An unbiased account of my week at Kamoka

la_corsetiere

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So here it is, for all of you who have toyed with the idea of visiting Josh's pearl farm on Ahe...a true account from someone who did it and lived to tell the tale!!! (I'll be doing multiple posts with photos, so this may take me a little while...)

I departed San Francisco on Thursday afternoon, November 20, arriving in Papeete just short of 1:00 a.m. The local commuter flight to Ahe left at 10:30 a.m., so I caught a cab to a hotel nearby for a few hours of sleep and a nice hot shower. Seemed a waste of money to spend it on a hotel for just a few hours, but in retrospect, it was sure nice to have that hot shower and the opportunity to wash my hair.

Met Josh at the airport, as he was taking the same flight from Tahiti out to the farm. The local flight was on a comfortable jet, about 90 minutes, $353 US with the current exchange rates (round trip). On arrival at the Ahe "airport" (an airstrip and very little else), everybody seemed to know everybody else. Once the bags were unloaded, we walked over to the airport shuttle... As Josh puts it, it's "waterworld". Photo of "shuttle" (farm's boat) below. I'm the pale one. En route (close to an hour) to the farm, Josh just had to break open the chocolate I brought for him. I was very pleasantly surprised to catch a glimpse of the cute blue bungalow where I would be staying. Being a visitor of "a certain age", I think they gave me the deluxe digs. No complaints on that score!!!
 

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The farm basically looks like a fairly open building on stilts over the water, connected to the Kamoka motu (small island) by a long, narrow bridge. I came to secretly refer to the bridge as the bridge from hell...more on that later. After I ungracefully hoisted myself up onto the deck from the boat, I was instructed by Josh to kiss everyone on both cheeks and introduce myself. I obediently complied, wondering how in the world I would remember all the names. It was about 2:00 by that point, so everyone was still busily working. Nonetheless, everyone was very warm and friendly and welcoming. It certainly helped that I speak French, even though I sometimes feel like I have a serious speech impediment when I try. Most of the workers seem to speak at least a bit of English, but French is definitely the mode of communication.

After the requisite introductions, the names already vacating my addled sleep-deprived brain, Josh ferried me and my suitcase over to my bungalow. Kamoka is one of many motus comprising the Ahe atoll, hence the pearl farm's name. There are quite a few trees, including (perhaps predominantly) palm trees, but the island itself is comprised entirely of dead coral. My bungalow was on stilts (I'm assuming to avoid pests and the occasional high tide), just steps away from the water, with a lovely view of the lagoon off the deck. Again, these are the deluxe accomodations - I was lucky. The inside of the bungalow was pleasantly decorated with local shells and furnished with a mattress on the floor, a mosquito net, and a large table/bench which I determined was in fact strong enough to sit on. I was very excited - on day two or three - to discover that I actually had a working light on the ceiling. My headlamp came in very handy.

The shower was in another small building/shelter nearby, on ground level. It was somewhat less than deluxe (hence my appreciation for that hotel's hot shower). It was fresh water, at least, supplied from the cisterns which collect rain water. No water purification system in use, so one naturally uses water rather sparingly. There was - to my happy surprise - a flushing toilet in another shelter down a little path. Bring toilet paper. And do not leave your soap by the "shower", as mysterious creatures have been reported to steal it in the night (hermit crabs? rats?)
 

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Since we arrived on a Friday night, the workers were in a festive mood that evening. People snacked lightly on leftovers from lunch, then hung out talking, drinking, smoking (almost everyone smokes at the farm), and making music on impromptu instruments of barrel-drums, spoons, and a native ukelele. Party time! VERY different from the work week. I started to catch on to people's names...about ten workers in all, plus Allison, a volunteer from Cape Cod. I was starting to fade by 10:30 or so, so Allison kindly offered to walk me back to my bungalow, which is down a little unmarked path though the pitch black of the island night, a few minutes walk from the bridge. Ah yes, that bridge. I'm terrible at judging distance - perhaps it was a hundred yards/meters long? - but it seemed much longer the first time or two I crossed it, as it consists of two wooden planks with an empty space in the middle, propped up at regular (somewhat infrequent) intervals by posts stuck in the water below. I'm sure there's a little more infrastructure holding the bridge together - at least perhaps some nails - but not anything that was readily apparent to my slightly panicked untrained eyes. The bridge is not that far above the water, but far enough, and the water below is not deep, but filled with shallow sharp coral, so you really don't want to fall off. The bridge doesn't have any sides or rails, except for one short sloping section right near the farm building (probably because it can get slippery when wet). And the bridge moves. Rather significantly in one spot. Given, I'm not the most graceful person around, and I definitely have balance issues, but I had slight...issues...with the bridge. I psyched myself into believing I would make it across intact on every trip, and I did, to my vast joy and relief. Again, if you decide to visit, do not forget your headlamp!!!
 

