SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
Sweet tiare flowers
16° 43.8’S x 151° 26.4’W
Description of location
Alongside Uturoa, Raiatea
Anticipation and excitement were humming in the air as the ship’s company rose this morning. After nearly four weeks at sea and 3000 nm sailed since the Chatham Islands, today was the day we would set foot on land again. Little did we know just how much this first acquaintance with French Polynesia would sweep us off our feet.
Breakfast and our morning cleanup were barely over when a small group of people in full Polynesian dress surrounded our gangway and welcomed us off the ship with ukuleles, songs, and a fragrant tiare flower tucked behind our ear.
Completely astonished at this wholly unanticipated start to our day, we followed our friendly hosts to the town square where we took a seat under a tent that was installed for us. There, we were treated to a wonderful show of Polynesian music and dance before meeting with the mayor of Uturoa. Addressing us a warm welcome from all the people of Raiatea, she told us a bit about the town – at about 4000 inhabitants, it is the capital of the Leeward Islands of the Society archipelago – and gifted us a gorgeous mother-of-pearl plaque which had a carved depiction of the tiare apetahi, an extremely rare tiare flower which can only be found on the high plateaus of Raiatea. This flower is the symbol of the island.
Once the welcome ceremony over, we received cut coconuts to drink, delicious rambutans and finger bananas, as well as more flowers. We then got to visit the market, which featured a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables on the first floor and artfully crafted objects upstairs. Walking around with the vice-president of the artisan market association, I was gifted shell necklaces and more for the sole merit of happening to be the one that spoke French in our group. I was speechless from so much generosity.
After this absolutely rocking start to our day, we carried on with the scheduled part of our program and started on a tour of some of Raiatea’s sights via boat. Seated on the benches of a motorized (and covered, thankfully) outrigger canoe, we met Heimoa who taught us about the Polynesian culture and traditional way of life. Our first stop was a pearl farm, where we got to watch the fascinating process of inoculating oysters with a little bead which they will then take 18 months to transform into an iridescent gem. After making our way up a narrowing river and back down, we visited Taputapuatea, the most important marae of all of Polynesia. Maraes are temples; stone platforms built by ancient Polynesians to worship their gods and hold important meetings. Maraes are prevalent throughout French Polynesia but Taputapuatea’s significance is pan-Pacific.
Voyaging canoes would make their way from all corners of the Polynesian triangle to meet in this sacred place. It was an honor to see the place that people traveled thousands of miles from New Zealand and Hawaii to come to. To finish our excursion Heimoa took us for a swim to a motu, a small island by the fringing reef. The water was deliciously warm and those who brought masks saw fish and coral. After such a full day, we were happy to get back to the ship for a little bit of down time and a glorious dinner cooked by Abby and Tristan. We celebrated our amazing steward Lauren’s birthday with coconut cheesecake and many students chose to spend this beautiful night with their sleeping bags and hammocks on deck.
It is so amazing to be here. I don’t know which is more entrancing: the intoxicating smell of the tiare flower, the steep jungle slopes ending into the coral-fringed lagoon, or the overwhelming welcome we received here. Today showed me once again why I love Polynesia.
Also, if you wish to see a video of this morning’s ceremony it is available on the “Commune de Uturoa” Facebook page (another one giving a tour of Seamans should be posted there soon). Please don’t laugh at our mediocre dance skills.
PS: to my dear Pages, sending love by the metric ton. And greetings to Rob, our most dedicated reader.