8 Tikopia Unspoilt
Fired by lust for adventure and the desire to see new lands, canoe after canoe set out and ranged the seas. Fear of storms and shipwreck leaves them undeterred. The reference of an ancient song to the loss of a man at sea as a 'sweet burial' expresses very well the attitude of the Tikopians.
-Raymond Firth – anthropologist, 1936
I had settled on a course towards New Guinea, still some 2,700 miles away, with cyclone season approaching soon. My course was first set northwest to avoid the labyrinth of reefs around the Fiji Islands. Several days out of Tonga, I awoke from an afternoon nap to an odd tapping sound on the hull. Visitors, here? On deck I saw we were moving through a field of floating stones covering the ocean like a blanket as far as I could see. I reached into the water to pull out a fist-sized piece of pumice and examined its light, porous structure.
Thumbing through the British South Pacific Pilot gave me an explanation. I read that in 1928, between Fiji and Tonga, several ships reported encountering fields of floating pumice – lava rock – that later washed up in huge quantities on the eastern coasts of the Fiji Islands. The Pilot went on to give this report by HMS Veronica:
The first large field encountered was fully three quarter mile wide. The effect on the sea was most marked, a choppy sea with breaking waves reduced by the pumice to a mere oily swell. The pumice was mostly the size of gravel, a few lumps up to two feet in diameter being observed. The swell caused it to make a noise like drifting sand. The field was not more than one foot thick, and it would only form serious resistance to very small craft. It removed all weed from the waterline, scrapped off some paint, and fouled the condenser inlet. The following day more fields were encountered, very thin and straggling, as far as we could see.
It was clear the rock I held in my hand was recently molten lava, flowing deep within the earth, that had been ejected through an undersea vent. Because it was impregnated with numerous air pockets, it floated to the surface. Judging from the concentration of pumice I plowed through, one of these underwater volcanoes was not far away. I almost expected to see an island born before my eyes, but wherever it was, it remained hidden beneath the waves. Seeing the pumice was harmless at the slow speed we were moving, and was actually helping flatten out the waves, I carried on cleaving through this blend of earth and sea until breaking into clear water several hours later.
I learned later that, while I had been at sea, there was a huge volcanic eruption that transformed what used to be known as Tonga's Home Reef into the one-mile-long, 150-foot high, Home Island. There are uncharted islands out there, after all….
When well clear of Fiji's reefs, I breathed more easily and felt the familiar open ocean welcome me back to its endless empty horizons. We had sailed for seven days with the wind locked onto a single compass point – east by southeast. While the winds started feebly, they increased so gradually that I barely noticed the difference from day to day.
On day seven, I noticed a hole had chafed in the mainsail where it rubbed against the mast spreaders, and the jib was also starting to unravel at one of its seams. A half day working with leather palm and needle, pulling the thread through a ball of wax to make it slide through the stiff layers of sailcloth, brought things back in order. By easing off the mainsail halyard, I used the slack between the sail slugs as steps to get me halfway up the mast where I hung on with one arm against the boat's motion as I taped over the cotter pin that had chafed the sail. The side-to-side whip of the mast was more violent than I expected. It took all of my strength to keep from being flung off. As the boat rolled, I had to stop at times and just hold on, wrapping my arms and legs, vine-like, around the mast. This was the only work I recall doing the entire week, but such ease wouldn't last.
The next day the wind fell calm, the sky grew overcast, and a series of rain squalls passed over Atom. I reefed and tacked, always alert to any wind shift. In this latitude, at this time of year, these low-pressure areas pass by once every two to three weeks. I had hoped to slip between them since one had passed through just before I'd left Tonga. By now, I was used to their pattern: first the trades go light and shifty as the barometer takes a fall; there follows two days or more of short, but vicious squalls and heavy rains; the wind veers to the north, then backs to the west, and the sky slowly begins to clear as the wind hauls back to the southeast. Knowing these storms' patterns and behaviors reduced my anxiety until it became routine sail-handling.
On the eleventh day out, as the rain cleared away, I picked out a dark lump on the horizon. Slowly it grew to a green fortress surrounded by coral reefs and lashing surf – Tikopia Island.
I had been aiming for this particular island, among all the islands of the western Pacific, since the beginning of my voyage in Miami. There, I first heard about Tikopia while reading the unpublished journal of another circumnavigator. He wrote that this island was the most fascinating of all the places he had visited. The population of about 1,000 lived a traditional lifestyle without electricity, motor vehicles, or even a single shop to buy food or merchandise. The four-mile-wide island has no police force or immigration officers (bless'em). The four clans of the island are ruled by four hereditary chiefs. No airstrip, and a reef-lined anchorage only suitable for settled weather, meant tourists were almost as rare as tropical snowstorms. It was just what I had been seeking, but feared no longer existed.
