Sunday 9 April 2017

Ailuk and Maloelap - Six weeks of feasting and kiting (Part 2 of 4)

[this is a continuation of a four part blog post]

Arriving in Enejelar just before Education Week meant that we got a first-hand experience of the life of the village. The eighteen children in the school were taught by three teachers: Darlene (or "Darling" as I called her for the first few days, having misheard her name when she was introduced) taught the youngest children, Line (Lee-nay) taught the middle class, and Bruder (the Head Teacher) taught the oldest students; children leave Ailuk Atoll to go to high school in either Wotje or Majuro when they reach Grade 9. We were welcomed as honoured guests for the Opening Ceremonies, where we were decorated with garlands of frangipani and invited to share in the first of many feasts after the formalities - every time we went ashore, it seemed that we were being fed or sent home with food. Our meal was served to us in bowls woven from the local pandanus leaves, and included whole chicken, fried fish, rice, and fluffy white bread rolls. When we couldn't finish our portion, it was packed up for us, some more fried fish were added, and we were sent home with sufficient food for dinner! The next few days were filled with many activities, including two spelling bees (English and Marshallese), Track and Field competitions, essay competitions, and volleyball. The children were assigned randomly to two teams, and scores were tracked closely. Max judged the English spelling bee (a task made slightly more challenging because the letters are not all pronounced the same as we are used to, and the rules were changed partway through the event), and he and Johnathan participated in the track & field events (which included running (all ages), rock juggling while walking (for the ladies), coconut running (for the men - unhusked coconuts between the knees and some requirement to hop on one foot), and ping pong. That evening, Johnathan played in student volleyball game, and I was invited to play with the ladies (4 on 4). It should be pointed out that these women play volleyball most days from the time they are children, so even in dresses and bare feet, they were very capable on the court. I was grateful for my two winters of playing inter-section lunchtime volleyball at my job in Victoria, as I had at least enough skill to avoid completely embarrassing myself.

The closing feast was even more elaborate than the meal the week before, and the Head Teacher had even gone swimming on several nights in succession in the hope of capturing a sea turtle. Accustomed to North American views on eating turtles, we were a bit surprised to hear this, but we did our best to maintain an open attitude towards all the local customs. By the end of the week, he had been successful: he had caught and captured a sleeping turtle, with his bare hands, sometime around midnight in the waters of the very dark lagoon. The turtle was cooked traditionally by layering the meat and shell with hot coals under the sand, and it took three men to carry it from the fire to the school kitchen. We were not sure what to expect when it was served; we found the meat to be tender but fibrous, with the texture of beef or lamb, and the taste of the fresh air and salt water of the lagoon which had been its home. (Needless to say, the meal led to some interesting conversations around our own dinner table that touched on sustainability, local customs, fair fights, endangered vs healthy species - as with the giant reef clams, we have seen quite a number of turtles here, etc.) The other foods were less exotic, but no less tasty: whole chicken, fried fish, rice, and pandanus cubes in served coconut milk. Our contribution to the event was an "Education Week 2017" chocolate cake that Victoria had made and decorated (using Auntie Marilyn's Wacky Cake recipe). "Cake" was one English word that the local kids had no trouble pronouncing!

A description of Education Week would not be complete without a mention of the speeches. The Marshallese *love* speeches! The Birthday Feast that we had attended upon arrival in Ailuk was just a warm-up for the orations that awaited during Education Week. Every invited guest and teacher had their turn at the microphone. The Marshallese equally love prayers, the longer the better, and the Head Teacher or a church representative offered devotions at each event. We were not excluded from this tradition, and Max was invited to speak every time. He even ended up on the printed programme for the closing: "YOUGHTY" was on the list of speakers, and Max's words were translated after he spoke for the guests whose lack of English otherwise left them out.

Things returned to normal the following week, and aboard Fluenta, we concentrated on kiting and school projects, with a few trips to the village to begin to talk about trading away the mound of flour, sugar, and rice that had been occupying our starboard saloon bench since our departure from Majuro. Darlene seemed to have the most English of all the ladies, so I appointed her as the coordinator of the trading; I could see many of the eight ladies who lived in the village hard at work on intricate projects of various sizes when we walked through the village. In between the constant chores that delineate daily living, the ladies sit for hours at a time on the ground or a cushion, feet outstretched and backs tall (sometimes using a string tied to their toes to hold their work in place) weaving and forming baskets, figures, or wall hangings. After a couple of piecemeal trades, Darlene announced that there would be a trading day on Saturday, at the end of our third week: could we please bring everything we had to trade on that day? By everything that we had, she meant milk powder, cocoa powder, instant coffee, yeast, and laundry detergent (that I happened to have on board), in addition to the rice, flour, baking powder, sugar and sewing needles (that I had provisioned especially for trading). Given the popularity of our cake recipe that didn't require either a mix or eggs & milk, I also brought ashore some baking soda and vinegar for the ladies to share whenever they wanted to bake.

