Yesterday was tubesteak day, thanks to Donald serving up truly hefty chicken hot dogs for lunch. Finn nabbed one and, on his round of wakeups, waved it in people’s faces.
“This is your wakeup!” He’d say gaily. Wibble wobble wibble. “Tubesteak wakeup!”
The tubesteak violence ran rampant. Anyone that stuck their face in the scullery porthole was whacked with a hot dog. And at one point I came into the scullery to see Signe on the floor, both hands clenched around a tubesteak that Finn was gripping the end of, trying to pull it away. Finn threatened to shove it down her shirt.
“Nai nai nai!” Signe hollered, 100% Dane, and yanked harder on her end of the unfortunate sausage. Those hotdogs were pretty tough cookies; it took a while to come apart, and they tangled themselves across the scullery floor, whacking eachother indiscriminately with bits of tubesteak, shrieking and laughing.
“What’s a tubesteak?” Bob from England asked innocently at lunch.
“This,” I said, nolding up the fat hotdog.
“Tubesteaks are very popular in New york.”, Topher interjected. “They sell them all over the place, from little carts. Though some are unsanitary…you have to take care about where you get your tubesteak from.”
“Tubesteak is America’s national dish. Everyone eats it.”
“There’s even a song and dance about it,” said Finn–the ship’s own Arlo Guthrie–and launched into a knee-slappin’ tune about the joys of tubesteak that would have done Woody proud.
Bob listened to all of this with wide eyed, polite interest. I couldn’t believe she didn’t get the joke; if she did, though, she played the best straight man I’d ever seen.
I’ve started work on my seabag. Many people are working on projects and the girls on board are making coconut bras. The ones with boobs small enough to fit in coconut shells, that is. Tomorrow we’ll be at Raro, though noone knows if we’re stopping there or going on to Aitutaki for a bit, and then sailing back. It’s the fifth; we’re not due back until the fifteenth. Even Kaptainen isn’t too sure.
It’s been a rollicking passage back from Tonga to Rarotonga, riding the tail of a gale for days now, winds up to 30 knots and 10-15 foot swells crashing against the sides of the ship.
Manropes were rigged for safety, for the first time since the Atlantic. The sea was nastier than it had been since the Atlantic, as well; the ship rolled and heaved to such an extent that even the fo’c’sle hands got green around the gills and lingered near the lee side of the ship. People were sick right and left; watches were shorthanded for a couple of days.
Even I had to firmly remind myself, more than once on the first day out, that I do NOT get seasick. And I don’t; I may have the sea legs of a drunken gannet, but I haven’t gotten seasick once all this past year, even in the beginning in the north Atlantic, even in the worst weather. Instead, I get sleepy. Cripplingly tired, struggling to keep my eyes open for about the same period of time that others are fighting sea-sickness and sleeping well-nigh constantly. I prefer it to nausea any day, though.
Leaving Tonga was a dreary process. It pissed down rain all day, torrential downpours interspersed by grey drizzle, and we were all out in it doing the work that needed to be done: lashing on deck, flaking hawsers on the galley house roof, even ospho-ing bulwarks and topsides where possible. I was soaked. My foulie jacket, its waterproofing purely theoretical, smelled like moldy cat-piss; but I had to wear it if I didn’t want to freeze in the blowing wind. It’d been a long time since I’d gotten chilly while working. I don’t like it.
Fortunately, the rain cleared after the first day and transmuted into splendid sailing weather, 20 knots from dead aft, big following seas pushing us along. But the captain chose to motor-sail rather than trusting to the winds; we’re low on crew right now, and unless we want to go to six-on-six-off watches, standard 4-on-8-off watches left us without enough people to handle sail if things got dicey. And with the wind and the swell, there was always the potential for broaching to, especially given that this boat steers like a pregnant elephant on ice in these conditions. So: motor sailing, to improve steering and reduce the need for sailhandling.
We’ve been tearing along at a terrific pace, for the Picton at least: 200 miles a day. The skies have been a splendid blue piled with white cloud, the sea a frothy churn of whitecapped indigo. It’s been a great sail, especially for the last passage. I don’t like thinking of the end that’s coming up, though I can’t help but do so, when on helm gazing up at the square sails backlit by a gibbous moon, or on lookout, gazing out at a sea lit by flashes of bioluminescence.
Eight of us walked aboard the catamaran Independence today, for an all day sailing and snorkling trip. Everything aboard was clean, white and shiny and modern; the antithesis, in some ways, of the Picton Castle.
