Falling in love with French Polynesia

By Erica Cirino

Does a sailor always fall in love with the earth beneath her first footfall after a long stretch at sea?

I am convinced that she does.

Nuku Hiva. A crew of eight scientists and sailors, plus me—an American photojournalist—sailed from Honolulu, Hawaii, to this remote island in Marquesas, French Polynesia in December 2017. I was there to document the group’s plastic pollution research at sea.

Park. Ruins

After 23 nights at sea, our ship cruised into Taioha’e Bay, Nuku Hiva’s main anchoring area. On deck the air was cool, quiet. Clouds occluded the moon and stars. A line of warm yellow streetlights on shore cast long undulating reflections into the water. Anchor lights atop tall masts twinkled all around us like low-hanging stars. I inhaled the scent of the sea, cooking fires, grass, trees, land.

We set our anchor, hoisted a yellow flag and lit our anchor light. Our captain Torsten cut the roaring engine. After devouring a few bags of licorice, we retreated to our bunks for a few hours sleep before the sun would rise and we would wake, and the island would be revealed.

Park. Sunset over the ruins of paradise

Morning. The island looked feminine, earthy—curved and mountainous, brown and green. The shoreline was alternately cliff and beachfront, rocky, dotted with colorful structures. We motored the Zodiac to shore. On land, my legs, unused to the sure steadiness of solid Earth, swayed like reeds in a breeze.

As I found my land legs, I noticed a cluster of folding tables surrounded by neon-colored plastic chairs with “Snack Vaeaki” scribbled on the back of each in black marker. I’d found the local canteen, where a few milk-coffee-skinned Marquesans and light-skinned travelers—sailors, like us—were nibbling on fried fish or drinking instant java from chipped, mismatched mugs. I walked up to the counter, which had taped to it a torn scrap of paper revealing a long WiFi code.

“Internet is very slow,” a deep male voice said. I looked up and saw a man at the counter watching me type the jumble of letters into my phone. He had broad shoulders, dark skin and a kind smile.

“Hi! Could you recommend something to eat?” I asked.

“I show you,” he replied, motioning toward the cluttered kitchen.

Canteen. Henrique and tuna ceviche

The man, Henrique, showed me a bowl of soft pink cubes—fresh chopped tuna—for coconut-citrus ceviche, “poisson cru.” He handed me a smooth green-gold mango. “Home grown, for smoothie,” he said. “Travelers’ favorite.” I said I’d take one mango smoothie, please. I paid him with a green bill decorated with orange birds-of-paradise flowers.

Sipping the icy sweet drink I walked out and found three of my crewmembers—Ditlev, Rasmus and Jakob—sitting at a table. We agreed to go for a hike.

“There is a good hike up the ridge,” a local woman, sitting behind us, said, pointing, “where they made sacrifices.”

We looked at her blankly.

“Killings. Of people. For the gods. Ika.”

Ika. In the local tongue, the word means “fish,” and offering. Like fish on hooks, human sacrifices were hung before consumption, at sacred sites across the island.

We thanked the woman, bewilderedly, and then headed toward the dusty ridge looming alongside the cracked main road. After hiking for hours in the midday heat, we reached the top, marked by the wooden skeleton of a square ritual structure. Below us, perhaps a hundred feet, were jagged rocks and blue water. A palpable sense of spirit swirled up from earth and sea, and lifted us off again, telling us, “keep going.”

An isolated, rocky beach soon appeared. My crewmembers wasted no time tearing off shirts and shoes and diving into the sea. Unlike them, I neglected to bring a swimsuit. No matter. I stripped off my sweat-soaked leggings and sports bra and waded in, naked. Out of politeness, the men pretended to look away. But when I caught their glances, they smiled, out of private delight, I guessed, to be swimming with the approximation of an unclothed Polynesian undine. Giant black manta rays and swift black-tip reef sharks splashed just beyond, in the deeper water.

Back at the bay we entered the first convenience store. We bought beer, hula-girl-labeled Hinano from Tahiti, and settled in a grassy area across the street. Large stone tikis and rock circles decorated the earth. We sat amongst the ancient relics, near a group of loud twenty-somethings. They sidled up to us and proffered free homegrown weed, and friendship as warm as the equatorial air.

Beachside shack

“No matter where you come from, we welcome you here. Bienvenue!” a young man named Kolinaisi said.

We smiled and clinked our beer bottles. Buzzing from drinks and tokes, we watched the sun’s rays paint a pink watercolor sky over these ruins of paradise.

Paradise. Today I carry pieces of Nuku Hiva with me everywhere I go, on land and at sea. This ancient Polynesian island, churned by the winds and tides, has become a part of my soul.


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