Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Impressions of Polynesia

A naked man just drove his chartered catamaran through our crowded anchorage. It’s a wild world here in the South Pacific; next we’ll see natives chanting while paddling their outrigger canoes out to sea. Actually, that last scenario has been a daily occurrence (often without the chanting). We have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of outriggers since arriving in the Society islands. There were a few in the Marquesas and Tuomotus but alongside 9 out of 10 houses, there is a canoe shed with up to 4 outrigger canoes in it. There are many handmade ones with tree limbs for the outrigger, but most are similar to the sleek fiberglass models the canoe club in Santa Cruz uses. Canoe building and small boat building using molds and fiberglass are well-known skills here. From about 2 in the afternoon until the sky is dark at 6:30pm, paddlers criss-cross the lagoons with powerful shoulders and rhythmic motions. There’s cultural pride in this sport as testified to the proliferation of va’a (outrigger) T-shirts, bumper stickers, and tattoos.
These crafts have been part of Polynesian culture for centuries. In fact, I learned today at the museum we visited, that one type of sacred building found at the ancient maraes (or central sacred stone platforms) was specifically for war canoes that could have been up to 55 meters long. These canoes also had outriggers, and some were built out of buoyant reeds instead of hollowed logs.

Another frequent structure at the maraes in centureies past, were roofed shrines for dead bodies. This is similar to a practice I’ve observed in the Society islands. They build small houses or roof over the gravesites of their family members. One of my first impressions of Papeete, the largest city in French Polynesia was wondering what it was I could see through the binoculars as we approached the main pass. What looked from a distance like an acre or two of wooden craft stalls with triangle roofs turned out to be the cemetery. The funny thing is that most people don’t seem to be interred in cemeteries, they’re buried in the family backyard. So, there’s the canoe rack and Granny’s burial shed in most of the tidily raked yards we look in to. I’ve seen up to six headstones in one yard. My favorite appeared to be a mound of sand under a clump of coconut palms. Fresh bouquets were at the foot and head and sides of the mound, and a hammock hung between two of the palms. No shed had been built yet.

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