Jenny greeted us: a pulangi (Tongan word for white person) who, with her husband, had sailed around the pacific and were lingering in Tonga, like so many other foreigners charmed by the country who came for a week and stayed for a year. She was a pretty brunette woman who had us make ourselves at home on her boat and served us all drinks. We lounged on the trampoline at the front of the cat as she motored out of the bay–Bay of Refuge, is the name, and a great name it is for the secure, protected bay–into the choppy waters of the outer harbor.
It was cloudy that day, threatening rain. The tropical depression we’d heard about was imminent. But it made for great sailing; the captain, a local man who’d been sailing for decades, unfurled the jib when possible. I lounged in the sun and wind, sipping a coke and feeling thoroughly entitled. I indulged in the evanescent feeling of privilege, knowing that the next day I’d be a grubby deckhand once again.
We moored off of a beach and all of us were in the blue, crystal-clear water as soon as the cat stopped. I snorkled around, enjoying the fish and coral as usual, and then we returned for a delicious lunch: curried chicken sandwiches, potato salad and green papaya cole slaw.
The captain and Jenny told stories. They both took turns telling the same story, which they had learned from different viewpoints:
The captain told us about a warrior in love with a woman of a neighboring tribe. He snuck in to visit her and they ran off together. When the woman’s father caught them, he pretended to be happy about the match, though secretly he planned to kill the man as soon as he could. He stole into their hut in the darkness and felt around their necks; his daughter wore a beautiful shell necklace. So he passed up the sleeping form with that necklace and killed the other person, not knowing that his daughter had given her necklace to the man as a token of love.
Jenny’s version: A warrior wanted the daughter of a neighboring king, so he raided the village and made off with her (unwillingly). He raped her and claimed her as his bride. The king came with his warriors to get his daughter back. After an evening of negotiating had failed, he snuck into the hut where the two of them were sleeping and killed the person not wearing a necklace…not knowing that the warrior had seen his daughter’s necklace, liked it, and took it as his own to wear.
Amazing, how much difference a bit of perspective can create. Guess which story was told by the warrior’s tribe, and which by the daughter of the king’s?
After lunch we motored off to another island, where we jumped off the dinghy and had the most AMAZING snorkling I’d ever seen. The islands here are limestone, sheer cliffs plummeting deep into the water. The reef was shallow but dropped off into the blue depths, all of it athrong with sea life animal and vegetable. We saw a couple of barracuda and some other lovely fish I’d never seen before, and I ached to be able to scuba down 20 or 30 metres to see what lay below.
Finally, we sailed and motored to two sea caves. We swam into them and looked up to a circle of sky ringed with trees high above, the stalactites of the cave seeming to support the walls of the cave like cathedral arches. It did seem like precisely the sort of place one would find long-buried pirate treasure.
We sailed past the place where the local Tongans had met with James Cook. Savvy sailors even 300 years ago, when his ship had showed up they’d directed him to an awkward and unsatisfying anchorage, rather than Port of Refuge. He left, soon enough, not realizing the splendid harbor and port just over the next island.
We arrived back in port at 5, tired, sun-reddened and wonderfully filled with all the things we’d seen and done. The rain started jut as the catamaran pulled into the dock–perfect timing.
How to describe it?
As we sailed towards the island, I had the eerie impression that I had been suddenly transported to Vancouver, BC. The sun was hidden behind a fit of cloudy gloom covering the sky, and before us lay a collection of dark green islands, limestone islands, through which we threaded our way. We sailed through deep channels between high limestone cliffs; if not for the palms visible to either side, I’d not have believed that we were arriving at a South Pacific island.
The islands I’ve been to are neatly divided into lands of steep and lushly green slopes, and exceedingly flat, sandy atolls. Tonga was a rule unto itself. It took us a while to find a decent anchorage in the extraordinarily deep harbor, a dull blue shading to emerald green near the shores; we finally anchored just off an island, a motu, across from the main town on this island of Vava’u, the northernmost island of the Tongan archipelago.
Yachts dotted the harbor, despite this being the off season. When the skiff delivered us to land on my first day off, we found the main drag well populated with funky bars and cafes, the majority run by expats from New Zealand, Canada, America or elsewhere.
It wasn’t a resort town. It wasn’t a tourist town.
