11 Apr Arno, part IV: Octopus Hunt

Ron Tanner, chair of the Writing Department at Loyola College-Maryland, won a grant from the National Parks Service to help Marshallese college students preserve the oral culture of the Marshall Islands. He’s spending the 2008 spring semester (5 months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story of his personal experiences, be sure to check the archives to your left.

Two story-tellers got away from us on Arno. One sneaked off to Majuro just before we arrived. The other decided that he didn’t want to talk. It wasn’t clear why he didn’t want to talk–Newton offered a one-on-one, no cameras, no students, but the story-teller continued to decline. We concluded that Newton would have to return to Arno to see if he could catch the one who got away and, more importantly, the eldest elder, who’s suffering from diabetes. This meant that our last day on Arno was wide open. So Newton recruited one of the young spear-fishermen to take us octopus hunting on oceanside.

I wasn’t thrilled about snorkeling on oceanside–deep water scares me. The students weren’t thrilled either. Only one agreed to join us. The rest said, “No way. Sharks!” We waded out at low tide. When we were knee deep, we began swimming. My nose was about a foot from the reef–it was like plunging my face into an aquarium. Small fish, bright yellows and blues mostly, darted past my mask. The reef looked latticed, full of holes, each with a fish. To keep our masks from fogging up, we had chewed the incredibly bitter kirin leaf and smeared it across the glass. It worked great. As the water gained depth, the reef table dipped and branched out, ending abruptly in a cliff that dropped 25 feet to the sandy bottom. Not far beyond that, the sand slid steeply to the ocean floor–two thousand feet. Cold currents up-welled from those depths, like a draft from a dark cellar.

The cliffs project jaggedly over the sand like the bows of sunken ships. The coral variety here is the broadest in the world: coral fingers, fans, bulbs, mounds, swirls, ridges, ribs, filigrees , crenellations, convolutions . Every ten yards or so, the cliff recedes into a coral-craggy canyon, each shaded recess a unique habitat. Because of the varied terrain, it was difficult to keep track of my three companions and I often found myself alone. A mask is a narrow window, about 40 degrees out of 160, if that. It’d be easy for something to sneak up on you. My mask was leaking, so I had to surface frequently to clear it. Newton soon found me and signaled for me to follow. They had speared an octopus. I hadn’t taken the octopus hunt seriously. It took Newton and the spear-fisherman about fifteen minutes and many dives to the bottom to finish the job–it’s a process, apparently. Then they carried their catch to the surface and cleaned it, a number of fish attracted by the ink-cloudy mess.

I thought of sharks. The Marshalls have just about every kind of shark you can name, with the exception of the great white. The most dangerous are tigers and hammerheads. Until recently I was terrified of sharks. However, after watching National Geographic TV’s week-long special on sharks, I’ve changed my mind. The main thing to know is this: sharks want an easy catch. Humans are not an easy catch. Sharks love eating sardines, for example. Little things. They don’t want to mess with something as big as us. Grizzly bears, by contrast, are accustomed to taking down elk, moose, and deer, so they think nothing of taking down a human.

If you want to be scared of something in tropical waters, be scared of the stone fish. It hides in the sand of the shallows. Step on one of these and you’ve got about twenty minutes before you go into shock and cardiac arrest. Its dorsal spines inject neurotoxins. Or how about the reclusive sea snake, the most poisonous serpent in the world? More neurotoxins. Or a flotilla of ten thousand jelly fish, each the size of a quarter? Cardiac arrest within minutes. When I lived on Kwajalein as a kid, the beach was sometimes closed because the jelly fish were passing through. Or how about the gorgeous turkey fish, also called the scorpion fish? Its flowery appendages are highly toxic. You get the idea: out here, it’s not the sharks that are gonna get you, it’s the little things.

Sadly, the shark has been over-hunted, mostly for fin soup, believe it or not. Apparently, Taiwan is the most egregious abuser. As a result, sharks may soon become an endangered species. We kill four sharks a minute. Add that up. I have: 5,760 sharks a day. These are big animals, keep in mind. Top of the food chain. Six thousand a day. That’s not good for the ecosystem, no matter what you think of sharks.

By the time Newton and the spear-fisherman were done, they’d caught two octopi, several reef fish, and harvested some clams. I assumed we’d simply toss the octopi on the barbie and be done with them. No. First, you have to cover them with kirin leaf (yeah, the same stuff we used on our dive masks), then pound them for about ten minutes. Newton did this with a hardwood club Then one of the students washed off the pounded octopi in the shallows, where he attracted five moray eels. Newton said the morays were like stray dogs. He often tosses scraps to them and so they stay around.

