Thursday, March 26, 2009

February 28 – Jeudi – Tupuai

“So you are interested in fishing techniques? What books have you read? Did you read Sinoto? No? Do you speak French? No? Then what are you doing here?” This is the volley of questions that the Crazy Guy fires at me as I first chat with him over the gas pump at his service station in the village. In the face of this fusillade I first feel a bit like the coconut palms in Manihi during the squalls; swept back and agitated. Then I get a bit indignant and in the firmest possible way advise him that I am a Scientist, so back off, and if fluency of language was the condition of learning about other cultures, we would learn precious little about each other on this earth. He seems a bit mollified and agrees to see me at his house a little later in the morning. This does not seem so good.

So at the appointed hour I pedal the 20 minutes to his house, a low-slung affair with a nice front yard hidden from the road by a tall hedge. There is the front porch which opens onto the office of the Crazy Guy, and one crazy office it is. The walls are filled with bookshelves stuffed full of old books with gorgeous gilt bindings, the floor is covered with dusty cardboard boxes and the desks bear a respectable load of esoteric clutter and many computer monitors. The ice of our previous meeting is quickly broken, and I get the sense I have just met someone very, very interesting. And indeed Larry Miller (for that is his name) turns out to be this and much, much more. Ok, for just a taste go ahead and google Miller + Tubuai and spend even 10 minutes looking at his site - you’ll get an idea of what kind of expansive, creative, inquisitive and obsessive mind we are talking about here. He is, in his own words, an ex-hippie from Vancouver, Canada, who stumbled on these islands about thirty years ago on a quest to realize the lifestyle of his dreams.

He is an ex-hippie all right. And by this I mean that he possesses an organized and almost obsessive approach to his undertakings that doesn’t quite square with our notions of hippiehood. An example: He first tried the Marquesas Islands where he lived in Nuku Hiva for about six months. He found the place (where he built a large tree house for himself, by the way…) too hot and buggy, so he conducted a very thorough climatological study of the Polynesian Archipelago complete with amounts of insolation, rainfall, average day/night temperatures etc. All this is meticulously and artistically recorded in one of his notebooks that are beautifully illustrated and generally fit for publication as a series of books. But I digress… He eventually settled in Tupuai and has lived here with his enchanting family since the early 80’s.

After settling and buying some land, he became obsessed with the past of the island. It is easy, to become obsessed with the past here. The past is everywhere. You stub your toe in it walking in the fields and the woods, your eye catches it in the construction of the canoes and you hear it in the names of the children, named after ancestors. So Larry, in his unique way, starts to study up on the past and collects a library that contains pretty much everything worth reading on the Austral Islands. Simultaneously he sets about to collect all the loose stone adzes, fishing net weights, mortars and anything else that spontaneously pop up from the earth when the fields are plowed for spring planting. The results are impressive, and I again urge you to take a look at his website. Though not formally trained in archaeology, he has nonetheless participated in a number of professional digs on the island, and has presented some of his own findings in international professional meetings.

Needless to say, I learn a lot from him. Examples: in a good account from the 1840’s, the island’s population was reduced by disease to a mere 140 inhabitants. That the majority of the stone tools so readily found around here are really not that old; the people of Tupuai actually preferred their stone adzes to the European iron axes when first comparisons were made and produced them until well into the 19th century. That the island speaks Tahitian because the original language of Tupuai did not survive through the epidemics and the early missionaries. I could go on, but you get the idea.

After some hours of conversation he jumps up and pulls me along for a tour of the best Marae (ancient temple) of the island. After inspecting it and receiving his guided tour, he drags me to a neighboring potato field that has just been plowed for planting. He tells me he has found all sorts of artifacts on this particular field and others just like it. We walk up and down the furrows under the blazing early afternoon sun, the red volcanic soil turning to dust under my shoes and sweat dripping and stinging my eyes. And then I spot this grey shape in the midst of the red earth and pick up a half of a broken adze. I pick it up stunned by the discovery, and excitedly examine the area around me. When I locate the absent rear portion even Larry is a bit surprised; in his experience you don’t generally find the missing half. We keep walking the field for a bit longer before yielding to the heat of the sun and pile back in his pickup truck.

Next stop is Larry’s plantation, his 10-acre plot on the mountainside partially prepared for building the villa of his dreams and partially planted with fruit of every imaginable kind, from grapefruit to grapes. At this point we are getting along famously, and I get an invitation to join the family for a dinner out to celebrate the birthday of his daughter. I gladly accept and spend a very pleasant evening with this lovely family at the only restaurant on the island.

I return a couple of days later to view his collection of artifacts, which is quite extensive. He is preparing to transport it all to a small office at the municipal building, eventually to be organized as a local museum. The collection, now piled in five large plastic tubs, is extensive enough to have attracted a visit by Yoshi Sinoto, the noted Polynesia expert and archeologist from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. In classic archeological thought, the value of an artifact mostly stems from the context in which it was found; other artifacts, dwellings, food remnants, burial arrangements etc. It is Larry’s thesis that when you find tools by the bucket load, even with no context other than a modern potato field, you can still study the artifacts themselves in an organized way and derive useful information from it all. He calls this the field of implementology, and has since moved on to apply this to bookbinding tools in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. Hence the books in his lair. Really – google Miller + Tubuai.

Larry may be the island’s pre-eminent authority on the pre-contact Tupuai, but hardly the only person interested in the past. My stay coincides with a youth event at the local protestant church and I have the opportunity to attend two evenings’ worth of dancing, singing, playing and instruction in some traditional fishing techniques. Yes, the good people of Tupuai are educating their young in things traditional, and the said youth seem genuinely interested. Yes, there is still a back row of the sullen types melding minds with their Gameboys, but overall the vibe is entirely positive and not forced. I mean we are talking about 5 year olds learning how to tie together a basic hook and line setup and how to use it, with the adults telling me they do this because Tupuai lives from the sea and it is necessary for the next generation to know these skills. I am impressed by the spirit of togetherness and all the music and dance that comes from everyone of the 200 or so assembled parishioners.

Oh, and why Crazy Guy? He calls everybody that; everyone is a crazy guy to Larry, even when he addresses them in French. Ça va, crazy guy! And who am I to argue with him? This small island has four churches of all the denominations around. This translates to 20 places of worship, divided amongst the faithful Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Sanitos (a reform Mormon sect) and 7th day Adventists. I’m talking to an ex-hippie who collects and studies rare old European books and dreams of tree houses. Meanwhile the said hippie is talking to me, an expat Finn in a French and Tahitian-speaking land who is doing the rounds talking to people about fishing. The situation seems surreal enough to warrant his point of view. You go, Crazy Guy!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

February 25 – Mercredi – Tupuai

If you go to Google Earth and look for Tubuai, you’ll find an image of an island in a state of slow transformation. Like Bora Bora, Tupuai features a worn-down nubbin of an ancient volcano at its center, surrounded by a continuous reef encircling a shallow lagoon. In a mere couple of million years, the remnant mountain will complete its disappearing act through erosion and subsidence of the island leaving behind the ever growing living coral ring of a mature atoll island. Tupuai (the original Polynesian name transformed to Tubuai in European mouths, like PoraPora to Bora Bora) is part of the Australs Island group, and is both the largest and most populated. No metropolis by any means with just about 3,000 souls, the island sits almost directly on the Tropic of Capricorn and some 350 nautical miles south of Papeete.

