Checking Into Our First South Pacific Port
After we had cleared customs, we prepared to head into town and report into the Gendarme.
We gathered our passports and birth certificates and the special form that the customs staff provided us to help check in with the Gendarme and headed to town. We had been told by one of the other cruisers that there was a small snack shop on the road to the village (Atuona) that we had to visit. They had ice cream. This made Phill's eyes light up. He had already been convinced that he would have to do without ice cream once we left Cabo. We put on shoes and filled our backpack and headed up the road to town. We found the snack shop with ease and hoisted our little bottoms onto one of their stools and ordered the skipper his ice cream cone. I opted for Sprite. I think Phill thought he had died and gone to heaven. Remember that we had only had freeze-dried ice cream on the crossing. Well we slurped our ice cream and Sprite and prepared to pay our bill. We had not yet been to town so all we had were US dollars. We asked, after the fact, if they took US dollars. The girl behind the counter did not speak English but did understand somewhat what we were requesting. She shook her shoulders and said sure. How much did we owe was the big question. She had no idea how much money we should pay her in US currency and we had no idea what the US dollar to Central Pacific Franc exchange rate was. Fortunately, the customs staff had also stopped at the snack shop for an afternoon beer and helped us out. They told her to charge us one for one. The ice cream and two Sprites totaled 650 CPF or US $6.50. This seemed outrageous to us but we had no one to blame but ourselves since we did not carry their money. Later we learned that there are no bargains in the French Polynesian islands. Everything is very expensive and the prices compare to what we were paying in California. Their local beer (Hinano out of Tahiti) was priced at 550 CPF (US $5.50) and Heineken was priced at 450 CPF (US $4.50). Figure this out if you can.
It is a good thing we stopped at this little snack shop because the village of Atuona happened to be quite far away and took us about an hour and a half to get there. We were walking, keep in mind that we had been at sea for 20 days and had to learn to walk all over again. Phill did better than I. He had the foresight to wear socks with his shoes. I had not had shoes on for about four weeks and didn't realize what this was going to mean the first time I needed to put them on. My feet were swollen and were not use to being confined within shoes. I smugly put on a pair of my deck shoes and began the sojourn to the village. About a third of the way to the village I became aware that I was going to have difficulty completing this hike. My feet were already hurting. Before we got back to the boat, about six hours later, my feet were raw. I had walked the skin right off of four toes, top and bottom. Now all I had to do was find the Band-Aids that I had hidden on the boat. As it turned out, all I could find were the Mickey Mouse Band-Aids that I had gotten as a joke for Phill. Let this be a lesson to me. These Band-Aids were not designed to stick, just look cute. It took about four days for my toes to heal enough to put them into regular shoes again. The best I could do in the meantime was wear sandals. As it turned out, they felt pretty good and worked fine for the future jaunts to the village. About half way up the road to the village you can look back at the bay. We stopped to catch our breath and take in the beauty of the bay. We found this spot to be perfect for taking pictures. We never miss the opportunity to take pictures of Mouse Pad.
Before we left the states, we had visited several bookstores to make sure we had as much literature on each of the island groups that we planned to visit. We picked up 'South Pacific Handbook' by David Stanley and several 'Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit' books. Although we have gotten a lot of use out of both of these reference sources, I prefer the 'Lonely Planet' books, They seem to have more of the information that we are interested in. The David Stanley handbooks tend to cater more to the tourist who travels by airplane. We spent a few minutes familiarizing ourselves with the village of Atuona before we headed into town. There is a small map in the book for the village. These maps show the tourist spots as well as banks, post offices, Gendarme, etc.. The book usually gives the business hours for the various facilities as well. As luck would have it, we arrived in town just as the lunch hour began. We have noticed that all businesses shut down for lunch and observe the same time schedules for lunch (11:30 AM to 1:30 PM). Being from Los Angeles, this took some getting use to for us. We are use to being able to use lunch hours to take care of most any type of business. One thing that the island businesses have over the typical US businesses is that they open much earlier in the morning. It is not uncommon to be able to take care of business at 6:30 and 7:00 AM. While we were waiting for lunch hour to pass we decided to explore the sites of the village. We walked to the art museum, the tourist center, Gauguin's House of Pleasure, the Jacques Brel Memorial, etc.. We located all of the administrative offices that we needed to visit so we could easily go from to the other without difficulty.
