Friday, July 31, 2009

Our House

After spending months in the traditional grass hut, the islanders began construction on a proper house for their resident white family. They figured they would build it on stilts, as befitted our 'elevated' status. It would have a corrugated tin roof to catch rain water, and be made completely out of timber...

My father interjected here. He did not want the pedestal the islanders insisted on putting him upon. He was very strict about what belongings we could bring out to the village - we weren't allowed to introduce anything that wasn't already there (except for the circa 1989 Toshiba laptop computer, essential to the process of bible translation). He wanted us to become part of the culture, not add to it, or stand outside of it looking in.

In keeping with this philosophy, he insisted that the villagers build the walls of our house out of traditional coconut mats. 'What?!!' such a thing had never been heard of. They tried to convince my father, but he stood firm.

So it came about that our little home was constructed four feet up off the ground, swaying unsteadily in the sandy soil on its metal posts. If we happened to walk too fast across it, or jumped out of bed with too much force, the entire house would shiver and sway. The monsoon winds brought many nights when I would lay in bed, feeling the house move underneath me and wondering what it would feel like for all the timber to come crashing down around me. Would it hurt, I wondered, or would I miraculously be sheltered by a particularly large beam? Miracles seemed very close to me then.

The floor had little gaps between each floor board, causing me to live in mortified suspense that someone would sit underneath our house and look up my lavalava. Island kids found great delight in poking little coconut brooms up at our bare feet through the gaps in the floor boards.

The mat walls were the running joke of the village. They called it, 'David's half-caste house', because it was made from the white man's materials of timber and metal, with island walls. Each year during monsoon season, those walls did not keep out the sheets of horizontal rain that drove like a thousand spears through the front of the house. Our veranda / eating area was constantly wet for the first two rainy seasons, until Dad finally gave in and put wood up on that side.

It had a screen door, which my father (the island MacGyver) rigged with a rope. The rope was attached to the door on one side, ran through a pulley, and was weighted on the other side with a large conch shell. When the door was opened, the shell would pull it to with a 'SLAM! slap, slap, slap' that could be heard all over the village. My cat, Barton (dubbed after Austin's famous Barton Springs), who was stupid even for a cat, was always getting in the way. When our tolerance level reached zero, one of us would grab him around the middle and throw him right out the door. He would land on the low, leaf roof of the house next door and frantically scramble to right himself before he slid to the ground. In these instances you would hear, 'YEOWWL!!! scrabble, scrabble, SLAM!, slap, slap, slap.'

Needless to say, there was always a small group of village kids underneath our house.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Hangy Bangy

The island women did not wear shirts except to church, or for special occasions (like when the white family came to eat). After each subsequent pregnancy and nursing, their brown breasts would pull longer and longer down their bellies. It was Nathan, my older brother, who coined our family term for them; hangy bangies. For obvious reasons.

On their slow way to the gardens, the women would walk in single file down the jungle path. They carried their baskets on their heads and babies on their backs. Their breasts would slowly sway back and forth in cadence to the foot falls. To keep them from getting in the way when they bent over to work, the women would transfer their lava lavas up to wrap around their chests, holding everything safely in place.

I really don't know how it was for my father, a pious missionary, but when I first got to the island, it was impossible not to stare. I would stare and wonder; "Does it hurt to be like that?" I would watch in fascination as a toddler ambled up to its mother, grabbed her breast, and put it in its mouth. And then feed away, its jaws working as it eyed me suspiciously. I once even saw a woman squirt a stream of milk off to the side to prepare the flow for her child. Like a cow. But then again, I'm sure anyone who's ever watched a cow has had some of the same musings; "Do they get in the way?"

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Kosmo was the village drunk. The first interaction my family had with him, he came sauntering up to my father, pleasantly toasted in the mid-morning, and speaking in outrageously over-exaggerated English. In fact, it was so off base that it took a minute to realize that it was our native tongue that he was speaking. "How do you do?" he asked, rolling his eyes slightly at my father as if they shared a delicious inside joke. "Um, pleased to meet you," my dad replied.

The man looked like the living representation of the character, 'Puddleglum' from C.S. Lewis' book, The Silver Chair. He had a shock of wiry hair sticking up at random angles from his head, and his clothes hung off of his tall, lanky frame. His feet were as broad as they were long. Each toe had at least an inch of breathing room on each side.

