Thursday, August 4, 2011

Society Islands - Tahiti (2011)

We left the Tuamotus on June 30th and headed to the Society Islands.  Compared to the Marquesas and Tuamotus, the Society Islands combine the best of both worlds.  They have the lush green and high volcanic peaks like the Marquesas, and like the Tuamotus, they are surrounded by a fringing reef which creates a lagoon protected from ocean swell inside. There are 12 islands in the archipelago, and we plan on visiting four or five of them, starting with Tahiti on the eastern edge and ending with Bora Bora.

We checked the weather before leaving, and it showed two days of calm, followed by a few days with high winds and big seas.  We decided to leave so we would be within the protected anchorage before the bad weather hit.  Unfortunately, there was almost no wind for the entire 240 mile trip, and we spent a lot of time with the engine on.  We arrived in Tahiti around midnight on our second night and made our way to Point Venus on the northern end of the island.
Like entering the passes of the Tuamotus, you have to be cautious when entering the lagoons here, and it is not generally a good idea to enter an unfamiliar pass at night.  However, we had heard from cruisers on s/v Ceilydh that this was an easy place to enter if you arrive at night.  Since the weather was perfectly calm, we decided to go for it and then move to another anchorage the next day.  We were glad we did, because it was an easy approach, and we were able to drop the anchor in 20 ft of water and get some sleep. 
The next morning, we weighed anchor and headed out the pass and around to the west side of the island to Marina Taina. This was where most cruisers stopped because you could drop your anchor near the marina where they have a dinghy dock and lots of services nearby, including restaurants, a large grocery store, chandleries, fresh water and a bus stop.  This was supposed to be a quick motor around the island, but it turned out to be a long and frustrating day.
We traveled outside the reef about 10 miles to the small pass just south of the marina.  As we rounded the northwest side of the island near the lighthouse, the swell kept growing until it was about 15 ft and breaking violently along the reef.  We couldn’t see the break in the reef until we were quite close to it.  As we made our approach, we could now see the waves breaking across the narrow pass and quickly realized it was not safe to transit.  So, we turned around and backtracked toward the larger pass in downtown Papeete on the north side of the island and entered there instead.
Upon entering the Papeete pass, we saw something we haven’t seen in a while – a bustling city.  Tahiti is the largest island and the administrative capital of French Polynesia.  Almost 70% of all the people in French Polynesia live on Tahiti, and most of those live in the capital city of Papeete. They actually have four lane roads here.
After entering the busy pass, we made our way through the lagoon and back to the marina.  We hailed the airport on the way in on the VHF and got permission to pass by.  The runway goes right up to the water, and the planes come in very low, so you are required to get permission from the airport before transiting this part of the lagoon.  As we approached the marina, it was a shock to see so many boats anchored there.  We first tried to stop at the fuel dock and buy some diesel, but they wouldn’t let us get duty free fuel until we had cleared in with the local gendarmerie.  So, we dropped the anchor in 50 ft of water as close as we could to the dinghy dock.  Unfortunately, as we backed down on the anchor, we ended up too close to another boat and had to spend 30 minutes pulling up 200+ ft of chain over our still bent bow roller. 
There were just too many boats crowded together in front of the marina, and by this point, it was late afternoon.  As we motored around looking for a better anchor spot, we found an unoccupied mooring buoy and snagged it, too exhausted to think about trying to anchor again.  We decided to just tie up for the night, and hopefully it wouldn’t be too expensive.  With Saviah secured for the night, we made the long row to shore and went out to dinner to celebrate Andrew’s 34th birthday.  
The next morning, we stopped by the marina office to pay for the mooring, and were informed that it was a private mooring.  This meant that it was free to stay there, but we had to move quick before the owners came back.  Fortunately, several boats had left that morning, and we were able to find a good spot quite close to the dinghy dock.  Anchored in 55 ft with 225 ft of scope, we headed back to shore and on to explore Papeete.
Like most cruisers, a stop in Papeete meant quite a bit of time running around town, tracking down parts and doing a bit of provisioning.  This was the largest city we would see for a while, and they had the most in the way of grocery stores and chandleries.  So we spent our first few days taking the bus into Papeete and then burned a lot of flip-flop rubber walking from store to store.  Our main priority was to find a replacement bolt to repair the bow roller and then to gather parts so Andrew could make a spool for our stern anchor rode.  We also visited the large market place downtown where you could get fresh fish and produce, as well as arts and crafts.

