ahead of schedule (unheard with our usual slug-like speed) so we took down our forward jib sail to slow us down so as not to arrive before our daybreak arrival yesterday. In the wee hours of the morning we could see the millions of tiny lights of Papeete and soon the huge volcanic mountains were in view, quite a contrast from the lowly populated unlit other islands and the low-lying atolls of the Tuamotus. Also for the first time we saw and had to dodge lots of boat traffic: a huge container ship awaiting daybreak to enter the harbor, and several high-speed inter-island ferries.
Our first challenge upon entering the harbor was to find a “parking place” along what is called the “quay” (pronounced, “key”) — a seawall with a boardwalk along the waterfront in downtown Papeete. We radioed ahead and found another “Puddle Jump” boat (one we hadn’t met) that said they’d assist us. They found us the only remaining space and directed us to it via handheld VHF radios. When we saw the space, we about fainted. There was no way we thought our fat-butted boat was going to fit in that narrow spot. First of all, I should back up and say that to get into these spaces, you do something called “Med Moor” which means you drop a bow anchor in the harbor and then back up to the dock or seawall, throwing a line off your stern to someone ashore who puts your line around a bollard (a large metal cleat) on the seawall to attach you to land. You then pull that shore line taut to pull your butt-end closer to the seawall, while at the same time releasing more chain from the anchor on the bow and at the same time, putting the boat in reverse to let yourself move back. In any circumstances this is not an easy feat, especially since most sailboats with a single prop do not back up very well. And Mi Gitana is no exception to that… in fact there is no way she will back up in anything that resembles a straight line! But seeing the slim space we had to go into, we thought it an impossibility and were about to give up and go to an anchorage south of Papeete. But with lots of words of encouragement via the VHF hand held radios from ashore cruisers, and people standing on both boats that we were to back between, plus another couple of people on the dock to assist, we gave it a go, and somehow were able to get close enough to throw some lines and with lots of fenders (rubber ball bumpers) between the boats, get in without a scratch to us or our neighbor boats. And Joe and I were even speaking to each other when the ordeal was over!!!
It was both wonderful and culture shock to pull into the big city after the solitude of the Pacific crossing, and visiting the sparsely populated islands of the Marquesas and the atolls of the Tuamotus. We hadn’t been in anything that resembled a city since leaving Puerto Vallarta (which still has 4 times the population of Papeete). But, how wonderful (!) after 10 weeks of being either at sea or “on the hook” at anchor in some bay, to be tied up to land again… to be able to walk off the boat at will… to have unlimited water (from a faucet on the dock) that we had previously to ration and had to desalinate with a noisy machine and an even nosier generator… So with shore water, we can take long showers daily and even wash the boat (with something other than rainwater) for the first time, since we left Mexico.
Shortly after tying up yesterday, our first mission was to find out a way to get hooked up to shore power so we could also, (in addition to the luxury of water), have electricity from the shore instead of using our boat batteries (and again the need to run the generator twice daily to run my refrigerator and freezer). Unfortunately, the shore power here is 220 volt, something we will need to deal with now everywhere on the remainder of our journey. So Joe and I set off on what turned out to be a 7-hour wild-goose chase to try and find a big enough transformer to transform the 220 volts into 110 for our boat needs. The advice we had gotten in advance was, "you just go to the hardware store and buy a transformer." We also noted that none of the other transient cruiser boats (like us) were using the electricity provided by the dock. We soon found out why. We went to about 20 hardware stores and other various places. We'd go to one place and they'd say "no" but would suggest another place or two. Then those places wouldn't have it, but would have other suggestions. Oh, and this wasn’t easy as again, we don’t speak French and although several of the merchants DID speak some English, they spoke it about as well as I speak Spanish, which is okay, but a lot is lost in translation!!! Anyway, we certainly got a great walking tour of the industrial and hardware store parts of town. Eventually a nice store merchant (who spoke excellent English) volunteered to get on the phone and call a few places for us until what we needed was located. But as in Mexico (so this all day searching for one item is something NOT new to us!), "N.E.E." -- "nothing's ever easy!" Joe (being the electrical engineer) figured out a way to wire it directly to our circuit board and it is, so far, working great. So it is wonderful to have really HARD frozen food in the freezer again (something never achieved even running the generator 2 times a day for the refrig/freezer while at anchor or underway!)
On day 2, today, we got up the energy to tackle the official checking in procedure. We had no idea what to expect, especially with our visa situation, having not paid a bond yet, etc. [The French require all boats visiting to pay a “bond” (which amounts to about $1,200 for each person, equivalent to a one way airplane ticket to your home city,) that they hold until you depart the country (at the end of your visa.) [They do this, I’m told as many years ago boaters arrived and either didn’t leave, or when their boats wrecked on the islands many reefs, they then said they didn’t have money to repair their boats and/or to depart the country and fly home.] We had 3 stops to make with all our official boat documents, passports, etc.: Immigrations, Customs, and the Port Captain, all of whose offices are close together along the waterfront. Our worries about the visa situation were all for naught. In fact, we would have been fine if we had never gotten a French visa in Mexico (lots of money, lots of worries and hassles, as well as lots of time wasted). It was not needed. For a change, the check in process was fairly easy. We paid our bond to the bank for immigrations and then got our "automatic" 3-month visa, which started effective when we checked into the Marquesas. So we are allowed to legally stay here until the 4th of August. Customs then stamped our papers, as did the Port Captain, and we were on our way. As our plans are now, we plan to stay here in Papeete, until the Bastille day celebrations (July 14th) are over, then head to Moorea, then Huahine and then Bora Bora-- probably staying only 5-6 days in each place and will depart around the 5-7th of August and head for the Cook Islands.
