The Bamboo Hunt

This is the item that must have been on Aluna’s To Do List for the longest. Actually it has been there even since before launching the two-hulled contraption into the rippled waters of the San Leandro Marina on a late summer day back in 2008. It was clear to me when towards the middle of the long and winding building stretch I followed up on yet another craigslist ad and showed up with my beat-up Volkswagen van in a posh neighborhood up in Marine County, that those free bamboo culms I was tying to the fickle roof rack where just barely long enough, but their upper ends where way too slim to stand up to the rigors of ocean sailing with almost 25 square meters of sailcloth tugging away at them 10 meters above a swaging deck. Ever since I’ve had my eyes and ears open to find suitable and more resilient replacements for our mainsail’s spars. You might remember that back in Nuku Hiva the boom had split with a bang and since then I have used the previous one made from a pine sapling, heavier and even less rigid than the bamboo. In New Zealand we got very close to landing a catch after having made the very pleasant acquaintance of the former president of the honorable New Zealand Bamboo Society and his little Kingdom of Many a Culm on a hillside expanse overlooking Kawau Bay, where just about any imaginable variety of these giant grasses had been diligently and passionately planted. But in the end time ran out for us with the austral winter setting in. The whole process of making bamboo ready for prolonged use is a very time consuming affair.

When fishing Bot away from under Hanna’s miniskirt I must have had a sort of a hidden agenda too. We had not entered the bush for more than a couple steps on our track to his yaqona farm, when I asked him if there were any sizable bamboo stands in his valley. I had seen bamboo of almost gigantic proportions on the way through the mountain range that separates the vast Savusavu Bay on the South coast of Vanua Levu from the sugarcane fields around Lambasa on the North Coast. On the mostly flat and calm waters of Savusavu Bay I had also admired the ‘bilibilis’. These are bamboo rafts built out of eight to ten long and fat bamboo culms tied together with rope and short crossbars. A pallet or some other box usually provides a dry spot in the middle of it for sitting down without getting your bottoms wet. With those crafts the locals plow the waters of the reefs along the shorelines, transporting coconuts and building materials from the small islands, fishing or collecting other seafood. Another slimmer bamboo stick serves as a means of propulsion where the skipper of these simple crafts pole off the shallow coral bottom. “You bet! There’s plenty of it!” was his answer, “and they are on communal land. We can go and pick as many as you want.” All we needed now was another day of good weather, which took a good while to come along.

About two weeks later I find myself sitting in the bus station waiting for the bus to return to Bot’s valley. Passing time my eyes wander around the busy slab of concrete where windowless buses belch out black clouds of smoke amongst people with colorful dresses and real easy smiles. Then for a lazy while they follow the busy mynah birds with their constant air of slight but unwavering arrogance, before finding themselves wandering up the post of the shade structure that provides relief from the scorching sun for my fellow travelers. Just under the corrugated tin roof my gaze stumbles upon the following proof that English as a second language is a difficult art to master and the limited range of view of officialdom must also have had its say in the matter…

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Wrapped in my backpack are an extra long measuring tape and a saw. They are all ready for action and after a now familiar bus ride I’m back in Bot’s realm following my friend again through a narrow and winding path in the switch grass, this one a little further down the road from the one we took the last time.
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Soon I’m looking up at the spider web of arching dark-green bamboo culms.

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Contrary to what you might think to find a straight bamboo culm requires a good bit of searching. The ones on the outside of the bundles grow sideways and their own weight impregnates them with a bend. To get to the culms in the center on the other hand is anything but easy and if you would happen to drop one after it has been cut you won’t be able to get it out from amongst its tightly packed neighborhood.

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Bot’s laser-sharp bush knife, struck with the precision of repeated daily use, turns out to be the best tool for felling the five sizeable culms I have carefully selected by glancing up along them with my cheek pressed to their waxy smooth and shiny surface. A couple more culms have to be cleared to get to the ones we want and drag them out of the mesh aloft. Once they are all resting on the soft ground some more precise bush knife work relieves them of their leaves. A pile of twigs soon litters the floor big enough to make any healthy panda bear salivate like a diabetic in front of an ice cream shop. By this time both of us are sweating and the high-pitched zing of mosquitoes is growing unbearable. Bot doesn’t fancy the lukewarm green tea in my Fiji Water plastic bottle, so he, master of the bush knife, splits open a couple of sprouting coconuts into three precise 120˚ segments each. Then he extracts a spongy clump that must have lived inside the shell and husk for a good while. It has sucked up all the water and transformed the sweetness so relishing in a young coconut into a starchy energy pack ready to pump steroid like growth into a new tall and slender stem of this marvel of nature, which no doubt happens to be a fitting term to describe the coconut palm, so crucial and beneficial to all human settlement in the tropics all the way around the globe. This spongy white bulb is surely tasty, slightly salty with vegetable consistency, and I have to coincide that it quenches the thirst just as good as my tea. On top of it, it fills the belly with fiber and starchy solids.

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The next task is to carry the culms out of the bush to the road and then back to the house. Bot shows off his youthful prowess and shoulders two culms on the first run. The one my shoulder is heavy enough for what remains of my own slither of prowess. Walking gingerly in my flip-flops on the uneven terrain the thing bounces up and down at every step and I hear water sloshing around inside the hollow next to my ear. I better stop the whining and complaining at once, I say to myself aloud, because it is about a fifteen-minute walk back to the house and we have barely started. We end up doing the walk twice and by mid afternoon the five culms are stored nicely off the ground, resting on crossbeams nailed hastily to the stilts under the little house of Bot’s mom.

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Our sweaty labors are further rewarded in the form of an invitation for a late lunch. A big bowl of traditional ota is served, again on the large pandanus mat in the living room. Ota is a juicy fern, native to Fiji where it is harvested from shady riverbanks and apparently also cultivated in many family gardens. You also find bundles of it wrapped in taro leaves on the public market in town. To prepare it for delightful digestion it is slightly sautéed and then drowned in the mandatory coconut sauce, ever present on the wood fire blackened kitchen counters throughout the Pacific. It tastes like a crunchy lettuce with a little slimy okra twist to it. Refreshing, simple and natural food!

Over the next couple months I hope those green and shiny culms will slowly brown and lose much of their luster while my friend’s family will go about their daily lives above. The emphasis on slow is quite important here! If the drying happens to progress too quickly they will invariably split, which not only reduces their strength considerably but also allows critters from small to microscopic to enter the so jealously guarded inner sanctuary of the bamboos secret for resilience and strength. In order to harvest and domesticate nature’s many manifestations of quality and divine craftsmanship, and to make it suitable for our lowly human endeavors, utter care and close attention to details are always a precondition for any kindled hope towards long-term success. The rewards for this exercise in gentle and thoughtful exploitation are then truly manifold. Instead of a stressful trip to the big box store, a dreadful shock to your bank account and an implicit complicity with the most ruthless accumulators of capital gains that roam our fragile planet, you glide along a pleasing and peaceful stroll in the green lung of life, meet many of the humble and friendly folks of the fields and keep your clever conscious sufficiently clear to let some lonely hints of a healthy future live their ephemeral existence long enough to breathe!

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One Response to “The Bamboo Hunt”

  1. Beatriz Restrepo Says:

    How a nice and pleasant lecture. Great!!!!! We have new and powerful bambus culms.

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