Our one day of trading ended up occupying the better part of two days of preparation, as we re-packaged large bags of flour into 5lb vacuum-sealed bags, and weighed and measured little zip-locs of everything else, all with our little battery-operated kitchen scale (this kept Victoria very busy while Mom was kiting!) The flour was probably the most popular item, and I could easily have traded away twice the 100lb that we had brought. One of the ladies wanted three large bags, and was quite sad when I limited her to one, so I could share the wealth with her friends! On the other hand, there were no takers at all for rice in Enejelar, but when we arrived back in Ailuk the following week, they were happy to receive our bounty. When the appointed day arrived, it felt a bit like we had a small store to set up: we had a half-dozen or more bags of each or our supplies, and we laid them all out, then each of the ladies brought us her handicrafted item and chose from our selection. It was interesting that some of them wanted our supplies and some preferred cash (they generally had younger relatives in other places to whom they wanted to send funds). I traded for goods first, then I sold supplies for cash, then I used that cash to buy other handicrafts. It all worked out to within a few dollars :) There was a definite value to each item (consistent between Enejelar and Ailuk - Victoria learned that the store there also accepts handicrafts as payment for goods) and I was relieved that there was no haggling or negotiating required. The ladies knew what their work was worth, and I knew exactly what I had paid in Majuro for my supplies. Everyone seemed quite happy with the result (and we were very glad to see the fabric covering of our bench again when we got home!!)

The school children had warmed up to us during Education Week, and they would come running when they saw us headed to the sandspit: in general we were kids and Mom in the dinghy and Dad on the paddleboard. The first day we came without kites and with kids, they were intrigued when I told them I was going to practice yoga; they watched in fascination (sometimes trying their best to replicate my movements) as I completed my podcast practice. It took more than the usual discipline to focus on my own movements and breath rather than all the eyes observing me so closely! Most of them lost interest very quickly, and ran to play at the water's edge with Victoria, Johnathan, and Benjamin, who had brought boogie boards and a frisbee, but several hardly moved until I was done. I had the surreal sense of being studied rather than watched.

Given that we were native English speakers, and the children were learning English at school, we offered to spend a day with them in their classrooms. On the appointed day, we arrived at 8:30, in time for their weekly assembly with all the kids, where they lined up by class, sang the Ailuk Anthem, and listened to announcements. We visited each class in turn, showing everyone our route from Canada on their globe and then following their curriculum for the day. With the little children, we read flash cards and stories, with the middle ones, we practiced 'action words' (emphasizing words with "f" sounds like flying, feeding, and Fluenta, as this letter doesn't appear in Marshallese) and read aloud a story (ironically about people who couldn't communicate because they couldn't understand each other), and with the older children, we practiced examples of words with a particular phonetic sound (Jake ate the cake on his plate on the day he turned eight).

We thought that Education Week had ended with the closing ceremonies (and the feast) but a week later, we were invited to a picnic where Darlene's losing team was to prepare a meal for Line's winning team. Being on neither team, we offered to bring another of our now-famous cakes :) The evening before the event, Darlene told me that they hoped to catch a wild pig in the jungle, and also asked if I could bring some emergency flour ashore, ahead of trading day, as she had none to bake cinnamon buns for the picnic. This seemed worth a trip ashore in the dark (especially given that I didn't want to wake up at 4am when she did to meet her then!)

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the picnic was our mode of travel: we were delivered to the picnic location with an exhilarating trip in a sailing canoe :) By now, we had seen them whizzing by us in the anchorage for a couple of weeks, and we all hoped to experience their speed and tradition, but it seemed somehow inappropriate to actually ask for a ride. We were thrilled that the ride came to us. Not only are the boats made from original traditional designs, but the vessels themselves are often very old, maintained lovingly over multiple generations with new coats of paint or lashings. Most of the wooden components were held together with traditional lashings of string or pandanus twine, with very few modern fasteners. Sailing does seem to be a male dominion here: the men sail the boats, teaching and mentoring the boys as they go, while the ladies cook the food and come along for the ride.

The feast was an all-day affair. When we arrived at the picnic island, people were already there, tending fires and preparing meat. Darlene's team had been successful in its hunt for a wild pig; it lay in state on a pile of reeds, butchered and waiting to be carved into pieces for the pot (where it was boiled with water and soya sauce). The President of the PTA, whom we had met on our very first weekend, was dispatching two chickens, sending them to the water's edge for the boys to pluck, and then gutting them before they were boiled whole. The head teacher's wife, Janet, was weaving the plate-bowls for the meal, so I sat beside her and made several of the woven baskets (the boys had been sent to the jungle for the branches of the pandanus, and she tore them into equal four-frond segments from either side of the main stalk for each one, then we wove them together and tied the loose ends on either side to shape the basket). I was able to 'help' for quite some time until Benjamin showed up and claimed his place in my lap: it was nice to see how nonchalant the ladies were that he needed me, and their assumption that there were plenty of other hands for the necessary work; Janet smiled and reiterated what I had heard elsewhere, that it was not unusual for children in the Marshall Islands to nurse until the age of five.

