Off to shore we went and made our landfall at the first small village on the left of this remote island . We pulled up to the beach and the people kind of just stared at us and did not know what to expect from these strange visitors Later we found out there had been only 4 boats that had visited here in the last 12 months! We went ashore and were greeted by the chief who’s name was Daryl, he was a young man in in his mid 40’s and spoke good English . I gave him a Downtime hat as he started talking to us and became friendlier and he welcomed us into his village. We sat down in the shade of a small palm thatched hut and had the customary fresh coconut which he had a boy climb a tree and then open for us. We sat there and shared stories while drinking our coconuts and passed out our gifts to the villagers which always lightens the mood of the whole village. After talking a while he offered to show us around the atoll and down the road we went to the main part of the town. Well, town was just a church, a meeting hall and a small store and that was it. Along the way to town we met other families who lived along the shore, on the whole Atoll Daryl guessed that a total of 2000 people lived on this small piece of land in the middle of the Pacific. For those of you that do not know an Atoll is the remains of a reef system that once surrounded an island which has long ago sank. Most are circular shaped and rarely more than 3 to 4 feet above sea level and several miles across with an lagoon inside with water depth of 20 to 200 feet. The circular shaped piece of land is anywhere from 20 feet to a half mile wide and made up entirely of limestone (seashells and coral) and thickly populated with coconut trees which is the life blood of these island.
Without the coconut tree there would be no way to survive here on these remote atolls. The tree provides a variety of necessities starting with shelter in the form of shade and then there are the leaves can be woven into very durable shelters. Then there is the coconuts, the green (young) coconut offers a very refreshing and nourishing drink and then there is the meat of the mature nut that can be grated and cooked or pressed to make coconut milk to be used as a sauce. Then when the nut matures fully it can be dried and sold as copra which is made into oil products. This is a labor intense process which involves first finding all the nuts that have fallen to the ground in the last few months and hauling them (by hand) to a central point where they use a spike set in the ground to pry the husk off the nut. Then they split the nut with a machete and lay it in the sun for a few days to dry. This is made difficult with the frequent rain squalls that pass over the islands and they have to be always ready to put a tarp over them to prevent them form getting wet. When the shell and meat are completely dry they pry the meat from the shells and put them in a large gunny sack that when stuffed to capacity weighs about 120 pounds. For all this work they are paid 25 cents a pound which is about $30 for a sack which contains a little over 300 coconuts or roughly 10 cents a piece!
Dried coconuts are used to feed the village pigs and dogs and even the chickens!Some of the questions we asked along the way were about drinking water and getting supplies delivered to the atoll. We found out that the drinking water comes from shallow wells that had been dug by the Peace corps and military years ago and have a small hand pump to lift the water which is only 10 feet below the surface and a supply ship comes once a month to bring food and fuel and to haul back the copra crop to Tarawa and was late as usual and everyone was out of fuel for their generators.
While we walked along I was thinking, what do these people do all day? Is there ever any excitement and what do they do for entertainment being so far away from it all? The answer to that would come all too soon……
No sooner had that thought crossed my mind when Daria said, “I think I left a banana bread baking in the oven on Downtime” Oh Snap! We have been gone 2 hours with the oven on and no one aboard the boat! We made our way back to where we left SD to find her sitting high and dry on the sand with the tide all the way out! There was no way possible we could drag the 900 pound dink 400 yards to get her back in the water and we found ourselves stranded! To add to our frustration we found out all the village boats were out fishing and Downtime was anchored 3 miles away so the option of swimming back was out of the question…. Here was just the beginning of our island excitement!The Chief told us that since we were stuck here we might as well stay for lunch while I gazed at the horizon looking for signs of smoke from where Downtime was anchored.. He invited us sit down on some nice woven mats that he had brought out to the middle of the village under another thatched roof area while the women prepared lunch in the cooking hut. While we were sitting there I asked Daryl if they ever went lobster fishing? He answered that they usually went at night with flashlights to catch them then and then he asked if we would like to come back for dinner and they would go out and catch some for us if we provided the flashlight. We thought this was a great idea and accepted the offer thinking they must do this all the time right? He told us they would cook us a fresh chicken dinner and had three young men set off to catch the “fresh chicken”. More excitement began as three young men picked up their chicken catching sticks and rounded up the village dogs. I have to tell you watching the next events unfold was hilarious!!! Three grown men and a pack of dogs went chasing the fastest chickens you ever saw! Sticks and chickens were flying everywhere with dogs barking and chasing after but the action lasted only a brief time and then Daryl regretfully told us we would be having fish for dinner since the chickens were just to hard to catch.
Lunch was served and we dined on clams and rice with coconut sauce. They also served dried fish (salt fish) which Daria likes a lot. All this was washed down with a few more fresh coconuts. After lunch they brought out a few pillow and told us we might as well take a nap since the tide would not be back in for a few hours. I tried to sleep but the thought of the oven being on and who knows what happening to the banana bread that had been in there for 4 hours at this point kept me from dreamland. While I was resting (actually thinking we might be stranded here) Daria was recruited to learn how to weave palm leaves that would later be used for a new thatched roof panels by the women of the village. She picked it up amazingly fast to the astonishment of all and was weaving palm leaves like she had been doing it her whole life. That was good since I was thinking we might need this skill later to build a house if the boat burned down!
Finally after a few more agonizing hours the tide came back up and we drug SD out to deeper water and raced back to Downtime to see what kind of damage there was. To our amazement there was not even any smoke in the salon, just a burn banana smell that left a stench for a few days and the charcoal black remains of what would have been desert that night. What a relief!
