Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Warm welcome at Tikopia

Greetings,

On our way from the Marshall Islands to Vanuatu, the trade winds (very conveniently) died just as we were approaching the tiny island of Tikopia, so we (enthusiastically) stopped for a few days.

As we approached in the morning light (having been hove-to the previous evening to time our arrival for the morning) the volcanic island seemed to rise from the mist like something out of Jurassic Park (and the blank looks on our kids' faces when Max described it this way reminded us that their cultural education has had some gaps that we will need to rectify...). After months of approaching low-lying atolls that are only visible within the last few miles, it was startling to see land from so far away. As we got closer, we could see tiny little triangles floating on the water off either end of the island. At first, we thought they were markers of some kind, or perhaps toy canoes like the boys played with in Ailuk, but eventually we could see that these were full-sized one-person dugout canoes, with outriggers for stability and tiny sails for propulsion, that were operated by individual villagers out to catch their daily fish.

Anchoring offered another reminder that we have left the world of atolls and lagoons this season: we had no pass to enter, we simply motored up towards a gap in the reef that Max had plotted based on the USN Sailing Directions and satellite imagery, and dropped our anchor in about 80 feet of water. Many yachts apparently anchor on a patch of sand 30 feet deep a little North East of our position, but the late-morning sun on my left meant that I couldn't see the reefs in this direction from where I was standing on the bow, so we biased ourselves to the side of the anchorage where we had visibility. The ocean water was extraordinarily clear: we could see the anchor and chain on the bottom.

Perhaps it was because Tikopia had come highly recommended by our friends on SV INFINITY (www.InfinityExpedition.org), perhaps it was because Tikopia was featured as a success story in Jared Diamond's book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", or perhaps it was because we had seen nothing but flat, beige atolls for the last few months, and Tikopia was lush and green, but we *LOVED* Tikopia.

The welcome began almost as soon as we had anchored, as the dugout fishing boats that had been out on the reef since before dawn began sailing back to the village around mid-day; many of the men stopped to say hello and to welcome us, and the first even shared his catch as a gift (yellowfin for dinner that night, and skipjack the following night: we were happy to accept one fish, but he insisted that we take two!) This was an immediate difference from the Marshall Islands, where the villagers were friendly and would wave, but almost never stopped by the boat to say hello.

It was not just the men who visited us: three teenagers came in a one-person dugout with dark green leafy vegetables (an island relative of spinach, I think) and coconuts to trade for sugar and coffee, as well as shell necklace that the girl placed around Victoria's neck as a gift. [In a delightful exchange, Victoria gave her a knotted necklace that she had made in Mexico.] They also invited us to come and see their family when we went ashore. We had a good chuckle as they left the boat: with three of them in a one-person canoe, they had about an inch of freeboard, and in fact, the youngest brother was soon tossed overboard to swim so the other two could make some progress upwind towards the beach!

We have been known to allow lethargy to dictate our agenda after a passage (especially one as long as this) but, aware that our visit would be very short, we launched the dinghy right away. [Aside - We also noticed that we were much more rested after our ten-day passage with Victoria and Johnathan taking watches than we generally feel after short (1-3 day) passages when we never catch up on sleep.] Once it seemed that most of our welcoming committee had gone back about their own business, we headed ashore to find the chief.

We were met on the beach by the village children, eager to look at our dinghy and hold our hands. We asked to be directed to the Chief's home, and one of the men led us to a good-sized thatched-roofed structure. The roof had a very tall peak, but came to within about two feet of the ground, and the doorways were very low. The Chief was at work in his yard when we arrived, but he quickly went ahead of us, and greeted us inside, sitting cross-legged in the middle of his living area. He welcomed us to Tikopia and explained a few aspects of Tikopian culture, including the reason that all doors are built so low to the ground: it requires visitors to enter and leave on their knees (even the chief) facing inwards, showing respect to the home and it occupants. He also told us that it was customary to bring gifts when visiting a chief, so if we were to go visit one of the other three chiefs on the island, it would reflect badly on him if we weren't prepared. Thankfully, we had brought a small bottle of Canadian Maple Syrup for him :) The Chief maintains a guest book for visitors, and when we wrote our entry, it was fun to see the names of other boats we had met, including our friends Yves and Tamanui on Aorai :)