This much I knew, having done some basic homework on my next stop. One of the best parts of my travels thus far has been the meeting of new people in the circumstances of “Hi. A friend of yours said I could come and stay in your house for the next 10 days. Is it ok? He did call you, right?” This time the first meeting plays out at the Papeete airport, as my Tupuai host(ess) is slated to take the same flight there with me. I have her cell phone number and dial it in the Air Tahiti waiting area, scanning the rows of waiting people for a woman answering a cell phone. It works! I spot her, wave, we smile, and I introduce myself to Chantal Tahiata and her adorable three-year-old daughter Tapaeru. Chantal is a kind, elegant woman in her forties, a member of the Polynesian Assembly (think of her as a congresswoman) and the chair of Union Pour La Democracie (UPLD), an alliance of parties currently forming the senior partner of the sitting government. In short, she is someone in the political scene of French Polynesia!

[Tapaeru says hi!]

Chantal is returning to Tupuai after a prolonged, three-week absence. The government here has been in a state of acute crisis for more than three months, a crisis that has just seen a dramatic resolution through the election of a new president by the assembly (the head of government is elected by the assembly, not by direct popular vote; come to think of it, to make any sense of this week I’ll have to make my next post all about politics). Everyone in Tupuai is intensely curious to talk to her about it in a scene that might feature an Electoral College battle for the US presidency, and the coming home of one of the electors to explain what on earth happened. Accordingly, waiting at home is not just husband Thierry but a stream of family and friends and the gathering around the dinner table is large. The political talk is conducted in Tahitian and French, so on this first pass I catch very little. Chantal and Thierry’s home is a family homestead in the village, a large house built by Chantal’s father who was also a prominent politician. The walls and shelves are full of paraphernalia of a life spent in the public arena, complete with pictures from photo-ops during visits by foreign dignitaries. By any standards these digs are comfortable, after Manihi they seem downright luxurious; a large room with high ceilings and windows open onto a beautiful garden, a king-size bed with pillows and very comfy sheets.

The next day we go for a little tour of the island with Thierry and Chantal. I say a little tour advisedly, as you don’t conduct a big tour on an island this small. Only about 10 miles wide, the roughly oval island is ringed with a reef some 3 miles distant from the shore. There is a road that runs along the shore around the island, and another one that crosses over a low spot close to the middle of it, but that is it. All human activity is centered around these two roads, leaving the mountainous middle pretty much empty. We drive on the ring road and cut through the middle, occasionally stopping to chat with people or take in some sight as suggested by Chantal and Thierry. Because the island lies right on the tropic line, the climate here is more temperate than Tahiti. Vegetation looks different, and there is a fair amount of agriculture going on here. Veggies like taro, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage and lettuce are grown here for export to Tahiti though from Chantal I learn this to be in decline due to competition from New Zealand and Australia.

The shore, a pretty continuous stretch of narrow beach, is dotted here and there with fishing canoes and groups of small aluminium skiffs. I’ve been told of three particular fishing specialties on this island and am looking forward to getting on the water to see these in action. There is a hitch, though. Thierry is a broken man. He is a passionate fisherman himself, someone whose weekly life and state of happiness have revolved around going out on his boat every weekend in search of big fish. Alas, his boat sunk about two weeks ago. Or I should say it was sunk two weeks ago, sunk by a big, bad marlin ramming the boat. Yes, I’m not kidding about this, though the details are a little sketchy. It seems Thierry had lent his boat, a 20’ potimarara with a 110 hp outboard, to some French friend who had been taking it out occasionally during the week when Thierry was working at his day job with the electric company.

It is this friend who was responsible for the calamity and whose testimony is the only record of what actually transpired with the fish. Either the fish actually rammed the boat, or the boat was swamped trying to get it on board, the crew of two eventually swam some undisclosed number of miles to shore. Initially I am completely skeptical about any of these stories, and then Thierry shows some photos of marlins he has caught on his boat and then I believe. These are some seriously big fish, the largest weighing in at over 400kg. Yes, over 800lbs. The fish are huge, and Thierry, as I mentioned, is deeply distressed. Mostly over not being able to fish, but also deeply disappointed at the loss of the boat, the motor and some serious amount of big fishing gear. Oh yes, and the disappearance of the “friend” who has since departed for France.

And then again, from my selfish perspective, this may be a blessing. You see Thierry had planned to take a few days off to go fishing with me. As wonderfully generous as this would have been, it would also have placed me squarely in the world of modern chase for the trophy game fish – something not really in my program. So now I am free to go with the little guys on the little boats to fish on the lagoon. Indeed this begins on Monday with a demonstration of one of the Tupuai fishing specialties I mentioned earlier, the collection of Pahua, or the giant clam.

Giant clams (or genus Tridachna) aren’t all giant. Some species are quite modest in size, about the size of a very large quahog, while others do indeed grow to be some half a meter in width. Like corals, they harbor endosymbiotic algae in their tissues, in the portion of the mantle visible to the outside and hence bathed by sunlight. The algae photosynthesize and provide nutrition to the clams, and the clam protects the algae, among other ways by producing these drop-dead gorgeous pigments as sunscreens against harmful ultraviolet rays. The clams are pretty common all around Polynesia, but very, very common in Tupuai. I have never, ever seen so many of these things in my life! And there is another difference; in the Tuamotus, the clams are mostly deeply embedded inside coral boulders, whereas here they just jut out from the coral rock they are anchored to.

All this I learn first hand on Monday morning as Chantal’s brother Karl, cousin Kekere and his wife take me with them to go gather some Pahua. They pick me up at Chantal’s on Karl’s pickup truck with his 16’ Carolina Skiff on a trailer in tow. We travel a few miles down the road, launch the boat off a beach, and head out to the lagoon, the flat-bottomed skiff slurping an occasional bigger wave over the low, square bow. At this point I have come to accept that a significant amount of bailing is just part of the boating routine here, though I am left wondering exactly why someone thought it a good idea to import a boat meant for the still waters of some South Carolina swamp to an oceanic island where brisk trade winds and subsequent waves are the norm. No matter, wielding a bucket we reach the destination, anchor and get in the water. And I get my revelation of what a lot of Tridachna actually means (for those familiar with field ecology, I conduct a brief survey and arrive at an estimate of three to four Pahua per square meter).

The technique for collecting them is not exactly rocket science. Armed with a 1.5 cm steel spike some 30 cm long, you spot a Pahua, aim at the end with the excurrent siphon and jam the spike between the shells. At this point the clam realizes the size of the calamity about to occur and tries to slam shut. Alas, this maneuver just affixes the spike nice and tight, and by firmly turning it back and forth a couple of times the Pahua breaks free of the reef. The operation takes about five seconds, so it is possible for a couple of people to collect the 300 or so clams that I roughly count entering the boat in the 4 hours we are out there. These four hours also include the occasional breaks for opening and shucking the clams, and it is at this point I start understanding the scale of this fishery in Tupuai. You see, the shells of these things are really thick and heavy, nothing a person in their right mind would choose to cart home with them. So you shuck them in the anchored boat and chuck the shell back in the water. As I snorkel around the boat, I spot tens of these resulting shell piles littering the bottom.

Such is the scale of these piles that I immediately wonder whether this can be a stable situation, because I also notice that around the piles there aren’t many Pahua at all. I inquire about this with Kekere and Karl, and they confirm that the concern is warranted. There is less Pahua today than before, and more of them are being shipped out to Tahiti. Indeed I hear that the fisheries service has actually conducted a survey and has told the fishermen that the party will be over within a decade with current rates of collection. Not knowing any details I don’t know how much confidence to place in this, but certainly the collecting is easy enough to do.

