While French Polynesia is in lockdown, we clean up a mountain of washed-up plastic on an uninhabited island and get to know a family who is remarkably self-sufficient.
The Gambier archipelago is in lockdown. Nowhere is the impact of the measures more evident than in Rikitea, where we are anchored. Only one of us is allowed ashore for a quick run to the minimarkets, while wearing a face mask and surgical gloves. The rest of the time we are supposed to stay on the boat. Being stuck here forces us to focus our attention and energy on the local environment, the community of which we are a part, and becoming more self-sufficient. In other words, we explore how resilient the boating community and the locals are during these testing times.
As the lockdown drags on, local boats and sailboats alike slowly start to move again between islands of the archipelago and Rikitea. They don’t have much choice, because Rikitea is the only town in the archipelago and all the shops are there. We have enough provisions, but are eager for a change of scenery. The coral islands in the north are very appealing, also because they are uninhabited. Nevertheless, we’re in doubt. The northern part of the Gambier archipelago is uncharted. Is it safe to sail there, with all those coral heads treacherously rising from the bottom? We ask Eastern Stream‘s Jaap and Minke, who have been there before. “No problem,” says Jaap. “Just follow us!” Not much later we set sail and head north, behind them and two other boats.
To be on the safe side, Floris also goes on the lookout at the bow. Some of the coral heads rise almost to the surface, but thanks to the high sun and clear water, he can easily see them. We keep them at a safe distance and sail on until we find a piece of sandy bottom to anchor. The water is flat, crystal clear and azure blue. In the distance we see ocean waves breaking violently against the reef that encloses the lagoon. Trees and bushes growing on the coral have formed small islands around the lagoon, so-called motus. Puaumu, the picturesque island where we are now, is one of them.
The Gambier archipelago from space
Sailing behind Eastern Stream
On watch to avoid dangerous coral heads
A ring of coral surrounds almost the entire Gambier archipelago
Coral Garbage Dump
On land we find various plants, birds and crabs. Underwater around the island it is much busier. From the beach we see a small black tip reef shark swimming, its fin just surfacing. When we snorkel, we marvel at the many forms of corals, countless small and large fish in all colours of the rainbow. We realize that we are anchored in the habitat and nursery of countless animals.
A walk around the island reveals a darker side. Enormous amounts of washed-up plastic mark the high-water line, making it look like a stretched-out garbage dump. We find ropes, flip-flops, bottles, fishing nets, jerry cans, and even a toilet seat. How is it possible that such a beautiful, uninhabited piece of nature is so polluted? “They are all products of the throwaway society”, Ivar remarks. On the lagoon side, the waste has a more local origin: we mostly find plastic bottles, torn lines and buoys from pearl farms. Some of the plastic breaks up into small pieces when we pick it up. The microplastics inevitably end up in the food chain, spelling disaster for life on and around this small island.
The hermit crabs even climb trees
Fish and coral thrive
The blacktip reef sharks are harmless but nevertheless impressive
Washed up plastic is everywhere
Returning Nature a Favour
All crew of the boats anchored here agree that something needs to be done. The next morning we meet on the beach, armed with garbage bags, drinking water, and packed lunches. Within an hour, the collected mountain of waste is already meters high. Although it would be best to recycle, we realise that there are no such facilities here. To avoid a logistical nightmare and be able to deal with the enormous volume of waste, we collectively opt for the least bad option: to burn everything. We keep the pearl farm buoys, as pearl farmers buy and reuse them. It takes us three days to rid the island of all the plastic. We feel good for having returned the stunning nature around us a favour. At the same time we feel downhearted. Why are we still allowing so much single-use plastic? It’s high time for stricter legislation, deposit schemes and material innovation, we think. Only with effective measures we can help the natural world on which we depend for our survival to become more resilient.
Niels from SV Stormalong helps with the cleanup
Jaap masters the fire
Self-Sufficient Living on Taravai
We don’t have to look far to see that more resilience can be the result of government action. French Polynesia’s strict covid-19 measures prove to be very effective. The number of cases does not surpass 60, none of which are in Gambier. As the weeks without new cases pass, the local measures become more and more relaxed. We see more people in the streets and fewer face masks. Traffic on the water increases and the weekly barbeque on the island of Taravai is back on. Excited to see Valérie, Hervé, and their children Alan and Ariki again, we sail to the bay in front of their house, drop the anchor and kayak to shore. How did they do during the lockdown?