The Chief gave us our first sense of the people of Tikopia, of their pride and resilience. They had experienced Cyclone Donna only a couple of weeks earlier, but we could hardly tell as we walked through the village: the debris had been swept away, and the huts all seemed intact. Unfortunately, many of their crops had been damaged, and they were low on food (to the point that after the Government boat came to do the post-cyclone needs assessment, the school was closed for three weeks until the Relief boat could be dispatched, as there was a recognition that hungry kids wouldn't learn well). Despite this shortage, they had no broad needs that they wished for us to meet. In the Chief's hut, he showed us an intricately carved pillar which had stood there for seven generations. The roots of the pillar stretch down into the ground, even though the top does not have branches, a construction technique that his ancestors developed.

The role of the Chief is hereditary, passed down from father to first-born son. There are four Chiefs on Tikopia, and although one is senior to the others, he is not a paramount chief, and decisions that affect the Island are made by all four of them through a sometimes-lengthy consensus building process. In addition, they are represented in Honiara by a local Member of Parliament (currently a woman, as we were told with pride a couple of times).

Following our visit to the Chief, we walked the length of the beach to visit the teenagers and their parents, gathering an ever-increasing entourage of children along the way. There is only one chief on this side of the island, but there seemed to be several closely-spaced village communities. On this walk, we met Wilfred, the D/Head of the Elementary School, who became our de facto guide and friend for the rest of our visit. Most of the Tikopians we met spoke passable to fluent English, but his was especially good, and he was kind enough to spend some time on several occasions sharing stories of Tikopia's history with us. He was also happy to hear that we had a copy of the travel video filmed in Tikopia during the visit of SV Infinity last year, and was pleased that we would try to leave it with him. The cameras followed a Norwegian family around Tikopia for two weeks to make a number of segments of the Norwegian children's show, "Message in a Bottle". We watched all the episodes one evening, and it offered an enjoyable mix of familiar and unfamiliar destinations ... thankfully each was only 10 min long!

The home we were heading for had been pointed out to us from the boat, so we knew vaguely where we were going, and the teenagers were watching for us as we approached to lead us the rest of the way, so we soon found ourselves kneeling to enter another thatched home, glad of our brief cultural lesson from the Chief. We learned that the dad (John) was out fishing, and that they really wanted to trade for clothing the following day, once he had returned and finished the beaded necklaces he was working on. The perimeter of the one open room was lined with boxes and lockable trunks, and quite a number of ladies and children were there to meet and smile at us. We ended up chatting quite a lot with their new daughter-in-law (married three months!) as she was from another part of the Solomons, and had very fluent English. It was interesting to gain the perspective of a 'local outsider' to Tikopia :) I noticed one of the ubiquitous Singer mechanical sewing machines in front of the mom (Lis), and the next day she asked if we had any Sewing Machine oil; it turned out that it had totally jammed and she could hardly turn the hand-wheel.

All too soon, it was time to disentangle ourselves from all the little hands that were holding ours and make our way back to Fluenta before dark. We had had a very enjoyable first day: our stores of sugar, coffee, AA batteries and ballpoint pens were noticeably reduced, while numerous carvings and seashells adorned the boat. For dinner, I cooked a very local meal of chopped greens in coconut milk with white rice and seared fish with wasabi and soya sauce, topping off the evening with a reading from Johnathan's book.

The following morning again brought a fleet of dugout sailing canoes by the boat, as word spread that we had sugar and other items to trade. As soon as we could, we packed up our bag of hand-me-down clothes and headed ashore to meet our new friends. At the appointed time, the tide was too low for the dingy to make it across the reef to the beach, so Max dropped us off at the reef wall, and we walked through shin-deep water over the coral to the shore. As usual, we were met by most of the village children, who picked their way nimbly through the uneven outcroppings in bare feet, while I walked carefully trying to keep my balance while carrying Benjamin on my hip. At one point, one of the children reached out and took my hand to steady us, and very naturally helped me to balance as we made our way ashore :)

