I was delirious with exhaustion and hesitant to go ashore at Palmerston Island after our night of heaving up the anchor aboard the Picton Castle. The ship was hove-to, like the night we arrived. We had drifted seven miles. The weather was gloomy and I could see us making a quick getaway that night if it got any worse. But after getting advice from Captain John, who also considered what Captain Moreland would say, “Suck it up and go because you’ll probably never be here again.” I packed my things and stood by on the quarterdeck. I realize now how ridiculous I was to even consider putting off my visit.
The large tin boat filled with port watch crew and empty fuel bottles came alongside and we quickly transferred their ‘cargo’ for ours – passing over backpacks and food gifts. I hopped in the boat along with Simon, John, Vai and Avery. It was still windy and the swell was large, especially as we neared the coral. The man driving the boat was calling out to his sons sitting in the bow with us, using them to transfer weight and move around the shallow coral pieces. One would lie himself forward and back and the other would move outboard and inboard. It felt as if we were moving five times faster than our little skiff and I had to close my eyes, laughing with anticipation, as we moved between the reef formations and sticks poking out of the water as markers. We were all grinning like it was a ride at the fair; Vai was holding a piece of rope tied to the bow like she was riding a horse.
We hardly slowed coming up onto the beach where we were greeted by other islanders who helped us with our bags and directed us to wait further inland where we would be paired with a host for the night. Simon and I were paired together with Melbourne and brought to meet his family who spoiled us with food and kindness our entire stay. We were taken to a small house with a blue door, two small trees grew up and over like a canopy on either side of it, in full bloom of pink flowers. The first room we passed into was like a living room, the furniture and cushions covered in different colored island print, old family photos along the walls and dream-catchers hanging from the rafters. There was a room with a curtain instead of a door with a toilet and a wash basin. Behind this area there was a kitchen and eating area and two other bedrooms. It was all empty of personal things and given just to the two of us for the night. Simon graciously gave me the biggest bed in the front room, where we both decided was a nice sunny area to stay, and we left our things to explore the island.
We were shown the Telecom building, a small stand for people to buy internet or phone time, the small cemetery, the clinic where I met the nurse for the second time (a lovely lady), passed the administration building and came back around again, only to pass by a house with our shipmates Gustav and Erin sitting outside of it under an awning with their hosts. We were called over and invited to sit and enjoy our second lunch of the day – raw fish, steak, rice, potato salad and chilled coconut water, right out of its shell, and lime juice to drink. Once we finished the food and conversation we went back to our hosts where they sat us down and brought us tea and biscuits. We talked about the ship and our plans, then we were given the idea of a nap – something we rarely get to indulge in – and we went to find our beds. But we’d forgotten where the house was.
We were searching for it when a familiar voice called out to us, calling us over to another house. It was Bill, another local, who again introduced himself as Bill Clinton, and gave us each a seat. He sent his kids to get hot water for tea and a plate of biscuits while we spoke with him and his parents. Vai was staying there and was in the kitchen making meat patties and getting her hair braided by one of the daughters. Soon Erin and Gustav passed by who joined us, and then Avery and John who sat next to them and Billy who strolled up last. We spoke of the past, of other boats or ships that visit the island and their experiences.
We were all excited (perhaps I was especially excited) for the afternoon beach volleyball game that they have every day at around 4:30 or 5. Simon and I felt we should find our house sooner rather than later and went in search for it again with Erin and Gustav following behind us. Thankfully we found it right next door then went for a stroll along the beach looking for sea shells, seeing crab and bright blue lobster shells and hermit crabs galore. We decided to make our way back and followed the sounds of kids gathered at the court.
Family and friends sat along the far side of the yard watching, while few sat on a bench nearby the court, refereeing. The majority of players couldn’t be older than sixteen and they were very good – passing, setting, spiking. They yelled and cheered with each goal. Avery, Simon, John, Vai and I were excited to play and stepped up when the ref called for Picton Castle to step up to one half of the court. We needed another player so I convinced Lily to join us. Vai leaped and slid like a true player. Although unfamiliar with working as a team in this way, we all did our best. We lost! Of course. But we realized they were taking turns between teams and knew we would have another go, getting more excited and focused with each game.