Occasionally Kekere goes after some fish with a spear gun, but after visiting the Tuamotus, the density and size of fish around seems lower and his catch reflects this. The shucking of the clams is a sight, these folks are very practiced at it. Just for fun I time Kekere at 9 seconds per clam, as he deftly maneuvers a knife that looks too big for the job around the scalloped edge of the shells. A second operation (which I don’t time) removes the foot with remnants of the attachment point together with two black round structures that look like digestive glands. Every so often Kekere pauses to toss some bits of the Pahua in his mouth, and he offers me the adductor muscle in some lime juice for a taster. It is very good, the taste is close to a fresh scallop but the texture is much firmer. I eat some more, and then go for a longer snorkeling expedition toward the reef crest as the trio continues their labor. I’m told they are collecting the Pahua for Chantal to take with her for relatives and supporters on the other Austral Islands where she will be shortly visiting on her election information tour.

And so I find myself re-visiting this conundrum of exactly how big a population the island is actually feeding from its marine resources. Right, there are some 3,000 people here, but everybody has multiple relatives on multiple islands so the explanation of “just collecting for the family” doesn’t sound quite so benign any more. Tupuai is famed for the Pahua, other islands simply don’t support the same densities of them, and they are deeply in the food culture of this island. Eaten raw and in stews, the edible portion of each clam adds up to about 100 grams, so a couple of them can make the nucleus of a meal.

Eventually around two o’clock we head back, chased by a stiff squall as we slop our way (bailing…) through the gorgeous turquoise waters of the lagoon. Later in the day I help Thierry bag the catch in Ziploc bags, and get a rough measure of about 35 kg of clams having been collected in that one outing. It is unclear to me how long Pahua have been collected here. Shells are commonly found in the archeological record of early settlements but not in a way that offers any proof of consumption as food. It is likely that they were collected, as they grow in very shallow water and the collection is so easy as long as you can see them. On the other hand it occurs to me that to achieve what we did today without goggles of some sort would be impossible – I test this theory by trying to locate some Pahua with my mask off and find it indeed completely impossible.

Since arriving, I have been asking such questions about past practises, but the answers have been few. Instead I’ve been told repeatedly that I must go see The Crazy Guy, he knows all about the history of the island. This sounds like intriguing advice, apparently the crazy guy is someone from Canada who has lived here for a long time and is a genuine character. He lives not far from Chantal, and I resolve to pay him a visit the very next day.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

February 23 – Lundi – Tupuai

This time I think I’m going to lose it. I mean I just can’t see not losing it. Even before placing the tasty morsel in my mouth, the mere sight of it in the bowl proffered to me is enough to start a little retch in my stomach. Alas, this is my first day with my new hosts in Tupuai, and the impulse to do right by them is mighty so in it goes and it…is…ghastly! We are talking about a strip of raw sea cucumber served in a mixture of lime juice and, yes, fafaru. (For an explanation of fafaru, please the post from Feb. 1) The texture is that of rubber bands, eraser bits and snail slime inside of a small hot water bottle you are trying to chew through. It is chewy. It is gooey. It is occasionally crunchy and always tough. The lime makes my mouth pucker and the fafaru fills my whole head with the essence of rotten fish. So I try to concentrate my thoughts on things like the taxman and Sarah Palin’s 2012 presidential campaign and the task at hand: Do not throw up all over the inside of this rather nice big late model Ford pickup truck. Eventually my hosts’ attention is drawn to their interlocutor on the other side of the car, and I can fling (with extreme prejudice) the still-intact sea cucumber bit out the window, smile and smack my lips in appreciation as the attention eventually returns to me. Whew.

With this introduction it is my intention to dwell for a bit on my culinary adventures thus far, and the diet around here in general. No pictures with this one, I’m afraid, as in a role of a guest I find taking pictures of the things on my plate just a bit too weird. Here’s a partial list of what I’ve eaten so far, though. Fish; boiled, fried, dried, salted, rotted and raw. Lobster; baked, roasted, rotted (in fafaru). Coconut Crab. Snails. Limpets. Turtle. Yes, turtle - unlucky for the turtle, it does make one good stew and is traditionally (though currently illegally) eaten all over Polynesia. I have reached a point where, when offered the gizzard of a goatfish or the gonads of an urchin, I can just pop the thing in my mouth and dwell on the texture and taste without many of my prejudices of old.

Some prejudices are harder to overcome than others, though. In Rangiroa I started partaking in the lovely Tahitian habit of saying grace before meals. I even developed my very own silent prayer I uttered before sampling a dish of unknown identity: Please, dear God, don’t let it be Dog. Yes, they eat dog around here, and yes, I hear it reported that it too tastes good in a stew. And tell you what, there are plenty enough dogs around! Further, after a few restless nights punctuated with the inevitable dogfights around town and the loud and persistent protest of every canine around to the passage of some nocturnal interloper, I find even this prejudice start to recede. Oh, and I also know why you kill chickens by wringing their necks. Because you bloody want to, is why! Yes, the cocks call their cock-a-doodle-doos at dawn – and every other fracking hour one is trying to catch some sleep. Yes, wringing their necks is the only way of extracting some justice in a land where you sleep with the windows always open.

The veggies are fewer in number than the animal options; uru (breadfruit) and taro are just about all that are regularly eaten, with lots of French fries in the menu in the local fast food joints. Green things seem out of fashion pretty universally. Oh, and bread. Lots and lots of bread, really cheap (but good) baguettes, subsidized by the French taxpayers and available in every village fresh every morning for the ridiculous price of about 70 cents. Also rice, a lot of rice. As a matter of fact you could say that the modern Tahitian food is dominated by starch and fat. After a month of eating at family tables I do understand clearly now why there are so many big – and I mean scary big – people around.

So many big people and so much diabetes and heart disease, in fact, that it has attracted international attention. I have the good fortune to have my stay in Tupuai coincide with the public delivery of the preliminary report of a comprehensive multi-island study of the diet/disease interaction in Polynesia, conducted by a team from Lavalle University from Quebec. Since the public presentation is conducted in French I miss a fair amount of the message and so can’t quote many details but: The picture is not good, obesity is rampant across almost all age groups and exercise is rare. Interestingly, many people I talk to afterwards blame their genes rather than diet, whereas the study finds the diet to explain 100% of the observed disease patterns. Denial is a universal defense mechanism, I find.

Ok, so I won’t dwell too much on the sights I’ve seen, but a couple of snapshots. Children and some adults assembling a Dagwood-style pile from wheat crackers and Nutella. And then they dunk this in a bowl of Milo, milk and sugar, eventually allowing the tails of the sugar sandwich to meld with the liquid sugar in the bowl to form this pap that is then spooned up with good appetite. Now I’m not saying this is any worse that some General Mills or Nabisco products on the shelves in the US, but it is a pretty peculiar thing to see.

Another accepted food group are the various forms of canned oinks and moos commonly served in stews and as side dishes. I’m talking of course of Spam and all the other related potted meat products that just haven’t formed any part of my diet at any time in my life (Thank you, Mother!), and consequently find it amazing people eat the stuff when they do have many other good, affordable options around. Yes, I’ve tried them all when offered, and I reluctantly concede that they are actually a little better than fafaru.