I have been trying, for the last three days, to distill into words how extraordinarily unique Tonga is, and why it is that I find it so enchanting. I haven’t managed it yet. All I can do is offer snapshots of my experience, in the hopes that some of what has captured me filters through.
Tonga is a kingdom, the only south pacific island kingdom not appropriated by a colonial power. Unlike Samoa, Raratonga and other island nations, there is no external big brother pumping money into the economy; so it is quite poor, compared to other places. Yet, thanks to this independence, it has retained a unique spirit–an integrity–some ineffable quality, some strange continuity, some quiet certainty of its identity, that is lacking even in the island paradises of Raratonga, Aitutaki and Manga Reva.
Every family is allowed eight acres of land. The monarchy, one of the very few absolute monarchies left in the world, does as much as it can to extend health care and welfare services to its subjects. Still, it’s a poor country, and white people–pulangi, as they’re called here–are often sought after as husbands and wives, for the wealth they bring to a family.
All businesses must be owned (at least 51 percent owned, that is) by a Tongan. This has cut down significantly on encroachments by resorts and other external tourist industries. Tonga is proud that it is not a “resort island”; and it’s not. There are a few resorts around, but they are small, and haven’t affected the feel of the place too much.
I wandered into the Mango Bar during its anual staff party. Kendall, being the most outrageously social, popular and extroverted girl I’ve ever met (not to mention effervescently blonde), had not surprisingly been asked to be a guest judge of the staff games.
I sat at the bar and had a beer gratis of the management, and chatted with Joe, the bartender there. Joe moved to Tonga three months ago, having decided that this island was the best place to avoid the inevitable coming apocalypse. He had a variety of entertaining conspiracy tales and alternate histories to share; I kept my mouth shut, as is best in these cases, especially when the slightly squirrely raconteur is one’s bartender.
Kendall and I accompanied Joe to his house during the afternoon siesta. The town shut down more or less in mid-afternoon, and JB called Jason, a local taxi driver, to take him home as he did every afternoon.
Jason arrived in a van upholstered with a whimsical variety of polar fleece on the ceiling and walls–I sat beneath a strawberry shortcake blanket–and a row of CDs glued around his windshield as decoration, flashing rainbows in the blazing sunlight of the Tongan afternoon.
Jason entertained us with some local news: two brothers who had the unfortunate habit of attacking their neighbors’ cows with a machete, chopping off a leg for food and fleeing. They were finally apprehended when one of the brothers, enraged about something or other, attacked another man with his machete and cut him across the face. It was all the news in this small community of Vava’u, everyone thankful, for the most part, that their livestock were now safe from the depredations of two psycho machete-wielding brothers.
Joe was staying at the adventure tourism that a friend of his was running. he had a number of irons in the fire, as anyone who wants to make a living in Tonga needs to have (what with the yachtie season being only four months long). He’d bought a trimaran that he planned to fix up and give daysails on; he had his eye on another boat, and had his job as a manager at the Mango Bar as well. He was looking into starting a market for industrial hemp production, discussing the idea with a number of local big men in the agricultural arena and with the government.
Kendall and I hung out at his place, cooed over his adorable dogs, and took the winding wooden stairs down to the beach. I swam in the warm shallows for a while as Joe related tales of his time in Iraq and as an insurance adjuster. His house had burned to the ground, which had been one of the things precipitating his move to this island.
We headed back to the Mango with Joe around 4:30, and hung out there, chatting with other Picton Castlers, through dinner.
Eventually, Kendall and I left to wander through town and see what else was going on. There wasn’t much. It was trivia quiz night at the bar Tonga Bob’s, and we both showed up there just as things were getting going.
Unfortunely, I suffered an acute attack of over-socialization–I’d been hanging out with people for the last 12 hours–and I fled back to the backpacker’s hostel for some blissful, precious alone time.
The fore t’gallant yard broke last night. Snapped right in half just to the right of the irons. It was unexpected, but not truly a surprise; we’ve been cracking on for the last couple of days, and the yard’s old, and there have been times I’ve been up on the footrope furling and heard ominous cracking noises from the yard. Nothing like fear of a yard breaking to encourage lightning-fast furling, that’s for sure.
Fortunately it wasn’t horribly windy or squally, so we were able to wait till daylight to fix it. It took much of the day, but was fascinating to watch.
First they sent a large braided samson line up from the port main deck, and rove it through a block attached just below the royal yard. It was tied around the smaller portion of the yard with a rolling hitch, and then we all pulled on the gantline to lift that portion of the yard up so that the buntlines and clewlines could be removed, the robands attaching the sail to that part of the yard could be removed, and the lift could be removed.