His wife was also tall, and willowy, much to the sympathy of the other village women. A thin woman is obviously poorly taken care of; after all, if your husband, brothers, sons, uncles and father all failed to bring in enough food to fatten you up, you were bad off, indeed. I never got to know Kosmo's wife; I never even learned her name. But every time I saw her, she looked sad. She wore sorrow like a blanket, pulling it around herself and her never ending children. Later I learned that Kosmo's wife's sister was the village medicine woman. People would go to her when the clinic and church failed to heal their maladies. I always wondered why she, with access to such magic, had such a poor life.

I remember one cloudy night, we were sitting in Father Nehemiah's hut, sharing an after dinner cup of tea. The kerosene lamp cast its honey hued blessing on brown and white skin. The men softly talked, as us children poked coconut broom sticks at each other and the cat.

"Mama!" came the raucous cry from outside. 'Mama' is the traditional name for the Anglican priests, used all through-out the islands. "Mama, I need to talk to you!" Kosmo looked like a coconut tree silhouetted against the night sky, with his tall frame and bushy hair. The priest went out to meet him. His children and my siblings all crowded at the window openings of the hut, ready for our evening entertainment. 'Up next after these words from our sponsors...'

Kosmo was in his religious stage of drunkenness. This one came after the gregarious stage, and before the ugly, angry one. He began arguing a finer point of the Anglican catechism with the mama, and tripped slightly on the rock border of the yard. We giggled. Heads began to appear in our neighboring huts, and the ones across the way as his voice gained volume. "No, you have to KNEEL!" Kosmo roared, as the mama murmured quietly to him.

"Ok, ok, just go home, Kosmo," Father Nehemiah said defeatedly. It began to drizzle lightly. "See, it's raining. Go home before it rains harder." Mama turned and went back into our hut, leaving the drunk swaying slightly on the gravel yard.

Kosmo looked around himself puzzlingly, then turned his face to the sky. Layers of clouds were discernible over the moon. The drops of water were gentle and kind, a benediction to the growing things all around. Night time flowers released their seductive scents into the moist air, and mingled intoxicatingly with the brown smell of wet earth. Kosmo's hands slowly stretched out, palms up, until he stood looking up into the dark heavens with arms wide open, a welcome to whatever was sent down.

The rain formed droplets on his long nose and sunken cheeks, and misted the tangles of his hair. "Healing rain," he said wistfully, his head thrown back. "Rain! Come on me! Heal me!" The rain didn't answer, except to pick up. We left him that night standing out in the downpour, and fell asleep to the sound of it pounding on our roof.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Many Uses of a Coconut Tree

On an island that is as long as three football fields, and the width of one, the soil is sandy and saturated with the ocean. Not much will grow there, except mangroves, grass, and coconut trees. The islanders, therefore, put nothing to waste. Almost everything is used, and during our stay there, I found that the most used plant on the island was the coconut tree. Here is a list of its uses, starting with the roots:

1. The roots, which grow outward and upward, mound and dry out as they die and are replaced by new growth. They are dense and woody, and produce a thick, blinding smoke when burned. The islanders harvest them in chunks the size of cinder blocks to burn during the rainy season to keep the mosquitoes away. When the monsoons come to the island, clouds of mosquitoes come with them, mounding behind you as you walk or sit like a corporeal manifestation of the island's ghosts. Smoke keeps them at bay, and when the rains come, it hangs over the village, trapped to the houses and people by the humidity and moisture and dripping trees.

2. The trunks of coconut trees provide the support for the village houses. They also make great platforms to jump out into the ocean from.

3. Where the trunk meets the leaves of the tree, there is white, juicy flesh that is sweet and packed full of nutrients. The villagers eat this substance when a tree is cut down, as a special treat. They also tap it in live trees, much like we tap maples for the syrup, and turn the liquid into a potent, fiery coconut toddy. They call this liquor, 'kaleve', and on any given night you can find, somewhere in the village, a circle of men sitting on mats, passing around a mug of the toxic stuff and slamming it as the reggae music gets louder and louder.

4. The leaves of the coconut tree are harvested and dried to weave into mats. These mats are sat upon, slept on, eaten from, and form walls on the huts. The leaves can also be woven into baskets, fans, hats, little balls, pinwheels, and I'm sure other things that I have forgotten by now. The slender ribs of the leaves are stripped and gathered together to make brooms, which the women use to sweep the floors of their huts, and the dirt expanses outside. They also make excellent toothpicks.