From two miles offshore I scanned the shore of Tikopia through the binoculars. The entrance to the anchorage marked itself with a white line of surf rolling along a fringing reef. To the crowd gathering on the beach, I was merely a small speck of sail on the horizon. As I got closer, I could see people waving their arms above their heads. Outrigger canoes were launched into the surf, the men pulling hard on their paddles.
I was soon surrounded by the eager islander's canoes. Several men and boys climbed aboard, handing me coconuts and papayas, apparently the first things that were within reach when they sighted my sail. I returned the favor by handing out fishhooks, which they welcomed with smiles and bright eyes. At first they tried to communicate with me in Solomon Island Pidgin English, which they had picked up from visiting teachers and missionaries. Pidgin is a simplified English, stripped to its basics and beyond, and then reconstructed with a generous sampling of local dialect. A few German words have been tossed in as a legacy from the Kaiser's Colonial period.
Slowly, my ears began to recognize the local Tikopian dialect's similarities to Tongan. I had already memorized a hundred-odd words and phrases of Tongan so I was well on my way to basic communication. They indicated the excitement ashore was because I was the first yacht to visit the island in months, and only the fourth boat they had seen that year, aside from the monthly mail boat from the island group's capital city of Honiera. With the sailing season so far advanced, I might well be the last boat to stop here this year.
Guided through the menacing brown coral heads by canoes on either side of the bow, I tacked into the empty anchorage. The man in the lead canoe directed me to stop over a narrow sand patch where I dropped the main anchor. As the anchor bit into the sandy bottom, my Tikopian guide called out, “Malo e Leilei!” (Welcome) then came alongside where I handed him a second anchor to set out to keep Atom from swinging into the surrounding coral heads lying under the shallow waters.
One of my guides through the reefs was a young fisherman whose Christian name he gave as Joseph Roto. Through a combination of Pidgin and Tikopian, he made me to understand that although there were no “officials” to take my documents to, the local custom called for palangi (that would be me) to ask permission of one of the teriki (chiefs) before exploring the island. A gift for the chief, he added, would be customary.
After a few minutes securing anchors and sails, I stepped into Joseph's canoe and we paddled through the surf to land among a curious crowd on the beach at Potikorkoro Village. Many of the women were bare-breasted with plain tapa cloth skirts and wore their hair cut short as jar-head Marines. The men also wore tapa cloth or the brightly patterned cotton sarongs similar to the pareo of the French islands. In Pidgin, they are called laplaps. Beyond the beach a narrow, level plain butted up against vegetation-lined cliffs, giving little hint what lay beyond.
As we made our way through the village shaded by coconut and breadfruit trees, Joseph and his friends gave me more advice regarding local etiquette: first in importance being to never turn your back to a chief, never walk upright in his house and take care not to present your retreating bum to His Highness. Moving around on hands and knees was an easy rule to follow since the entrances to the thickly thatched grass huts are so low you are forced to crawl in on your belly. Traditionally, this low entranceway allowed householders to dispatch any unwelcome intruders with a club to the head as they made a clumsy entry.
The long, low hut of the chief was built around a foundation of heavy, vertical hardwood posts sunk into the sandy soil, supporting a framework of bamboo to which were fixed rows of plaited sago palm leaves. Outside the knee-high, doorless entrance, we stepped over two live sea turtles laid helpless on their backs where they would remain alive until dropped into the earth oven at the next feast.
As I entered, Teriki Tofua motioned from across the room for me to come to him. From my crawling position, the old man certainly looked dignified as he sat Buddha-like in front of other members of his clan on a palm mat laid on the sand floor. His arms and chest were covered in tattoos (tattoo is Polynesian, meaning “to puncture”). As he puffed on a clay pipe stuffed with pungent locally-grown tobacco, clouds of gray smoke hung in front of his deeply-lined and weather-roughened face and long, salt-and-pepper-colored, curly hair and beard. As is their custom, he set aside my gifts of fishing tackle and kava roots without examining or acknowledging them – an attitude I nearly mistook for dissatisfaction or bad manners. Maybe he actually was disappointed, because he then asked if I didn't have any whisky to give. Imagine, the mad palangi sails clear across the ocean alone and neglects to bring us whisky? Despite my poor provisioning, after a few questions about who I was and what I came here for, they set before me a basket of baked green bananas, breadfruit and taro roots as well as a reddish-orange ripe papaya. Eat more, they urged, and I did. After I was stuffed to everyone's satisfaction, Tofua welcomed me to travel wherever I wished, apart from one sacred valley behind the crater lake, which was tapu, or forbidden, to the palangi.