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Since a weekend was upon us, I had a couple of days to relax and get familiar with my surroundings before the onset of the work week. Got to know some of the local fauna - hermit crabs everywhere you look both on land and in the water, colorful lagoon fish, lots of sea cucumbers, urchins, black tip sharks, etc. Unfortunately, the farm's compressor wasn't working, so I was unable to do any scuba diving, but I did have the opportunity to do quite a bit of snorkelling, both in the lagoon and in the ocean. The lagoon was quite murky with silt due to the agitation of the tides; the ocean was much clearer. On several occasions, I saw a huge green moray eel who seemed quite friendly (I love the photo I got of his toothy grin). The temperature was pretty consistently in the mid-80's, with a constant strong breeze, and occasional splatters of rain, mostly at night. Quite comfortable, and the wind kept the mosquitos at bay.
 

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A few more critters...
 

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Some friendly lagoon fish (including one shy porcupine fish)...
 

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My neighborhood eel (I'm sure he wanted me to scratch him behind the ears, but I controlled myself...)
 

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Wow !
Thanks for this thread Sheri.
Fantastic photos.
Brightened up my Saturday morning no end....:)
 
I also got the opportunity to get to know some of the pearl farm cats a bit. Obviously, it's hard work being a pearl farm feline.
 

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On Saturday night, a group of the guys went out spear-fishing, with the promise of poisson cru that evening. Much as I love eating fish, I prefer not to be the one who kills them, so I took the gatherer role, while the men were out doing their manly thing. Found three nice ripe juicy coconuts on the motu, from which I arduously scraped all of the flesh in the traditional Polynesian style (using a grating blade attached to a board). Then squeezed the flesh in a clean(ish) cloth to extract the fresh coconut milk. That got added to the catch of the day, along with some lemon or lime juice and a bit of seasoning, for a true French Polynesian delicacy. Mmmmmmm. We ate very well that night.

Oh yeah - one note on the kitchen facilities - you wash everything - hands, dishes - with salt water. There is fresh water available, but just to drink. Takes a little getting used to. Also due to the desire not to generate excess waste or laundry, there seem to be no towels - paper or otherwise - to wipe your hands, so you learn to drip-dry...

While I'm on the subject, sort of, of plumbing, there is also a flush toilet at the farm building, in the back. Somewhat private from the sides, but totally open to the lagoon, so if a boat happens to go by, feel free to smile and wave hello! That toilet is flushed by pulling up a pail (on a rope) of sea water from below, then throwing it in the tank. Apparently, the fish below love it. Josh assured me that the intake for the hand/dish washing water was signifigantly farther out in the lagoon. Suffice it to say, I never had any stomach problems that entire week.
 

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The weekend went by more quickly than I expected, then it was to work bright and early Monday morning. Work hours are 6:30 a.m. until about 3:30 p.m., with an hour lunch break when Camelia does her magic from 11:30 to 12:30. You tend to wake up early on Ahe, as the sun is in your eyes by 5:15 a.m. People go to bed very early during the week as well; it was rare to see anyone out at the farm, except for perhaps Josh, past 7:30 or 8:00.

Pearl farming is somewhat arduous, physical work. Unless you are a grafter, you are standing the entire day (if you aren't down on your hands and knees scrubbing pearl lattices - which is what I call the framework the oysters are tied to, though I'm probably using the wrong word). I spent many hours using a large cleaver to scrape/cut off all of the junk that grows on the outside of the shells over the course of a couple of years. You'd be amazed to see how encrusted some of these oysters get, with other mollusks, sponges, algae, and these noxious gelatenous pink blobs called "salps" (I prefer to think of them as sea squirts) that have a tendency to squirt you or whomever happens to be within range with fluid when you cut into them. Generally right in the eye - their aim is extraordinary. Lovely! Very messy work. I was really glad to have my Teva sandals to walk around in. Crocs might have been better, as I did grate a toe on the oyster lattices on the ground one day, and had a sharp oyster fall on another toe the next. At the end of the first day, my low back was aching (from working at a table made for someone six inches shorter than me), and my little finger was numb from clutching a cleaver all day. In the following days, my body got more accustomed to the work, and I probably got onto doing it in a somewhat more ergonomic fashion, so I was no longer uncomfortable or fatiqued. In fact, strange as it may sound, I found the physical labor rather satisfying. In addition to the oyster cleaning, I tied oysters to the pearl lattices after they were grafted and did a little wedging-open-the-oysters for grafting, though I needed more practice to get comfortable with that task. Also cleaned the oyster shells (to be sold to Asia for buttons), separated the most edible muscle meat, and looked for pearls in those unfortunate mollusks which were "processed" due to illness or malformation of some sort indicating they did not have good oyster-producing potential (my favorite job, the palpating-the-gonads-for-pearls part). I did go down with the divers the first work day to watch them take the lattices back down, filled with newly-grafted oysters, and tie them to ropes about 18 feet down. They free-dive, no tanks, and I'm afraid that not only were my free-diving skills not up to the task, but it was nearly impossible for me to get back onto the boat with no ladder or foothold. Suffice it to say, I'm confident I provided quite a bit of comic relief! Note to self: develop upper body strength before next visit.
 

