Saturday, November 1, 2014

Four Days of Rapa

Rapa from seaward.  A very very romantic landfall, and the four meter seas helped with the ambience

I'm afraid that words and pictures are going to be stretched a bit to capture this one.

This is a place that I've dreamed of visiting for years, and now that we're here the experience is, as always, very different from anything that I imagined beforehand, and, because it is true in the particular details that we couldn't have pictured before, better than we could have expected.

The pace of events has made seeking out internet time a second-best priority.  But for now, sitting on the porch of some new local friends' house (he is just now coming in from a paddle in his pirogue…so we will pause this entry while I have a heartfelt discourse for a few minutes, mostly in pantomime) I get the chance to share these pictures from our first four days in Rapa.

The crew, ready for shore after two days at sea
The village of Ahurei
I'm glad Dad doesn't make me
do varnish like this
As I noted in a couple earlier posts, we were very lucky to find our arrival coinciding with the visit of the Hanse Explorer and the National Geographic crew that had chartered the boat.  

The anchorage of Baie D'Ha'urie is infamous for being an insecure place to anchor, and Martin, the captain of the Hanse Explorer, very kindly allowed us to raft up at the dock.

Not to be dramatic about it, but if you haven't been to sea in your own boat you can't imagine how utterly alone we were on the 300-mile sail from Ra'ivavae.  Just us and our boat and the big big Pacific.  And then suddenly we find ourselves coming alongside this small ship, and climbing the pilot ladder to get aboard, and interacting with a bunch of friendly strangers - what a transition.

The Nat Geo folks invited us to a little party on board that night, which seemed to set the precedent for involving us in anything that was going on for the rest of their stay.  Very kind.
And how we got up there...

And, I said "friendly strangers" just now, but that wasn't strictly true, as the Chief Mate of the Hanse, Madeleine Habib, is from Hobart and is friends with one of our great friends back there.  So it was a pleasure to make the connection with her. 

The Habib-Abookire Union of Seagoing Arab Sheilas
(can I say "Sheila" in this context?) wearing the head
garb, post-reception our first night

What's next - oh yes, the fundraiser for the local youth group that was being held by the community - dinner and dancing, for 3000 CFP a head, or about $35 USD.  A bit out of our price range, to be honest, but as it was for a good cause and everyone was apparently going, we would have been happy to throw down…except that, hearing we couldn't buy much of anything in Rapa, and not sure at one point if we wouldn't clear out of French Polynesia from Ra'ivavae, we had purposely used up all of our local currency.

But wait - not a problem.  Nat Geo was shouting for the entire ship's crew to attend, and Paul Rose, the Expedition Leader (I maintain that you can't have an "expedition" to a place that a four-year-old can happily sail to, but that's a quibble) very graciously extended the invitation to us as well.  

Why?  I can only guess that the Polynesian worldview is catching.

A table, somewhere under all the food

Poema, the trilingual Pew Charitable Trust Marine Protected Area
community engagement powerhouse, and friend to Galactic.  She's the one
who told us in Ra'ivavae that we would cry when we left Rapa
Lord knows what I'm saying to the poor kid

Eric, taking on all comers.  He holds his own in these situations, but at
the expense of sometimes being a little rougher than we would like
Ah, yes - and this is where I mention our pleasant interactions with Rueben, the Togolese public health nurse who is posted here.  He and Julie, the nurse on Ra'ivavae, have just naturally assumed that our family fell under their purview during our visits…a "you're here, you're human, if you're sick I'll help you, here, give this antibiotic to your kid, would you?" sort of attitude.  Very French, I suppose, and also the type of interaction that can provide a bit of unexpected comfort to traveling parents.

Rueben in conversation: "Polynesians eat too much.  Everyone here gets
sick because they ARE TOO FAT.  In Africa people die because they
don't eat enough.  Here people die because they eat too much."
And this was a good one…  Alisa tried to invite Jackye and Johnnie, a local couple who have been incredibly nice to us, over for coffee and cake.  This morphed into five adults and a child coming over for dinner - they always eat together, explained Jackye.  (Everyone has a Rapan name and a French/Western name.  The Western names are the ones we remember, go figure.)

