By Victoria Allman
“Are they still there?” I asked Patrick as he walked through the galley.
“They haven’t left.” Patrick grabbed a slice of pineapple from the platter in front of me. “We’re surrounded.”
I swatted his hand as he reached for another slice. The fruit tray was for the guests on Pangaea, the 185-foot yacht I was chef of, not for the crew, whether he was my husband or not.
I removed my apron and followed Patrick down the side passageway to our aft deck. The equatorial sun of Papua New Guinea burned deep into my skin within seconds of leaving the cool air-conditioned environ of my galley. I raised my hand to shade my eyes and squinted out over the tea-colored water.
Patrick was right; we were surrounded. Trailing behind us were half a dozen hand-carved wooden canoes, each holding a dozen tribal men and women. To our starboard side, another four canoes were packed with dark-skinned naked children. Half of them smiled wide, half crouched behind the gunwale, the whites of their eyes peaking over the rim, too scared to look, too intrigued to glance away.
We were a novelty. A boat our size had never traveled that far up the Sepik River before. We had anchored the night before in the center of the river, unable to navigate farther in the dark. The guest on board had requested a trip up the Sepik, also known as the Amazon of the Pacific, to the center of the country along some of the wildest and remotest terrain on earth to view spirit-houses and tour primitive villages. So far, our journey had twisted through steamy mangrove jungles, untouched dense rainforests and boggy swamps.
The guests were on a National Geographic-like expedition, only, it was being done in the luxury of a twenty million dollar yacht.
Sweat trickled between my breasts before I even reached the swim platform. A mosquito landed on my arm. I swatted it away with one hand while with the other I motioned to one of the canoes to come closer.
A man wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and an elaborate headdress of feathers and vines maneuvered his prow alongside the swim platform of Pangaea. Patrick reached down to steady the dugout vessel.
“Welcome.” The man’s rough smile showed betel nut-stained misshapen teeth. He spit velvet red juice into the muddy-brown water. It swirled a moment and disappeared in the fast-moving current. “We sell bananas and coconut.”
I smiled. The local market had come to me. “How much?”
I had been to Madang, the local town earlier that week and had a rough grasp of how the Kina worked. In such a poor country, five kina bought you almost anything. I had spent more money than the market-sellers had seen in a long time on sweet potatoes, water spinach and papaya to feed our twelve crew and twelve guests.
I pulled coins from my pocket and pointed to the branch of bananas on the rough-hewn floor. I held out my hand, but the man shook his head. The animal bone piercing his nose swung back and forth.
“No good here.” He waved his hand toward the river banks lined with clusters of wheat and wild sugarcane. The village we anchored in front of consisted of stilted one-room huts made of wood and thatch. Jungle forests stretched forever beyond the clearing. Of course, where would he spend the money? On what?
Patrick stepped in. “Batteries?” he asked.
The man nodded. Our local guide on board came down to translate.
Patrick disappeared into the engine room to grab some of our spares while I stood smiling at a two-year old, curly-headed girl draped in a dirty white cloth for a diaper. I wiggled my fingers in a wave that sent her burying her face between her mother’s bare breasts.
I looked from one woman to the next. Each was bare-chested with long, flat, shriveled breasts that hung low and uneven down their bellies. Some wore skirts of grass, some a cloth wrapped around their hips. I felt self-conscious in my white polo with the yacht’s logo stitched on the chest.
Patrick returned with a box of batteries and a plastic container. The man nodded and handed me the branch with dozens of green bananas attached.
Patrick bent down beside the children in the center of the canoe and held out his hand. One child shrieked and huddled in the far corner, but a boy of about six years tentatively peeked into Patrick’s cupped hand. He reached out a scrawny arm and touched what was inside. He, too, shrieked. But, this one was out of excitement. The other six children pushed and leaned in to get a view of what the strange white man with hair the color of the surrounding wheat fields had in his hand.
The first boy grabbed at what Patrick held and snuggled it to his chest. Finally, I could see what the excitement was all about. Patrick had brought a container of ice from our ice machine. The children pawed at the ice in the boy’s arms, but within seconds, it had disappeared. All heads turned back to Patrick, wide eyes pleading for more.
Patrick laughed and handed out cubes to all the children. The men from other canoes paddled close to see what the excitement was all about. One by one, each canoe approached the boat and as I traded batteries, an old frying pan and crew t-shirts for tropical fruits from the fields, Patrick entertained the children with the ice.
Within minutes, all the crew and guests had come to trade. Extra clothes were exchanged for carved masks, flashlights for weaved baskets. As the rudimentary bartering progressed, Patrick produced the exchange item of greatest value.
He and our engineer, Scotty, lowered the jet-skis into the water. One-by one, Patrick took each boy for a ride. They straddled the seat behind him; smiling and waving as they passed their village, showing off to those on shore waiting their turn. He taught them to drive our machines in exchange for them teaching a thirty-nine year old man how to balance in their round bottomed vessels.
“Stand in back. Just paddle.” One boy instructed. Patrick rose, balancing like he learned on his surfboard as the hollow tree trunk swayed beneath him. He teetered right and corrected too quickly to the left.
Splash! He emerged from the muddy water laughing. Children and elders roared with laughter around us. To their immense pleasure, he ended up in the water many times, tipping out of the canoe before he mastered its balance.
By mid-morning, when we had to pull anchor and continue our voyage up the river, we had emptied our reserves of essentials and loaded in their place a bounty of carvings and fruits.
“You’ve been taken advantage of.” Our guide shook his head. “Two batteries for something that grows free on trees.”
I disagreed. For me, it was the other way around; two little batteries for the chance of creating our own market aboard. The smile on the woman’s face when I handed over a pot for boiling water and the memory of children’s laughter at my husband’s ineptitude at mastering the canoe was well worth any amount of trade. I was definitely getting the better end of the deal.
We set off for our next destination leaving a trail of canoes and laughter in our wake and navigated toward our next stop for more tribal bartering.
Tropical Fruit Salad
with a Coconut Rum Caramel Sauce
Tropical Fruit Salad of:
Coconut Rum Caramel Sauce:
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 orange, juiced
- 2 tablespoons coconut rum
- 1 can coconut milk
- 1 vanilla pod, split and seeded
In a heavy-bottomed saucepot, cook the sugar and juice of the orange over moderately high heat until it turns a deep caramel color. It will darken quickly so watch closely, once it starts to color be ready to add the rum or the sugar will burn. At this point, the sugar is extremely hot. DO NOT TOUCH. Remove from the heat and pour in the rum. The caramel will “spit” so stand back and be careful. Add coconut milk and vanilla pod and seeds and return to the heat. Simmer for 5 minutes until the caramel is dissolved.
Cool and serve with fruit salad.
Victoria Allman, author SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain, has been following her stomach around the globe for twelve years as a yacht chef. She writes about her floating culinary odyssey through Europe, the Caribbean, Nepal, Vietnam, Africa and the South Pacific in her first book, Sea Fare: A Chef’s Journey Across the Ocean.
SEAsoned, Victoria’s second book is the hilarious look at a yacht chef’s first year working for her husband while they cruise from the Bahamas to Italy, France, Greece and Spain; trying to stay afloat.
You can read more of her food-driven escapades through her web-site, www.victoriaallman.com
Narrative and recipe Copyright © 2011 by Victoria Allman.
Copyright © 2011 by OceanLines LLC. All rights reserved.