The big thing here now, and why Papeete is filling up with boats and other tourists is the largest celebration of the year is about to start. It is a 2-3 week celebration, called the Fe^te or Heiva, starting on the end of June (starts with parades actually next week), ending on Bastille Day, the 14th of July. They have dance (Polynesian) contests, music events, outrigger rowing contests, Miss Tahiti beauty pageant, and supposedly lots of other events that go on day and night. Most of the events occur within a few blocks of where our boat is tied up. This is the main reason we have arrived in Papeete so early (cutting short our desire to stay longer in the Tuamotus), so we could get here early enough to get one of the coveted spaces along the waterfront to tie up to. So we should be able to see most everything for our planned 3-½ week stay here.
June 24th: French Polynesia History/Cultural Lesson
In each of my chapters of my journal, besides our own experiences, I try to include at least a little bit of history or cultural information on the countries we are visiting. So for any of you who are interested, here is a little more about French Polynesia’s past. (If you’re not interested, skip down to next section below.)
There are a lot of “theories” as to where the ancestors of ancient Polynesia originated, but most archeologists feel that they set out from some place in Asia 3,500 years ago, determined to colonize new lands. First they settled in Western Polynesia (Tonga, Samoa, etc.) and then made their way to what is now the Marquesas around 300 AD; then 200 years later, they made their way to Hawaii and Easter Island. It wasn’t until around 800 AD (during European “Dark Ages”) that they began to settle the Society Islands (Tahiti, etc.). [Then finally they arrived at New Zealand, completing their 8,000-mile triangle of colonization.] What is amazing is their navigation abilities, when you consider that even European seaman were afraid to leave the sight of land during the First Century. These Polynesians sailed and paddled such great distances (often Upwind — no easy feat!), with no compass, using only the stars to navigate.
For nearly 1000 years the ancient Polynesians practiced their traditional self-sustaining lifestyle in these islands, living in complete harmony with the land, the sea, and the forces of nature around them. Since the islands were completely volcanic, these early travelers brought with them all the plants and animals they needed to duplicate the lifestyle of their ancestral homelands. The archeologists think that they lived under a strict caste system, but worked together collectively with a strong community. They were deeply religious believing their gods and high chiefs possessed great spiritual power. Despite occasional tribal wars, cannibalism and human sacrifice, indications are that the Polynesians lived a relatively peaceful existence.
It wasn’t until the Magellan expedition, which miraculously happened upon the Marquesas in the 1500’s, that “outsiders” invaded French Polynesia. After that, a few other explorers sailed through these waters but it wasn’t until 1767 that the British Captain, Samuel Wallis aboard the HMS Dolphin, came upon Tahiti while searching for a mythical southern land mass (Australia) which was thought to “balance” the northern hemisphere. Later entered Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian (HMS Bounty) followed by the British Protestant missionaries who gradually converted the islanders to Christianity, and with their Victorian morality put an end to the local’s scant native clothing, their tiki gods, their provocative dancing and the traditional body tattooing. The French, who had already established control over the Marquesas, in 1842, showed up with a ship, pointed guns at Papeete and forced the Tahitian queen to yield to the French soldiers and their Catholic missionaries, establishing the status of “French protectorate” on the Tahitian Islands, the Marquesas, and the Tuamotus. In 1881, the last Tahitian king, Pomare V, who had no heirs, and had no real interest in ruling, was coerced into signing away his kingdom, which then became a French colony. (Interestingly enough, despite the French Catholic missionaries and Government banning Protestantism, the islands today are 75-80% Protestant!)
The British also had “colonies” in the South Pacific, but they ruled their colonies differently. While the French system installed “direct rule” by French officials appointed by the French government, the British, in contrast, practiced “indirect rule” with the customary chiefs (such as in Fiji) or royalty (such as in Tonga) retaining most of their traditional powers. The British colonial (local) officials had more decision-making authority than their French counterparts who had to adhere to instructions received from Paris. While the French sought to undermine local traditions, the British defended the native’s traditional life style.
During World War II, the Pacific Island nations had great strategic significance. French Polynesia’s main contribution was centered on Bora Bora. To impede the Japanese advance, the Americans in “Operation Bobcat,” used Bora Bora as a supply base. Although the Japanese never reached the French Polynesian Islands, 6,000 US soldiers landed on Bora Bora in 1942 and a runway was built to transport supplies in and out. (Note: Up until the “international” airport was built in Papeete, Tahiti in the 1960’s, this military runway was the only international way to get into the islands. The runway is still used as Bora Bora’s airport today.)
Although after WWII, many Pacific island nations were de-colonized, France held onto its islands. It costs France billions of francs a year to maintain these islands (as well as other colonies in the Caribbean and other locations) in order to perpetuate its status as a medium —sized world power.
Another reason it held onto these islands was for nuclear testing. No other area on earth was more directly affected by the nuclear arms race than the Pacific Islands. From 1945 until 1996, one nuclear power or another (including the USA and Great Britain) was using the many Pacific Islands for nuclear testing. During this time, more than 250 nuclear bombs, (over half of them by the French,) were detonated. The US and British halted their above ground island testing in 1963 but the French tests continued in the Tuamotus despite worldwide protests, including a 1973 “World Court” request. The French finally gave in and did their final round of nuclear bombs in the Tuamotus Islands in 1996.
Since the French no longer need these Pacific islands for nuclear testing, they have little by little been giving some of the internal management of French Polynesia to local rule. The French have agreed to continue it’s tremendous amount of financial aid until 2005, but if independence is given after that, it is expected to bring the end of artificial prosperity and great social and economic changes for the French Polynesians.
Well enough for history… Here’s a few more Island “facts.”
· There are only 13 letters in the Polynesian alphabet…so besides the words having so many vowels, many words have 5-6 meanings.
· There are a total of 118 islands in French Polynesia, but only a total population of 220,000… 100,000 of whom live in Papeete, Tahiti. About 66% are Polynesian, 12% French/European, 16% mixed Polynesian/European, 5% Asian (mostly Chinese).
· School is compulsory up until age 16. The only high schools are in the Society Islands… which means if the children in the Marquesas and Tuamotu Island groups want to go to high school, they must live away from their families and “board” at the high school.