Upon returning to the family's home, we were ushered into a tin building next door to their thatched hut. We learned that this was the the parents' (private!) sleeping room as well as the crafting and storage space (the rest of the family sleep communally in the thatched hut); we were surprised that it had a full-height door. We all crowded into the room and sat on the floor, while a sea of little faces peered at us curiously through the doorway and both windows. A well-spoken man sat near me on a bench outside the door; this was very helpful, as he turned out to be the couple's nephew, and his English was very good. He very kindly explained some of the subtleties of Tikopian culture, and told us about some of his family members who had moved off-island to work in Honiara, one of whom was the HR director for the University. I always find it hard to imagine members of a family living such different lives, one in the traditional village and one in the big city; however, this seems to be the pattern in the remote islands, and it is an effective modern way of controlling the on-island population, given that warfare, suicidal seafaring missions, and infanticide are now frowned upon...

When we were asked not just once, but three times, for clothing the previous day, I had really encouraged the kids to dig in their clothing bags to find things that they had outgrown: we had already given away our ready-use hand-me-down bag in the Marshall Islands, and there were slim pickings aboard Fluenta. It didn't seem to me that we had much worth donating, as most of our clothing is very well worn by the time anyone is finished with it; however, as I looked around at the people I met on the island, I noticed that these items would blend in very well, as the only common denominator for many of the children was that they were covered in fabric: clothes were too big or too small, inside out, full of holes, backwards or frontwards, only tops or only bottoms - it didn't seem to matter. Everyone enjoyed a good chuckle when I offered the bag of clothes and said that they were from children on a yacht, which meant that they had stains and holes - just like on an island! I had rounded out our bag with a bath towel and some tea towels as well. I knew that our gift had been well received when the mom not only put the individual shell and bead necklaces around each of our necks (including an extra one for me when Benjamin ducked his head away) but she emptied the contents of her woven handbag and presented that to me as well :)

Benjamin spent most of the visit hiding and nursing in my arms, ignoring anyone who attempted to talk to him; however, as soon as the nephew (Mitchell) started trimming the top off a coconut with his machete, Benjamin perked up completely and started commenting on the proceedings: "Look, he's cutting a coconut"; "I love coconut"; "He's going to share the coconut!" The locals were quite delighted to finally hear him speak :)

An hour later, the tide had risen enough that Max was able to beach the dinghy, and he came ashore with a picnic lunch. Our plan for the afternoon was to take the 'short' walk to the other side of the island to see the crater lake set amidst the volcanic hills, and then return to meet the school teacher to see if we could give him a copy of the travel show. June, the 18-year-old daughter of our self-appointed host family, and Gwen, the daughter-in-law from Guadalcanal, were directed to lead us over and back again; before long a boy of about 12 had also joined us, and he seemed to know the path the best :) We had been told that the walk took the kids 15-20 minutes when they came to this village for school; jokingly we had suggested that it might take us 30 as grown-up foreigners. As it turns out, the walk was much longer than that, so much so that I set my stop-watch for the return: 50 minutes! All this being said, the hike was worth the effort, and the view at the end was beautiful. The path through the jungle opened up into a field of lush green grass, and calm waters of the shallow lake reflected the the volcanic peaks and the blue sky. Our guides immediately walked (clothing and all) into the water, so we quickly set our bags down and followed suit. After the heat of the walk, it was wonderfully refreshing to submerge ourselves in the fresh water, murky (silty) as it was. Even Benjamin was happy to paddle. Unfortunately, we didn't stop him from blowing bubbles quite quickly enough, so he was the only one of us to end up with a bit of a runny tummy that evening ... such is life in a tropical paradise! [Aside - he was fine by the next day.]

