Cannibals and traffic jams

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, hits the Pacific island of Nuku Hiva and goes in search of the island's notorious man-eaters

8 mins

The Aranui freighter ship had pulled into the Polynesian port of Taiohae, on the Marquesan island of Nuku Hiva, sometime during the night. Us passengers had all gotten up early, excited for our release out into the wild, but now came the waiting game, as the ship staff prepared our departure. 

I sat in the lounge, where lots of people desperate for news from home held their laptops and tablets up at strange angles, trying to catch the free wifi signal the ship offered in certain ports. They had no luck, though. Apparently the wifi signal doesn't work until "someone with the key goes into the gas station and turns on the router."

These desperate passengers were giving me the hairy eyeball in the lounge. I could grab a paid signal with my username and password I'd purchased back in Tahiti – as someone with an ongoing job in Kuwait, I was already pushing it by being out of touch so long. I’d come up with a lot of alternative contact methods before embarking on this two-week ocean-going part of my around-the-world journey. Although I was starting to fear for my safety when I heard the announcement it was time to disembark for our morning "safari."

We all filed off the ship by walking down the portable stairs to the dock. There, dozens – maybe 50 or 60 – of Land Rovers, Toyota Hiluxes, and any 4WD the island of Nuku Hiva could dig up waited for us. Every vehicle came with a driver, decked out in a spiffy yellow button-up shirt.

I'd eaten breakfast with my friend, the Tiki hobbyist, and he found us a Toyota Hilux with two remaining seats. Nuku Hiva is Typee territory, where writer Herman Melville famously jumped ship, hung out for three weeks, and managed to make an outstanding book out of it, about two seamen who unexpectedly find themselves among cannibals.

The uncertainty of past eras aside, Marquesans don't eat people and haven't done this in any of our lifetimes, though it is sometimes a hard narrative for storytellers to resist – a report a few years ago turned out to be false, and after a flurry of salacious “cannibal” reports, turned out to be a gun murder. Anyway, I was the smallest person in the car and would make the least-hearty meal.

Our tremendous line of vehicles roared out of port and into Taiohae, then hung a right to follow a mountain road to the top of a peak, where somehow, all these trucks found parking.

We all swarmed out of the 4WDs and over to the viewpoint for a nice, green panorama and bay beyond. One man had the ground collapse below him and slid down the cliff. Fortunately, he didn't fall far, but he spent the next week with his foot up in his cabin and needed reconstructive surgery later.

I was enjoying the truck trip but the masses thing was not so cool. That had been the down side of this whole trip, and reminded me of an Antarctica trip I’d once taken. I can't say that the tremendous number of people ruined the view – it didn't. The views were all still spectacular. But every photo stop took 20 minutes and this was one of the largest groups I'd even been a part of. (I was on a cruise ship once, the QE2, but at port, I’d just left the ship and wandered into towns alone.)

Once my little group was back in the car, we headed on up the mountain and down switchbacks on the other side, to the Kamuhei archeological site, which is in the shade of a huge banyan tree. I wandered off by myself to look at petroglyphs, but this turned out to be a mistake, as I had to then wait for the rest of the group to finish its guided tour before the line of trucks drove back to the Aranui for lunch. While we ate, the ship motored out of the Nuku Hiva port and on to the next island of Ua Pou.

Hakahau, Ua Pou, is probably pretty slow most days, but with much of the population gone to Nuku Hiva for an arts festival that was due to start in the morning, the pace of life was catatonic. Our passengers fanned out to walk the streets, view the church with its uniquely carved pulpit, or hike to a nearby viewpoint.

Then, as I walked slowly back to the beach near the port, I came across a village bocce game of about ten players. Men and women of all ages were playing, pitching underhand or with a rolling technique, and everyone was really into the game.

I was too, and stood watching for 15 minutes 

This was what we were here for. Not to weave hats out of reeds on the ship, not to drive around in 4WDs. We were here in these remote islands in the middle of the massive Pacific Ocean to see local life.

I never did figure out who scored and who didn't, but no one seemed to mind me watching, and in time, I nodded good-bye. I walked back to the ship, dodging newly-opened containers, shiny new girls bicycles, and palettes of junk food, all come in on the Aranui.

Just like me.

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