“We were fine! We have everything we need here”, Hervé explains. We tell him of the shopping frenzy in Rikitea whenever the supply ship calls at Gambier. “Many people in Rikitea have become accustomed to the supermarket”, Hervé says. “They don’t have a vegetable garden or fruit trees, but buy everything in the store. Or from people who grow as much as possible themselves, like us.”
When Hervé gives us a tour of his property, we notice how much the family grows themselves. We pass vegetable beds of sweet potatoes, cassava, beans, and lettuce. They are surrounded by coconut palms, banana plants and fruit trees, like avocado and orange. No wonder the family fared so well doing the lockdown!
Yet it’s not just food Hervé harvests. Next to the house is a solar panel installation. For a monthly fee he rents the panels, batteries, a refrigerator, and a freezer. “After 15 years they are ours”, Hervé explains. “We are not connected to the electricity grid, but cover all our energy needs with solar energy. And all the water we use in the house and in the garden is collected rainwater”. Their lifestyle means that no matter what happens outside of their island, they can survive. They are the embodiment of local resilience.
Hervé, Ariki, Valérie and Alan are leading by example
The Sweet Taste of Homemade Food
It’s not just on land that the Covid crisis has put local resilience in the spotlight. Whether they are forced by limited supplies, inspired by Hervé and Valérie’s example, or fuelled by tasting other crew’s creations, the cooks among the sailors are in overdrive mode. Homemade cuisine is all the rage. It leads to a cooking and tasting frenzy, with local ingredients as the main attraction. And where better to start than with coconuts? “And now just scrape!” Hervé orders with a smile. Floris, meanwhile, wedges a grater firmly between his legs. With both hands he holds half a coconut. Below him is a bowl to collect the pulp. In a smooth motion, he rubs the inside of the nut along the edges of the oval grater. Slowly the bowl fills with coconut shavings. “Keep going, we are expecting a lot of sailors today,” Hervé says. Ivar’s thoughts turn to the galley. He likes to use coconuts in recipes. That afternoon he finds like-minded people during the barbeque. It kicks off a busy exchange of recipes with local ingredients. In Gambier coconut palms grow everywhere, from the most sparse, sandy beach to deep in the woods. The ripe, brown nuts contain a lot of pulp and lie around the trees for the taking. The young, green nuts are full of delicious sweet coconut water, which we drink immediately. We cut the pulp in pieces to mix with the yogurt or, with some more effort, we grate it to use in salads, biscuits and cakes. Also, after wringing coconut shavings with a tea towel, we get fresh coconut milk. It’s delicious in curries or fish stew. Bananas also grow like weeds. We keep the bunches suspended from the mizzen boom, where a week later, they inadvertently all become ripe at the same time. It means that bananas feature heavily in everything Ivar makes. They are added to yoghurt, mixed into smoothies, and used to make pancake batter. Ivar even freestyles to make a new type of cake with only five ingredients: banana, grated coconut, eggs, raisins and a little flour. Two hours later Floris feasts on a warm piece. “This recipe is optimized for taste and quality”, Ivar says with some satisfaction. He thinks back to his days working in the food industry. Recipes were optimized for something completely different: sugar, water and cheap substitutes were added to increase profits. “Cooking with local ingredients is my act of resistance to the almighty industrial food giants”, Ivar says with a smile.
Floris scrapes coconut meat
Coconut trees everywhere
Coconuts fresh from the trees
Baking workshop with Linette and Minke
Bananas are everywhere
Help, all bananas are ripe!
Home made coco-banana-raisin cake
Our neighbours Minke and Jaap have taken self-sufficiency to another level. Their coffee is completely homemade. Ivar remembers our visits to sustainable coffee farmers in Brazil and Peru. The whole process from plant to cup was a lot of work, even with machines for peeling the beans. “Come with me tomorrow. The coffee berries are ripe now”, Jaap says with an inviting smile. And so they find themselves in Hervé’s backyard the next morning. “Go ahead, we don’t pick the coffee. It is too much work”, Hervé tells them. Undisturbed, Ivar and Jaap pick coffee berries for hours. Back on board, they extract the beans from the berries and lay them to dry for four days. Once dried, they peel the beige skins off the beans and then roast the beans in a frying pan. When Ivar finally pours the beans into a coffee grinder and spills a bean, he immediately picks it up. Once you’ve had each coffee bean through your hands a few times, you really don’t let any of them escape. “Does this fresh coffee really taste better, or is it because the chain from berry to cup can hardly be shorter?” Ivar wonders. In addition to the taste, the aftertaste is also good. If the ingredients are local, it saves a lot of packaging material, transport, storage, and cooling. Our experience is that it also reduces food waste, because those who have made an effort to collect and prepare food and drinks are extra careful with it. Also, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that pure ingredients are better for our health than the many additives found in industrially produced food. “And don’t forget the local farmers”, Floris adds. “They also benefit, especially if you buy directly from them.” It all shows that homemade food can have ecological and social benefits and thus be more sustainable. For the sailors in Gambier, sustainability does not seem to be the main reason for the hype surrounding homemade food and drinks with local ingredients. It doesn’t have to be. Tasting and sharing homemade food is simply contagious. That’s quite literally the case when Minke gives us a jar of kefir. “You can make your own yoghurt. Add milk, stir and strain a day later”, she explains. The kefir multiplies, so after a week we also give away a part. “Sharing homemade food is actually like passing on kefir. It can spread endlessly”, Floris concludes. “If you are willing to take the time, homemade food and drinks tastes so much better, both literally and figuratively”, Ivar adds.