Darlene arrived on the final canoe, with boxes of rice, cinnamon buns (cooked in the oven that she had shown me on one of our visits: it consisted of a large metal box about the size of a camper fridge with wooden cladding, and a place inside for both fire and food), and a box of pandanus cubes in coconut milk (she had started with pandanus, somehow made a paste with flour that she had wrapped in leaves to cook in squares, and then cut the squares into dice and combined them with coconut - it tasted a bit like squash, and was quite tasty). While the food was being prepared, Max got talking to some men, and they discovered a mutual interest in spearfishing; the next thing he knew, he was riding away towards Fluenta on the sailing canoe (much faster than when it was loaded down with the families - they flew a hull most of the way) to collect his gear and head to a nearby reef. That was the last we saw of him until well into the afternoon, when they came back with a boatload of fish. The group of men was very efficient. Unlike most of Max's experiences, with cruisers who spearfish for the joy of the sport and the thrill of the chase, these men have families to feed each day. They use pole spears (Hawaiian Slings) rather than spearguns, which means they can reload after a kill much more quickly, and shoot many small fish in succession, rather than hoping for one huge fish in the deeps. Max's Trevally early in the outing ensured that he didn't come back empty handed (the fish was eventually cooked on the fire and sent home to Fluenta for dinner!) [Max note: we would sail to a coral bommie and one of the men would throw the stone anchor onto the coral. We would then fish until the sharks got too excited and then there would be a holler from the leader and everybody would hop back on the canoe and we would sail off to the next bommie.]. All the food was ready by about 3pm. After a long grace, everyone was handed a woven plate/bowl heaped with food, with folks eating in little clusters under the shade of the many trees, seated on yet more piles of pandanus fronds. Once again, it was fun to walk through the group of about thirty and hand out pieces of our chocolate cake as folks finished their main course :)

As I ate my lunch next to Benjamin and Darlene, Line (the winning teacher) walked over, stood in front of Darlene, and started to talk. It took a minute to figure out that despite the lack of fanfare, this was, of course, the speech of thanks from the winning teacher to the losing teacher for the effort that went into preparing all the food. I had had a nice chat with her earlier in the day, as she sat with her husband, leaning against a tree and waiting for the food. It had fallen to her to prepare the feast the previous year (when the crowd was even bigger because both villages were combined) so she was quite satisfied to be in the role of someone waiting to be served :) She and her husband were a bit older than some of the other adults, and she was the only person to point out to me what I had noticed myself - it is hard work to live in the remote islands. The women spend all their time gathering, preparing and cooking food. There is no electricity to speak of (each home seems to have a small solar panel and a few electric devices, which work when their inverter works - Max was asked to look at several of them during our stay), or refrigeration; there is no fast food. Sometimes when they don't catch fish, they eat canned meat, but I got the sense that this was a rarity rather than a regular occurrence. All the food is prepared over open fires (or in a make-shift oven like Darlene's). It is easy to be romantically highlight the beauty of the islands or the friendliness of the people, and there is, of course, strength in hard work: it is not necessarily better in the overcrowded cities like Majuro, with their modern conveniences, but lack of social cohesion and resilience, yet it seems important to recognize how hard they work each and every day that they live in these remote islands.

While all the cooking was going on, we didn't see much of the kids. Johnathan helped with the work assigned to the boys, and Victoria sat under a tree with a girl of her own age, teaching her to crochet, with a steady stream of other children looking on with interest. She used some of the scrap ends of yarn from the squares she is making for her afghan, and by the end of the afternoon, the Marshallese girl was quite proud to have created a little segment 2" wide and about 8" long, containing just about every colour of the rainbow :) After lunch, it seemed as if all the boys were of one mind - they headed for the trees for stick battles (even Benjamin). Some things just seem to transcend language and culture.

All too soon, we packed up and headed back to Fluenta on the sailing canoe. Once again, about a dozen people piled aboard, sitting on the main hull and the wooden cross-member (at least until we got to the shallows, when the boys were again shooed off to swim ashore and lighten the boat so it could skim over the reefs) and we fairly flew down the lagoon. The orientation of the lagoon means that in general, the sailing canoes are on a close reach as they go from island to island, which makes them particularly fast.

[the remaining two parts to follow later]
At 2017-04-09 7:36 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 07°06.45'N 171°22.08'E

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