As I explored the island that first day, I discovered four separate clans, each represented by their own chief. In order of rank were Teriki Kafeka, Tofua, Taumako and Fangarere. I passed through each of their territories, meeting each chief and presenting them with fishing hooks and line which they felt obliged to ignore. In return, they fed me to the point I could barely walk.
The leeward side of the island, called Faea, houses three villages and the bay containing the partially sheltered anchorage. The windward side of the island, known as Ravenga, is larger and consists of five villages and a freshwater crater lake called Te Roto, lying in the island's center. Each of the four clans claim to have arrived here from different island groups many generations before the first white men entered the Pacific. Between Tonga and Fiji, I had sailed over the ethnic and cultural line between Polynesia and the darker skinned, kinky-haired people of Melanesia. Both types were recognizable here.
With the chief Teriki Taumako I struck up an immediate friendship. He ruled the clan on the south coast near the lake. His ancestors came from Tonga and he had a friendly and sympathetic manner. After our first meeting, he asked me to come back the following day for another meal and a longer visit.
“What time should I come?” I asked in the universal gesture by pointing at my watch and raising my eyebrows.
Taumako at first held out a hand with upturned palm to indicate it was up to me. Then, seeing me hesitate, he realized I was of the watch-owning-tribe who couldn't function without a schedule. He pointed over his shoulder to a point in the sky indicating the position of a late afternoon sun. On an island of few timepieces, the sun was their celestial clock. I never again wore my watch on Tikopia. With that simple gesture, I dropped out of the clock-crazy world where people parcel up time so as to fulfill the demands of their punctual neighbors.
Freed from the need to keep appointments, I arrived early the next day at Taumako's house to assist in preparing the food, or at least see how it was done. The previous day, maybe half the women, men and children from the village had climbed up to their clan's mountain gardens to gather taro and cassava roots, green bananas and breadfruit, which they piled into baskets made of woven palm leaves to bring back to the village. As I arrived, the umu (earth oven) was cleared of the ashes from the previous fire and dozens of stones pulled out of the pit. Dry leaves, sticks and coconut husks were thrown in, followed by chopped logs. When the wood was fully ablaze, the stones were tossed on top of the fire.
Meanwhile, I helped the men reduce a pile of about fifty coconuts into heaping bowls of grated coconut by splitting and laboriously grating the white flesh on a serrated piece of iron fixed to the edge of our wooden stools. To make cream from the grated coconut, we packed it into stripped hibiscus bark fibers and twisted the mass back and forth until all the cream was extracted through our hands into deep wooden bowls. We shook the dry gratings out for the dogs and chickens to eat and repeated the process until we had three bowls full of rich, oily cream.
While we were grating the nuts, the fire burned down to glowing coals and white hot stones. The women used sticks to spread the stones evenly around the bottom and sides of the pit. This was fiercely hot work and perhaps one reason the women wore their hair clipped so short. Green, spade-shaped taro leaves were then laid over the stones, followed by root vegetables and bunches of green bananas and papayas. All this was covered with more leaves and allowed to bake in its own moisture for a few hours.
When the woman in charge of the umu signaled it was ready, we uncovered the smoldering pile of leaves and vegetables. The intense smoke and heat forced me to stumble out of the cooking hut gasping for air. The women seemed immune to it and soon had the vegetables piled into giant wooden bowls where we pounded them into a mush with the blunt ends of cut palm fronds. While we worked this huge mortar and pestle, others poured the cream on top until we had a uniform cheese-like pudding called susua. It was then wrapped into packets in taro leaves. From time to time, some of this susua was taken away to be buried in leaf-lined underground pits and left for several years to ferment. Hundreds of caches of this pungent pudding, called masi, are buried around the island to tide the people over in times of crop failure due to cyclones or drought.
I had my doubts about masi, until I unknowingly ate some that was offered to me and asked what it was. Taumako assured me this particular batch of masi had been dug up from the sandy earth after sitting there for seven years. Its taste was unique and not entirely as bad as it sounds, being something like a strong blue cheese, with a tangy flavor, but best eaten in small amounts.
