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Message in a Bottle

Every wave brings something new to the shores.  There is always something.  Think of the countless miles of open shoreline around the globe; untouched, possibly unseen and what may lay there, undiscovered. 

Upon my return to Calgary and having to describe what has been my most recent and the last of my destinations is the most challenging of my trip.  I feel beyond blessed to have found Josh, Kamoka and be welcomed into the ongoing and ever-growing family that is the heart of the pearl farm in Ahe.

Forgive me for not writing this entry while still in the heat of the moment.  I tried, believe me, I did.  Every time I placed my laptop in front of me to write this post, there was always something, something that was so opportunistic that I had to put the computer away.  It may have been as simple as learning how to properly cut fillets off a just-caught fish or watch the sting rays jump like humpbacks in the middle of the lagoon, or just lying at night under the ink black sky to try and remember the constellations I learned while sailing, but whatever it was, I couldn’t do it in my living room the first night I got home.  So here I am, back, a bit rested and eager to try and encapsulate the emotion and experience that gives these undeniably spectacular pearls life. 

You may want to grab a glass of wine. 

I slept a total of 45 minutes the night before I took my flight to Ahe.  I was departing at 06:00 hrs and although I was jetlagged from my international dateline cross, I was mostly really excited.  I was packed and had finally found some oranges and apples to bring along with me to share with all at the farm. 

It’s a quick trip to Ahe.  It is a very small lagoon, sits north and a bit east of Tahiti Nui, the main island and is in the Tuamotu Atoll.  The airplane is small and does not have assigned seating which I like because if you get a window seat on a clear day you can see the details of the atoll as you land, but more specifically, the colors.

Ahe’s airport is anything but.  There is a landing strip just long enough for the one plane to land and take off again, which happens three times a week.  It is about 10 meters from the open air tarmac to the ‘gate’ (which really is just like a wooden gate on a fence) and you stand behind there until the luggage is passed through by the ground staff.  To de-plane in Ahe takes all of about 10 minutes and could only be complicated if it was operated by Air Canada.  Everyone (including the pilot who will be departing in 15 minutes) is eager to get to ‘the bar’ for a quick Heineken or Hinano (Polynesia’s local brew) before venturing off whether it be by air or water. 

Embarrassed by the amount of luggage I have brought, I wait patiently for both my oversized red suitcase to pass through the pick-up window and Laurent, the man who is retrieving me from the airport.  There is no mistaking him when he finally appears.  Most people live in swim shorts here, but Laurent is masculine, French, tanned, and doesn’t wear a shirt.  Well, actually, correction…. He does wear a shirt, but it’s tied on his head.  He’s barefoot, as always, and greets me with the 2 cheek kiss and throws my suitcase over one should and grabs my computer bag with his free hand.  He tells me we need to make a stop before we get in the boat.  He walks faster than me even though he’s barefoot and walking across burrs, rocks and sharp plants.  There is nowhere to ‘go’ at the airport other than the bar, so as I glance at my watch which reads 8:30 (am) and quickly scan the crowd filling the 4 patio tables, Laurent hands me a beer. 

The sun is peaking out.  The water is clearer and more turquoise than I remember, and as we get in the speed boat, it’s calm.  From the airport to the farm is about 40 minutes, but such a welcoming 40 minutes it is.  The wind and salt is so refreshing on the skin. 

Arriving at Kamoka feels a bit like going home.  I don’t know everyone; the staff changes every couple of months.  This isn’t the kind of high turnover you’re thinking – The pearl farm hosts many new faces that volunteer through an organization called W.W.O.O.F (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – Climbing from the boat to the work deck gets easier with practice.  Heiarrii, who has been working at the farm for just over 5 years is a gentleman and greets me shyly, which is quickly followed by introductions to all the volunteers who are appearing from behind posts and out of the water like the curious munchkins in the land of Oz.  There are 4 men.  Maurice is first to introduce himself.  He’s tanned, blonde and has a European accent that I do not recognize, but his English is perfect.  Maurice has been at the farm since Christmas, but been W.W.O.O.F-ing for a long while.  He says that many of his other job posts have been all about high production and loves the lifestyle at the farm, because that’s exactly what it is.  A Lifestyle.  He and Kamoka seem to be a really good match.  Andre quickly introduces himself next.  Andre is really fascinating in conversation.  He is volunteering for 6 weeks before heading back to California to prep for his LSAT’s.  I later learn that he was born in Russia, speaks Russian, is interested in studying international law and is there to practice his French.  I must admit that first meeting him I was puzzled how he wasn’t sun burnt after a few weeks here.  Red-haired fair-skinned people don’t usually do very well in constant sun, but Andre was fairing just fine.  (No pun intended)  Travis was preparing the day’s meal and although his hands were covered with fish insides he introduced himself and continued preparing the days sashimi and fish salad.  Ben is from Berlin.  He keeps mostly to himself, reading in German but still follows all the conversations happening around him. 

