Marquesas Islands: Getting in touch with tikis

Jeff Hill, a senior editor for Weissmann Travel Reports, a sister publication of Travel Weekly, visited the Marquesas. His report follows:

n a place as remote as the Marquesas Islands, people don't just drop in on a whim. They're looking for something.

Artist Paul Gauguin came to the Marquesas hoping to find a place untainted by modern civilization. Unfortunately, he couldn't escape the taint of syphilis, and he died there in 1903.

More recently, the cast of "Survivor Marquesas" arrived, seeking a return on their cosmetic surgery investments. Sadly, they all survived.

As for my wife and I, we were looking for tikis.

Anyone who has spent much time in a tropical-themed bar knows the cartoon version of the tiki -- strange figures with large eyes and snarling teeth.

The original tikis were statues carved by ancient Polynesians. In the years before Christianity came to the South Pacific, the figures were widely believed to possess mana -- supernatural powers.

To be honest, our interest in tikis wasn't exactly scholarly; it mostly came from studying the designs on mai-tai mugs and pina-colada glasses.

The Takaii tiki, at more than eight-and-a-half-feet high, is the tallest in French Polynesia and, according to legend, isn't to be touched. But serious or not, we eventually followed our curiosity to the Marquesas and to the island of Hiva Oa, known for its large collection of ancient tikis.

It's not a journey for the impatient. From Tahiti, we had to make a four-hour flight across 800 miles of ocean to reach Hiva Oa.

With so much distance between the Marquesas and the rest of the world, the islands have always been a place apart. Traditional practices such as cannibalism survived there longer than in most other parts of the South Pacific.

The scenery has the appropriate end-of-the-world quality. Hiva Oa shoots up dramatically from the ocean, leaving almost everything on a tilt -- steep mountains, sharp ridges, sheer cliffs.

Much of the island is uninhabited. Only 2,000 residents live in a handful of villages. Visitors also are sparse compared with visitors to French Polynesia's other islands, though tourism is a growing business (and one of few the island has).

For more information, contact Tahiti Tourism at (310) 4148484 or www.gotahiti.com.

There is only one hotel, Pearl Resort's Hanakee Lodge, although several guesthouses and pensions also are available.

As with most resort hotels in French Polynesia, the Hanakee Lodge doesn't come cheap -about $210 to $285 per night -- but the accommodations are beautiful. Commission is 10%.

The luxurious bungalows are perched high on a mountainside, overlooking the ocean and the main village of Atuona, where Gauguin is buried.

There is no beach, however. Biting no-no sandflies rule the shores and prevent seaside lounging.

The rugged topography and rough roads make four-wheel-drive vehicles the only practical way to get around the island.

And because it's difficult and unwise to drive yourself, the archaeological sites are seen on guided tours. The lodge handles all the arrangements.

Fortunately, we drew a good guide in Sabina, a native Marquesan. She deftly piloted her Land Rover around hairpin mountain turns while spinning folktales about walking tikis and giant, ocean-swimming pigs.

Most importantly, she was fluent in English (in addition to other languages), which isn't all that common on Hiva Oa. Most islanders speak French and/or Marquesan.

For all her knowledge of local lore, Sabina didn't put much faith in ancient beliefs. She was a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist church, one of several evangelical groups active in French Polynesia.

She drew a clear line between her religion and that of her ancestors.

"People back then, they didn't believe in the real God," she said. "They believed in the tiki!" And what did we bar-stool anthropologists believe? We were soon to find out.

After a bumpy, two-hour drive, we arrived at the village of Puamau, home to Hiva Oa's best archaeological site.

It may have been easy for us to joke about tiki mojo while sipping drinks at the Hula Hut, but stepping into a jungle-shrouded ceremonial site was an experience more solemn than silly.

Down a short path, several stone platforms sat beneath the trees. Upon them were tikis -- five of them, all large.

They didn't look much like the cute cocktail-lounge figures or even the modern wood tikis seen throughout French Polynesia.

Solid and stony, with blurry features, they looked otherworldly, as if humans had little to do with creating them.

The star of the show was the huge Takaii tiki, which stands more than eight-and-a-half feet high -- the tallest in French Polynesia.

Carved from brown stone and pitted from several centuries of wind and rain, its lumpy appearance made it look as if it had just risen from the earth.

On the drive over, Sabina had told us that many islanders considered it bad luck to touch the statues.

We had laughed about it, but no one in our group seemed willing to test the belief, least of all my wife.

But accidents happen. In true tourist spirit, I had her pose beside Takaii for a photo. As she did, she accidentally brushed against the statue.

"Oh my God," she said. "I touched the tiki!" She stared at her hand as if she expected it to fall off.

"Don't worry," Sabina said. "These tikis don't have power anymore." She was leaning up against one of the statues as she spoke -- no superstitions for her. "The people don't believe in them now, so they don't have power."

She was trying to put my wife at ease, but her words made me a little sad. Not that I wanted to see my wife afflicted with a strange curse (she already had me, after all), but I had to feel bad for an idol that had lost its followers.

When I thought about it afterward, though, I realized the tikis might have at least a little mana left.

Were it not for them, we wouldn't have traveled to an island that ended up being my favorite part of French Polynesia, mostly because it was so unlike any other place I had been to.

And who says the statues have to be bad luck? On our return trip to the U.S., all our flights were on time and my wife got two extra bottles of coconut liqueur past customs without paying duty.

All hail the tiki!

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