June 22, 2017 Makemo Atoll
A Sunday promenade with Nolan and cross-cultural friendships on Napahere Motu, Makemo Atoll, Tuamotus
Earlier this week we befriended two remarkable Paumotuans, Nolan and Hubert. They left an indelible mark on us – one for which I am grateful and hope to never forget. It began with a shore exploration Kim and I made Sunday, after anchoring with our buddy boat friends on the remote northeast corner of Makemo Atoll; an area we had supposed was only seasonally inhabited by families coming from the village near the pass to cut copra. After anchoring the dinghy in knee deep turquoise water, we began to slowly walk south along the edge of the lagoon. Ahead, we saw an individual coming towards us, carrying a long staff with a sharpened, three pronged trident tip on it. We waved and our paths crossed in knee deep water as we both waded across an inlet. Friendly introductions ensued, and Nolan invited us to his house which lay in the direction we were going. We accepted and the three of us walked another bit before arriving at his open air home constructed of corrugated tin and rough timbers. There, we met his friend Napoleon, who lived in the village by the pass but was there for the day to help bag copra and take it back to the village in his skiff. Nolan immediately opened coconuts for Kim and me using the sharp metal rod protruding from the ground at an angle. He presented them to us; the coconut water (first of our cruise) was delicious and refreshing. We sat there with Nolan and Napoleon, engaging in polite conversation and taking in the scene. From a bucket came a clicking and clacking sound and upon inquiry learned it contained hermit crabs – bait for fishing. Dry coconut husks were smoldering on a piece of tin – local mosquito repellent. A simple, open air kitchen and one somewhat enclosed room for sleeping rounded out the scene. After relaxing a bit, Nolan excused himself saying he was off to get something for us. He returned in 20 minutes holding heart of palm in two large leaves. Millionaire’s salad, I believe it’s called, which we thoroughly enjoyed (I for the first time ever). Turns out that Nolan lives here permanently, by himself, and that he has a friend who also lives here permanently, about a quarter mile away. On Sundays, Nolan takes a break from copra cutting and goes on long walks. He asked if we’d like to join and we immediately said yes. Off we went, at a brisk clip, walking along the edge of the lagoon towards the atoll’s southeast tip. Along the way we carried on frequent conversation with Nolan, about the carefully managed copra groves we walked through, about the destructive storm events that occasionally wreak destructive havoc, and about what it’s like to live as he does. His demeanor was sweet, thoughtful, generous, and engaging in the extreme. At the southeast tip we marveled at the large swells that hurled themselves with great force on the reef and then made our way back to Nolan’s home; by this time we were feeling the heat and were somewhat tired after what seemed like a longish walk. There, we met his neighbor, Hubert, and sat a while longer, enjoying another round of coconut water. Hubert, probably in his 50s and a decade older than Nolan, is “quite something” as our friend Alex put it after meeting him. I asked if he went fishing that day, and he replied with a sweet smile that he had started to, but then thought better of it and instead just relaxed. We had passed Hubert’s compound prior to meeting Nolan that morning, and had wondered at what seemed to be the whimsical beach art of the area – floats and buoys suspended from trees, bottles (glass and plastic) upended on branches, benches and tables barely visible amongst the foliage, which seemed to camouflage a series of simple but inviting buildings. The prior day we had wondered at the coral walls and spires on the ocean side of the reef. Had the same person been responsible for all this whimsical construction and place-making? Meanwhile, back at Nolan’s, Hubert asked if the pomplamouse we had given Nolan was from the Gambier Island group. He was interested to know it was from the Marquesas and hoped it had seeds, which apparently those from the Gambiers do not, which they could try planting. Sensing that it would be rewarding to spend more time with Hubert and Nolan, we proposed a beach fire and dinner that evening, to which they readily agreed and suggested we meet at Hubert’s place.