Once all that was done, the starboard fore t’gallant brace was eased and the tip of the broken yard slowly went down to vertical. A long tagline attached to the end of the yard was sent down to the fo’c’sle head.
Once the sail was out of the way, the gantline was eased, the tagline taken up, Gabe on the upper topsail yard fended off the spar as it came down onto the fo’c’sle head.
Then the gantline was removed and hauled back up. The sail was cut off the other portion of the yard, the buntlines and other gear removed, and the sail gasketed up (with the clews nipped to the center) and sent down in its turn, also with the tagline attached.
Finally the gantline was attached to the larger part of the spar, the iron freed from the mast, and the larger part of the t’gallant spar sent down.
The foremast looks odd, now, like a smile missing a tooth.
The rest of the day was busy as well. Squally as all hell–in fact it was more than squalls, it was a pretty good-sized low that we ended up under. Grey skies, rain, and shifty wind. At one point I was on the well deck, staring up at the fore-mast, when the sails suddenly backed. I jumped up and made it to the main deck just in time to help brace yards around.
It was a great day, to be on galley, though. I got to stay relatively warm and dry, and even had a lovely three-hour nap in the afternoon. Dinner was tedious; dishes jumping every which way in the scullery during washing. I finally retired down below, savoring the warmth and dryness and considering what to have for a nightcap. I have a bottle of bombay sapphire and Mount Gay Rum…and, this being the South Pacific, absolutely no mixers. My tonic water’s long gone, and what frozen juice is left is vigilantly guarded for Sunday’s rum punch for marlinspikes. we’re out of drinking coconuts too, and so I was reduced to deciding between Bombay and Tang, or Bombay and Lipton iced tea mix, or tetley tea with powdered milk and rum.
Despite rumours flying about us staying an extra day, we did in fact leave American Samoa on Saturday. I spent Friday shipping lots of stuff home: my teddy bear, my favorite winter blanket, my foulie boots and a couple of sweaters, the majority of the gifts and souveniers I’ve acquired over the past year, and almost all of my books. I now have an actual chance in hell of fitting everything left into two bags for the flight home. I wish I’d found a box big enough for my flippers, banjolele and fijian head rest; then I’d truly be content.
American Samoa has DOMESTIC SHIPPING RATES. That’s right, bois and grrlz–I shipped my boxes home from the south pacific for the same price as I’d pay to ship them from California. Of course, it will take them two to three months to arrive back home; but no worries.
That’s been the theme of American Samoa: cheap. Cheap booze, cheap cigarettes, cheap pop, cheap clothing. The main city of Pago Pago (pronounced Pahngo Pahngo) didn’t have much of a South Pacific feel to it; it was in fact pretty ghetto, what I saw of it. As I didn’t have a car, and as the crime rate here is high enough to discourage riding bikes that don’t have locks on them (not to mention the potential for attacks by wild dog packs, as happened to Maia) I never did get out of town to see the wonders of wild American Samoa; and what with my luverly new tattoo, I didn’t go snorkeling.
Yes, ladies and gents, I now have a tattoo! A real, traditional, boar’s tooth tattoo.
It all started in Sadie’s by the Sea, a seaside bar favored by the Picton Castle crew because one of us had discovered the wifi password for their internet access. We repeatedly trudged the mile along the harbor to Sadie’s, past the commercial docks and concrete buildings that were losing the battle against encroaching jungle, past the piles of red-white-and-blue painted coconuts and lengths of storm-tattered red-white-and-blue streamers that had been put up for Flag Day. Flag Day celebrates American Samoa’s adoption by the US. Or “Dependence Day”, as we dubbed the holiday. Once at Sadie’s, safe from the incessant drizzle, we would fire up our laptops, tablets and smartphones…and bring their already tenuous internet connection to a screeching crawl. It was enough for email and facebook, though. Plus they had cheap beer. Sailor paradise.
Niko, the most tattooed man aboard, had his heart set on getting a traditional boar’s tooth tattoo: The ur-tattoo, the polynesian tatau from which the entire art of tattooing evolved. Victor, the secondmost tattooed man aboard, also wanted one. There are few people left in the world who can do this sort of tattooing and do it well; seven at last count, all of them in Polynesia. Victor and Nico huddled around a laptop, hunting them down across the internet in hopes of finding one here on the island.