While I’m at this, I might as well mention the liquid food group. Polynesians drink significant quantities of beer. Right, I’m sure you spotted the generalization in the statement above, for not everyone drinks that much (particularly the women) but boy do some guys make up for it and keep the average up! When you hear someone declare they only had two beers over the weekend, this actually refers to the number of cases they consumed – I’m not making this up! In my experience the guys on these islands make happy drunks very happy to share their beer with you. The scary part for the casual observer is the grim determination with which they keep downing the brews – there is no let-up, it is all go, go, go until either the beer or the drinker go out. The next day begins with a beer, and this bender can last well into Monday, which is casually known here as the “petit Dimanche” (the small Sunday).

A friend of Hérvé’s who showed up at the house around nine o’clock on Friday, the day before our departure, offers a good illustration of this behavior. He is in his late forties, a heavy-set guy who spills out from the front seat of his large pick-up that slowly creeps up the driveway. Hérvé knows what is coming, and carries three chairs out to the porch as soon as he recognizes the arriving truck. The friend spills out of the truck, staggers to the porch and wordlessly collapses on the empty chair - all the while holding a can of Hinano. He looks kind of morose, actually downright frightening in this inebriated state, but his face dissolves into this absolutely radiant and sweet smile when Hérvé introduces me to him. It turns out that the missus threw him out of the house, and he is here for a refuge – a situation I gather is not unusual. Long story short, another hour and a half and pass at a clip of about a beer every 15 minutes. At this point he runs out, staggers back to the truck and returns with a small box of Zumuva wine, a product exactly as bad as the name suggests.

At around eleven the talk turns to music, and Hérvé announces that a) the friend is a really good ukulele player and b) with his guitar and singing, they make one sweet Paumotu duo. Trouble is, the uke is back at the house and, despite my vocal pleas to the contrary, Hérvé and the friend pile into the truck and, with a few course corrections involving gear changes, back out of the long, dark drive. I resolve not to risk my own neck in this endeavor, because the friend is truly blotto. When he first proposes fetching the uke, I think he is just joking. Now, I don’t think him capable of finding his own butt with two hands at this stage of the night, and don’t really expect to see the two of them back anytime soon. Imagine my surprise then, when the headlights re-appear some twenty minutes later, miss all the palm trees and come to a halt in front of the house.

So now picture this. The friend sits slumped in a plastic lawn chair, occasionally threatening to roll right out of it. He is, as I mentioned, a stocky guy, with big hands and thick fingers worn leathery and calloused by cutting copra. His eyes are but thin slits, for all purposes closed, and he fumbles and almost drops the uke as he reaches for it. Yet somehow, once secure in place, his fingers know where to go, his face takes on a Buddha-like serenity and indeed the two of them play absolutely beautiful tunes together. I am astounded by this display of grace and mentally re-calibrate the performance scale for practiced drunks. I record them for a while, but eventually have to head to bed and leave the two friends playing together on the porch. Next morning they are both up early, but while Hérvé goes for a bottle of aspirin, his friend shuffles over to the truck and opens another box of Zumuva for breakfast.

Alas, this behavior does not always lead to mellow tunes; domestic violence and casual bar fights are apparently all too common, not to mention the economic hardships families suffer in this place of exorbitantly expensive beer. Alcohol abuse in Polynesia is a phenomenon that has been around since European contact, and fast solutions to the problem seem unlikely. I hasten to remind that the behavior is not universal, just distressingly common.

This post started in Tupuai, but I’m afraid I’ve gotten way off the track. I’ll get back on track with the next post, on some very interesting experiences both on and off the water on this beautiful island.

Monday, March 16, 2009

February 20 – Vendredi – Papeete

As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in small boats, I have accumulated a fair amount of good advice on the topic of boats and outboards. Most of this advice was passed on to me during the early years by people with much experience, advice that seemed worth hanging on to and putting to practice. It has been an often painful experience (at times quite literally so) riding in said small boats in Polynesia and witness the near-total absence of such boating sages, judging from the operating protocols followed here. I muse on these things as Teri is whipping the 16-foot Boston Whaler copy toward the Manihi pass over the choppy seas in the lagoon. The 50 hp outboard is wailing at full throttle. My seat on the boat, long since torn off its fastenings by this abuse, is bouncing in the air together with my behind, and I have a hard time figuring out whether the boat might mercifully delaminate and sink before my liver and kidneys have completed trading places.

It seems ever thus. You shove off the dock and the throttle opens to full. This is despite the fact that a) the boats are worn to bits way before their time, b) said boats are the basis for the livelihood for the operators, and c) gas costs $6.24 per gallon. Throttling back some 20% would save your boat, a bundle of fuel, and get you there just a teensy bit later. I don’t think this lecture will work with Teri, however, and, given that attempting to speak would just lead to tongue injury under the present conditions anyway, I just shut up and hang on.

What comes to the rescue is the fact that even tuna can’t keep up with this pace, and soon after we go through the pass to the open sea Teri slows down to start fishing. It is five o’clock in the afternoon, and I’ve come to learn about fishing outside the reef in Manihi. I’ve put together most of the story studying Teri’s gear as he loads it in the boat; a couple of large plastic spools holding thick monofilament, two small buoys and a bucket of assorted lures. The lures are a combination of a steel plug with a rubber squid-looking skirt trailing a pair of large hooks and thoroughly modern plastic affairs that look like a small fish. In a fit of irony I spot one of these made by a Finnish company called Rapala and relate this to Teri, who is convinced that Rapala is some big Pacific game fish instead of the last name of some guy in the far reaches of the Great Frozen North.

Trolling is trolling, though, and anyone who fishes recreationally in the coastal US waters for tuna knows how to do this. Bring the boat up to about 8 knots of speed, put out the lure and some 100’ of line and hope for the best. One big difference, though. This boat does not bristle with thousands of dollars worth of rods, reels, outriggers or beer can holders. Instead, Teri slips a loop of the monofilament around a finger with the reel at his feet and one of the buoys at the ready just in case he should catch something so big he just can’t hold on. In that case you quickly tie the monofilament to the buoy, heave it all overboard and let the fish fight the buoy until it is tired and ready to be reeled in. Oh, and there is no “fighting chair”.

So we troll. Teri looks around for birds, finds a couple of feeding flocks and heads toward them. Alas, it is a quiet day, and there is nothing to do but to enjoy the colors of the approaching sunset as we splash around in the 2-meter swell. A couple of lure changes doesn’t improve our luck and, when the light has failed, Teri packs it in and I brace for the return trip to camp.

How old is the practice of trolling in Polynesia I have to wonder. The big thing is the speed, you see – troll too slow and the fast moving tuna won’t confuse your lure for something tasty. And as much as I admire the paddling prowess of the modern Tahitian guys, I have a hard time seeing them keeping up 6+ knots for long periods of time. Maybe. I will endeavor to find out, particularly as some ancient hooks I’ve seen at Harvard’s Peabody Museum look an awfully lot like something you might use for trolling.

With this outing my stay in Manihi comes to a close. Before the fishing expedition I take one last walk to town, hail a passing boat and cross to the other side of the pass. I follow the road toward the airport, taking leisurely side tours alternately to the ocean and lagoon sides of the narrow motu. The landscape is dominated by a huge coconut walk that stretches on for some three miles on the lagoon side of the road. I wander on the grounds of a couple of large closed and abandoned pearl farms on the lagoon side, realizing that the mountain of plastic crap left behind in and out of the water must be huge indeed!