We were thrilled to have everyone at the boat…except that we are low on "hospitality" food - we're doing lots of rice and beans and pasta for our family meals - and we can't buy anything here for a special dinner with friends.  AND we're out of beer and wine, AND we don't have access to the local foods that are the mainstay of the Rapa diet, AND Polynesians eat a lot, and when you feed someone you naturally want to give them a very good meal.  So there was a little pre-dinner angst from Alisa.  But we made do with deviled eggs and pasta with our last two jars of New Zealand beef and a cabbage salad and the many things that Jackye and Johnnie brought.  No need for concern - we all had a great time.
These guys are used to the ways of yachts, and they showed up dressed
warmly, expecting to stay in the cockpit for the entire meal
Our guests brought LOTS of vana - sea urchin roe.  A delicacy    
And of course we moved the party downstairs, where things are more
comfortable.  That's Martin on the right, the captain of the Hanse
 Explorer, making an appearance
Jackye and Alisa dressed for church the next day    
Elias before church - I love how this picture captures his wariness in 
a new village setting.  He and his brother are the leading attraction for
every kid in sight, and coming to a common understanding of what
fun play entails can take a little working out
The inside of the church 
And our little ambassador.  Parents were happy to let their kids try to get
Eric's attention throughout the service
Then of course there are the pare, the "hyper-fortified" ridge-top village sites that Rapa is famous for.  
More on them in a future post, I imagine.

Morongo Uta, one of the largest pare sites, and conveniently the
easiest to get to
And the view of Baie D'Ha'urie that you get along the way...    
Finally, I'll just note that we continue to have a great time with Lucie and Arnold and their boys.  Through the years we've heard yachties talk about being "adopted" by local familes in Polynesia.  This is the first time that that word seems appropriate for describing our interaction with islanders - these two just assume that we should be involved in whatever their family is doing on a particular day, even though our inability to speak French makes us pretty dull companions.

Eric and Elias and Armold Jr. and Lucie at Sunday dinner.  We really must
learn their last name.  Lucie is from Tahuata, in the Marquesas.  
Spouses from off the island seem to be in demand…the population
of Rapa got down to about 100 people during the post-contact
apocalypse,which is quite a genetic bottleneck
Arnold in their taro fields
Elias and Arnold Jr.
Of course the whole point of writing a "sailing blog" is to try to capture some larger perspective on the fly - to get, and share, some glimpse of What It All Means.

But I think Rapa will defeat any attempt to share real-time perspective…we're just going to have to live in this place as fully as we can in the short time that we'll be here.

Late-night party animal
More soon.
Galactic at the dock

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A New Standard

One of the standard sailing guides to Polynesia refers to Rapa as "the strangest island in the Pacific".

That of course offers a strong allure. But whenever I've read that page I've also heard a rebuttal forming in the back of my mind.

Everyone knows that Tasmania is the strangest island in the Pacific.

But while Rapa is unlikely to gain that title any time soon, it has replaced Tassie as a different sort of superlative.

In the very first week we ever spent in Hobart, we found ourselves socially engaged - either going to someone's house for dinner, or having people to the boat - five of the seven nights. This in spite of the fact that we arrived knowing no one there. That record has forever since stood as our defining standard for a friendly place.

Well, Tassie - move over, you're second best once again. This is our eighth day in Rapa. And we've had social engagements on seven of those days.

It would have been a perfect eight for eight, except for the one night that the person we had invited for dinner saw us driving around in someone else's truck shortly before the appointed hour, and concluded that our plans must have changed.

And that's a twist on top of everything that's been going on - there's this steady back beat of spontaneous events that occur at all hours, courtesy of a very social place where not many adults have a strict 9 to 5 schedule for filling their days.

Finally - truth in advertising - all this frenetic activity has not been solely due to the vivacious nature of the place and our honed skills at getting down with the people. We have very much been riding the coattails of the National Geographic group that is here. They have done a fantastic job of interacting with the people of Rapa, and the community has responded by throwing down some incredible Polynesian hospitality. Like, completely incredible. Like, you could sail the Pacific for years and see nothing like it incredible. And for some reason, everyone has decided that the family on the voilier parked next to the Nat Geo boat should naturally also be treated as honored guests at all of these events.

The Hanse Explorer will be heading off to Tahiti tomorrow, leaving us to our own social devices.

Eric will be at school tomorrow, having matriculated from being a slightly stir-crazy boat kid to being one more problem with which the teacher of the three- and four-year-olds can fill her day.

Alisa, I think, will be learning to make popoi at someone's house.

I think we're ready to fly solo.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Rapa has no airport, gets fewer than ten yacht visits a year (from what I'm told) and is visited by the supply ship every two months.

This is an off-the-track place. And it offers the promise of a dazzling, off-the-track experience of Polynesia.

Two days at sea from Ra'ivavae put us in the proper frame of mind for seeing Rapa for the first time. Convoluted spires of lava lost in the impossible vastness of the Pacific. A four and a half meter swell.

