Chilling in the heat of the Gambiers & the Mission!

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Easter Sunday Mass in Saint Michel's
Easter Sunday Mass in Saint Michel’s

Sunday and we were in church and it wasn’t even a wedding or a funeral! We went to Easter Sunday mass to celebrate with more or less the whole Island. There were about 300 people in church at the beginning of the service. People seemed to trickle out as their favourite part of the service was reached or they got to hot or suddenly remembered the Sunday roast was in the oven or …. Anyway the congregation was down to about 2/3s of the start number by the final Alleluias.

The mass was a full on Catholic affair with smoke, swinging thuribles, flicking aspergills, dinging consecration bells, donning of Miters, offerings, first communions, the whole toot. I’ve never seen such a smoke kicked up by the thurbier before and had to do a bit of research as I thought that all the symbolism was fairly strictly laid down somewhere. The best that I can come up with is that they are still using some pre-1969 rule book here; or of course it could be that the French just do it differently and a little more thoroughly than I have seen before (my experience of Mass is not great)!

The Cathédrale Saint Michel de Rikitea which was opened in 1848 is an impressive building considering that it was built by the locals with no prior building experience but that taught to them by a couple of Lay brothers, Costes and Soulie, who under the guidance of Father Honoré Laval trained many locals in construction skills which they later took to Tahiti and other places in Polynesia.  There are several other churches and shrines around the Gambier islands; mostly apparently built on the sites of the ancient Polynesian holy places.

The Gambiers are bastion of Catholicism. Apparently (according to some sources) when Father Laval and his mission arrived in 1834 the islands were in state of famine, cannibalism and civil war the root cause of which may have been deforestation due to over exuberant logging. No ships visited as there was nothing of commercial value there though children apparently played marbles in the streets with pearls. Apparently you could trade a bag of pearls for a bottle of rum, you can still trade for pearls with rum but the trade is more like one pearl / one bottle, a good bottle too.

I have found contradictory stories regarding Laval and his reign; some set him as a saviour of a society in ruin but most indicate that him and his brothers destroyed a culture, 5000 died under the whips of the overseers as they struggled to build the churches, a monastery, a prison, a convent and all the trappings considered necessary by the church.

Whatever the reason be it disease, mal-treatment by the missionaries or black-birding by the Chileans and Peruvians the population that once flourished on the archipelago has not recovered and numbers around 1500 today.

As an aside: Some of the missionaries died in 1843 when their ship sank off the Falklands when they were returning from Europe. The ship was called “Marie-Joseph”; anybody have any information on that?

So what have the modern sailors been doing on their visit? Well we went to church, went for a short hike with the crew of “Zenon” that due to a missed turn became a long hike. We did a lot of laundry that we had hauled from Chile as we had no rain on passage we didn’t have fresh water to rinse our clothes after washing them in salt water so the laundry bag got bigger and bigger! We have done some maintenance, made mosquito nets for all the hatches and some sun- shades, Paula is working on a mark II mosquito net right now. We went shopping after the boat came in and stocked up on onions and potatoes again. We got our bikes out and yesterday cycled round Mangareva on a reconnaissance mission to see what was there for further expeditions to come.

The weather is hot, if you stop sweating it is because you are dehydrated, not because it is cool. We get up at dawn as that is when it is cool enough to work. Nothing happens at midday and then again at about 3pm we can start to move, go walking or biking. Paula dives into the water every now and again to cool off; I’m not so keen on swimming but a few buckets of water to rinse the body cools me down. We have a garden spray in the cockpit that provides a mist of fresh water to rinse the salt off with.

Wildlife here is notable by its absence. There are precious few birds; some kind of snipe, a sandpiper, tropic birds, and boobies. I have seen one little lizard, some rats, various flying insects a very nice big spider and that’s about it. A group of remoras has moved under the boat and come out every time you go on deck hoping for a titbit.

A remora takes a tidbit from Paula
A remora takes a tidbit from Paula

Other than that we are relaxing!! We’ll spend at least another week here before visiting some of the other islands (no big voyages, just a couple of hours to change island).

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