Sacred Wanderings, Huahine-style
HUAHINE – It’s been unusually gray in Paradise for the past couple days, windy and rain swept, especially so here on the remote edge of the Leeward or Society Islands of Polynesia. I said the other day that I find Moorea to be the most beautiful island in Polynesia … but Huahine gives it a run for the money on one front: If its peaks are not as stark or dramatic, they are still tall and lush, its greatest advantage is far fewer people. The reality is that for all its paradisiacal beauty, Moorea is a bedroom community to Tahiti, its solitary ring road thick with traffic in the early morning and late afternoon as commuters rush to and from the fast ferry to the big island. Here on Huahine you get a similar lush, green beauty with ten percent of the people. One hundred miles northwest of Tahiti it’s out of the way, hard to get to … perfect if you are, like me, always looking for escape.
Home to a plethora of ancient Polynesian Maraes (ceremonial temples) carefully preserved and reconstructed along the shoreline of its main village of Fare, in the 1800s this was mostly a whaling port. Today it’s home to eight small villages; in Fare a ferry boat has arrived to carry its school children back to boarding school on Raritea.
Following a mostly grown-over road to the coast I trace the island’s southern shoreline, paralleling deep coconut palm forests, in search of a couple very different sites: An abandoned hotel wiped out a decade ago by cyclone and a river said to be overflowing with “sacred” Tahitian river eels. I am only successful at finding the latter, and that thanks to an old woman in a red-flowered dress at the last house, at the end of the beach.
After a couple hours of a gentle walk along the coast – the local dirt red and healthy, the jungle dense and wet – I’d run into a dead end and she was there, sitting in her yard on a metal chair surrounded by a half-dozen languorous tabby cats, almost as if she’d been planted there to give directions to lost wanderers. She knew of the hotel (“everything in it was made by hand, and beautiful,” she said, “but now the only thing left are a few cement slabs”). In broken French and using her hands she indicated I was “two mountains and a lagoon away” from finding it.
The eels were easier and she pointed me in the right direction. Three to six feet long, with fins along their side which locals cal “ears” and eyes a translucent cold blue, they are found only on Huahine, Tahiti and Moorea. Their sacredness comes from legend, which says they are the product of a union between an eel and a Tahitian maiden. I find them swirling in the eddy of a narrow, black river, pointed out to me by a half dozen locals who are feeding them “sacred mackerel” from “sacred cans” found at a nearby “sacred market.” Two hundred years ago this was a center for Polynesian culture; today it is still very emblematic, “sacred” obviously having taken on very twenty-first century definition.