I was eager to get my hands dirty and so after placing my luggage inside the mess (I never asked what they call it at the farm, but on the ship the kitchen/eating area was called this and so I will forever associate the communal eating and meeting place that sits on water ‘the mess’) I went over to the table that the ‘sick’ oysters that will not be nucleated again are opened, gutted and cleaned for other uses.  It felt good to slide my fingers along the tissue, pulling along the muscle that connects the guts and ripping it out in one piece.  I had checked for a pearl inside the swollen gonad of the oyster and pulled out a small silver keshi pearl.  I placed it into what was once a cake pan that is filled halfway with freshwater and the rest of the pearls that have been retrieved from the inside of the no-longer producing oysters, and continued to meticulously scrap the mussel from the mother of pearl shell and place that in another pan.  This mussel is delicious.  At the end of the day, all the collected mussels will be rinsed and we eat them raw with a dressing made of Dijon mustard, some sugar, a bit of vinegar and wasabi, salt and oil. I could eat a bowl of this every night.  The shells are then cleaned and sorted by size, and will eventually be sold to Asia to make mother of pearl jewelry.  The slimy guts are tossed in a larger container and will be eaten by the cats or fish in the lagoon; I guess it’s up to Laurent who gets to eat that dayJ

There are so many things that one wants to do immediately following the arrival to a remote pacific atoll.  I wanted to jump in the water, I wanted to snorkel, I wanted to see what Travis was cooking (or not cooking) and preparing, but mostly, I wanted to go see Timi, the grafter.  He sits, day in, day out and puts the appropriate bead nucleus inside the oyster.  It is a very meticulous procedure that requires skill, a steady hand and cautious and educated judgment.  Timi is one of my favorite people.  He is entertaining to watch and listen to, and although he and I don’t speak the same language communication isn’t a problem.  I always joke with him about the Absolute Vodka bottle that sits in the corner of his work station.  It’s filled with freshwater which is put in bowls that the harvested pearls are placed in, and also used to cover the mother-of-pearl made bead nuclei.  Even the tiniest speck of dust on a nucleus will increase the possibility of the oyster rejecting the pearl.  Timi and I laugh a lot together.  I guess because there are literally no words, but its fun.  Essentially, we are both there for similar reasons and our united and common interest is enough to establish a friendship. 

Trying to describe what happens on a day to day basis at the pearl farm is in fact, very difficult.  The science is easy, for me anyway, to explain to anyone.  It goes something like this:

Early in the morning (Everyone rises with the sun) you saunter slowly from your modest bungalow that is equipped with a mattress and mosquito net and decorated with coral and shells, along the beach or forested path to the planked bridge that connects the land to the stilted constructed workplace and heart of Kamoka (the name of the pearl farm).  There are no fast movers, and I think mostly because although the walk is taken every day, there is always a new sunset.  Each is unique and taken in, so the walk is slow and if the sun is bright, it dances on the water, it is sharp and glitters for a brief few minutes if you catch it at the right time.  The water is darker and a deeper blue early in the morning and so the contrast against the gleaming and fast risings sun is mirror-like.  The first to arrive in the kitchen will put the over-sized kettle on to boil, and one by one we all enter, wishing good morning, 2 cheek kissing followed by Nescafe instant roast that we put into our glass jars that are more available than coffee mugs and let dissolve with the freshly boiled water.  Sometimes there are leftovers from the previous day’s meal, but if so, they don’t last for long. 

