The spiritual center of French Polynesia
Paths of stone. Walls of stone. Mounds of stone. Hundreds of stones assembled at the seaside more than a thousand years ago by early Polynesians, each believed to contain spiritual power or Mana. Raiatea is home to one of the most important places in all of Polynesia; its spiritual heart.
Marae is a term used to describe meeting places that served as hubs for spiritual and social matters throughout ancient Polynesia. Given that Taputapuatea Marae reportedly contains more than 80 archeological remains (only a portion of which have been restored), it is second in scale only to Rapa Nui (Easter Island).
Maraes generally contain one or more ahu, a raised stone alter to the Gods, a feature we also observed when we visited Rapa Nui (read more here and here). The ahu at Taputapuatea Marae is enormous, a 45-meter by 9-meter rectangle that is raised over 3 meters from the ground. A number of upright stones still stand, which were once used as backrests for important chiefs. Other small groupings of stones whose purpose can only be speculated are scattered across the grounds, some laying almost flat and others elevated or stacked.
Although all that remains today are weathered stones whittled by the elements and ever-encroaching jungle, records dating to early colonization make clear that other structures were once present. The complex included fare tupapa’u or ghost houses that housed bodies of the deceased; fare ia manaha, where the most precious images and objects were kept; and fare va’a, where purpose-built canoes, some with single or double hulls and with or without masts, were kept. The importance of the complex was recognized internationally in 2017 when it was dedicated as an UNESCO World Heritage site. For millennia, Polynesians and have been among the world’s greatest ocean navigators. Legend claims that it was through a reef pass called Te Ava Moa Pass, just east of Taputapuatea Marae, that Polynesians began expeditions that would ultimately discover both Hawaii and New Zealand, two of the three points (the other being Rapa Nui) of the Polynesian triangle. The Pacific Ocean covers 30% of the planet’s surface—all of the earth’s landmasses can quite literally be swallowed by it—the feats of exploration achieved by early Polynesians cannot be overstated. It is perhaps fitting that Raiatea in the Society Islands was Polynesia’s spiritual heart; it is situated almost smack in the center of the Polynesian triangle.The day of our visit, Taputapuatea Marae was completely empty, not another soul in sight, and we wandered for a couple hours after dinghying ashore from a nearby mooring. I found my mind wandering to bygone centuries and imagining what this now peaceful, sacred peninsula would have been like during its prime. Perhaps peaceful or somber to honor its sacredness? Perhaps bustling or jubilant during times of ritual? Human sacrifices were a part of some ceremonies, a fact borne out by the discovery of human remains below some of the structures at Taputapuatea Marae, so the stench of death may have intermingled with the salt air and frangipani. It is hard to picture what Taputapuatea Marae would have been like in its heyday, but I couldn’t help but to speculate.
Taputapuatea Marae mooring waypoint: 16°49’.897S 151°21’.985WAn unexpected treat
After exploring Taputapuatea Marae, we wandered on, eventually stumbling upon a sign pointing to a nearby vanilla farm. We knew we would have very limited time at our next stop, Taha’a, aptly nicknamed “the vanilla island” (80% of French Polynesia’s vanilla is produced there!), so we followed the arrow, hoping we might find someone willing to show us around. A two-track dirt path led to a clearing that contained a couple small buildings and a handful of people quietly working.
The workers spoke little English but smiled and nodded as Neil made a motion offering to assist them in unloading cinnamon-colored cloth pouches from the bucket of a small dump truck. The farm was a relatively small operation and not accustomed to tourists. We set about helping to unload the parcels, organizing them like polka dots in rows on large blue tarps that stretched across the grass. After the parcels were dispersed, we set about opening them and spreading sticky, chocolatey beans across the fabric where they would be kissed by the sun. We weren’t entirely sure what we were doing, but we were interested, amused, and happy to have been welcomed to make a meager contribution to the day’s work! We later learned that vanilla (vanilla planifolia) is a member of the orchid family, whose vines have the capacity to climb several stories tall. The vines take years to mature to the point of yielding flowers that will produce fruit—the vanilla bean—which bears a striking resemblance to a green bean. Although Tahitian vanilla is renowned, vanilla is endemic to Mexico, meaning that all vanilla plants first journeyed to Europe before ultimately being brought to Polynesia in the 1800s. Perhaps most astonishing, bees native to Mexico are required to pollinate the flowers and don’t inhabit the islands of Polynesia. Thus…
Every. Single. Flower. must be hand pollinated.
