Alex and I are just getting ready to dinghy to shore when we see a powerboat approaching. Four guys are packed in the small yellow craft which is followed closely by an outrigger canoe with an outboard engine strapped to the back. We’re anchored outside the 200 person town of Hapatoni on the island of Tahuata in the Marquesan island chain of French Polynesia. The men are local Marqueseans and when they see us, one of them raises a plastic wrapped package into the air as they all join together in a loud cry. We would learn later that this is their battle cry. We would also learn that the package contained a rifle. Even if we had known these things, and even knowing that the last reported case of cannibalism on these islands against a foreigner was in 2010 we wouldn’t be afraid, because we recognize the man with the gun. It’s Heikua, our Marquesan friend.
We had met Heikua two days earlier while wandering aimlessly around the village. A voice called to us from behind some hibiscus bushes, and Heikua came out to greet us. His thick hair is cropped close, like most men here, and his unshaven beard grows only as a mustache and a bit on the chin. His arms are covered in tattoos given to him by a friend, and he had his name tattooed in Polynesian on his neck, so he can just point to it with his left thumb when someone asks him his name. He’s stocky but strong, always wears the same red tee with the arms torn off, chain smokes thin hand rolled cigarettes, and cradles a coffee can filled with marijuana wherever he goes. Heikua invites us to his backyard, where he makes carvings to sell in Tahiti. We’ve met a lot of artisans in the Marquesas, but Heikua is a little different. He makes all his carvings out of bone. He shows off some of his work: a jewelry box made of a cow femur, an incredible jewel inlaid necklace made of dog bones, and a three foot long rosewood topped scimitar made from a marlin’s spear.
Problem is, we’re not particularly interested in jewelry. After 23 days crossing the Pacific, and a week since we made landfall, we still hadn’t seen an open store or restaurant. Our food supply was dwindling, and “What should we have for dinner?” was becoming a running joke. We didn’t want jewelry, we wanted fresh produce, and told as much to Heikua. A trade was agreed upon; in exchange for the produce, Heikua asked that we bring him some thin cord and “medicinal” rum.
The following day, Heikua was waiting for us at the dock with two stalks of bananas. We hopped in his truck, not knowing that the rest of the day would be spent foraging. After brief stop at his house and the pig sty for feeding time, Heikua and his cousin Nicholas show us how to knock pommecythere from the trees by throwing rocks. Next to the sty, Heikua hacks a step into a banana tree and then passes the machete to Alex, who is instructed to climb the tree and chop it down about 10 feet from the ground. The fruit goes in the bed of the truck, and the leaves are fed to the pigs. Now we’ve got 3 banana stalks and a bucket filled with weird apples.
I’m curious about a squash-like vine on the ground and ask Heikua what it is. “Ahh, it’s a pumpkin. They’re very good. We use them in stews. You like pumpkin?”
“You like pumpkin?”, and “Would you like a pumpkin?” seem to have the same meaning. Having expressed that I do in fact enjoy pumpkins, we start the 30 minute drive to find one. Alex is in the bed of the truck with Nicholas, and I’m in the cab, beginning to get nervous because Heikua is trying to roll a cigarette while driving and the road is getting steep, beginning to switchback, and falling apart.
“You drive, yes? In America?”
He seems to mistake my hesitation for an inability to drive. In actuality I’m just nervous about where this line of questioning is going.
“You have a car?”
“Yeah sure, I know how to drive”
And so I reach over with both hands and drive us through the jungle while Heikua, having renewed confidence in me, doesn’t even bother to look at the road.
Just about the time the cigarette is rolled, it starts to rain. Seconds later, it’s pouring. It’s incredible how quickly things change. One minute we’re cruising down a dry dirt road, the next, every pothole is filled with water, streams cross the road every 50 feet, and Alex and Nicholas are soaked to the bone in the bed of the truck. The road pitches upward and we rise higher and higher. The view is incredible; the sun is setting below the rainclouds which have just begun to pour on us, and everything is covered in shadow and pastel sunset light at the same time.
Suddenly Heikua is shouting explatives.
“Putain Beoff! Ahh putain!”
He explains that while he owns 3 of the 7 cattle on the island, the other 4 are owned by a guy in the other village who lets his cattle wander down the road. They’ve eaten all the pumpkins.
