“a vast natural amphitheatre in decay… the deep glens that furrowed its sides appearing like enormous fissures caused by the ravages of time. Very often when lost in admiration of its beautiful, I have experienced a pang of regret that a scene so enchanting should be hidden from the world in these remote seas, and seldom meets the eyes of devoted lovers of nature.”
- Herman Melville, Typee
Taiohae is the capital, not just of Nuku Hiva (the second largest island in French Polynesia) but of The Marquesas. I was excited about arriving in the town as it features not only in Robert Louis’ Stevenson’s South Seas Memoirs, but in Herman Melville’s “Typee”. The novel, which predates Moby Dick, tells the story of how Melville absconded with a friend from a whaling ship, got captured by the reputedly fierce Typee (actually written Taipai), which he declares means “lover of human flesh”, fell in love with the fair maiden Fawaway, and then subsequently escaped. The view at anchor certainly did not disappoint.
There was a sense of tourist ennui on the island. The lady at the tourist office was visibly pained when I pointed to a photo of fire-eating behind her and asked where that was happening. She gave a patronising sigh, as though that was the type of question to be expected from dumb tourists and admonished: “Ici aux Marquises c’est très calme, si t’es venue pour le spectacle, tu seras deçue”. (reading between the lines: we are not some sort of spectacle put on for your entertainment, if you think that you are sadly mistaken, and ignorant!). A far cry from all the local colour, traditional dance and festivities laid on for the World ARC rally here in Nuku Hiva, described to me by friends on Norwegian family boat TINTOMARA. Still, I could understand her pride and defensiveness, and she thawed when I joked I was just interested in swapping notes, having done my fair share of fire-eating myself. By the time I’d bought some of her home grown mangoes and pommes citernes (tart stoned citrus apples that mellow and sweeten as they ripen yellow), we were on the best of terms, and she helped me out with directions to the Melville memorial I was seeking. Yes, I guess that was her job!
The memorial is an engraved wooden post next to a cemetery at the other end of the bay. Blink and you miss it. I would have been hard pressed to find it without directions, or to recognise it for what it was, had I not seen the word “Typee” carved at the top. Melville’s name is there somewhere, but I couldnt’ see it, though I did spot the name of his whale ship engraved at the bottom of a compass, below a map delineating places mentioned in the book. At the top, in lieu of author’s birth and deat, the dates commemorated the publication of the original book, and the inauguration of the memorial.
Despite a certain indifference to tourists, emanating from many islanders, there were pockets of gracious kindness and thoughtfulness, from the grandmother in the supermarket queue who intervened to get my name on a reservation list for eggs the following day, when the till girl initially denied the list’s extistence, to the car that stopped on seeing me struggling with groceries, and gave me a lift back to the dinghy dock. Sitting in the back of the jeep, chatting with two dear little five and six year old girls about their efforts in learning to swim, and swapping stories about my own daughters, was one of those moments of normality and everyday connection that enrich the travelling life no end.
The cafe by the dinghy dock served up a delicious seared tuna, and poisson cru marinated in coconut milk, as well as offering the only wifi connection I had come across in the Marquesas, which was just about enough to upload one or two small school assignments over the entire hour that lunch took. I did wonder though, if there was something in the fish causing me to hallucinate when I saw a giant inflatable tube of toothpaste bob past. In an even more surreal twist, it turned out to be a tube of Norwegian Kaviar, that the kids from family boats C’EST SI BON and KEA were waving around in honour of Norway’s national day. It was great to see them all again, after celebrating crossing the Pacific, arriving in Fatu Hiva on the same day as them. They were joined by JOVIAL, a Norwegian boat skippered by Anne-Christine, sailing round the world with her boyfriend Atlee. It turned out JOVIAL had spent Christmas in Marigot Bay, St Lucia with our ARC friends TINTOMARA, while we had celebrated New Year with them down the road there in Rodney Bay. Crossing oceans in a 40 foot catamaran we often feel tiny in the grand scheme of things, but sometimes the world does feels very small indeed.