The first official stop we would need to take care of was the bank as we had no francs. As we waited outside of the bank, a line began to grow. As 1:30 arrived, we soon learned that business hours are much more informal than the US. The bank did not reopen until almost 2:00 PM. This turned out to be the norm. We were going to have to learn to be much more patient that when we were in the states. Once it became our turn at the bank a very accommodating clerk who spoke very good English greeted us. We learned that we could not take care of business using personal checks. They were not accepted anywhere in the French Polynesian islands. We also learned that we could not use our bank ATM card. They have ATM's at many of the banks but do not recognize our cards. We finally resorted to doing all business using credit cards. This was not the way we had planned to handle our finances on the cruise. We had spent the last two years paying off all of our debts and were pretty proud of the fact that we had zero balances on our credit cards. Now we were forced to use the credit cards. Unfortunately, there is a hefty service charge imposed by our banks when we do cash advance transactions. We had traveler's checks with us but not enough to last us for a long period of time. We cashed in some of the traveler's checks during this visit to the bank because we had not yet conceded to the fact that our credit card would become vital to us. For each transaction that is conducted at a bank a 400 CPF (US $4.00) commission is charged. Whether you are merely cashing in a $20.00 travelers check or requesting a $5,000.00 cash advance, the commission is the same. Our advice is to make your transactions worthwhile. These commissions can add up quickly. We also needed to post bond. We had a choice of a one-way airplane ticket back to our place of origin or a bond equal to the cost of a one-way airplane ticket. We chose to post the bond because we had no intention of using an airplane ticket in the near future and could not afford to have those funds tied up for that long of a period of time. Our bonds cost us US $930.00 each plus a non-refundable 5000 CPF commission. That was much higher that we had expected. That meant, if our calculations were correct, a round trip ticket back to the states would cost US $1,850.00 each. Guess what we won't be doing much of in the next year. That's right, flying back home for visits. We posted our bonds at Bank Socredo. Based on the tour guides, this bank was pretty prevalent throughout the French Polynesian islands. The US dollar exchange rate at the time was ten to one (100 CPF to 1 US dollar).
Once we finished our banking, we headed to the Gendarme's office to officially check in. This process turned out to be very straightforward and yet another pleasant experience. We were given the same form as previously provided by the customs officers. We explained that we had already completed one of these forms. We were asked to complete this one as well. No problem, we prepared another one. We showed the specially prepared form that we had been given by the customs officers, indicating that we had nothing to declare and had already cleared customs. This caused a little confusion as it was out of the norm, procedurally. Once we completed the form and presented our passports, we were instructed to go to the Post Office to purchase visa stamps. The stamps were sold in 30-day increments. Each 30-day stamp costs 1000 CPF. As we were allowed to stay in the French Polynesian islands up to 90 days (you can petition for an additional 90 days) we bought three stamps and took them back to the Gendarme. Phill, being a British citizen did not need a visa. We presented the stamps to the Gendarme. He affixed them to my passport and stamped each one and signed the passport. We were officially checked in and ready to explore the rest of the village.
While we were on our way to the Marquises Islands, we tried to use our High Frequency radio to check the cruiser's networks. We had learned that there were several nets that came on regularly. These nets were to help cruisers check on each other and to hail help if necessary. We were anxious to hear other cruiser voices and to become more familiar with the cruiser's procedures and life styles. Both Phill and I are licensed HAM radio operators so we felt we were prepared to participate in these nets. We only lacked experience. How better to get the experience than to tune into the frequency and introduce ourselves. We did attempt to do this twice while we were en route to the Marquises. On both occasions we were advised that our HAM license did not allow us to communicate on the radio. We could listen but could not transmit. We explained that we merely wanted to let someone know that we were on the seas and to have a record of our location and travel conditions in case an emergency should arise. We were told that the networks could be of no assistance and we were told to not transmit on these frequencies. Needless to say, Phill was not happy. We did not know that being only 'No Code Tech' HAM operators restricted our use of the HF radio. On one of these occasions that we attempted to participate in the nets, another cruiser advised us that we could get diesel fuel while in Hiva Oa and could get our reciprocal HAM license. Once we had our reciprocal license, we could then participate in the nets. On our first visit to town in Atuona we looked into getting our reciprocal licenses. Unfortunately, the Telecommunications office issued the licenses and they were already closed. They would be open tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM. The next morning we hauled our weary bodies back into town and applied for our reciprocal license. All we had to do was complete a form, indicating what radio equipment we had aboard Mouse Pad and provide a photocopy of our HAM license. Only one of us needed a reciprocal license. It was really a license for the ship, not the operator. We were told to do a little sight seeing and return in a couple of hours to pick up our reciprocal license. There was no fee for this and it was ready as promised.
We also purchased a telephone card from the Post Office. You cannot use your telephone calling cards from the French Polynesian islands. There is always a telephone booth conveniently located but they require prepaid telephone cards. You can purchase these cards from a variety of sources, (Post Office, markets, gas stations, etc.). The cards are sold in 30 unit increments. Thirty units cost 1000 CPF. I bought 60 units in Hiva Oa and telephoned home to let everyone know that we had arrived safe and sound. We were 3500 miles from home and it had been a month since we had talked to family. This first phone call was pretty special. I now felt ready to begin relaxing and was ready to enjoy the beauty of the islands that surrounded us.
While we were wandering around the village, taking care of business, Phill began using the little bit of French that he could recall from his youth. Every once in a while he would slip and answer someone in Spanish instead of French. Boy are we confused. We only hoped that they weren't offended by these answers. I wonder how many other cruisers find they use Spanish instead of French.
NOTE: Comments and suggestions should be sent to Jerry Reese, Council Bluffs, Ca.
Created by the Skipper of Mouse Pad.
Copyright © 1995-2005 All rights reserved.
Revised: 19 September, 2005 .