6 mins

How to find solitude on a Pacific island

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, goes in search of solitude in French Polynesia. Will she find it?


"Oh no, they're still out there."

I peeked out of the curtain on my top bunk in the dorm on the Aranui combination freighter/passenger ship. We were almost to Fatu Hiva, and I had to find my way out of bed. More importantly, I had to get to the loo.

But the other dorm residents were standing under my bed in the tiny corridor, shuffling back and forth as they prepared to begin the day.

Again I was faced with the issue of crawling out of the top bunk while avoiding the sprinkler hub with the ladder being by my feet, people just below, and no way to get out gracefully due to the shallow depth of the berth. My feet had to go first and I'd been scooting/shuffling out for a few days.

And there were French people in their underwear all around, and here I hadn't had coffee yet.


Every morning was going to start like this, wasn't it? With me having an inner argument with my dorm bunk. I suddenly found myself wondering if my distaste for exclusive treatment and press trips was wise. Should I have waved around my travel writing and book credits? 

No, no. That would be wrong. I'd be beholden to the ship's PR department, and the free trips I'd taken in the past had given me mixed results. When they're good, they're fun. When they're bad, you're stuck with a moral dilemma. Plus, no one offered, and the one available room had been swooped up by an older passenger who'd pointed out his website to someone on the staff. 

I grumpily managed my way out and into one of the co-ed toilet compartments, then squeezed into the incredibly small shower. I hung things from hooks and balanced my Aranui-provided towel and Sydney-provided flip-flops on top of the door opening so they wouldn't get wet.

I headed in late to breakfast and sat in the corner alone, but was soon joined by a pleasant British couple. After two cups of weak coffee, I was a little more human, which is good as I had to spend the day in the company of others touring two small towns on the island of Fatu Hiva.

We disembarked before the cargo unloading began, and that's when I remembered my Antarctica trip. We'd had a hundred people then, and the hundred people descending onto an island to photograph penguins hadn't been anything like I'd imagined it would be. And here in the Marquesas, we had somewhere between 160 and 200 people, all making a beeline for the handcraft centre.

This was OK, in the end, but it took some getting used to. I was able to visit the church with another passenger and – after we re-boarded the Aranui and sailed around this hilly green barely populated island – hiked above the Bay of Penises with a Tiki expert from near my hometown around Washington DC.

The Bay of Penises was beautiful on the scenic view department, but a total disappointment on the phallic front. The pinnacles in the surrounding hills reputedly look just like penises. Well, I suppose there are all shapes and sizes in the world, but the hills just looked kind of hilly and a bit rocky, not really phallic at all.

"I guess there might've been erosion," said my Tiki friend, doubtfully.

The missionaries had changed the name to Bay of Virgins when they arrived, which I could find even less justification for in the rocks.

We were rained on and sunned on over the course of visiting the two small villages, and when we finally arrived at the pier for our barge back to the ship, a local woman was screaming a steady stream of obscenities at another local woman. This was a town of 200, so bad blood must be a tough thing, but fortunately, the town's policeman showed up quickly and intervened. I wonder what other crimes he'd had to solve. Missing pig? Cat up a tree? Container showed up with half a delivery of Coke?

The rain pattered on and off as we stood alongside the docking area on a concrete volleyball court, keeping an eye on the angry woman to make sure she was nowhere near us. The policeman stayed with her for a long time, talking her down, until she sat crying, her fury spent.

The barge slipped in between cargo deliveries and ferried us back to the ship for sunset.

The next day, I didn't wake up frozen in place by the knowledge that seven people were bustling about right where I had to perform acrobatic moves to descend from my bunk via a small ladder.

That's because we were due to have a wifi signal in the lounge this morning and it was only 5am. I was determined to get online and send my outgoing mails before the signal rush.

I spider-shuffled my way down the berth – ouch, what was that? Oh, so THAT's why the sprinkler head at forehead-level was duct-taped with padding – and flopped down the ladder. I pulled on my clothes in the one large bathroom, grabbed my laptop, and headed upstairs to the lounge. Where the wifi signal was slow but reliable until too many people joined the network. It slowed down, but was still working until one couple came in and sat down.

I didn't notice it was off at first, but then another passenger couldn't get online. It wasn't her. See if you can identify the culprits here.

Woman: "My video says it's going to take 17 hours to upload."

Her husband: "My antivirus is updating. It said I had a virus and had to download an update immediately."

Internet go boom. There was some hardcore glaring going on in that lounge. I was only half done with what I needed to do for my comic book job in Kuwait. I'd have to carry my laptop to town and hope for a signal.

At nine, I caught the Aranui-sponsored bus to the Atuona town cemetery. We were on Hiva Oa, former home to Gauguin and burial site of both him and Jacques Brel, who was a famous Belgian singer. Not so famous that I know much about him, but quite famous during his time in Europe.

Huh. So that's Gauguin's grave, I thought. He seemed like a jerk to me, so I wasn't quite sure what I was doing here at his grave, nor was I sure what I was doing at the Gauguin Centre a short time later after I walked down the hill to town (Aranui provided a bus for this for those who weren't into walking but it's a short distance).

Aranui sent a bus again to take us to what seemed to be the town's only large restaurant, where a buffet feast was provided. I ate quickly – I was getting used to socialising, but long ago learned to avoid group meals on trips as they take forever. 

Back in town, I was the only Aranui passenger roaming the streets. Well, streets is a bit of an exaggeration. While this was a metropolis compared to Fakarava or Fatu Hiva, not a lot happens in Atuona. I'd already looked at the handcrafts – amazing bone carvings here for $700 – and Gauguin stuff, so I walked along the road looking for the snack bar mentioned in my Lonely Planet.

And there it was, right across from the post office.

I noticed an espresso machine behind the counter. Perfect! I asked the shopkeeper "Avez-vous espresso?" "Oui." "Avez-vous cappuccino?" "Non." "Okay, un espresso, por favor."

Argh. I was doing it again. Garbling languages.

He answered me in English. "250 francs, please."

I sat down with my espresso, promptly spilled half of it all over my laptop, cleaned it up and meekly sat grabbing the post office signal until my espresso ran down, then I bought more and sat in the snack bar until my battery ran down.

The buses roared by, taking Aranui passengers back to the boat. Some of them walked. I walked too at 2:30 when I realised the bus didn't leave until 3 and that the walk would probably be pleasant.

The hike was easy, with only a gentle slope, and it took me three miles around the large bay and through the palm trees and foliage that lined the single road back to the port. The hills rose above me on the left, covered in trees. The sun beat down, but I was swathed in a scarf, having learned my lesson yesterday with a sunburned nose.

And best of all, I was completely by myself.

Alone at last.

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