It had been impossible to get a good idea of the present conditions of the two Lapita canoes the Wharrams had donated to the islands of Anuta and Tikopia back in 2009 before arriving here in Lata, Temotu Province. The modern day communications we are so used to when we contact friends by shooting emails back and forth through all kind of messaging applications do not work here in these remote specks of land. The people here are just now beginning to get overrun by the technology craze of western consumer society.
But since we have arrived here three weeks ago the situation has clarified amazingly fast. We had a chance to meet with two ‘captains’ of Lapita Tikopia, who were in Lata for a training event. From the couple of conversations with them it appears that the canoe has suffered its abandonment due to damages suffered during a trip in 2014, where one of the mast feet cracked, a problem they have been unable to resolve, making the vessel unfit for use. As it happens in the tropical climate, deterioration has been rapid since then, with the platform timbers and two if its five beams rotted away. The large hatches of the hulls have also started to leak, which lets rain water into the interior and that can rapidly lead to rot. Within a couple of days’ time we will start to undertake the arduous upwind journey to the little island of Tikopia to finally have a first hand look at the situation.
Lapita Anuta on the other hand quite obviously has found abler and more dedicated seamen to look after and make good use of her. They have received last year’s donation of repair materials brought up by OceansWatch and she is now making regular trips from Anuta to Lata and back, bringing teachers here for trainings and important meetings, for which the vessel receives monetary remuneration. It appears that she has managed to enter the difficult dimension of economic self-sufficiency!
Last Sunday people from all over the Temotu Province’s many islands had come to Lata to witness the consecration of a new bishop for the Anglican Church. While the celebration was rather heavy on religious pomp it also included some demonstrations of traditional ‘kustom’ dancing and for us the opportunity to chat with some other folks from Tikopia, who confirmed the urgent need for attention of the canoe.
A possible answer as to why the Anutans had managed to develop the purpose of their donation received and make it fully their own, while the Tikopians had failed, came from a very unlikely source. During the food feast that had followed the hollowly holly celebration of a shift in the power hierarchy within the Melanesian branch of the Anglican Church, we were invited to sit down on the grass still wet from the last one of the many rainstorms that had tried their best to mar the festivity since the early morn. A long line of leaves sat spread out before us with boiled breadfruit, kumaras, yams and fish and meats packed in bundled up leaves. Soon everybody started digging in with their bare fingers and shoving good-sized morsels of yummies into their tummies. It all tasted delicious in spite of having sat in the rain out on the field since the morning and the enjoyment was endless up until that crucial moment when a corn sized splinter of pig bone happened to become involved in a violent encounter with my upper left premolar. The poor accessory to my usually quite sturdy digestive tract split right down the middle with a frightening sound that reverberated throughout the many cavities of my skull. A tactile investigation of the unfortunate occurrence produced two fragments of bony white matter laid out on my index finger between dark green flecks of island cabbage cooked comfortably in coconut milk. A further visual inspection revealed miniscule muscle fibers still firmly attached to one and with simple logical deduction I came to the finite conclusion that this therefore was not a part of my premolar that had decided to wander off duty, but in fact the culprit of the masticatory accident, while the one to its left with its shiny, polished surface definitely was.
On Monday morning I therefore found myself waiting on the well-worn wooden benches of the provincial hospital’s waiting room, keeping my gaze firmly on the indigo blue door with the white lettering indicating that behind it a dentist was exercising his hopefully well-developed art. In spite of my dedication a local gentleman managed to jump the line and enter the door before my most important self while having clearly arrived while I had been sitting there for a good while already. I could only convince myself of the imagined fact that his suffering must have been a good bit more eminent than mine, which in fact did not include any pain but only a slight discomfort.
Once past that minor hiccup I found myself comfortably situated on the reclining chair with a very patient lady dentist listening to my detailed explanation of the incident at the root of the reason for my visit. As is usual in such circumstances a good deal of circumferential conversation took place before, during and after my speech was impaired by the very professionally implemented repair procedure of my unfortunate premolar. Once it had progressed from the standard ‘where are you from’ to ‘what are you doing here’, it turned out that my very able female practitioner was well aware of the Lapita canoes and demonstrated ample knowledge of the intrinsic details of the particular island mentalities and customs. ‘The Anutans are a very brave people’, she mused all of a sudden. When asked, what would make her say such a thing, she elaborated: ‘They brave the sea like few others do nowadays.’ I felt an instant trust to impose on her my most burning question: ‘And why do you think the Tikopians have not been able to accomplish the same? Why have they not taken possession of their canoe?’ There was only a very short delay in her answer, which then emerged loud and clear: ‘The Tikopians have fear! They are afraid, I believe.’
I have grave suspicion that the dentist’s analysis might behold a giant grain of truth and have since that revealing conversation begun to construct possible strategies in my ever restless mind, designing ways to tackle that outbreak of yet another local variety of the disease of civilization, where once valiant warriors have succumbed to the emptiness of modernity, where fear has infected the mind and disrupted the naturel trust to a point where congruent action has been interrupted. It makes this upcoming journey all the more interesting and important as we might chance upon the discovery of crucial information on our expedition towards uncovering the root causes of mankind’s present and gravely acute illness of systemic destruction.
You might not hear from us now for a good month and a half, as Tikopia has only very reluctantly opened itself up to the outside world. There seems to be mobile phone coverage on the island as I have had several conversations with Ariki Tafua, the chief of the village where the canoe is located and where we will be staying. But my guess is that there will be no data streams to connect to the internet. I hope you will joyfully make this excursion with us into times only a very short number of years past, where information had to be collected by physically moving the containers of our mind to actual places rooted in reality.