Time in the Tuomotus - Part Two

Toau, Tuomotus
Toau was our final stop in the Tuomotu Atolls and was a place I'll never forget.  Have you ever met those types of people who make you feel like they’ve known you forever?  They smile at you like they are welcoming you back, having missed you while you’ve been away?

We tied up to a mooring ball in Anse Amyote in a false channel.  From the sea, it looks as if you can enter into the lagoon between shallow coral reefs, but as you get through the cut, you realize that you are encircled by a horseshoe-shaped ‘cul de sac’ of even more reef.  The diving here is good along the outer steep wall, but the people here are what captivated me. 

I have wondered what local folks think of the sailing nomads that drift in and out of their villages, pillaging the grocery stores for any fresh eggs, produce, or baguettes we can find and then buzzing in swarms at the internet cafes, jabbering endlessly about the wind and weather.  I honestly think that we are like aliens, landing on their planet to explore and reprovision our UFOs, clad in flip flops, visors, and backpacks.  They just sit on the docks, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads as we clamber onto land, wobbly and worn.  Do they want to know about us, like we want to know about them or do they get irritated by our invasion?  Are they intrigued by us or just downright annoyed?  I imagine it’s a bit of everything jumbled up.  Because of this mix of emotion, I always feel so privileged when people go out of their way to make us feel welcomed to the beaches that are essentially their backyards. 

Sailing alongside SV Adina

Tom and Mark 
We had decided to get the dinghy down and pick up our friends, Susie and Tom on SV Adina, to grab a drink on shore.  Three well-loved, tail-wagging dogs trotted down the wooden dock to greet us as we tied up to yet another new land.  Elizabeth and Michael immediately loved the menagerie.  They giggled as the puppies wriggled between their legs, almost tripping them. 

After our four-legged welcoming committee, we met the two-legged inhabitants, Gaston and Valentina.  Their greeting (and their beer, unfortunately) were the warmest we’d had in a long time, but we were grateful for the hospitality.  As we sat and caught up with Tom and Susie, Valentina set down a stack of well-worn notebooks and albums.  Each was filled with photos and personal letters from sailors who had visited before us - pages and pages of memories and heartfelt thank yous.  Three days later, I would be tearfully writing my own note in one of these albums, recalling the sweet friendship that would develop in such a short period of time. 

Beach combing with kids from Remi De and Moxie
The following day, Mark was going diving.  The kids and I got school finished and headed to shore to collect shells and play with some other boating kids we’d met.  I brought in a book to read and my diary, but secretly I hoped to have some time with Valentina and Gaston.  I wanted to learn about their life and have deeper understanding of the Tuomotus culture. 

I found them in the shaded patio area, preparing a large meal for some of the sailors.  Gaston stood near the water’s edge scaling fish for poisson cru (raw fish marinated in coconut milk) while Valentina chopped carrots, onions, and garlic.  It was only noon, but it would take all day to have the meal ready by dinnertime.  

I set down my things and followed Gaston out into the yard where a huge pile of coconuts had been gathered earlier that morning.  A steel pipe was sticking up out the ground, one end flattened to a dull point, to serve as a coconut husker.  Have you ever tried to husk a coconut?  This is one of those things that we should know how to do, living on a boat, but we’ve never quite gotten the hang of it.  The kids have collected coconuts on many a beach, hoping to drink the water or eat the creamy flesh from inside, but getting to the center nut proved to be a real challenge!  Native people make it look so simple, but it requires the right tools and a lot of elbow grease.  Gaston jammed the coconut onto the steel pipe and worked the husk off one section at a time in less than a minute, leaving only the perfectly round, liquid-filled nut.
Cracking the water-filled nut
Then he walked over to a shed where he flipped the switch of a large, grumbling generator into which a rotary motor was plugged.  On the rotary end, he’d fashioned a ball of metal shaped like a fist with holes poked into it, making it an industrial-sized grater.  He held the nut in his palm and whacked it with the backside of his machete.  Clear water flowed out over his hands and onto the ground as it cracked in two.  At one point, he handed one half to me, letting me drink the cool coconut water inside.   Next, he took one half of the nut and pressed it onto the revolving grater to grind the meat into shredded bits.  A large wooden bowl, carefully positioned on the ground below, caught the freshly grated coconut in mounds of fluffy, white goodness.

High tech coconut grating machine
Coconut bread-making lesson
With his expertise and motorized contraption, he grated about ten coconuts in no time and brought the full bowl back to the table where Valentina was beginning to make bread dough.  He used a piece of cloth (ripped t-shirt) to squeeze the white milk from the shredded coconut, handful by handful.  This milk would become the base of the coconut bread Valentina was working on.  Then the leftover shredded bits would be added to the poisson cru and other dishes later.  As Valentina kneaded the dough, her hands thick and gloppy with it, I shook more flour in as she directed until the dough was at just the right consistency.   I secretly wished I'd be eating the dinner tonight, just to sample this coconut bread!