These sorts of tattoos are said to be excruciatingly painful. The captian says you’d have to be nuts to get one. (He’d gotten one in his youth.) His fiance concurred, saying she’d rather go through childbirth than have a traditional boar’s tooth tattoo. Several other crewmembers looked both appalled and impressed when Niko announced his intentions. Niko and Victor were both dreading the pain of the process, even as they came across someone on the island who could do it for them: Wilson, his name was. He lived right here in Pago Pago.
Before I came aboard, I’d never wanted a tattoo. I’d never seen any that truly appealed to me. But over the last year I’d seen a wide variety of exquisite, curvaceous tribal polynesian tattoos on a great many people, and decided that this style was the one for me.
And if I was going to get a tattoo of this kind, why not have it be a real, authentic, traditional Polynesian tattoo? I always have have a weakness for hardcore authenticity.
“I want one too,” I told Victor and Niko as they were on the phone with Wilson, making an appointment to visit him. They were surprised, but counted me in. We made an appointment for Monday, our next day off.
We could have made it for Sunday–the ship allows you to miss a workday if you’re sick, your family is visiting, or you’re getting a tattoo–but Monday worked out better.
Wilson picked us up in a rattletrap Nissan. His apprentice, a massive young man. filled the front seat next to him. The three of us crowded in the back, and Wilson carefully negotiated the pothole-strewn road to his house. I’ve noticed that Samoans drive very slowly on bad island roads; they have a great respect for the shocks on their car, nursing them as long as possible.
The purple film on the car windows was peeling at the tops; the left hand back door no longer shut from the inside. Wilson smoked a cigarette as we drove, holding it by the window between puffs. Bob Marley blasted from the radio, urging us to stand up for our rights. We talked about boats, vacas, traditional navigation–Wilson, it turned out, was not only a respected tattoo artist but the president of the American Samoa traditional sailing organization.
Finally Wilson turned off the main drag, shifted into second gear, and climbed the long dirt driveway up to his house. The house itself was small, but clean and well-kept; there were dogs and chickens in the yard out front and a large studio in the back where Wilson did most of his artwork, painting polynesian designs on tapa fabric.
Despite Wilson’s reputation, despite the fact that he knew Ti the tattoo artist in Raratonga, and had been invited to tattoo functions in the States as a guest of honor, I’d had a smidgen of doubt about getting a tattoo. I didn’t have any personal references for the guy, after all. So I’d had some reservations…until I saw the artwork on his walls.
His walls were covered by countless polynesian designs. Turtles and birds, whales and dolphins and manta rays, swirling abstract constellations of polynesian symbols. Beautiful, every one of them. Subtle and poetic. Sexy and curvaceous and powerful, each one imbued with layer upon layer of symbolism, all of them executed with extraordinary skill and confidence. My doubts evaporated as I walked about his house, looking at his work on the walls, trying to decide which I liked most.
Wilson and his apprentice spread a grass mat on the living room floor. Wilson put on a traditional lava-lava skirt, made from a length of colorful fabric. He pulled out and organized his tattooing tools as his apprentice stuffed pillows into plastic bags.
The tools were very simple. A stone bowl filled with tattooing ink, and a bunch of tattooing tools. Take a stick. and attach a piece of tortoiseshell to it at a right angle with a brass eye. To the tortoiseshell, attach a sharpened piece of boar’s tusk, sawed into a series of infinitely fine needles, with a piece of fishing line. Voila: tattooing tool, ready to go. It looks very much like a miniature Polynesian war club. Some of the tools were wide, with eight to ten sharp points at the end; some were narrow, with only two to three.
Victor went first. He lay on the woven mat while the apprentice propped plastic-covered pillows around and under his knee, where he was going to get the tattoo done. Wilson sat down crosslegged next to Victor’s leg and pulled on latex gloves. He closed his eyes, and spoke a few words in Maori. Then he dipped the tip of the tattooing tool in ink and set it on Victor’s skin. Two or three light taps, to confirm the placement of the tool; and then the real taps, Rat-tat-RAT-TAT-TAT, embedding the ink in a long black line along Victor’s leg.
And yes, it hurt like hell. I heard Victor, veteran tattooee, hiss in pain. He breathed in short, hard gasps as the tattoo continued. Every so often, he would mutter beneath his breath: “Shit, shit, fuck fuck fuck dammit…”
The tattooing continued for the next hour and a half. Wilson pausing only once, briefly, when he hit a particularly sensitive spot on the knee and the pain overcame Victor’s ability to handle it.
