Everyone Everywhere Has Tales to Tell
- Personal Essay
One of the more extraordinary trips I experienced while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Micronesia was on the trading vessel Maria Carmela. I needed to travel from my home island of Ettal in the lower Mortlocks of Chuuk (formerly Truk) to the district center 150 miles away. The trip took five days.
Because Ettal had no pass into the lagoon, all loading of seagoing vessels took place via outrigger paddling canoes. We passengers and all of our gear bobbled up and down on the ocean swells as we waited to climb aboard the larger Maria Carmela. The climb itself was very awkward for those of us wearing skirts, the only acceptable dress for outer-island Chuukese women.
Aboard, the weathered deck of the Carmela trembled with each throb of her engine and the fetid odor of diesel fumes rode heavily on the humid, tropical air.
The captain pushed his way through the colorful crowd attempting to prepare his vessel for departure. He shouted orders to passengers and crew, and at last the visitors clambered over the side and back into their canoes. The engine rumbled louder, and we were on our way.
The deck of the hand-hewn Carmela was 39 feet long. There were 48 men, women, and children aboard as it traveled away from Ettal. There were also 13 hens, a rooster, and a litter of pigs.
Freshly caught tuna hung from the mast and hundreds of green drinking coconuts filled the deck and wheelhouse. Even the engine room had its share.
When I asked if anyone had ever been lost overboard on a moonlit night, the captain glanced around the crowded deck, grinned, and said, "I have no idea."
The trip itself was filled with storytelling, singing, and laughter. I heard traditional tales of caution and wonder, and gossip unending about islanders from near and far.
Favorite among the stories were those about local Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). Like the couple who had become so upset when the case of toilet paper they had ordered was lifted soaking wet from the bottom of the field-trip ship's hold. What could they possibly want with that big box of wet paper, my shipboard companions wanted to know.
There was one about a Peace Corps fellow from...well, never mind the island. He'd been caught dallying with a local girl behind the schoolhouse. I'd heard the story before, but the embellishments added during the Carmela retelling turned it hilarious. The islanders often competed with stories about their PCVs—who could speak the language best, who could sing, or sew, or paddle a small canoe without tipping it over.
I sat blushing through a tale of bravery I had unwittingly created when a sailing canoe on which I'd been a passenger had passed directly over two sleeping whales. Never mind that I didn't know at the time what the whales were and had thus hung curiously over the side to inspect them as we passed.
"If the whales had awakened, they would have played with the canoe," the storyteller assured his audience. "The whales wouldn't have hurt the people, but after they left, the sharks would have."
The story brought slowly shaking heads and many clicking tongues. Ettal was fortunate to have such a fearless American among them, the listeners agreed. Only a few grinned openly.
The weather remained calm and placid throughout the voyage, a blessing to the Chuukese women, who assured me they would otherwise have been quite seasick the entire way. For the same reason, I was more than happy to be sailing on a summer-smooth sea. Dolphins paced the Carmela from time to time, leaping and spinning, racing ahead, then dropping back to ride the bow wave. We saw giant sea turtles and schools of flying fish, but no whales. That resulted in another telling of my fearless whale adventure. I noticed a number of added details the second time around.
I was an artist when I entered the Peace Corps, and I took my paints and brushes so that I could document my stay. I hadn't counted on the ants eating the sealant off my carefully stretched canvases, or on the vivid tones of the tropics. My pallet included colors better suited to landscapes near my Colorado home.
So I began writing down the scenes I wished someday to paint—describing the giant breadfruit tree outside my house, the low sweep of green surrounding the pristine blue of Ettal Lagoon, the faces of laughing children.
In the meantime, I listened to the stories the islanders told. As my language skills grew, I began to recognize how they turned simple news into anecdotes to capture their listeners' interest, and when a story proved worth retelling, added more and more colorful details. In my journal, I began adding details, too—sounds and smells, tastes and textures. My tales grew more complex. By the time I left, my words provided a much clearer image of the islands than my paintings ever could.
I have continued to write since that time. I trained and worked as a journalist first, then returned to telling stories of the islands. Now I write novels and short stories and plays, based most frequently on Pacific Island lore and lifestyle. When I read from my first novel, Reefsong, on the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus, a group of Chuukese students came to listen. They grinned at settings and events they recognized, and laughed freely at my island characters' foibles. I felt like I was back on the Maria Carmela.
I can still smell the diesel fumes and the thick pungency of fresh-roasted copra that rode with us on that trip. In fact, I can still hear the captain's panicked call on the last day when the steering chain suddenly jammed. We were just entering the Chuuk Lagoon and were in serious danger of going aground. There was a mad scramble as chickens and children and piglets and fish were passed from hand to hand to clear way for the search. A hat blew overboard and a crewman almost followed. He was caught by those standing near and pulled back aboard.
Finally a cry of success came, then a wave of relieved laughter. A coconut, the last of those piled aboard at Ettal, had become wedged tight against the open steering chain. It was yanked loose, and after a brief detour to rescue the lost hat, we were once again safely under way.
The story of that errant coconut was told many times during the following months. Each time it grew in excitement and tension. My Peace Corps experience taught me that the world is full of stories. Good or bad, sad or happy, everyone everywhere has tales to tell. The people of Chuuk tell some of the best.