Learning from locals in Tuamotus

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The day after our bbq with Tahi, Danny and Emma took the dinghy in in the morning to pick him up so we could go fishing. At the dinghy dock, a local man by the name of Bena, approached them and asked if they could give him a ride to his island which was a short ways to the north. Danny explained to Bena that they were there to pick up Tahi and that Tahi was taking us someplace and if at all possible they’d give him a ride. Bena asked if he was referring to the Tahi that has no wife or children, and Danny and said yes. He then asked, black Tahi? Danny again said yes. Bena immediately said, oh Tahi is my uncle. We later learned from our new friends that everyone in Makemo is related, and that when a youth man wants a girlfriend, he was to travel to another island to find one.
Danny and Emma collected Tahi, who had bags and equipment to bring with, and Bena came along too – the four of them returned to Tanda Malaika for what we thought, was a fishing trip.

We greeted Tahi with the traditional kiss on each cheek, and Bena introduced himself with the same greeting. We showed them around the boat, and got them some water to drink. They asked where we get out water from, and were completely amazed that we make it from the sea water. In their broken English, they pointed to the ocean with big eyes and asked, ‘that water?’ We told them yes, and explained the water maker a little. Tahi seemed to understand and explained it as best he could to Bena.

We set sail for the east side where Tahi owns an island, while he and Aidan sat together on the bow looking through a reef fish book, discussing what fish Tuamotous had and which can be eaten.

Bena also sat on the bow, teaching the girls correct pronunciation of some French words. It was already a wonderful day.

After about a 6nm sail, we reach the east side, where endless turquoise, coconut palms and a huge sand bar stretched out ahead of us. The water was so clear that even in 80ft of water we could look down at the bottom and see the coral clearly.

Danny and Tahi loaded the dinghy with all Tahi’s stuff and set out for shore, while the rest of us grabbed snorkel gear and jumped into the beautiful clear water.

Coral heads, reef fish and sharks were everywhere in the peaceful underwater wonderland.

When we reached shore, the first order of business that Tahi had for us were two separate jobs: #1 – setting a net and #2 – collecting clams. He put Aidan, Jude and Mycah on clam duty with Bena, and the Emma, Kjira, Danny and I on net duty with him. Het taught Danny how to lay out and fold up a long net in preparation for taking it into the water. The technique was much like flaking a small sail in your hands.

Us girls were instructed to grab a hold of the end of the net and follow them into the water. We had to hold tight. Emma had the end with the weights on it and was instructed to secure it to a small coral head, while I held onto the end with the floats on it and Tahi and Danny continued moving with their bundle, unflaking it as they moved into deeper water.

The clam hunter clan returned with a bucket loaded with their harvest. They were the beautiful green, blue and purple clams that we had admired on the reef, and I could not imagine eating such a thing, but didn’t say a word.

The clam clan explained to me that they were taught to dive down with a screw driver, count to the third opening, insert the tool and jerked it back and forth side to side. The clam will close up around the tool and the shell will wiggle loose. Later, Tahi took the creatures and showed them how to check the net, and all that was in it were 5 sharks. He carefully untangled each one and set them free, and the ones that fought him – tangling themselves more, he bopped on the head to knock them out, untangled them, then wiggled them around in the water to wake up again before setting them free.

We relaxed for a few minutes on the beach, taking in the beauty that surrounded us before carrying our dinner up into the shade of the trees.

Through broken English and French communication, we realized that Tahi and Bena were intending for us all to spend the night there before continuing on to Bena’s house the following morning. We felt grateful for the time they were spending with us, and for the knowledge we were gaining. Tahi opened green coconuts for us to drink and eat.

We collected dead palm leaves and dried sticks for a bonfire on the beach, making a couple of big piles for later.

On the island, stood a concrete structure with a rain catchment system that emptied into a cistern. He drew a bucket of water from it and offered for us to use it for rinsing the salt water off.

Danny lay in the breeze and shade of the coconut palms and after taking this photo the creatures commented that it looked like he had a machete in his head! We were told that more people die a year from being hit on the head by falling coconuts, that shark attacks. Since then we have been careful where we lie to rest.

