story by Derek Ferrar
photos by John C. Russell
Miriam Mare offers elder Terii
Tainanuiarii a respectful peck.
The no-nonsense Tahitian matron sitting next to me at the long, wineglass-strewn table suddenly turned and fixed me with an eyeball-to-eyeball stare.
"Look into my eyes," she commanded.
"I’m gonna test you. I wanna know if you’re for real."
It was mid-afternoon on Huahine, with the sun washing over the green mountain spires and glinting off the topaz lagoon, and we were at the tail end of what had turned into a very long, very lively lunch at Te Marara, the village of Fare’s premier fine-dining restaurant (although the sign out front advertises the establishment demurely as a "snack bar"). I had been on the island just a few days, but it was long enough to realize that I was experiencing a true Huahine moment. Clearly, "being real" is a key attribute on this deep-rooted island with an ancient reputation for being the wildest and most independent of the Society chain. And coming from Oahu, the most urbanized island in the Pacific, that’s exactly what I was looking for.
"So?" the woman next to me demanded, blowing smoke in my face. "What have you come here for? We don’t want users and abusers here." My mind raced, but no answer seemed right. I decided to abandon logic and go for free association. "To ... have a wild time?" I blurted out tentatively.
Silence. The stare. And finally, a raucous laugh. "OK! Welcome to Huahine."
Maroe Bay, Huahine
A quick orientation: Huahine is the easternmost of what is known as the Leeward group of the Society Island chain, located about a hundred miles northwest of Tahiti, which sits in the Windward group. The island is actually divided into two parts, Huahine Nui ("Big Huahine") and Huahine Iti ("Little Huahine"), where two deep bays merge into a narrow isthmus spanned by a small bridge.
Since ancient times, Huahine has been famous for the stubbornly independent mindset of its people. A traditional chant describes the island’s character:
Huahine standing in the face of the north wind;
Huahine in the spray of the waves, in moonlight over broken shells;
Obstinacy is their diversion!
A marae in the once-taboo
village of Maeva.
Even today, Huahine remains an island apart, a rural sanctuary with just 5,000 or so inhabitants and only minimal resort development. From the vantage point of the commuter prop plane flying in from Papeete in the early morning light, it looked like every South Sea island dream come true, with sharp peaks sweeping down in folded drapes of green to the impossibly blue lagoon, which is garlanded by a string of motus—flat, sandy islets along the outer fringes of the encircling reef.
We landed at the small "aerodrome," and I caught a van ride to my humble but welcoming digs, a backpacker’s pension called Chez Guynette, also known by the tongue-in-cheek moniker "Club Bed." Situated at the heart of the harbor-front strip that passes for downtown in tiny Fare (whose name means "house," or "home"), Guynette’s is run by mellow American expat Marty Temahahe and her warm, brawny Tahitian husband, Moe. With a stellar view across the bay, Guynette’s is something of a social center in town. At breakfast time, a who’s who of local residents gathers at the pension’s patio cafe, carrying on a lively discourse in French and Tahitian.
Over coffee and toasted baguette, I met with my guardian angel on the island, Dorothy Levy, a wonderfully earthy and outspoken "Big Mama" (her term), who is deeply involved in preserving Huahine’s Maohi (native) heritage. The sense of this ancient history is palpable here: In the former royal village of Maeva on the island’s north end, the ruins of dozens of ancient marae, or stone temples, crowd the landscape, making Huahine one of the most important archaeological sites in all the Pacific. One formerly swampy area in particular has yielded a wealth of well-preserved artifacts that have helped trace the history and migrations of the Polynesian people, including the only remnants of an ancient voyaging canoe ever found.
Teroomaihiti Teururai at a
canoe tree-cutting ceremony
"Huahine has a mystical sense to it that I think people feel right away," said Dorothy, who heads the Opu Nui Association, dedicated to caring for the island’s maraes. (The association takes its name from traditional temple guardians, called opu nui, or "big bellies," because they were permitted to eat the offerings of food left over after ceremonies.) "You know, this is an island of very old families, and there’s just the feeling of having all that ancestry beneath your feet."
As we talked, the early morning life of Fare paraded by. Down by the dock, women sold farm vegetables on woven mats and fresh-caught fish hanging from lines, while several roullotes (food trucks) served breakfast to customers gathered around their parking spots. A fierce-looking man with dreadlocks and tattoos pedaled by on a bike with a small child perched on the handlebar, then returned a few minutes later balancing half a dozen long baguette loaves.
Later in the day, a lanky, easygoing American resident named Paul Atallah, who is also involved in the effort to document and preserve Huahine’s historical sites, came by to pick me up for a hike through the Maeva maraes. Maeva is unique in all Polynesia, in that all the chiefs of the island’s traditional districts once lived side-by-side in this single village, which was forbidden to commoners. As a result, the area has the largest concentration of maraes in the far-flung Polynesian Triangle. In 1925, the pioneering Pacific archaeologist Kenneth Emory documented a number of the maraes when he sailed through Huahine on his honeymoon, and since the 1960s Emory’s protege, Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto, has been involved in an ongoing mission to survey and restore the area’s hundreds of sites.
