French Polynesia Headdress

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.

French Polynesia Floral Headdress and a tattoo!

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?

Young girls learn their native traditions at the visitor welcome performances

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.

Mothers Day on Fakarava at the craft fair

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.

Fatu Hiva – what an amazing headdress and flower behind her left ear

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.

Hiva-Oa local woman with garden flower headdress, which she assembled ‘in minutes’!
American Tourist who purchased her woven headdress on Hiva-Oa.

Tombs, Scarabs and Negotiating in Egypt!

In ancient Egyptian religion, Egyptians viewed the humble dung beetle as a symbol of renewal and rebirth, they used scarab amulets to protect the living during daily tasks and the dead as they journeyed to the afterlife. The scarab (kheper) beetle was one of the most popular amulets in ancient Egypt because the insect was a symbol of the sun god Re.

Since my first African Journey, I’ve been fascinated and somewhat infatuated with dung beetles. Their lifestyle is not particularly attractive, Scarabaeus sacer are known for their peculiar habit of rolling balls of dung even larger than their actual size and depositing them in their burrows. Once there, the females lay their eggs inside the dung balls that would serve as nourishment for the larvae. Once totally consumed, young beetles would emerge from the ground suggesting they came from nowhere. In Africa, they are enormous bugs with striking iridescent bodies, awfully intent on rolling the dung ball up and down hills and through fields.

In Egypt, the beetle was associated with the divine manifestation of the early morning sun, Khepri, whose name was written with the scarab hieroglyph and who was believed to roll the disk of the morning sun over the eastern horizon at daybreak. 

Valley of the Kings, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62)

The ancient Egyptians believed that these beetles came from a spontaneous birth from the burrows. This made the populations worship them as the Khepera or “He who came forth” – an aspect and function associated with creation god, Atum. One needs a degree in Egyptology or a detailed spread sheet to keep track of all the Egyptian gods. I’m certain our very informed guide, Haytham, frequently detected glassy gazes when he enthusiastically inquired ‘do you remember this God, Horus who…?’ Tracking the deity, Kings, Queens, mothers of, is mind boggling, particularly on 8-hour tour days in the hot Egyptian sun.

Valley of the Kings, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) Beetle hieroglyph in left panel

Oddly enough, these critters do indeed have impressive celestial powers. Dung beetles, like the scarab, are astonishing navigators that actually use the sun as guidance when moving their dung balls. Rolling the dung ball along, the beetle will periodically stop, scramble atop its prize, look around to orient itself, and climb back down and start pushing the ball once more. Part of my fascination in watching them in the bush. They are frankly proud creatures which is evident if you observe them.

Valley of the Kings, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) Beetle hieroglyph in upper left panel

I knew the tombs in the Valley of the Kings would have an abundance of scarab hieroglyphs. While touring the museums and temples, I was on the prowl for scarabs and ultimately when ascending into the important tombs, we spotted many. I hoped to find an extraordinary scarab memento. In an alabaster factory near the Valley of the Kings, appropriately named Hapi Alabaster, it was chock a block with objects, some rare, some not so much. Egyptian shop owners are slightly assertive; however, I take my time, contemplate and evaluate. Wandering with our group, the shop owner asked if I would like to visit the room of antiquities – at this point in conversation, any seasoned traveler should depart! A guide will always negotiate, and one understands the guide will also profit for delivering a customer. The firms we work with are particular about tourist shopping, I tell our teams – we want authentic items, and for most trips, never a rug shop! In the ‘antiquities’ room behind a closed door, I discovered an exquisite bronze Anubis canopic box, the sides adorned with vivid lapis scarabs, a jackal sits regally on the sliding top; uncover the lid to discover four small urns with animal heads used to hold body remains in mummification. Frequently seen in the tombs and museums, canopic jars were used by the ancient Egyptians during the mummification process to store and preserve the viscera of their owner for the afterlife.

The canopic jars were identified and protected by four different gods who were the sons of Horus. The names of the Sons of Horus were Imsety, Hapy, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef. The canopic jars were four in number, each for the safekeeping of particular human organs: the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver, all of which, it was believed, would be needed in the afterlife. There was no jar for the heart: the Egyptians believed it to be the seat of the soul, and so it was left inside the body. It’s important to remember that the Egyptians understood their cosmos in terms of cycles, so death was necessary for regeneration and life to continue.

I was besotted with the bronze Anubis canopic box with the lapis scarabs, however, I didn’t want to reveal my enthusiasm, I made a small mound of chosen objects to ponder. The owner asked, would you like to see the secret room, my late father’s private collection? Did I mention depart when one hears certain phrases?  I exclaimed: you are selling your father’s treasures? Calling to one of my travel friends, come to the secret room!  We entered another closed-door storeroom; poking through a cardboard box, I unearthed a small scarab. A hand carved bone scarab wrapped in silver, with carvings on the back. I’m ready to depart, time to negotiate!

Anubis canopic box with lapis scarab

Our brilliant guide, Haytham, began the negotiations– i.e. shouting at the shop owner to gift me the scarab and lower the price of the box – she owns a high-end travel firm, she will send her clients – that’s all I deciphered from the negotiations – in the end, I received the little bone scarab as a gift and paid for the Anubis with blue lapis scarab canopic box. Our small group of agency owners stood agape at the ‘transaction’ some were also purchasing and Haytham again shouted, they own agencies! When exploring Cairo a few days later, a local guide told me the scarab was a fine piece of jewelry, she had never seen such a lovely scarab… I love it and was thrilled to have a professional endorse my diminutive scarab.

Bronze Anubis canopic box with the lapis scarabs

The beetle itself was a favorite form used for amulets in all periods of Egyptian history. Scarabs may be made from a variety of materials including carnelian, steatite, lapis lazuli, basalt, faience, limestone, schist, turquoise, ivory, resin, turquoise, amethyst and bronze. Hundreds of thousands of these artifacts have been excavated in Egypt.

A winged scarab might also be placed on the breast of the mummy, and later a number of other scarabs were placed about the body. Perhaps my little scarab will be entombed with me, not certain if the Canopic jars are practical though, I will leave that up to my son!

Bronze Anubis canopic box with the lapis scarabs – the canopic jars from inside the box

Valley of the Kings, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) Anubis Black Dog Jackal Egyptian God of Underworld 

Anubis is known as the god of death and is the oldest and most popular of ancient Egyptian deities. The ancient Egyptians revered Anubis highly because they believed he had tremendous power over both their physical and spiritual selves when they died.

Valley of the Kings, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) Anubis Black Dog Jackal Egyptian God of Underworld