· The last human sacrifice in French Polynesia was in 1915.
· French Polynesia is one of the richest countries in the South Pacific with the GNP comparable to that of Australia… artificially inflated standard of living is due to the flood of subsidies by the French.
One of the staples of the Polynesian economy is coconuts. Almost every element of the coconut and tree are used: the palm leaves are plaited for roof coverings and basketwork; the fibrous exterior of the nut for making rope; the shells for bowls and decorative carvings; the coconut water (not milk) is a favorite drink (and can also as in emergency for fluid replacement, since it is sterile when opened be used as an intravenous fluid–bet you didn’t know THAT!); the young coconut flesh is squeezed to produce coconut milk; the mature coconut is dried to produce copra which is rich in vegetable fat; it is then crushed, heated , pressed and refined into oil that is sold to the food and cosmetic industry.
· Coconut trees last 100 years and produce 50-60 coconuts a year;
· More people worldwide die from being bonked in the head from a falling coconut than from shark bites.
Okay, I guess that is enough to cram in all at once for education sake…
June 27th: Starting Week 2 in Papeete
The town of Papeete IS really not a great first impression of a South Pacific Island, and by many standards… just plain ugly. NO distinctive (except boxy 50's style stucco) architecture. The streets are noisy and crowded. There are a few parks around with trees, but it doesn't at all have a "tropical" feeling to it. Also just a few yards away from where we are tied up (right on the waterfront) is a construction site where they have these noisy machines that pound on huge steal beams all day and into the evening. But that said, for now, I am quite content to sit right here for several weeks. There were 4 cruise ships in in 2 days over the weekend (parked right out our window), plus we have front row seats, so to speak for the quay activities of the upcoming Bastille day events, the parade down main street, the outrigger races in the bay here, etc.
At our dockside tie-up, we also lack anything that resembles privacy, as our neighbor boats on each side are no more than 1 -2 ft away (depending on the wind... sometimes we are "touching" bumpers). But I don't mind as there are a lot of "puddle jump" boats here that we have communicated with on the nets -- some we had not met before, and some we have met and been with in the Marquesas and Tuamotus. For me, I need and enjoy having other people to talk to -- Of course, Joe, the introvert, could care less about that aspect of where we are, but for me it's nice. The one boat right next to us has a 2 year old and an 8 month old -- babies aboard. I can't imagine how tough that is (both still in diapers!) to be making this trip and these rough passages. And they are not young either (both over 40!). More power to them!
But despite the noisiness, the close quarters, etc, we are really loving being tied up to land. Now we can stroll out for a coffee and chocolate croissant for breakfast (yum) or a dinner at the eateries at the park on the quay close by us along the waterfront. In this location, there is also a gazebo that often has musicians that set up and play for “free,” as well as some of the best eateries in town. The place comes alive shortly after sunset seven days a week, and is not only filled with tourists, but locals. In this waterfront area, they have these vans that they’ve turned into diners-on-wheels called “Les Roulottes.” Flaps are lowered on each side of the vans and become counters and stools are set up for the customers. Inside these food vans, the owners prepare the food. It’s amazing what they can prepare in such a small space… about everything you’d find at regular restaurant around town, only at lower prices (typically about $10 a meal). Next to the vans, some of them they also set up barbeques and on them set woks for chow mein, as well as grill steak, chicken and fish. And another that has a spit over white-hot coals with an entire baby cow squewered for rotisseried veal. (Of course there have been not-so funny jokes about it looking like a skinned rotweiller!) They even have a couple of roulettes with wood-fired pizza ovens in them…so Joe is getting his pizza fix satisfied! You can finish your meal with ice cream, a crepe (with 20 different choices of fillings) or a Belgium waffle with just as many choices of toppings. The only thing they don’t serve is alcohol. Joe and I usually split a meal (as the portions are high), and then follow it with an ice cream or a desert crepe.
EVERYTHING (except the 40 cent baguettes and meals, as above, at the roulettes) is expensive here. Some examples: Diet Cokes-- $1-$2.00 per CAN (in the supermarket… and double that in a restaurant) each here (even if bought in a 6-pack or a case!); Pretzels... which Joe can't do without -- $5.00 for a very small bag!!! A can of local made (Hinano) beer -- $3-$4.00 per can (again even if in a 6-pack) and up to $5-6.00 in a restaurant. For a mixed drink in a restaurant or a bar, they charge for the mixer and again for the liquor… so for what we drink, a rum and diet coke is between $6-8. To buy Caribbean Rum that we were buying for $3-5.00 a bottle in Mexico (and around $8-10 in San Diego), we would pay $40-50 here. We were hoping that at least French Wine would be reasonable, but the cheapest bottle is around $20. A bottle of French Champagne that we can find in the states for around $18 a bottle costs between $55 and $70.00 here. I guess we won’t be drinking any champagne here!!! In the market, a locally grown cantaloupe (ONE) is $10.00; Peaches, Apples, etc run about $7-8.00 a pound, a whole fresh chicken costs between $12-18. Services are also expensive, such as Laundry, which is $16.00 per load. A roll of film costs between $35-42 per roll to develop (single shots). None of this should have been much of a surprise to us as we had read for years of the outrageous prices. But the reality of it hits you when you get here. What is amazing to me is how the locals survive paying these prices for food and services. They must make millionaire salaries!
The weather has been fairly nice. Mid 80's during the day and humid... but still nothing like the heat and humidity we had in Mexico. Plus on the boat, on the water, we are cooler than if we walk a few blocks inland. Of course, this is the middle of winter (equivalent to end of December here!) for them too. We've had a few days with cloudy and rainy weather, and others with bright sunshine.
We have a lot of odds and ends of boat repairs that need to be done, plus a lot of cleaning (after so long at sea), but we are tackling them little by little. We bought some fancy sound system speakers in Puerto Vallarta before we left and an MP3 player (a sort of CD player but each CD plays about 300 songs instead of 10-14)... so Joe right now is finally getting around to installing the speakers. (Before we just could set up the speakers when we were in port but had to stow them when traveling... now we will be able to keep them out -- i.e. they are "permanently" installed so they won't budge when the boat rock and rolls!) Anyway, he has wires running all over the place now, trying to get this "project" done. It was one of those "nice to do" things on our "to do" list versus the "have to get done" things.
