Makemo! Part one anyway…

And now it’s time for our first non-sequitur jump back to French Polynesia.  Makemo was the first stop in the Tuamotus, which we picked its downwind location relative to the other atolls we wanted to visit.  It was about a three day sail from Nuka Hiva, timed to arrive in daylight with good tide for the pass.

We spotted Makemo on the radar and the early morning horizon around the same time.  The low lying atolls are hard to see in the dark and require approaching with caution.  Arriving a little too early to catch the optimal tide into the pass we decided to stand off the island hove-to for a couple hours to let the sunlight fill and currents shift.  Just as a were getting ready to head in for the final approach we spotted our friends on Anthem on the AIS but couldn’t reach them on the radio.  We ended up missing them by about an hour which was unfortunate as we wouldn’t catch up with them again until we reached New Zealand.

All of the atolls in the Tuamotus have very small populations – Makemo with its 800 people is one of the more populous, and one of the largest geographically.  600 of those people live in the single village of Pouheva.  The village has a school, several small stores, a couple of sort-of restaurants (we never caught them actually open), and a boulangerie (bakery).

The Quest for Bread

If you have read the posts on Nuka Hiva you are aware of the madness of French Polynesia bakers.  So THIS time we were prepared.  We’d read there was a bakery on the island to get bread and that you needed to be there “fairly early” to get bread before it sold it.  With your customer base being the 600 villagers the 2-3 cruising boats you may see at any time are just a rounding error in the baking quantities so it’s not surprising it they run out.

We arrived on a Saturday and I found the Boulangerie!   Victory is near at hand, thought it was already closed for the day.  With Sunday being  the day All Things Are Closed in these islands I knew that Monday AM I’d be there bright and early to score out baguettes.  Off the boat before 7:00, we walked to the boulangerie to arrive as the last local was buying the last of the baguettes.  He graciously gave us one of his, but that was it.

Not to be undone, the next morning I set an alarm and got up at 6:00 and went in figuring that I just needed to get there earlier.  Imagine my surprise to find the boulangerie completely shut up without a soul around to sell me any baguettes.  I stood around in front of the bakery like an idiot for a while before one of the locals stopped by to talk with me.  Apparently on Tuesdays the bakery opens at 9:00.  OK, back to the boat to wait for the opening.

When we finally got to the boulangerie with it open and the woman who ran it there to talk to I was able to get the hours from her which were posted…but inside the building where you couldn’t see it when closed.  Closed Sundays, but open around 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Mondays, and 9:00 the rest of the days.  This explains my ill luck, but from then on in we had a constant source of first rate baguettes secured.  Small village life, everyone just knew the bakery schedule so it didn’t need to be advertised so it takes a stranger a few days to sort it out.

The Heiva

Our first nights in Makemo we were greeted by drumming every evening.  We weren’t sure what was going on, on Saturday night it seemed relatively normal but on a Tuesday in a small village it seemed right unusual.  We went in once or twice to have a look and it seemed to be a small group of men in the village pavilion drumming together.  Interesting, but nothing that drew the eye.


A couple of days before this was weathered wood and corrugated metal.

Over the coming days though we started to notice changes to the village.  Things were getting cleaned up, plants were being moved around and elaborate weavings of palm fronds and flowers started appearing on the shack like structures around the pavilion.  As it turns out, these little shacks were well decorated and opened up as restaurants or cafes for the evenings of the Heiva.

The Heiva is a traditional dance…event…throughout French Polynesia in the month of July.  There are festivities, celebrations, parties, and competitions among teams of dancers.  In the Tuamotus the teams were from the different atolls, with each atoll/village sponsoring a team.  For this year’s competition Makemo was the host for two other teams from neighboring atolls who arrived by boat and stayed several days for the festivities.

The subtleties, well not even the subtleties, pretty much everything about the nature of the competition was pretty much lost on us though we did have a long chat with a local fellow who tried to do some explaining.  Most of the competition was conducted in Puamotuan of which I can recognize not a word, and some in French which I could follow a little.  There was a leader or chief of each team  who started out with a speech.  The speech seemed to have some swagger and boasting to it, without being able to understand it I was left with the feeling that the dance teams were there to represent the honor of the village with the competition instead of a fight as their ancestors might have.  Presumably there was a story being told as well, but we had no interpreter…

All of the costumes are made from natural grasses, fibers and weaving; most of them even stayed together the whole night!  Children participate as do men.  The mens dancing in particular is very physical, almost warlike and aggressive at times in its intensity and there is definitely nothing feminine about it.  Everyone out there shakes it hard and works up a sweat as they smile and have a lot of fun.  Makemo island also treated us with a performance from their children’s team which featured kids from about eight up through teenagers.  It was hard for us to picture American teenagers – especially boys – donning grass skirts and dancing it up like this.

Sadly much of the original dance and culture from this area was lost when this style of dancing was banned for many years when European missionaries prevailed over the “indecency”.  Oral tradition though seems to have held on to a lot, and their are many active dance schools and teams throughout French Polynesia.

We ended the evening with dinner in one of the beautifully decorated restaurants.  Just like in Nuka Hiva, one of the things that made this night particularly special was that it was a show by the locals for the locals; we were welcome guests but it wasn’t paid theater just to entertain us.  It was their culture on display and it was pretty spectacular for such a small community.

Unfortunately photography was a little challenging, being at night with a lot of quickly moving subjects.  I give you my best, but pardon the motion blur!


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