Tahiti (Nui and Iti)

This is the eighth and final in a series of posts, each one about an island we visited on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, the third was about Fakarava, the fourth was about Hiva Oa, the fifth was about Nuku Hiva and also included a “status check” on the trip so far, the sixth was about Raiatea and Taha’a, and the seventh was about Maupiti.)

Read more: Tahiti (Nui and Iti)

Right off the bat, let me clear up a common misconception – Tahiti is not a country, it’s an island. It’s the largest island, by far, of the approximately 120 islands in the country of French Polynesia. Its main city, Pape’ete, is by far the largest city in French Polynesia. But it’s understandable that so many people think Tahiti is a country – the native language spoken in most of French Polynesia is Tahitian; most people visiting French Polynesia will fly into the international airport on Tahiti; it’s not unusual to see French Polynesia referred to as Tahiti et ses îles (Tahiti and her islands). I guess “Tahiti” is a lot more concise than “French Polynesia”, but just keep in mind that they’re not the same thing. There’s more: Tahiti is a bit odd-shaped (see picture below), with a little nub that sticks out on the southeast part, looking like a separate island, and they even have a name for it – Tahiti Iti – that makes it sound like it’s a separate island. (“Iti” means “small” in Tahitian.) But it’s not a separate island, as the two chunks are connected by an isthmus (look it up). To sum up: Tahiti is the name of an island that looks like two islands, but isn’t; the little part is called Tahiti Iti and the big part is called Tahiti Nui (“big Tahiti”) or just Tahiti. And many people think it’s a country, but it isn’t.

Anyway … Tahiti was the last island we visited on our grand tour of French Polynesia. In the earlier parts of our trip, we had been to Tahiti a couple of times, because it’s the hub for all of Air Tahiti’s flights, and on a couple of occasions, we had to spend the night there between flights to and from other islands. So we knew it was “the big city”, and was going to be very different from the rest of the islands, and honestly, I was prepared to not like it. (We heard that from several people who live on the other islands – that they sometimes have to go to Tahiti, but they really don’t like it. Also, I’m getting more and more curmudgeonly with every passing day.) But we had a great time there, and met some wonderful people, and did some really fun things, so lemme tell you about it!

You may recall that we stayed in a few places on this trip that weren’t exactly Five Star accommodations. A couple would have been One Star, and one of them was a Black Hole. But on Tahiti, we did a Home Exchange and stayed in a modern apartment with a gorgeous view of the reef, ocean, and the island of Mo’orea in the distance. For the first time on this trip, we had all the comforts of home and not a single thing to wish for in our accommodations. As a bonus, our hosts, Chloe and Thierry, were fantastic and could not have made us feel more welcome. (More on that later.)

The view from our Home Exchange apartment, with Mo’orea in the distance

(A brief aside: for the past year, we’ve been using a website called HomeExchange.com to find places to stay in the US and other countries. We’ve used it in Scotland, Ireland, Bonaire, and French Polynesia, and later this year we’ll be using it to stay in Oregon and Mexico. I’ll do a separate blog post about it soon, but if you like to travel, I can’t recommend it enough. Check it out!)

Captain Ju and two Giant Spider Conchs (which were release unharmed)

Our first adventure was an all-day boat excursion around Tahiti Iti, with Captain Julien and five other guests. He took us around the lagoon (the area between the island and the fringing coral reef) and showed us a fish farm that consists of four big circular nets suspended in a deep part of the lagoon where they’re raising batfish for sale to local restaurants. He took us to a shallow sandy area where we found some of the giant spider conchs, which we brought up, got a good look at, and tossed back (they’re a protected species). We snorkeled on and around a coral head that rises at least 60 feet straight up from the bottom, where we saw several pipefish, a giant oyster, and an octopus! It would have been a perfect place for us to practice our freediving, but “Captain Ju” had a lot more to show us, so we couldn’t stay long. We swam in a clear, cold, fresh water river that emptied into the lagoon and had fresh poisson cru au lait de coco, which is our favorite new dish from this trip. And we saw Teahupoo, which surfers will recognize as one of the greatest big wave surf spots in the world, and the site of the surfing competition in the 2024 Olympics. (But the swell was small that day, so we didn’t get to see any giant waves.) It was a great way to kick off our ten days on Tahiti!

It’s not often that you get to snorkel to a waterfall!

A couple days later, our Home Exchange hosts, Chloe and Thierry, invited us on a hike with them and three of their friends, to see a waterfall and hopefully some of the rare Tahiti Monarch (a.k.a. Tahiti Flycatcher), a seriously endangered bird that lives only on Tahiti. The valley where we hiked is off limits for most people, but Thierry literally co-wrote the book on the birds of French Polynesia, as well as the book on the fish of French Polynesia, the whales of French Polynesia, and the very first scuba diving guide to French Polynesia! So we got a pass for the hike, which ended at a really nice waterfall, where we found a juvenile Tahiti Petrel stranded on the ground. This seabird can’t launch from the ground, and this one was probably a new flyer who got confused in the canyon and ended up on the ground. He wasn’t injured, but was quite weak, so we wrapped him up in a big scarf and got him to the local bird rescue organization, where he was fed, rested, and released a few days later. By the way, we did see a few Tahiti Monarchs, of which there are only a hundred or so still alive, but they’re just little black birds, and don’t make a great picture.

He was tired and hungry, and no doubt wondering what he’d gotten himself into!

Chloe and Thierry invited us to their home for cocktails a few days later, and after driving up, and up, and up for what seemed like a half hour, we finally reached their incredibly cool hillside home that has an even better view of the reef, the ocean, and Mo’orea than their apartment that we stayed in. It was over drinks that evening that we learned about their long history in French Polynesia (about 40 years), and about Thierry’s books, and about the whales. Approximately 30 years ago, humpback whales started coming to the waters around Tahiti and Mo’orea in increasingly larger numbers each summer, to bear their calves in the warm, safe ocean there. Thierry was running dive charters then, and was possibly the first to start getting in the water with the whales. Now, whale watching and whale swimming (snorkels only – no scuba gear) brings thousands of people to Tahiti each year. Thierry and Chloe still go out three or four times a week during the peak part of the season (mid-September to mid-October), when an estimated 2,000 humpback whales show up! Chloe desribed being in the water with a giant whale’s eye just a few feet away, clearly curious, but gentle as can be, as “one of those things that changes you”. So guess who’s planning a return visit to Tahiti! (No, not this year, and 2024 is supposed to be “The Year We Stay Home”, so maybe 2025?)

Chloe and Thierry’s back deck, with Mo’orea off in the distance

Regular Readers will recall that we got to experience a little bit of the annual celebration called Heiva when we were on the tiny island of Maupiti – traditional dancing and percussion, feats of strength and skill, etc. We were fortunate to be on Tahiti when its Heiva began, and we were even more fortunate to score two tickets for opening night. What we should have learned from Maupiti’s opening night is that Polynesians love ceremony, and that involves a lot of talking. A. LOT. OF. TALKING. When we arrived at our seats for the opening night ceremonies, we wondered why so many seats were empty – it was a sold-out event. 90 minutes later, after all nine judges and 48 other luminaries (no kidding – I counted) had been introduced, and the appropriate ceremonies performed, the seats started to fill up. But not completely, because the first performance was a group of at least 50 men and women from one of the islands competing in Traditional Chanting – a form of singing that was at times melodious, at times cacophonous, mostly monotonous, and at all times unintelligble to us, since we don’t speak Tahitian. It also takes them at least five minutes to get ready for, and then explain each song, so it was kind of a long 30 minutes.

But finally, they made their exit, and it was time for … another group of at least 50 men and women from another of the islands performing the exact same songs in the same Traditional Chant competition. Oh boy. So much chanting.

Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on!

Eventually, though – two and a half hours after the 6:00 start of the Opening Ceremonies – we got what we came for – the dancing! Over 100 dancers, mostly young and tremendously fit, all in amazing traditional costumes, took the floor and put on a show. I’ve never seen hips and knees move like that! They did three numbers, each in different costumes, separated by performances by solo or very small group dances, so it never stopped (the Chanters could learn something from them), and it was all fantastic. Not only the dancing, but also the percussion group that provided the beat. At least 20 of them, all in their own amazing costumes, pounding out the beat on drums, hollowed-out logs, nose pipes (yep!), and other traditional instruments. We were not allowed to take pictures or video, but if you want to get an idea of what we saw, this is the official video of one number from one of the dance groups, that shows pretty much what we saw: click here.

We did three scuba dives while we were on Tahiti, and we snorkeled at one of the public beaches. The first dive featured giant coral cliffs and so many turtles you had to get out of their way, the second showed us yet another species of nudibranch new to us, and on the snorkel, we finally found a big, perfect, gorgeous cowrie shell that we’d been searching for the entire trip. (But there was a dude still living in it, so we let him go.)

At last, a big, perfect cowrie!

