We settled into life in Vaitahu for a few days to enjoy the warm community vibe. Alex has a welcoming manner about him, people just walk up to him on the street to give him fruit or offer to show him around the island. Luckily I got to tag along.
Alex met Alexander, husband of Tatiana, who runs a small open air restaurant next to Chez Jimmy. Alex and Alexander hit it off so we hopped in his truck to check out his family’s land.
Tofu, Alexander’s floppy eared black hunting dog, ran alongside and almost underneath the truck as we wound up the red volcanic valley. We passed folks working to free snowy white coconut meat from tough fibrous brown husks. They loaded up the coconut meat to dry under corrugated metal roofs to a partially dehydrated state. Alexander explained they sell this copra by the kilo to a transport ship that comes every two weeks. Copra is pressed to make the perfumed monoi body oil and other cosmetic products. The toasty, sometimes rancid coconut smell finds your nose on the wind throughout town.
We turned off the dirt road to a lush rambling parcel tucked into the steep valleysides. Giant pamplemousse, lime, bread fruit, mango and lychee trees, laden with fruit, accented the low lying volcanic rock wall terraces. Alexander threw a fiber sack over his shoulder and started twisting off pamplemousse.
Tofu bounded through the thigh high vining ground cover and grasses. Alexander explained they rebuilt the terraces for the last big Marquesain dance competition. He proudly recalls how visitors from the other islands lined these terraces. Drummers welcomed them from Ua Pou, Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva and his home island of Tahuata. Each island gifts a carved tiki to the host island. Every place I’ve visited in the Marquesas the topic of the dance competition comes up. It is a way for older generations to share traditions of carving, food, dance, song and drumming. Islanders practice year round for these competitions and last time Alexander was the best dancer in Vaitahu and went on to the next bracket to represent his town.
At first Alexander thought we just wanted to trade for fruit but after talking in his orchard for a while he understood that we wanted to hang out and share his culture. We drove back down the valley to town and to his and Tatiana’s home, he’d just painted it a sunny pale butter yellow that day.
Fruit trees, coconut trees, ginger blossoms, succulents and orchids bordered the driveway, welcoming us alongside a cute young pig with her leg tied to a tree.
Alexander harvested three lime green drinking coconuts and we hopped back in his truck. He pointed out where family members’ homes were, his nephew was rolling a cigarette in a hammock out front of one. Alexander asked him for something and the muscly reluctant youth got up and disappeared into the fruit trees around his home. He returned with fat juicy star fruits that we munched on driving up the other side of the valley.
Tofu encountered territorial dogs on our way past houses tucked into steep hillside switchbacks. Alexander made quick deep exhalation sounds at the dogs, reprimanding them in an easygoing yet strong way. We reached an overlook, the vast sapphire sea blended into juicy turquoise against Vaitahu’s breakwater. A handful of white boats dotted the bay, 2,000 foot volcanic walls coated in fuzzy green rose up around the town.
Alexander brought out a machete and whacked the tops off the drinking coconuts as he rotated the coconut in his hand. We sucked down the slight salty sweet water, then he cracked the coconuts into halves to free the slippery silky meat. I exclaimed the juice, which had a slight fizz, was like Marquesian champagne and Alexander laughed.
Up higher and higher we went, onto rich iron red dirt roads, into the wild boar hunting area. Volcanic valley ridge crests were covered in ferns in wetter spots, gnarled stumps and dense forests. We perched ourselves on a stumpy outcropping and took in the grandeur below.
Alexander lifted the sleeve on his blue T-shirt to show his traditional Marquesian tattoo. It shows the story of him hunting his first wild boar, the shaded tusks curving into the tattoo design. Goats squealed and dogs barked nearby, a hunt was on.
“Do you want a tattoo?” Alexander asked Alex. He’d planned on getting a tattoo in the Marquesas and this was the perfect offering. Alexander explained his friend who’d done his shoulder tattoo could do a tattoo for Alex. We visited the tattoo artist, Fati, on the way down the hill so Alex could look at designs. Fati has a strong, thick frame with an ever jolly expression on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Intricate Marquesian tattoos blanket his feet, calves, knees and continue past the edge of his board shorts. We looked through binders full of traditional Marquesian tattoo designs, and photos and drawings of older Marquesian generations who tattooed their entire bodies and faces.
Alex and Fati decided Fati would dreign a custom design arm band with the meanings of family, travel, the ocean, mountains and nature woven together. We planned to meet Fati the next morning for a full tattoo day and celebratory barbecue.
As the sun set over the sea we hung out at Chez Jimmy’s and watched women hit a giant pistache tree with a stick so the purple fruits would fall into their outstretched cloth. Night fell and Jimmy said he was leaving to check out his cousin’s fish catch down at the wharf. I asked to join, and he said sure, so I jumped on the back of his scooter.
Four guys were scaling and gutting a giant cooler full of four kinds of fish that they’d caught on the ride back from Hiva Oa. One street light lit the fish scales silver and red, the guys worked efficiently and quietly to their boom box music. Jimmy washed fresh chunks of translucent white pink fish meat in sea water and offered it to me. Firm, fresh and satisfying. Waves occasionally washed higher on the wharf, cleaning away the blood and scales, but larger waves prompted yells from the guys because they needed to move the fish away to safety.
Within the first minute of arriving one of the fishermen propositioned me for a night with him in exchange for a fish, jokingly but also serious. I brushed it off with another joke. It is hard for locals to find a romantic partner here, most of the folks in town are family members and most of the young people leave to work in Papeete or another country.
