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Making Friends on Huahine

A chance encounter with a local made for a meaningful experience on this South Pacific island.

June 7, 2018
Making Friends on Huahine Amy Alton

It’s all too easy to be wary of a local vessel approaching your boat as you settle into a new anchorage. Half-way around the world aboard our Fountaine Pajot Helia 44 catamaran, Starry Horizons, we’ve had many boats approach us, but one stands out among the rest.

My husband, David, and I had just dropped anchor at Motu Murimaora on the east side of Huahine, in French Polynesia, and we were approached by a lone outrigger canoe. The young man smiled and waved. We smiled and waved. Wordlessly, he held onto our transom and reached down between his knees to bring out a waterproof box. I sat on the steps as he presented us with a bound book, which he opened to the first page, pointing at the name written and then at himself: Paul.

Then he flipped through to show us pages and pages of a guest book. We saw boat cards, drawings and handwritten letters to Paul, thanking him for their experience in his anchorage. Paul got to the first blank page and handed me a pen. I sat down to sign and tape in a boat card.

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We were unsure for a little while about Paul’s communication method, but soon pieced together that he is mute and probably deaf. Using grunts and hand signals, he invited us to shore to look around and pointed out the best places for snorkeling. I pantomimed a snorkel mask and pointed to my watch, setting our afternoon plans. Before pulling away, he reached farther into the well of his canoe and pulled out three young husked coconuts as a gift.

The next morning, Paul stopped by again with a gift of three papayas. I walked my fingers across the air, held up two fingers, and pointed to my watch. Paul enthusiastically nodded, and my afternoon plans were set again.

Seashells
Shell collecting in Huahine, French Polynesia Amy Alton

After lunch, I took my dinghy over to the small dock, and Paul came out to meet me, greeting me with a hug and flowers. He started by walking me across the motu, through a coconut plantation, to the oceanside beach. When we hit the shore, we turned right, walking along the beach as Paul showed off his home island. He used a stick to draw in the sand to show me how the motus are formed — the reef around a volcano building up as the water level rises and eventually becoming sand around the volcano. Over time, the ring is broken into segments by the flowing waters.

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Then, it was charades time as Paul told me about his life. He stood on the beach and raised his hand to shade his eyes, looking out over the ocean. He pantomimed spotting a boat, and then running to his outrigger and paddling out to meet them.

As I am wont to do when walking on a beach, I occasionally stopped to look at or pick up a shell. Paul caught on, and as we walked, he found me interesting shells: shiny cowries, black-and-white cone shells, even an operculum as big as my hand! When I couldn’t hold any more seashells, Paul found a coconut shell to hold my souvenirs. I stopped to poke around the tide pools and watch snakefish sea cucumbers filter the sand for their food. Paul even chased and caught a sand crab for me to touch.

The end of the island has a small tiki bar where the cruise ships bring their guests for an island experience. Luckily, there was no cruise ship in sight, and Paul and I had the place to ourselves to look out over the volcanic mass of Huahine’s main island.

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Amy and her new friend, Paul.
The author takes a break from shell collecting to pose for a photo with her new friend, Paul, who gave her a tour of his home island. Amy Alton

On the walk back along the inside of the motu, Paul pointed out his house and the main house of the plantation. He mimed gardening and swept his hand over the land surrounding the plantation — I think he’s the groundskeeper. As we walked through the plantation, he added to my keepsakes by picking me more flowers, plumeria and hibiscus.

Back on Starry Horizons, I laid out my goodies, knowing I had to pare down the number of shells I was keeping and hunt through the flowers for bugs. After picking out just a few of my favorite shells, I put the rest back and prepared a gift for Paul of gardening gloves and a T-shirt. I stopped by Paul’s house with my gift, and after a hug and a wave, we were off to our next destination.

Not only did we get a wonderful experience with a local, but this anchorage was one of the most beautiful we have seen in our 25,000 nautical miles of sailing. While a few boats came and went around us for a few days, we lucked out to have the clear water and pristine sand all to ourselves for one night.

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David and I were loath to move on, but the rest of the Society Islands were calling. We left Paul’s motu with the memories of a kind man eager to share his slice of paradise.

Amy Alton and her husband, David, finished their circumnavigation in March 2020. Her stories of adventure and advice are available at outchasingstars.com.

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