I’ve written about the pearls and the carvings in earlier posts, and while we picked up a few small items along the way, we saved all of our serious shopping for Tahiti, because we knew we could find a lot of everything there. And since it was our last stop, we wouldn’t be lugging stuff around from island to island. (Never has the word “luggage” been more appropriate, as our two wheel-less duffle bags were at the full allowed weight the entire trip, and we lugged them around at least once a week since mid-April.) We had decided to bring home just a few things for us – a few pearls, a few carvings, and a few sets of the very tropical bedding like we had on the beds in most of our stays. Because Heiva was in town, there were two extra marketplaces set up for people from many other islands to sell their crafts; carvings from the Marquesas, woven goods from the Astrals, pearls from lots of islands, shell jewelry from every island, etc., etc. So we spent a lot of time shopping, and talking to the people selling, because in many instances they were the people who had made the items. Wanna see what we got? Well, I’m gonna show you. Not everything, but the highlights:

A tiki necklace carved from bone, from the Marquesas, for me
Black pearl necklace of pearls we selected individually, for Fran
A very tattooed tiki from the Marquesas, for the house

At the beginning of this post, I said that I had been prepared to not like Tahiti, but as you can tell by now, I liked it quite a lot. We both did. And although it’s very different from every other island in many ways, the farther you get out of the city, the more it looks and feels like the other islands. The reef, lagoon, ocean, mountains, and valleys are as beautiful on Tahiti as any other island. The people are, for the most part, just as friendly as anywhere else. And when you need a dose of city life, or just need something that’s hard to get elsewhere, you can probably find it on Tahiti. So when you’re planning your trip to French Polynesia, don’t necessarily skip Tahiti – you just might like it!

Here’s a link to a whole bunch of pictures and videos we took on Tahiti: click here.

And that, Dear Reader, is the last of the posts about this grand adventure of ours. I hope you enjoyed them all! We’re now back home after 108 days and 23 different beds since we left April 1, and it’s feeling really nice to be home. We have a bit more travel planned for the second half of 2023, although nothing nearly so ambitious as what we just did – in fact, I won’t be surprised if we never take such a prolonged trip again. It was a lot. But we’re so glad we took this one, and so glad that you’ve followed along at home! Maruuru!

Flowers for Maddie

Fran and I are in the final few days of a trip of a lifetime – we spent two weeks in the Galapagos Islands, followed by nine weeks on eight islands in French Polynesia. The longer the trip has gone on, the more I find myself thinking of Maddie. If you don’t know, Maddie was my daughter, who died in 2017 at the tender age of 22. You can read about that here if you like. In that post, I wrote “One of these days, when the feelings aren’t so raw, I may write more about Maddie…”, and today, finally, is that day.

Read more: Flowers for Maddie

Why now? Because I think she would have absolutely loved French Polynesia, and the things we were able to do on this trip, and she would have been right there with us, in the thick of all of it, soaking it all up, and smiling that smile of hers that, although rare, was pretty damned special when you got to see it. She would have loved the people – their outward friendliness, the way they embrace their incredibly gorgeous surroundings, their uncomplicated approach to life.

This kind of scene would have melted her heart

She would have loved the adventure – in particular, I’m thinking of the most challenging “hike” we did up a very steep, sometimes scary peak on Maupiti. She would have bounded up those rocks as if gravity held no sway over her, and when she reached the top, she would have been dancing all over the highest rocks (very unlike her father!), trying to get the best views all around the island.

She would have been up there in no time, wondering why I was taking all day

We rode horses one day, and while I’ve never been particularly comfortable around them, she did “horse camp” at Flat Rock YMCA Camp two summers, and loved it. (There’s actually an endowment there in her name now, to help someone attend who might not otherwise be able to.) She’d have hopped on that horse and our guide might not have caught her!

Although she was absolutely not interested in jewelry other than the most simple kinds, I think she would have been fascinated by the pearls, because they are a product of nature. Yes, humans help the process along, but the end result – the part that can almost take your breath away when you see a perfect one – comes 100% from that oyster, doing its oyster thing.

Nature made that pearl! Nature!

She was a drummer, from fourth grade on, and I don’t think there was much that gave her more pleasure than putting on her headphones and sitting down at her electronic drum kit and playing. She never liked to play for others – it was a private joy of hers – but I think she would have absolutely dug the drumming here! We haven’t seen as much of it as we hoped, but in the last few weeks, now that it’s Heiva season (their annual festival, held on many of the islands), we’ve gotten some, and it’s captivating.

She was too shy to ask to sit in – but she could have held her own with these guys!

She would have been absolutely transfixed by the tattoos! She was a big fan of the tattoo – I think she had more than a dozen, and all but one of them were plain black ink, like all of the tattoos in Polynesia. In fact, I can’t hardly imagine that she would have come here without getting one – a big one! – in honor of the cultural and historical significance of tattoos among Polynesians – and because she would have thought that it was really fucking cool!

Maddie and this dude would have BONDED!

She would have loved the diving and snorkeling we’ve done here, seeing new and amazing fish literally every time we’re in the water. (Although I’m not sure how she would have reacted to the hundreds of sharks in the South Pass at Fakarava. Knowing her – scared at first, and then totally into the experience, once she realized they weren’t going to eat her.)

But what she would have loved the most – and those of you at Posh Petals reading this, I think you can appreciate this more than anyone – are the plants and the flowers. In the last few years of her way-too-short life, she discovered a love of plants and flowers. And man, are there some plants and flowers here!!! Wow, wow, wow and ohmygod! There are flowers here that defy description. There are flowers here that don’t even seem real. There are flowers here with colors that you can’t hardly imagine being used in a flower. There are plants here with giant leaves, and leaves that physically respond when you touch them, and plants that create vanilla! And the plants and flowers are such an important part of life here – they’re used to decorate everything, not only on special occasions, but ESPECIALLY on special occasions. People – women, men, kids – wear a flower tucked behind an ear, or stuck in the hair, for no reason at all. So in honor of Maddie, here are some of the most beautiful flowers we’ve seen on this trip, and at the end is a link to a Google Photos album of every cool plant and flower from this trip. Enjoy! I know she would have.

A petite orchid
Crazy hibiscus
These grow wild all over Nuku Hiva
Reminds me of an octopus!
Like fireworks!
Even a simple wildflower made her happy. These flowers would have thrilled her!

Here is the link to the photo album with all the cool flowers and plants we’ve seen on this trip: click here.

French Polynesia Status Check (and Nuku Hiva)

This is the fifth in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, the third was about Fakarava, and the fourth was about Hiva Oa.)

We’re on Nuku Hiva, in the very middle of our nine weeks here in French Polynesia, which seems like a good time to take stock of the trip so far. I have to admit I have mixed feelings about French Polynesia. I’m writing this post at 7:40 p.m. while sitting on the bed in our room in Loic* and Chantal’s* house. I’m sitting on the bed because there is nowhere else to sit in the room, or for that matter, in the part of the house that we’re staying in, and I’m doing it at 7:40 p.m. because there is nothing else to do, and nowhere else to go. Even if there were something to do in the village of Taiohae, it would be a 30 minute walk down a pitch-black road to get there.

Read more: French Polynesia Status Check (and Nuku Hiva)

But there isn’t anything to do in the village, because everything closes before the sun goes down. On the plus side, we just had a nice dinner of fresh-caught tuna (some sashimi, some grilled) with rice, and local watermelon for dessert. Dinner conversation with Loic and Chantal was fun, the highlight being when Loic tried a little of our soy / wasabi mix with his sashimi, and had to refill the pitcher of water to regain normal feeling in his mouth and sinuses (accompanied by much laughter from Chantal, so it was OK). Dinner began as the sun set behind the mountain ridge that is scarcely a half-mile up the hillside from their house, giving us another visual reminder of how beautiful this island is.

(*Not their real names.)

Our breakfast and dinner view

Thus begins my attempt at explaining how I feel about French Polynesia, now that we’re halfway through the trip. There are parts that I love, and parts that I really dislike, and strangely, some parts that I both love and dislike. But before I do that, I have to share with you something I have just this very minute realized, while trying to compose this sentence – or perhaps just admitted – about myself: I’m either a snob, or a spoiled brat, or a bit of (maybe a lot of) both. And, since I’m baring my soul, a bit of a hypocrite. Because every single thing I can think of that I have not liked about French Polynesia has to do with my own comfort, or my own biases, or my own opinions about how people should think and behave. Ugh… that hurts, but I can’t deny it.

We’re staying with Loic and Chantal because they operate a pension (pen-see-OWN), which means they rent out part of their house to tourists. Because we made all of our travel arrangements very last-minute, and because the only actual hotel on the island is about $400 per night, this is where we ended up. I applaud them for having the initiative to run a pension, because it usually means that your guests will not only be sleeping in your house, they’ll be eating with you, too – so you HAVE to have some breakfast ready every morning, and you HAVE to make dinner every night. (In addition to making dinner for yourself and your children – they have a 10 year old girl at home.) But to be honest, they haven’t exactly gone out of their way to spruce the place up for paying customers, and breakfast is the exact same three items each morning, and dinner is pretty monotonous as well, and not at all nicely presented. Chantal works full-time so she’s rarely here, and Loic speaks very little English, making any kind of conversation challenging at best. So I have this little dark cloud over my head, because the accommodations aren’t wonderful.