I was next. Watching Victor in serious pain for an hour and a half hadn’t done much for my peace of mind. Wilson took a break, we all had a drink and a smoke as the apprentice re-bagged the pillows in fresh plastic and Wilson prepared a new set of tools. I pointed out the artwork on his walls I liked the most, asking for something like that around my left upper arm.
And then it was my turn.
I lay down and he started in on me. Tap. Taptap tap tap tap tap tap tap… It did hurt, but not as much as I’d expected. I do have a pretty stratospheric pain tolerance, and after a few minutes I had the measure of how much it would hurt. It was a constant, low-grade annoyance of a pain, rather than excruciating agony. I focused on relaxing, letting the pain wash over me, piercing my skin and running over it, spilling onto the grass mat and away.
It went on and on and on…one hour, then two. Time blurred and stretched. The pain grew harder to ignore. I lay on my side on the handwoven palm mat, plastic-covered pillows against my side, my ribs pressed painfully into the earth as Wilson’s apprentice pushed down on my arm, his fingers spreading my skin taut in preparation for Wilson’s tapping blows.
Finally it was done. I looked down to see a kite bird encircling my arm. The kite bird is beloved of navigators and fishermen, a bird of freedom and long flights. I’ve seen them many times gliding high overhead, their forked tails and wingspan reminiscent of pterodactyls. The bird was filled with all sorts of polynesian symbols: conch shells, worms, woven mats, spear heads, bird tracks on the shore, birds flying overhead–dozens of motifs, each with an individual meaning.
I was flying high myself on endorphins and excitement and relief that the tattoo was so gorgeous. Wilson drove us back to the ship, where Victor and I showed off our new decoration to assorted oohs and aahs and oh-my-god-that-must-have-hurts.
Now I’m fighting the urge to get another one while I’m here…
Today was a long day of work in American Samoa. Our watch was whittled down considerably: Maia was bitten by a dog yesterday while riding a bike. Her leg was bandaged up, and she was walking on crutches. (Always a challenge on a ship.) Dkembe was massively hung over and barely mobile.
So it was just three of us who were at 100% on today’s watch; and I got tapped for galley. It kept me busy, that’s for sure: doing all the breakfast dishes, making lunch (vietnamese noodle salad, shrimp scampi and deep fried plantains), cleaning all of the lunch dishes and pots, making coffee for the morning and afternoon kaffepauses, keeping the water coolers filled, making dinner (fish and chips, tropical style–fried parrotfish filets from the parrotfish I helped catch on Palmerston, and breadfruit fries, along with a potato quiche for the non-fish lovers and brownies for dessert. And homemade tartar sauce.)
And then cleaning up dinner dishes and pots, and cleaning the galley…for which I had help, thank god.
The heavens opened after dinner and we all ran about in the soaking rain, closing hatches and slacking rigging. I debated putting on foulies, but the rain was warm and I was already soaked, and my foulie jacket smelled like moldy cat piss, so I opted for a drenching in my shorts and T-shirt. Which needed washing anyway. Gabe showed up in his swim trunks, holding a bar of soap, to take a shower in the deluge. He enthusiastically scrubbed his chest and under his arms, all the while belting out “All the ducks are swimming in the water, fa-la-la la-LA-la, fa-la-la la-LA-la…”
I’ll miss tropical rainshowers.
I went snorkeling down at Duke hole with Annie today. Annie is the single remaining passenger aboard the Picton Castle. She is travelling with us to Samoa. She is in her fifties, with coarse blond hair and brown eyes that are lively, always watching what’s around her, always ready with a comment.
I’d asked around Palmerston about the best place to snorkel. Oddly enough, the kids did not seem to enjoy swimming; they would much rather play football, or volleyball, or walk around with eachother, playing the impenetrably absorbing games that kids seem to have an endless supply of.
If I lived on an island like Palmerston, surrounded by such glorious waters, I’d be in them every day.
So anyway, I asked Alex–a debonair boy of ten–about where the best snorkeling was on Palmerston. “Down by Duke’s hole,” he said. “Go down the road to the beach and turn right. It’s where the dark blue water comes all the way to the shore.”