I was a little afraid that the world situation with the French attitude toward Americans, might be evident here, but it is not. Everyone couldn't be nicer or more gracious. I wish I spoke the language though, but I had enough trouble struggling through (although had gotten quite good by the end) with my Spanish. I do have 2 phrase books (one for "Polynesian" and one for French) plus a big French Dictionary... plus language CD's. But other than one French phrase book, which I carry in my bag (and almost never get out), the other sources are pretty much untouched. (I listened to the CD's for about 1 hour total on the Pacific crossing, despite my determination to "study" for an hour a day!!) Anyhow, we are struggling along and seem to be doing okay NOT speaking French. In Papeete, most of the businesses seem to be run by the Chinese -- (talk about strange -- to hear a Chinese person speaking French), and usually SOMEone in the store/business/restaurant speaks at least some English. So we are managing somehow. What is weird though, because I am so used to speaking and responding to things in Spanish, is that I keep saying "si" instead of "oui-oui" for yes, and other Spanish words and phrases flow out of my mouth when I am trying to use hand signals and communicate to someone who does NOT speak English.
June 29th: Internal Autonomy Day
Today is an Island holiday, which from what we can figure out is their equivalence to “independence” day, however, as above history lesson, they are NOT independent. We think it is the day they received some more rights to participate in their own ruling, and some say in their governing laws. Anyway, for almost a week they’ve been decorating the main street (where we are tied up next to) along the water front, installing bleachers/grand stands, hanging up lights on the trees, etc. We got there several hours in advance so we could get a place to sit in one of the bleachers, however at the time the parade started, there was still plenty of space. We think that is because in the 2 hour long parade almost every resident on this island (and even some from other islands) must have marched in the parade — hence, there being more participants in the parade than watching it!!! It went on forever, and mostly consisted of groups such as: every member of every kids soccer team, every kid in every karate school, every basketball team, every woman’s auxiliary, all the city park workers, etc., etc. The newly elected Miss Tahiti led the parade, and there were a few of the groups marched in Tahitian printed floral dresses, but otherwise, after about 30 minutes, the parade was long enough. But we, along with several other cruisers endured throughout the entire 2 hours, before heading with the group of us over to Les Roulettes for a dinner of chow mein (for Joe) and barbequed swordfish (for me).
The big news here is the big celebration (that we've been waiting for since our arrival), called the Fe^te or Hei’va that ALWAYS goes on here for the 2-3 weeks at end of June/beginning of July ending on July 14th/Bastille day has been indefinitely "delayed." The main tourist information center is close to where we are, and I was going in every 2-3 days for the last few weeks to try and get a schedule of events… and they kept telling me it would be out "the end of the month" -- well when I went in on the 28th of June and they said the same thing, I said "this IS the end of the month," so they said their usual, " come back tomorrow". Anyway, it seemed weird as usually the events -- like the preliminaries for all the competitions (Tahitian dancing, outrigger canoe races, other local competitions such as fire walking, etc.) should have already started. Well now it seems they are saying nothing will start, IF it starts, until the 3rd or 4th week of July, because the President of France is coming and they are waiting for his schedule and his arrival for the celebrations... and since he will be spending Bastille day in France, well it will be SOME indefinite time after that!!! So us, as well as all the other boaters and vacationers who planned their visits here around being here for the Bastille Day and Fe^te celebrations are just out of luck. That was the reason we got here so early as we had also heard if we didn't get here by the middle of June, we wouldn't find a place to tie our boat up to. Anyway, we don't have enough time left on our schedule, nor our visas to stay here until (and the dates are still too wishy-washy) the events begin, -- unless we wanted to skip Bora Bora, Moorea, and the other islands, so we are going to try and ready ourselves to head out of here next week (about 5 days earlier than we had planned). It's really disappointing as I was really looking forward to the dance competitions, especially, with all their costumes. It was great on the islands in the Marquesas being able to watch the dancers practice for the competitions, but they were not in costumes and again, they were just "practicing." I was looking forward to the real thing. Wouldn't you know it, that we've been reading about this for years and years from those who have come before us, and had been looking forward to it and planned around it -- and the one year we make it, it is "delayed" by a month! Oh well.
We have taken the buses around and out of town a little more in the last week, getting off the boat to do some exploring. So we’ve been able to see a little more of the mountains and coastline. (Our view from the boat is just of downtown Papeete and the busy Harbor.) One day we went to the Museum of Tahiti, which also had a special Gauguin exhibit with some of his original works plus his “history” in French Polynesia. We really enjoyed it. Another day we escaped the city and we went to a really large super market at a town south of here. They had a cheese and pate’ selection that was 3-4 times bigger in square footage than most of the entire market-places we had seen in the Marquesas and Tuamotus. Unfortunately, most were exorbitantly expensive!
We had an unusual 4th of July on Friday. Unusual, in that it certainly did not feel like the 4th -- we wouldn't have even known it was the 4th if we hadn't looked at the date that morning. We had an outing with some other cruisers that morning and they also didn't know it was the 4th. So just another ho-hum normal day here. Too bad someone amongst us didn't organize a party of some sort. But actually the "American" boats tied up in the harbor where we are, are quite the minority. We have quite an international set from all over. Quite a change from what we are used to in Mexico when 99% of the boats were from the US and Canada.
