Saturday, 2 May, 1987; Lakatoro, Vanuatu
Today is just the perfect Saturday: it is lightly raining on-and-off just enough so that Holly can't get after me to work in the garden. We borrowed the Local Government Council "green truck" this morning to go to market in Norsup, 8 km north. I rode my bike there through the rain last week, but I didn't feel tough today (besides, the green truck was in the shop last weekend. They finally got tired of refilling the radiator every few miles and patched the hole on the top of the radiator. They also took some of the adventure out of driving it by putting new seals in the secondary brake cylinders on two of the wheels. The brakes now work on the first pump. Not to worry, though, the tires haven't had any tread on them for many a kilometer and you still get that front-row view of the road through the floor.)
The "Green Truck" in all it's glory. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.
It's the first payday we've had here that we got our entire pay (Holly got a big advance when we arrived so it would be out of CUSO's 1986 budget), so we celebrated by spending it all so that we're just as poor today as we usually are. One of the things we bought today was the world's biggest crab. It's a coconut crab, which is a huge hermit crab without a shell that lives on the land in holes near coconut trees. They find coconuts that are split or sprouted a bit, crack them open with their claws, and eat them. I just measured this one, and if his tail was uncurled from under him, he would be 17 inches from end of big claws to tail. From tip of side leg to the tip of the other side leg would be 30 inches across. He cost 400vt (say US$4.00) and came all tied up with old red nylon rope. When I picked him up, he latched onto a basket of something else the lady was selling, so I pulled hard on him, and the lady pulled hard on the basket. This provided great entertainment to everyone in the vicinity until the bit of palm leaf in his claw ripped off and I triumphantly toted him off to his doom. I put him in a big bucket, and of course, after we got home he got his rope loose. It is a bit of a stereotype here about the expat who buys a coconut crab at the market and takes it home, where it gets loose, climbs up into the rafters, and generally terrorizes everyone while they all play Annie Hall.
I was trying to round him up by remote control when Holly suggested I just do what she always does in these situations - ask Aslika (our neighbour's wife). So, I hauled my bucket over to the neighbors, where I learned that the ropes that these things come wrapped up in are tied to the thorax, and the proper way to store them until dinner is hanging from the nearest tree to your house. Or you put them in the broken-down freezer on your back porch and feed them coconuts until they are eating size. Or you put them in that big pot over there with a heavy rock on top. Anyway, Keith just grabbed him by the front claws and untangled the ropes and the crab is now dangling from our mandarin orange tree. Luckily, Keith also showed me the pinchers on his rear legs that I didn't know about. Later, Keith is going to give us a lesson on how to kill them by cutting off various parts of their heads or whatever. Good thing - I was wondering how I was going to force him into our 11.75-inch pot full of boiling water.
. . .We have more signs of winter these days. I've noticed that the leaves on the end of the branches of the poinsettia bushes are starting to turn red. We've finally got our garden all planted, and between the neighbor's chickens, the giant African snails (French escargot imports gone wild; a serious pest), and hordes of little orange beetles that like to take dust baths in rotenone, the sprouts are being nicely thinned out. Maybe we'll get a salad out of it all. Luckily, the worst weed is kumala, which is what Keith grew there when it was his garden. Kumala is a root, a bit like sweet potato, that we eat instead of potatoes.
One of us goes out every morning and squishes snails in the garden. I bought a shovel today, so I'll be able to transplant the suckers from our banana trees. When we got here, I eagerly looked at all of our papaya trees every day for ripe fruit, and finally got fed up. I stopped looking, so the "flying fox" fruit bats got our first ripe one a couple of days ago. Oh.
I forgot to tell you what our really big purchase was that made us poor. I bought a second-hand underwater 35mm camera, so I could get a good shot of the shark that eats me. If it's nice out tomorrow, I'll give it a try. Of course, the freshest film that you can buy here expired in March.
. . .It's getting near suppertime, and I see that Keith isn't home. It's beginning to look like I'll have to tackle that crab on my own. Maybe his previous owner trained him to jump through a hoop into a pot of boiling water on command. To tell you the truth, he looks a little... well, crabby, hanging out there. Maybe I should have started with a little one. Perhaps if I just hack at him with a bushknife a bit. Or, I could put him in the fridge for a while to slow him down. I wonder if the "Joy of Cooking" has any helpful hints for these situations? If I just had a microwave, I could just stuff him in and switch it on like in "Gremlins". "Joy of Cooking" has instructions for killing soft-shell crabs, which I hope are transferable to giant killer coconut crabs. Here I go. . . Ah, is that Keith's car I hear coming up the hill? Maybe I'll get lucky.
Later that same half-hour. It wasn't Keith's car, but he was home anyway. In retrospect, I don't think the "Joy of Cooking" method would have done the job. Keith pried his whole head off, and the crab is safely in the pot boiling now (I did that part!). I suppose that now, I'll have to help eat the thing. I'm not all that keen on seafood, especially that with 10 legs. The coconut crab is kind of the national animal here - is on all the coins and stuff, but they are very practical here and would probably eat a Bald Eagle if they were in the States. Anyway, all the tourist literature goes on at length about the delicious coconut crabs and their coconut-flavored flesh, so I'd better try one. Keith said something about eating soft stuff from the tail with a spoon, so I think I'll give the tail to the kids. I'll sign this off after supper - I think I'd better give the bottle of wine mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Later that same evening. I guess I've recovered enough to finish this. The crab tasted just like any other crab or lobster I've ever eaten, but was much easier to eat. When you cracked a leg (good thing I brought my Canadian Tire waterpump pliers), you got some meat. I'd never had to use a knife to cut crab meat into mouth-sized bits before. When we broke the tail off, we could see some kind of goop in there. Holly wanted to cut it open, but I wouldn't let her before we ate. Now I know where the screen-writer of Aliens got all of his ideas.
Note: Having gleefully related how I ate my first coconut crab, I must now confess that they are unfortunately threatened with extinction. Not much is know about their life cycle, but it does appear that they are slow growing and late maturing. They have surivived as a ni-Vanuatu food source for centuries, but modern demand from Port Vila's restaurants is stripping the islands of them. Attempts by the Fisheries Department to reduce the harvest to a sustainable level was not successful at the time I left Vanuatu in late 1992.
One of Vanuatu's Coconut Crabs, from a Vanuatu Government nutrition poster.
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©S. Combs, 1987.