Sunday, June 2, 2013

Our Time in Kauehi

After a particularly bad passage, one spends quite a bit of time drying out the boat and then putting it back together – but there is also much time spent being glad that we are safely anchored and taking note of the small details around us.  I’m happy to report that Kauehi is probably one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been.  The water is that wonderful bright turquoise color you see on postcards of exotic places, there are white sandy beaches with palm trees swaying and the water within the lagoon of this atoll is smooth and calm – even though we can see the waves breaking on the ocean outside of the lagoon.  I think we’ve officially reached a little slice of heaven.

The mess while we dried out the v-berth
While we were getting the boat back in order we had a visit from the only other cruising boat in the anchorage – Claudine and Gérard on Cassiopée – a French couple that has been out cruising for over 8 years.  Since meeting them we’ve spent a fair amount of time together and I must say they’ve blown all of my preconceived notions about French people out of the water.  Now I’m not so naïve to believe that I should judge all by this one example, but you just couldn’t meet two more open and friendly people and so we are very happy to have made their acquaintance.

After getting all our “chores” done we decided it was time for some fun, so dropped the dinghy in the water and headed into “town”.  Considering the population here probably only numbers around 200 or so, there is not a lot of “town” to actually see!  However, as soon as we landed the dinghy we were greeted by a man named Samuel who showed us the way to the street (through a yard) and to his house.  He let us know (mostly in mime since we don’t know French and he didn’t know English) that if we needed anything this was where he lived and he would be happy to help.  Thanks Samuel!

Now that's efficient travel!
So off we went to explore the town and the surrounding area.  Other than a large church and a bunch of houses, there really wasn’t much to see – especially since the “Mayor” was out of town on business (because of recent elections).  The Mayor owns the only grocery store, the only hardware store, the only hotel and the only operating black pearl farm on the atoll and the only road on the island other than main street leads from the Mayor’s house to the airstrip!  Apparently when the Mayor is gone it means everything is closed and this time he’s gone for the entire MONTH!  Can you imagine that happening in the states???

Next we took a road that looked like it would take us to the opposite side of the atoll so we could look out at the ocean and see if it was still as rough out there as we remembered.  It was a little disappointing to find that when we got there the coral (no beach on this side) was strewn with trash – all plastic and all items that had obviously washed in from the ocean.  There were pieces of lawn chairs, plastic bottles, and smaller pieces of plastic from more items than I can count – it was very disheartening.  This was the only area of the island that we saw any trash – all other areas where completely clean, so the people here obviously take care of the town, but likely can’t keep up with what the ocean deposits daily on their doorstep – very sad.

Yep - that's a homemade boom box on a bike!!!
While walking back to town, we were passed by a truck that screeched to a halt after passing us.  Inside were Claudine and Gérard with some locals that had taken them out to see the airstrip.  They offered us a ride (even though it’s just about a ½ mile back) and so we hopped in the back with the locals as you always say yes to a ride to see where it leads! 
Where did we go?  Right back to Samuel’s house!  With Gérard doing the translating we found out that Samuel and his wife (Flo), live there with Flo’s mother (Martine), who has given birth to 18 (!!!) children over the last 25 years.   Wow – that’s a lot of kids!  Only two of them are currently living on the island – Flo, who is child number 5, and another son who I think was child number 17.  

Coconuts all around!
They quickly set about getting us fresh coconuts to drink from and then taught us the differences between different stages of coconuts.  First there are those that are green and fresh off the tree – which are full of coconut water (very refreshing and not too sweet) and the “meat” inside is fairly soft, about 1/8 inch thick and very sweet.  Then there are the coconuts that have recently fallen off the tree - these tend to be a little older and don’t have as much water inside.  The “meat” of this coconut is what we’re used to seeing in the stores – more firm and about a ¼ inch thick.  Lastly, they cut open an “old” coconut which had sprouted.  This one had no water inside and the “meat” had a strange puffy consistency – almost like Styrofoam.  It was okay to eat – but not something I would look for.  What a great education in coconuts!   Oh – and for you foodies out there – we also learned how to make coconut milk!  Basically you shred the coconut and then you put it in a handkerchief, soak it all in water and then squeeze the juice into a bowl.  Cool!