What’s more, each precious blossom only blooms for about six hours.
After the beans are harvested, they are tended to a repetitive months-long process of being laid to dry beneath the tropical sun during the day and then wrapped in cloth where they sweat overnight. The beans wither as moisture is evaporated from them and they cure and ferment, acquiring a satiny, oily texture. That was the phase we witnessed during our unexpected stop at the vanilla farm. It was only after our visit and doing further reading that we really appreciated the diligence and precision timing required of the farmers to ensure a lucrative vanilla harvest!
We’d walked a long way from the dinghy near Taputapuatea Marae to the vanilla farm, but as luck would have it, the Mayor of nearby Opoa village drove up just as we were readying to depart and offered us a ride. A day complete with a dose of both ancient and freshly harvested elements of life in the Society Islands.
A fleeting stop at The Vanilla Island
We sailed back north along Raiatea’s east coast, making a brief but raucous docking for fuel in Uturoa in 20-knot crosswinds (thank goodness Neil can handle our portly boat as if she were a sports car) before crossing the lagoon to Taha’a. We anchored in Hurepeti Bay in the late afternoon as the sun dipped over the edge of the protective reef.We awoke to still water in a peaceful, beautiful bay embraced by long, leafy arms. It was my 33rd birthday. Neil made a delicious breakfast of corned beef hash and eggs, and I opened a birthday card that my mom had posted to Mark and Helen before their visit. I wasn’t homesick, but I always missed my mom and thinking of her inevitably tugged at my heartstrings. After breakfast, we climbed into Miss Sassy and dinghied toward the shore, pleased to be waved to a small dock belonging to a French couple who had made Tahaa their home decades earlier. The wife was running errands on the other side of the island and offered us a ride. Keen to make the most of our time, we gratefully accepted.
A birthday puppy
We were dropped off at Ha’amene, a small town nestled deeply into a quiet bay of the same name. We purchased some vanilla powder and a few locally grown beans and enjoyed a walk along the bay. A chocolate chip cookie-colored puppy bounded from the bushes, leaping at my bare legs with glee. It was my birthday, and I all but begged Neil to let me keep her. Alas, midway through a transpacific voyage bound for Australia, a nation with notoriously strict quarantine regulations, was hardly a time to invite a puppy to join our crew. After a few minutes and a river of puppy kisses, I reluctantly placed her on the ground and shooed her away. However, she, too, had decided that she would like to keep me. She refused to leave! The remainder of our morning was spent trying to figure out where she lived and then, when we finally found her home, running away repeatedly until she finally stayed put!
We were pleased to save ourselves the strain of a 4-kilometer walk in the heat of the day by hitchhiking back to the other side of the island. We climbed in the back of a pickup truck and sped up and over the saddle that separates Taha’a’s coasts. Breeze tickled the hair on our arms, drying our afternoon sweat as sunshine played peek-a-boo with palms, pandanus, and ferns.When we returned to retrieve our dinghy, the adult son of the French couple was home. We enjoyed a great chat and he shared with us his love of rum. We offered to swap one of our precious bottles of Nicaraguan Flor de Caña for a bonafide bottle of Taha’a vanilla rum! We only realized later what a poor trade we’d made, as Polynesian rum is about as impressive as it sounds! Despite concluding that rum making was better left to countries with Caribbean coasts, it would be an amusing bottle of rum to share with others during our travels.
I longed to explore more of Taha’a, particularly the Coral Garden snorkeling spot (nice video by Gone with the Wynns) north of Motu Tautau; however, we had plans to meet friends in Bora Bora to celebrate my birthday that evening. Snorkeling coral gardens would have to wait until a future visit to the island.
Anchor up, we were bound for Bora Bora once more…