Tahi cut several lemons in half and squeezed the juice from them into the bowl he’d placed the shelled clams into. The theory is that the lemon juice ‘cooks’ the raw meat. Though I understand this and can appreciate it, my issue lay with the texture (and thought) of raw clams.

Each time Tahi completed a project he proudly proclaim, ‘VOILA!!!’ Kjira and I were watching him work, and when he yelled voila and handed her a piece of clam, she slipped it into her mouth and ate it. I looked at her with a horrified look on my face and in my mind begged God to either please strike me dead on the spot or distract Tahi somehow so he didn’t give me some, just to look over and find a brilliant blue piece of slimy, wet, citrus smelling flesh staring me in the eye. I had to practice as I preached to my children, and graciously took it from our humble friend, imagining that I could still feel some faint pulse from the creature between my fingers. I looked to Kjira for reassurance and quietly under her breath, she said, ‘just swallow Ma.’ I reluctantly placed the wad in my mouth, went to my happy place in my mind and swallowed…but not before imagining a gushy human eyeball in my mouth. My stomach instantly protested as I told Tahi how delicious it was while my lips curled in protest without my consent and a cold shiver ran down my spine. I tried so hard to convince myself that its wasn’t so bad, and heard Danny saying, ‘ Isn’t it delicious darling? It tastes like cucumber doesn’t it!’ I tried connecting the dots between delicious fresh cucumber and the texture of fishy mucus that now lay in my stomach, and just couldn’t do it. My stomach muscles lurched, protesting that which I had just ingested, and I broke into a sweat, fighting the need to hurl for the simple fact that I could not stand the thought of tasting it twice! My stomach won, and I instantly stuffed coconut and anything else I could find, into my mouth to take the taste and feel of the innocent clam away – all while thinking of anything at all to rid myself of the moment!

We sat around a small fire while chicken breasts from the boat and clams in their shells roasted over the flames.

Tahi played Mycah’s Teton guitar and sang a song about each of us then afterward translated the words into English.

Danny also played and Mycah sang. It sounded so beautiful there on the little island at the far end of the Makemo atoll in the middle of the South Pacific, under the coconut trees.

We had purchased a couple bags of marshmallows in the village the previous day, and we rounded up a few sticks to roast them on. Tahi and Bena watched with great curiosity and finally Tahi pointed at the roasting treat and asked, ‘why?’ We told him that they become soft and more delicious. He finally agreed to try one, and immediately smiled a delicious smile and said, ‘ice cream!’ Now that the understood what we were doing, he told us we should use sticks from the Mikimiki tree because they don’t burn, and that when they cook fish over the fire, the Mikimiki is what they use. He showed me the tree with tiny leaves and we brought back some better roasting sticks for the creatures. Bena was enthusiastic too now, and ate till he was ready to explode.

Once about 9pm rolled around, Tahi announced that it was time to go look for lobster. He told us to join him on the beach to light the bonfire so we could lay down and sleep while they hunted. Before they left the creatures tried to continue roasting marshmallows over the raging flames of the bonfire, and Tahi, with his hilarious sense of humor, called out Judes name and handed her a very long roasting stick he had fashioned for her so she didn’t have to get too close to the hot flames. She loved it!

Danny, Tahi, Aidan and Jude grabbed headlamps and gloves, and Tahi placed his lobster backpack on. He had modified a kitchen garbage into a backpack perfect for tossing lobster and crabs into. It was genius. The four of them left while we arranged ourselves around the fire to rest until almost midnight when they returned. Due to the almost full moon, no lobster large enough had been found, but they had caught several blue parrotfish, which is a favorite among the people in Tuamotus. We asked him if they ever had problems with ciguatera, and he said they they didn’t.

When we finally lay down to sleep, Danny explained to me that they had caught the parrotfish with machetes. They walked in water sometimes up to their waists, and when they saw a blue parrotfish coming their way they just whacked it with the machete and threw it in the backpack. I’m pretty sure that Chuck Norris doesn’t even know how to do that!
What a day. We had learned so much and absolutely adored Bena and Tahi. They were both so humble, humorous, giving and filled with gratitude. If only the world had more Bena’s and Tahi’s in it.


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