My hard work obtaining the rental car yesterday paid off in spades today. We were rewarded with one of those life experiences we will never forget. We gathered up our new cruising friends - Patrick and Paula on Ostrika - and piled into our four wheel drive, manual transmission, Toyota, Diesel Truck. We heard the dirt road to Puamau is narrow and steep with switchbacks on the edge of a cliff. Given that my manual transmission skills are more well practiced than Andrew's, I am elected as helmsman. This suits me just fine, as I am a control-freak and somewhat fearful of heights. It's best that I take the helm.
The road swoops and turns along the edges of the island, paved at first. We enjoy views of the ocean and tropical vegetation. As we climb higher, the ridge line changes to windswept grasses and, oddly enough, pine trees. Apparently, one of the French people who moved here years ago missed their pine trees, and decided to plant them on the tropical island. It is very odd to see pine trees mixed with palm trees. The road becomes more and more narrow. When another car approaches, we are forced to pull far along the side of the hill to allow them to pass by. Soon, we are driving in places where the road is only one car width wide and on either side is a cliff that drops straight to the ocean. There are no guard rails here, not even a warning sign. Presumably the locals figure you are smart enough to know how to stay on the road, and if not, well the world had no use for you anyway. How many tourists have been lost to this cliff, I wonder?
We follow the road up and down. In many of the valleys we pass through tiny villages with a handful of brightly painted houses, bananas drying on a line, dogs resting in the shade and goats and chickens roaming freely. We can see evidence of honey production, but each time we stop to ask if we can buy honey and fruit there is none available for one reason or another.
As we arrive in Puamau a man on a horse gallops toward us, waving and smiling. I stop. "Is he waving at us?" We all look, but there is no one else around. I am stopped in the middle of the road, so I creep forward a bit, and he waves more frantically. I stop again. He arrives at the window. "Bonjour! Vous etes avec tres hommes Francais?" Are we with the three French guys? No. What three French guys? Luckily, Patrick from Switzerland is fluent in French. The man on the horse and Patrick have a conversation that I cannot follow with my significantly more humble French. Patrick explains to us that the man (Mario) has three French-men living with him for the week and he thought maybe we were coming to see them. They are up in the hills gathering coconuts. We tell Mario that we do not know the French men, and that we are traveling here to see the famous Tiki. Mario's eyes brighten. He offers to take us there. We will stop at his house to get lime water for the coconut-gathering-Frenchmen, then we will go to the Tiki. The plan sounds reasonable enough. We also ask if Mario knows where we can buy some fruit, and his eyes brighten even further.
"No, NO!" Mario speaks a million miles per hour, and I cannot understand until Patrick translates:
"He says he will not let us buy any fruit. He will give us fruit from his land, because he loves his land and he would love to give us fruit."
Ok, that works, too. Mario turns his horse (Spirit) around and taps him lightly on the behind with a little stick. Spirit romps away, and I follow in the truck. We climb up a little hill and turn left into a driveway. Mario waves me forward until I am parked not in the driveway, but on his grass directly in front of his house.
Mario jumps down from Spirit and quickly makes his way into his kitchen. He returns with a bottle of lime water and a little silver bowl filled with fish and coconut milk: Poisson cru. He offers it to us and indicates that we should pick some fish out with our hands. "You first," Paula says. Mario picks some out for himself, eats. We all pick some out and eat. I am hoping I do not die. I taste salt, garlic, fish and creamy, sweet coconut milk. The coconut milk is thick and flavorful, not at all like the stuff from a can. It is delicious. He passes around the lime water, and we all take a taste from the same bottle. I do not know these people! But I did get updated hepatitis shots, so I will probably be ok?
Mario takes us around to the back of his yard to show us his own Tiki. Tiki are stone carvings of spirits or gods. Mario explains that his Grandfather owned this land, then his father, and now him. The Tiki lives with the land, and so now this is Mario's Tiki to care for. The Tiki rests cheerfully beneath a tropical tree, looking back at Mario. I ask if I can photograph the Tiki, and Mario smiles a huge smile. Mario enthusiastically jumps beside his Tiki. Then he invites me in for a picture with the Tiki, then Andrew, then our friends.
We decide now to go to see Taka'iti (the largest Tiki in the Pacific, besides those at Easter Island.) First, though, we must deliver lime water to the Three French Men. Mario and Spirit gallop off, and I follow, up a road lined with coconut palms. Upon arrival, we meet the Three French men, one of which is a friend Patrick and Paula had met in Panama! It's a small world out here. We meet Mario's puppy, Iza, and Mario gathers us up a few coconuts to give to us. We all chat, while Patrick passes around hand rolled Tobacco cigarettes to all who partake. Andrew and I aren't much for cigarettes, but I enjoy watching the group commune over their more rustic tobacco. Who needs filters anyway?