We had assumed that the path to the lake would be over the top of the steep hill between the villages (although I had hoped that we were wrong) but it turned out that the path followed the outer perimeter of the island. This was good from a hill-climbing perspective, but it did limit us in terms of tide: at certain tides, the the path becomes awash with breaking waves. On our outbound trek, we had paused on a built-up corner (concrete, coral, and chicken wire had been used to create an artificial path) for our picnic; however, when I asked Gwen while we floated if we needed to worry about the tide, she made a bit of a face, and shortly thereafter hustled us out of the water. With the windward side of the island behind us, I breathed a sigh of relief when our path took us back up onto the higher ground away from the beach! June was lovely as a tour guide. We were all walking in our usual flip-flops, and I had Benjamin on my back in the carrier; when we began to step carefully over the loose coral rocks on the beach, she was instantly beside me offering me a steadying hand for balance.

The trip to the lake had been on our must-do bucket list for Tikopia, but for me the highlight of the visit occurred the following afternoon when we went ashore for a delayed attempt to give the video files to Wilfred, to see if Max could fix Mitchell's inverter, and to oil Lis's sewing machine. Benjamin was taking a now-rare nap, so we left Victoria and Johnathan to mind him (they didn't object, as they get weary of being the objects of curiosity when we go ashore). Max and I found Wilfred first, and he was in a philosophical mood. He gestured for two boys to pull up a couple of coconut grating stools for us to sit on, and for the next half-hour, he patiently answered our questions about Tikopia. By this time, we had both read the passage in "Collapse" and we wondered how accurate a portrayal the author had created. We learned that the Island villages are typically very resilient to the frequent cyclones, and that even after the island was devastated about 17 years ago (Cyclone Soya or similar?) and the villagers were offered the possibility of relocating to Australia, they elected to stay on their own land, such as it was. Cyclones regularly cause mudslides, which damage the crops, but then the soil seems more fertile than usual the following season, due to new volcanic soil being washed down from the hills: the crop will often be better than average. As usual, we asked about the encroachment of modern technology and the Internet (3G has been promised but not yet delivered); when he expressed a bit of hesitation, we encouraged him as a respected village leader (with over 50 years in education) to trust his instincts about treading carefully into that new frontier. Without Internet, villagers still gather in family groups to sing songs and tell stories after the sun sets (in fact, one evening we could hear the singing from the boat); all three of us were concerned that this practice would fade away as people become more engrossed in surfing the web or posting to Facebook. As outsiders, we wonder at how resilient the traditional culture will be when mass media rolls out over the island. It seems that all we can do is cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Wilfred accompanied us to Mitchell's house, which made it much easier to find, and gave us the chance to keep chatting. Unfortunately, the inverter was beyond repair (likely corroded internally due to the same salt air that eats our equipment) and Mitchell's DVD player, which had long ago lost its remote, would not recognize the USB stick that I had brought. We achieved better success when we took the lubricating oil over to Lis's sewing machine: I gave her the bottle, she doused oil liberally into all the little holes, and when she turned the handwheel everything moved. Her entire face lit up with satisfaction :)

In many places, we go ashore with a strong awareness of the modesty rules that the Victorian-era missionaries imposed, and I wear long sleeves and long skirts so that shoulders and knees are covered. In Tikopia, it was actually a bit of a relief to find that the women were more traditional in their approach. It seemed that tops were completely optional for little girls and old women, while older girls and middle-aged women would generally wear some kind of covering. This also seemed to have something to do with the time of day, and fewer tops seemed to be worn in the late afternoon. I generally wore long sleeves to protect myself from the sun, but it was a relief not to worry about clothing from a false modesty perspective:)

We were anchored in a bit of a natural bay formed more by the fringing reef than by the island, and the whole family was eager to snorkel, which we could very nearly do from the boat (the Benjamin factor makes us a bit more conservative). At low tide, the water over the reef was very shallow, so the bright overhead sun really highlighted the colours of the different kinds of coral. We saw quite a few tiny fish and a handful of larger (spearable) fish down in the deeper water. The most extraordinary thing about our snorkelling trip was that we could clearly see a sting ray dug into the sand on the bottom, at over 70 ft! We weren't the only ones on the reef: three boys were out spear-fishing. We could quickly tell why fins were such coveted items for trading: all the boys swam in bare feet, and their masks were quite old. Even without fancy equipment, they were completely comfortable swimming into the deeper water for their daily catch with their pole-spears. We could also tell that there must be very few sharks in the area - one of the boys had his catch strung onto a belt, and the fish flapped behind him like an old-fashioned bustle on a dress. In many of the places where Max has been spearfishing one would never keep the fish that close to the people, and it is sometimes a race to the dinghy to get any part of the fish home at all!

