The Tuamotus are wonderful.
Spectacular remote lagoons and tiny coconut motus (islets), warm clear waters, healthy corals and tropical fish, relaxing atmosphere and friendly locals. Sailing from lagoon to lagoon, from island to island, snorkeling and scuba-diving, making huge bonfires on the beach in the company of dear friends became our most favorite times in French Polynesia.
After Raroia- our love-of-first-sight atoll, we sail to Makemo- the fourth biggest yet rarely visited by sailors or tourists atoll in the Tuamotus. Makemo Atoll measures 69 km in length and 16.5 km in width, with a land area of 56 km² and a lagoon of 603 km² in area with two navigable passes and an airport.
It is the best place to spend a few days with very strong winds announced- up to 35-40 knots, because the main inhabited island of the atoll has a neat little village Pouheva with very welcoming people (population of about 600), good internet access, a bakery selling fresh hot 60-cent French baguettes, a decent pizza place, and a free public dock big enough for three catamarans, where S/V Invictus, S/V Mercredi Soir and S/V Fata Morgana are welcome to stay as long as they like.
Besides the small one-story houses with lush flowering gardens and clean streets, in Pouheva there is a church, a lighthouse, a boarding school where kids from neighboring atolls come to study, and a big football/basketball court, covered with a high tin roof, protecting the court from the tropical sun and rain. Here the locals gather every day to practice for the Heiva Music and Dance Festival in the beginning of July.
The entire island population is busy preparing for the festival, making decorations and costumes. Tiny seashells collected on the shores, palm leaves and flowers are the main materials used to make the dancers’ costumes. These guys also collected the empty flour bags from the bakery and are using them to make the skirts.
I spend hours helping with the costumes together with a few women, a man and one shy rae-rae (a transvestite- very common throughout French Polynesia, and respected “third gender” believed to combine the best male and female qualities), in a tiny shed where the floor is covered with crushed corrals. My job is to prepare the flour bags for the skirts by removing the horizontal threads one by one.
We are welcome to watch the music and dance repetitions. The music and dancing are so wild and contagious, it’s hard to resist. Soon Ivo, who is really good at dancing, joins one of the groups, impressing the locals with his grace, beauty and beard.
He also impressed the many local kids who hang around the public wharf and the boats all the time with another skill- kiteboarding. 30-40 kts winds are ideal to practice some jumps while the boat is safely attached to the pier.
The barefoot kids in Makemo are curious cheeky little fellows, always ready to help. After school, running or riding their bicycles, they come to check what we are doing. Jumping from the pier and swimming between the boats, admiring Ivo’s kiteboarding performances, but mostly- spearfishing in the shallow reefs, are their favorite activities.
“Aren’t you scared of sharks?” I ask Kura, a 12-yers-old boy and two of his friends who are constantly in the water chasing fish.
“No. But my dad was eaten by sharks,” says one of the boys laughing, so I don’t know if he is joking or telling the truth.
“But sharks are not dangerous. They usually don’t bother you. What happened with my dad was an accident, because he was drunk. He went to one of the motus and didn’t attach his boat, so the boat started drifting. He was very drunk, but he jumped in the water swimming after the boat, trying to get it back. He drowned, because he was really wasted. They found his body in the lagoon a couple of days later. The sharks had eaten his arms and legs and his head was missing. We couldn’t bury him like this. He was half-eaten. So we ate him…”
My jaw drops. Did I hear correctly? The other two boys are smiling. One is interrupting the story, telling to the orphaned kid not to say this. “We don’t say this!”
I scream covering my mouth with both hands “WHAT???”, but the kids are running away laughing.
In a place surrounded by miles of ocean, where the tiny pockets of sand only yields coconuts and the sea- fish; where food, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and any other products are difficult and expensive to get, especially for people with limited means, protein is the islanders’ main daily concern. Fish makes up for 90% of the locals’ diet. Here (it is not a secret), ever since before the arrival of the first Europeans in the 18th century, dogs have been on the menu and are still part of the Polynesian peoples’ protein source (we’ve been told repeatedly by the locals themselves), along with local chickens, pigs and sea birds. Why not human meat, if it’s already half eaten by sharks?
I don’t know if this story is true or the kids are just trying to joke with us, the foreign visitors: “Watch out, we are cannibals.”
One thing is for sure- they respect the sharks profoundly- rulers of the sea- and would never kill or eat a shark.
One morning, during my 20 minutes jogging routine, I met Teva Tuku and Taai Tuua. Teva and Taai are in their sixties. Their many children are all grown up and have families and kids of their own, and have left Makemo to live and work in Tahiti and France. Teva and Taai live alone now in their small yellow house and produce copra. They invite me to talk about the Islands, the Ocean and Nature and the dangers they face today with over-fishing, illegal whale trade and climate change. But mostly, they explain to me all about the process of copra production and coconuts in general, while Taai is making a palm-leaf bag for me.
Copra is dried coconut used to extract coconut oil by collecting fallen coconuts, breaking them, removing the shell, and sun drying the kernel. Every family harvests coconuts from a certain amount of coconut palms on the main island or the motus from the atoll. First, the coconut is split in two and left in the sun for two days. After two days the meat can be removed from the shell with ease, and the drying process is complete after three to five more days (up to seven in total). Copra is then exported to “Huilerie de Tahiti” –the copra processing plant built in 1968 in Tahiti where the coconut oil is extracted. The copra industry is the main agricultural resource of the islands of Tuamotu and for many of the other islands of French Polynesia, and contributes to a large part of the local economy. In these isolated islands, copra remains the only source of income besides pearl farming and fishing.
(Read more about The Coprah industry in Polynesia. )
I go back to the boat loaded with presents: coconuts for drinking and coconuts for eating, a palm-leaf bag and a palm-leaf trey. But the biggest gift I got from these smiling, generous, beautiful islanders is their story full of wisdom, goodness and knowledge.
*Watch our 20-minute YouTube video Free Public Dock in Makemo and The Importance of Copra for more about the kids, the adults, their dances and the making of copra.
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