That day, we filled fifteen baskets with vegetables and packets of susua that were distributed among the families in the Taumako clan. Each basket contained two days supply of food for each family. This whole communal operation is repeated every second day among all the villages on the island. Today's leftovers hung from the ceilings in their basket for tomorrow's meal. The islanders work their independent garden plots and then distribute the food equally among their clan, so that none go hungry. Even then, in the mid 1980s, Western influence regarding working for individual gain had caused this type of communal effort, in gathering and preparing of daily meals, to mostly disappear from the lives of other Pacific islanders.
Back in Taumako's house, the chief and I sat down to eat. Despite my cries of “Enough!” Taumako's wife and daughters continued to set more food before me. It was not possible to visit anyone here without being stuffed like the Thanksgiving turkey. Tikopians eat by the stomach, not by the clock, and their mostly vegetarian diet encourages them to eat long and often. The custom of sharing a meal with every casual visitor that happens by meant I was never lacking for food. It was actually a problem of too much, too often. I had so many invitations to visit each of the villages that I began to plan my visits according to when I could tolerate more food. If there were several stops to make, I would soon be so completely overfed I could hardly walk. Fortunately, there was a scarcity of sugar and meats on the island; it's hard to become seriously ill on too many baked vegetables.
When I asked Taumako about the best route to climb Mt. Reani, which is Tikopia's highest peak standing a modest 1,200 feet above the sea, he called for a teenaged boy, named Tivoli, to guide me. The next morning, Tivoli, bare-foot and wearing only a laplap, led me along a path that wandered in and out of villages, then along a beach strewn with boulders and stones of all sizes. I nearly ran to keep up with his sure-footed strides as our path twisted among, and sometimes over, the large boulders.
We passed under a vertical cliff of bare rock that stood with its base along the high tide mark of the beach. As we squeezed past, the trade wind funneled around the mountain with accelerated force, blasting us with sand picked up from the beach. Leaving the coast, we ascended a vine-laced trail, stepping aside frequently to let heavily-laden farmers descend with baskets of vegetables destined for the earth oven. They moved in swift, balanced steps, their toes gripping the loose rocks and soil.
As the trail grew less steep, we entered cultivated lots of fruit trees, assorted vegetables and tobacco plants. Tivoli halted now and then and used his long bush knife to point out some remarkable features of an especially fine garden. I'd copy down the names of everything he described in my growing Tikopian dictionary and reply so far as my limited vocabulary would permit.
From our perch on the grassy peak of Reani, one sweep of our eyes around the horizon took in the entire island kingdom.
Pale green and still, Lake Te Roto reflected the cliffs and lush hillsides that rolled down to its marshy edges. A solitary fisherman paddled his canoe – a gliding waterbug – across the lake. Formed in the crater of an extinct volcano, the lake is continuously fed by freshwater springs and occupies nearly a third of the island's area. Beyond the lake, framed between jumbled peaks and a narrow strip of beach, a line of white foam marks the reef. Past the breakers lies the cobalt blue of the moana (the deep sea), and the unbroken horizon. Even at the top of Reani, you cannot escape the mournful muted thunder of Pacific swells ending their multiple thousand-mile journey on the reefs of Tikopia. The trees on the mountainside leaned seaward like concert-goers listening to the pulse of the waves. The endless heartbeat of the sea, and the wide open horizon, continually reminds the islanders of their profound isolation.
Looking over the empty sea, Tivoli said something like, “Friend, when you leave here in your boat I will go with you.” For the native peoples of Oceania, nothing could be worse than traveling alone. To be away from the protection and care of your family and clan meant you were vulnerable, miserable with worry and loneliness. Every native person I encountered in the Pacific found it incomprehensible that I was crossing the oceans alone for adventure, and to focus, undistracted by travel companions, on the peoples and places I visited. In his innocence, he assumed that his courageous offer would be automatically accepted. He only understood my decline of his offer when I told him he had no passport to travel. He seemed more relieved than disappointed at the news. Perhaps, for a brief moment, he felt the urgings of his ancestors to recapture the freedom of voyaging across the watery highways of the Pacific. This speck of wave-lashed land may be all of the world he would ever know. We stood there, each contemplating a life other than the one we had. Paradise or prison? For Tivoli, Tikopia was some of both.
As we returned to the friendly stir of the village, a boy messenger told me Teriki Taumako wished for me to visit him before returning to the boat. His village, Bot sa Taumako, sat on the edge of the lake with its back to the ocean. Entering the village we saw fishermen standing in the shallows using hand-lines to catch pan-sized fish.