On the morning of the "4th," I organized the outing for 6 of us (3 boats) to go to the "oldest distillery in Tahiti." It was about an hour bus trip away. We were told it is easy to catch a bus out of Papeete, but that they run very INfrequently, if at all in the opposite direction (i.e. back here) after about noon time, and in fact, I had heard from others who had taken trips out of town from here that they got stranded and had to pay expensive taxi fares to get back to their boats. So heeding their advice we took off at about 8:30 in the morning... NOT our usual time to start to drink! As we left town the sky started getting darker and darker as we were heading IN to a lightning and rainstorm. And of course, just as we arrived at our destination, (the bus driver told us where to get off) the downpour let loose. Thank goodness, the distillery was right there on the main road where the bus let us off. But anyway, we kidded with the young girl pouring the samples that we would have to stay until the rain stopped! We got a short tour of the distillery which was long enough to give us an idea what they did there. They get fruit from all of the islands (pineapple, oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, mangos, etc.) and squeeze it, ferment it and distill it (in a copper topped machine) into 100% (200 proof) alcohol. Then it is diluted down to whatever drink they are making. They don't grow sugar cane anymore on the islands here, but they import molasses from Fiji and also make "rum". Anyway, we then, after the tour, proceeded to stand under a little grass hut in the rain and go thru their list of about 20 different spirits and taste each one. Just small tastes, but with that many of them, and as high a proof as they were, we could feel the effects when it was time to leave (when the rain stopped!) We bought some of their rum (which didn't taste much like rum), and some of their high proof "pineapple punch" for later tasting on the boat. After we'd made our purchased, the rain HAD subsided and we were lucky enough to get the bus back. So that was our only “event” on the 4th of July.
One of the couples who went with us to the distillery were from the boat that we "buddy-boated" with across the Pacific, Wind Spirit, with Barry and Sue our friends from Puerto Vallarta. They arrived here arrived a few days ago. Previously since departing Mexico, we saw them only for one hour in one anchorage (they pulled into an anchorage as we were about to pull anchor, so we spoke briefly) in the Marquesas, as they were mostly "behind" us in our travels and we all spread out going to different atolls in the Tuamotus. But anyway, at least we have been able to see them a while this time, before we continue on.
Since there is no reason to hang around Papeete any more (previously, as explained above, we were just waiting for the Bastille celebrations), we have been getting the boat ready to leave land again and to head on to other islands. We were planning on leaving Tahiti today or tomorrow but some ferocious winds have hit us here in the harbor now for the last couple of days so we are staying put until they subside. They are not showing up on any weather reports so we don’t know what is causing them or when they will subside. We also may be being a little “gun shy” from our seemingly bad luck with wind and weather… but we will stay put here rather than be out to sea in these screwy winds.
In the last few days, we’ve mostly been studying all our cruising guides, charts, etc to plan our next month or two of travels. I'm looking forward to some new scenery, but I'll miss being able to be tied up to land, as this has been nice being able to walk off the boat and walk around whenever we want to. But we'll soon become REAL cruisers again living on the hook and at the weather god's mercy.
I'm also having to provision (stocking the boat with food) for another couple of months worth of travels. The grocery stores here are great (other than the prices), and of course the best part is going to the open-air market to buy fresh produce and fish.
July 14th: Bastille Day in Cook’s Bay, in Moorea
3 days ago (the 11th) we headed over to the northern part of Moorea, only about a 15-mile trip, from Papeete (Tahiti) to a place called “Cook’s Bay”. Actually Captain Cook first landed in another bay just next to this one, but for some reason, this one (that he NEVER visited) ended up with his name. Go figure!!! Moorea, like all of the volcanic islands here, is also surrounded by a barrier reef, so there are only a few entrances for boats to enter. Then once inside the treacherous low-lying reef, the waters are fairly smooth as the reef holds out most swells. There are several upscale ($600-$1,000/night) resort hotels (more of those grass huts on stilts on the water types of places) here, as well as several restaurants. But mostly people come here for the beauty of the high spire type peaked volcanic mountains that seem to leap out of the lagoons, and it’s lush green-ness. Actually Tahiti (if it wasn’t for the crowdedness of the metropolitan Papeete) would be almost as beautiful, but Moorea is what you picture when you think of a South Pacific island. We are close to the area where the recent remake of “The Bounty” (as in “Mutiny”) was made… with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.
As soon as we dropped anchor on Friday afternoon, someone from another boat that we knew, hailed us on the radio and informed us in a couple of hours, ashore they were having one segment of the singing and dance competitions. (All of the islands have a series of competitions with the finalists who go to Papeete for the Fe^te Hei’va celebrations to compete against all the other island’s finalists… these “final” events was what was SUPPOSED to be going on in early July but as mentioned earlier, was delayed until the end of July). Anyway, not knowing what to expect, we got there early, had some dinner at one of the outdoor eateries they had set up next to the elevated stage outside along the shore line of the bay. Then at the appointed time the judges got up on stage and made speeches (of which we had no idea what they were saying), followed by a choral group of about 30 men and women. They performed for about 30 minutes in some wonderful Polynesian chant type songs that would send chills down your spine.
Following them was the dance troupe. (We later found out that only one group — singing and one group dancing–perform during each of the competition nights… then the judges grade them and select from several nights performances, one group to represent Moorea in Tahiti.) So although we only saw one group dance, they put on 3 different sets each in different costumes, and performed for almost 90 minutes. I have never seen anything so spectacular!! Tahitian dancing (unlike the smooth flowing, hip swaying Hawaiian Hula) is very fast, provocative, with lots of hip movement for the women and knee/leg movement for the men… The women are still graceful as their upper body does not move and they have graceful hand movements, but the hips move at 90 miles an hour and the men look like they have legs of rubber. The costumes, all out of natural leaves, fibers, coconuts, flowers, etc. with high head- dresses add to the drama. And they looked like they were really having fun, with lots of real (not staged) smiles. The missionaries when they arrived on the islands, feeling the dancing was way too erotic (and is it ever!!), banned all forms of island dancing; it wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s that a revival of dance troupes occurred, bringing back near-forgotten myths of old Polynesia from the past.
