20 May 2013 | French Polynesia
Bruce and I both read Herman Melville's TYPEE before arriving in the Marquesas. It was a best seller in 1847 and about how Melville had jumped ship in Nuku Hiva in 1842 and went into the interior to hide until his whaling ship left port. After five harrowing days covering steep, rugged terrain he stumbled into the TYPEE valley, inhabited by a dreaded tribe of cannibals. Melville was made into a "pet" - treated royally but not allowed to leave. He found the reportedly warlike tribe to be peaceful with a Utopian, laid-back existence (with the exception of killing white men and eating them!). He chronicals their daily life and extols the beautiful naked women, adorned only with strings of flowers. These lovely girls would bathe him in the river several times a day, followed by a massage with scented oils. No wonder the book was a best seller! Melville eventually makes a harrowing escape, leaves the island on yet another wretched whaler, and writes Moby Dick.
In TYPEE Melville tells how the breadfruit and coconut sustain the islanders. The breadfruit (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) is used to make the dietary staple, poi, which was buried in the ground and would keep (in a slightly fermented state) for years. If there was a drought and a season with no breadfruit harvest, there would be a year's supply buried throughout the village. It is so crucial to survival that it is considered sacred. Bruce and I visited the Catholic church in Nuku Hiva to see the wood carvings and the first Station of the Cross is a large, locally carved bas relief of Jesus in the Garden of Breadfruit.
The other staple in the Marquesas was, and is, the coconut and Melville devotes a chapter to its many uses. A sharpened branch was used to husk the coconut. Another strong branch had rough shells attached to the end and this was used as the coconut grater. Coconut milk was squeezed out of the grated meat and used to flavor poi and poisson cru (raw fish). The inner shells were elaborately carved and used as cups. The coconut palm fronds were woven to make walls, roofing, and baskets. The husks are milled to make coconut oil. The trunk of tree provided the supports for the thatched buildings. Nothing was wasted.
Today in the Marquesas not much has changed (other than the missionary enforced ban on nudity). On our waterfall hike with other cruisers we stop at a house and Dave from LIGHTSPEED asks if he can buy some coconut milk. The owner walks us over to a pile of coconuts next to a piece of rebar sticking out of the ground. He grabs a coconut and brings it down hard onto the rebar and rips off a section of the outer shell. Three quick moves and the inner shell is exposed. He turns over the task to the two teenage boys in our group and they each husk another coconut (although not quite so quickly or easily). We walk back to the house where a large stainless mixing bowl is mounted on the outside wall. In the center of the bowl is a motorized grater. Holding the nut in one hand, he expedrtly whacks it in half with his machete (do not try this at home!). He turns on the electric grater and chickens come running, like Pavlov's dogs, knowing they will get a treat! He pushes the coconut half into the grater and reams out all the meat into a bowl that he holds below the mechanism. Again, he turns over this task to the teen boys and we end up with grated meat from 3 nuts. The meat is put into a piece of cloth and squeezed over the bowl, wringing out the rich, white liquid. The gratings are fed to the chickens. (Both chickens and pigs are raised on a diet of coconut which must make for some pretty tasty meat!) Dave empties his water bottle and our host fills it with the coconut milk. When Dave asks the price, the Marquesan waves us away The entire process takes about 15 minutes. Without his expertise and electric grater it would have taken us half a day! Dave offers to take Pascal, the 11 year old son, back to his boat to pick out some fishing gear. This meets with unanimous approval. They share some pamplemouse with us and we buy some baguettes and are on our way.
We are now in the Tuamotus, narrow strips of reef formed land that cannot sustain agriculture other than the hardy coconut palm. Coconuts are harvested, cut into pieces (called 'copra'), left in low sheds to dry out, then shipped to Tahiti to be processed into coconut oil. This time honored industry is subsidized by the French government and seems to provide a modest livelihood on these remote atolls. (The other industry in the Tuamotus is farming for cultured black pearls.)
Bruce and I go ashore to seek coconuts on a remote strip of beach about 20 miles from the only town, population 300. We find that hermit crabs have made perfect holes about one inch in diameter in all the fallen nuts and have eaten out all the meat. As we search we find a cemetery with crude coral headstones, some with concrete borders with glass bottles imbedded in the cement and faded silk flowers in the bottles. We wonder why this location, with no road access or dock, was chosen as a burial spot and how one gets here with concrete and flowers.
We make one more stop inside the lagoon near the pass were we will exit the atoll the next day. There's a deserted copra operation ashore, really just a rough campsite used when men come to harvest coconuts. We go ashore and immediately find three good coconuts among the thousands littering the ground. We don't see signs of crab activity and wonder what makes this spot different from the previous one. Bruce hacks at the first coconut with his machete and drinks the water. Coconut water is the original Gatorade. It is so close in composition to human plasma that it can be used for transfusions. Bruce husks the coconuts and we take our prizes back to the boat. That afternoon I make no-bake cookies. Here's the recipe:
8 oz (1 1/2 cups) chopped dates
1/4 c. butter
1/2 c. white sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla or 1 TBSP rum or both
1 c. grated coconut
2 c. rice crispies (I didn't have any so substituted some amaranth cereal I had on board)
Melt butter, sugar and dates in a saucepan. Stir while cooking long enough to make a gooey mess - maybe 5 minutes.
Remove from heat, stir in remaining ingredients. Let cool to warm, press into a pan and cut into squares or roll into balls. Best stored in refrigerator if there's anything left after first day.