Monday, September 20th, 2010
Have you ever felt completely at home in a place you have never been before? Have you ever found yourself across the world from your home, from the familiar, from everyone you know and love, and discovered family?
Welcome home, welcome to Palmerston Atoll.
As we approached Palmerston a sense of excitement began to grow among crew and passengers alike. People began gathering along the pin rail – happy chatter escalating as the atoll came into view. A low shrub of green in the haze on a otherwise sparkly blue sea was how we first came upon Palmerston Atoll. Some of the passengers were coming home. Some of the crew who had sailed here before on the Picton Castle (the Captain, Michael Moreland, Logan, Rebecca and Ollie) knew how magical Palmerston is. Those of us who had never been still had a growing feeling that something beautiful was about to happen.
Just a few kilometres in circumference Palmerston Atoll has the third largest lagoon in the Cook Islands. Its coral reef extends around the island- providing plenty of fresh fish and sea creatures for consumption and warm, protected waters for swimming and snorkeling. And then it just drops off. Anchoring can be difficult to say the least, but the Captain knows this atoll and expertly guided us in. The anchor was dropped and second mate Paul, donning scuba gear, dove down to ensure that it was secure before we began to unload the cargo. High with anticipation the cargo was unloaded quickly. Freezers and box after box of food and supplies were loaded onto aluminum boats and brought to shore. Once we finished we split into our watches. 4-8 stayed on to watch the ship for the night and 12-4 and 8-12 went ashore. Two days on Palmerston and one on the ship – we would all rotate, getting our fair share of the fun and festivities that awaited on land and the challenging work, anchor watch and rest that awaited us on the ship.
The skiff ride to Palmerston is a thrilling one. The tough aluminum boats withstand swell and current alike, their experienced captains guide us through breaks in the jagged coral reef. It is incredibly hard to believe that once upon a time (in the 1980s) they used to row in and out of this swirling torrent of a current. And then again, when you actually meet the inhabitants of this sandy atoll, perhaps not so hard after all. When we got to the beach we were divided up into groups of three or four and escorted to our host family. There are no hotels on Palmerston. No motels, hostels or boarding houses. Every one of us was assigned a family and with that family we would spend our time ashore. Naturally everyone on the island fought for the Captain. Captain Moreland had been coming to the island since his time on the Romance and this is the fifth time he has visited with the Picton Castle. Children crowded round shouting, “Uncle, uncle!”, old friends clapped him on the back and embraced him. It was a joyous reunion to witness.
Each one of us carried a little package for our host families. We all had corned beef, oil, sugar, flour and jam and we also had what we had bought in Rarotonga. Some purchased machetes, others more food, some bought pots and pans and others brought fabric. As we trudged through the sand toward our hosts we all experienced something similar.
We were not greeted as strangers they were obligated to care for. We were not even greeted like guests to the island. We were greeted like family. Children ran down the main street and into our arms, grandmothers clutched us by the hands and pulled us down for kisses (a double kiss at least on both cheeks), families crowded round. And almost all of them said, “Welcome home, child.” As if that weren’t incredible enough – we all felt like we had just come home. And some of us even felt sheepishly guilty for having been away for so long…