In Paul’s old hatchback, we cruised around the northern curve of the island to an open spot at the base of a thickly jungled hill. The lagoon here is closed off at one end by accumulated runoff land, forming a sheltered "lake" called Fauna Nui—no doubt one of the reasons this spot was so favored by the chiefs. Lining the shore among scattered coconut and pandanus trees was a row of maraes, with flat paving stones and upright slabs forming the ahu, or altars. Rising over the lake on posts was a thatched, oval-shaped fare potee, or "rounded house," a large reconstruction of a chief’s meeting house. Today, the structure serves as a cultural center, with a variety of interpretive displays and replicas of artifacts found in the area.
We crossed the road and walked over flat ground patterned with stones forming the vague outlines of ancient structures. The features visible on the surface have been estimated to date back at least 500 years, Paul said, while earlier structures buried underground are well over a thousand years old, making this one of the oldest known settlements in the Society chain. Running through the area was the remnant of a fortification wall, where, in 1846, two shiploads of invading French marines were beaten back from the island by local warriors, led by their pipe-smoking, musket-wielding queen, Teriitaria.
One of Maeva's many maraes.
Soon we started up a trail that climbed the steep hill—called Matairea, or "Joyous Breeze"—into a forest of tangled brush. It was an eerie feeling knowing that we were treading on ground that had once been tapu—forbidden. In Hawaii, I have visited ancient sites and felt a strong presence of the ancestors. Here it was amplified: We were among the ancestors’ ancestors.
Cresting the hill, we came across one marae site after the next. The most imposing of these was Matairea-rahi, once the most important of all maraes on Huahine. This was one of the island’s two marae arii, or "national" maraes, reserved for only the most solemn of ceremonies, including the practice of human sacrifice.
At the end of the trail, we emerged on the far side of Maeva village and started walking back along the road. Stopping by the waterside, we looked out at another of Huahine’s important ancient structures: several large fish traps spanning a narrow channel, with V-shaped stone walls funneling into a small passage topped with a thatched hut. The flow of the tides forces fish through the passage, where fishermen can easily scoop them up with large nets. "In two or three minutes, you can scoop out a meal," Paul said. "Plus, this is a good place to go when your wife is mad at you. Instead of going to the doghouse, you go to the fish house."
Passing through town, we came to a yellow stucco church, with a school next door where kids were playing in an open-air gymnasium. The original church on this spot was built by missionaries over the site of an important marae. "When the old religion ended and Christianity came in," Paul said, "that was really the end of the traditional culture. That’s why it’s so important now to protect what is left."
By the time Paul dropped me back at "Club Bed," the sky was turning the Gauguin colors of a Society Island sunset. Dorothy stopped by and we knocked back a Hinano beer or three to wind down the day. Soon a gregarious rock of a man, a well-known local waterman and former boxer named Smith, pulled up a chair and offered me the local bruddah shake—a hand clasp followed by a knuckle bump. As a one-time bodyguard for superstar artist Christian Lassen, Smith told me, he’s had the opportunity to live the jet-setting fast life, but his spirit would always belong to Huahine. "My placenta is buried here," he said, referring to an old birth custom. "So no matter where in the world I die, my soul will always come back to this island."
The next day, Dorothy took me to meet the island’s resident tattoo master, who goes by the single Tahitian name of Tihoti. He is amazing-looking, with long hair tied up in a bun and the entire left half of his body—including his face—beautifully tattooed in swirling symbolic designs based on the style of the Marquesas Islands, where he lived for several years.
Tatooist Tihoti, photographed before
he made the commitment to
"sacrifice my face for my culture."
Tihoti’s small tattoo studio sits in a side room of the cement home he just finished building with his wife and young son. He invited me to join him for a delicious local lunch of stewed reef fish and baguette with coconut milk, and as we ate he told me that, for him, his markings are powerful symbols of "my love for my culture, my traditions, my family. Everything important in my life is tattooed on my body."
Over the last twenty years, the ancestral art of tattooing has undergone an amazing revival in French-speaking Polynesia, where it had been banned for a century under strict missionary law. Now, Tihoti estimates, at least 70 percent of the Maohi people in the islands are tattooed.
But when I used the term "traditional" tattoo, he corrected me: "We can’t do the traditional designs now. Before, tattooing was a sacred practice, and the one who gave the tatau was a tahua (priest). What if we make a mistake? It’s too scary. But we’re creative people, so we take the traditional ideas and use them to create new designs of our own."
Over the last ten years, Tihoti has slowly built his own body tattoo from designs that come to him in dreams (with other artists doing the actual needlework). Last year, he finally made the decision to, as he puts it, "sacrifice my face for my culture." For years, he told his wife that he would never tattoo his face, but then one morning he woke up and just knew he had to do it. "A lot of people here, especially the older people, can’t understand it," he admits. "They’re still inside the missionary thing."
That afternoon, I hopped on a Huahine Explorer circle-island jeep tour led by a guide named Shorty—a cool, quick-talking cat with Wayfarer shades and a long tail at the back of his hair. Over the stereo, he was playing some funky blues tunes from the Cook Islands, where his family is originally from.