Inside Taumako's house were all four of the island's chiefs and several village elders sitting around baskets of food. They had been having a meeting regarding preparations for an important event planned for a few days later. A month earlier, Chief Taumako's father had died, passing his title to his eldest son. Since then the islanders had observed a period of mourning with many activities declared tapu, including dancing and certain social events, out of respect for the dead chief. The end of mourning was to be marked by a large feast and celebration.
In front of the gathered crowd, Taumako honored me with a gift of a shell necklace carved in a bird-like design, called temanga, which is worn only by the island's chiefs. Long ago, travel among the widely spaced islands of the Pacific was fraught with dangers and a high risk of never returning home. Because of this, by custom, the chiefs of Tikopia are not allowed to travel outside of their island unless the Solomon Islands government requests them for a meeting in Guadalcanal. This happens rarely, so they are naturally curious about other lands and people they will never see. As I sat on a woven mat with my back pressed against the hut's main support pole, I answered their questions about my travels.
Judging from the amazed and satisfied expressions of the audience, my interpreter was a skilled storyteller. I suspect that whenever my own narrative lacked in exciting events, he embellished it with exaggerated claims. The man had been educated for a few years in the capital of the Solomon Islands and was one of only a couple people on the island who spoke some English.
“Ask the palangi sailor if he was ever bothered by sharks,” asked someone.
My simple answer of “No” was translated something like – “Bothered? This man has killed many sharks, sometimes with his bare hands!”
At one point, Chief Tofua made a speech to all present, claiming that I (he called me “Samesi” as the closest approximation to James that their language allowed) was a “willing man” and must belong to a royal bloodline, and wished me to verify the fact by admitting to them that my father was a chief. “No young man of the common class could have come so far alone,” he asserted.
If I told them the truth, that as far as I knew, I came from what they would call the caste of commoners, it would not go over well. Perhaps my head was puffed up with all the attention poured on me and I feared being stripped of my chiefly necklace and privileges, as unlikely as that would have been. Thinking quickly, I remembered my grandfather had held public office as sheriff. So, I told them the little lie that yes, I had descended from a chief – not a great chief – but a type of chief, nonetheless. Chief Tofua nodded his head approvingly and the tension of the moment vanished.
Then they wanted to know why I did not eat the fish when it was offered. Was it forbidden by my religion? Another sticky question. Before, on other islands, when I clumsily tried to explain I did not eat meat out of compassion for animals, or a way to cleanse myself spiritually, I was considered to belong to a special class of lunatic. So again, I gave them an answer they could understand, that indeed my religion did forbid it. What I didn't say was that my religion was the study and love of nature, that my church had neither bible nor other members, and was a philosophy that evolved as I evolved.
While we spoke, the men continuously chewed betel nut. All over Oceania, tree-grown bunches of betel nuts are peeled of their husk and the soft inner nut chewed together with lime powder extracted from burnt seashells and a certain green plant leaf that neutralizes its bitter taste. A chemical reaction turns teeth and lips bright red and makes the mouth water with scarlet juice. The men here chew it endlessly, without sign of it affecting them. Tofua handed me a nut and some lime wrapped in a small leaf. I plunked the whole nut into my mouth, followed by the leaf, and began to chew. Within half a minute I was in a cold sweat, my heart pounding and head spinning, and a mouth filled with saliva that could not be swallowed. I stood up on rubber legs and staggered outside the hut to spit the nut and red juice into the sand, then took several deep breaths and came back inside to find my hosts greatly amused. Ha – some chief I turned out to be! Eventually, I, too, developed a tolerance to the betel nut, but though I chewed it many times to be sociable, I never acquired the islanders' insatiable taste for it.
Their questions turned to navigation techniques, which the elders knew were based on a knowledge of the position of certain stars that could point the way to those who could read them.
“Which star will you follow from here?” asked a man old enough to remember the long since abandoned two-day canoe trips to trade with relatives on Anuta Island, seventy-five miles away. I simplified my explanation of modern celestial navigation and said, “There is a star that rises over the big island of New Guinea and that is the way I will go.” They knew of the island of New Guinea, though they did not know which stars could guide them there.
