In the travel world, there are organized Journeys known as a FAM, a familiarization trip to introduce you to hotels or countries. Days packed with movement, multiple site inspections interspersed with elaborate dining. Numerous whirlwind days when I often can’t remember what town we were in or which hotel. I prefer to create my own fam trips! Some Journeys are imprinted by the people you meet along the way, a simple act of kindness or generosity that make a site memorable. My Lindblad National Geographic Orion sailing adventure from Papeete to the Marquesas was extraordinary but memorizing the harbors and multi-syllabic atolls and islands was challenging! The charming people of each village fashioned my memories, especially the women wearing traditional flower headdresses. An enchanting recollection enhanced by their unpretentious beauty and ever so casual descriptions on making these, by my standard, elaborate floral hats. Beautiful, welcoming and humble women, a true joy to meet them.
Passengers arriving in Tahiti are gifted with handmade floral leis when you arrive at the airport. Usually one spends a night in Papeete before embarking on an island adventure. The air at the nearby Intercontinental Hotel is heavily scented by trees and bushes that bloom year-round. However, it is in the remote Marquesas Islands where flowers are intricately woven into the fabric of everyday life. The beautiful women wear extravagant handmade floral headdresses. Often referred to as simply “hei,” the formal name for these headdresses is “umu hei.” A contraction of two Polynesian words, “umu” means aphrodisiac and “hei” is the Polynesian word for wreath. Women believe that wearing a crown of flowers heightens their sensuality and makes them more attractive to the opposite sex. Wouldn’t you agree they are charming?
You might also see a range of native flowers woven into the Tahitian headpiece, including hibiscus, frangipani or plumeria, and of course, the greatest symbol of the islands of Tahiti, the tiare flower. Everyone wears the fragrant white tiare flower behind an ear. If you wear the flower behind your left ear, the heart side, it means you’re married or taken or not interested in a relationship. Behind your right ear, it means you’re searching for love. And if woven in the hair and placed behind the head? That means “follow me”. The French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gaugin, inspired by the beauty of the Marquesas Islands and their inhabitants, did not fail to capture these flower-related practices in his paintings.
Flowers are an important part of the culture and history of French Polynesia. On the atoll of Fakarava, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and second-largest atoll in French Polynesia, we motored in to shore and rode bikes around the small atoll. Fakarava has 837 inhabitants; the main village is Rotoava. An outdoor Catholic Mass yielded a small parish of radiant bedecked women. Mass was a combination of French and local language, in a garden grotto due to construction on their church. Village women in brightly colored floral muumuu’s and straw hats festooned with brilliantly hued flowers quieted young children, fanned themselves and sang hymns. Some adornment made of dried leaves were just as attractive. It was Mother’s Day and the ladies would celebrate with a craft fair presenting their shell and bead jewelry. Photos and shopping, I was thrilled to spend more time with these artistic ladies.
On the island of Fatu Hiva, our welcoming singers and dancers were also bedecked in splendid floral headdresses. A village woman described the simple process: she picks a few garden flowers and assembles an elaborate wreath in a matter of minutes, it’s very easy! Obviously, a clever islander with years of experience. One of my favorite decorated women played a guitar in the welcoming band, a massive green leaf headdress drew all eyes to her.
Hiva-Oa, the second largest island in the Marquesas and where Gauguin is buried, presented a small museum shop where I discovered my woven headdress, the picture-perfect adornment for evening cocktails!
Tahitian headpieces, or Tahitian flower crowns, are common throughout the islands of Tahiti. Worn by locals in order to celebrate a special occasion or simply, celebrate the beauty of everyday life. While some Tahitian headpieces can be very elaborate, it is not uncommon to see a simple crown made only from woven ti leaves.
There are many types of Tahitian headpieces beyond the simple flower crown. Typically, you will see the more elaborate forms only in Tahitian dance numbers. The headbands are sometimes woven with palm fronds or tapa cloth which gives the headpiece structure. Intricate designs and embellishments such as flowing raffia, feathers, mother-of-pearl, or black pearl, are often added as well.