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All this time, the grafters are working their magic. I really liked the fact that everyone was working together for a common goal, everyone seemed cheerful and focused, and there was always a strong sense of cooperation. A very efficient operation. And a great loud music soundtrack thumping along to help keep us energized!
 

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So, that pretty much sums up my workweek. I was scheduled to fly out on Friday (one week after my arrival) for a couple nights in Papeete before my flight home, so I arranged to have Kong, the resident pearl farm worker/tattoo artist, endow me with some new artwork of the permanent sort on my foot/ankle on my last night on Ahe. Kong is quite a character - a man of few words (perhaps because he only speaks Tahitian) and large girth, a bit shy at first but a great big warm smile, and a great big artistic talent to boot! I had him do a large stylized Polynesian-style octopus on my foot and wrapping around my ankle. The octopus would have one tentacle cradling a large black pearl, of course!

Those of you who have read my other posts know that I have an extensive tattoo on my back, so I wasn't nervous about the process. But it was definitely an experience - a Thanksgiving that I will never forget. Actually, the whole day was quite memorable, starting with Josh making us homemade crepes for breakfast (mmmmmmm), then Camelia outdoing herself with fresh seafood calzones and sashimi salad, then a few hours of work before the joys of ogling some of Josh's most beautifully colored pearls. Sigh. I even got him to agree to sell a few of his treasures to me.

Then the REAL fun began...the tattoing took place in my bungalow, me on the floor, Kong working with my foot in his lap. A couple people dropped by, then a couple more - turned into quite a party! I had not anticipated that 1) the tattoo was on what is perhaps the most sensitive part of my entire body, and 2)the inking process would take 7-1/2 hours!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! About an hour into the process, Josh joined us, and I promptly requested Vodka. Copious amounts were consumed, enough to totally obliterate my ability to walk, if not any of the actual physical sensation. I discovered that soon enough when I had to take a bathroom break in the dark, made a wrong turn, and tripped and did a face plant in the coral, quite dramatically cutting up my toe in the process. Josh and Lawrence, another visiting volunteer, helped patch me up. Others took turns holding my leg/foot or sitting on my leg (at my request - it was not a hostage situation) so I wouldn't twitch during the process. A real team effort. I will proudly say that not once did I whimper or moan, though I did thrash and writhe a bit. Everyone else seemed to be having fun, though, with the ipod blasting and the Vodka flowing.

The tattoo is in its unsightly flakey mode right now, but I'm really pleased with it - will post a photo of the finished product down the line - in the meantime, this will give you an idea of the tattoo party - note - the little guy in the striped shirt is Clyde, my stuffed monkey (found on the street - used to be a dog toy), who has been travelling the world with me for the last ten years or so.
 

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To wrap up, my week at the Kamoka Pearl Farm was truly the experience of a lifetime, and I definitely want to go back! If you're thinking of going, there are a few things to keep in mind:

It is NOT Club Med.

You will be doing very messy physical labor.

Your hands WILL get cut from shells, those cuts WILL get infected, so do take some Neosporin or similar antibiotic ointment. Tweezers, a needle, and some disinfectant would also be a good idea.

Take some waterproof sandals to muck around in.

TAKE A HEADLAMP.

Take a smile, wear it often, and be prepared to laugh at yourself on a regular basis.

Oh yeah...it does help if you speak French.

Now, what I know you've all been waiting for - here are some of Josh's treasures (and no, alas, they did not all come home with me...)

That's it, folks!

Sheri
 

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Sheri - I have been waiting for you to get back to tell us about this trip! Fantastic reporting, I have only skimmed tonight, off selling pearls all day tomorrow, so I am looking forward to your posts brightening up my coming Monday morning!!
Sounds like an amazing adventure...
 
Sheri, thank you for your colourful report and the phantastic pictures to go with them. Look forward to seeing you tatoo once your foot has healed enough....
 
Sheri,

I don't know what I envy more: your experience or your writing and photographic skills which let us all share a fabulous week on a Tahitian pearl farm. And thanks to Josh for making the visit possible.
 
Sheri, thank you SO much for letting me experience the trip through your story and photos. It is a very nice escape from the driving snow I see out my window! And I am also looking forward to seeing the tattoo - what a wonderful memento.
 
That was AWESOME! I can't wait to see a close-up of that unbelievable octopus. That had to be excruciating on the thin skin around the ankle. Thanks so much for the intimate story. Great photos, too.

Water, men, oysters, cats, seafood -- ah, the atoll life! ;)
 
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