As this went on, kids played beside us at a smaller sandy court. The group of us, some with cameras out, went over and spent time with them, letting them take photos of each other making funny faces, having them climb on our backs. Simon also showed them hand stands and circus tricks between playing our volleyball games. We never did win. We continued to play even as the sun went down with the few kids that were left, even as it became hard to see. Then we headed back to the house for a parrot fish feast – fried, and cooked in a broth, with donuts, rice and sweet coconut patties. Simon and I were each given a cold coconut and told to have third and fourth helpings. I could have exploded.
As Simon and I finished dinner, we could see the lights of the Picton Castle in the distance through the palm trees and couldn’t help but wonder if they had anchored again. Our hosts assured us the ship was too far away to be anchored on the reef and sure enough noticed it drifting away over time. I’d heard the evening before there had been a party on Palmerston with port watch, and as exhausted as I was when I went ashore with the starboard watch, I was afraid if I went to sleep I’d miss another party.
Feeling social we followed the sound of music and found a group of islanders gathered at a picnic table, Anne-Laure’s hosts, and sat with them. We became overly excited when we noticed a trail of giant hermit crabs trying to get into an enclosed garden and was momentarily distracted by looking at them, Simon taking photos. Billy joined us at the picnic table but we soon wondered if there were people gathering elsewhere and we left to do a walk around.
Again we followed the sound of music and found ourselves at Edward’s house, where he sat with (another) Simon and our crew member John K playing guitar and ukulele and singing tunes. We could barely keep our eyes open as Eddie sang us some beautiful island songs and John played some of his own. We spoke of our interest in hermit crabs and we were told to visit the ship wreck on the other side of the island where they often gathered.
Before calling it a night we walked over to the wreck, an overturned fiberglass hull used as a shelter for fisherman, but found no hermit crabs. The moon was big and bright and there was a large aura around it – space between it and the clouds. We had more than enough light to walk the beach back to where we started and go to bed.
I awoke to the sound of roosters and chickens outside the window and the church bells ringing. There was an 0600 and 0630 service that morning as well as a 1000 service later in the day. Many locals went to every service (there was a 1600 service as well). Simon and I decided to attend the 1000, and so did Lily, Anne-Laure, Erin, Avery, Gustav, Vai and John. One of our many hosts sat outside the church ringing the bell, calling people to service.
I walked in and sat to the left beside Gustav but stopped when I heard a “PSsst!” from Erin, pointing out to me that all the women were sitting on the right. Oops. I got up and sat next to Anne-Laure. I looked around at all the beautiful hats all the women were wearing made out of this light golden straw with different patterns of hearts and geometric shapes tightly woven in. They were all decorated differently, with shells, ribbon woven into strips, bright colored thread braided, fabric flowers and colored straw. The room was bright with sunlight.
It was the singing that blew me away. The men and women complemented one another, one side singing with a deeper tone and sometimes different words, the women hitting much higher notes. It had an island sound and although I couldn’t understand the language I found myself getting goose bumps – feeling joyous and thankful. The ship and it’s crew were blessed and wished a safe journey.
After the service Simon and I joined our hosts for lunch – chicken and rice with a coconut sauce. I must have looked tired after my third helping because Jo, our host, mentioned a nap and suggested a handmade hammock or cot that was on out the beach. It sounded so wonderful I probably looked excited at such a suggestion and she went almost immediately to find a blanket and pillow, lying them on a cot for me, and dragging the cot under the shade of a palm tree. Absolute bliss – the picture you see on vacation brochures but it’s never the same in reality. I went over and curled up for our last half hour on the island, more relaxed than I’d been in months, listening to the palm trees in the wind, seeing the flash of bright blue and turquoise water as my eyelids fell.