The next day, my date with the island of Fatu Hiva was put on hold as Cyclone Victor, which had been circling to our west, wrought havoc. The view from my porthole resembled the inside of a washing machine as giant waves sloshed against the glass. Inside, we nibbled our fingernails nervously as Mahalo and the crew struggled to unload the cargo that swayed from the ship’s crane. Locals depend on the food supplies delivered every three weeks, so for eleven hours, non-stop, the men fought the roiling seas to work the cargo-transport platforms. Eager to do my part, I threw them bars of chocolate and packets of biscuits to help keep up their energy against the relentless spray.
Against such a backdrop, it felt wrong to mourn the missed opportunity to visit the Bay of Virgins – even if it is hailed as one of the world’s finest. According to Theroux, it was originally called Baie des Verge (Bay of Dicks), on account of the phallic mountains framing it, but horrified missionaries slipped in an “i” to make it “Vierges” (Virgins). Even language had conspired to shape the islands to the whims of its mad visitors.
On the return journey our luck changed and I finally found my blue lagoon. I hitched a ride on a motorised va’a out to Bora Bora and headed for its calm shallows. Within seconds, a handful of rays had draped themselves across my legs, as soft as silk scarves. Before long, I had strapped on my snorkelling mask and lowered myself beneath the surface, keeping a watchful eye on the rays’ barbed tails and the blacktip reef sharks that streaked across the sandy bottom.
We celebrated the end of the voyage that night with drinks in the bar. There, I pondered the islands and their troubled past and recalled a suggestion made earlier. It was then that Ella, the barmaid, saw my face and passed me a note with a telephone number and a name written on it “Go see my brother, Simeon,” she said, before adding: “He’s very busy, though, so I’m not making any promises.”
So the next morning we docked back in Pape’ete and I set off in search of the tattoo studio of Simeon. Fate decreed that I soon found it and set about climbing the stairs to the first-floor shop. “You don’t by any chance have a free appointment this afternoon?” I whispered shyly in French to the man on reception. He scanned a page and looked me up and down before agreeing to squeeze me in. Ninety minutes later, I found myself reclined on a black hospital bed, Simeon leaning over me – tattoo needle poised.
For a writer to admit that a place has got under their skin is a terrible cliché, but as the first scratch marked my flesh, I have to admit that on this occasion it was true. And while it was only a small gesture in itself, l couldn’t help but smile that, a visitor had come to the Marquesas and instead of leaving their mark on the islands, it would be the other way round. Mahalo would be proud.