My walk terminates at the luxury resort right next to the airport, and I indulge in a couple of hours of swimming, lounging, and a nice, crisp poolside G&T. This is the other side of the fence, so to speak, and looks every bit the tropical paradise seen in Polynesia travel brochures. I am left scratching my head, though, wondering exactly what do the visitors do in Manihi (at about $ 400 per night) after the eat/sleep/swim/sunbathe options have been exhausted?

This morning I strike camp, say goodbyes and am chased to the airport by another pretty vicious squall that luckily allows me to reach the airport before unleashing the torrent. Now it is Papeete for a night in a hotel, and off to Tubuai the next afternoon. I must admit I am looking forward to a real bed with real sheets, and plan to eat a whole mountain of fruit for breakfast! I’m also looking forward to a different social interaction, the difference between visiting with Maohi and Popaa now being clearly defined in my mind. I am very grateful to my host, and am enchanted by his island. He is realizing his vision of the deserted island getaway, but I am here looking for the people!

Friday, March 13, 2009

February 19 – Jeudi – Manihi

Ok, so the big, bad squall didn’t occur on the night of the 16th as I feared. No, those squalls were nice, almost a domestic variety that just make you grateful that the cistern is filling up from the rain. For someone who travels in a sailing ship in these waters, last night served as a good reminder of the fact that every squall is different, and that some of them produce, besides lots and lots of fresh water, pretty fierce winds. The big one hit at around 0200 this morning with a wind burst I could hear approaching from a distance – you know, to build up the anticipation just a little bit.

After the first minute or so and the discovery that the rain fly didn’t depart after all, I tried to just lie back and, in some sort of way, enjoy the show. The trouble was that the thing just kept ramping up, each wind gust a little harder than the next. The palm trees were moving pretty violently making my shelter strung between two of them alternately sink and rise. The darkness completed the illusion of a staysails only kind of night out at sea. At around 0300 the wind gusts started easing and I realized my little camp might live to see daylight and indeed the sun once again won the battle and climbed up to dry this soggy paradise right on schedule.

Otherwise the weather has not managed to interfere with anything in the past few days. The visit to the pearl farm was very interesting indeed, more so than I had anticipated. After wading over (I do so enjoy pointing out this mode of travel…) to the next motu, I met with the proprietor Fernand and his family hard at work on their farm. So, what exactly is a pearl farm you may ask at this juncture, and the question is a fair one. In their case it consists of a processing facility of three small huts on a dock stretching into the lagoon, a series of underwater racks tied to the dock pilings, and a series of anchored buoys connected to each other by long (100m+) lines, this last installation some quarter mile away from the shore inside the lagoon. The act of farming the pearl oyster Pinctada margaritifera, in their case some 40,000 of them, consists of nursing the small freshly settled juvenile oysters to an adult size (some 15 cm across) in a series of steps moving them into progressively larger mesh pouches. In the last step the oyster is drilled and suspended on a line via a short monofilament pendant.

One last step. The nucleus of the pearl-to-be is inserted inside the mantle of the oyster via a small incision, together with a small piece of a mantle from another oyster. All this is meant to elicit a response from the oyster that is usually reserved as a defense against parasites penetrating the shell – the secretion of successive coats of new nacreous layer, this time manipulated to fall on the pearl nucleus. Nucleus. Sounds so small, doesn’t it? Just a little sand grain or some such, perhaps? The weird thing about the nucleus is this. It is about as big as the finished pearl (about 1mm, or a hair less than 1/32” smaller), and is a product of Mississippi. Yes, that Mississippi. Why does the Mississippi oyster shell make THE perfect nucleus for a Polynesian oyster is a perfect mystery to me. Perhaps it is the ultimate alien object in the universe of South Pacific lagoon bivalves and thus elicits a strong defensive response, a sort of aquatic version of the Ugly American abroad? Either way, a perfectly round, white, pearl-looking object is painstakingly surgically implanted in the tissue of the oyster, only to be recovered re-covered in a different color more than a year later.

Except that about 60% of the time it just doesn’t work. The penalty for the oysters failing to deliver? They are opened, eaten and their shells are cleaned and sold (for very little) to the local jewelry trade. The remaining 40% get another slightly larger nucleus and another year+ extension on their contract. Of course you don’t know who produced and who didn’t until you have painstakingly pried the oyster open and using a long scalpel and probe very carefully exposed the goods. Add to this all the occasional cleaning of the suspended oysters and the mesh pouches, and you start getting the picture that this is a pretty labor-intensive operation.

There is another layer of intrigue here. Circa 2003 the price of black pearls collapsed due to overproduction that had been building over the years. The government stepped in with an effort to stem the glut of pearls flooding the market. The method? A quality control step needed to obtain an export certificate, a now necessary piece of paper to sell your pearls abroad. The quality control step takes place in Papeete in a non-descript building in the industrial section of town.

There, the pearl is examined for roundness, color, and luster and given an x-ray. That’s right, every single pearl is x-rayed in an inspection step measuring the thickness of the nacreous layer on top of the nucleus. More than 400 µm is ok, less than that and the pearls are crushed. Crushed and sold as a powder to high-end cosmetics companies that try to convince women world-wide of the miraculous benefits of the South Seas Pearls to their complexion. The joke, of course, is that the powder is more than 99% re-packaged Mississippi river minerals.

So the farmer’s dilemma is when to ultimately harvest the pearl. Harvest it too early, and you lose the lot. Leaving it in for longer than necessary takes space on the farm you could use for the next generation of oysters. Selling to the local artisan market to make jewelry for domestic sales gets you a much lower price. Such are the headaches of the farmers still left in operation in Manihi. I have an opportunity to watch Fernand as he swiftly probes, judges, rejects or re-implants a stream of oysters prepared for the operation with the insertion of a wedge to force them open. Other family members are busy inserting the said wedges, shucking rejects and cleaning shell, or re-suspending the successful oysters for transport back to the lines in the lagoon. The culled oysters, by the way, are eaten.

This whole elaborate industry was borne of another, earlier one of simply harvesting the oysters from the seafloor. The target of this harvest was really the shell, as natural pearls (or keshi) are very rare. The shells went to making buttons, first in Europe then worldwide. By the 1960’s this industry was in big decline due to over-harvesting of the oysters (almost obliterated in many islands) and the emergence of the plastic alternative. In this void a Tahitian producer trained in Japan in pearl culture jumped in, and an industry was born.

For Fernand, the small farm still makes sense, given that the family also operates the village bakery and so doesn’t have to rely on the pearls alone. All told, this is aquaculture on a grand scale where the end product happens to be very valuable. Nothing is disturbed by this activity in the lagoon save some modest amount of underwater construction, so it seems like an environmentally sound operation as well. The downside is that the product is also a luxury good subject to the fickle tastes of the jewel-buying markets. I am also shown a white growth on many of the oyster shells, a disease that is killing upward of a half of all the oysters in the lagoon.

I wish all of Polynesia the best in this endeavor, as it is one of the very few hard exchange producing exports these islands have.

The coming of pearl farming did of course have a major impact on this island. It is difficult to imagine the transformation of Manihi from just another sleepy atoll to this pearl-making machine with tens of operating farms and millions of oysters. Many people around the Tuamotus and Tahiti came here for jobs, and those people needed housing and feeding. Plenty of abandoned homes dot the town as a testament to this earlier, busier phase of Manihi’s life. The build-up of the farming coincided with the decline in traditional fishing practices. Here, the village's permanent stone construction weir was destroyed by a cyclone in 1983 and never rebuilt. With ready employment in the pearl trade, the major fishing effort concentrated quickly, and today the sole operational weir provides the livelihood to only one family.

