Ladies Day out in the Mortlocks
“Hurry up!” I heard playfully called from outside.
I was grabbing my hat and drinking down the last of my morning cup of coffee when I heard the boat full of ladies calling out to me and giggling. This morning I had been invited to join in a ladies only activity - shelling. This didn’t involve meandering along the beach looking for seashells, nor did it mean we were sitting around beading shell necklaces. This day was all about foraging.
Just the week prior, I had been intranced by the whole spectrum of vibrant colors that protruded from the clam shells scattered along Roncador Reef. I think I must’ve taken a hundred photos in my attempts to capture their beauty. Today, the ladies were searching for the colorful clams, too, but not exactly for the same reason!
It was the ladies’ turn to gather food for the village, and they were all very excited to gather clams to make one of their favorite dishes - moo moo. I had no idea at the time what moo-moo was or what exactly I had signed up for, but any chance to hang with the ladies sounded good to me!
So, into the fiberglass boat I hopped, carrying my fins, mask, water bottle, underwater camera, and a tub of muffins to share. Four other boats full of women were scattered along the fringing reef, dividing the reef into four distinct shelling areas. One by one the ladies tipped over the side of the boat and stood on the shallow coral below. The tide was going down, so they had to get busy in order to gather enough clam for the entire village. Each of them held a knife in one hand and a rice bag over their shoulder. They wore small swim goggles over their eyes (many tied together with twine between the two eye pieces and around the back) and under their sarongs and skirts they had knee-length shorts on. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, as I had worn a sarong over my short board shorts. I didn’t necessarily want to wear my sarong in the water, as it was all I had to cover up with when I got out, but I also didn’t want to be culturally inappropriate with my shorts. One of the women noticed my quandry and waved at me to take my sarong off, insinuating that it would be silly for me to wear a sarong in the water! So, I slung my sarong into my bag and jumped in. I’m sure I gave them all a good chuckle with my boots, fins, full mask, snorkel, and camera! I looked like I was ready for a snorkeling expedition while they, barefooted and knife-wielding, were ready to hunt!
Initially, I simply observed. My mind wasn’t completely sure how to shift gears from admiring these clams to now watch them being taken from the reef by the bagful. It was tough, but I continued to simply observe. Traveling has taught me that what I might not understand or be comfortable with might be someone else’s normal, even necessity. As I watched, I noticed that the ladies didn’t pillage the reef of every single clam, but left some behind to continue to grow and reproduce. I also saw reef fish picking at the bits left inside the shells, not missing a morsel. My mind eased as I put this situation in its proper context. Here we were, on a very remote atoll, hundreds of miles from civilization, limited to the resources found here. This was the ultimate in the ‘eat local’ movement - forget the Saturday morning fresh markets where I used to buy produce! They don’t have any choice but to ‘eat local’!!
I continued to watch as my mindset continued to change. They hurried from coral head to coral head, digging into the shells to dislodge the meat in one large piece. Then, the syphon holes were the perfect size to fit around a human finger, and the ladies stacked the clam meat onto their fingers like gelatenous rings until they were too full to hold any more. That bunch went into the sack and with a now-empty hand, the gathering continued.
As my perspective changed, I was able to be more practical about it all and less emotional. The people here have little land available that is suitable for gardens. In fact, scientists have come to this island to study the king tides that raise water levels up and over the shorelines, flooding the land, ruining homes, and even destroying the village school. Further research revealed saltwater seaping into the center of their gardens where they grow the giant taro. This enormous root vegetable is food with special significance to the Mortlock culture, served at certain feasts and ceremonies. The saltwater coming into the gardens is destroying the giant taro crops and others, threatening their livelihood. In that context, food is whatever can be found in the environment. I found myself admiring their resourcefulness and the preservation techniques they’d maintained for generations in order to sustain their renewable resources.