That afternoon we moved Downtime closer to the village bouncing off a few uncharted sandbars along the way and anchored a few thousand feet from shore. We decided to row the kayak ashore and leave SD home for the night so we would not find ourselves stranded for a second time that day. Daryl had asked for a few gallons of gas for the generator and to also bring a dive flashlight to catch lobster with and any DVD’s we could give the village.
We loaded up the supplies and paddled to shore which now at high tide came right to the edge of the village. This was a totally different view than we had leaving earlier when there was a few hundred feed of beach in front of the village and we wondered if we were at the right place as we paddled up in the setting sunlight.
The lights came on with the generator running in the background and dinner was served. Roasted fish with rice and coconut sauce. You have to wonder if they ever get tired of fish and rice? After dinner he hauled out the TV and DVD player and set it up in the main gathering area and popped in Batman Returns while the men gathered around the kava bowl and the rest of the village gathered around for movie night. Daryl was one of the few people in the village that spoke English and you have to wonder what everyone was thinking of this movie without understanding a single word of it.At around 10 pm Daryl told me it was time to go catch lobster and I asked if I could come along. Having no idea what this would involve I asked if they would take me out with them thinking I could learn a new skill and Downtime would be forever more with lobster in her freezer.Well, this was the beginning of what would be one of the craziest adventures of my life! It all started with the transportation to the beach. The village had a Honda trail 110 with more miles on it than any one on the island could count. Towed behind this scooter was a trailer that two of the guys that were trying to catch chickens earlier that day hopped on to. Daryl would drive and I would sit backwards behind him with my feet on the trailer. Down the road we went leaving a cloud of blue oily smoke behind us with me sitting on the back backwards gasping for fresh air. The guys on the trailer must have been immune to carbon monoxide and were breathing the smoky exhaust like it was nothing new? After several miles of dirt road we turned off and drove strait down the middle of the airport runway all the way to the end and then made a turn towards the beach through the jungle. I was getting the feeling that they did not do this all the time when Daryl kept asking one of the guys on the trailer which trail to turn on? The guys who could not catch a chicken earlier that day would be the same guys who were going to catch lobsters tonight! Oh well maybe lobster catching was their gift to the world?We finally arrived at the end of the trail and unloaded the gear which was 2 old masks, my one small flashlight, a pole spear I brought along and a old gunny sack. I thought this must be easy if that’s all the gear you need to catch lobsters. Luckily I was smart enough to wear my dive booties but the two other guys just had flip flops on. Daryl said he would be staying on shore to watch the scooter and the two guys would go out and catch a few lobsters while we waited. I asked him if it would be alright if I went along with them because I would like to learn how it was done, he gave me a strange look and said sure why not. This turned out to be a REALLY bad idea on my part……..I eagerly followed the two guys out onto the reef on this moonless pitch darks night with only the light of the stars in the sky. Looking back towards shore we saw Daryl standing there with a small LED flashlight which was our only reference back to shore. Foolishly I gave one guy the only other flashlight we had, but I did keep one of the two dive masks, the pole spear and thankfully I was wearing good boots to walk over the rocky coral bottom with. In the distance we could hear waves crashing on the outer reef as we continued walking out into deeper and deeper water. Soon we were chest high and a half mile from shore with Daryl’s light just a pinpoint of light on the horizon. Soon the waves were breaking on us and we dove under each of them as we continued to go farther out onto the reef. We were at the edge where the waves were breaking and barely able to touch bottom when we finally turned the light on and looking down we could see the bottom change from a flat rocky surface to a series of jagged valleys and drop offs along the outer edge of the reef. We were swimming at this point scanning the bottom for lobsters, coming up for air and getting smacked in the face by waves while trying to breath and unknowingly being swept out to sea by the outgoing tide. The next time we looked down it was 20 feet deep and the reef had disappeared beneath us. We could see the faint light on shore and I began swimming desperately towards it. In my mind I was thinking that “this could be it” I would be found washed up on a beach somewhere or eaten by a shark! I swam hard for what seemed like forever and finally I saw my guide standing on the reef in front of me. I swam up to him and told him that I was done lobster fishing and was heading back to shore. If he understood a word of what I said I do not know but thankfully my feet were finally back on the jagged reef. I fell into many holes on my way as I stumbled in the darkness back to shore. The poor guys behind me had lost their shoes and had been tumbled on the reef by several waves. The one guy who had the only light the last time I looked to have been swept way out by the current and I thought for sure he was lost to the sea. I made it back to shore shaken and exhausted by the experience and curiously asked Dayrl when the last time he went out there at night was? He said it had been a long, long time… And I understand why!We waited on shore for what seemed like forever for the two guys to return. Finally one guy stumbled ashore beat up and shoe less and he plopped down on the ground next to us exhausted. We yelled out for the second guy and after several tries finally heard a faint reply. The guy who had the light was in the worst shape and had a near miss being swept out to sea finally came stumbling out of the ocean. He had abandoned the flashlight, dive mask, and his shoes while he was swimming back against the current while saving his own life.
The ride back to the village was quiet and un eventful and the whole way I was thinking we were probably all happy just to be alive as the scooter chugged down the dusty road back to the village.
When we finally arrived back to the village, sadly we did not even have one lobster in the sack, heck we did not even have the sack! But no body seemed surprised by this and I bet it has been a long time since any one there had even tasted a lobster!
The generator was still running in the background along with one of the movies we bought ashore playing on the TV. The same group of people were staring at the screen, Daria was sleeping and the men of the village were still gathered around the kava bowl with that far away kava look on their face…to them it was just another day on the atoll……
Peace from Captain Pedro and Daria