The pool at Villa Enata (where we were last week)

And it’s because the spoiled brat in me can’t help but compare this week’s stay with last week’s, when we stayed with Mimi# and Pierric# at their fabulous home on Hiva Oa, and enjoyed wonderful breakfast every morning, and interesting, delicious, and beautifully presented dinner every night, followed by lively conversation, and we slept in a perfect little bungalow beside their house, with the most incredible views all around. But the village of Atuona also rolled up the sidewalks before sundown, and we also were a long walk up an unlit road, so we also spent every evening in our room, without much to do except read or write.

(#These ARE their real names! And their place is called Villa Enata, on Hiva Oa, and you should stay there sometime!)

Similarly, I also didn’t love our first week on Rangiroa because of where we were staying, but my mood improved immensely when we relocated to a wonderful little bungalow with a much better location. Same atoll, same village, same amazing scuba diving, and we even got to spend time with good friends who also happened to be there the first week we were – and yet, I was unquestionably happier the four days we stayed at Rangiroa Cottage than I was the previous week.

Here’s another thing – Loic, our current host, was born and raised here on Nuku Hiva. His native language is Marquesan – he didn’t even start to learn French until he started school, and he has taught himself all the English he knows by watching YouTube, and by trying as hard as he can to communicate with his English speaking guests who haven’t bothered to learn more than about four words of Marquesan or French. So how in the hell am I the one who’s unhappy about the lack of communication happening between us? He’s trying – HARD – to communicate. And I’m not. And yet I’m the one who’s always complaining that Americans don’t value other cultures, other languages. Hypocrite much, Mr. Smith?

Our hosts and their family celebrating their culture

Alright, enough of the self flagellation. I now realize that if I tried to explain the things that I’ve not liked about French Polynesia, they would sound like the whinings of a spoiled brat, and should fall on deaf ears. Instead, let me dive into the things that I love about Nuku Hiva and French Polynesia, as there are many!

Typical of the views all around Nuku Hiva

Like Hiva Oa, the landscape here is stunningly beautiful. Tall (over 3,000 feet) peaks jutting up from the sea, with sharp ridges and dramatic cliffs. Covered in green, which when you walk through it, is revealed to be a fascinating melange of flora. In our hikes the past two days, we have walked past coconut, breadfruit, starfruit, grapefruit, passionfruit, guava, banana, mango, almond, and papaya, all within picking distance. We have seen rosewood, bamboo, teak, wild hibiscus (a tree, not a bush), and manioc (better known to us as tapioca). Multiple colors and styles of hibiscus, bougainvillea, wild orchids, and a little purple flower you can eat, and it tastes like mushrooms!

Guava fresh from the tree (This one’s for you, Beth!)

Our hike yesterday began with a 30 minute boat ride to another bay and beach, and on that ride we stopped for five minutes to watch eight or ten manta rays swimming all around the boat. (Oh, how we wanted to jump in with them!) The view of the cliffs and the peaks from the sea is spectacular, with the big swell crashing into the jagged rocks and sending water and spray 30 feet into the air. The views from the anchorages, where the sailboaters spend their time, are almost good enough to make me consider getting on a sailboat here for a tour of the islands. (Almost.) While we were hiking, the owner of the excursion boat and a couple of guests caught at least 20 fish of at least five different types, all of which would be frozen and sold in Tahiti for spending money. (Whatever they didn’t keep to eat, of course.)

Waterfall hike lunch: Our guide Maria (left), then the fishermen

On our hike, which happened to be to a 1,000 foot tall waterfall, we met two different men coming the opposite direction. The first was easily in his sixties (probably seventies), and he was returning from a night hunting wild pigs with his dogs. His weapon? A big knife affixed to the end of an eight foot long wooden pole. The other gentleman was younger – maybe 30 – and he was wearing a necklace of wild pig tusks and bone that had come from animals he had personally hunted – probably with a weapon similar to the first gentleman’s. How much closer to the land can you live than that? How much more can you know about your source of protein than that?

This dude could be in GQ, sporting his hog tusk necklace

Everywhere you look you see evidence of the culture of these islands – stone tikis, carved poles supporting every roof and awning, tattoos that are almost exclusively of the old designs, designs so old that no one is even 100% sure what they mean (although there is general agreement on that). Boats bringing their fish and crustaceans to the public pier every morning after a night of fishing – with rod and reel, deep-drop rigs, handlines, and by freediving for the lobsters and crabs. You want fresh seafood? It’s at the pier, but not in the grocery store. Fresh produce? At the outdoor market next to the pier, not the grocery store. Drive anywhere and you’ll see the low covered platforms where the coconut is getting ready to be bagged and shipped to Tahiti: copra, the last step before the production of coconut oil.

One thing that I love, but am also a little disappointed in, involves all of the pre-European community sites. I love that evidence of the ancient history of the island is everywhere (you see houses built on top of the stone platforms – called pae pae – that were built hundreds of years ago), and I’m sad that it’s not being preserved, nor even very well researched (you see houses build on top of ancient stone platforms!). A busload of tourists can traipse all over a magnificant site like Tohua Koueva, and if they happen to dislodge a stone with their Birkenstock, that was placed there a thousand years ago, oh well! Some of these sites, with the clear evidence everywhere of them moving giant stones all over the place, are a bit mind-boggling, and it’s a shame they’re not valued more than they are.

A small fraction of the Tohua Koueva site – so impressive!

On five islands so far, we have not seen a single bar – a place where alcohol is the main attraction. Some restaurants sell beer, but most don’t. Some grocery stores sell alcohol, some don’t. Most don’t sell cold beer. Most of the people we’ve spent time with here don’t drink, or if they do, they drink only a little, or only occasionally. Everyone knows I love a good bar and a regular drink, but I can also appreciate a culture in which those things are not important.

I don’t have detailed knowledge of the education system here, but I do know that most kids who live on any island other than Tahiti go to Tahiti for high school. From about age 16, kids leave their homes and their families and travel long distances (particularly for Marquesan kids) to live for three or four years in a very unfamiliar place, simply for the sake of education. Even earlier than that, some kids go to “college” – a form of boarding school for kids in what we would call middle school or junior high school. Many young people, after high school, go to university in Tahiti or France. (It’s paid for by the government – what a concept!) Education is clearly important here!

Herman Melville, of Moby Dick fame, was here on Nuku Hiva for three or four weeks, when he and another guy deserted a whaling ship that had stopped here. He wrote his first novel about it – Typee. We have now visited the Taipivai valley each of the last three days, and it’s obvious why he chose to write a novel about this gorgeous place and its wonderful people. (By the way, at least 8,000 people are estimated to have lived in this valley before the decimation caused by visiting Europeans.)

Looking across the Taipivai Valley, home of Melville’s novel “Typee”

This is a place where the views are spectacular and the people are as real as people can be. No pretense, and tons of pride in their culture, which is rich and fascinating. You know, I think I like French Polynesia a lot! I’m just going to have to put a sock in it the next time I start to utter a complaint about where we’re sleeping that night.

P.S. – I originally wrote this two night ago. I’m pleased to report that, since my little epiphany spawned by that writing, I have had a wonderful time, all the time! Breakfast, dinner, and the funky smell in our bathroom have not improved, but my perspective has, and it’s made all the difference in the world!

Hiva Oa

This is the fourth in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, and the third was about Fakarava.)

Read more: Hiva Oa

For this post, we had to put some miles between us and Tahiti. Back to class for a minute – Hiva Oa is one of six inhabited islands in the Marquesas Archipelago, which is in the northeast corner of French Polynesia. If we had continued on our sailing adventure to FP, this is where we would have made landfall, as it’s the closest island to the Galapagos where you can check in. (Coincidentally, the day after we arrived here, Oneiro did, too. They were about 22 days getting here from Galapagos, and from all accounts, they had a wonderful time making their dream trip. In that same amount of time, through the miracle of flight, we have already had a fantastic time exploring three other islands. Different strokes for different folks.) Hiva Oa is 870 miles from Tahiti – that’s about the distance from Indianapolis, Indiana to Satellite Beach, Florida (the two places I’ve lived the most in my life). The little island right next to Hiva Oa (Tahuata) is where the first Europeans (the Spanish) “discovered” the Polynesian islands, in 1595. Of course, they didn’t discover it – there had been people living here for centuries. They just came across it while looking for the Solomon Islands. Came ashore, and while here, did a Catholic Mass, erected some crosses, and “through a misunderstanding, massacred about 200 of the natives”. (Yep – not making that up. Sigh…)

Copy of a Gauguin hanging in our guest house

We had only four full days on Hiva Oa, so we tried to make the most of them. The day we arrived (Day Zero), we walked around the main village of Atuona, which is where the French painter Paul Gauguin spent the last year or so of his life. He died and is buried here – we visited the museum the day we arrived, and later visited his grave in the local cemetery. In 2015, a Gauguin painting sold for about $300 million, so it’s no surprise that the museum here doesn’t have any originals. (You could buy most of the homes on the whole island for that, I’m guessing.) But they have some nice copies of many of his works, especially the works from his time in French Polynesia, which included a stretch in Tahiti before Hiva Oa.