5. The coconut itself is used in all its forms. When a coconut falls to the ground and sprouts, the milk inside of it curdles into a spongy substance. This is packed with nutrients, as well, and the villagers gather these 'grow coconuts' to munch on as treats. I've also seen them given to babies to suck on, like we use pacifiers. The sprouts of the 'grow coconuts' can also be eaten.
A dead, dry, brown coconut is harvested for its many parts. The husks are collected and stored to use as fuel for the village fires. They also make excellent, smoldering smoke to keep the bugs away. The shells form hot coals when burnt, and entire huts are filled with the little brown cups against the time when a fire is needed (which is every day, several times a day). Children also thread strings through them and walk on the upended coconut shells like stilts.
The meat of a dry coconut is harvested and set out in the sun to harden. This forms copra, which the islanders sell to the Japanese for pennies on the dollar as their primary source of income. The copra finds its way into many of the expensive lotions and foods that Western consumers are so fond of.
Dry coconut meat can also be grated, then wrung in a mesh of shredded vines to release the creamy milk, which sweetens the island's cooking pots.
Green coconuts (fresh from the tree), are harvested to drink. The soft meat inside can be eaten. Some trees produce green coconuts with sweet husks, and the kids chew on them like candy.

Dreaming of Food

After months of nothing but rice, coconuts, and things you can get out of a can, we all began to crave 'real' food. One morning over the breakfast mat my father related a dream he had, where he was fishing a carton of ice cream out of a refrigerator, and it kept melting before he could get it to his mouth. Meal times became dream fests. We would all take turns to relate what we would be eating, if we could.

"I want a bowl of Cheerios, and some cold milk," Matthew said. We all licked our lips and mmmmm'd in agreement. I gazed forlornly down at my own bowl of burnt granola we had made in a stone oven a week earlier, drenched in watered down powdered milk. I stirred it with my spoon and a little dead weevil came floating to the top, circling in the eddies my spoon left.

"I want some pancakes, with real syrup, lots of it, and scrambled eggs," Anna said. My mom made pancakes occasionally, but we ate them with peanut butter (for more protein, she said), and jelly from a can. Eggs were a rare treat, brought to us by the occasional village kid. We never knew if they were from chickens or ducks, or if we would find the nice little treat of a half-formed chicken embryo inside. I still can't crack open an egg today without a little shiver of horrified anticipation.

Nathan just sat there glumly, chopping at his granola with his spoon and waiting for his first opportunity to bolt.

"Danica, what would your ideal breakfast be?" My dad asked, turning to me. I thought a bit.

"I want Pop Tarts," I said. "The kind with frosting and sprinkles on them." Pop Tarts had only just come out when we left the States, and even then my family was too poor to buy them (and my mom was probably philosophically opposed to them anyway, because they had the dreaded 'too much sugar'). But I had tasted them at my Aunt Peebsie's house, crunchy and sweet, chewy on the inside, with sprinkles that stayed last in your mouth after everything else had gone. I took another bite of my granola and closed my eyes, imagining it was a strawberry Pop Tart. Yummm.....

Monday, July 6, 2009

Pandanas Trees and Annoying Kids

On hot days, I would go down to the ikua (woman's beach), and lay underneath a specific pandanas tree that grew right on the edge of the beach. There, the sand was always cool and dry, its soft powdery remnants left by countless waves that pushed against the shore. I could always count on a steady breeze sweeping in from the ocean, carrying stories of breached whales, buoys lost and freely drifting, and further lands whose peoples lived their lives separate from mine, yet connected by the same wind.

I would lie back, mounding sand underneath my head, and stare up at the pandanas' prickly leaves. They were always in constant motion, ceaselessly slapping back and forth against each other and the tree limbs. Occasionally I could see the blue sky through a gap, then it would be veiled by repeating layers of leaves, and a sky patch would appear in another place. The constant shift of light and green shadow had a mesmerizing effect on me, weighing my eyelids down and soothing my mind.

Pandanas trees grow clusters of long leaves like fingers from the end of each branch. They are a deep green, and serrated on both sides with vicious spikes. The islanders harvest the leaves, and dry them until they become sandy brown. They can then be used as thatch for the huts' roofs, or torn into little strips and woven into sleeping mats. This I knew, but the leaves still held wonder and mystery when they were animated by the wind.

Sometimes as I lay there in my quiet place, village kids would come and squat a few feet from me, sitting back on their haunches and noisily sucking on sweet coconut husk. They were tireless in their observation of me, sitting there for thirty minutes at a time, just on the off chance that I would do or say something. The suck-suck-suck-stare routine became so old to me, that I would inevitably glower at them and say, "haele" in my fiercest voice. I had been told that this word meant, "go". Delighted, they would laugh and punch each other, jabbering away. This ridicule was too much for me to take, and I would end up driven back home to the heavy stillness of our hut in the middle of the village. This constant annoyance was a part of my life until I gained the social capital of friends, who would yell at the little kids and throw rocks after them as they scampered away.