Saturday, July 19, 2008

Meet the Crusoes

We explored Toau first along its lagoon side. After negotiating Otugi Passe we anchored about half a mile south, along with a few other boats. There was a shack on the shore, probably for collecting copra, but no inhabitants. A short walk to the ocean side of the motu was lovely, except for the refuse washed up on shore. It seems that an inordinate proportion of flotsam is comprised of shoes and plastic bottles. The beachcombing here isn’t quite the treasure trove it was in Mexico. Surely there are shells to be found, but we are outfoxed again and again by squatters euphemistically known as hermit crabs. No shell is left unoccupied. The shore immediately south is known as le lagon bleu, the blue lagoon, a destination for visitors from Fakarava. It’s blue all right.

After a couple nights there, including a bonfire dinner with the Tahitians on the neighboring boat, we left for another anchorage a few miles north, this one off Maragai Village, a seasonal pearl farming settlement that now appears abandoned. Beacons led the way through banks of coral and we settled on a sparkling corner of the lagoon alongside coral shoals for snorkeling. Not a boat nor a soul in sight, not even a footprint in the sand. These were lazy days, spent swimming, reading and watching movies on the computer.

Eventually we left Toau’s interior lagoon, braving the breaking waves in leaving the pass, bound for a cove on the outer shore of the atoll’s northwest corner known as Anse Amyot. The entrance to this cove looks like a pass into the lagoon, but dead-ends in a labyrinthine coral reef. The colors here are intensified a notch, glinting in patches like a kaleidoscope with the passing of sun and squalls; this is the blue lagoon. We had read about the family that lives in this cove and their welcoming ways and, as if to prove the point, Gaston Damiens motored out from shore upon our arrival to direct us to one of a few mooring buoys. (These aren’t common here in the Tuamotus but they’re a godsend for anchors and coral alike).

The Damiens family has perfected the Robinson Crusoe lifestyle. Twelve people live here, all family members. There is a phone booth here (though it doesn’t work) but no other services. Their livelihood comes from an array of sources. Valentine and Gaston operate a small restaurant from which they welcome and serve passing cruisers. Cruisers also provide a wealth of trading opportunities, as we came to be as well. They maintain a number of fish traps in the ancient style, but are careful which fish they collect, as they respect evolving laws of environmental protection, and earn some governmental support by introducing certain “green” measures in their cove (eg mooring buoys). Every so often they patrol the lagoon-side beaches to collect the fish net floats discarded as detritus from the seasonal industrial pearl farm further south on Toau. These they sell for ~ $8 apiece. (Ben assisted Gaston on one such buoy collecting adventure). They operate their own small pearl farm, located on a tiny motu (islet) within the lagoon. Valentine’s sister and daughters run a pension (small inn) as well. In the meantime they have built a tiny village of dwellings, including a chapel (Valentine gives sermons every Sunday and leads the others in gospel singing). Toau is too sparsely populated to be frequented by supply ships, save one that they must rendez-vous several hours away, at the atoll’s southern pass, that visits once monthly to outfit the industrial pearl farm in the south. Any other supplies requires a trip to neighboring atolls, and a doctor’s appointment necessitates a trip to Tahiti.

One of the first sights we took in came as a surprise. Swimming from a motu across the cove, weaving around coral shoals and fish traps, was a dog, his brown head bobbing and obviously focused. We came to learn this was “Bobi.” Bobi belongs to Valentine’s sister and doesn’t himself get along with Valentine’s dogs so, in order to fish in peace, he swims to the motu across the way. Every day. And, he times his swims with the currents. In the morning he heads out, just off the beach and waits, antsy and whining, until the current starts to ebb. He spends the whole day at his motu, fishing and hunting SHARKS (that’s right, sharks), and returns in the afternoon with the assistance of the flood tide. Actually, all of their dogs enjoy hunting sharks. Go figure. Our first order of business, then, was seeing to dogs. Valentine’s oldest, Balou, was intensely itchy (again, dermatologic conditions) but also recently lethargic. I palpated a mass in his abdomen – not good news. But, as that may be benign, I thought it worthwhile to treat his skin problems and see how he’d feel. And, wouldn’t you know it, he perked right up and found his energy again. We told Valentine that the steroids were likely responsible for his new surge of enthusiasm and she asked if she could have some for her arthritis. Oops, that required a serious conversation. The others, Bubba (pronounced Booba, a la francaise, but named after Bubba Gump) and Nini (the only kitten to have survived life amongst dogs) got the full round of parasite control.