Typical Marquesan tiki: big eyes and mouth, no neck, hands on belly

We also visited the local artist’s co-op, and the community’s outdoor gathering and performance venue, which is decorated with large stone tikis that have been given as gifts to the island from surrounding islands on various special occasions. But we were just priming the pump for the next two days, when we would get to experience some real local culture.

Fran clipping her toenails on the deck of our bungalow
Fran’s view from the deck of our bungalow, while clipping her toenails

Day One began with by far the best breakfast so far on this trip. We’re staying at a guest house called Villa Enata (“enata” is the word Marquesans use to refer to themselves), which includes breakfast and dinner. Breakfast every day: baguettes, fresh baked multi-grain bread, real butter, soft cheese, some kind of deli meat to eat with the cheese and bread, and fresh grapefruit, papaya, mango, star fruit, and banana, all of which comes from trees in their yard! Two or three kinds of homemade jam, local honey, and coffee. Finally – real, good, strong, flavorful, brewed, black coffee, in a pot that you can pour into your own cup and luxuriate in, as much as you want! (We have not encountered this on the entire trip, since leaving home March 31 – could you tell?) Dinner has been excellent as well, most nights featuring fresh-caught tuna, which is very common everywhere we’ve been in FP. Sashimi, tartare, carpaccio, and two other raw preparations that are to die for: poisson cru au lait de coco (raw fish with coconut milk) and poisson cru de chinoise (raw fish Chinese style). We’ll be making some of this stuff back at Southermost Smartini, you can bet!

Tuna carpaccio – one of many ways to enjoy fresh tuna in French Polynesia!

But I digress. I was going to tell you about Day One. After breakfast, we were picked up by a local gentleman who was introduced to us a “Bly”. He spoke excellent English, and we hopped in the back of his truck, then picked up another couple, and headed for the dock, where a third couple joined us. We all boarded a boat (mainly used for fishing, but today for carrying passengers) and headed for Tahuata (see above). Just like the first Spaniards, then the first French almost 200 years later, we made landfall at the small village of Hapatoni. As we walked along the beach in the village, Bly stopped about a half dozen times and told us how to use the fruit or nut or leaf or root of the tree or bush we were walking by, to cure insomnia, a stuffy head, ciguatera, and all manner of other maladies, as taught to him by his grandmother. He explained everything in a perfect mix of French (the other two couples were French) and English, with plenty of Marquesan thrown in for local flavor.

Translation: “Arts and Crafts”, maybe?

Our first stop was Fae Apuu Taiuoho, which you probably know means “arts and crafts”. (No, I don’t know what it really means, but it was on the sign of the place where we stopped, and inside were the amazing works of the local artists. See the picture.) The people on Tahuata live mostly off the land and sea, catching fish and raising goats, cattle, pigs and chickens, and lots of fruits and vegetables. But to buy things they can’t get locally (flour, sugar, Milky Way bars, etc.), they historically would process coconuts into something called copra and sell it in Tahiti. (Copra is the intermediate step between coconuts on the tree and coconut oil.) But several decades ago, they began to expand the practice of carving on the island, and now their “cash crop” is no longer copra, but carvings. And they are amazing. We bought some smaller ones to bring home, and wished that we could have bought some of the bigger ones, but getting them home would have been a problem. There were a few swords / spears (not really sure what to call them) made from bone and wood and the bill of a marlin, with a wrapping of twine made from coconut husk (all in the same piece) that were absolutely spectacular. Out of respect (or just stupidity), we didn’t take pictures of things – probably should have, huh? Below is a photo I found online of one of them.

I should have bought this…

(While looking up information about Tahuata, I found a really well-written blog post of a sailing couple, about their visit to Tahuata in 2015. Click here to read it if you’re interested.)

One of the gentlemen who did the carvings was a living exhibit of another art form that is attributed to the people of the Marquesas: tattoos! The word comes from the Marquesan word “tatao”, and is on exhibit everywhere in French Polynesia. A large percentage of the locals have one or more tattoos, and many of them are quite large, often covering an entire arm, or leg, or part of their torso, or, as our artist friend demonstrated, all of that and more! In case you’re wondering, I did buy something from him, because after I foolishly took his picture without asking, he threatened to disembowel me and serve me to his family if I didn’t. Best 472,000 French Polynesian Francs I ever spent!

The Illustrated Man

No, seriously, he was very nice, spoke way better English than I speak French or Marquesan, and had some incredible carvings. I did buy one from him, an exceptional tiki necklace, the smaller one in the picture below.

Part of our loot from Tahuata

After Hapatoni, we visited the village of Vaitahu, where we had a fabulous lunch at Chez Jimmy, and got a good look at the beautiful Catholic church, made from all local stone and wood. We’ve seen larger, more impressive churches in Europe, but never one more perfectly suited to its environment. The story goes that the local people had only a small church, so they wrote the Vatican asking for money to build a nicer one: the money came, and this is what they built!

Catholic church at Vaitahu on the island of Tahuata

The last stop of the day was a secluded white sand beach with hundreds of coconut palms starting at the beach. We snorkeled a bit, and then Bly taught us how to cut a stout stick into a coconut husking tool, then husk the coconut, then crack it open, then remove the juicy white meat for snacking, then shred the husk so that he could, literally, rub one stick of wild hibiscus tree against another larger one, to start a fire in it. Finally, he taught us all how to weave the fronds of the coconut palm into wreaths to wear on our tourist heads, and little palm frond fish. By this time, Bly had earned a place on our All-Time Top Three Tour Guides Anywhere… and we couldn’t think of any two others who really deserved to be on the podium with him!

Our guide Bly (on the right) and his cousin Harry, playing ukulele for us at lunch

Fortunately for us, Day Two was also with Bly, this time on his home island of Hiva Oa. There was a lot of driving, because the main objective of the day was to see the most famous of the tikis on the island, and they are scattered far and wide. The road was surprisingly good 99% of the time, which is a good thing, because much of it ran right next to cliffs that, if we went over them, would turn our truck into a fiery ball of screaming, flaming tourists tumbling down to the sea. And while the road is as smooth as you could ask for, I could have asked for a lot more guardrails! But the tikis smiled on us (and Bly is an excellent driver), so we didn’t die.

Speaking of smiling tikis, there is a famous one on Hiva Oa, and it was our first stop. The vast majority of tikis seem to have no facial expression, other than “stern”, but this one is unquestionably grinning. No one knows why he’s grinning (I think it’s because he just got his new glasses and he can finally see!), but he’s the only one they know of who is.

The only two known smiling tikis in all the Marquesas

Our second stop was the village of Hanaiapa on the north side of the island, where we sat at the beach and learned about life in the Marquesas, from someone who has lived it, and continues to live it – the amazing Bly. As you might have guessed, Bly is short for Captain Bly, which is what he’s been called since he was a baby. When he was young, he literally thought his first name was Captain! But it’s not – it’s Bryan, and his last name is O’Connor! His great grandfather came from Ireland to French Polynesia and married a Polynesian woman. They had a son who married a Polynesian woman, and then they had a son who married a Polynesian woman, and then they had a son and named him Bryan. How fun is that!

Wall art in the pretty Hiva Oa village of Hanaiapa

Bly (that’s what everyone still calls him) went to university in Hawaii and was there for three or four years, where he learned to speak excellent English. But he came back to Hiva Oa and, like all of his recent paternal ancestors, married a Polynesian woman (she’s from Nuku Hiva, about 100 miles away). They have six children, including a 1 1/2 month old boy named – you guessed it – Bryan O’Connor. 🙂 But the full names of all of his children are amazing Marquesan names, so be sure to play the video link below. Now he’s a local tour guide who carries on the Marquesan traditions with his family, and shares them with lucky visitors. If you ever happen to be on Hiva Oa, you Oa it to yourself to spend a day or two with him!

Click here to see Bly recite his children’s amazing names.

After learning about the family history of the Marquesan O’Connors, we drove from Hanaiapa for 45 minutes or so to Puama’a, the site of several tikis, including the largest one in all of French Polynesia*, and the only known tiki to be oriented horizontally (like a turtle). The tikis are scattered around a site that includes a lot of stone walls and platforms, which were common in Polynesian, and especially Marquesan, culture. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about the tikis or the platforms or the culture in general because white men from Europe pretty much obliterated the people and their culture. An estimated population of 80,000 native people in what is now called French Polynesia shrank to about 2,000 by 1925, due to diseases introduced by Europeans and weapons wielded by Europeans. Because Polynesians had no written language, this decimation of the population also resulted in the loss of the vast majority of their stories – their history. And of course the Christian missionaries did all they could to stop the practice of so many of their traditions – carving tikis (“false idols”), tattooing themselves, building stone structures that weren’t Christian churches, etc. Way to go, white folks!