Cooking the octopus was complicated. You boil it in coconut milk, onion, garlic, and lime leaf. You can’t let the milk curdle. While the spear-fisherman did this, two of the camp-hands were preparing breadfruit. It’s green, the size of a grapefruit, and has a nubby skin. You have to bury it in or under hot coals and roast it like a potato. Then scrape off the rind. This is woman’s work, by the way, but the men were allowed to do it because there were no women watching. Still smarting from the pancake incident, I told Newton I was relieved to see that even these hardened men would stoop to women’s work when necessary.

Baked breadfruit has the consistency of tender eggplant near the rind. It’s bland, chewy, and great for dipping. If it’s been roasted on a campfire, it will have a smoky flavor. Newton instructed me to dip mine in the milky octopus stew. It was heavenly, the meat buttery, the stew piquant. By far, the best octopus I’ve ever had. The only thing that would have made it a bit better: a cold beer.

After dinner, we went hunting for coconut crab. The biggest land crab–capable of growing as big as a basketball–they live in burrows under fallen coconuts. Earlier, Hiram and the spear-fisherman had made an elaborate treat of roasted, grated coconut to attract the crabs. “Usually the crabs come out only when the moon is down,” Newton explained, ‘but they’ll make an exception for roasted coconut. They’re crazy for roasted coconut.” Coconut crabs are increasingly hard to find. Chinese businessmen on Majuro have been known to pay as much as $300 for a single coconut crab, they are such a delicacy. We tiptoed down the sandy road to the dark, coconut-cluttered places we had sprinkled the roasted coconut earlier. I felt a little bad for tricking the crabs. I imagined them crabbing along and suddenly coming upon the treat: Hey, what’s that smell? Holy seacow, it’s roasted coconut! A pickup rumbled past and ruined our surprise visit, so the crabs got away. I was happy about that.

When we returned to camp, I sat with the students and talked. They asked about American urban legends, many of which they’d heard. Then they told me about Marshallese folklore–stuff I hadn’t heard before. There is a race of little people, nooniep who live underground, are mischievous, and steal children. They are great fishermen and grow giant-sized fruits. You might think they resemble leprechauns, but tales of nooniep go way back in the Marshallese culture. There is also a demon who’s as tall as the stars. If you look upon it, you will die or go crazy. There’s a race of scaly humanoid creatures, riikijet, that live in the deep. They feed on clams, which they open with their long claws, but come ashore for the sweet sap of coconut trees. There’s also an evil spirit that may inhabit a tree or a bush. Newton’s wife believes he has one at the camp, living in the big tree on the lagoon side. She’s put a crucifix and a container of holy water on the hut nearest the tree. Fishermen have reported that they’ve seen a weak glow of light in the camp when it’s vacant. Some neighbors have advised Newton to cut down the tree. But he believes it’s better to leave the spirits alone.

We got to the dock early the next morning because the boat can get crowded. It’s a small boat. The ocean looked calm. But who could say? I was determined I wouldn’t get ill. Newton told me where to sit for the easiest ride. I stared hard at the horizon and wouldn’t look at anything else. The ride back is always better, I heard, because the boat is going with the wind. It was better, much better. But it was the longest hour and a half I’ve ever sat through. Newton was napping up front, I noticed. As we neared Majuro, I lost sight of the horizon. The waves swelled, we rose and dipped, I hung on. And on. Then I was abruptly sick, once, twice, thrice. This was disappointing, needless to say. I hung on some more. Soon we were through the channel and into the lagoon and calmer waters, and I felt better.

The moment we docked, I jumped off . Newton had a van waiting for us–that’s how good he is at planning. I waved the thumbs-up to him. He had to stay behind to load the equipment. Twenty minutes later, when I walked into my motel room, I was startled by the dramatic change in temperature and humidity. Air conditioning–I’d forgotten all about it! When we were on Arno, air conditioning simply didn’t factor in because it doesn’t exist anywhere, not even in the vehicles. What I missed was hot water. As I unpacked my dirty clothes, I heard singing outside my room. It was from the church across the street. I stepped out, leaned into the balcony wall, and listened to the happy congregants clapping and praising the lord. It was good to be back.