We pulled into the caldera that forms the harbor within this island - and found an expedition cruise ship at the dock. It was stuffed with people from a "Pristine Seas" project - marine biologists and Pew Charitable Trust people and a National Geographic film crew. They had a Chief Scientist and an Expedition Leader and they were going fishing with the locals and engaging them about community-based fisheries management and Marine Protected Areas and in the evening they were inviting the community to a reception on board - free beer and good food - and showing the locals a film of themselves fishing, shot by said National Geographic film crew.

Before that, our friends on Hera were at the dock for a week or two.

And shortly before THAT, the French Polynesian government ship, the Tahiti Nui, was here with their own film crew AND a helicopter, and they were taking locals out to the very very remote Iles Morotiri (fifty miles away, indifferently charted) to catch lobsters as long as your arm.

Our friend Patrice, who was here a year ago, rhapsodized to us about how everyone in Rapa stopped to shake his hand.

Ain't no one stopped to shake our hand in the first two days we've been here. The arrival of Galactic has not been the biggest event of the year.

But hey - don't matter one bit to us. "We're just happy to be here," is the enduring Galactic motto.

And - presto, it turns out that the Chief Mate of the expedition cruise ship is from Tasmania ("the strangest island in the Pacific"), and is mutual friends to a great mate to Galactic. So she kindly asked her captain for permission for us to raft up to them at the dock, and before we knew it we were scrubbed up and climbing the pilot ladder en famille, bound for the reception for the locals.

Not at all what we expected to be doing in Rapa. But even more fun for all that.

But then today (our second day), it seems to have begun. The completely out of the box Polynesian social experience.

At the reception we ran into the Togolese nurse who Alisa briefly met at Ra'ivavae, and who is now working here. So of course we invited him over to the boat the next night for a feed. ("Togolese" - isn't that the greatest adjective?)

Alisa "I haven't seen a supermarket in five months" Abookire was trying to get dinner ready while the boys were more or less going crazy down below. I wisely chose that moment to be on deck, doin' stuff. A Rapa man stopped by the boat to chat with me - an optimistic verb choice, that, chat, since he and I share about twenty words of mutual vocabulary. Soon he asked to come aboard for a visit. Absolutely, I said. Soon enough after that, we managed to convince his wife to come aboard. Very soon after that, they invited us to come to their house for Sunday dinner.

(Imagine, the next time you come across someone in your home country who does not speak your language, that you react by immediately inviting them and their family to dinner at your home. You can't imagine it, can you?)

Tongi! We replied. Thank you, we would love to.

Alisa handed out pieces of the flat bread that she was making for dinner. Our guests, Lucie and Arnold, nibbled away, and then started making spreading motions over the palm of one hand, saying "confiture" and "framboise".

Ah, yeah, jam, I replied after checking the dictionary. Good stuff, that.

Arnold and Lucie responded by chucking myself, Eric, Elias and four-year-old Arnold Junior into the family truck and driving us to their home. In the truck Lucie continued the steady stream of junk food for the boys that Arnold had begun when he first walked up to the boat. We got to their house and Lucie packed a little care package for us - a couple liters of frozen berries, a jar of jam, a bucket of potatoes and carrots. Arnold went into the garden to pick a different sort of berry for us. They seemed disappointed that we didn't have a freezer on the boat - lord knows what they would have given us if we had.

My instinct is that refusing a gift in Polynesia can be a very rude thing to do. I very cheerfully accepted the lot.

And then we all drove back to the boat. I wondered if they would drop us off or come aboard. That would be the latter.

Arnold Junior went forward with our boys and they all cheerfully went completely apeshit together.

Alisa kept cooking. And Arnold and Lucie and I sat around and had a pleasant visit.

Except, and I cannot stress enough what a surreal element this gave to the whole interaction, we could not speak to each other except in the most rudimentary way.

And, it's all so fun and uncomplicated and different from anything that we are used to. This attitude - there are people here, we don't know them, can't speak to them, but hey, they're people, they probably eat, let's take them home and give them a big feed - it's so Polynesian. And it can be so disorienting. We think we're having a full day of travel that will be capped by a dinner we've planned for a guest, and through the odd gyrations of the day we're keeping family life more or less on schedule. And then suddenly it's all overturned by a very fun, slightly incomprehensible social experience featuring strangers sitting in our living room.

That's the psyche-Rapa-delic part. And it's what has kept us coming back to Polynesia again and again.

We're looking forward to Sunday very much.