Almost as amazing as the dancers themselves are the sounds from the percussion instruments from the “band” that accompanied the dancers. The drums of all different sizes and pitch are made of hollowed out rosewood and coconut tree trunks with sharkskin covers, and small hollowed out wooden boxes hit with sticks. Along with them are various types of guitars and ukuleles, and for some of the dance numbers, there are singers to accompany the percussion and strings.
So although I was so disappointed we were going to miss out on this year’s celebration in Tahiti, I really can’t imagine the dancing (or the singing or the costumes) being any better than I got to see here. Tonight we are going to shore again for a second night of these competitions, so I guess we’ll have a chance to see whether it IS possible for another troupe to be as good as the one the other night!
Today for most of the day they have been having the outrigger canoe races… also a part of Bastille Day celebrations… And similar to the dance competitions, the winners of these competitions will go over to Papeete in a few weeks to compete against other islanders. It is like their national sport here. They have crews of 1, 3, 6, or even up to 16 and men as well as women compete in a variety of distances. Although today we did see a couple of “traditional” wooden variety outriggers, most are high-tech fiberglass and epoxy, very light-weight, very sleek canoes that would make their ancestors turn over in the grave! The locals all gathered along the shore line to watch the races, but I think we had the best seats in the house sitting on our boat watching the canoes speed past us just a few feet away.
July 20th: Still in Moorea
We’ve now spent a few more days here in Moorea than we planned, thanks to the weather again. Since I last wrote, we were even stuck on the boat for a few days as the winds were up to 40 knots-- actually they would come in huge gusts that would last for less than a minute, then calm down, then a few minutes later gust again... but this would go on for hours. A lot of it was because this "idyllic" anchorage (supposedly one of the most beautiful in all of French Polynesia) is at the foot of high volcanic mountains (hence the great views) but the wind came thru venturi-like at exponential forces. So anyway, Joe being the conscientious captain that he is, did not feel safe leaving the boat to even go to shore for fear of the anchor dragging. Also accompanying the winds on some of the days were black clouds and occasional rain. We had also wanted to do some diving there as it is famous for diving on the reef, but besides the squirrelly weather, to complicate things, I got a pretty bad head cold and diving is a no-no with a cold due to the need for clear ear canals for pressurizing and depressurizing, so that was also a disappointment.
That said, when the wind was NOT blowing like snot and the skies were NOT gray, Cook’s Bay here really is a beautiful place. We did get off the boat, as mentioned earlier to see the Tahitian dance competition, and to eat dinner twice (I even got osso bucco at an Italian place), and finally on yesterday, we took a "Safari" tour of the island. No, we did not see any tigers or elephants, but on this "tour" they take you around the island in 4- wheel drive trucks that are open in the back with bench style seats for 6 passengers. They only have one road that circles the island, but they have several path-type rocky passages up the mountains to get great views looking at the mountains around us, down on the coral reefs, the passes, and the bays below. We stopped at an ancient ceremonial ground (similar to those we saw in the Marquesas), another fruit juice distillery (with lots of free flavored alcohol samples!) a vanilla bean plantation, a pineapple plantation, etc. Anyway, for us it was really great to get off the boat and to be able to see something more than the views of the bay FROM our boat, so although our butts were sore from the bouncing, it was a good day for us and we enjoyed ourselves!
July 21st: Huahine
Yesterday, Saturday, we left Moorea for the island of Huahine, about 100 miles to the west of Moorea... so it was an overnight trip for us. We left at about 2:30PM during a rain storm and once out of the pass (the entrance/exit to the coral reef that surrounds the island), we were assaulted by more high winds (averaging around 25 knots) and tremendous seas (not as big as some that we've been in but > 10 feet) coming at us from multiple directions... which make for a very uncomfortable ride. It's getting so that I really dread going out to sea each time we need to move. The "good times" we have sailing seem to be few and far between, at least on this side of the world.
To make the trip worse, we started hitting squalls at about sunset last night, and probably went through about 12-15 of them... not huge ones, but enough to get you wet and to raise the adrenalin as the boat speed increases through them. They are always scarier at night time as you cannot see them coming except to watch them approach you by radar and know there is nothing you can do except pray they pass over you quickly and don't heel you over ears to the water! Most of these not-so-huge squalls our autopilot was able to handle. (I dread the inevitable day when the autopilot poops out on us! Since it is a 5K-expense item, we do not carry a spare!) The worse one we hit was just after sunrise and just as we were getting ready to enter the pass through the reef that surrounds Huahine. We had taken our sails down (thank goodness) when we were hit with 40 knots of wind and torrential rain, rendering us with almost zero visibility, but we were able to maneuver still to keep us off the reef and within about 10 minutes it was all over with. We got in the pass okay and the squalls stopped.
After entering the pass, we still had cloudy overcast and drizzly weather as we continued heading to the southernmost (western) anchorage called Avea Bay, a 3-hour motor snaking around the island (on sharp alert as there is coral and shallow reefs everywhere), on the southern tip of Huahine Island… And as a wonderful reward for our awful passage and previous night, what a gorgeous place the anchorage was... beautiful white sand beaches (the first we've seen since we left MEXICO!!!), and gorgeous turquoise water / lagoon for diving and snorkeling. Although it is supposed to be a remote anchorage where most boats do not go, there were 4 boats here when we got here and there were 4 boats following our snake trail around the island (don't know them, but they happened to arrive at the same time as us, I guess), so the anchorage went from 4 to 9 boats in an hour. There is no town or village here, but looks like there are some hotel type bungalows on the beach. Our plans had been to spend a week here to do some diving and snorkeling and relaxing... but since we got stuck in Moorea a few extra days, our time here may be cut short by a few days, as we want to allow enough time to have a week in Bora Bora before we exit French Polynesia for good.
July 25th: Leaving Huahine Behind
We’ve had a nice few days here so far. The wind is still kicking up but nowhere near as high as it was in Moorea, so we’ve been able to leave the boat and enjoy the lagoon. I went snorkeling one time right off the back of our boat, and then we went snorkeling again yesterday and ended up seeing about 6-8 large sting rays and swam with them for a while.