I talk to the operator of the weir, an elderly big gentleman with an air of reserve that makes my camera stay in its bag. According to his family memory, the stone construction weir was in operation for at least 100 years prior to its demise. Today he ships about 50 kg (or about 110 lbs) of fish from his weir daily by air to Papeete – or some 18 tons annually. This is an easy way of making a living for one family, and I can’t but help think that at some point other people will get in on the action. I have yet to hear about conflict regarding competing weirs, but conflict seems inevitable given the limited locations of good shallow areas around the pass where the fish travel the most. Seems like social de-evolution, doesn’t it? From cooperation to competition in one, short generation.

When I mention this scenario to Fernand and the weir owner, they both shrug their shoulders and rub their thumbs and forefingers together in that international sign for money. So, in the final analysis I don’t really know. Is pearl farming a low impact sustainable form of aquaculture? Or will the social de-stabilizing effects of this boom/bust-type of economic activity be felt by the whole island ecosystem as the employment rate plummets and people seek other sources of living?

Monday, March 9, 2009

February 16 – Lundi – Manihi

I’m in my hammock. Awake and fighting the urge to jump up for the fourth time to go stroll on the beach and peer in the shallow water of the pass, where the black of the night has allowed the invertebrate fauna to make its weird and wonderful entrance in the crystal clear water. But it is late, this is but the first night on the motu, and the sun will come up soon, so I try to allow the rustling of the palm trees around to lull me to sleep. They sound so much like the patter of rain though that I find myself repeatedly peering from under the rain fly, to find yet again the only cloud in the sky the pale haze of the Milky Way. Reassuring as the clear sky is, I’m still a bit nervous; a couple of nearby passing squalls earlier in the day remind me that my shelter is yet to be really rain tested. And a windy rain test in the dark of night is not really an appealing prospect.

As I said, this is my first night on Motu Moemoe (dream in Tahitian), one of the many small islands forming the atoll of Manihi where I arrived earlier in the day.

[Manihi from the air]

I am here responding to an invitation to stay a few days on this private motu owned by a professional French couple, he retired military and she in the legal profession. I made the contact a couple of years ago through SEA, which this year grew to this invitation I was in a fortunate position to accept. My hosts warn me that a house is only under construction, but since I pack a survival kit of a hammock, a mosquito net and a rain fly, I insist I can rough it on my own if need be. Beyond this I know very little of what I’m about to find as I step out of the Air Tahiti plane and claim my luggage from a small hut constituting the airport. I called my host three days earlier and understand there should be someone with a boat here to pick me up and drive me to the motu. Some 15 passengers disembark with me, and, all save a couple, head to the adjoining pier where they board a few 20-odd foot open boats that roar one after the other out to absurdly green waters of the lagoon. I am soon alone, so I stroll to the small concession hut at the pier and buy a cold beer. This in hand I settle in for a wait in a patch of shade under a coconut tree.

For the record, by the way, this is something you should not do. I heard someplace a statistic that there are more people killed by falling coconuts on the Pacific Islands than there are by lightning strikes. Alas, the coconut fails to command the same respect as a good lightning storm and it's pretty hot in the noonday sun, so I take my chances and stay put. Eventually the beer and my patience run out, and I place a call to my host who apologizes and coordinates another ride for me. A boat arrives, and as we pull away from the dock, I am very aware how much the water connects this place, more so than in Rangiroa where most of the people live on two large motus. Here, the motus are smaller and every one I see has a house or two on it making it appear more developed than Rangiroa (in reality there are only 700 or so people living here). We speed by many examples of the industry that has created this development pattern; Manihi was a major center of pearl production until a precipitous decline in the price of pearls around 2003. Many of the pearl farms, visible by processing huts built on stilted platforms on top of patch reefs inside the lagoon, are now abandoned with their buildings decaying in the humid salty air.

We reach the motu after a twenty-minute fierce, jarring boat ride (one of many that make me fear permanent kidney damage) and I disembark to be greeted by the motu’s three occupants. My host welcomes me in a convivial French manner, and I also meet an American contractor, formerly of San Diego but now an expat in Tahiti, and the Tahitian foreman of the construction crew. We take a whirlwind tour of the motu, and I pick a spot to stretch my hammock in the sole, small group of coconut trees on the island. Afterwards follows a cowboy-style dinner in the one existing small building serving as the canteen, lodgings and storage for the construction effort of the main house.

And so I find myself in the hammock, shortly after sunset, contemplating the coming five days. I really don’t have any contacts here in the fishing community, thus I don’t have many expectations about what I can accomplish with the project. See here’s the thing: so far I have been hosted by maohi, or Polynesian, people. This has given me instant access to the massive family networks and guaranteed equally instant acceptance in the community. Now I am a guest in the house (metaphorically speaking…) of a fraani (French) popaa (white), so I will have to put my social skills to real use and try to make these contacts in a short few days on my own. Because there is this other thing: the French expats tend to have very little to do with the maohi society unless they married into a maohi family. And I have already caught some glimpses of the fact that my host’s relationship with the community here is pretty much commercial. He buys goods and services from people, but that is about it. No real conflict or anything, don’t get me wrong, but I’m afraid that staying on this motu will, by association, paint me with the same brush in the eyes of the good people of Manihi.

I start my campaign by talking to Teva, the Tahitian foreman the next morning. He is up with the sun, as am I, and I have some time to talk with him over breakfast coffee before the others get up. My few halting words of Tahitian make a good impression, and we soon have a rapport. He promises to talk to someone in the building crew who also fishes for a living about an interview, a fishing expedition and further contacts. So far so good!

[Wading a pass]

Later in the day Kenny the contractor invites me to take a walk with him into town, and I readily accept; I think we both yearn for an opportunity to discourse in a truly common language. I take the walk to be a playful reference to a boat ride, but Kenny is good to his word: we are going to wade into town, which is some three miles distant. See there are some four small motus between us and the town, each separated by a break anywhere from some 100 meters to 500 meters wide and about thigh deep. And it is a peculiar, beautiful walk. The passes feature a swiftly flowing current from the ocean side into the lagoon, and wading across them is much like fording a river. But a warm, sunny and altogether very pleasant river with plenty of fish who scatter away from my approaching feet! We chat on the way, and Kenny paints an interesting picture of the expatriate life in Tahiti (that’s where he lives with his Tahitian wife and kids). As in many other places I’ve visited, the expat community tends to hang out together, and I’m getting the sense that Kenny is not really adapting to Tahiti. He has a whole lot of North American expectations about how the world ought to operate that he elected not to check at the airport, but is instead carrying around like extra baggage as a small but constant source of friction for him. He is a very nice open kind of a guy with an easy horsing-around sense of humor, and I feel free to tell him as much in the few days I’m there. The first day, though, I am a mere vessel as Kenny’s floodgates open and he speaks pretty much non-stop for the entire day.

In town I go check out the fishing fleet (only one potimarara and assorted small skiffs) and the pass for any spearfishing activity, but since this is Sunday the village is pretty deserted save some kids playing on the street. The place completely lacks the charm of Tiputa; most of the houses are new pre-fab types ringed by ugly cinderblock fences, giving this place a sort of army camp kind of a feel. Eventually, with some provisions in our backpacks, we manage to hitch a boat ride back to the motu.

