Thursday, December 31, 2015

Roots: Taiohae, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands

Got out of town on a boat goin' to Southern islands
Sailing a reach before a followin' sea
She was makin' for the trades on the outside
And the downhill run to Papeete

Off the wind on this heading lie the Marquesas

You understand now why you came this way
'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from is so small
But it's as big as the promise, the promise of a comin' day

                                                                                    Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills & Nash

As a child reading Nat Geo magazines, I dreamed of becoming an anthropologist traveling to some mystical  place learning about new cultures and perhaps, myself, in the process.

Almost 40 years later I’m standing on the deck of a ship that has carried me across the South Pacific Ocean for over six weeks. Although I had already seen incredibly beautiful islands, as the sun rose through the mist while approaching Nuku Hiva, an inexplicable excitement stirred within me.

On one side of the ship lie untamed mountains with jagged edges and indentations forming ominous faces and figures in the shadows. On the other side, the partially submerged rocks collectively resemble a fat man lying on his back exposing his chin and belly toward the sun. The sun’s rays poke through the clouds, highlighting parts of the mountain and the moored sailboats sprinkled throughout the harbor.

The air feels electric with anticipation.

And then I feel the drums--deep, carnal, visceral, tribal, and hauntingly familiar.
They rattle my bones and stir my blood as if an untethered cord within me has been waiting until this visit to connect me to my roots and my story. Here, in this wildly beautiful island, I have found one of the few places that I feel rooted.

Arriving on shore I wondered what the explorers must have felt hundreds of years ago when they first arrived if they received the same welcome. The massive drums, carved from tree trunks and covered with animal or sharkskin, resonate in your bones. The dancing lifts your spirits, and the singing shifts from playful to wailing.

Nuku Hiva, the largest island of the Marquesas, has natural majestic beauty in its soaring spire-like mountain peaks, secluded valleys, and waterfalls. It also has an interesting heritage. Some studies suggest the earliest discoverers came from Samoa 2000 years ago. Over time the population exceeded the available resources. Notably, cannibalism was observed and documented by the missionaries, and different theories have attempted to explain why many Polynesian tribes adopted the practice.

Like many other ports, the churches re-directed part of the island’s history. Nuku HIva, though, still has many ancient sacred sites with petroglyphs—remnants of their previous beliefs carved into stone. Other parts of the island are currently being excavated for the ancient relics from sacred sites.

At one such site, I could see and hear powerful waves slamming into the rocks. Then, as the water receded over the lava rocks and pebbles I could hear a soft little melody. This contrast offered a beautiful metaphor for the ebb and flow of life. As ancient as the petroglyphs are, a visible spiritual reverence appears in the stones, as well as in the other tikis and carvings observed throughout the island. Spirituality speaks to our soul’s connection to heaven and earth, and each other, through our heart. Regardless of location or time, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. We are all connected.

People here appear happy and peaceful, acquiring all they need from the land and sea. The tales of their life and their values, their connection to the earth and each other can be seen permanently memorialized in the designs of their tattoos. As I walked along the black sandy beaches sparkling with mica-like gold flecks, I observed one man washing his horse under a palm tree and another playing with his dogs in the ocean.  I saw families swimming and barbecuing by the ocean, and musicians hanging out playing the Tahitian ukulele. At the market craftsmen displayed their hand-carved woodwork and women sold handmade shell and pearl jewelry. People laughed and shared papaya, mangoes, and coconuts. And everywhere there were flowers. The women wear fragrant flowers like frangipani or tiare (gardenia) as garlands and head bands, and the vibrant colors of flowering trees can be seen everywhere you walk.

The lyrics of CSN’s Southern Cross ring true: I understand now why I came this way.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bula Bula [Hello] Fiji

Suva, Viti Levu, Fiji Islands

Viti Levu, the largest island in the Fijian archipelago, has an abundance of resources, a rich history and vibrant culture. Not surprisingly, the island serves as a hub for trade and communications in the Southwestern Pacific. Suva, the capital of Fiji since 1883, is one of the largest cities in the South Pacific outside of Australia and New Zealand.

Markets are a great place to learn about local life,  and in Suva, the Municipal Market pulses with Polynesian, Chinese, Indian, and Fijian vendors selling fresh fish, meat, vegetables, fruit, nut oils, flowers, crafts, and anything else you did not know you needed.

After a short walk from the market, past the electronics stores, banks, and government buildings, you will find the Fiji Museum on the grounds of Thurston Gardens, where South Pacific flora can be seen. It also has some large kapok trees, which house communities of fruit bats hanging out during the day.

At the Fiji Museum you can learn the history not only of Fijians, but also other Polynesians, their migrations, and their culture. Outside the main building different areas teach you how to make paper, weave mats, make clay pots, or kava. Inside the main building are replicas of the giant double-hulled canoes that were used in the migrations. These canoes were big enough to hold cattle and live on for a short time and the carvings and craftsmanship reminded me of the Viking ships. Another part of the museum contains photographs and artifacts, telling the history and fate of the Fijians and the early missionaries who came to the islands.

Driving around the volcanic island offered snapshots into the mosaic of culture, history, and lifestyle that blend into an eclectic community today. Suva is a blend of Fijians, Indians, Chinese, Tongans, Samoans, Rotumans, Solomon Islanders, Micronesians, and Europeans and this diversity shows up in the various denominations of churches and temples throughout the island as well.  