As we buzzed from one "must-see" Huahine landmark to the next, Shorty kept up a polished patter in English and French, piped to the passengers in the back of the truck via a clip-on mic on his collar. We cruised down the east side of the island to the village of Faie and stopped by a concrete culvert under the road, where a small stream harbored a writhing mass of freshwater conger eels. Explaining that the blue-eyed eels were considered sacred in Maohi culture, Shorty waded into the water to feed them bits of tinned mackerel. Well-accustomed to this ritual, the eels thrashed harmlessly around his ankles, snapping their large mouths open to snatch morsels from his fingers.
From there, we wound along the large inlet of Maroe Bay to the isthmus that divides the island and crossed over the short bridge to Huahine Iti, where we stopped to view
a distant rock spire called Te Moa o Hiro, literally "the penis of Hiro." There are varying interpretations of what the name Huahine means, Shorty told us, and most of them have to do with feminine fertility. To cement the metaphor, Huahine’s most prominent landmark is a profile of a reclining, pregnant woman etched into a high ridgeline. The story goes, he said, that she was impregnated by the mischievous chief-god Hiro, who then left his moa in the spire as a tribute. "But personally, I have a hard time believing," he concluded, "that any man would really do that."
As we drove on, the road passed by rows of pineapple and trellised patches of prized Tahitian vanilla, a valuable crop throughout the Society Islands. Out on the motus, the sandy soil was checkered with square patches of two other prime Huahine crops: cantaloupe and watermelon. We rounded the southern tip of Huahine Iti and drove up the western coast near the site of the former Hana Iti hotel, an exclusive, thatched-mansion retreat for the rich and famous—built on spectacular land once owned by Julio Iglesias—which closed after it was heavily damaged by a hurricane in 1998.
Shorty’s rap about it all was so smooth that I had to ask how long he’s been at this. "Two tours a day for more than twenty years, here and on other islands," he said with a chuckle. Knowing how trying the life of a tour guide can be, I saluted him with a tip of my sweat-stained cap.
The next morning, I rented a scooter and buzzed around to the Faie side to pay a visit to the Owen family, which owns the island’s only black-pearl farm, as well as a pottery studio. Since both the Owens’ home and the pearl farm’s showroom sit on pilings in the middle of the lagoon, a boatman with the looks (and attitude) of a Polynesian Leonardo DiCaprio ran me out in a motorized canoe.
My first stop was the showroom, which was filled with lustrous, hypnotic pearls and shelves of ceramic pottery decorated with swirling island motifs. As it turned out, one of the women working there was Tihoti’s wife, Pauline, who has family roots on Pitcairn Island and is a direct descendant of none other than Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian. She explained the laborious process of grafting a foreign body into a host oyster, suspending it in pouched netting beneath the lagoon, and, if one is lucky, harvesting a black pearl a year and a half later. A 50 percent success rate is considered very good, she said.
Next, "Leonardo" ferried me over to the most incredible Robinson Crusoe fantasy house one could ever imagine—several thatched rooms joined by an open-air lanai, with the gentle turquoise water sloshing beneath the wooden flooring. Slim and shirtless in surf trunks and granny-style reading glasses, transplanted Californian Peter Owen was sitting with his tall, athletic son Manutea at a long table on the lanai, sorting through a batch of pearls.
Peter explained that he met his Tahitian wife, Ghislaine, when they were both teenagers, and she was going to high school in California. They moved down to Tahiti soon after, and for years they were the only professional potters in the region. Eventually, they moved over to Huahine to get closer to nature, and since Ghislaine’s father was one of the pioneers of cultured pearl farming in the islands, they decided to start a small farm, which just kept growing.
Jumping into a sleek canoe, Manutea took me across the short stretch of lagoon to the family’s ceramic shop on the nearby motu, where he works decorating the pottery with stylized scenes of canoe paddlers, surfers, whales, tikis, tatau patterns and other favorite images. Watching him stroke smoothly through his back yard, it was easy to see why he has become a rising star in the fiercely competitive national sport of canoe racing. Every morning, he explained, he used to have to paddle over to the road to catch his school bus. "And since I was always late," he said with a mischievous grin, "I had to learn to paddle fast."
Before I knew it, my time on Huahine was up, and Smith and his boys drove me out to the airport in the ancient, blue and yellow Peugeot pickup that he laughingly called his "chick magnet." On the way out, I stopped by to say good-bye to Dorothy at the little snack bar she runs inside the terminal. Over a last Hinano, I asked her for any final thoughts on the life of this extraordinary island.
"Well, first and foremost, it’s an agricultural place," she said, "and I think we should keep it that way. People here may not know what the future’s going to bring them, but they know that today they eat, that everybody has a bed, and that their children are taken care of. Why ask for too much more? On Huahine, you don’t have to put on a big show. You can just be who you are."
Then Big Mama looked me dead in the eye and asked me how my experience of Huahine had been. This time, I knew what to say right away: "Wild!"