I did as he suggested, meeting Annie on the way. We found the place he’d described to find an aluminum boat there, offloading a tank of diesel fuel for the island’s generator. It was a curious operation; a forklift sat on the beach waiting for the boat to approach. When it was as close as possible to the shore, the forklift carefully came down into the shallow water, threaded the two tines of the lift through strops going around the tank of gas, lifted the tank, and reversed onto the beach.
I went into the water. It was warm, with invisible currents of cool slipping by at intervals. It dropped off suddenly to about twenty feet, and I found myself surrounded by the most glorious coral heads–twenty-foot high mounds of coral covered in luxuriant underwater foliage, surrounded by an amazing variety of reef fish.
I still haven’t learned the names of the fish I saw. Which is all right; If I used the names here, none of you would know what I was talking about anyway. So suffice it to say that I saw electric blue fish, black and white striped zebra fish, fish that looked like Dory from Finding Nemo (as well as several other denizens of Nemo’s fish tank at the dentists’). I saw indigo blue starfish, and my favorite–schools of opalescent fish, some no bigger than my fingernail, that shimmered in cream, green and pink iridescence. Opal fish, I call them.
Schools of white fish were nibbling at the sea floor, their bodies at a consistent 45 degree angle, as if they were all continuing to swim downwards despite being hard up against the sand. Dark reddish black fish, fat-bodied and the size of my hand, came out to stare at me with a hostile, “what are you doing in my front yard?” sort of look. Two or three gaudy parrotfish swam by, as did tangerine-colored fish, green fish, fish with long proboscis-like noses…more fish that I can ever describe.
I dove down 20 feet to the bottom of the coral mountains, skimming along the sands. I swam over the tops of them, imagining that the delicate purple and gold-orange fronds were forests. If I looked close enough I was sure to see miniature people swimming in and out of the coral caverns within them.
Annie saw them first: Three sharks, none of them very big–they looked like reef sharks–but they did seem consistently interested in Annie, swimming towards her a bit, circling away, and then coming back for closer and closer looks. We decided the beach was the better part of valor and headed back to shore. A shame–I’d have liked to spend longer out there. Oh, we saw some sting rays, too.
We took the long road back, wandering around the island. Annie lent me her shoes; my feet, toughened though they are, aren’t up to the sharp bits of coral and rock scattered across the less travelled-by pathways of Palmerston.
We wandered by the school: two buildings, high-ceilinged and open and airy, with a state-of-the-art playground outside. All brightly colored and coordinated slides, swings, merry-go-rounds and jungle gyms. I tried to help Bob troubleshoot their printer; didn’t get very far, though.
We wandered through the less-inhabited western side of Palmerston, through groves of ancient and gnarled trees, some with trunks almost a yard across. What they were, I don’t know. Chickens rustled in the undergrowth, and once we saw a pig, huge and pink through the bushes.
I got back in time for (yet more!) compulsory dance practice. Or “dancentration camp”, as I’ve started calling it to myself. The “kuri mai” dance, which seemed so difficult at first, is finally solidifying in my mind through endless repitition. I may dislike dancing, but at least I’ll be able to do it well enough not to stick out like an uncoordinated sore thumb.
What I REALLY wish I could do? drumming. The drums accompanying the fast, hip-shaking part of the dance are fascinating. I was continually distracted by them, much preferring to watch and listen to the drummers than to watch the dancers shaking their hips to the beat.
There was a large base drum, and a collection of hollow logs rapped with sticks in glissandos of ticks and tocks. Held under the arms or across the tops of the feet. I feel my fingers twitching whenever I hear them, and I strain to unlock the sense of the rhythms. Are they improvised on a basic rhythmic ground? I don’t think so. Is it 3/4 or 4/4 or 7/8 time? No…It shifts from one to the other and back again. Is it a series of motifs strung together? Where are the repeats?
I’ve approached a couple of the drummers, hoping to learn how to listen to polynesian drumming the right way (and possibly learn to play), but it hasn’t been successful; I’ve learned a couple of rhythms, but neither of the men who let me use their drums were interested in teaching me much more about the nature of the drumming itself. About what the drums mean, how they work, the alphabet of rhythms and the grammar of how they work together.
Incidentally, I learned that there’s a large (2 and a half meter) grey shark that has been hanging around the island lately. It, unlike the reef sharks, is much more likely to consider humans a tasty little snack.
“Don’t go down by Simon’s place, that’s where’t hangs out,” one of the boys said.
“Simon’s place…is that down by Duke hole?” I asked.
“Yah, da path from beach dere go up to his house.”
