Looking for Bali Hi — in the Marquesas

The search for earthly paradise is one of the recurring themes of the lectures on Amsterdam.  The Polynesian cultural center representatives and the Astronomy professor have given lectures and held discussions on this topic.  They have reviewed literature, paintings, film and TV about the promotion of the South Pacific as that earthly paradise with scenic beauty, fragrant flowers, free love and no damp British cold.   The idea was promoted by visiting westerners from the journals of Captain Cook, and the writings of Herman Melville, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and James Michener.  South Pacific sings of Bali Hi and Arthur Godfrey on the radio promoted Hawaii as that paradise.  Paul Gauguin portrayed the colors and people of Polynesia as that paradise.  The lectures ask us to consider what would be our earthly paradise, what would it contain, what would be its values.  Can we find or create Utopia?  Is it in the South Pacific, is it Shangra La (Lost Horizons.)  This discussion was our introduction to Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands.  The Marquesas are undeniably beautiful, with towering mountains and exotic vegetation.  They are among the most isolated places on earth, a place where the Polynesian Culture is less affected by tourism (although not religion) than other places, save, perhaps Pitcairn Island, where the Bounty mutineers ended up.  (And one of the lectures asked if the crew, after having been on Tahiti for six months, mutinied, not because of Captain Bligh’s alleged cruelty but rather because they had found their paradise, and wives, and didn’t want to leave.)

We were invited to consider Nuka Hiva as a candidate for earthly paradise.  I was in a state of mind to consider this because my late friend Warren Christianson used to talk, wistfully, of the Marquesas when describing his trips on his sailboat Tantalus.

We were up early to be on the bow of Amsterdam for the sail-in to Nuka Hiva and it was beautiful as advertised.  The Marquesas are difficult to get to, no regular ships, (no real dock) there is not much air service, the airport is an hour and a half from Nuka Hiva’s town on a road passable only by four wheel drive vehicles.  What tourism there is comes from transiting yachts, like Tantalus, and occasional cruise ships.  It took us 8 sea days to get there.

As it happened, it was harder to get there than we thought.  The ship’s tenders are having problems.  There were tenders out in Grand Cayman, in Panama City one collided with a yacht and here one died while taking passengers to shore and another had a starter motor give out.   The PA announcement went out at 8:30 to start the tendering process.  Then it stopped.  Then it started again, slowly.  Although looking at the bay was stunning, and watching a group of local boys in outrigger fiberglass kayaks (combining, I suppose, Inuit, Polynesian and Dow Chemical technology) surf the wake of the tenders was a lot of fun.

Some of my cruise mates were a little antsy to get off having been on the ship for 8 days, but we were happy.  We finally got on our tender at 12:35 PM, we had the last tender tickets.  The captain was also on our tender, and some of the crew, although some of the crew lost their shore leave because of the priority given to passengers on the tenders.

We were greeted with an amazing display of drumming, shell blowing (one sounded like a foghorn in perfectly clear weather) and flowers getting off the tender.  It was, I think, one of the best welcomes I have gotten anywhere.

I had hoped to hike about a mile up from the town to an old Polynesian temple site but we arrived right in the noonday sun, and I am neither a mad dog nor an Englishman.  We instead wandered the Saturday produce market, and walked along the shore, where many of the carved tikis, some gathered from the interior of the island, were on display.  Pae Pae Piki Vehine is an archaeological site on the waterfront that had become an open air cultural center.  It includes tiki’s made by local sculptors and artists from Easter Island.  A tiki is on the flag of the Marquesas Islands.  (See a tiki post.)

The Notre Dame Cathedral is a remarkably cool building in which to shelter in the heat of the day, and if you go there you are rewarded with magnificent wooden sculptures including the stations of the cross, pulpits, alters, and doors.  All of the faces, Christ, Mary, Moses and the saints are Polynesian.  I liked the saint playing the Ukulele.  (See a picture post from Notre Dame)

On our walk to the tender, along the shoreline, we saw a house where many old leis were hanging from a tree.  One of our lecturers told us about this.  Leis are gifts of love.  You get them as welcomes, at birth, death and on special occasions.  You don’t throw a lei away, you either return it to the sea or the earth.  In his family women hang their leis on trees when they are done, the men hang them on nails on a shed in the back yard.   About once a year the kids take the leis and crumble the wilted flowers and spread them on the lawn, returning them to the earth.  I like that custom.

About halfway back to the ship we stopped and I had a very cold and refreshing Hinano Beer, the “local” from Tahiti.  While it was only 82 degrees, not hot by tropical standards, but it was hot for me.  Plus all the beautiful flowers had me congested, sneezing and breathing heavy.  It was not too hot for the local teenagers playing volleyball as the afternoon sun got a little lower in the sky.  Everyone we met along the way was friendly and took the time to greet us.  Some of the teenagers playing waved and smiled.

We got back on the ship, had a cold shower washing off the sweat and clearing out the pollen.   Then we went up on deck for a most beautiful sunset sail out, highlighting, again, the beauty of the island.  We went to bed early and, because of the time change heading toward Tahiti, were up early.  Last night I had the best, and longest sleep on this journey so far.

The lecturers asked us to consider our idea of Earthly paradise.  So the question; are the Marquesas, the earthly paradise of Gauguin and Melville, my earthly paradise?  While beautiful and worth seeing the answer for me is no.  I’m lucky because I found my earthly paradise as a young man.  One of the lecturers from the Polynesian center, who had traveled world-wide and lived in New York, San Francisco and other “world cities” knows his earthy paradise is in his family homestead in Hawaii.  “Ultimately, Paradise is where your heart is” he said.  I know my heart, I know my paradise, and while I love to travel I know where I my community lives.

3 thoughts on “Looking for Bali Hi — in the Marquesas

  1. 6 years ago on 35 day South Pacific Cruise this was our last port before the long trip back to San Diego. As we sailed in it was pouring down rain, not your lovely weather, and they announced all ship tours were canceled. All tenders working that day we ventured on shore. The locals were there greeting us and as we wandered towards the church the rain let up some. We watched the chickens, a man galloping his horse along the beach, looked at the tikis. Many women and girls put on an amazing dance show for us. Everyone was happy and as it turned out so were we. I have nothing but good memories of that port. The rain stopped, we walked up to the post office to mail a card. And I realized I had a great day!

  2. I often wonder what people think of Sitka when they arrive in the rain. We try to make it good for visitors. thanks for your comment.

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