In the following weeks, I helped a local couple with their copra load, just to see what it entailed. I quickly understood why the local men were in such good shape…copra is their sport!
Picking up bits of conversations in the village, I soon understood that the guys who worked in copra had a silent competition going on amongst them.
“Phillipe had 30 sacks last month,” I heard one local tell another.
“Yeah, but his father helps him,” the other replied. “How many do you have right now?”
“I’ve got about 15 I think.”
My first day on the job, I realized that for Emil, copra was serious. He nearly always had more sacs than any of the other men in the village, and he wasn’t about to let his standing slip. I learned that each family also had their own secrets for making the work go faster. Emil had devised two sticks, one embedded with a metal hook that would stick into a coconut husk. He’d swing at the coconut, hook it with the stick in his right hand, then tap it against the stick in his left hand, making the coconut go flying through the air toward the pile of others. Once he’d gathered all the coconuts in one area, Vaiama went about lining them up in straight rows, so that when he came by with the hatchet, he could sling the hatchet over his shoulder, coming down on the coconut in one frightening swing after another, splitting each promptly in two, and then moving quickly onto the next without shifting his body orientation. He’d maniacally split more than 50 coconuts without stopping. Vaiama went along quietly behind him, turning and stacking the coconuts, husk up, to dry. The weather looked suspect, as if it might rain…this way they wouldn’t get wet.
A few days later, the dried meat was ready to be scraped out of the husk. They had a special tool, almost like a pie slice, that helped scoop the dried meat out of the husk. He and a friend set to work, husking coconuts like there was no tomorrow…
I was happy to be assigned the task of burning all the empty husks left behind. I walked alone among the palms, moving the fire from one pile to the next by lighting a dried palm frond on fire, then walking it to the next heap and piling a few husks on top. I returned a smoky, sweaty, ash-ridden mess a few hours later…but I never imagined how much fun I could have playing with fire!
The guys were still hard at work when I wandered off to take a swim…Vaiama and I then loaded the burlap sacs with the dried meat, about 130 lbs each, and then sewed them up with twine. We all worked until dark, when the no-nos started biting and I ran off for a shower and long pants…
The day the cargo ship came, the locals from the village filtered in, bringing their loaded copra sacs to the quay for sale. Emil, head down, unloaded sac after sac from his boat as the other locals watched and counted. Finally finished, another local came over to congratulate him, but most of the others just sat across the way, muttering between sips off their Hinanos. It appeared that this month, Emil held his standing…