(* Largest of all the ancient tikis – of course there are larger ones created in modern times.)

One of the large stone foundations that they built buildings on – see Fran in the corner for scale

At some point during the day we stopped for lunch at Cafe Marie Antoinette, where we were treated to several local favorites: poisson cru au lait de coco (raw fish with coconut milk, which had already become a favorite of ours by that time in this trip), goat in coconut milk (it was cooked), wild boar (also cooked), fried tapioca root (a.k.a. cassava), and a couple of very sweet, very delicious desserts made with bananas, tapioca, and coconut. While enjoying lunch, Bly and his cousin Harry (we never got Harry’s story, sadly) serenaded us with ukelele and song, and then had us all do a sing-along that you can experience on one of the videos in the Google Photos library linked at the end of this post.

The only known horizontally oriented tiki

At another stop along the way – your typical roadside “scenic viewpoint” – Fran spotted something in the water about 500 feet below us (not joking), which turned out to be eight manta rays cruising around the bay. That brings to ten the number of manta rays we’ve seen on this trip, none of them very satisfactory. I mean, it’s cool to see them, even from 500 feet up, or cruising past or under you in a dive – but we want to experience them! That’s still possible: there’s a place called Maupiti…

How’s that for a view?

Wow, what a couple of days! But before I forget, I need to try to convey how incredibly beautiful the island of Hiva Oa is. You can get a small taste of it in the pictures in this post and in the photo library at the end, but as with virtually all majestic views, the pictures don’t do it justice. The peaks are so big and spiky and dramatic, often covered in clouds, or backlit by the rising or setting sun. The ocean crashes right into the feet of the mountains in so many places, which may explain why the ocean seems so big here! (I know – the ocean is big everywhere – but it seems bigger here.) The valleys are so green, the villages so colorful, the trees and flowers so gorgeous. It’s no wonder Gauguin fell in love with the place. So, too, did a very famous Belgian singer / songwriter / actor, Jacques Brel. He and his wife spent a good deal of time here during the final years of his life, and he’s buried here, not far from Gauguin’s grave. If you ever plan a trip to French Polynesia, you need to include Hiva Oa!

The lone tiki at Taaoa – possibly unfinished?

Days Three and Four were spent leisurely driving around the island in our trusty rented Suzuki Jimmy 4×4. It’s like a miniature version of the original Ford Bronco. We needed it to get up the hill to our bungalow, though! (There’s a video of that, too.) We visited another ancient village with stone structures scattered over an area of a couple of acres, with just one remaining tiki. We drove to the beach to watch the locals enjoying their Sunday. (They play a game here called petanque that is, as far as I can tell, just like bocce, and they play seriously!) And we soaked up the wonderful vibe of the island, and of our very special home away from home there, Villa Enata. I can’t imagine returning to Hiva Oa and not staying with Mimi and Pierric again!

One last look at our fabulous bungalow

Fun Fact: the time zone of the Marquesas is 30 minutes ahead of the time zone of Tahiti! Not sure why – time here doesn’t seem all that important, so it seems it would have been simpler to stay on Tahiti time. But they didn’t, and maybe that says something about how Marquesans feel about being Marquesans. I love it!

Click here to view our Google Photos library from Hiva Oa.

Sail Fail

I’ll cut to the chase: Smartini (a.k.a. Fran and Butch/Brian) are not cut out to be sailors, and after 7 days and nights sailing from Panama to the Galapagos Islands, we have opted out of the sail from Galapagos to French Polynesia. We’re still going to FP, but we’ll be flying, not sailing. If you want to know why, read on!

Read more: Sail Fail

Before going any further, my sincere apologies to anyone who ever visited us on Smartini (the boat, not Fran and me) and found life aboard just a little (or maybe a lot) less comfortable than you had anticipated. We found it to be very comfortable, except for the occasional bad weather day underway or really rolly anchorage, but it’s what we were accustomed to. If you found yourself counting the minutes until you could get back to dry land and air conditioning, (to use the probably now outdated vernacular of the cool kids), “I feel you, dog!”

Liz, Paul, and Oneiro in Puerto Rico, March 2019

I don’t want to imply that our very good friends and gracious hosts, Liz and Paul, didn’t warn us; didn’t, in fact, make it a point that life on Oneiro (their 46′ Hallberg-Rassy sailboat) would be considerably different than life on Smartini. When we asked them about bringing a tiny projector with us so that maybe we could watch a movie in the cockpit on our long journey, the response was something like “Well, when sailing, the boat is always moving, sometimes quite a lot, so it’s not likely that we’ll ever want to just sit and try to watch a movie. In fact, a lot of the time, you really won’t feel like doing anything at all.” Now, if that’s not a warning, I don’t know what is – but Fran and I must have been thinking “Yeah, we lived on a boat – we know there’s always some movement – we’re used to that. How bad can it be?”

[Humor Alert: at this point, I will attempt to use humor to convey my feelings about being on a sailboat. If you are a sailor, and particularly if you are Liz or Paul, do not take offense – it’s humor, or at least my best attempt at it, hoping it will help me avoid some serious PTSD.]

Happier times, before I had any idea what we were in for

“How bad can it be?”, we thought. “Like riding on a bucking bronco, inside a washing machine that’s tumbling down the side of a mountain”, is the answer. The first two days and nights, when we had a 5-6 foot swell coming from behind, in 18-24 knot winds, there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t thinking that I would rather be almost anywhere, doing almost anything, other than what I was doing at the time. Getting a root canal? Easy. Prepping for a colonoscopy? Child’s play. Having my fingernails extracted with pliers, while getting a root canal and prepping for a colonoscopy? Sign me up! Just GET ME OFF OF THIS BOAT!

Fortunately for me – and for Fran, Liz, and Paul, who were no doubt also wishing I were off the boat, so they didn’t have to endure the waves of miserableness (I know, “misery” is the correct word here, but somehow it doesn’t quite convey what I was actually feeling) emanating from my every pore – it got better. The big swell became much smaller, and eventually disappeared. The wind dropped to 10 – 12 knots, and then to practically nothing as we neared, then crossed, the Equator, so the seas calmed considerably. And while that reduced my physical discomfort to merely “annoyed”, it freed up my brain to think about the prospect of the wind and swell kicking up again, and of me being stuck on the boat for another 94 hours, 36 minutes, and 14 seconds.

And I began to wonder what kind of person actually chooses to travel long distances via sailboat. An adventurer? An explorer? A lover of the open ocean? Nope. A masochist, plain and simple. Let’s examine the facts: here is a person who, ON PURPOSE, locks themself in a contraption in which everything is smaller, tighter, hotter, wetter, louder, and smellier than, for example, a Dodge Grand Caravan with broken shock absorbers and no air conditioning, transporting a half dozen sumo wrestlers across Alabama during a thunderstorm in August, after feeding them all Burrito Supremes from Taco Bell. A person who, ON PURPOSE, spends days and even weeks on end (it’s about 24 days from Galapagos to French Polynesia) without a decent shower, fresh food, a good night’s sleep, Netflix, or a full day without banging one’s head on something hard at least once. (Hmm… does the frequent head banging factor into the decision to be a sailor? Worth investigating.)

Even changing lightbulbs is difficult on a sailboat – this is my view from the top of the 66′ mast, where I ventured to inspect the special sailboat lights (among other chores)

Everything you do on a sailboat at sea is difficult. Food preparation involves wedging yourself into the tiny galley with your knees and hips, and trying to maintain some upper body stability while cutting only the food, and not a finger. Cutting up a fresh pineapple can take an hour (not making this up). Pouring anything from one vessel into another is almost sure to result in some spillage – water into your water bottle, hot coffee into a mug, rum into a shot glass, tequila into a shot glass, pure grain alcohol into a shot glass (anything to numb the pain!).

Sleeping is difficult. Getting from any part of the boat to any other part of the boat, no matter the distance, is difficult. Going to the bathroom is difficult. Getting dressed and undressed. Brushing your teeth. Washing dishes. Reading. Writing. Finding a place to sit comfortably. All difficult, and when the conditions are bad, practically impossible. (Nothing particularly funny about this paragraph, especially since it’s all true.)

Paul in the cockpit of Oneiro – this is where we spent most of our time when the seas were rough

But Sailor Man* doesn’t seem to mind, or barely notice for that matter. Because Sailor Man is too busy being Sailor Man, doing Sailor Man stuff: checking the sails, checking the wind, calculating how fast the boat is going relative to the wind speed, and dreaming of what it could be doing with just two more knots of wind, or ten more degrees of favorable wind direction. Then adjusting the sails (which often means making a particular rope looser or tighter by six inches, as if that’s really going to change anything). Occasionally doing something called a “jive”, performed when Sailor Man determines there might be another 0.05 knots of speed to be had if he moves the sail from one side of the boat to the other – never mind the fact that the boat is now heading farther away from the destination than before the “jive”.

