Stop: Papeete, French Polynesia by Elliott Hester
on photos for more images of French
to what one might expect on a South Pacific cruise ship, the Aranui
does not have an onboard casino, discotheque, or array of glitzy
shops. Meals are basic, passenger cabins utilitarian, entertainment
is virtually nonexistent, and crew members wear grungy T-shirts
and hard hats rather than spiffy white uniforms. But therein lies
had little interest in traditional oceangoing cruises, I was thrilled
to learn that the Aranui (www.aranui.com) is primarily a cargo vessel
that delivers food, building materials, fuel, and an endless array
of provisions from Tahiti to the remote Marquesas Islands. The monthly
voyage lasts 16 days and covers approximately 1,600 miles round-trip.
While 32 Polynesian crewman load and unload some of the 2,000-ton
payload at each port, passengers make shore excursions to paradise.
Sept., 1985, the Aranui launched with accommodations for only 37
passengers. Five years later, that ship retired and a new Aranui
II (the ship I sailed on) tripled its predecessorís capacity. It
houses 100 passengers in cabins and another 22 in a bunk bed-filled
dormitory. (A new and improved Aranui III is scheduled to launch
in March, 2003. Complete with a swimming pool, gym, and room for
more than 200 passengers, this latest incarnation will seem more
like a traditional cruise ship.)
few hours before departure, I strolled up to the sun deck where
many of the passengers had gathered. Most were middle-aged French
who carried with them a reclusive air that seemed well, very French.
Of the few Americans onboard, the majority belonged to Elder Hostela
senior tour group that sponsors worldwide excursions.
was befriended by folks from many countries: a quirky British doctor
and his demure girlfriend; a Norwegian anthropologist who turned
out to be the life of the party, as well as the onboard guest lecturer;
a retired French doctor, Bernard, whose wife had recently passed
away; and a young Belgian woman who had come to pay tribute to Jacques
Brel, the famous Belgian singer whose grave lay on the island of
by new friends, I leaned over the railing and watched one of the
ship's 3 gigantic cranes lower a cable toward a heavy container
on the dock. A crewman in oil-stained shorts, stood atop the container.
He fastened chains to a massive hook at the end of the cable, then
rode the rising load as if it were an amusement park attraction.
the crane operator, looks like a character from Melville's "Moby
Dick." His bald, tattooed head protruded from the operator's
window as he guided the container to its proper position in the
multi-level cargo hold. Sporting a large hoop earring and boar-tooth
necklace, Kadafi loaded the remaining cargo. Chains rattled. Metal
screeched. Grease-streaked men in hard hats ducked beneath the heavy,
swaying hook. It was a crewmanís ballet presented to an audience
of landlubbers. Each time the ship dropped anchor, we would be treated
to an encore performance.
Aranui departed shortly after sunset. Amid the rumble of the great
ship's engine, we eased out of the harbor, past expensive yachts
and out toward the open sea.
clasped behind my head, I stretched out on a lounge chair and gazed
upon a star-clustered sky. A soft sea breeze kissed my face. The
welcome drink began to work its magic. I retired to my interior
cabin, near the engine room. The rumble of the engine and the swaying
of the ship induced an instant womb-like sleep.
a day and a half at sea, we reached Takapoto, one of 77 atolls in
the Tuomotu group. Because Takapoto has no pierlike many of
the islandsthe ship anchored offshore. Led by two Aranui guides,
we descended the stairs and jumped into a battered wooden whale
boat that motored us ashore.
the crew offloaded pallets of concrete, beer, and other coveted
necessities, we swam in turquoise water at a picture-postcard white
sand beach. Later, I took a canoe to a pearl farm and learned how
spherical mussel shells are inserted into oysters, hung from bamboo
rafts, and harvested 3 years later. The result is the precious poe
rava, or black pearl. Pearls, black or otherwise, are responsible
for more than 25% of the French Polynesian GNP. Only tourism produces
we feasted on poisson cru (raw fish in coconut milk) at a Polynesian
picnic lunch. Then it was back into the whale boat, onto the ship
and out to sea.
reaching the Marquesas, our itinerary quickened. By 8:00 A.M., the
Aranui dropped anchor at one lush, volcanic island or another: Ua
Pao, Nuku Hiva, Tahuata, Fatu Hiva, Hiva Oa, or Ua Huka. While the
crew performed their off-loading ballet, we ate a breakfast of fruit
and pancakes. Afterward, we jumped into whale boats, hiked, rode
horses, and visited ancient tiki sculptures and petroglyphs (rock
carvings), many of which were discovered and recorded by Dr. Sidsel
Millerstrom, the onboard anthropologist and guest lecturer.
the island of Tahuata (pop. 800), I attended morning mass in the
tiny village of Hapatoni. Inside a small white church, across the
road from the crashing surf, nearly all 80 villagers had assembled.
A 4-piece band, complete with a ukulele strummer, played uplifting
melodies between pauses in the sermon. The Polynesian congregation
sang along in sweet, flowery bursts that my foreign ear could not
decipher. But when I closed my eyes and locked arms with a stranger,
the message suddenly came in loud and clear. They were simply trying
to say, Peace on Earth.
the rest of the world were as beautiful as Tahuata, perhaps the
message would be easier to hear.
Hester has given up his day job to travel around the world for one
year. His dispatches appear regularly in Travel.
here for more images of French Polynesia
stop: Coober Pedy, Australia.
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