Winter Getaways: Head over Eels in Love ; Mark Rowe Discovers Strange Rituals and Savage Beauty in French Polynesia
Rowe, Mark, The Independent (London, England)
If you were to draw up a list of implements that could be used in the sacred rituals of indigenous peoples, a tin opener would be unlikely to feature very prominently. But this is Huahine, an island in French Polynesia, and the locals pride themselves on doing things differently. Our guide, Marie Louise, waded into the river, grasping the tin opener in one hand and a can of tuna chunks in the other. Right on cue, as the pungent smell of brine and fish hung on the muggy air a giant eel slithered out of a shadowy cluster of swampy bushes and threw itself snout first into the tin.
Soon there were 20 eels, each around six feet in length, wriggling and fighting one another to gorge themselves on the flakes of tuna. I had never seen anything like it; these fellows had blue eyes and long ears. All the eels were dark, though locals talk of eels with a pigment mutation that turns them bright yellow from time to time. They can live up to 30 years and travel up to 1,800 miles into the Pacific to breed.
To the islanders of Huahine the sacred eel is superseded only by the coconut in terms of respect and importance. The reasons are a little obscure to the outsider but there is no denying the tradition of the daily feeding ritual. Islanders say the eels, which have been on Huahine as long as man, keep the waters clean and free of pollution, eating rubbish and bacteria that grows on the riverbed. As the French bothered only sporadically to introduce filtered drinking water, this activity was very important and still is, to this day. The islanders go further, saying the eel, with its large gills, resembles a coconut tree, though this comparison was beyond my imagination.
After a few days on Huahine, the notion of sacred eels, and the mix of legend, tradition and otherworldliness they imply began to seem entirely natural. For Huahine is not a mainstream destination within French Polynesia. The majority of visitors to the region head for Bora Bora and Moorea, bypassing Huahine, which lies between these two magnets of the South Seas and 109 miles from Tahiti.
You won't find many signs for black pearls on Huahine. In fact you won't find many signs for anything. There are plenty of historical sites to visit but the islanders haven't got around to marketing them. Huahine is a place to buy a map, and head off the beaten track into the rainforest that covers almost the entire island, and spend time quietly cursing when you fail to locate a marae, or sacred ground of worship, among the dense thickets. It is an island of countless twists and turns. Driving past a creek one moment, we turned inland to see peat bogs and wading birds. The commercialism in other parts of French Polynesia could be a world away: around the island we saw families snorkelling for their fish lunch or at work in family-owned coconut plantations.
Near the village of Maeva we passed ancient fish traps, shaped like the letter V, which catch unwary mullet and jackfish. Along the edge of the water were a series of spectacular maraes, set by a creek, tumbling into the water beneath a wiry Banyan tree in the manner of a watery graveyard. Close by, we came to more than 30 maraes, set out along the riverfront in what is now considered to be the most extensive archaeological site in French Polynesia. The village was once the seat of royal power, and perhaps for this reason the missionaries made it one of their first tasks to build a larger-than-usual church that looks ridiculously out of proportion for the handful of present-day inhabitants. …