Until the islands of the Pacific were conquered and pacified by Westerners, the double-hulled sailing canoes ranged across this part of Oceania carrying native settlers and soldiers between Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and other island groups. Tongan chiefs even ruled outlying islands like Tikopia at times, demanding tribute from the local chiefs. Those great voyages are now only distant memories. Oddly, the modern native craft are frail, hollowed out logs with a bamboo outrigger attached, barely suitable for short trips across the harbor, let alone inter-island voyages. Somehow the Pacific peoples lost their boat-building and voyaging skills and became land-bound. But why? I could only think that it was Western civilization, with its dependable cargo boats and restrictions on inter-island raids and a thousand other discouragements. It simply wasn't worth the trouble any longer.
Between pauses for betel nut, one of the elders told of the islanders' encounter with the outside world during World War II. Many of the other islands in the Solomons, such as Guadalcanal, had suffered terrible destruction. The only soldiers to come to Tikopia were survivors of an American plane that ditched in the sea nearby. “The great bird fell out of the sky over there,” the old man said while pointing past the reefs. Despite the shock of seeing their first airplane, the islanders had quickly launched their canoes and saved three of the flyers. Sadly, another four drowned. “We all cried for the dead men,” he said as sincerely as if they had been his own relatives. The islanders cared for the survivors until a passing Navy ship took them away.
Another man said that soon after that incident, an American named John flew his “great bird” over the island, passing so low that he shook some of the palm fronds loose. “How could you possibly know his name was John?” I asked. “Because he dropped us a carton of cigarettes with his name 'John Player' printed on the boxes.” I couldn't ruin the legend by telling him that John Player was a brand of English cigarettes. Fortunately, that was as close as the madness of war came to this happy island.
The light of a single kerosene lamp cast a dim yellow glow on our faces as we sat around talking late into the night. Thinking I knew the way back to the anchorage, I foolishly refused the offer of a boy to guide me. I crawled outside the hut into the complete blackness of a moonless night. Even the starlight was blocked by the tree canopy and overcast skies. On an island without electricity, night fully eclipses the day. I took a few steps until I walked into a tree. Should the would-be circumnavigator descended from chiefs crawl back and ask for help from a boy to find his way home? That thought was discarded as soon as it appeared. Oh, what pride I had!
With hands outstretched, I groped my way from tree to tree, guided loosely by my memory of the path and keeping the sound of surf from the reef on my left until I reached the beach in front of the anchorage and, literally, stumbled over my dinghy. There was no visible sign of Atom in the darkness, though I knew it must be anchored nearby. Rowing the dinghy back to my boat, I heard the soft voices of young courting couples on the beach at the other end of the bay. I rested at my oars and drifted as the girls' hauntingly beautiful song pierced the darkness of the calm, starless night. It faded into the laughter of young lovers and I wished I were one of them.
On the day of the big ceremony, people from all over the island met at Bot sa Taumako, carrying every imaginable food from garden and sea. Even large packets of fermented masi were dug up for the occasion. The four chiefs took their seats on mats outside Taumako's house. Tucked under their belts were branches of a perfume-scented bush that appeared to sprout from their backs. A few men with clubs beat out a monotonous rhythm against the bottom of an upturned canoe. A group of village elders wailed discordantly, making eerie, inhuman sounds. The chiefs hung their heads till their chins touched their bare chests and they wept real tears in a show of respect for Taumako's father.
I had been invited to sit next to the chiefs and take pictures of the entire event. The sudden outpouring of emotion caught me by surprise and I felt I was intruding on a private affair and lowered my camera. Then, as suddenly as they'd started, the tears stopped and the chiefs got up and began dancing slowly around the upturned canoe, stamping their feet hard in the sand as they circled around and around. Tofua came over to me smiling and asked if I got some good photos. Was their ability to turn emotions on and off, at will, a sign of insincerity? Or was it that, unlike myself, these people did not have to search for happiness, or run from sadness, but carried both within themselves and always in reach?
Later, baskets of food were brought out and the chiefs ate in silence while bare-breasted girls clad in tapa cloth skirts hovered around them like fairies and fanned away the flies. Other women sang songs in loud bursts of harmony as the rest of us ate our feast. The celebration turned into an all-day fiesta of singing, dancing, feasting and story-telling that the ancient Romans would have applauded.
Being confined to the boat for weeks at a time while on passages between the islands made me appreciate the chance to take long walks on the beaches and along the bush trails through the mountains whenever I could, but on Tikopia, it is impossible for a visitor to walk alone. A group of laughing children were always at my side, each trying to clutch a finger and guide me along. I enjoyed having them around, chattering like monkeys, singing and running off in all directions when something caught their eye. They were the best and most patient teachers as they taught me to speak Tikopian in the simple, direct words that children use. As I parroted back their words and sentences, it brought looks of amazement, or more often, unsuppressed laughter when I made a mistake. Now I was the mimicking, chattering monkey providing their amusement.