That evening, just before sunset, Kim, Devon and I dinghied to Hubert’s place. Just to be sure we found it, Hubert and Nolan had ignited a good portion of the motu adjacent to Hubert’s compound, in addition to starting a large beach bonfire. Cleaning the brush and dead plant material from under coconut trees using fire is a regular practice, but seeing all those flames at dusk was quite impressive. As daylight was quickly fading, we immediately asked for quick visit to Hubert’s place. Words are not adequate to describe what he has created, primarily out of flotsam and jetsam. He’s an artist expressing his creativity using the materials at hand. The compound on the edge of the lagoon is probably a quarter of an acre. Narrow paths lace through the compound and connect one shaded living space with another. The paths are lined with carefully tended and bordered flowering shrubs. Hanging baskets made of coconut shells, seashells and other flotsam and jetsam contain succulents and more plants. Buoys, floats (including rare Japanese glass floats), bottles, even a hard hat and wristwatch, decorate the trees and driftwood. Under two trees at least 5 large hammocks make of washed up fishnets were suspended in an inviting fashion. The outdoor living space blended with the indoor spaces. There was an outdoor kitchen, well appointed with gas stove and pots and pans, and picnic table and chairs made of coconut trunks. This merged with his interior living quarters, which contained another well-appointed kitchen, living room with comfy-looking sofa and chairs, and two sleeping rooms each with a bed or two. Freshwater came from four large tanks that collected rainwater from the various rooftops of his residence. Hubert, as we later learned, has siblings and many many nieces and nephews who visit, as he said, when they are “pauvre” and need to earn some income cutting copra.
Hubert has created a whimsical, almost magical place in one of the most remote corners of the planet, on the edge of a lagoon where conventional wisdom says there are no permanent residents. We enjoyed the magic of his home, sitting around the beachfire with him and Nolan on seats of styrofoam blocks, marveling at the beauty of the sunset over the lagoon and the emerging starshow overhead. We baked potatoes with cheese in tinfoil in the embers, Hubert contributed delicious fried sweetbread he had baked that afternoon, and Nolan contributed some sort of shellfish which I was happy to avoid tasting using the excuse of possible shellfish allergy. We discussed lots of things, including the importance of speaking Puamotuan, which children in schools here are apparently not allowed to do (in contrast to the Marquesas and Tahiti), and the scourge of internet addiction amongst youth today. We also learned of Hubert’s large extended family and the chaos they cause when they come to stay. Hubert and Nolan both seem to have rejected the path of living in community and have instead opted to craft lives (almost Robinson Curusoe-like?) at the far end of this very large atoll. The possibility of cutting copra to generate income to purchase essential supplies enables them to “opt out” as it were. Kim and I, and Devon as well, were struck by their warm generosity, good sense of humor, kindness and sensitivity; Hubert had an effeminate mode of expression and interaction, which added depth to these characteristics.
After a memorable evening together we climbed into the dinghy and motored back home, waving a long while to our friends standing by the fire. Prior to leaving we had made a plan to visit Hubert the next day, this time before dark, to be able to really appreciate his artistic place-making.
We returned the next day, this time with Alex and Max, and had a last visit with Hubert. Nolan was also there, having walked to Hubert’s after a day of hard copra cutting labor. This time we were able to more fully appreciate Hubert’s creative genius, expressed in his outdoor and indoor living spaces. We also met his pet pig, “tatu” named after some sort of “boisson.” Hubert presented us with four loaves of fresh baked bread, made with coconut milk (which he made by extracting coconut meat, grating it, and then squeezing it in a cloth). Nolan inquired about our snorkeling trip we had made earlier, and asked if we had seen either sea turtles or sharks. He took pains to remember and use our names in these interactions. As the mosquitoes got a bit active under the trees in the late afternoon, we shifted to the edge of the lagoon, away from shrubbery, for our last bit of time together; the coconut husk smudge pots came with us. The afternoon/early evening light was exquisite. The coconut palms fringing the lagoon were iridescent green. The lagoon, extending as far as the eye could see, was mirror-like. The sky overhead, reaching from horizon to horizon in unbroken arcs, seemed to reach to infinity. There we were on the edge of the universe, (at least it seemed that way to us; perhaps it feels like the center of the universe to Hubert and Nolan). We confirmed Hubert’s mailing address by writing it in the sand and photographing it; we plan to send him and Nolan photos when we get the chance. At last it was time to say good-bye. With many wishes of well-being and safe travels, accompanied by the double cheek kiss, French style, we bid farewell to these two people. They stood there, side by side, at the water’s edge, waving, as we negotiated the shallows in Max and Alex’s dinghy. What an amazing set of gifts they had given us. I hope to never forget them, the unusual lives they have created for themselves, and the authentic experiences and interactions we had shared.