By the way, I may have the terminology wrong, but I hope I will be forgiven, because everything on a boat – not just a sailboat, to be fair – has a made-up word that is, I think, intended to allow Sailor Man to easily identify another Sailor Man, so that they can immediately begin to talk Sailor Man talk to each other. Every one of these words is, as far as I can tell, a made-up word for boats: clew, vang, jib, spinnaker, genoa, luff, leech, tack, mast, batten, halyard, sheet, brail, tricing line, warp, whip, jackstay. Then you get to combine them for even more confusion: jib topsail sheet, peak halyard, bunt line, boom vang. You would think a “sheet” would be the sail, but you’d be an idiot (in the eyes of Sailor Man), because a “sheet” is the rope (oops – “line”) that you pull on to make the sail loose or tight, or tall or short, or something. There’s something called a “clutch” that is really more of a brake, but why use a word the way everyone else uses it? That would make it too easy to understand! (I was going to try to make up some words to pump up the humor volume here, but as it turns out, it wasn’t necessary, as every word or phrase I’ve listed is absolutely legit.)

One topic I have avoided so far, because it’s so sensitive to Sailor Man, is running the engine. Sailor Man hates, with a passion that burns white hot, to run the engine. It means that the normal sounds of pure sailing – the wind filling the sails, the sleek hull of the boat slipping through the sea, the smashing of waves into the bow, crashing and clanging of dishes, glassware, cookware, water bottles and everything else that isn’t glued into place, the loud “Dammit!” of the crew as they bang heads, shoulders, knees and toes into hard parts of the boat (collectively known as the “clee yardlings”) – all of those sounds are drowned out by the gentle droning of the engine, burning the precious diesel, thereby eating away at the financial reserves and possibly preventing the planned purchase of the new wartsail. A sound which, to Sailor Man, is the sound of failure – failure to capture the wind and travel freely across the Seven Seas. Never mind the fact that, when pinned down, every Sailor Man I’ve ever met admits to running the engine about 50% of the time, something they call “motor sailing” to make it sound a bit less like failure.

In the end, I have reached the conclusion that there is something in the genetic makeup of Sailor Man that makes him yearn for the sea, that makes him eschew comfort for the feel of the clew and the cleat, yawing along the mainsail, with the boom vang and the topping lift in perfect harmony. And I just don’t have it, nor do I understand it. Literally – who can make sense of all the jibberish?! Put me on a 737 with a gin and tonic, and wake me up when we’re on final descent.

[Serious Alert: now that I have made you laugh yourself silly, let me be serious for a moment.]

All joking aside – and all anti-sailing bias aside (as far to the side as I can park mine) – I have great respect for people who live on their sailboats and sail them incredibly long distances to see amazing places. What they do is not at all easy, and they do it because of some inner drive to accomplish something that a tiny fraction of humans will ever do. They really do endure long, boring passages knowing that the boring parts can be interrupted at any moment by a terrible squall that could break their boat, or by a collision with a whale that could break their boat (not kidding – a sailboat similar to Oneiro was sunk by a whale collision just a week before we flew to Panama), or by equipment problems that could endanger their lives. It’s not much different from people who climb the world’s highest mountains.

Paul and his 20 lb. blackfin tuna…

Paul has wanted to sail his boat around the world for far longer than the four years we’ve known them, and he’s finally doing it. Fran and I are honored that they (Paul and Liz) thought enough of us to include us on this important leg, and I feel bad that I let them down. (Fran, being Fran, would have made it all the way to French Polynesia with a smile, regardless of the circumstances.)

… and the resulting feast (1 of 3)

Because they allowed us to tag along, we got to see a bit of Panama, and will see a lot of the Galapagos Islands over the next 10 days. And then we’ll spend a couple of months in French Polynesia, which we think we never would have visited otherwise. (Reminder – we’re flying there, not sailing.) On the Panama – Galalagos leg, we saw dolphins jumping on several occasions, and the Southern Cross in all its glory (although, to be truthful, it’s not a very impressive constellation – the Big Dipper kicks its butt in that department), and had a red-footed booby ride on our bow rail for more than a day. We witnessed Paul fight and land a 20 pound blackfin tuna on tackle more suitable for catching small river trout, and then had delicious sushi (twice!) and tuna tacos as a result. We crossed the Equator and celebrated with a bottle of Veuve du Vernay champagne.

Champagne at the Equator

And most of all, we were reminded that good friends don’t have to love all the same things to be good friends. Fair winds and following seas, Oneiro – we’ll see you in Tahiti!

* Thanks to another sailing couple we met while on Smartini, who we have become good friends with, Jim and Kathy Booth. They introduced us to the concept of Sailor Man, which is not a real person, but rather, a concept, an ideal, a persona taken on by anyone, man or woman, who takes the helm of a sailboat on the open ocean. When speaking, the term is said with a certain emphasis, similar to the way one might say “Superman!”. Or, more appropriately, “Underdog!” Some of Sailor Man’s character flaws endearing traits include attempting dangerous tasks, such as going up the mast in high winds, when there is no reason not to wait until later; always, in every instance, viewing other sailboats as opponents in a race; the belief that their boat’s brand, model, size, and sail plan is really the only one that makes sense, and why in the hell would anyone have anything else? Oh, Sailor Man, you amuse us so!

“It’s Underdog! (Or is it Sailor Man?)”

Smartini Goes Sailing

You know that the boat we lived on for five years (called Smartini – what else?) was NOT a sailboat. It was a trawler, a slow, comfortable, motor boat. Neither of us had any sailing knowledge when we decided to buy a boat, so we went the easy route – buy a motor boat. But the majority of people we met and became friends with during our crusing years were on sailboats, and frankly, our conversations with them about sailing reinforced our choice of a motor vs. sails. (Here’s the gist of it: a sailboat big enough to live on comfortably has every system that a motor boat has – including a motor – and it also has all of the sailing stuff: mast, rigging, and sails, all of which need to be maintained and periodically replaced. So in our minds, the ONLY benefit of a sailboat is that, sometimes, you get to go somewhere without burning fuel. I say “sometimes” because every sailor we’ve met admits that they run the motor – either in conjunction with using the sails, or instead of using the sails – about half the time.)

Continue reading “Smartini Goes Sailing”

Smartini’s First Land Adventure: New York City

Loyal Readers will recall that we recently sold the boat formerly known as Smartini (renamed “Vahevala” just last Saturday) and that we’re now hoping to do a lot of extended-stay land adventures. As to the title of this post, “Smartini” has always referred to Butch and Fran (Smith and Martini = Smartini) since long before there was a boat with that name, and will continue to refer to us. One day, we may buy a house and name it Smartini, but we are Smartini, and Smartini is us. Got it?

Anyway… with us being on the boat for five years, and my son (Fran’s step-son) Bennett being in college for those same five years, we haven’t been able to spend very much time with him for far too long. So we fixed that: we spent a month in New York City, where he recently graduated from college and now lives, so that we could get some quality time with him.

Continue reading “Smartini’s First Land Adventure: New York City”

May the Boat Cat

May was with us for more than 5 years. This is a celebration of that time.

Me: “Bennett, what’s this black cat doing in the house?”

Bennett: “Oh, that’s May. You know, from Mom’s house. Since Mom sold the house, she can’t keep May anymore. She’ll only be here until we can find another home for her.”

Me: “Yeah, I know who May is. Well, I guess she can stay here until we find her a good home.”

And so began our five year relationship with the best kitty ever. (You may think you have, or have had, a good kitty, and I won’t argue. But May was the BEST kitty ever.) We never found another home for her, because, to be blunt, she HATED other animals, and everyone we knew who would love to have her already had at least one other pet. After a few months of trying – and a few months of her sitting on my lap for what seemed like hours every day – one day I said to Fran “Well, I don’t suppose it would be horrible to have her on the boat.”

Feb 2016, a couple months after she moved in to the Indy house. Looking at this picture now, it should have been obvious that we were going to be her forever family.

So she came on the boat, and became “May the Boat Cat”. (Also known as MayMay, Maybelline, Sweet May, Maybelle, “our sweet little old lady cat”, The Princess, sometimes The Queen, and my personal favorite, Honey Bunny.) The first time she set foot on the boat, it took her all of about 6 seconds to settle in. We brought her in during a driving rainstorm, set her on the floor, ran back to the car for another load of stuff, and when we returned, there she was, stretched out on the carpet with a “yeah, this will do” air about her that never changed over five years.

Well, she didn’t love EVERY minute of boat life. There was that first time she made a long crossing – about 8 hours, from Florida to the Bahamas, March 1, 2018. It was a bit rough, and before too long, this pretty little black kitty looked positively green. By the end of the rough part of the day, she was stretched out on the cool clay in her litter box, with her tongue slightly hanging out, and drooling a little. Think of your worst New Year’s Day hangover.