The big kids unearthed a tiny set of snorkelling gear in the deck box that now fits Benjamin. He was quite excited to wear it in the dinghy, but he wasn't quite ready to put his face in the water. When we got back to Fluenta, he proudly waddled around the upper deck like a little naked duck, wearing nothing but his mask, snorkel, and fins :)

When I went grocery shopping in Majuro, I didn't anticipate that I would need so much sugar or coffee in Tikopia! I never tired of the call from the side deck, "Mom, come on up. Someone is here to trade." One man even came back twice: after his wife saw that he had traded some shell necklaces for cooking oil for his daughter, she wanted some too!! I loved the serendipity of having just the right thing for someone: as it turned out, I had bought three extra bottles of oil in Majuro, so I had one for his daughter, one for ourselves that I had opened that very morning, and one for his wife. It was easy to reprovision cooking oil in Luganville, and it felt good to have the supplies these women wanted.

The majority of the items we received in trade were either hand-made carvings or weavings, or were easily-replaceable shells from the beach. Our favourite treasures were a pair of carvings crafted by the same man: an intricately carved (and very sharp) wooden weapon called a "tao" and a replica wooden dugout sailing canoe. The most practical was a very old wooden-handled tapas (fabric) beater used to pound the pandanus fibres before they are woven into mats or basket, that the old man's wife sent in trade for the cooking oil; he chuckled when I asked if it was for my family if they didn't cooperate :) After only a few days, I began to understand how our friends who had spent an entire season in the Solomons could feel like they had ended up with too many wooden carvings!

In the interests of transparency, it also seems important to acknowledge that some of our trades left us a little doubtful, with mixed feelings; in fact, I ended up asking Wilfred about one of them. One man's four year old son had apparently been quite sad since Cyclone Donna, and the boy wanted lollies. They came to Fluenta in their dug-out canoe to offer an heirloom beaded necklace with a strikingly carved piece of shell that he told me his great grandparents had used in the traditional dancing. The shape of it proudly indicated, "I am Tikopian" and it was still coated with the rust-coloured skin paints (ochre?) that they would have worn. He wanted to trade this and a piece of traditional tapas cloth/skirt (made by hand from local fibres), and was quite keen for us to take both. I asked a few times whether he really wanted to trade away a piece of his Island's and family's history like this, and he told me that he had three of them, and after trading with me, he would still have two. He told me that when the cruise ships come, many people trade away old spears and arrows, and that the people's attitude was that they could always make a new item with the supplies at hand on the island. Realizing that he was very keen to trade, and deciding that if the item was going to be traded, it might as well be to us, I ran downstairs and tried to give him an especially good trade, eventually returning with a bag of candy, a set of toy Tonka trucks, a board book, and a rattle for their new baby. When I asked him about it, Wilfred hesitated, but told me that everyone has the right to trade away their own artifacts, and that it was ok to take this beaded necklace off the island. On a lighter note, Victoria and Johnathan noticed right away that most of the necklace was plastic beads, so it "couldn't be that old, Mom!" Of course, they were right, but I suspect that it is still a treasured piece of this family's history, which we look forward to displaying in our home one day.

Overall, items that we ended up trading included: sugar, instant coffee, ball-point pens, AA batteries, outgrown clothing, and new shorts. The only items we were asked for that we didn't have were fins for snorkelling, as we only carry enough pairs for the family, and fishing squids, a few of which we obtained during our visit to Luganville for future trading. At one point I was excited to be asked to trade for 'slippers' as I believed I had just come across a spare pair in the cupboard; unfortunately, the boy's face fell when I brought them up to the side deck. Slippers didn't mean flip flops to him, he had meant fins for diving!

All the children learn English in school, and the majority of adults we talked to were fluent enough to easily converse. We found this to be a relief after struggling to make small-talk with most people we met over the previous eight months.

