On July 12th, we arrived at the island of Fatu Hiva, the southernmost island of the Marquesas. We cast anchor in the natural harbour of a sheltered bay, surrounded by high, darkly-wooded hills. We were not alone, for there were four or five other yachts there. Jack had already been in contact with one via his ham radio, and our appetite had been whetted by tales of natural waterfalls, fresh fruit, and friendly local people.
It was a small island, with just two villages: one here, at the mouth of the river which fed the bay, and another, slightly larger, on the other side of the island. We were supposed to check in, but there were no regular authorities in either place, and certainly no immigration office; the general consensus being that, provided there was no official launch from one of the larger islands there, no-one would know or care about our presence.
Official or not, the welcome we received from the local people was royal. As soon as we had anchored, a small flotilla of outrigger canoes, all equipped with outboard motors, sped out from the shore to greet us. We soon discovered that the Marquesas in general, and especially Fatu Hiva, were far enough removed from the rest of the world, for a trading economy to predominate. They came bearing fruit – stalks of bananas, papaya, huge grapefruit called pamplemousse. What they wanted in exchange were not quite beads and mirrors, but not so far removed: T-shirts, especially those with Western designs or messages, cassettes of disco music, cheap jewellery, digital watches. More practically, they needed ammunition – and if anyone had thought to bring spare parts for outboard motors, they could have taken their pick of what the island could offer in exchange.
Gifts of fruit were handed up to us, and then a few islanders came aboard for more serious negotiations, though these were of limited effect, since they spoke no English, and Jack and Alma no French (and what we knew was too rusty for use.) There was little actual exchange of goods there and then, but there was a general groundwork laid for further talks, and the boats departed. Somehow left behind were three local women, and Alma, girlishly excited, rushed below to fetch some cheap, chunky jewellery to give to them, but making them select from her closed fist, as though they were children. The jewellery was accepted, but with a measure of polite reluctance to offend, of which Alma remained blissfully unaware.
The party came to an immediate halt, when one of the women made it clear that the movement of the boat upset her. All three had been hawking and spitting, generally over the side, throughout their stay, but now the largest of them (though all were substantially built) rushed to the side and vomited noisily into the bay. Jack had turn no choice but to ferry the women back to shore in the dinghy, and Alma made it clear that she wanted to go too. It was quite an achievement to squeeze all five of them into the small boat, and we waved to them as they made their way laboriously to shore, Jack heaving mightily on the oars to make any headway.
This is an extract from the book “Innocence abroad”, a summarised version of these diaries, which is (at last) approaching publication – at least I hope so. It gives a detailed account of our first encounter with Polynesia and the Polynesians. And provides more of an insight into Alma and her approach to things – in many ways, essentially childish.