Tikis, Troubadours & the Troubled
Back at the archaeological site, we hiked further up the hill to a cluster of boulders that had ghostly outlines glowing between the lichens: petroglyphs of turtles, human figures and fish. “We still don’t know their meaning, but it’s believed the valley may contain 500 or more. Can you feel the mana (energy)?” Charlotte enthused. As if on cue, a faint echo of drums emanated from the forest.
We hurried back down the hill to see dancers performing a Pig Dance. Dwarfed beneath a 600-year-old banyan tree, the women wiggled their hips – hidden by fresh palm-leaf skirts – and weaved their fingers elegantly through the air, while a duo of men pounded out the tune on chest-high pahus (large drums). We jiggled along, stopping occasionally to slap the nonos (sandflies) nipping our ankles.
Afterwards, we headed down to Hatiheu village fora traditional Marquesan feast. The men led us over to a large pit and we gathered round as they scraped away the earth and peeled back banana leaves to reveal an entire roasted pig nestled among a bed of uru (breadfruit) and taro. We waited impatiently as they carefully pincered the piping-hot food between finger and thumb, tossed it into a nearby metal container and brought it to the table with myriad plates of poisson cru (a raw fish dish), goat boiled in coconut milk, and octopus.
Ua Pou, our next Island, looked like a Jurassic Park film set. Conical emerald mountains, partly cloaked in mist, towered above the village like ‘pointed witches hats’ – Theroux’s writing described them perfectly. Off to the left, a cement cross erected in the 1980s sat on a hill. We hiked up and stood at its base. From up there, my ship resembled a gently bobbing white pearl. The island is famous for its flower stone – volcanic rock that cooled so quickly that minute blossoms were preserved inside.
“The only other place it’s found in the world is Brazil, but the flowers there are much further apart. It’s our treasure,” explained Ben, a friendly greeter as we milled around the small craft market observing the miniature tikis and amulets that had been carved from the rare rock. Tikis are giant statues – very similar to the moai on Easter Island – that embody Polynesian ancestors. One of the largest collections can be found high in the mountains above Puama’u village on Hiva Oa, so off we set.
Our 4x4s curled upwards, past stray cockerels and horses tethered by the leafy roadside, until we reached Me’ae Lipona. There, lichens and ferns sprouted from between the large stone platforms, and my eye was immediately drawn to Takii, the largest tiki of them all, with his thin solemn lips, chunky thighs and commanding broad nose. I was told that he was a chief and a great warrior whose spirit still guards the valley.
“Islanders are very superstitious – they believe that the tikis come alive,” explained our guide Jorg Nitzsche, who had lived in Polynesia for eight years. “Takii has vertical lines in his eyes, so when the sun is in the right position, dark spots emerge, like pupils, so he appears to be living!”
Takii’s sculptor, Manniota’a, was clearly a man of skill and was also honoured with his own statue. It had a smaller head to show he was less important, and in front of him rested the tiki of his wife, Makii Tau’a Pepe. She died in childbirth – a common tragedy in Polynesian culture – and the horizontal statue rather gruesomely captured her final moment of agony. Strangest of all, though, was the llama carved into the base of her pedestal. The animals are found only in South America, and archaeologists have long wondered why it was there. Some conspiracy theorists have claimed that Thor Heyerdahl may have ‘tweaked’ it to prove his theory about there being a cultural link between South America and Polynesia. But no one knows for sure.
Back by the water, I paced up a steep hill to Calvaire cemetery, home to two men buried far from home: Paul Gauguin and Jacqucs Brel. In comparison to Gauguin, Brel was a saint. He used his private plane Jojo to deliver mail to the islanders, as well as taxiing children to and from school on other islands. Beside his headstone a poem had been placed, and the first line read: “Homme de voiles, homme d’étoiles, ce troubadour enchanta nos vies” (“Man of sails, man of stars, this troubadour enchanted our lives”).
By contrast, I imagine locals breathed a sigh of relief when Gauguin died in 1903 – most likely from a morphine overdose. During his 12 years in the Marquesas he fathered numerous children by his teenage mistresses, spread syphilis and drank copious amounts of absinthe at his home, which he nicknamed the “House of Pleasure.” His simple tomb sits further back, beneath a gnarled frangipani tree – a relic of yet another foreigner who escaped to the islands and remade them to his own ends.