I was hanging soaking wet foul weather gear in the cockpit when two beautiful young ladies walked the length of the marina and stood behind Sonrisa’s stern. “Bonjour! Ce va bien?” I greet them, and they giggle. “Parlez vous Francais?” I ask them. They look at each other, tuck their faces downward and closer together, then giggle again and nod. “Do you?” They ask in English. I tell them I speak a little bit, and then I ask if they speak English. They giggle again, and say a little bit. Their names are June and Fatiaou (sp?), and they are both 15 years old; a friendship is forged.
A few hours later, we are finished cleaning up the boat. It is still raining cats and dogs, so the foul weather gear I hung out to dry is only getting more soaked. From down below, we can hear giggles. I poke my head out. The marina is filled with children and teenagers swimming, men going about their business with fishing nets, women riding bicycles with tiny babies balanced on they handlebars. Our two little friends float just below Sonrisa’s hull, along with Fatiaou’s 20 year old brother. We invite them aboard for cookies.
At first they decline, but then timidly climb aboard. We speak in a mix of rudimentary English, French, and Charades. We learn that the girls attend school in Pape’ete and Mateauo works in a hotel on another Atoll, Tikihou. They are all home for the upcoming holiday, Heiva (pronounced Haiyva), which seems like it is bigger than Christmas around here.
We jump in for a swim. The water is just slightly cooler than warm; it is perfect. We follow a sting ray over to the reef just next to the marina and see sea horses and colorful fish. The girls and their friends show us how to choose, open and eat sea snails and blue lipped clams. Andrew dives down, pulls up two snails and hammers the point of one against the side of the other to open a hole. The locals then blow air through the hole, blowing the snail out the exit of the shell. Just like blowing up a new balloon, Andrew’s face turns purple with the attempted force and nothing happens. The girls giggle and laugh at him, then demonstrate with their own snail; blowing and easily extracting a wriggling, slimy intestine of the snail. Andrew loves foraging for his food, so his mood begins to lighten.
It continues to rain, and the fresh water beads up on the surface of the ocean like tiny, clear pearls. Crystal and Kevin snorkel and chat with our new friends. Their mood lightens too. The locals laugh and point at all of us, exclaiming that we are “so pale!” They place their arms next to Andrew’s arms, laugh and laugh. They admire Kevin and Andrew’s blue eyes, “like the sky or the sea!” they exclaim with happiness. I smile; Manihi is already helping us to recover from the hard passage.
The next morning, the girls arrive with coconuts for us to drink. They are ready to take us on a tour of the village. We don our flip-flops and hop off Sonrisa, crossing the barge as our platform. The girls take us to the reef where we see starfish, sea cucumbers, a beautiful view of red coral and blue ocean. Now I know where pink sand beaches come from. They choose flowers for Crystal and I and place them behind our ears. They walk us through the village, pointing out their houses, the snack shop, the restaurant, the park with the games set up for the upcoming festival. We stop and buy sandwiches for everyone. We offer sandwiches to the girls, and they decline. We insist, to say thank you and because we are friends. They relent, but unwillingly. They hold the wrapped up sandwiches in their hands and look at them uncertainly. Once in a while, they open the sandwich wrapper and take one little bite, but then immediately wrap the sandwich back up again. They look around furtively, as if they are worried someone might see them. I puzzle over this, but don’t know how to communicate about the complex idea of eating customs.
We return to the boat for the afternoon rain showers and Mateauo rejoins us. Crystal and I paint the girls fingernails, Andrew and Kevin teach Mateauo to play Texas Hold’em, and Mateauo challenges us all (gals included) to an arm wrestling match. Mateauo teaches us a card game he plays, too. He always wins.
Our friends teach us how to say “hello” (la orena), “thank you” (mauruuru), “beautiful”, (nehe nehe) and “goodbye” (na na) in Tahitian. This is a magic skill set. As we walk through town, locals take interest in us. We greet them with Bonjour and La Orena, and they smile. They ask us if we are the people who arrived in the sailboat. They compliment Sonrisa and we say “Mauruuru” for thank you. Their eyes brighten and they exclaim “you are learning Tahitian!”
The women in town all fuss and worry over us, making sure we have enough to eat. Our helpful policeman lets us know we are free to use the shower, toilets, and fresh water located in the community center. The men all want to talk about boats, take us fishing, or smoke together. When it rains, a little girl named Lizzie always seems to be around to escort Andrew through town with an umbrella. This girl of 13 laughs as she stretches the umbrella the full length of her arm and more to keep it over Andrew’s head. She asks Andrew how tall he is, and when he tells her over 190 centimeters, her eyes get wide.
Each afternoon around four, we hear island drumming from Sonrisa’s deck. A group of Manihitians practice their dancing and songs in the community center to prepare for the upcoming festival. We walk over and watch through the gate, but the locals wave us in. An older woman pats the cement ledge next to her, inviting me to sit and watch. Dogs lay between dancers’ feet and little kids imitate their adult’s movements. We meet the Mayor of the town and thank her for the hospitality.
We are invited to join the carnival games set up to celebrate Heiva. We stand in front of the "Babyfoot" (Foozball) table, looking for where to insert coins. A gaggle of kids circle around, staring up at me expectantly. "Where do we pay?" And the kids all start speaking in French at the same time, holding up fingers to count the number of games we are wanting to pay for etc. It takes a minute, and I realize the children are the purveyors of this particular little business.
Crystal and I compete against June and Fatiou. We win, but only because Crystal is the former Foozball Champion of the World. Then, we are challenged by the two little kids who are running the stand. Crystal leans over to me and says: "I think we should go easy on them. We should probably let them win." I laugh and whisper, "I am pretty sure they are going to kick our asses."
And they do. The little gentleman is highly competitive individual, wiping his hands on his shorts to clear the sweat, using his T-Shirt to polish the handles of the Foozball players. HIs eyes glow with intensity. There is cheering and groaning, squealing and jumping from the players and the gathering audience. When they win, our competitor thrusts his hands into the air and smiles widely. High Fives all around. Oh, the agony of defeat.
Anyone who has ever read the adventures of captains sailing their ships to Tahiti has read of the warm welcome given to explorers. Manihi exemplifies this warmth to an extent we have not yet experienced.