The second night is much like the first. I get up a couple of times to admire the stars, the palm trees still sound like rain and overall the experience has a kind of dream-like quality to it. I spend the second day snorkeling and helping with the construction, and Teva talks to Terri in the construction crew who promises to take me fishing with him. He also says he can arrange an interview with the man in town who runs the only fish weir in operation in Manihi. I also look forward to wading over to the next motu to talk to the owner of the small family-operated pearl farm there. Though not strictly fishing, this form of aquaculture in a place like Manihi occupies such an important role in the island’s economy that I’m very interested to hear about it from a first-hand source.

[Giant clam]

In the mean time I’m getting ready for another night under the stars with some trepidation, as there have been more squalls around today. My rain fly and hammock survived just fine, but none the less I use some dried palm fronds to create a bit more wind and rain shelter by weaving them together and hanging them to help block the gap between the rain fly and the ground. In these squalls the rain can come down at a pretty good angle and this ought to help. We’ll see…

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

February 14 – Samedi – Tiputa, Rangiroa and Manihi

You hear this often: We can’t starve here. This claim refers to the condition of these islands where food really does seem to be for the taking in the form of fish, fruit and coconuts. You also hear the opposite interpretation, particularly of the Tuamotus, as a hostile place with scarce resources and poor water supplies. It is difficult to reconcile these two views in light of what I’ve seen traveling through the islands so far. Baguette, corned beef and rice being integral parts of the local diet, it is hard for a casual observer to filter out how the dinner table would look long-term without those staples.

Then again, changes in diet have accompanied huge changes in the social fabric of the Polynesian culture as well. By all accounts, village life was once much more a communal affair, and a large part of the getting of food was done together. In the Tuamotus this involved digging large pits down to the fresh (actually brackish) water table, to be filled with compost and used for communal gardens. But it was fishing that really expressed this cooperative nature of living of the Paumotu. The best example of this was the use of communally constructed and maintained fish weirs (or ahua huiraatira), of which there were one or two per village.

Notice the past tense. In interviews with the elder fishermen, the communal weirs vanished in the 60’s or 70’s, depending on the island and the village. The immediate reason seems to have been that the copra boats plying the waters between the islands and Papeete started buying fish as well, and the sharing of cash proved less easily done than sharing the fish. All this, by the way, coincided with the vast economic pressures brought to the archipelago by an army of technicians, administrators and soldiers involved in the French nuclear testing program in 1964.

Ok, so there are no more communal weirs in the Northern Tuamotus, but some private weirs still exist, and with Hérvé’s help I managed to visit one in the neighboring village of Avatoru. I should add that Hérvé’s family used to keep a weir right in the Tiputa pass, but it was destroyed some years ago by a storm. Hérvé shared with me an old family photo from the late 70’s showing family members tending the weir, and though much of the structure is still there, they have yet to put it back into service for reasons that are still not quite clear to me.

[Hérvé's family weir]

With all this playing in my head I find myself in an old, leaky, fiberglass skiff heading west from the village of Avatoru and across the pass. The pass itself is smaller than the one in Tiputa, but a motu on the lagoon side splits it into two channels, and we are headed to the farther channel and around the motu. Flying out of Rangiroa to Manihi today I managed to get a good picture out of the plane window: the motu is on the left and you can see the weir as a faint dark line in the shape of the letter N against the light reef (follow the edge of the channel from the motu up and torward the right).

Driving the boat is Punua who is, yes, another uncle of Hérvé’s. We are accompanied by another fisherman who works for the commune and who, given Hérvé’s position in the municipal council, has taken a council van to drive us to Avatoru. Before embarking on the boat, I interview Punua on camera at his house on the lagoon with Hérvé translating. During the interview Punua holds in the crook of a big arm a perfectly tranquil grandson who examines me intensely. I have a strong impulse to start trading expressions with him. Since this would completely blow my cover as a serious investigator, I stifle the urge and keep my face in the viewfinder.

Back in the boat, the drive is a short 10-minute affair in the pass. The current is flowing out, and the old outboard is making a loud racket inching us along the edge of the swiftly moving water. Our destination appears as a collection of poles sticking out of the water on the edge of the pass in what I estimate to be about 2.5 meters of water. We slide along the aggregation, and what from the distance looked like a pretty random gathering now resolves into three organized rows of poles. We tie up to four of them, Punua and I don masks, and I follow him in the water outside the weir. He scoots inside the enclosure over chicken wire tied to 5cm metal poles forming the frame of the structure. Inside there are fish. Oh my, are there fish. A huge school of ature (a small jack) swims in a lazy circle in the inner chamber of the weir with a couple of stingrays and a large green moray getting fatter by the minute. As the curtain of fish splits here and there, I catch glimpses of small sharks, triggerfish, trevally and goodness knows what else!

Yes, you could feed a village this way! And the weir is not just a way to catch fish, but also a way to keep them really, really fresh for a long time. Just go to the ahua and collect what you need for the day and then come back the next day for some more. Ok, so it is not quite as simple as that, there is strong seasonality among the most abundant species like ature and oeo, but Punua tells me he gets a mix of different species in smaller numbers all through the year.

The weir incorporates two large chambers shaped like inverted V’s, aimed at the pass. At the apex of each V is an enclosure that opens to the main chamber via a mesh funnel with an opening some 50 cm in diameter. It is this funnel that allows the fish in, but poses too large a puzzle for them to figure out how to use it as an exit. And here they are, providing a steady flow of fish for Punua’s roadside fish stand, as well as local schools and restaurants.

So there it is staring one in the face: the irony of our modern condition. Is it preferable to go to work for money with which to buy fish or to not work (so much) and just go get your own fish? Or work with your neighbors to secure fish for all, as the weir does represent an investment in material and labor that is too big for any individual or small family unit. Contemplating such things, it is difficult to steer away from notions of South Seas idyllic village life, of a life with few cares and simple pleasures. Funny enough, reading through the works of Kenneth Emory and Frank Stimson, two ethnographers who traveled extensively through the Tuamotus in the 1920’s and 30’s, this is an image that emerges. Both gents, employed by the Bishop Museum of Honolulu, at times went completely native replete with their own houses and wahines and stayed on islands for months at a time.

It also difficult not to worry about the future of these islands. Though families and communities are still very important in the Tuamotu life, an intensifying cash economy brings with it the pressure to exploit marine resources. Earlier, I visited an enclosure where poisson sale, or salt fish, is being dried for market. The species used for salting is the oeo, a species of snapper that, during the new moons in November through February, is fished in large numbers by jigging in the lagoon. I interviewed two of the five fishermen who run the salt fish business and obtained a rough estimate of some seven to ten tons of salted, dried oeo being shipped to Tahiti every year in those four months. The salt fish business goes back at least to the 1940’s, but today there are more people involved and the fishermen complain of a dearth of fish.

Swimming in the weir, though, abundance is really the only fitting image. I reluctantly follow Punua over the mesh and back into the boat. In the distance there are the remains of many other weirs, disused and in disrepair for reasons that, despite my questioning, still remain somewhat of a mystery. The Paumotu have a reputation in Tahiti as being lazy, not wanting to do much for tomorrow today. If there is something to that reputation, it is hard for me to sit in judgment. I suppose you can go and fish intensively for a few days, freeze the catch and eat frozen fish for a few weeks – and pay for a freezer and expensive electricity. Or you can go get your fish fresh by extending some effort every day. Which way would you pick?

