Wednesday, July 25, 2007

July 23, 2007 - Apataki

We're anchored in front of Assam's pearl farm. It isn't included in our cruising guide (Charlie's Charts), but a French cruising guide features this as one of the better anchorages in Apataki. Our friends on Phoenix visited Assam and his family a few weeks ago. They had such a great experience that we thought we would check it out. When we arrived the other evening, Assam's son Alfred came out to guide us to a good spot to drop anchor. Yesterday evening, just as it was getting too dark to see the coral heads just below the water's surface, Beatrice and Antoine on the trimaran Manutea, with whom we had shared the anchorage by the pass the other night, arrived. Before we spotted them, Alfred was already on his way out to guide them in. Assam's family is very welcoming of cruisers. Last year 56 boats visited their pearl farm. Mata'irea and Manutea are the 28th and 29th boats that have visited them this season.
We were so glad to see Beatrice and Antoine. Since we left Fatu Hiva almost three weeks ago, Sten and I have not spent much time with other cruisers. Somehow it is easier to get to know another boat when there are only a few of us in an anchorage. In the crowded harbors, such as in Nuka Hiva, we somehow feel intimidated about introducing ourselves to others. It is similar to the dynamic of living in a small town verses a big city. So it was awfully nice to have Antoine and Beatrice over for dinner and get to know them a bit. Not only are they lovely people, but she speaks fluent English and is incredibly patient about translating for us linguistically impaired Americans.

This morning we all headed in to shore to visit Assam, his wife MeMei, their son Alfred, Alfred's son Tony, and Tony's girlfriend Ocean. Assam and Ocean showed us around his farm. When they first relocated here 20 years ago, there was hardly anything growing on the atoll. We were impressed with how many different kinds of plants they were able to grow in the coral rubble
that passes for soil on an atoll. Their secret ingredient is chicken droppings, which they mix with ground coconut, and feed to the roots of the trees. As a result, they are able to grow mango, vanilla, banana, and noni plants. The poulet poo comes from the hen house where MeMei, wearing threadbare clothing, a hat woven from palm fronds and a luminous pair of pearl earrings, tends to 240 chickens. They sell the eggs in the village for approximately $6 a dozen.

Nothing goes to waste here. The oyster shells left over from the pearl production are polished to a beautiful sheen. Alfred, Tony and their four employees are currently busy filling an order for 5,000 polished shells from one of the big pearl boutiques in Bora Bora.

The shells that they are polishing are at least 4 years old, and up to 8 years old. An oyster must grow for 4 years before it is ready to have the nucleus of a new pearl grafted into it. 14 months after the first grafting, the nucleus will hopefully have grown into a pearl. The success rate is about 70%. The oyster can be used three more times to grow pearls. The resulting pearl is bigger each time but the trade off is that the luster of the subsequent pearls is diminished. The primary pearl from an oyster will have the best depth of color.

This is the power plant that Assam uses to run the whole operation - a single cylinder Lister, circa ???:

Assam and MeMei served us all some fresh coconut water from green coconuts.

As we were enjoying our refreshments, MeMei showed Sten how to grate the meat from the inside of brown coconuts, which is then squeezed through a cheese cloth to make coconut milk.

Grating and squeezing coconut is apparently a man's job. While we got to know each other, Beatrice and Antoine described how they had acquired Ciguatera (a poisonous toxin found in some reef fish) from shellfish that they had eaten in Daniel's Bay, Nuka Hiva. They had a mild case, but even so, they couldn't risk eating fish for fear of adding more of the toxin to their system. So they have been living on rice and pasta for the past few weeks. Assam, who never sits still very long, bustled off and cut down some pandanus stalks, which Alfred peeled, then Assam mashed and juiced, which he then mixed with coconut milk. The result looked like cold pea soup. I sniffed it, but I wasn't allowed to try it as only someone with Ciguatera should ingest it. I also wasn't permitted to photograph the process of making it, as taking pictures would destroy the power of the medicine. Similarly, they can't ask for money for treating someone or sell the medicine. Beatrice and Antoine have to take the medicine for two more days. When they are done with the three day course, they will be able to eat fish again with less risk of a relapse.

It was during the making of the medicine that Sten noticed a shark in the shallow water. MeMei announced that it was a sleeping shark, and bustled off to get an old fish to feed it. Before she would feed it, she teased the shark a bit with the fish, pat its flanks and stroked its head. Imagine, a pet shark!

Afterwards Assam brought out a book on local marine life. I pointed to a picture of the grey reef shark that had swum out of the depths of the pass to check me out the other day. MeMei explained that they were very aggressive. So I don't feel quite so wimpy about calling for the dinghy extraction.

There currently isn't any Ciguatera in the fish in Apataki. So fish was on the menu. Late in the afternoon we all went fishing on the windward side of the reef. Sten, casting with a rod and reel, landed a small parrot fish, which was deemed by MeMei as no good for eating, but excellent bait. I, doing god knows what with a wooden stick and a baited hook, caught nothing. MeMei, also using a stick for a rod, and Assam, spear fishing, cleaned up. Antoine discovered that spear fishing in Assam's wake is not a good way to find fish. And Beatrice had the luck of a rookie - her first time fishing and she landed two of the three fish she hooked. For bait we were using hermit crabs. MeMei, still wearing those spectacular pearl earrings and woven hat, showed us how to yank them out of their shells, then rip off the portion with an exoskeleton, which she tossed on the beach to crawl around until they realized that their guts were missing. I managed to bait my own hook twice, but I was such a squeamish little girl about the whole thing. Embarrassing, really.

To go with our fish dinner, MeMei and Assam made two kinds of poi. The first involved mashing the hearts of 8 germinating coconuts, which Beatrice handled with aplomb, then mixing the mash with flour and sugar. MeMei then dropped the dough into boiling water, and cooked it like a dumpling. The result was dense and starchy, but kind of sweet and tasty. The second kind of poi was made by mixing tapioca flour and water in a bowl, which was then cooked in a pot of hot water. The result looked like ectoplasm. Beatrice then mixed it with coconut milk that Assam made by grating and squeezing 5 brown coconuts. The result was slimy but sweet. Assam and MeMei began the meal by singing grace. I couldn't understand a word of it, but the sound was beautiful, and I silently gave thanks for their generosity and hospitality. Since we were complete failures at contributing any fish to the meal, I was glad that we were able to provide a key lime pie for dessert.

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