Accompanied by a dozen of these excited children, I set off to walk the fifteen-mile circumference of the island. Our troop followed the beach for a few miles until overhanging cliffs blocked the shoreline and we were forced to detour inland, always conscious to avoid the forbidden valley. What could be in that valley, I wondered – a temple for human sacrifice? Perhaps they sequestered their loveliest virgins there whenever a palangi sailor was loose on the island?
A light, warm rain fell as we made our way through gardens of cassava and bananas and then into uncultivated forest. As we walked, I stopped often to wait for children who scampered off into the forest to gather wild fruits and nuts. There was nothing that grew or lived in the forest that the islanders had not taught their children how to identify and utilize. A particular bird song caught the boys' attention. A naked boy about eight years old scrambled up a tall coconut tree and deftly snatched the mother bird sitting to defend her eggs. As the bird protested loudly, the boy returned to the ground, tied the ends of the wingtip feathers together so it couldn't escape, and offered it to me. When I asked him to let it go free, he looked at me as if I had asked him to toss away a gold coin, then proceeded to carry his squawking prisoner home as a tiny contribution to the family dinner.
The boys also chased after the dark-brown fruit-eating bats known as “flying foxes” that hung upside down from the branches of casurina trees. Fortunately, the bats eluded the boys' grasp and we took no more captives.
On the island's windward side the walking became difficult on steep slopes of mud and loose rock. This uninhabited shore is a maze of cliffs, balanced boulders wrapped in creeping vegetation, and deep caves beckoning to be explored. The sure-footed children never slipped, while I was off my feet many times. My harmless falls in the mud brought cries of alarm and eager hands pulled me back to my feet.
Protruding incongruously from the reef on this uninhabited northeast coast was the battered wreck of a Taiwanese fishing boat that landed here during a storm in 1980. In their canoes, the Tikopians rescued the entire 20-man crew. The islanders sympathized with the shipwrecked fishermen and took them into their homes until another Taiwanese fishing boat picked them up a month later. Before they were rescued, a government boat arrived from Guadalcanal with the intent of arresting the fishermen for poaching in the Solomon's territorial waters. However, the island chiefs, being happily ignorant of the concept that the deep sea could be owned as if it were a parcel of land, refused to hand them over. Unable to overrule the chiefs' authority, the officials had no choice but to leave empty-handed. I could only hope the chiefs would protect me as well if a government boat came and found me on the island without “official permission.”
The broken northern shoreline gradually gave way to the smooth beaches of Faea on the island's leeward side. When the tide runs out, it reveals an expanse of shallow tidal flats. Generations ago, low walls of stone were built to form pens on the flats in front of each village. Each day, as the tide drops, fish are still trapped in these ancient pens and groups of women wade into the water to scoop the fish up with handmade nets that resemble loosely strung tennis rackets. This daily ritual usually ends up looking like a game of water polo as the women chase the fish into corners and frantically slash at the water with their nets. Farther out in the lagoon, men drift about in canoes fishing with hand lines under a languorous midday sun.
Here at Potikorokoro Village, the weekly soccer game attracts hundreds of spectators, perhaps half the island's population. The tournament is held at low tide when the tidal flat, being the only level playing field on the island, is clear of water. After a few hours playing on the moist sand, the players yield the field to the incoming tide.
Having finished my walk around the island, my friend, Joseph Roto, invited me to join him one moonless night in his canoe for a flying fish hunt. “When we can see the first seven stars of evening, we go,” Joseph told me.
A kerosene pressure lamp was tied to a post in the center of his canoe. The flying fish are attracted to the light and are swatted out of the air with a net attached to a long bamboo pole. The kerosene lamp, acquired by bartering their copra in Guadalcanal, has mostly replaced the ancient method of coconut sheath torches.
We paddled out of the bay until we were about two miles offshore, where we stowed our paddles and the bombardment started. Flying fish shot back and forth just above our heads, the humming sound of their wing-like fins giving only a fraction of a second warning of their approach. Joseph leapt into action with his net and pole. In three hours, swinging his net from side to side, he filled the canoe nearly to the gunwales with stunned, gasping fish. There was now only a couple inches of freeboard and each small wave threatened to sink us as we paddled through the black night towards the faintly visible island. With our feet safely planted on the beach, and the women unloading the fish into baskets, Joseph mentioned the sudden storm that came up two years ago when several canoes were out fishing. Three of the fishermen were lost in what the Tikopian still refer to as a “sweet burial.”