With these thoughts I get ready to leave Rangiroa. I will miss this place, the village of Tiputa and Hérvé and his family in particular. I’ve eaten many meals at his parents outdoor dining table, paddled a va’a (outrigger canoe) with his brother Mamia, drank some beers with his pals at the local magazin – I have had a fantastic time here and am loath to leave. Hérvé departs on a flight after mine for Papeete, and his father drives us to the airport in his 15’ aluminum skiff. We say our reluctant goodbyes at the airport, but I know I’ll be back here before long! Thank you, my friend!

Monday, March 2, 2009

February 13 – Vendredi – Tiputa, Rangiroa

A couple of busy days have kept me from writing, but today a series of very impressive squalls with lots of lightning and torrential tropical rain are keeping me indoors. The rain started last night, and this morning there are deep puddles of standing water around the village. Some dramatic lightning strikes around the house shook things up, and the cisterns filled and overflowed. When it rains the Paumotu are happy, because that is their main water supply. There are wells, but the water in them is brackish and not really used unless the need is dire indeed.

I realize I have been writing a whole lot about spear fishing, and it is time to shift gears. Still, I have continued to accompany Hérvé daily for his fishing, as it really is part of food shopping here. He is also traveling to Papeete on Sunday to see his kids there, and is busy stashing fish in the freezer to bring with him for the clan. He certainly isn’t alone in that behavior; a lot of people bring a cooler as part of their luggage check-in at Air Tahiti and all of them are full of fish. The same coolers make the return trip full of meat and veggies, so there is this constant stream of food in and out of the islands that bypasses the commercial sector entirely. Family ties are incredibly important here, and this is one of the forms by which the family members look after each other. I should add that the family notion extends far beyond the parent/child units, and includes brothers, nieces, cousins etc. Indeed the term cousin is used in a very liberal way here, nobody makes a distinction between your aunt's daughter and a second cousin thrice removed. Family is family.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent a day with Hérvé’s uncle Aniki (pictured above) and his friend Florest gill netting on the shallow reef. The site is the shallow backreef I described in a previous post (Feb. 9th) adjacent to their beach hut at the mouth of the pass. The neighboring picture shows the pass with Tiputa to the left, and you can see the shallow reef as the gray zone between the white surf at the reef crest and the shoreline. (Aniki's house is just above and to the right of the big breaking swell nearest the pass, the first building off the road coming around the large coconut walk (or grove) toward the pass from the right). We meet them at 0630 at the hut where they are just finishing folding the nylon monofilament net for the morning’s set.

[The Tiputa Pass]

A few more words about Aniki and Florest (pictured at left) should be said here. Both gents look like they were sculpted from the roots of the earth. They are probably in their late 50’s but in a way seem completely ageless; powerfully built men with faces that look perpetually serene. Aniki in particular would blend right in with the Rasta community in Jamaica. Having spent quite a bit time there and having met some of the bredren (brethren in Patois) under similar circumstances, the big differences are language and the cap; religious Rastas keep their hair covered. Oh yes, and the similarity extends to smoking the herb (Rasta word), as there is clearly some serious paka (Hawaiian term for the same) being combusted in the hut. Not that this is a rare thing in Polynesia - paka is really wide spread.

Aniki and Florest both work with wood and coconut fibers to produce sculpture and jewelry, this in addition to fishing. Oh yes, and they make the didgeridoos and flutes around the place, primarily for their own use in the hut. At times they seem to retreat in almost a trance as they are harmonizing together and something else beyond and out of reach for us uninitiated. Though the language barrier keeps us from talking about much beyond fishing, they seem, I dunno, kind of sagely.

Setting the net is simple enough. Finding a big piece of rock next to the coral rubble beach, Aniki strides through the thigh-deep water toward the reef crest and 2 meter tall surf, ducking down at times to tuck the net behind some particular rock. The back reef resembles a swiftly flowing river because of all the water the surf is spilling over the reef. I follow him, struggling for balance while leaning into the current and searching for a footing. As the net approaches the reef crest and the strongest current, Aniki changes course and lays down the last 15 meters almost parallel to the reef. The operation is over in just a few minutes, and we repair to shore to wait. It is a good time to talk, and I record an interview with Aniki about his methods of fishing and the changes he has witnessed in the years past. Interestingly, though, he echoes other statements I’ve heard that the fish in the pass aren’t as numerous as they once were. The fishing in the shallow reef by net he says to be just as good as it ever was.

Every once in a while Aniki wades into the water some 40 meters upstream of the net and slowly walks toward the net while tossing rock around him. As they are chased into the net, I can see the sleek forms of fish dart from around rocks and shoot downstream toward the net. It is clear that they perceive the net, as most of them change course to swim parallel to it in the swiftly flowing water. Not all are as lucky, and every time Aniki goes on his fish herding missions he walks back along the net to check it. By the way, I should add that he walks barefoot. I repeat, he walks barefoot! For those of you who have explored shallow reef environments and coral rock and rubble shores, this will probably produce mental images of bloodied, mangled toes and lacerated soles, subsequent inevitable infection, gangrene, double amputation and a life hobbling about on crutches. Aniki, however, is unperturbed by such visions, and I refrain myself from asking to inspect the steel reinforcements that surely must be there. Then again, for a guy sculpted from the roots of the earth this must be completely normal.

So we spend the morning chatting, throwing rocks and inspecting the net. At around 10:00 Florest fetches a couple of coconuts, Aniki slices up a fish for some poisson cru with lime and a baguette materializes from someplace – cuisine maison for these guys. Oh, and Aniki takes a long pull on a bottle full of… fafaru. Characteristically, he offers it to me with a twinkle in his eye, but I simply don’t have the constitution to accept.

The morning isn’t exactly a bust, but the catch is not overwhelming. There is a single gorgeous surgeonfish (Ume) that Aniki carries back to the shore - in his mouth – for my viewing pleasure. I take some pictures and we return the fish to the water. Otherwise, the catch is some dozen parrotfish and mullets. The net comes up around 11:00 and Hérvé and I head out to do some spear fishing for the afternoon, intent on returning in the evening for the night set of the net.

We’re back at half past seven, and walk to this nice looking house a stone’s throw from the hut. This, I’m told, is Aniki’s house. Ok, so this is new information I try to square with the previous image I had. This is not the first time I find myself wondering exactly how is it that some of the people make their living around here. But I digress; there is a thread here that runs through the culture, the economy and the politics of modern Polynesia that warrants its own future entry on this blog.

Right, so on the patio Aniki and Florest are finishing folding the net, and we follow them on the dark beach. This time the net is set (with the help of a flashlight) some three hundred meters further away from the pass, and we sit down on the beach to wait. The moon rises early and full over the tall surf in magnificent orange before brightening to the silver glow that whitens the coral rubble beach and makes the breaking surf sparkle. I wade into the water and stand transfixed by the moment; the surf, the warm wind, the water and the sky combine and the island feels suspended somehow, immersed in these elements in a way that seems almost mystical. As I soak it all in, Aniki resumes his routine of checking the net, and this time the fish come in much more quickly. Nae nae (a small jack), vete (goatfish) and anae (mullet) make up the most of the catch. Aniki calls an end to fishing after about two hours and some twenty fish. You take what you need, you can come back when the need arises. He gives us half a dozen fish that Hérvé later shares with the family next door. We say our goodbyes, and make our way back to Hérvé’s house. It being now several hours past sunset, we quickly retire. Falling asleep I can hear the surf above the rustling of the coconut palms outside my open window.