With or without English, the children were especially friendly, and any time we went on a long walk, we would quickly become the center of a parade, with many children holding hands with one another, and a select few in the coveted (and sometimes hotly contested) position of holding hands with us. At one point, I had Benjamin on my back and three little girls holding onto my hands. The youngest ones were especially cute, as they would chatter away to us in Tikopian, assuming we were understanding them, even though we had no idea what they were saying! One little girl (perhaps four years old) was a smiling part of every visit from our first dinghy landing, holding whichever Fluenta hand was closest, touching our arms and smiling at us while the grownups were visiting. On one walk, I asked if she was learning English yet. She answered with her only word of English in the whole week: "Soon". I suspect that she will be chattering fluently before too many seasons go by, as she was so excited to meet the visitors :) The day after we brought the bag of clothing ashore, I was delighted to see that she was proudly wearing a pair of Johnathan's well-loved shorts. They had started out as dark navy trousers, and over the years had morphed into a pair of faded cutoffs, each leg trimmed where the knee wore through; she wore them as if they were her most treasured outfit, and pointed towards her legs as soon as she saw us, gesturing vigourously until we figured out what she was telling us :)

One feature that we noticed in Tikopia more than anywhere else we have been was their fondness for Betel Nuts. We saw signs all over Majuro indicating that Betel Nut juice was not allowed to be spit on the premises, but we didn't often actually see the effects on people's teeth. I'm not exactly sure how they enjoy it (I was too embarrassed to ask, and there is no connectivity here to look it up on the Internet!) but many people (even the children) had a mouthful of discoloured orange and jaggedly broken teeth. I often felt like complimenting anyone I met who had a full set of solid white teeth! Another local crop that seemed to be enjoyed by many people was the local tobacco. Whether in a pipe or hand-rolled cigarette (sometimes made out of a torn square of lined foolscap paper) smoking seemed to be a very common social activity, for both ladies and men.

On the other side of the scale, we noticed that the people of Tikopia seemed to be especially fit and healthy. With very few modern conveniences, most people spend much of their day tending their garden, paddling their dugout canoes, fishing, and walking, so it seemed to us that people were fitter and more active than in some of the places we have been visiting recently. Wilfred's mother (whom we were privileged to meet) was 90 years old, still bright-eyed and receiving afternoon visitors.

Gardening is an important activity in Tikopia, and it seemed that they ate very little imported/canned food. Because the island is so tiny, every plant seems to need to earn its keep (we read in "Collapse" that this also applies to the forest trees/nuts), and all the arable land is divided up into family garden plots that are tended carefully. Traditionally, they have learned to preserve some of their food for survival conditions. Cyclone Donna didn't damage the homes, but it seemed to have damaged their crops, which is why they were so keen for the Relief ship to arrive (I am not sure they still preserve much of their food). I would generally think of a garden as being next to a house, but instead, the houses are all together, and each person/family has a certain plot of land in the jungle assigned to them to own/farm. We were able to see many of these plots as we walked around the island to the crater lake.

It might seem from the foregoing that we spent all our time in the village, but Max also spent many hours troubleshooting our Honda generator. It took a tumble on our passage from Majuro, and ended up with some salt water getting into the works. Thankfully, he has a good manual, but it is a slow and tedious process. All the volt-meter tests are pointing towards either the copper windings (stator) or the wiring harness for the windings. As ever, cruising does prove to be 'performing maintenance in exotic locations'! The loss of the functionality of the generator is especially frustrating at the moment, as our five-year-old house battery bank (which Max has carefully maintained and topped up with distilled water every few weeks) appears to be reaching its end of life (one cell has already died) so they are requiring more frequent charging, which has resulted in more engine hours than we have ever needed in the past. So it goes. We hope to rectify both the battery and the generator problems in Port Vila.

All too soon, the forecast changed, the trade winds filled back in, and it was time to continue our passage. This was especially exciting for the kids, as it was the final leg on the journey back to the land of kid-boats - our friends on SY HONEY were already waiting for us in Vanutu :)

Love to you all,
Elizabeth
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At 2017-06-01 12:09 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 16°09.06'S 168°06.38'E
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At 2017-06-01 10:29 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 16°09.07'S 168°06.37'E

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