Sunday, December 18, 2011

Puamau, Hiva Oa

The English and German-speaking guests disembarked by barge at eight this morning for our excursion to the Iipona archeological site above Puamau, Hiva Oa. The French passengers were told to be ready for 8:30. At least Aranui had halved the swarms of people all descending into a small harbor at one time.

SUVs whooshed us up the hill to Iipona (admission 300 francs, pay at Therese Snack Bar, please—included on Aranui trips), where we were left in a mossy clearing in the woods. Five tikis surrounded us, including a frog-like woman tiki and also the largest tiki in Polynesia. The female tiki—Tiki Maki Taua Pepe—is said to represent a woman who died during childbirth, and was carved by her partner as a way to sooth her spirit, so she would protect the community rather than torment it. An animal is carved into the reddish base of the tiki.

"Some people say this is a llama, some people say dog. Me, I think it is a dog, because the dog is important to the Marquesan people," announced Meela, one of our English-language guides. I agreed with her—the dog does look like a llama, but what would a llama be doing here on Hiva Oa? Unless Thor Heyerdahl was right.

The tikis are in various states of completeness, with one being headless, but the largest tiki—Tiki Takaii—is missing his genitals and one arm, but is otherwise intact. He's said to represent a warrior chief. In "The Happy Isles of Oceania," Paul Theroux describes him as a "seven-foot monster, grimacing and clutching its belly," and describes the Iipona site as "a jumble of overgrown and scattered stones, and many carvings, some beheaded and castrated by souvenir hunters or missionaries." But this site was restored in 1991, and it's no longer overgrown or scattered, but instead is one of the top archeological sites in French Polynesia.

The French passengers arrived and we English and German speakers scattered to walk or ride down the hill. Five minutes away was the tomb of the last chief of Puamau, who was the first of the valley's leaders to have converted to Christianity when the missionaries came. He asked to be buried in the Christian fashion, instead of having his body be placed in a cave or banyan tree, but, just in case the new god did not accept him, he also asked for tikis.

We walked back to the port, choosing one of two ways at the fork in the road.

"They both go to the same place," our guide Mila had told us. "But one goes through town and takes longer."

When I got to the fork in the road, I took it. And ended up in town, walking past trees and undergrowth so green I took off my sunglasses to make sure the polarized lenses weren't fooling me. The road curved past banana trees and exotic, colorful flowers, eventually leading me to the post office, which was closed on Saturdays and didn't offer wifi anyway, and then finally down to the sea, where the Aranui waited.

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