Humble, yet functional, outdoor kitchen
I realized that no part of the coconut was wasted.  Even those stubborn husks were stuffed under the grill to fuel the fire they’d use to cook fish and a large pot of pork, simmering with the vegetables Valentina had cut earlier.  (Turns out, Gaston and Valentina also raise pigs.  The kids would get to meet the ones that hadn’t yet been dinner the following day.)

Pick a piglet for dinner, anyone?
During all the preparation, we chatted like old friends.  Valentina told me about her daughter and newborn granddaughter who live on an island near New Zealand.  She cried as she told me how long it has been since she’d seen her daughter, and hoped to take a trip there someday to hold her grandchild.  I wondered how many of the local folks had ever traveled away from these isolated islands.  How many local teenagers opt to get the heck out of dodge when they get old enough, leaving their families behind?  Do they see this as the paradise we do, or does it become a sort of palm tree-lined prison from which they yearn to escape?  Grass is always greener, sand is always whiter, sunsets always more golden…    

I shared with her about our journeys, and how I missed seeing my family, too - my sister, especially.  I said that in spite of the homesickness I also feel so blessed to see such faraway places.  At the word blessed her face lit up, she leaned forward and asked excitedly, “Do you know Jesus??”

“Yes, He’s with us wherever we go!”  And we shared stories of how our lives have been changed, redeemed, and purposed through Him. 

“You are my sister,” she giggled as she wrapped me in a hug.  I silently thanked God for bringing me here, halfway across the world to this tiny atoll, to see Him and feel Him in such a real way. 

Gaston had built a church on the island, just steps away from the shoreline – the only protestant church in the Tuomotus.  She guided me down a sandy trail to peek inside.  A table stood at the front of a simple one-roomed hut, set with a vase of fresh tropical flowers and a religious statue.  Bibles were stacked on a corner table, in both French and English.  It was obvious how much she cherished this chapel and took special care to make it beautiful.  She opened her Bible and read some of her favorite verses, then handed it to me so that I could show her mine.  We were both excited to share our faith.

The chapel on Toau
Kids' collection of discarded pearls along the shore
The following day, it was pearl time.  I came to shore laden with items that she had mentioned she needed – paper towels, olive oil, lotion, sunscreen, shampoo, etc.  I would trade these items (along with some Polynesian Francs, of course) for some of her precious black pearls.  She used to run a pearl farm here, but it was too stressful and she was spread too thin between hosting the cruisers and seeding oysters, so she closed the farm.  She gave us a lesson about how black pearls are cultivated and graded according to luster, color, shape, size, and quality.  Based on these attributes, each pearl receives a grade of 1, 2, or 3.  Grade one pearls are the best and are sold by registered jewelers at extravagant prices, and grades 2 and 3 are typically set in more casual jewelry and can be purchased in various shops.  Later we would visit the pearl museum in Papeete, Tahiti, and learn even more about the vital role pearl farming plays in the Polynesian economy.  But I loved sitting with Valentina at her wooden table under a shade tree, hearing her talk about the legacy of pearls in the Tuomotus.
Natural, unseeded pearls
As I rolled the pearls around in my hand, I felt the depth of their history and imagined ships with treasure chests bursting with these beautiful and unique spheres of color.  I picked out a few pearls to treasure myself – grin - while Valentina worked secretly on a necklace for Elizabeth.  When Valentina asked Elizabeth to try it on and then told her it was a gift, Elizabeth blushed and smiled.  Later she would ask me to put it in a safe place and told me she didn’t want to wear it, because it was too special!

Elizabeth's treasured necklace
According to the weather reports, it was our time to head to Tahiti.  Although I wasn’t ready to go, the weather window decided it was time for our departure.  The next day, I came ashore one last time to say goodbye.  I brought a few more goodies to them, knowing they had no easy way of getting supplies.  I learned that Valentina and Gaston wouldn’t accept gifts without giving something to us in return, because Valentina pulled a batch of that yummy coconut dough from her refrigerator and told me to bake it on the journey.  Then, as we were getting ready to pull out, they zoomed over in their fishing boat and gave us 10 coconuts that Gaston had husked for us!  We were overwhelmed with gratitude.  That people would be so generous with what little they had.  

As we sailed away from that tiny spit of sand, I realized how many memories I was taking with me.  My proverbial treasure chests were overflowing with the pearls of friendship and connection that I often find hard to develop as we hop along.  In so many places I feel like a visitor, an invader even, but in Toau… I have a sister.   

Saying goodbye to our new two-legged and four-legged friends!



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