On our many jaunts around town, we learned that, just like the rest of the Polynesian people we have met, the Tahitian people are incredibly friendly and will go out of their way to help you.  One day we were looking for a store to buy some teak and stopped at a fruit stand to ask for directions.  There were two women at the fruit stand and one of them told us the store was a long way down the road and offered to give us a ride.  She drove us about five miles down the road and then instead of dropping us off, she waited twenty minutes for us to find the right piece of wood and have it cut.  Then she drove us another ten miles back to the marina. 
Another time when we were trying to find the museum, a retired preschool teacher stopped and asked if we wanted a ride.  She took us about six miles to the museum, but it was closed.  She then asked if we wanted to see her house, which was in a neighborhood high up on the hill with great views of the lagoon.  She gave us a tour of the neighborhood and took us to her house for some pamplemousse juice, then drove us back to the marina.  She even offered to pick us up another day when the museum was open and bring us over there.  We heard similar stories from other cruisers while we were there.
Another reason for our stop in Papeete was to do some food provisioning, and there was a huge grocery store (Carrefour) a short distance from the marina.  It had been months since we had been in grocery store like this, and we stopped there almost every day to buy cheese and meats and baked goods.  The store was less than a mile from the marina, and they let you take your grocery carts down the sidewalk and leave them at the marina.
As for sight-seeing, we were really looking forward to attending some of the Heiva festivities.  Heiva i Tahiti (or Tahiti Festival) is a month long cultural festival, which includes the French national holiday Bastille Day (July 14th).  The festivities range from parades to outrigger canoe races to traditional singing/dance and other competitions.  The events occur over a full month, but many took place around the weekend close to Bastille Day.  We were particularly excited about seeing the traditional competitions.
One of the competitions we attended was the fruit-carrying race at the Paofai Gardens on the Papeete waterfront.  We had a great time watching this unusual race.  Each competitor had a four foot long log with various fruits tied to each end.  There were mostly bunches of bananas, although some people used taro root, pineapple and coconuts as well.  There were a few different classes of races including women’s, an over-forty age group, and “champions”.  They carried weights of 33 lbs, 44 lbs and 110 lbs, respectively.
They raced along the brick walkways through the gardens that formed a lap, and the first to carry their fruit around the track twice was the winner.  It seemed like the total distance would have been around a mile.  It was amazing to watch as they raced barefoot around the gardens, shifting the fruit from shoulder to shoulder as they went.  One guy had a fruit malfunction at the beginning of the race (one end fell off), but he was determined to finish.  He completed the race carrying 55 lbs on one shoulder and running with the other 55 lbs in the other hand.  He may have come in last, but it was still impressive. 
fruit carrying races

They also had traditional games at the Musee de Tahiti et des Iles.  We spent a couple days at the museum watching these competitions.  The first one was ramassage de cocos, or as we called it, the coconut toss.  Each contestant stood about 60 ft from a barrel and they would try to fling coconuts into the barrel.  There were two methods they used for tossing the coconuts.  Some competitors used two short sticks for the underhand toss:  one stick with a metal spear used to pick up the coconut and fling it, and the other stick used to hit the spear, causing the coconut to come off and fly through the air.  If you don’t whack the spear, the coconut stays on through the follow through and launches backwards into the crowd – it happened a couple times.  Another method was to use one long stick with a spear on the end, tossing the coconut overhand.   The competition was pretty casual.  The participants would joke around with each other, and every so often the tossing would have to stop when a kid ran out onto the field.
coconut toss
The next event was the stone lifting competition.  The goal was to lift the stone from the ground to one shoulder and hold it there with one arm.  All of the stones were different sizes and shapes and they would spin them around on the ground studying the shape and then when it looked right, they would bear hug it and lift it.  They kept increasing the weight of the stone during each round and they had a few different categories including women’s, light-weights and “champions”.  It also seemed like it may have been timed, but since the announcements were in French, we are just guessing.

stone lifting
Our favorite event to watch was the javelin throwing competition.  The first day it was a team competition, and it looked like about 10 people per team, with teams representing six or seven different islands.  The men each had roughly ten spears and they would throw them at a coconut, which was 50-60 ft in front of them perched atop a pole about 30 ft tall.  At the signal, they began to throw their javelins at the coconut, and over about a ten minute period, hundreds were thrown.   Once all javelins had been thrown, they gathered the ones that missed and lowered the coconut to tally the successful hits.  This continued for a few hours, and it seemed to be a running tally totaled at the end of the day.  It was impressive to see how accurate they were and how many javelins could be stuck into a single coconut.
Between events, they had traditional performances with dancing and chanting, which were a lot of fun to watch.  The events went on all month, but it was time for us to move on.  We ended up staying in Tahiti nearly three weeks, which was much longer than we had planned.  I think that was the case with a lot of cruisers.  After not having much in the way of services for the last few months, we really enjoyed all of the good food and conveniences here.  We still have several other islands to see, and the next stop is Moorea, about 20 miles to the west.

traditional Polynesian dancing