On our first day, we met a local guy who just came right up to us as we landed our dinghy ashore and asked us to come to his house for a coconut. I think Joe was a little wary (as can you imagine a foreign stranger approaching you in the United States and asking you over to his/her house?? -- no way you'd trust him, or for sure you’d want to know what they wanted in return)... anyway following his directions, we dinghied to “Edwin’s” house on the beach and met his whole family, shared a few coconuts, and then they gave us some more fruit from their land. They spoke a tiny bit of English and somehow we were able to communicate a bit. They lead a simple life with him growing and harvesting the fruit on their land, her working in the administrative office at a nearby resort hotel, and lots of time in-between to fish, surf, and just sit on their ocean/lagoon-front land enjoying the life that they have. Later we had them out to our boat for some snacks and a tour, took pictures of them and then printed them off for them to keep. Joe went to watch Edwin and his wife play in a beach volleyball tournament yesterday (I had to get some things done on the boat), and our new friends were appreciative of their foreign friends in the audience. Edwin wanted to take Joe out spear fishing but we just ran out of time. But these were the kinds of experiences we had hoped to have, and finally are getting a bit of the friendly native hospitality that we had hoped for.
We hated to leave but we are running out of time on our visas... plus we have a lot more ground to cover in the next few months so have to keep to at least a bit of a schedule, or else we will have to cut short visits to other countries we plan to visit. So this morning we pulled anchor and headed to the north west part of Huahini right at the place where we entered into the coral reef (a pass) before and are anchored here at the pass so tomorrow we can get an early start out of here. We are heading for the island of Bora Bora but right in the path between here and there are 2 more islands (that are joined together by a coral reef surrounding them both), called: Raiatea and Tahaa; so rather than go around them (which would make the trip really long,) we are going through the opening in the reef on the eastern side (between the 2 islands) and stay at one of them overnight, then leave the next morning out a pass on the western side for Bora Bora. So that's our schedule for now... meaning we should be on Bora Bora by Saturday.
July 27th: A Pass Through Tahaa and Safe Arrival in Bora Bora
After a nice (uneventful and not too bad–relatively speaking --seas and winds–) half day sail westerly from Huahine to the island of Tahaa, we spent one afternoon and night there on a mooring buoy, before taking off the again yesterday for Bora Bora, another nice half day sail. We are now safely at anchor (actually on another mooring ball, as the water depth here is too deep to set an anchor) in Bora Bora, next to the Bora Bora Yacht Club. By almost all tour books, this is supposed to be the most beautiful island, synonymous with a view of paradise, and is the #1 tourist location in all of French Polynesia The standard postcards of 5 star over-the-water bungalows, and aerial views of volcanic peaks, lush vegetation, and white-sand beaches next to turquoise lagoons… are here and do, probably justify Bora Bora’s world-wide notoriety. However, in actuality, from what little we've seen, it IS pretty, but the stretches of white sand beach are limited to small sections of the island, the hotels seem to be having a war with each other to see who can build the most over the water bungalows (all very close to each other), leaving little of the island untouched. And for us, well other locations we’ve been have been less commercialized and the mountains even more majestic.... (Maybe having now spent over 3 months in French Polynesia, we are just getting jaded!) But we’re glad we’re here, and we’re having great weather and are planning to make the most of our stay in our last island visit of French Polynesia.
Last night shortly after we landed we joined another cruising couple (from Australia) that we had briefly met in Rangiroa for dinner at the Bora Bora Yacht Club next to where we are anchored. There I had my first New Zealand Lamb...a rack cooked perfectly with a hint of rosemary. Meals are still very expensive everywhere we go, but we are treating ourselves several times a week to a dinner out. Some recently have been pretty terrible, which makes the high price a lot less tolerable, but last night's meal for all was a pleasant surprise.
Today the big event was the President of France (Jacques Chirac) was here. So the whole island, (it seemed,) turned out at the outdoor town cultural center on the waterfront to hear him speak, plus there was island music/chanting and some dance shows for him. We arrived too late to be able to see over the crowds but were able to hear the music and hear speeches in French of which we understood nothing. Obviously Joe and I were not really interested in particular to what the President Chirac had to say, but we wanted to see the "show" — and when it was obvious we could not see anything, we just walked around and looked at the colorfully dressed crowds who were all in muumuu type dresses and aloha shirts and most adorned with flower/garland head wreaths on. It seemed like there was not much security (at least in comparison to our president making a public speech,) but then again this is a "remote" South Seas island and guns are illegal, etc. Afterwards we took a short ride around the lagoon near us to shoot some pictures and then returned to a quiet rest of the afternoon.
July 30th: More Exploring on Bora Bora
What a marvelous day we had yesterday! We played tourist and took an all day “Lagoon Tour”. Sounds crazy hiring a boat to give US a tour around an island when we have our own 2 boats??? Well it was worth every penny to have someone else do the work and for us to be able to sit back and enjoy having others wait on us! And the places they took us, we never would have been able to find on our own. Their local knowledge of the sea life on the reef was what made the trip unforgettable. The day started off with a pick up at our location at the Yacht Club in a 4 wheel-drive truck and taking us by land halfway around Bora Bora… so we go to see that part by land. Then we met up with several other (8-9) “guests”/ tourists and boarded our large outrigger canoe tour boat. Our first stop was a “coral garden” and aquarium of fish, a shallow (3-6 ft) snorkeling stop. (Some of the passengers never got in the water, but were able to enjoy the fish, as there were so many of them, even from just looking over the sides of the boat). Our captain, with a few handfuls of cut up fish bait, enticed thousands of tropical fish to swarm around him and then led us to a coral head that housed a giant moray eel. I swear this moray was as big around as my thigh!!! Holding the cut up fish out so he would stick a good portion of his body out of his hide-away, the moray “took the bait” (literally) and our reef guide was able to actually lift the eel totally out for us to see, pet, and take pictures. Obviously this fat moray is well fed and “tamed” daily by the tour boats that come by, and puts up with being grabbed and photographed!
