French Polynesia consists of five archipelagos in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – thousands of miles from mainland France: the Marquesas, Gambiers, Tuamotus, Societies and Austral islands.
Marquesas and Gambiers are approximately the same distance from Galapagos (although 800 nautical miles apart), so either can be chosen as landfall after the long crossing from the “Islas Encantadas”. We had heard that Gambiers was more “off the beaten track” and with more protected anchorages than in the Marquesas, which is on the “coconut milk route” that most sailors follow when crossing the Pacific. Two absolutely good advantages, but on the other hand, we had heard how spectacular the Marquesas are, and the choice finally fell on the latter. We did not regret this decision: the Marquesas turned out to be the favorite destination until now on our voyage (at least Benedikte’s).
Nature is stunning in these lush, rugged islands, opening up for great activities both on land and under water, and it is well taken care of, being the most clean and trash-free place that we have seen so far. You’re surrounded by beauty: plentiful fruit trees, flowers of all colors, neat gardens and not least extremely friendly people, who are proud of their culture. According to Thor Heyerdahl, who spent a year in Fatu Hiva in the 1930s, it is a good Polynesian custom to give, and this is still valid today: we have been treated fruit so many times without asking, up to the point that it felt embarrassing, because the happy givers didn’t expect anything in return… We’ve got to see in practice that you do no need much in order to have a good life, when nature can supply you with construction materials for your home and fruits, vegetables, fish, wild chicken, goats and pigs. And as our guide in the Tuamotus, Enoha, said: it’s free!
The willingness to give away e.g. fruits is touching, because it is also part of the islands’ economy. Especially coconuts, which are cut in halves to take out and subsequently sun-dry the meat. The resulting “copra” is sent to Tahiti for further processing into coconut oil. In the atolls of the Tuamotus, where the copra making is even more pronounced than in the Marquesas, there are small huts far out on the islets, where copra workers stay for a few days to pick coconuts, and in the villages, we have seen the locals sitting under the burning sun with a view to the turquoise waters of the lagoon, with a huge stack of half coconuts in front of them, ready to be freed from their meat with a special instrument. Thank Goodness they are accompanied by the Tuamotus-top-10-music-hitlist!!
The transport to Tahiti is facilitated by the Taporo family of old Norwegian freight ships and their cousins Maris Stella and Aranui, the latter of which also brings cruise tourists to the outer islands. It is a special day with a lively bustle in the harbor when the supply ship arrives in town, once a week or every second week, and you might as well hurry to the supermarkets in order to get hold of the newly delivered fresh goodies that tend to sell out quickly!
Pearl farming forms another element of the French Polynesian economy. Black oysters are cultured and according to the color of the nacre they produce, are selected for grafting such that they will make a pearl in a non-natural site. If the quality of the resulting pearl is satisfactory, the oyster will be used for another 2-3 cycles, each lasting a couple of years, resulting in bigger and bigger pearls. Although the number of pearl farms in the Tuamotus has fallen drastically, if judging by the amount of pearl shops in Papeete, it looks like the pearl market is still pretty much alive.
When the cruise ships arrive at the various islands, they are welcomed by locals playing drums & dancing and craftsmen selling their bone/stone/wood carvings and traditional tapa cloths. Admittedly a show-off for the tourists that you do not see when the cruise ship departs again.
That their roots and their crafts do mean something to the French Polynesian people becomes, however, apparent at the yearly Heiva festival in Tahiti, where even the small island of Rurutu in the Australs can mobilize two dance groups of more than 100 people each – and you can tell by their performance that they do not participate to impress visitors! In ancient times, it was tribe against tribe in French Polynesia – and you could distinguish friend from foe by the identity tattoos. Now, because of changes in the weather patterns, people are gathering in villages for security reasons. This gives the foundation for the good communities that we have witnessed around the islands and during the Heiva festival. But they are still beautifully tattooed!
We are so far away from everything here that the postal system is more developed than the internet: there are post offices everywhere, and it costs less to send a postcard from French Polynesia to Denmark than it does to send a letter within Denmark!
They made a good deal, those Frenchmen, when acquiring these beautiful Pacific islands 😉