Stopping at one of the switchbacks, we all hop out in the rain. Alex looks like he just came out of a swimming pool. The gravel road is etched into the side of the steep mountain, with cliffs rising above and falling below. The pumpkins usually grow right on the edge of the road, and you can see where the plants have been nibbled away to nothing.
Suddenly Heikua points out a grayish blob on a little ledge of rock 20 feet downhill. He motions for me to go get it. Go slowly he says.
I scramble down the hill, taking care to avoid any loose boulders. When I reach the pumpkin, I toss it up to Nicholas who is waiting, laughing.
On the scramble back up the ledge, a large rock detaches from the wall and goes tumbling down the hill behind me. Close call.
Back on the fairly solid road, the rain picks up again, and Heikua motions for me to follow him to the cab, while Alex and Nicholas search for more pumpkins. The idea is clear, Heikua and I are dry, let the wet ones stand in the rain.
When their pumpkin search turns up nothing, we make the half hour ride back to town in the dark. The rain has stopped when they drop us off back at the dinghy, and we thank them profusely for the 3 stalks (about 150 individual bananas), 30+ pommecythere, and the pumpkin.
After the fruit gathering adventure, we consider Heikua and Nicholas to be good friends, so when they showed up at the boat, toting a gun, and yelling battle cries, we weren’t alarmed. Their reason for meeting us at the boat was unclear however, until Nicholas pulled alongside Saltbreaker in the outrigger and passed a dead goat up to me by the hind leg.
“We were coming back from Vaitahu (The next town to the North), when we shot this goat from the boat, but we don’t have a knife… Do you have a knife?”
I start sharpening one of our longer knives, while Heikua strings the goat up by it’s hind legs from our sun shade. When everything is positioned, he reaches into his bag and passes out a round of still cold Tahiti brewed Hinanao Beer, and we settle in to watch the butchering. The powerboat driver takes the knife and quickly and expertly gets to work. Slicing from anus to head, he cuts the throat and lets it bleed out for a while, then scrapes off the skin. This isn’t his first goat butchering. I have Alex ask if they use the goat skin for anything, and minutes later, we’ve got a goat pelt drying on the bow of the boat. I have no idea what we’re going to do with it.
Next comes the gut sack, which the butcher has left intact. Heikua asks for a plate, and takes the liver and heart out before the rest of the viscera are dropped into the ocean. Under Heikua’s supervision, Alex slices up half the liver and fries it up in a pan. While this is happening, he explains to me that they eat the liver raw. I sense a dare coming. Taking the knife, he slices several thin pieces of liver and motions that if I eat some, he’ll eat some. Shit. While deciding whether or not to go through with it, Heikua reaches down, grabs a piece, and makes a loud slurping noise as he sucks the liver into his mouth. He winces a bit as he chews, finally swallows, and lets out a loud, “Ahh..”. I’m impressed. Then I realize that I never actually saw the liver sliver he took, just his hands. There seems to be the same amount of liver on the plate as there was minutes ago.
“I think this guy is trying to trick me into eating raw liver”
Not willing to be fooled, I tell Heikua that we have to do it at the same time, as I crouch down next to the plate. We both grab a slice, and stare each other directly in the eyes as we drop the pieces onto our tongues and start chewing, scanning each other for any sign of displeasure or weakness. The liver is mushy, but surprisingly tasty. After a few seconds of chewing, we’ve both swallowed and the dare is complete. Satisfied by my performance, Heikua explains that only true Marquesans eat raw goat liver, and forces Nicholas to eat it as well so as not to be shown up by a foreigner.
Heikua tries to get Dave Green to try next. “Just pretend it’s octopus shit. If you think of raw goat liver, it doesn’t sound so good, so just pretend it’s the shit of an octopus, and it tastes O.K.” He’s 100% serious. Some things just don’t translate across cultures. Nevertheless, Dave gives it a try, and Alex comes out of the cabin with cooked liver, only to be forced to eat it raw. When all the raw liver is gone, Heikua finally admits he’s never had raw liver before.
With Alex as translator, Heikua tells of a time that he and his friends took an outrigger canoe from one side of the island to the other. Halfway through, they decided to cut the engine and float in the ocean for a while. With their shirts over their heads to protect themselves from the sun, they floated aimlessly in the outrigger drinking beers.
“It’s like being here on your boat eating raw goat liver with Americans. Every once and a while you’ve got to do something different, you know? It keeps life interesting.”