As soon as the anchors were down and we were all satisfied that Sonrisa and Ostrika would stay put, Patrick and Paula pick us up in their dinghy. We head toward the beach, but stop and hover just behind the breaking waves. Searching for a good place to land, we consider the possibility of turning sideways and being rolled by a crashing wave. Landing a dinghy on the beach is not easy with crashing waves, and sometimes, it’s just down right impossible. We are loaded with four gallon bottles of gasoline for Mario, four people and a heavy outboard motor, all of which will be doused in salt water and strewn upon the beach upon a single misstep. Patrick makes the wise choice, turns about and heads to the sketchy looking dinghy dock on the other side of the bay. We arrive, unload the fuel and people onto the dock. Patrick throws out a stern anchor to keep the dinghy from knocking into the rough rock wall of the dock, and we begin our hike to town.
Soon, we come upon a group of seven young men on the beach. They inquire as to our purpose in Puamau, and when Patrick explains we are going to visit Mario, they all hoot and holler “Mario! Woo, lucky Mario!” Pointing at Andrew and Patrick they say “You can go see Mario, but these two (pointing to Paula and me) have to stay here!” They laugh, and high five each other.
Two break away and introduce themselves as Ben and Neil. We shake their hands and repeat “Ben and Neil” pronouncing Neil as one would typically pronounce Neil, with the long “E”. Neil shakes his head, “No, no, it’s Nail” he said with a long “A”. I repeat “Nail”, but then he says: “No, no it’s Nell” he said, with a flat “e”. I repeat Nell, then we go through the series of three again, each time with him saying “no, no, no.” Eventually, I just give up and say: “Ohhh, I got it!” even though I didn’t really get it, “Enchante!” (Pleased to meet you in French.) He smiles and falls in step with us. He insists on taking the bottles of gasoline, because he is “very fit.” He carries forward up the road lifting the bottles in either hand like he is doing bicep curls. I see “N-E-I-L” tattooed in large letters on the back of his forearm. There, that explains things.
Ben and Neil-Nail-Nell escort us to Mario’s yard, where there are a few more people gathered around a boombox playing what sounds like peppy, dance club music with an island beat. Neil-Nail-Nell asks me if I like dancing to music like this. I agree it sounds like good dance music. Mario emerges from his house with abig smile. He greets Paula and I with the french “kiss-kiss” on our cheeks then shakes Andrew and Patrick’s hands. “I am so happy you all returned! Today is a special day. Would you like to try whale steaks?”
Apparently, that morning eight sperm whales (“Cachaloe” in French) beached themselves and died. This phenomena is rare; the last time it happened here was ten years ago. There isn’t anything the locals can do to help the whales. So, the locals cut out as much meat as they can reasonably store or eat, and then bury the whales on the beach. Mario was excited to cook up his set of steaks and share them with us.
Mario set to work cutting up the steaks. I asked him if there was anything I could do to help. He placed a butcher’s cleaver and eight cloves of garlic on top of a round slice of wood. He instructed me to mince the garlic cloves, and so I did. In Mario’s open air home/kitchen, on top of a cutting board that was nothing more than a slice of a coconut tree, I minced garlic while Mario and I chatted. It was just like being at home in my kitchen, preparing dinner for party guests. Soon, Mario looks over at my minced garlic, and he smiles a large smile. “Impeccable!” he says. “You must cook for Andrew?”
I’m not sure what he expected, but my mincing skills seem to be up to snuff. I scoop the garlic off the cutting board with the knife and slide the pieces into his bowl. He adds soy sauce and olive oil, whisks it together, then lets it sit. He pours oyster sauce over the bright red, lean whale meat and instructs me to mix the oyster sauce into the whale using my hands. I stick my hands into the pan and turn the meat over in the sauce, making sure everything is evenly covered. Mario pours a little of the garlic/soy sauce mixture on top. We leave the whale to sit and marinate for a couple of hours.
Everyone sits around the boombox smoking hand rolled cigarettes and trying to communicate alternately using the Marquesan, French and/or English words they know. Neil-Nail-Nell, Ben and another friend of a similar age are entranced by my “exotic blue eyes.” They ask me how old I am and when I tell the 34, they smile. I ask them how old they are, and they tell me 24. They want to know if I have any single sisters who will eat whale, too. They are shy and speak quietly, but that does not stop each of them from inviting me to their house so they can cook local cuisine for me. “Have you tried goat yet? Pig? Chicken? Fish? Octopus?” Somehow, Andrew does not get a similar invite. I politely decline, but they remain persistent. I eventually pretend I do not understand what they are asking me, and the whole effort dies down a bit until Neil-Nail-Nell tells me he has always wanted to go on a sailboat.
Sitting next to Paula, both of us look around. Where are all of the ladies? In the entire time we are in Puamau, we do not see a woman anywhere. When we drove through last week, we met two women at the snack shack, but there have been no others. Mario explained his wife is living in Papeete, Tahiti with his children and her mother. He went with her for some time, but “his heart could not leave his land.” He complained that Papeete is polluted with cars and traffic. Maybe all the ladies wanted to move to the big city, and all the men wanted to stay behind to hunt and fish their land?
Soon, Mario put a pot of pasta on the stove and built a wood fire in the yard. While the fire heats up, Andrew and Patrick set up the chicken trap: a metal grate perched atop two sticks with a rope attached. Mario instructs Patrick to pull the rope when a chicken wanders beneath the grate. Mario laughs and says the chickens wandering around his yard are smart. They have seen their brothers and sisters get caught in the trap, so now they won’t go there. He throws out some rice to entice them in. The chickens stand on top of the metal grate and poke their head through the holes to reach the rice. Eventually, the chickens forget about the trap and wander in. Patrick pulls the rope and commotion ensues with much squawking and flapping. Patrick reaches under the trap to grab one of two chickens. Neil-Nail-Nell grabs the other and hands her to me. “Do you want to eat them, or do you want to pet them?” He asks.
Poor chickens. I pet her head and hand her back to Neil-Nail-Nell. He gently twists her neck and holds her face until she stops struggling. I think to myself: will that really work? He sets her down on the bench, but pretty soon she squawks, jumps up and flaps her wings to run away. He laughs.
The fire is now ready, and Andrew joins Ben and another in grilling up the steaks. They hover over the wood fire, pouring a little water on the flames when the grill starts to get too hot, painting the steaks with more soy sauce/garlic mixture, and stealing bits of whale steak as it comes off the grill. Once in a while, they try to communicate but meaning is rarely imparted, so they just enjoy the act of grilling together. When the whale is finished, Mario plates pasta with garlic and oil and a piece of whale steak for everyone. He passes them around.
I am a teensy bit afraid I’m going to die of some food borne pathogen. Safe food handling procedures were not exactly followed during this process: the sauce poured on my steak now is the same sauce that raw whale has been dipped into, everyone used their hands to stir sauce, taste a bit, etc. Mario’s house is open to the air, chickens, a kitten, dogs, and god knows what else. But, with such kind hospitality, what am I supposed to do? Refuse? I think not. So, I put the risk out of my mind and take my first bite of whale steak.
The texture is exactly like the tenderloin of beef. The flavor is similar, too, but better: rich and salty. The steaks are cooked to well done, but they remain tender and juicy. The sauce is a nice accompaniment, but does not overpower the flavor of the meat. It was very good. I feel a little sad that I am eating whale, but nature served these whale steaks up for us. We either eat them with gratitude or they would go to waste anyway.
I knew unexpected opportunities would arise on this trip, and this is a nice one I get to add to the list.
To be continued…