Day 2 – Fakarava Aranui Cruise 2010

Day 2: April 8 – Fakarava, Tuamotu Islands

We arrived around 6:30 in the morning on the Aranui 3 to the atoll of Fakarava. We entered the Tuamotu Island’s second largest atoll through the largest 1-mile wide pass in the South Pacific. To our left, we could see a thin continuous strip of land that went on for over 40 kilometers while on the other side we could see occasional patches of rock and a sparse unconnected ring of vegetation that completed the circular shape of the atoll.

Just prior to entering this Tuamotu island the seas began to be somewhat calmer and not as rough as we had experienced while in the open seas. The motion of the boat swayed less as I lay in bed waiting for our first stop in the Tuamotu Islands.

Being that it was Sunday, and particularly that it was Easter Sunday, we had decided that we would attend church services during our slightly less than 3 hour stop in Fakarava. The children all got dressed as we anticipated the events of the day. It didn’t take them long to eat their fresh fruit breakfast as they anxiously awaited our departure.

The Aranui had anchored about 800 feet from shore and so we were going to need to take a boat to get to land. One of the two large cranes that sit atop the cargo deck of the Aranui hoisted our bulky metal barge over the edge and gently dropped the massive vessel into the water adjacent to the ship. They placed this shuttle boat next to the metal steps that descended down along the side of the vessel around water level.

The sky was overcast with clouds and at times it looked like it may rain. But it didn’t rain and we were glad for that because the boat was open and did not have any shelter above it.

When it was time for us to disembark and before I know what was happening the crew members took our four and six year old children in their arms and descended down the steep curved steps that lead to the mini barge below. We followed quickly behind them. By the time he was halfway down the stair and my four year old saw that he was not in his mom or dad’s arms he started to cry with the fear of his life in his eyes. Under no circumstances did he want this gentle looking Polynesian man bringing him down to the boat alone. He was sure to make quite a fuss even after we all sat down on the boat together treating us as his parents as if we had deserted him.

The flat deck boat skimmed across the water to a boat launch that was on shore. Two workers lowered the front end of the vessel with come-a-longs so that it created a ramp each of the 80 passengers could use to walk off the boat and onto the shore without even getting their feet wet. I felt spoiled coming on shore in such a rig and to be greeting by a half dozen trucks that seemed to be there to greet the biggest invasion of tourists they had seen in two weeks. As we disembarked we could hear the Tahitian drums nearby beating out their welcoming music.

We were however on our way to church and had been told that church services on the island started at 8 AM. One of the Aranui workers pointed out the small Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chapel only a one minute walk from where we landed and so we quickly walked on since it was now a few minutes past eight. Fortunately it was still overcast and early in the morning. This meant that the sun did not beat down hard on us nor was the heat of the day unbearable on this flat island.

The island of Fakarava only has about 700 inhabitants that are spread out along the rim of the atoll. The little meeting house we found only a few houses down the main street was a picture perfect chapel that looked like an old schoolhouse. Upon entering the front gate we were greeted by the 4 or 5 people that were present. The podium was decorated with a band of fresh flowers with a tropical plant in the front. I was a bit surprised to see so few people wandering around and asked at what time the services started. I was informed that they started between 8:00 and 8:30. What I have come to understand as “Tahitian Time”.

Our five young children in their khaki pants, dress sandals and white shirts sat quietly in the portable plastic white deck chairs as we waited for the church service to start. In the next 20 minutes we didn’t see many more people but by 8:30 in the morning there were about 22 others gathered together in this now overflowing chapel. I had been told that other in the congregation were gone for the holidays to Papeete and so it was anyone’s guess how many people would be present.

The church service was a simple one with familiar hymns. Although the opening hymn was sung in both Tahitian and French, the rest of the songs were sung entirely in French. The final of the three sermons just glossed over me. Ninety percent of the sermon was in the Tahitian language with the occasional few sentences in French. My son next to me kept asking me to translate what I could, only to be disappointed that even I did not understand what was being said. I myself was getting a fresh taste for what each of my children were going through as they struggled to get a grip on and a basic knowledge of the language. I felt a bit of a feeling of helplessness as I struggled to understand what was being said to everyone around me. The words we were all hearing were the same but each one of us understood something different if anything at all.

