by James Baldwin, sailing vessel Atom
This is an excerpt from the book Across Islands and Oceans by James Baldwin. A little far from our usual Caribbean route, but hey, some of us do venture out to the South Pacific too.
A sail appears on the horizon and soon a crowd gathers on the beach. Canoes are launched into the surf, the men pulling hard on their paddles. The yacht tacks into the empty anchorage, guided through the menacing brown coral heads by canoes on either side of the bow. The anchor bites into the sandy bottom as a crowd of people on shore waves and shout a friendly greeting, “Malo e Leilei!” (Welcome).
This is how I arrived alone at Tikopia, a remote and unspoilt island at the far eastern end of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Tikopia stands out from the ocean like a green fortress, surrounded by coral and pounding surf. The population of about 1,000 still lived a traditional lifestyle without electricity, motor vehicles, or shops. For a freedom loving cruising sailor, the total lack of officialdom – there is no police force or immigration officers – is a welcome change from the tedious and costly bureaucratic controls forced on cruisers in virtually every country we visit.
The three mile-wide island is divided among four clans, each ruled by a hereditary chief, called a “teriki”. Though on the edge of Melanesia, the people speak Tikopian – a Polynesian language peculiar to this and one other small island 70 miles to the north.
Custom dictates that ‘palangi’ (foreigners) should ask permission of one of the teriki before exploring the island. My interpreter advised me of the local etiquette; for example, you should never turn your back to a chief or walking upright in his house, moving around on hands and knees instead. In any case, the entrances to the thickly thatched grass huts are so low that you are obliged to crawl in on your belly.
In a long, low hut near the beach, shaded by coconut and breadfruit trees, Teriki Taumako sat cross-legged on a hand-woven mat covering the sand floor. His arms and chest were covered in tattoos (tattoo is a Polynesian word meaning to puncture) and he puffed on a clay pipe stuffed with strong locally grown tobacco. As is their custom, he set aside my gift of fishing tackle without examining or acknowledging it – an attitude that most Westerners would misinterpret as bad manners.
Just as I was beginning to doubt their hospitality, I was offered some baked vegetables and fruit-and then welcomed to travel wherever I wished apart from one scared valley, which was ‘tapu’, or forbidden to all palangi. Despite my cries of “Enough!”, the more I ate, the more food his wife and daughters set before me. It soon became apparent that you could not visit anyone here without partaking in a huge meal. I had to plan my visits carefully because if there were several stops to make I would soon be so completely stuffed I could hardly walk.
According to Chief Taumako, the four clans of Tikopia arrived here from different island groups many generations before the first white men entered the Pacific. In that era, the double-hulled sailing canoes ranged across Oceania carrying native settlers and soldiers between Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, and other island groups.
A month earlier chief Taumako’s father had died, passing his title to his eldest son. Since then, the islanders had been in mourning. Activities such as dancing and even fishing were tapu. The end of this period of mourning was now to be marked by an island-wide feast. The women had been busy for days gathering taro and cassava roots, green bananas, and breadfruit. The vegetables were cooked in a communal earth oven for a few hours then were mashed in huge wooden bowls and a rich oily coconut cream mixed in to form a tick pudding they call masi. Some of this mixture was wrapped in taro leaves and taken away to be buried underground for several years to ferment. Hundreds of caches of this pungent pudding are buried all over the island to tide the people over in times of crop failure. Friends gave me a sample of seven-year-old masi freshly dug up from the sandy earth. It tasted good (in small amounts), with a flavor something like a strong blue cheese.
On the day of the ceremony, the four chiefs took their seats on mats outside Taumako’s house. Tucked under their belts were branches of a sweet-scented bush that appeared to sprout from their backs. A few men with clubs were beating out a monotonous rhythm against the bottom of an upturned canoe. A group of village elders were wailing discordantly, making eerie, inhuman sounds. The chiefs hung their heads and wept in a show of respect. Then the chiefs and elders began dancing slowly around the upturned canoe, stamping their feet hard in the sand as they circled around and around. Later, baskets of food were brought out and the chiefs ate in silence while bare-breasted girls clad in tapa cloth skirts hovered around them and fanned away the flies.