But the next day, off we went for another 10 hours (on totally flat seas, thankfully), and she behaved as if the day before had never happened. And that’s pretty much how she was for most of the 4,000+ miles she was with us on Smartini: over a year in Florida, 8 months in the Bahamas, 4 months in Turks and Caicos, many months in the Virgin Islands, and all the way to Grenada and back, with a stop or two in every island nation along the way. Oh, sure, once in a while, when it was a little rough, she’d give us her famous stink-eye as if to say “You couldn’t have waited for a little nicer weather?”, but most of the time, she was just sleeping in one of her comfy spots, whether the boat was moving or not.

Perfectly at home on the water. With our almost-niece Abby, in Grenada.

She began life as Maddie and Bennett’s cat, at their mom’s house in Indianapolis, when Maddie was 7 and Bennet was 4. She was an indoor / outdoor cat there, and we would see her outside sometimes when we would pick up or drop off the kids, but for all those years, she was just a cat at someone else’s house. That changed in December 2015 when the exchange between Bennett and me, above, occurred. The change started slowly, but it wasn’t long before Fran and I grew very fond of this little old lady cat.

I am pleased to say that she loved me more than anyone else. I don’t know why, though. Fran did EVERYTHING for her – fed her, kept her litter box clean, cleaned up after her when she horked up a hairball, bought her toys, bought her favorite hangout (the “Treat Perch” – more on that later), and in the last year, would make tiny bites of whatever she was eating to satisfy May’s very-late-in-life interest in human food. But although May clearly loved Fran, she would get up from Fran’s lap and the petting she was receiving to come sit on me, as soon as I sat down, nine times out of ten. Fran was “the help”, and I was her human. I am so very lucky.

May made a lot of friends in her five years with us, but I don’t think anyone was a bigger fan than Benjy Ellis, who we met while cruising the Eastern Caribbean. He lives with his parents Jason and Kim on their sailing catamaran, Mimzy. Benjy would come onto Smartini for the express purpose of spending time with May, and she loved it!

Benjy and May. She loved her time with you, Benjy!

However, in a very, very close second place comes Zoe Fisher, who came all the way from Australia with her parents, Claire and Anthony, to spend a week with “May the Cat”. (Zoe thought that was her name, and called her that all week.)

This picture is from a 30 second video of Zoe playing with May with the “feather on a string”. May played, but she never moved from her spot, and really never did more than lift her head and forepaws. She was, shall we say, an “efficient” player.

We said, many times during her stay with us, that she had virtually none of the bad habits that many cats have, and that she did exactly what we both wanted from a cat – sit on our laps when we wanted her to, and let us pet her. She never insisted on that (although she would often suggest it!). She never knocked things over just because she could. She was fully clawed, but rarely scratched anything other than the carpet (which we hate anyway). Until a few months ago, she rarely made a sound – if she said “meow!”, you better see what was going on, because it was unusual. She didn’t have the loudest motor in the world, but she purred almost all the time when she was on your lap and/or being petted.

May “suggesting” that I should put the computer away and pet her.

She had a particular dislike of dogs, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising, but she did grow up with a dog (Maddie’s “Skip”). Just after we arrived in the Bahamas in March 2018, we met some people on another boat and invited them for dinner and dominoes one evening. They brought their little dog Bailey, who was very well behaved – didn’t even eat May’s food. We put May in our room while they were there, and all was well. The following morning, May was in our room meowing up a storm, which was VERY unusual for her. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong – she had food, she had water, what could it be? But Fran dumped out her water bowl and washed it, then refilled it and set it down. May drank like she had been in the desert for a month! Bailey must have drank some of her water, and May did NOT want to drink from the same bowl that a slobbery dog drank from! From that point on, we never talked to her about a dog without saying “slobbery dog”.

One minor flaw: she did have Bitchy Resting Face, or as we liked to call it, Stink Eye. As you can see in the picture below – a picture taken when she was perfectly happy, I can assure you – she could make you feel as if you had done something so horrible, so loathsome, that you didn’t deserve to be breathing the same air as her.

Stink eye!

During the five years that she was with us, she wasn’t with us all the time. She lived with Susan and Rami in Indianapolis for a few months in 2016. Susan was the one who discovered that May hated to sit on bare skin! She would put a thick towel on her lap in the middle of summer so The Princess could sit on her, and not be grossed out by Susan’s bare legs. May lived with Robin for several weeks when we lost Maddie. Robin learned first-hand how temperature-driven May was, in her very air conditioned apartment, when May would sleep right on her chest, staring into her face with a “does it have to be SO COLD in here?” posture.

With Susan. No bare skin in Indy in November!

We weren’t always on the boat, either. Paul and Denise flew all the way to George Town, Bahamas from Minnesota in May 2018 to spend a month on the boat with May, while we went to Italy. Brian The Pet Sitter cat-sat with her in Key West for a few weeks in November 2017. A woman (whose name escapes me – maybe because she let May escape the boat!) cat-sat with her for a few weeks in the US Virgin Islands in 2019. Peter the Turtle Man (manager of Nassau Harbour Club Marina) cat-sat with her for a few weeks in Nassau, Bahamas. (We paid one of the dock hands to do it, but Peter liked May so much, he came onboard twice a day to sit with her and give her treats.) In Grenada, Lamar cat-sat with her for a month in November 2019. In all these cases, it went like this: the sitter came onboard the first time and sat down, May hopped in their lap for petting and treates, and they were buddies. She was like that.

With Lamar, who came onboard twice every day for a month to look after Sweet May.

After she had lived on the boat for a bit, Fran noticed that there was nowhere May could sit and see outside. She searched online and found a window perch for a cat, and put it in one of the side windows, but May wasn’t interested. Fran was determined, and by then, May had already become quite a big fan of Friskies Party Mix and Temptations, so Fran used these treats to lure May into the perch. May quickly learned to love the perch, in part because it was a soft place to sleep in the sun, but also very much because she had a good chance of someone giving her a few treats if she sat there long enough and looked cute.

“Well, what are you waiting for? The treats are right there!”

Speaking of cute… if you aren’t a cat person, skip this paragraph, OK? You’ll want to vomit a little, probably. But when May would curl up in the Treat Perch, or in one of the chairs, or on the floor, or especially in your lap, in a perfect circle, with one paw over her nose, and her tail covering most of her face… she was SO DAMNED CUTE! But she never let us get a picture of that perfect moment – she would wake up and move just before we could snap the shot.

Could she be any cuter? And all she’s doing is sleeping. We never tired of seeing it.

You might wonder what it was like doing all the paperwork and jumping through all the hoops necessary to get a pet into all of those countries (18 in all). Well, you’d have to ask someone else, because we did it only once, and it was such a nightmare that we decided to simply not declare her again. And we didn’t. She never left the boat*, so it didn’t matter anyway. Many countries wouldn’t even ask on their forms. Some did, but didn’t follow-up with a question asked by an agent. Some did, and I would just lie. Sorry. Throw me in jail for cat smuggling.

(* She did hop off the boat several times in the marina in Turks and Caicos, but that was the one country into which we legally checked her in. She also escaped from the boat in the US Virgin Islands for a few days while we were gone, but there’s no special requirement for a US citizen to bring a pet into the US Virgin Islands. And yes, she did hop off the boat in San Salvador, Bahamas for just a few minutes, but our story in the Bahamas, if asked, was always going to be “We picked her on the dock in Freeport – she’s a Bahamian cat.”)

I mentioned that May was already 14 years old when she came to live with us, in December 2015. (Coincidentally, the same month we bought the boat.) Yes, she was an old lady: 19 in cat years is the equivalent of 94 in human years. But until literally yesterday, no one would have guessed her to be of such an advanced age. She didn’t look old. She didn’t act old. She had her sight and her hearing, and she was a good jumper (almost always in the case of jumping onto a lap sitting in a tall chair).

She had no trouble jumping into my lap on the tall captain’s chair. I bet she did it a hundred times.

Almost a year ago, right after the COVID situation started heating up, we were in the Virgin Islands, and May had pretty much stopped eating. We took her to the vet on St. Thomas, who did some blood work and determined that her kidneys were failing – a common malady among geriatric cats. But the vet showed us how to administer fluids “subcutaneously” (with a needle under her skin), and told us that some cats can live for many extra years with this treatment, to make up for what the kidneys have stopped doing. May, being the best kitty ever, took that needle under the skin and 200 ml of saline solution every four days since then, and almost never complained about it. Her appetite returned – and then some! For the first time ever, she started to act interested in what Fran and I were eating. Eager to get her to eat anything, we started giving her small bites of our chicken, beef, pork, fish – all of which she eagerly devoured – except the fish. That developed into her only bad habit – begging for food at the table. (Sorry, Chris – you saw her at her worst in this respect.) But hey, she was an old lady – let her have what she wants! (As Fran has said many times, “When I’m 94, I hope someone lets ME eat cake for dinner!”)

Cuddling with “the help” in one of the dozens of different beds we slept in this summer.