On the drive I witnessed many contrasts. Compared to the congested big-city lifestyle of Suva, the outer villages had a simpler, quiet lifestyle with local produce stands, and singular houses near a river or waterfall. Not far from Suva, a lush rainforest, Colo-I-Suva, contains stunning flowers, birds, and even mongoose, which were brought in to eradicate snakes.

Standing up on a ridge overlooking Suva and the harbor, I marveled at the beauty of the mountains, the lush green landscape, and the collection of open-air homes with such a peaceful view of the ocean. Laundry fluttered on the lines, chickens, dogs, and goats roamed the sandy path, and the smell of cooking from the earth ovens wafted through the air. I ate the juiciest, sweetest papaya, freshly picked, and felt so much gratitude. My deepest wish is for all people to have the experience of peace I felt at that moment.

Moving Towards Peace: Dravuni Island, Fiji

You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in a drop.

As I stand on a bluff on the highest hill in Dravuni Fiji, my eyes become saturated with shades of blue: The horizon fills with layers of lapis and tanzanite with strips of turquoise, all encircled by the large reef betrayed by crashing white waves.  No photograph or painting could fully capture this moment as the wind caresses my hair and the sun kisses my skin.

Earlier that morning I watched the sun rise over the misty ink-colored shadows of the uninhabited islands nearby. Papaya- and mango-colored fingers of light welcomed the day and I thought about the Chinese proverb:
”When the sun rises it rises for everyone.”  Everyone on the planet bears witness to a new day, each one as unique as its witness.

Dravuni, a volcanic island in the Kadavu Island group of Fiji, is less than two miles in length with a population of about 200 people.  This tropical paradise, complete with shady coconut palms and pristine white beaches, could be the very beach I fantasized about visiting while viewing my computer’s screen saver in a windowless office.

By ‘modern’ standards the inhabitants on Dravuni have few possessions or luxuries. Yet, they have fresh rainwater, tropical breezes, and regular sunshine. The sea and the island provide their food and they have a strong community and family. They have a lifestyle at a pace many work at a frenzy in order to retire to. How much do we really need for a life filled with peace, contentment and love?

Tahiti, French Polynesia: Pape'ete & Mo'ore'a

Pape’ete, Tahiti, French Polynesia

**French Polynesia encompasses 5 groups of islands: The Society Islands archipelago; the Tuamotu Archipelago [see Blog about Rangiroa]; the Gambier Islands; the Marquesas Islands [see Blog about Nuku Hiva]; and the Austral Islands.


Tahiti, located within the Society Islands archipelago, is the largest and most populated of the islands. Tahiti’s mountain peaks reach upwards to 7300 feet and house lush valleys, rainforests, waterfalls, and abundant flowers and fruit.

The bustling port capital, Pape’ete, resembles a large metropolitan city rather than the romantic swaying palm trees and grass huts I was expecting. 

 In contrast to the swaying, smooth, gentle wave-like hula moves of Hawaii, the Tahitian dance and music pulses quickly with a fiery rhythm like a volcano. It is electric and tribal, and I saw this reflected in much of the graffiti scattered throughout the city.

The hustling energy of the city shows up in the Central Market where locals sell traditional Tahitian crafts, flowers, fruits, fish, and everything in between. And given the French influence, the city does not lack outdoor cafes, coffee, and fresh baguettes. Although it was not the romanticized island landscape I have envisioned, this big city has its own personality and charm.
 In addition to French culture, the Polynesians have woven Indian and Chinese influences into their cultural tapestry. Glimpses of the Polynesian roots can be seen in the common areas, though. For example, a botanical garden and culture center; the vaka [canoe] recreational area; a tattoo parlor specializing in local artistry. And, the graffiti.


Mo’ore’a, Tahiti

When I close my eyes to picture the most idyllic place to live, my memories from here would fill my heart and mind. Mo’ore’a is Pape’ete’s beautiful sister. In contrast to the frenetic tempo of Pape’ete, Mo’ore’a’s calm demeanor reflects in her lush green mountains rising majestically over tranquil inlets harboring sailboats.

This heart-shaped island formed over a million years ago from a volcano. Originally, the island’s poetic name, Aimeo I Te Rara Varu depicted the eight majestic mountain ridges of her landscape. A high priest’s dream in later years led to the current name, which means “yellow lizard.” Natives of Pap’ete and Mo’ore’a each claim their island as inspiration for the mythical Bali Hai based on the Michener novel about the South Pacific. The jagged peaks and lush landscape complement the beautiful white sand beaches and electric blue water. 

You can circumnavigate the island via a 40-mile stretch of winding road, promising beauty and majesty at every turn.  From every viewpoint the mountains beckon you to hike them. When you do venture into the hills, you find some remarkable ancient landmarks, called marae, on which ancient stone rocks shaped like pyramids contain carvings that detail the occurrences of sacrifices. 
 Belvedere lookout, perched in the mountains between Cooks Bay and Opunohu Bay, offers breathtaking views of the ocean and the majestic peaks.

Early in the day I ventured along a local road observing chickens  and dogs wandering the streets and delivery boys bringing freshly baked baguettes [it is French Polynesia ,after all] to homes by bicycle. Although no official town exists on the island, areas along the road have a few stores selling local crafts, sarongs [pareos] and fresh fruit. Noni, papaya and mango trees, overloaded with fruit, are everywhere.