"The other day, we sat on the beach and ate fresh fish. We were offered the heart and liver, which left our lips smeared with blood." – Atafu, February 20, 2007
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of brown run by. A child of five or six raced past me, his skin melted and pooled like layers of wax. It looked as if it would slide off his body, leaving nothing but unprotected muscles and bones. He raced and raced, as if time and space would only allow him a few moments to expend all of his energy before death. And then he laughed, a series of high-pitched giggles, joy seemingly coming from nowhere.
He was the last thing I saw before stepping onto the rusting hulk of the Tokelau 223 to Atafu, an atoll so far into the blue nowhere of the South Pacific that I already felt lost. Atafu is one of three atolls that formed part of Tokelau. I had a vivid image of Tokealu gleaned from a New Yorker article on the atolls' attempt to become an independent nation and free itself from its status as a protectorate of New Zealand. The atolls, no more than tiny pinpoints of sand and palm trees in the vast ocean, wanted to sell the rights to their waters, rich in yellowfin tuna, if they became independent. Ian Parker, the author of the article, described how Tokelauan youth—frustrated, depressed, or driven crazy by the confines of island life—motored off into the ocean in metal dinghies. They died there, their flesh cooked by the sun.
Tilau Ellis Kirifi after diving off a large piece of overturned coral in the Atafu lagoon. He spent hours teaching me different types of dives, and some of my best memories are of those endless afternoons with all the kids scrambling up the coral, diving off, and swimming like fish. Photos by the author.
A huge Samoan with fleshy arms and multiple geometric tattoos sat down next to me on the boat. I looked at him warily, wondering if he wanted to steal my spot. I imagined the tattoos curling off his arm and weaving themselves into my hair, their geometric shapes leaving us bound together.
The ship captain spent the beginning of the 36-hour journey on the bottom deck reeling in a swordfish. The fishing line was so long that I couldn't tell how far out it extended: where the horizon met the water, the line became indistinguishable. I looked out in the distance and saw the waves rolling endlessly, eating up the line and giving the struggling swordfish a sense of comfort. At some point, three boat hands hung grabbed onto the fishing pole, their faces stretched in concentration. The captain, muscles tense, gripped the pole as well, his eyes lost in the distant waters. Would the sea romance the captain or the captain the swordfish?
The fish grew tired, and several men pulled it through the waves towards the boat. The swordfish's iridescent skin glittered in the water, each silvery scale burning itself onto my retina. I mentally willed it to escape. Moments later, the men stabbed the flailing muscle of a fish and threw it onto the deck. It fought tenaciously, smacking the weight of its six-foot body against the deck in hopes of propelling itself back into the water. Its fierceness was met with several sharp blows on the head, but the swordfish was a flash of liquid silver—all movement. I drank in the violence. Three men descended upon it with blows; a river of blood ran from the swordfish's gills, and finally it lay still. Suddenly, the swordfish thrashed against the deck again, but it stopped in the blink of an eye—its momentary resurrection the last muscle spasms of the recently dead. The men began washing blood off the deck.
They cut up the fish: slit the belly, pulled out and cleaned the entrails, found a whole fish inside the swordfish's stomach, and cut the meat into filets. The captain handed me the swordfish's head, and laughed as he said, "You can hang this on your wall at home." I took the wet, partially bloody head in my hand, but all I could think of was the swordfish glistening like a metallic rainbow, flushing from life to death.
Almost two days later, I stepped onto the atoll of Atafu, pale sands surrounded by sublime blue waters, home to some 300 people. I could walk it from end to end in 30 minutes. I would not set foot on the boat for another six weeks.
Vae was short, not even five feet tall, and had a plump, grandmotherly face, sharp eyes, and white hair wrapped in a stern knot on top of her head. The twice-monthly ship that brought me to the atoll was full of supplies for the some 300 residents of Atafu. Vae and her husband Feleti, who were hosting me, ate Frosted Flakes, buttered toast, hot dogs, and bacon for breakfast. "Sit," she said. "You can pay us for breakfast later." Her commanding voice had a mean edge to it that made my skin prickle and forced my brain to act on autopilot. "When I was growing up, we woke up and ate a coconut in the morning. Men and women were lean and strong," explained Vae as she surveyed the breakfast table with a critical eye. "Now we are fat because we eat food like this." As she said this, I watched her pick up a hot dog and put it in her mouth. And yet, there was nothing hypocritical about her actions: Vae saw the paradox, and was aware that she remained part of it. Implicit in the sharpness of the criticism was criticism of herself as well. "Men used to be strong and muscular from rowing, but now they are lazy," said Vae as she chewed.
One day, I saw Stan, Vae's grandson, reach his small, brown hand deep into the underground lair of a coconut crab and pull out a beast one twelfth of his own weight with a mottled cobalt, periwinkle, and burnt orange shell. "You have to grab them right behind the head, because, if you don't, you can lose a finger," he explained to me. "Their meaty claws are strong enough to crack open coconuts, so they can also cut through bone." After searching methodically for three more crabs, Stan gathered dried coconut fronds and threw them in a pile. He dropped the writhing crabs on top of the heap, covered them with a few more fronds, and pulled out a lighter. He lit the yellowed tips of the driest fronds as I laughed, amazed at the simplicity of the whole procedure. Flames quickly engulfed the crabs, causing the blue of their shells to blush fierce shades of red.
According to Atafu tradition, women are always offered the largest coconut crabs. In my case, this was the crab I was given.
After a few minutes, he grabbed a stick and used it to drag the giant crabs from the flames. Then he picked up the bulbous appendage on the largest crab, an abdominal sack filled with a thick, oily fluid, and said seriously, "That is the best part. It tastes like peanut butter." We took the crabs to the ocean's edge to wash the signs of death from their ash-covered bodies. Together we gathered fallen palm fronds, and Stan showed me how to weave them into a plate. Later, I watched as he smashed a coconut against the shell of the largest crab. He passed that crab to me, sweet flesh sticking out through shards of broken shell and explained, "The woman always gets the biggest crab."
I used two coconuts to crack open the crab's claws and devoured the buttery flesh. Stan ate coconut crab with chunks of raw coconut, grinning all the while. We sat facing a thousand shades of blue in the lagoon. Occasionally shadows in the water hinted at the presence of reef sharks. I eyed my crab's abdominal sack, which was covered with beads of glistening oil. When I poked it with my finger, a thick, yellow substance seeped out. Stan picked up the abdominal sack of his crab and bit into it as oil flowed down his chin. I followed suit, and was rewarded with the richness of a sweet, slightly nutty taste. I looked over at Stan, his face made golden by the light of the setting sun. The moment was pristine and uncomplicated, but its memory would be marred when I returned to the mainland, researched the coconut crab, and found out that it was both the largest living arthropod in the world and an endangered species.
I had eaten a creature that was on the brink of disappearing, had lived on an atoll that was slowly being engulfed by rising seas, and had shared my days with a people who were transitioning from a traditional diet of fresh fish and coconuts to a modern one of Coke, beer, and packaged foods. In my six weeks there, I watched mothers feed babies bottles full of Coke and Fanta, I saw men get drunk and heard the screams of their women when fist met flesh, and I learned of a kid who barely survived a kerosene fire because there was no hospital on the atoll. "A kerosene lamp fell over one night and caught the house on fire. When we found him, his skin was pooled around his body, liquid seeping off bone. He was lucky because he made it to the hospital in Western Samoa," a fisherman explained to me. I contributed, in some immeasurable way, to pushing a species closer to the brink of extinction, something I never would have imagined when I saw that flash of a child race by me as I waited for the Tokelau 223.