Time to go. Mario leaves Spirit with the Three French Men and instead jumps in the drivers' seat. I'm a little nervous about the state of my rental car, but figure it will probably all be fine. A little rusty on the clutch, Mario nevertheless drives us safely up a road lined with more little houses, fruit trees, and flowers. We arrive at the temple grounds and greet Taka'iti and his friends. Mario shows us one Tiki that is supposed to be a lama. Mario explains - no, rather insists - that his ancestors are not from Asia, but instead from South America. That is why this particular Tiki is a lama.
We visit Taka'Iti first. He is very impressive, tall and heavy. Mario bemoans the fact that the Catholic Priests came here and cut off Taka'iti's man parts. "They don't use them, why don't they cut off their own parts?" Mario inquires. I have no answer for this, but I am sure Taka'Iti was none too pleased with this turn of events. Mario joins us all in photos with Taka'iti.
We sit in the shade beneath fruit trees, just behind Taka'Iti. One of the Three French Men catch up with us and shows us a video of Mario making the coconut milk for our Poisson Cru. They scrape the coconut milk on a cheese grater. Once it is all grated, they take it into their hands and squeeze. I look over at Mario's currently filthy hands; we are all sweating in the tropical heat. My bioflora is going to be rather diverse after this trip, I think. As we leave, Mario finds a leaf and begins tearing it into little strips. He explains that the men wrap these leaves around their arms and legs. He ties the leaf around Andrew's arm. Mario then demonstrates (very loudly) his people's war cries. Stomping and squatting down a little, he raises one fist in the air, points one fist downward, both elbows bent to make the shape of an "L" with his arms. It is an impressive sound. Mario suggests Andrew try making the war cry. Andrew just laughs and says that he will need a lot more alcohol before he does anything like that. Mario laughs, too. I can't imagine something that loud coming out of Andrew, ever.
We all climb back into the truck, and Mario drives us to the home of one of his friends. We meet a friendly little goat, who lets us all pet his head. We gather a large bag of 20+ pomplefmous. Mario puts his friend in the back of the truck and drives us back to his house. Mario and his friend then head toward the jungle part of Mario's land, climb up a tree and begin shaking down pommescitron. They all fall to the floor with the rattle of a hundred thuds. We scurry around gathering them up and placing them into bags. We tell Mario that we probably have enough, but he shakes and shakes until more come down. Mario explains that the green fruit are good in a vinaigrette: vinegar, oil, garlic, salt, sugar, and pommescitron grated up, with a dash of pepper. When they ripen, they also make a good jam. He promises to give us a taste when we return to his house.
We carry the heavy bags of fruit back to the truck, then head back out to the jungle to find starfruit. The process repeats itself, but the starfruit is too delicate to shake down so we pick one by one. We return, then we go again to find limes, then bananas. By the time we are finished the entire truck bed is filled completely with fruit. We offer to pay him money, and again, he insists No. "My mother said to me: 'Mario, when you meet new people, feet them fruit and give them gifts from your land. You will be happy.'"
Now, we head back into Mario's home to taste the pommescitron vinaigrette and the jam made from starfruit, lime and ripe pommecitron. One of the older Three French Men begins cutting up fish, and a kitten sits nearby hoping for a taste. Patrick rolls everyone another cigarette, and Mario pulls out a giant clamshell to use as his ash tray. Mario finds some homemade fruit beer in his refrigerator and offers it around. Surprisingly enough, it is rather tasty. I had only a little taste, given that I was charged with piloting the truck over, around and through cliffs of death. Brewmiestro Andrew enjoyed it quite a lot, and I explained to Mario in French that Andrew brews beer, too. Mario was very excited to hear this, and pulled out a second bottle to give as a gift.
We all decided it was time to leave because (1) we wanted to return to town before the grocery store closed so we can use the truck to bring back provisions; (2) we wanted to traverse the cliffs in daylight; and (3) if we didn't leave soon, Mario was going to give us everything he owned. We said our thanks ("Va a ai nui" in Marquesan), took a picture together, and then said our goodbyes. Mario tapped his heart and said: "I was so happy to meet you here today, and now that you are leaving I am just a little bit sad." We agreed. Mario let us know that if we bring a little fuel and sail back around to his bay he will take us fishing and on a hunt for wild boar. This offer is enticing to both Patrick and Andrew, so this may come to fruition.
We made the two hour trip back to Atuona, loaded up the truck with more groceries, and headed back to the port to wash all the fruit Mario gave us. We piled hundreds of pounds of fruit and groceries into Grin, and headed back out to Sonrisa. Andrew immediately set to work on a new project: his own beer made from Mario's beer as a starter, star fruit juice, coconut, and a little sugar. If we do return to Puamau via sailboat, Andrew is hoping to return Mario's gift with some fruit beer made on Sonrisa.