South Pacific Travel Adventures Story

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Louis picked up a dry brown coconut with a tiny shoot growing out of it and chopped it in half. The milk in the center had turned to a cotton-candy consistency. It was fluffy and sweet. Children go wild for this dessert they call opaa.

As we headed back, twice the nose of the speedboat was buried by big waves and continued under water after the wave had passed. I screamed and the boat surfaced, half full of water. We rapidly bailed out the water with coconut shells as the boat slowly began to sink. Everyone was laughing. Islanders always laugh at danger or near disaster. I wondered if fate would be kinder to me if I laughed in the face of danger. I’d have to remember that.

Paniora guided the boat through a channel in a solid coral reef. In this shallow bright aqua lagoon, coral was piled to make a low wall for a fish trap. Bright blue and green striped fish flashed through the water in lightning streaks. We formed a human chain and chased the fish into a smaller walled section that dumped into yet a smaller pool. Fish were then easily scooped into a net and carried back to the boat.

Paniora’s real name was Ramuera Alvarez, but everyone called him Paniora, Tahitian for Spaniard, because his grandfather came from Spain. Paniora was from Takaroa, where his father had built a big cement house for him to live in when he got married. Paniora was 23, so his father figured it wouldn’t be long before he took a wife and the house was nearly completed.

This was Paniora’s last trip on the Namoiata. He had worked on it for a year as assistant supercargo. After a two-week rest in Tahiti, he planned to return to Takaroa for three months when pearl diving season began. He could make about $200 a day for the first two or three days and then less and less as the pearl shell became less abundant. He could still average about $60 a day until the end of the season, when it might drop to $10 a day, depending on the quantity of pearl shell he brought up. The inside of the pearl shell is used mostly for making buttons.

Paniora could dive about 10 fathoms (60 feet) without a weight, and with the 12-kilo (26 pounds) weight commonly used, he could dive 15 fathoms (90 feet). But he was still young. Some of the veterans dive 25 fathoms, or 150 feet. Since oxygen lungs were forbidden, some divers had developed their lung capacity to stay under water for three minutes. It’s a dangerous occupation and some men had been pointed out to me as being a bit loony from splitting a blood vessel in the head from staying down too long.

Next morning we anchored at another spot on Takaroa to load copra, the number one product of the Tuamotus. (Pearl shell held the number two spot.) Copra is coconut meat dried in the sun for four or five days. It is then packed into gunny sacks of 100 pounds each. The sack was weighed on a primitive scale comprised of a pole supported on the shoulders of two men with the sack of copra hung on a hook and balanced with a weight.

Sacks were then loaded onto a man’s sturdy back (often two or three sacks at a time), and carried to the rowboat. The sweet acrid-smelling copra was then dumped into the hold of the Namoiata. The precious sacks were returned to the islanders who kept them washed and mended. The Namoiata paid nine francs a kilo (roughly five cents a pound) for copra. The islanders don’t see much cash. Most copra is traded for staples from the ship.

As we came ashore, a reception line of some 50 people shook our hands in greeting. The handshakes were firm and friendly, the hands hard and calloused. At a refreshment stand set up on the beach, the islanders offered us thick rubbery crepes suzettes loaded with coarse mud-colored sugar. When I pulled out my money to pay, they laughed. The food stand was a friendly welcome to the island.

Rachael, Louis and I went off to gather coconuts. From a nearby hut, Rachael borrowed a 20-foot wooden pole with an iron hook at the end to pull down coconuts. While Rachael worked on one tree, Louis shinnied up another, as agile as a monkey, and twisted off some coconuts that fell to the earth with a deep thud.

Rachael tapped the coconuts with a flick of her fingertips. A hollow empty sound meant that the coconut was old (ripe), the meat half an inch thick and hard, and the milk very sweet. A heavy dull sound meant the coconut was young and the meat gelatinous. Rachael told me that coconut milk is the first food nursing mothers give their infants to wean them from breast milk. The easily digested young gelatinous meat is a baby’s first solid food.

Louis stuck an iron pole into the ground. He ripped off the green outer husk of a coconut by prying it against the sharp end. It looked easy until I tried it. The coconut was heavy and bulky and I lacked the strength and technique of working it on the pole. When the knife pierced the husk and suddenly appeared between my fingers, I decided it was a difficult and dangerous task better left to Louis.

A passenger from the Namoiata who lived on Takaroa, led us to a long stretch of rocky shallows on the other side of the island, where we gathered ma’oa, those giant sea snails the size of small oranges I had eaten in Takapoto. Gathering ma’oa was as fast and simple as gathering a bouquet in a field of wild flowers. Soon we had a few hundred ma’oa. We sat in the shallow water and cracked the tough shells by striking them with a heavy rock.

After watching Rachael do it first, I pulled out the writhing muscle and clipped it clean of the green and purple mass of intestines, and plopped it into my mouth. I managed to get down a decent number. Later I ate them with salt and lime and actually enjoyed them.

Rachael was the 26 year-old pregnant wife of Pona Bonard Utahia, chief of the hold. Well, not exactly his wife, but she had six children by him. They never had bothered to marry. Rachael had been his vahine since she was 16 years old. Rachael (pronounced Rah-SHELL) was an independent, practical, straightforward, and good-hearted woman. During the trip, she was my angel, my companion, and my friend.

As Rachael and I cracked snail shells, she asked me how many children I had. She had six sons, ages 7,6,5,4,3 and 2. She felt sorry that I had none and offered to give me her next child unless it was a daughter – and in these islands, that is a serious offer.

As I left the shallows, the strap on my shoe broke. I hobbled over the coral covered beach with one foot bare until Louis stripped fiber from a stem of a plant and intricately tied the shoe onto my foot. Later he found a nail and slipped it lengthwise through the thong. They were good as new – until the other shoe broke.

The local woman brought us back to her house, where she proceeded to weave a basket for carrying the ma’oa. She ripped off a coconut frond and tore off one side of the spears, which she cut into series of threes. When she had four sets of these, she interwove them. Within 10 minutes she had completed an attractive basket complete with handle.

As her hands deftly flicked away weaving, she did not look down at her work. She was completely absorbed in her conversation with Rachael, rattled off at a rat-a-tat clip in Tahitian. When she had quickly and expertly tucked in the loose ends, the ma’oa snails were loaded in. A cool wide flat green leaf covered them securely.

Then she stripped off another section of spears from the palm frond to make a hat for Louis. She circled it together and measured it on his head for size. Then she wove all the long spears until . . .voila! A Hat. The ‘string’ for tying, as well as all other materials necessary for making the hat, she got from the palm frond. She said she began weaving when she was 10.

Back on the Namoiata, the crew prepared such a feast that I sat on deck and ate with them instead of at the Captain’s table where such common fare as roast pork and lentils were served. The crew had caught some Mahi Mahi (dolphin) and Espadon (swordfish) which they cut into bite size chunks. They threw salt over it and squeezed on plenty of fresh lime juice. Immediately, the fish became slightly pickled, enough not to look or taste raw. Tomatoes, onions and cucumbers were cut up and mixed with the fish. The dish is called poisson cru (raw fish).

We ate it with our fingers after dipping it in a sauce made of half sea water and half coconut milk that was squeezed from freshly grated coconut meat. Onion shreds floated on top. Everyone slurped it up noisily, licking and sucking their fingers as if deriving nourishment from the fingers as well. Boiled sweet potato perfectly complemented the meal.

The crew also served some raw pahua, a giant wavy-shelled clam. I had watched them being cleaned and they had a lot of messy-looking innards that turned my stomach. But dipped in the coconut-sea water sauce, the cleaned raw pahua were delicious.

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