We left on the scooter loaded down with boxes from Hiva Oa, not sure of the contents. Jimmy left again for the wharf after we dropped off the boxes at his restaurant, why? “For your fish,” he said. He came back a few minutes later and handed me a plastic bag with a 15 pound silver fish, obviously the choice fish of the catch. It was such a huge gift, I felt excited and also embarrassed that maybe there were strings attached to this fish. But that is just how island culture is here, you give, you trade, you build relationships, you create community.
The next morning we took the dinghy to shore for Alex’s tattoo appointment and the sky opened up. We stood together, us four adults under an umbrella watching rivers of rich red soil slurry fill the gutters along the paved streets, going to the sea.
A pause, a rainbow, the air smelled like plumerias. Alexander gave me and Alex a ride up to Fati’s house, a simple single story home with a large concrete covered deck with an outdoor kitchen, living room and carport. Fati’s 1990’s Toyota HiLux truck was set up with a workout mat in the bed and the tattoo machine station next to the tailgate.
Fati wrapped a wide band of cardstock around Alex’s right bicep and marked the edges on his skin with a thin pen. Alex laid down in the bed of the truck and Fati started to draw the tattoo freehand with the pen, referencing a design sheet. His four year old grandson with a tiger shirt ran circles around me and yipped with glee as we played. He sneaked dried pork jerky for me from the fridge.
After observing the tattoo process beginnings, Alexander asked if I’d like to see his horse? Of course. We bid a brief farewell to the tattooe and artist and drove down the hill then up another hill. We parked alongside a sprawling parcel, one side full of coconut groves, the other side cleared of trees for a simple house and grassy yard. Two lithe and short Marquesian horses, one glossy black, one chestnut brown, were tied up in the groves, munching on wild plants.
Alexander walked up to the black horse and the filly offered a fiesty hello. He guided the horse down to the clearing to drink water from a basin by the hose. Under the dripping hose bib was a large flat stone with a large ancient spiral carving.
As the horse drank, Alexander said hi to the older man inside the house who leaned on the windowsill with his stately dog guarding the porch. “He is alone because he his wife left him,” Alexander explained quietly, “he has a problem with alcohol addiction.”
Alexander retied the horse and we returned to his house to pick up coconuts and firewood for the barbecue. He split one with a hatchet and gave me a piece before offering the rest to the small pig. We talked about family on the way back to Fati’s. He has a sixteen year old daughter who goes to school in Atuona, in nearby Hiva Oa island. She’ll visit home soon for vacation.
At Fati’s, the grandson was collapsed on the concrete steps, asleep on a bright colored Polynesian patterned pillow. An orange cat with a broken tail sauntered by. Alex was sweating a bit in the tropical afternoon heat, his tattoo a few hours away from completion. I sat mesmerized, listening to the tattoo machine buzz, smelling toasty copra, watching Fati adjust Alex’s arms to gradually tattoo around all sides.
Then Fati asked Alex to get out of the truck, he had to pick up his wife. We laughed about the multi use tattoo parlor. When Fati returned with his wife he asked me to talk with her and so I went to help her in the kitchen.
She started slicing fish for poisson cru, cooking pat a choux for profiteroles, mixing up a barbecue sauce with ketchup, sugar and oyster sauce. I don’t speak French so it was a mostly silent exchange, she gradually started trusting me with kitchen tasks as I proved I wouldn’t mess them up. She told me to add salt to a bowl of water to marinate the fish for poisson cru. I stirred the thick pat a choux after adding each raw egg. I knelt to do the dishes next to the hose bib and that was the first time she smiled. After countless years of working to keep a home clean and family fed and watered, it must have felt like a relief to have someone else do the dishes.
Her kitchen overlooked the gorgeous lush volcanic valley, I gazed out at the view and sat on her home’s steps for the down time that cooking involves. Her grandson caused constant mischief because the only outside outlet was being used for the rice cooker, so he couldn’t plug in the tv.
Alex’s tattoo was finally finished, Fati wiped his own sweaty face, it was a full day of intense concentration. Fati washed Alex’s arm with the hose, smeared on an ointment and wrapped it with plastic wrap. Then in the next breath he took my fish from the freezer and began to chop it into chunks for the barbecue. I’d decided it was a proper continuation of the gift, to give it the tattoo feast.
He kindled the wood in the barbecue, split coconuts and shredded their creamy meat with an electric mounted drill. His wife scooped the meat into a clean cloth and squeezed fresh coconut milk onto the poisson cru. The grandson filled a coconut shell with shredded coconut and snacked on it with pure glee.
Fati asked me to watch the fish chunks on the grill while he went to pick up the rest of our crew. It was an honor to rotate the chunks of fish, smelling the sweet salty barbecue sauce sizzle and watch the fatty jowl pieces glisten. His wife sat on the steps near me and brushed her long silver hair. I asked her once in a while if a piece of fish was done. The early evening breeze rustled the palm trees, a peace settled on the day.
We gathered around the outdoor table and Fati started serving everyone fat pieces of barbecued fish. Hundreds of flies swarmed the party. We remained calm as flies swam in our chilled red kool aid and tickled our faces. After a few minutes, Fati’s wife left to gather fresh basil from the garden and placed bunches along the table to dissuade the flies. Lucio tucked a few springs behind his ears and we laughed, and ate.
It was a holiday, celebrating the end of World War II. Fati transitioned the conversation to telling the story of how the French conquered the Marquesas, how they slaughtered his forefathers who only had spears against the French guns. He told the story in a matter of fact tone, with a buoancy that didn’t fit the subject. I appreciated that he contrasted the memory of French peace with the memory of French colonial violence.
Fati’s wife left to play bingo with all the women in town. We cleaned up and took turns drumming on a traditional Marquesian drum, enjoying the sunset light. Then we piled into the HiLux with one fresh tattoo, bellies full of my barbecued marriage fish and we headed home.