Our next stop was for “ray and shark feeding.” Our captain/guide, this time again got in the water along with us (only about waist deep) along a sandy part of the lagoon with more cut-off chunks of fish. Within almost seconds of us getting in the water, there were stingrays swimming all around us. And within about 2-3 minutes, the sharks appeared also intermingled with the rays, swimming just a few feet from us… taking the fish that our Capitan was offering. It was really amazing, how tame they all appeared to be. There is much controversy about feeding the rays, fish, sharks like this, as not only does it alter the normal marine feeding habits of the fish, but also many feel it increases the population of sharks inside the lagoon, and makes them expect to be “fed” by humans (making a diver reliable “meal ticket” one way or another!) But undeniably it certainly makes for a spectacular and popular sight for the tourists in French Polynesia.
After this stop, our outrigger continued around the island lagoon and took us to an outer motu (piece of land that is actually part of the outer reef) to a privately owned area where we stopped for a picnic on the beach. Our crew made a hot fire using coconut shells and prepared a wonderful bbq feast of Tahitian fish, and served that with marinated “raw” fish in coconut, a whole array of fruits, plus 3-4 other dishes. Then afterwards, they played Tahitian songs on the guitar, ukulele, and even did some dancing for us, as well as tried to teach us how to do their difficult Tahitian dance wiggles! They also demonstrated how "easy" it was to husk and open a coconut by using a stake in the ground to get off the outter husk and then laying the inner coconut on a stone and cracking it in half with a fist. Of course it's only easy if you're a native!!!
Onward after our picnic, we had 2 more snorkeling stops… one was over a location famous for manta rays. These rays are HUGE… some of them with over 9-10’ wing spans. Although this spot for us was deeper (maybe 30-40’) the visibility was great, and we were able to swim over them, watching them glide under us. Also our Captain, free dived down to where several were swimming and got them to swim up closer to the surface, so close that I almost thought I might be able to reach out and touch one.
Last, (this was a LONG trip!!!) we stopped at one more place to see the stingrays, this one even shallower, than the first one and with even more of them. As soon as the boat pulled up and the anchor was set they were all around us, waiting for treats they knew we would have for them. There were so many, it was hard to even step in the water without stepping on one. They glided and rubbed against our legs, feet, etc and were as soft as velvet. It was truly an amazing experience.
Finally our circle of the island of Bora Bora via the inland lagoon was complete, and our crew again serenaded us as we returned to where we started. It will go down in our memory bank as a wonderful day in paradise.
July 31st: Preparing to Hit the High Seas Again
Well our time in French Polynesia is almost at an end as we prepare to leave in the next few days for the Cook Islands, around 600 miles (a 5-6 day passage IF we’re lucky). In the last week, we have had unusually low winds (almost non-existent,), which has made for some hot, but beautiful sunny days. Now we need the wind to increase just a bit (NOTE, I am emphasizing “a bit”!!!) and from the correct (South East) direction before we can depart or else we would have to motor the entire way.
Knowing the “unknown” is out there, beyond our safe anchorage here in Bora Bora, we are both already starting to worry and feeling a little ancy about our upcoming 2 legs of our trip. Raratonga, in the Cook Islands is our INTENDED next destination. Unfortunately those who have arrived there in the last week have not been able to stay there, as the weather has been so bad with winds from the wrong direction (North, which is NOT usual for the "South East trades") that the very tiny anchorage in the harbor there was not safe. So after 6 days of voyaging to get there, they had to immediately leave. Then the next stop, another 500 miles away (only other island stop AFTER the Cooks and in between Cooks and Tonga) is a tiny Island nation called Niue... and that is, in the best of conditions, a very tenable anchorage... Boats trying to get in there for the last few weeks have also not been able to anchor as they also have had terrible winds. So anyway with the possibility of no stop at the Cooks or Niue, that is raising our “worry” and stress levels, knowing possibility exists that our 5-6 day planned passage, may turn into a 2-week-at-sea-in-terrible-weather voyage. But there are not any alternatives to get to where we need to get, Tonga, so we are praying that the weather window WE get is a good one and we will be able to stop in those 2 island groups as "layovers" before arriving at Tonga. We ARE DUE for some good luck!!! Unfortunately, regardless of how well we watch the weather and listen to the radio nets, as we've found out, no one ever knows what it's really going to be like until they get out there.
If you’ve been reading and following our last few chapters of adventures, you may remember (and we, for SURE, remember vividly), that the weather and the seas, for the most part, on our trips have been “really terrible” mixed in with a little "horrible" and, unfortunately, very few "not so bad"; supposedly this season and the bad unsteady weather is "not typical" but whatever, it's what we got stuck with. At times, I get depressed and I wonder what in the world I am doing out here, as this is NOT the type sailing that I fell in love with, for the most part. As Joe pointed out once, in the past, we picked and chose the days we went out sailing– - always in light-moderate winded sunny days. We would NEVER, in our past, purposely head out for a day on the ocean in the type of weather we’ve been forced to deal with since we started this South Pacific trip. And on top of that, despite the gorgeous locations we’ve visited, the life style has been a LOT more work than either of us imagined. The ol’ joke about the definition of cruising is “fixing and repairing boats in foreign ports” has been ever so true for us.
But I'm (we're) not giving up yet and we keep plodding along thinking that eventually this cruising life will get "easier" and the seas and winds will be more desirable, and paradise will really be paradise with more fun and play time than work. Right now, getting home on Halloween (our flight home for “vacation” to San Diego is on Oct 31) is looking mighty good! For sure we will appreciate our beach house again and our "boring" life there, looking AT the sea instead of being on it!! It will be a nice break for us. But I'm trying really hard, in the mean time, to not "wish away" all the time we have left here as we have some beautiful destinations before then: including Tonga and Fiji. Hopefully the next “chapter” you receive will be about the Cook Islands and Niue… meaning we WERE able to make landfall there… and not about a non-stop voyage to the Kingdom of Tonga.