After morning coffee, the boat is revved up, and it’s off to dive for the oysters.  They are further out in the lagoon where the water is deeper, it is a bit colder.  It’s about 5 minutes by boat.  There, you put on a snorkel mask and snorkel and jump in for the first dive of the day.  The oysters are about 10 feet down, in nets and color coded with ties by time of nucleation.  There are purple, yellow, white, blue, black, all made of nylon so they do not deteriorate under water.  You do not want to harvest the pearl prematurely because Tahitian pearls are required, by government regulation to have a particular nacre thickness to qualify for export.  This ensures, generally, a stronger luster and nacre quality.  All oysters are brought closer to land every once in a while though to be cleaned by the fish that live closer to shore. A cleaner oyster produces a better quality pearl.  On scheduled times certain oysters will be collected and brought to the farm to hang in the lagoon from the planks that support those working above.  The fish in the water eat the plankton and all the other sea life that likes to attach itself to the outer shell. 

The oysters that are collected and ready for harvest will be brought in boat and placed above the wooden planks, ready to be worked. They are untied and cleaned.  They can be sharp, and often you see new shrimp, shells and sea life that are just starting to attach to the outside of the mollusk. Everything must be cleaned off, and although many in the industry use machines for this, here it is all done by hand.  Thick work gloves and a butcher knife shed off what doesn’t belong to the oyster itself, and each oyster is pried open just enough to wedge a clothes pin in –between the bivalve mollusk.  They are then placed in a pan, angled, as if you would if you were decoratively assorting a cheese tray.  An oyster will actually open its shell substantially underwater to allow fresh seawater, nutrients and oxygen, but out of water you must be a bit gentle. 

Now each oyster will wait its turn to be placed into the ‘clamp’ that sits inside of the opening and can be adjusted to open the opening a bit more, allowing for enough room to see and make a small incision in the gonad.  This is where the pearl will be if the oyster has been successful.  If so, it is cut, ever-so-slightly, and the pearl is pushed out with a small dental pick looking instrument that has two loops on either end.  It looks like the wand that comes with bubble-blowing sets, but is made of stainless steel and much smaller.  It pushes the pearl out of the gonad and carries it out of the oyster and the pearl will be placed in one of three bowls; round, baroque or circled.  The harvest is always sorted at the end of the day.  If the oyster made a nice pearl, it can be re-nucleated.  (An oyster can be nucleated up to 3 times)  If so, the bead nuclei will be a bit larger than the last.  The oyster has the ability to host a larger pearl now that it has produced one.  Typically, the first graft will produce the best quality. The second graft will produce a larger pearl, and hopefully an equivalent quality.  The third graft will be the largest, but usually a lower quality. 

If the oyster is pried open and is swollen or has red dots on its shell, it is discarded and although everything from the oyster is used (as mentioned above), it will not be put back in the water for fear of infecting the other oysters with the same infection. 

Once the oyster has been re-nucleated, it is placed in a net to secure from predators under water and color coded with ties to be able to identify the nucleation time. Once the net is full (it can hold 20 oyster) it is tied up and brought back out to the water and the whole process starts again.

All day, five days a week, this is what happens.  It is exciting, invigorating and rewarding work.  It is hard work, and tiresome, but I could not imagine a more interesting and wonderfully fun work environment.  Beyond the day-to-day procedure though, is the lifestyle, landscape/seascape, people and environmental awareness that make Kamoka such a radiant place. Many times on this trip, I spoke with Heiarii about Ahe, the Atoll and the lifestyle.  We agreed that it is likely one of the best kept secrets, ever.  I feel like I was walking along a desolate beach, and stumbled upon a washed up aged glass bottle along the shore with a note that read the map co-ordinates of Kamoka on it.  Before my first visit here, I had no idea where I was going.

Everything from the nucleation to the harvesting is fascinating, don’t get me wrong, but at Kamoka, there is SO MUCH MORE than just pearls.  There is a love and a passion for every moment that is lived.  Everything that goes into the pearls and their care comes from a place of understanding of the science of the lagoon and living ecosystem that is a meter below your feet, all the time.  It is a self sustaining environment.  It is a community.  I decided to write this blog to tell everyone where their pearls came/come from.  I’ve realized that without a description of whom and how the pearls were born, the location doesn’t really matter.  Think about the birth of anything… If anything is forgotten, it’s the where, but you always remember who was there, events that took place, words that were exchanged and the emotion in the air.  I’m hoping that aside from understanding how the pearls are harvested, you are able to envision the many people that are there, making this happen.  Tomorrow, I will share with you more stories about Ahe, details of the harvest, and the pearl that I was looking for but wasn’t born yet. 

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