Later there were hours of story telling while the men continuously chewed betel nut. All over Oceania, these nuts are peeled and chewed together with a lime powder extracted from burnt seashells and a green leaf that neutralizes its bitter taste. A chemical reaction turns the teeth and lips bright red and makes the mouth water with scarlet juice. As I soon found out, to the uninitiated its effect is to set the head spinning and make the legs wobble. The men here chew it endlessly without any sign of it affecting them.
Between pauses for betel nut, one of the elders told of the islanders encounter with the outside world during World War II. Many of the other islands in the Solomons, such as Guadalcanal, had suffered terrible destruction. The only soldiers to come to Tikopia were survivors of an American plane that ditched in the sea nearby. “The big bird fell out of the sky over there”, the old man said while pointing past the reefs. Despite the shock of seeing their first airplane, the islanders had quickly launched their canoes and saved three of the flyers. Sadly, another four drowned. “We all cried for the dead men,” he said as sincerely as if they had been his own relatives. The islanders cared for the survivors until a passing ship took them away.
Another man said that soon after that incident an American named John flew his “big bird” over the island, passing so slow that he shook some of the palm fronds loose. “How could you possibly know his name was John?” I asked. “Because he dropped us a carton of cigarettes with his name ‘John Player’ printed on the boxes.” Fortunately, that was as close as the madness of war came to this happy island.
In front of the gathered crowd, Taumako honored me with a gift of a shell necklace carved in a bird-like design called temanga, which is worn only by the island's chiefs. By custom, the chiefs of Tikopia are not allowed to travel outside of their island unless the Solomon Islands government requests them for a meeting in Guadalcanal. This happens rarely, so they are naturally curious about other lands and people. As I sat on a woven mat with my back pressed against the hut's main support pole, I tried to answer their questions about my travels. We spoke about navigation techniques, which the elders knew were based on a knowledge of the position of certain stars that could point the way to those who could read them.
"Which star will you follow from here?" asked a man old enough to remember long ago canoe trips to neighboring islands. I simplified my explanation of modern celestial navigation and said, "There is a star that rises over the big island of New Guinea and that is the way I will go." They knew of the island of New Guinea, though they did not know the way there.
Judging from the amazed and satisfied expressions of the audience, my interpreter was a skilled storyteller. I suspect that whenever my own narrative lacked in exciting events, he embellished it with exaggerated claims. At one point, Chief Tofua made a speech to all present, claiming that I must belong to a royal bloodline and wished me to verify the fact by admitting to them that my father was a chief. "No ordinary young man could have come so far alone," he asserted.
I did not feel in a position to shake up their belief in the caste system of chiefs and commoners. Thinking quickly, I remembered my grandfather had held public office and even ran once for town sheriff, so I told them that yes, I had descended from a chief, not a great chief, but a type of chief nonetheless. Chief Tofua nodded his head approvingly.
It is impossible for a visitor to walk alone on Tikopia. Always scores of laughing children are at your side, each trying to clutch one of your fingers and guide you along. Accompanied by a dozen of these excited children we walked around the 20-kilometer circumference of the island. When overhanging cliffs blocked the shoreline route, we detoured inland taking care to avoid the forbidden valley. What could be in that valley, I wondered.... A temple for human sacrifice? Perhaps they sequestered their loveliest virgins there whenever a palangi sailor was visiting the island?
On the island’s windward side, the walking becomes difficult on steep slopes of mud and loose rock. This uninhabited shore is a maze of cliffs, balanced boulders wrapped in creeping vegetation and deep caves beckoning to be explored. Protruding incongruously from the reef is the battered wreck of a Taiwanese fishing boat, which met with disaster during a storm some thirty years ago. In their canoes, the Tikopians rescued the entire 20-man crew.
The islanders sympathized with the shipwrecked fishermen and took them into their homes until another Taiwanese fishing boat picked them up a month later. Before they were rescued, a government boat arrived from Guadalcanal with the intent of arresting the fishermen for poaching in the Solomon's territorial waters. However, the island chiefs, being happily ignorant of the concept that the deep sea could be owned as if it were a piece of land, simply refused to hand them over. Finally, the officials had no choice but to leave empty handed.