That's Samuel with the knife and his wife Flo
After sampling this cornucopia of tastes and textures, I told them if they gave me one of coconuts (they had now cut open about 8-10 total) I would make banana-coconut bread for them.  They immediately offered ALL the coconuts that were left!  I quickly assured them we only needed one and then it was time to go back before we could no longer see the coral heads to avoid on the way back to our boats!  But before we left they invited us to be their guests at church the next day (Sunday), which we agreed we would be delighted to do.  The people from this area are renowned for their singing and church is a great place to hear it! 

The next morning, dressed in our finest we showed up at the appointed time and happily passed along the bread I had made to Flo – who seemed very touched to receive it.  We watched a lovely service at the church as the guest of Martine (the matriarch of the family – pronounced Marteeen), though we couldn’t understand a word of it as most of it was either in French or Tahitian.  Martine was so sweet – very warm and wanting to make sure we were comfortable – often fanning us with her fan as the church was rather warm – charming!

Kids before church - they were pretty fun to watch...
After church, we were stunned when they invited Claudine, Gérard, Brett and I to join them for Sunday dinner with their family.  Wow!  Not only would we be a part of an authentic family gathering, but after missing countless Sunday dinners at home – this seemed rather special to share a meal with another family when I can’t be with my own.  There have been several “opportunities” to have a traditional local meal – but they were all meals that you pay for.  Getting an invite to just come for dinner is much harder to come by – so we felt very lucky to receive one.  It was communicated that we should go entertain ourselves for a couple hours and come back around noon when we would eat. 

Prepping the pumpkin dish
We returned later with some lemonade and cake to contribute and the meal was almost ready.  It was fun to see them in the final prep for their guests – obviously as big a deal for them as it was for us!  They had made several dishes and the table outside was all laid out with plates and glasses and the food.  There were whole cooked fish (grilled on the barbeque), a sort of coconut bread, Poisson Cru (similar to ceviche but with coconut milk), grilled green beans and onions and then a last dish which I think was some sort of pumpkin with coconut milk.   

Dinner was delicious!
As we all sat down it was made clear to us (thanks to Gérard) that we would be eating with our hands – certainly a first for me – but one must do as the locals do, right?  Samual, sitting beside me, quickly slapped down an entire foot-long, charred black fish (head and all) onto my plate.  Um…..what do I do next???  And how do I convey that this is WAY too much fish for me without offending?  Samuel quickly taught me how to de-skin the fish and scoop out the flesh with my hands – and indicated I should share it with Brett.  Phew – what started out as slightly uncomfortable feeling (not wanting to offend our hosts) ended in an entirely delicious experience – the fish was moist and fantastic!  

Claudine, Martine and Stacey
I don’t know that I have ever met such a group of warm, inviting and giving individuals as this family.  After dinner we guests were given gifts (as if the food wasn’t enough!) and not allowed to lift one finger to help with the cleanup – that would apparently be unheard of!  Claudine and I were each given a pareo from Martine and many beautiful shells from Flo, while the men were given shell necklaces.  For people that obviously have so little, we were overwhelmed by their generosity and their giving spirit.  I found myself completely overcome by their kindness and how wonderful it was to be with a family again on a Sunday.  Thankfully they understood my tears were tears of happiness.  

Since we were leaving the next morning, we had to say goodbye that afternoon and there were many hugs and kisses (they are part French after all!) and lots of waving goodbye.  I will never forget the kindness these people showed to us and will clearly remember it as one of the highlights of our trip through the Tuamotos.  This is exactly the kind of experience we were hoping to have by taking a trip like this.  I can’t thank Martine’s family enough for inviting us, or Gérard and Claudine for helping to translate so that we could all understand each other.  Amazing!

At the beach on Kauehi

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