On another day, I visited the single room wooden schoolhouse at Potikorokoro Village, where the teacher, a village elder who spoke some English, asked me to give a talk about my travels to the children. I tacked a world map to the wall and outlined my trip thus far and the projected route ahead as nearly a hundred wide-eyed children listened to the teacher interpreting. Then I took their questions – ranging from navigation techniques, to sail-handling, to what foods I ate. Their level of awareness impressed me.
One boy asked, “Aren't you afraid to be alone on the sea in a big storm?” I had yet to be in a “big” storm or faced the kind of incapacitating fear that could strike in any number of crises. If the interpreter was more skilled, I would have been tempted to try to explain my quest for adventure alone at sea. I had as many fears as most folks but my choice was to move forward to meet these demons, to have it out with them, rather than be pursued by fear of this or that thing, to the end of my days.
In return for my talk, the entire class entertained me by singing a number of Tikopian songs. I can never forget the natural charm and spontaneity of the children of Tikopia.
For more than two weeks, my visits to Taumako's house had been a near-daily affair. In Taumako, I sensed a man of rare sensitivity. His preliterate mind contained a library of information passed down by previous generations. His wise council was sought and heeded by the villagers on all manner of disputes or community projects. He aspired always to preserve their traditions and values, while keeping himself free of the age-old vices of ambition and greed. Occasional travelers who respected their customs were welcome – demanding, insensitive tourists were not.
A chief had very few more possessions than anyone else on the island. What they had, they shared. What they wanted, they took. If it was unavailable, they realized the desire created the need and rather than turn the world on its head to find it, they ceased their wanting. Things would change here as they do everywhere and I wondered how long the Tikopians could withstand the coming whirlwind of change brought by the onslaught of our all-consuming civilization. Even then, I knew these would be the freest, happiest days of my life. I walked the island with empty pockets, as rich a man there, as ever I would be.
One reason remote, placid Tikopia is spared the corrupting influence of too many visitors is due to its poor anchorage, exposed to all westerly winds. The anchorage is generally safe during the southern hemisphere's winter of May to October when southeast winds predominate. Now it was late October and the Northwest Monsoon and its threat of squalls and cyclones was not far away.
On the morning of October 19, I sat in Taumako's hut and listened absent-mindedly to the pattering of raindrops as a shower passed over. I had grown as complacent as a Tikopian in a few weeks and had not kept a close eye on the weather. A boy ran into the house telling us the wind had shifted to the west. I stepped outside, saw the trees bending to the west wind, and ran for the anchorage with half of Taumako's clan on my heels. Atom was plunging her bow in the short choppy waves and had already started to drag her light anchors. Waves broke over the bow of the small dinghy as I slowly made progress towards the boat. Climbing aboard I saw one of the anchor's lines had chafed through and Atom's stern was within feet of hitting the hard sharp fingers of the reef. I was perilously closer to my dream of staying permanently on the island than I really wanted.
My fickle old engine started this time on the first touch of the ignition button. I motored forward, then ran to the bow, brought up the remaining anchor and raced back to steer out of the bay. When clear of the reef, I hoisted a storm jib and reefed main and hove-to for a couple minutes while I hauled the dinghy on deck. Then I made short tacks to hold my position while I considered what to do. I knew I couldn't stay, yet I hesitated, for I had not said my goodbyes to my friends.
Seeing I must leave, Taumako ordered two canoes launched. With great difficulty the four paddlers forced their frail craft into the waves. One of the men dove over and retrieved my lost anchor, some 40 feet below. Then they made their way offshore into the breaking waves, stopping often to bail out their boats with empty coconut shells. I sailed in as close as I dared and met them. They handed me my anchor and two baskets of fruit and vegetables and wished me a good journey. I gave them a bag of quickly gathered gifts. My thanks could not be enough for people who risked their lives to take care of their friends, but these were people who well understood unspoken feelings. After I saw they had made it safely back to the beach, I took a long, final tack offshore.
On December 28, 2002, Tikopia was directly hit and devastated by tropical cyclone Zoe. This was the strongest cyclone to hit the island in living memory, with winds estimated at well over 150 knots. Reports say that as the islanders took refuge in caves, their homes and crops were completely destroyed and trees were uprooted or stripped bare. Giant seas breached a narrow strip of land and contaminated the life-giving freshwater lagoon with saltwater. It wasn't the first storm to furiously beat the island and, as saddened as I am at the hardship they endured, I expect the islanders will recover as they always have.