The other pet of sorts is an orphaned Frigate Bird that Gaston rescued. She only likes Gaston and snaps at any other passers-by. As her attitude is resented, she has been named Sarkozy-Bush. It will take 8 months for her to fledge the nest (a platform perched at the edge of their pier) and head out on her own. Gaston feeds her every other day, in hopes that she’ll grow a little slower and stick around longer.

Valentine and Gaston invited us for lunch (a home-style potluck as opposed to formal restaurant fare). Gaston grilled the assortment of fish he and Ben collected from the fish traps and we ate in style. Then conversation turned to their future and upcoming need for a larger motor boat. An American fly-fisherman once spent several weeks here with the Damiens family, delighting in the fishing. He offered to finance a new motor boat and two bungalows, if they would build them, so that he could return in November with friends to fish. So, Gaston was in need of a boat design. Well, Ben could manage that. He designed the boat in exchange for black pearls and shark teeth, and both parties were happy. Meanwhile, Valentine and I spent the day exchanging beads and shells, as we both enjoy making jewelry.

That night Ben was approached by Dick, Valentine’s older brother and the black sheep of the family. He asked if he could catch a ride with us to Tahiti, and asked if we would keep it secret from his family. Ben said he’d think about it, and then told Valentine what was up. We weren’t going to be party to a family deception. We had gotten the impression from Valentine that Dick was not a trusted family member, but he certainly had shown himself to be kind and Valentine vouchsafed for him. After much discussion between us, Valentine and Dick, we agreed.

The next day Valentine and Gaston brought us to their motu in the lagoon, to watch them cultivate black pearls. This is how it’s done: Several oysters (nacres) are collected from their baskets in the lagoon and gently pried open enough to peer inside. If the nacre (mother-of-pearl) is colorful, these are saved and cut open. The mantle of the oyster is the pigment producing organ and this is removed, trimmed of excess tissue and cut into tiny fragments (about 2 x 3 mm). Despite all this cutting and trimming, the mantle is still alive, and must remain so in order for this to work. These will be the donors. Then recipient oysters are also gently pried open. This is the delicate part. There is a small pouch in the oyster that must be isolated, and this is filled with a “nucleus” and the fragment of donor mantle. The nucleus is made from a special type of shell that comes from the Mississippi River; these are sold to the Japanese and then machined into perfectly round little balls. Anyway, they are the “seed” around which the fragment attaches itself, within the recipient oyster’s pouch, and the pearl is formed over a period of 2 years. These grafted oysters are checked one month later to see if the “seed” was rejected, and then every so often for general cleaning. It’s a pretty tedious process, especially as there are 15,000 oysters to graft. I imagine harvesting is the fun part. We ate lunch on the motu (again fish collected from a nearby fish trap) and explored the little motu while Valentine labored over the grafts. The shallows around the motu are carpeted in clusters of tiny, green sea anemones, and the long limbs of brittle stars wave from rocky crevices. Plenty of shore birds nest on this motu as well: white terns, red-footed boobies and black noddies.

Finally, time to go. My visa here is limited to 90 days, and these days are running out. We had yet to explore the Society Islands, the touristic center of French Polynesia. And Tahiti, the first of the Society Islands, would finally offer the amenities that the boat required, as various little repairs are in order. So, we got our stowaway settled and we set off on the 220 mile (day and a half) trip to Tahiti.


Tim Hussar said...

Awesome post. I'm planning on visiting Toau in one month.

Jacques said...

Merci beaucoup pour toutes ces descriptions detaillees. Combien coute une perle noire sur le marche aujourd'hui? quelle est la difference entre une perle noire et une perle blanche (ne repondez surtout pas la couleur! ! !).
Nous sommes chez Penelope et MArcus et les aidons a demenager dans leur nouvelle maison de Kirkland. Zelda a l'air de bien se porter.
Bises a tous les deux,
Dad & Marianne

Anonymous said...

You realize that your blog is making me jealous to the point that I may have to hunt you down. I am not used to living vicariously through other people. The salmon season was atrocious along the entire west coast this year so the fleet is coming home a month early. Amy should be back in the next 1 to 2 weeks. The fishing is over but they are still running some freight between towns to try to make a little more money. I bet you are having more fun then she is.
Everyone at VSC sends there love.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to say hi and let you guys know how much I've been enjoying your posts and beautiful pictures. The places look amazing.
It's really cool you guys are sailing around the world and living your dream.
Anyways, I hope you continue to have a good time, take care, and I look forward to your next post!
- Pearl

Anonymous said...

You describe it so well, and with the photos, it's almost like being there with you, so nice.