Following the service, we were bid farewell to the smiling faces with a handshake or kiss on each cheek as we left this small little meeting house. Many people thanked us for coming by and we left as quietly and quickly as we had come.

I continued to walk down the street about 5 minutes to where we had been told another Catholic church was. As I approached the church I could hear the energetic closing hymn of their service being belted out in a perfect almost gospel-like harmony. Within a few minutes the song was wrapping up and people came pouring out of the building in their white clothes and with the ladies wearing their various styles of hats.

Bicycles lined the stone wall along the street side of the church and cars were parked all around on the side of the road. As people started to go their separate ways, some drove away in the backs of pickup trucks, some rode away on bicycles and many walked away on foot. Easter was obviously a very busy day of worship for this island church that was also across the street from the ocean.

I walked with my oldest son who was by now the only one of my children still with me. The rest of them had all headed back to where we had arrived on the island to listen to and watch the Tahitian songs and dance that were heard in the distance. By this time the sun had come out and was beating full force down on us and so as we walked we attempted to stay in the shade of the occasional trees as much as possible.

My son and I had decided that we wanted to see how wide this little atoll island really was so we found a small dirt road that lead inland. It only took us 3 to 4 minutes to discover the outside edge of the reef as we came over a small crest of a hill in the road where we peered out into the open ocean with its waves crashing onto the shores of the reef that was only 20 feet from shore. The choppy waves that rolled on shore on this side of the island were a sharp contrast to the peaceful waters that lay calm within the lagoon of the circular atoll.

While the inner waterline of the atoll mostly was home to rocky ledges and beaches, this outer edge of the atoll was mostly made up of large pieces of coral, rock and the occasional shell. My son waded out into the water and I had to quickly call him in before he reached the knee deep water that quickly led to the coral reef only a short distance out. He wasn’t too impressed but I have had bad experiences with friends being dragged along sharp coral after being hit by waves, not to mention we were warned against going into the waters on this side of the island during our orientation meeting the evening before.

As we walked back to where we would catch the boat back to our ship we noticed a dirt road that went along the back side of the island and a shorter inland road that paralleled both this road and the paved one that we had come in on. We opted to walk the centre road that lead back to where we had come from which was lined with small humble homes that were very basic but many of which were tastefully decorated with natural Polynesian flowers and shrubs.

It was not hard to find our way back, not because there were not many roads, but also because of the Tahitian drums that we could hear again beating in the distance. As we approached the quay area we saw a number of young 8 to 14 year old Tahitian dancers that were all dressed up and had just wrapped up their performance. The local band however were still going strong, not on their drums but rather all strumming on their guitars and other string instruments as they sang. It was truely an enchanting rhythmic music of perfect harmony.

It finally came time for us to leave. As we put our life vests on we sat down for fifteen minutes waiting for our boat. As we did this a game of petanque (boules) was just getting underway behind us on the roughest surface of driveway-like gravel I had ever seen. Three local Tahitian men with their metal balls in one hand and cigarettes in the other were throwing the balls into the air to see who could get it closest to the cochon (big marble sized ball) about 30 feet away. They seemed to lance their balls with the greatest of ease and were enjoying their Sunday in the hot sun. It was entertaining to watch them interact with each other as they played on the most unpredictable of gravel surfaces with an amusing look on their faces. I’m sure a professional French player would have been appalled by the conditions of the natural court they were playing in but they didn’t seem to mind one bit.

As our deadline passed to leave we boarded our boat that would shuttle us back to the cruise / cargo ship. Once again the boat workers carried the little children up the stairs as we walked into the blast of cool air conditioned air that came from the front entrance of the vessel. We were all glad to get out of the hot sun of the day that had greeted us in Fakarava but sad to see this island for such a short amount of time.

As we lifted anchor and set off to exit the atoll island of the day, clouds gathered around the ship and we left in pouring rain without having even got wet during our stay. It was the perfect day and the perfect time to get off and walk around the main town of Fakarava, we only wished we could have stayed a little bit longer.
Authored by Norm Schafer, Victoria BC

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