I’d just finished two exhausting hours of dance practice at the yacht club. The yacht club on Palmerston is an open-air building with (surprise!) a corrugated tin roof. The posts and beams are made of whole tree trunks, curvaceous and weathered a silver grey. There’s a curving bar countertop underneath the shelter, a large picnic table, and two bathrooms, one with actual hot running water (when the pump and heating unit are turned on, and if the generator needed for both happens to be running).
All the women on the Picton Castle have been commanded to learn to dance. By the captain, no less. There’s a sing-sing tomorrow, and we’re expected to perform a hip-swaying, arm-waving polynesian dance.
It’s a long dance, and difficult to learn. Not least because the woman demonstrating the dance changes it slightly every time, and because the woman in charge of teaching us has no notion of how to teach a dance–her concept of instruction involves going through the entire dance, end to end, repeatedly, for an hour straight. No concentrating on the tricky parts. No concentrating on footwork, and then adding arm motions. No learning a section of the dance, and then another, and then putting them together. No; whatever this woman’s strengths are, teaching is DEFINITELY not one of them.
It’s very frustrating. Also frustrating is the fact that it’s compulsory; I wouldn’t mind learning a dance, and it is enjoyable learning polynesian dancing…but I have limited time on Palmerston, and I would like to do other things than practice dancing. We stepped off the boat today, and within 5 seconds were commanded to report to the yacht club, where for over an hour we sweated in the hot sun, practicing. Yesterday it was two and a half hours.
Finally, we were free. It was still daylight, and the remains of the day were mine to do with as I pleased. So what to do? I stood at the main crossroads on Palmerston. In three directions, I could see the gorgeous blues of the reef, fronted by palm trees and white sands. I could go snorkeling. I could play volleyball. I could hang out on the beach. I could wander around the island, visiting people.
Just then, Annie walked by. “Do you want to go fishing?” she asked.
Did I! I jumped at the chance. Simon, a weathered man with a moustache, and young Ned–a boy of ten–were piling a large net into a small plastic dinghy down on the beach. Donald and Annie were going with them.
Annie tripped on the beach on the way down, busting up her face and hands…so it ended up being just Donald, Simon, Ned and I.
We motored out into the lagoon in one of the ubiqitous little aluminium skiffs which every family on the island owns. The plastic dinghy with its net trailed behind us on a rope. Three or four long sticks with pointed barbs on the end lay in the boat as well. I wondered if I was going to be given my first lesson in spear fishing…but how was the net going to work?
I soon found out. I was told to don rubber boots to keep my feet and legs safe from the reef, and at a certain distance from the island we all jumped out of the boat into waist-deep water.
I hadn’t equated “fishing” with “swimming”, and was wearing my jean cutoffs rather than something aquatic-friendly; and the men’s size-twelve rubber boots slipped off my feet with every step; but even so, I soon got the hang of slogging through the water across the uneven surface of the reef.
We walked a certain distance away, each of us holding an eight-foot-long stick. Simon spread the net in a long curving line facing us, and at a sign, the three of us approached the net, smacking the water with our sticks to scare fish into it.
Success! We caught eight parrotfish, the smallest a foot and a half long. They were gorgeous fish, brilliantly colored–green and blue and pink and yellow striped–and I felt a bit bad as we strung them onto a line that ned had tied around his waist. But not too bad. This was so much easier than fishing on a line!
Ned and Simon gathered the net back into its little boat and we walked on, trying the same thing two or three more times with less success. We walked out to the edge of the reef at low tide, the rocks mere inches beneath the waves washing strongly by. Simon looked like he was walking on water. I tripped only once, getting a bit of reef rash on my left knee.
We finally headed back to the aluminum boat where it lay anchored, several hundred feet away across the dappled rainbow of blues which is the Palmerston reef. It was a long hike, and near the end, Donald spotted a shark circling nearby. It was a reef shark–not usually a threat–but given that we had several parrotfish spreading a trail of fish blood behind us, and my knee bleeding into the water as well, I figured that getting out of the water was a good thing. “Shark!” Is a very motivational phrase–I was the first one back in the boat. Ten-year-old Ned laughed at my urgency. “It’s only a little ‘un!” he said. Besides, we all had long spears.
We had parrotfish that night, sauteed in butter and onions. Some of them were delivered back to the ship as well. I hope I have a chance to do this again…especially if I can wear boots that fit. And I really want to learn spear-fishing.