So, after I played photo-snapping tourist, I decided to give it a try. Beside me, Joyce leaned down and showed me where to cut so that the meat would come cleanly out of the shell. She made it look so easy! When we spotted the next good-sized clam, she handed the knife to me. With one hand I held myself steady on the coral, while with the other I jabbed the knife along the inside of the shell and down the length of one side, then switched to the other side. I tried to pull it out in one piece, but I hadn’t cut enough. I inserted the knife again, going back and forth along the inside of the shell. Still, it wouldn’t budge. I made quite a mess of that poor clam. Taking pity on me (and the clam, I’m sure), Joyce finished what I’d started, and I opted to watch a few more times before trying again - still not nearly the expert she was, but improving! I slid each silky clam onto my finger until I’d gathered a handful and pushed them down into the floating rice bag.
The tide continued to get lower and lower until we were squatting down on the coral to see below. That’s when the ladies motioned for me to follow them. In their barefeet they walked easily across the coral, across the shallowest part of the reef, and to the windward side where the waves crashed. Were we going to swim in those breakers??? Becky noticed my wide eyes and laughed, informing me that we’d walk along this part of the reef, after the break, looking for more clams. At this point, I was thinking it was time for a snack break, but these ladies didn’t seem tired in the least! They marched on, determined to gather enough clams to feed everyone in the village.
Huge breaking waves crashed, leaving behind a white, bubbly froth that masked our vision with the rhythm of the sea. Once the water cleared again, we’d quickly look for any clams. Soon, I was designated spotter (they’d decided the knife wasn’t much good in my hands) and would point out the big clams. All was going well. My mindset had recalibrated to this lifestyle and I was feeling confident... too confident.
I heard the rumble just seconds before a thigh-high wave slammed into me and knocked me off my feet. The wave dragged me flailing wildly over the sharp coral. I tried to get footing or a handhold, but the surge was relentless. My mask and snorkel which I’d been keeping on top of my head were torn off and carried away. Each time I’d try to stand up, one hip would bash into a coral head, then the other, scraping along my thighs as the water rushed on. This wave was keeping me down for the count!! Finally, the force weakened and I was able to right myself, beaten and battered. I was absolutely discombobulated as I frantically searched the froth for my mask and snorkel. It had washed up all the way to Becky’s feet. I looked up at her with a sheepish grin. Her face still had the look of shock on it as she handed me my mask and asked if I was alright.
“Yeah, just being a tourist,” I quipped as I assessed my wounds. Nothing major - just scrapes and bruises, thankfully, and a wounded ego. “Guess I just got too close to the breakers.”
I imagined her thoughts, “Silly white woman. What am I going to do with you?”
It was time for this silly white woman to take a break, so I waded back to the fiberglass long boat and climbed in. Tega, our driver, was busy fishing. He stood up on the wooden plank seats and swung the line around his head like a cowboy’s lasso, then slung the weighted bait out into the deep. As I swigged water and nursed my wounds, I watched him haul up fish after fish - snapper, trevali, and rainbow runners - getting yet another glimpse into what ‘grocery shopping’ is to the people of Mortlock.
I recall my days of grocery shopping back in the states - a cart, aisles and aisles of food already picked and processed, some even already cooked, just needing to be reheated! I think of how much food I had readily available to me to simply pluck off the shelf and toss into my cart! And the choices!! I even had a shelf full of cookbooks and bookmarks for recipe sites to inspire me to cook new, different meals. To think, I could bring it all home and put it in the fridge or freezer where I could preserve it for weeks, even months, but there are no fridges here. When food is cooked, it is eaten and the leftovers cannot be saved, so eat up!!
I didn’t return to the boat that night until 4 pm, exhausted yet much more educated about the lifestyle here than I was yesterday. The ladies gathered together outside someone’s home and poured all of our clams together into a huge pot of fresh rainwater for rinsing and trimming. Today was my hunter/gatherer lesson. The next morning, I would learn to cook these clams - local style!