Exploring the Mortlocks

On our first morning ashore, we are greeted by a gathering of school children, anxious to simply be with us. It is always very awkward to be the strange, new visitors to a place. No one is really sure what to do or what to say, and often, it is us trying to be friendly and act normal while we have hundreds of eyes looking at us with the precision and intensity of laser beams. I’d love to say it gets easier each time, but I still struggle.

All my insecurities surface and suddenly I’m not sure what to do with myself. With a smile, though, I fight the urge to clam up and stay stuck in my uncertain thoughts. Instead, I turn toward the faces surrounding me - the ears trained on my every word or sound, the eyes that follow my every move and gesture, the precious, curious kids whose every neuron is aimed in our direction.

Like a school of fish, we move across the beach, my tiniest action or word causing instant ripples of response throughout the crowd.

Usually, there are one or two children who become the spokesmen for the group. They take their responsibility very seriously and stay glued to my side. In fact, anytime anyone else answers one of my questions out of turn, the leaders turn to them with a strong, huffy reprimand, “SSSEEE!” (I’m guessing this is equivalent to our “HEY, shush!”) Quickly Elizabeth and Michael adopt this new response into our own family dialogue. Anytime of them pushes or shoves, forgetting their manners, the other quickly widens their eyes and huffs “SSEEE” in a perfect imitation of the intonation the children here use.

Our little entourage carries on along the beach aimlessly, eventually wandering out into the shallows of low tide. In the distance I spot the remnants of a large shipwreck. When I ask my 10-year-old tour guide about it, he recounts the tale told to him by the chief of the village. “Big snake stay in dat ship. We no go der or he can get us. It is a tabu ship. Evil is der. If you go, you get sick and might die.” I nod to ensure him that I understand and promise not to go. In my head, I’m grinning at this tale that has obviously been told to keep the kids away from the dangers of the rusted old ship. Later, I’d ask a woman about the tabu ship, and she would confirm my suspicions of a convenient “snake” story that keeps the young ones from getting into trouble. Much like America’s Santa Claus who “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake”!

Other stories entertain us as we walk, and I am not as certain if they are all just stories or have been rooted in their culture for years and years. One island nearby is said to also be tabu - something about a grandmother who waits there, guarding the island and its large white birds that are good to eat. Hmmm.

As we walk along together, Elizabeth and Michael find all kinds of shells and critters hiding in the shallows. Of course, to these kids, these are everyday sightings. Like if they were to come to Colorado and be amazed at the rolly pollies on the sidewalk! They were gracious hosts, though, and joined us in our fascination as soon as they saw me taking photos of each specimen. Little fingers holding crabs, shells, and seastars, proudly displayed their findings in front of the camera lens, and of course I snapped a shot of each and every one.

Soon, we encounted a posse of young boys who were obviously very busy. As we approached, I noticed one boy holding a spear upright with something long dangling from it. An eel. The boys were being boys, practicing their hunting skills on the slithering eels that hid in the reef crevices, too cool and determined to be bothered with our presence. From what I could gather, the eels are not normally eaten here, but are used as bait. So far they had caught one that was still squirming around on the end of a spear, and another that got passed around so that all the kids could show me. Once, one of the slimy sea serpents slid across the top of my foot, causing me to squeal and leap up in the air much to the delight and amusement of all the children surrounding me!

Back on the sandy beach, the kids played a game of cat and mouse. The tide was beginning to rise, though, signifying that it was time to head back to the boat. We said our goodbyes and were gifted with an enormous load of fresh coconuts to bring back to Field Trip! On board, we cracked open a coconut, flipped through the reef creature photos we’d taken, and searched in our identification books to find out what each one was. The day had been a splendid introduction to this faraway place, and we were each eager to experience more of the Mortlock Islands.


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