Only the red coffee berries are ripe
Peeling the coffee berries
Drying coffee beans on the cabin roof
Roasting coffee beans in the frying pan
A True Sense of Community
The Sunday barbeques on Taravai and frequent get-togethers between the crews of the sailboats in Gambier to share home cooking tips are more than just a feast for the stomach. They contribute to a feeling of a community. With families and friends far away and unreachable do to the global lockdowns, the sailing community leans on each other for advice, support, and friendship. Lending hands are given to fix sails, auto pilots, and engines. Spare parts are exchanged or donated. Tips are given on how to best deal with the authorities, and hard drives with films and cruising pilots are widely shared. There does not seem to be a single problem that is not fixed without somebody else’s advice or assistance. The community seems tighter than we have seen elsewhere, perhaps because everyone realises that we are all, almost literally, in the same boat. And when the crews of 15 boats gather on one large catamaran to celebrate a birthday, we are indeed all on the same boat! We also get to know some of the local residents better, such as the owners of the minimarket JoJo’s. They become our lifeline while the lockdown measures are the strictest, as we can buy fresh bread there every morning and use their wifi connection. It means that for a few minutes each day, we can send and receive e-mails and get news updates. For longer sessions, we have to wait for Philippe’s internet café to reopen. When it finally does, we spent a lot of time at his place and develop a bond with him. He is always happy to have a chat. He also organises fruits and vegetables for us, does our laundry, and helps us get our gas bottle refilled. We even leave our laptops overnight with him to upload our videos. Feeling part of a community on which we can rely really helps us to stay sane and well-fed during the lockdown. It makes being stuck in Gambier almost a privilege. We experience first-hand how important the community is for local resilience.
Taravai bay from above
Lucipara 2 anchored at Taravai
Tasting all the homemade food during the Sunday sailors barbeque
Freedom at Last
“From tomorrow at midnight, all Covid-measures are repealed”, we hear on the local radio. It’s the High Commissioner, the highest official in charge of the Covid-response, announcing the end of lockdown. We can hardly believe it. Can we really leave Gambier now and explore the rest of French Polynesia? Ivar is unshaken. “The weather is not good to leave anyway”, he remarks drily. So instead of leaving, we seek shelter for the first winter storm. For five days we find ourselves unable to leave the boat because of strong winds and heavy rain. It’s a good thing we, too, have become quite self-sufficient.
When the sun and favourable winds return, it’s time to say goodbye to Gambier and the wonderful people we befriended there. With heavy hearts we hug Philippe. We shop one last time at JoJo’s and say farewell to the staff. Saying goodbye to our friends on the other boats takes days. Some have the same travel plans as we do, so we’re sure to see them again soon. Others are heading elsewhere, so our agenda suddenly becomes full with farewell coffees, lunches, and dinners.
We spend our last day in Taravai. Under the tree where the Sunday barbeques take place, Valérie cuts our hair, like she always does her husband’s and sons’ hair. “And I cut many a sailor’s hair”, she laughs. That evening we have the family over for dinner. We have learned so much about local resilience from them. Their self-sufficient lifestyles, the generous sharing of food, and their warm hospitality were unparalleled. Smiles always greeted us when we came to shore, their jokes made us laugh, and their barbeques were the highlight of each week in Gambier. Valérie is, as always, in a positive mood as she hands us necklaces made of flowers. “When you leave the pass tomorrow, throw them in the ocean. It means you will come back here one day”. In our hearts we want her to be right. Yet in our minds we can’t help but wonder: will we make it out of French Polynesia to New Zealand this year?
Valérie cutting Floris’s hair
Farewell dinner with Hervé, Valérie, Alan and Ariki on board Lucipara 2