The broken windward-side shoreline gradually gives way to the smooth beaches of the island’s leeward side. When the tide runs out it reveals an expanse of shallow tidal flats. Generations ago, low walls of stone were built to form pens on the flats in front of each village. Each day, as the tide drops, fish are still trapped in the pens and groups of women wade into the water to scoop the fish up with hand made nets that resemble loosely strung tennis rackets. This daily ritual usually ends up looking like a game of water polo as the women chase the fish into corners and frantically slash at the water with their nets. Farther out in the lagoon, men drift about in canoes fishing with hand lines under a languorous midday sun.
Here at Potikorokoro Village, the weekly soccer game attracts hundreds of spectators. The tournament is always held at low tide because the only level playing field on the island is on this tidal flat. After a few hours playing on the moist sand, the players are forced to yield the field to the incoming tide.
On a moonless night I was invited to join Joseph Roto in his canoe for a flying fish hunt. On board was a kerosene pressure lamp tied to a post. The flying fish are attracted to the light and are swatted out of the air with a net attached to a long bamboo pole. The kerosene lamp, acquired by bartering their copra in Guadalcanal, has mostly replaced the ancient method of coconut sheath torches.
About two miles offshore we stopped paddling and the bombardment started. Flying fish shot back and forth just above our heads, the humming sound of their wing-like fins giving only a fraction of a seconds warning of their approach. Joseph leapt into action with his net and pole. In three hours, swinging his net from side to side, he filled the canoe brim full with stunned fish.
Each small wave threatened to sink us as we paddled slowly through the black night towards the faintly visible island. With our feet safely planted on the beach and the women unloading the fish into baskets, Joseph mentioned the sudden storm that came up two years ago when several canoes were out fishing. Three of the fishermen were lost in what the Tikopian still refer to as a ‘sweet burial’.
Mt. Reani, at a modest 400 meters above the sea, is the highest point on Tikopia. Seeing my interest in exploring the island, Joseph offered to guide me to the mountain’s peak. Leaving the coast we ascended a trial that passed cultivated lots of fruit trees, vegetables and tobacco plants. The islanders work their independent garden plots and then distribute the food equally among their clan so that none may go hungry.
On the upper slopes, the trees leant seaward as if listening for the muted crash of breakers spilling onto the reef below. From Mt. Reani’s grassy peak, there is a clear view of Lake Te Roto, reflecting cliffs and hillsides on its pale green and still waters. Formed in the crater of an extinct volcano, the lake is continuously fed by freshwater springs and occupies nearly a third of the island’s area. Beyond the lake, framed between jagged peaks and a narrow strip of beach, a line of white foam marks the reef. Past the breakers lies the cobalt blue of the ‘Moana’ (the deep sea), and the unbroken horizon.
As he gazed over the sea, Joseph must have keenly felt the island’s isolation, for he said in a serious way, “Friend, when you leave here in your boat I will go with you.” He assumed that such a courageous offer would be automatically accepted, but seemed relieved when I declined. Perhaps somewhere in his genetic make-up was awakened the same urgings of his ancestors whose large sailing canoes once crisscrossed this sea as if it were a well-known highway: great voyages that are now only a distant memory.
Rowing the dinghy back to Atom on one of my last evenings on the island, I paused in the middle of the lagoon to listen to a group of girls on the beach. Their hauntingly beautiful songs of courtship pierced the darkness of the calm, starry night. If the cyclone season were not approaching, I would surely have lingered longer on this most pleasant and traditional island I was to come across in two crossings of the Pacific. During my stay there, life on Tikopia went on much as it always had, and I wish them the strength to withstand the inevitable winds of change.
Update: On December 28-29, 2002 Tikopia was directly hit and devastated by tropical cyclone "Zoe". This was the strongest cyclone to hit the island in living memory, with winds estimated at well over 150 knots. Reports say most of the islander's homes and crops were completely destroyed and trees were uprooted or stripped bare. Apparently the seas breached a narrow strip of land and contaminated the life-giving freshwater lagoon with saltwater.