This summer, back in the US, and with the boat “hauled out” for hurricane season, we bought a used minivan and started touring the country. With our limited experience of having May in the car (she didn’t like it!), we would have liked to have left her with someone, but we couldn’t ask anyone to take on the “stick her with a needle and administer 200 ml of fluids every four days” routine. So Fran made a rolling version of the Treat Perch in the van, between the front seats, and off we all went! 15,000 miles, 34 states, at least 20 friends’ homes visited, and May was with us the whole time. Florida to Maine and back to Florida. Then off to Texas and Colorado and Nevada and California and Oregon and Idaho and Indiana and all the states in between. May would typically be restless and mouthy for the first hour or two each day on the road, but would eventually settle in and sleep like the dead for most of the last several hours. The only bad stretch was our one overnight, from Houston, TX to Fort Collins, CO. She never settled in, and was still unhappy and restless and mouthy when we finally pulled into a rest stop for a nap at 5:00 a.m. One of the longest nights of my life. But it was worth it to have her with us all summer.

Helping with the driving of the 15,000 miles to 34 states this summer.

Because of her hatred of other animals, and because many of the friends and family we visited have other animals, she was often relegated to the bedroom we were using. Which wasn’t bad – being an old lady cat, she slept all day anyway. But when our hosts had no pets, and she could have free reign of a house, she seemed to truly enjoy it. Her favorite place was Beth and Pat’s place in Maine – a large, two-story-plus-attic home built in the 1890’s. She would come down from the attic covered with cobwebs, and looking totally pleased with herself.

“Beth and Pat, your attic is now free of cobwebs!”

At Susan and Rami’s house in Indy, she really wanted to go outside, so we tried a little harness and leash. Yeah… that didn’t work out so well.

“I’ll just sit here until you take this ridiculous thing off of me.”

In early November, while visiting friends Dean and Kim in Idaho, Fran noticed that May was suddenly acting a little strange. Almost as if she couldn’t see everything that was going on around her, surprised when we would walk up to her to pet her. The next night, in a hotel room in Wyoming on our way to Fort Collins, CO, it got worse, and by the time we arrived in Fort Collins the following day, it was obvious – May had become totally blind! We were at Fran’s sister Ingrid’s house, and Ingrid has a house full of pets, so she has a great and long-term relationship with a local vet. She called, and we were able to get May in that same day. Yep, she was blind, alright. One of the problems with feline kidney failure is high blood pressure, which we didn’t know, but which May had. And one of the problems with high blood pressure in cats is “hypertensive retinopathy” – detached retinas caused by high blood pressure. They gave her some BP meds and sent us home, with at least the hope that the retinas would reattach and the vision return. Those were some sad hours, sitting with her, knowing that she must be totally confused about why her world was suddenly completely dark, and not knowing if it would ever be any better for her. There were tears shed, I don’t mind telling you. But the blood pressure DID come down, and the retinas DID reattach, and within 36 hours, she was seeing almost normally again! To say that we were happy would be the understatement of the year. We were overjoyed, knowing that our little old lady May was back to normal, and no longer suffering. Although through it all, she never made a sound, never reacted badly when we would pick her up – she just stared around the room, with eyes that wouldn’t see. It was one of the saddest things either of us have ever seen.

We arrived back in Florida after Thanksgiving, and still had to put the boat back together after the summer’s haulout. Our friend Chris offered his spare bedroom to us, and all three of us were happy to take him up on it. We ended up spending seven weeks there, enjoying Chris’s amazing cooking and hospitality, most of the time with May having the run of the house, which she enjoyed immensely. But she had picked up another slightly annoying habit of waking us up about 6:30 every morning to be fed. See, it’s really hard to give a cat a pill, but May needed a tiny little pill of BP medicine once per day. With advice from dear friends Curt and Sondra, we started giving May the cheap Publix canned food, and putting her little pill, all crushed up, into the food. (They have a 20+ year old cat who wouldn’t eat ANYTHING until they tried the Publx food, and now she eats 3 cans a day!) Well, May LOVED IT! So every morning, when her little kitty brain told her it was time for breakfast, she was on the bed, walking over both of us and letting us know, in no uncertain terms, that one of us needed to get up and fix her breakfast NOW! (Which we did, because, you know, she’s a little old lady.)

We were very comfortable at Chris’s house for the last seven weeks.

A week ago today, we finally got the boat back in the water, and two days later, we all moved back onboard. It took May a day to settle in, but she did, and for about three days, all was good. She was back in the Treat Perch a dozen times a day, sitting on our laps for petting in the evenings, and yelling for us to get her breakfast ready at 6:30 a.m.

And then yesterday, Fran noticed that May was acting a little weird, and in fact, saw her having what looked like a mini seizure, a couple of different times. Last evening, we saw it again, so this morning, we took her to the vet. (The aforementioned Curt is a vet in Melbourne, FL, about an hour up the road from where we are in Ft. Pierce.) After an exam and some blood work, Curt called with the bad news. Her kidneys were on the verge of total shutdown, and there was nothing we could do that would restore her to normal. She could have a blood transfusion, and hormone therapy, but even that would only prolong her life, not restore the quality of it. So an hour later, after a last long bit of cuddling and petting and telling her how much we loved her, we said our final “Bye, May”. And she went to sleep on my lap, where she had spent so many countless hours over the past 5 years, and we cried.

February 5, 2021

If you want to look at a couple hundred pictures of May, we’ve shared this Google Photos Album, May the Boat Cat. None of them are spectacular images, but we sure are enjoying looking at them today.

The Virgin Islands

Once again, Faithful Readers, I find myself apologizing for such a long wait for a new post. I can only imagine how many of you must wake up each morning and think “Today’s the day – a new post on Smartini Life – I just KNOW it!”. (I imagine that the number is zero.) At any rate, my apologies.

Arrival / Reunion Drinks with Whitey and Max

Smartini arrived in Charlotte Amalie, one of the largest settlements on the island of St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, on the afternoon of March 28, just two days ahead of our first guests, Steve and Challen. Friends of ours, Max (Maxine) and Whitey, who we met in Key West after Hurricane Irma, and who run the charter sailboat Nutmeg, were anchored there, so we joined them, anchoring on the West side of Water Island. We promptly put Killer in the water, picked them up from Nutmeg, and went ashore to Tickles, the bar/restaurant at Crown Bay Marina, and proceeded to celebrate our arrival in the Virgin Islands, and our reunion, as it had been over a year since we had last seen them.

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2018 – The Year in Review

After a creative explosion in October and November (7 blog posts in about two weeks), I fizzled out. But I’m going to get 2019 off to a good start, with a recap of, and some reflections on, the Big Adventure so far. Also, one picture of each of our guests this year!

With Bennett and May in March

As you probably know, we left the US early in the morning on March 1, 2018 (not as early in the morning as we had planned) bound for the Bahamas, and made it all the way to Freeport before the sun set. We didn’t really want to be in Freeport (not much there that we wanted to see or do), but we ended up staying there for five nights, waiting for decent weather for the next leg of our journey.

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How a 4 Cent O-ring Can Change Your Life

This is the story of a plain ol’ rubbber O-ring, about 2 1/2″ in diameter, that probably cost about 4 cents to make, and how it just changed the lives (at least in the short term) of six people and three boats. If I told you the WHOLE story, it would read like “War and Peace”, so I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version.

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Visit Report: Paul and Denise

Faithful readers of Smartini Life know that the crew of Smartini went to Italy for three weeks in May/June. What they probably don’t know is that two wonderful people stayed onboard Smartini for that time, and more important, took care of May the Cat. They are Paul and Denise Magnus. We met them almost two years ago when we took Smartini to a marina in Titusville to have some work finished. They lived on their boat, Orion, in that marina, and we became friends. Sadly, Orion was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in that same marina, but thankfully, Paul and Denise were not onboard.

When we were making plans for Italy, we knew it would mean leaving Smartini and May somewhere, in someone’s hands. We posted on one of the online boating groups that we were looking for a cat sitter and a boat sitter. Denise saw the post and almost immediately volunteered her and Paul – wow! They would fly all the way to George Town in the Exumas and live on Smartini, and take care of May, and Fran’s new Tower Garden – and asked nothing in return.

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Crew of Smartini Goes to Italy!

In case you’ve been wondering what the crew of Smartini (Fran and me, but not May the Cat) has been up to lately – we went to Italy! For two weeks with Bennett (my son, Fran’s step-son), and Bennett’s mom, Terri Henderson (yes, that’s my ex-wife – we get along great these days), then just Fran and me for another week.

I’d love to give you all the details, but in the immortal words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “No, it’s too much – lemme sum up.” We left the USA on May 12 (Terri and Bennett from NYC, Fran and me from Miami) and flew to Rome. A few days there, then a few days in Venice, then a few days in Florence, then some more days in the countryside of Tuscany, a few miles from Siena. Terri and Bennet had to go home at that point, but Fran and I stayed for almost another week, driving a few days to Rome, and then flying to the island of Sicily for four days.

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