land of coconut milk and honey, huntress sisters unite | Maupihaa

We set sail from Raiatea after provisioning at the supermarket with stinky French cheese, frozen wakame salad for poke bowls and bags of frozen meat gifts for friends. Morgan and Eric met gregarious Hio in Raiatea who invited them to visit his home island, the outer French Polynesian atoll Maupihaa, where his parents and sisters live. He suggested we bring them frozen meat since the supply ship only stops in Maupihaa every eight months or so. We checked out with the gendarme (customs) in Raiatea, and I felt relieved. I’d spent exactly 90 days in the country, the limit for US citizens. Technically, we would still be in French Polynesia in Maupihaa, but it is so remote that the gendarme rarely monitors the area.

After a few days of mellow sailing, we entered the atoll’s narrow pass and anchored inside the protected lagoon near a beachside thatched lean-to. It was tranquil inside the lagoon, one half of our view was palm trees and white sand beaches, the other half showcased waves crashing on the outer reef like a Las Vegas fountain show. There were only two other sailboats anchored near us so it was quiet. Just the breeze, bird calls and at night the sparkly stars.

After living on land for three weeks it felt luxurious to be on the sea again, with no roads, cars or building lights. Your mind can relax into stretchy time, with no internet to shorten your attention span.

We went ashore to meet Hio’s family and give them our gifts. Adrienne and Marcelo, Hio’s parents, and Faimano and Karina, his sisters, welcomed us with open arms.  

Faimano is my age, and she glows with contentment and intelligence. She has dark caramel skin, shiny black curly hair and rounded cheeks that rise high when she smiles. Her back is broad and strong and she carries herself with a relaxed feminine grace.

Her mom, Adrienne is shorter than her daughters but no less energetic. Her eyes sparkle with vitality and she is quick to laugh . She learns that I’m a farmer and offers to show me their garden. It’s a difficult place to grow, a coral atoll with no soil, but they’ve managed to coax watermelon, eggplant, tomatoes, bok choy and herbs to life. “What do you use for fertilizer?” I ask and Karina answers “Sharks! We bury them and their bodies feeds the plants.”

Karina is in her early 20s, sassy, confident and strong bodied. Her eyes always flicker with a bit of mischievous play. She loves to fish and make her family laugh. 

The garden rests near their rustic two story house that doesn’t look like it could withstand a cyclone.  20 yards closer to the beach is an outdoor sink and a plastic barrel filled with water that we use to wash dishes. Platters, plates and silverware dry on a long table topped with wire mesh next to the sink. 

Marcelo’s 25 foot long wooden motorboat lives across from the dish station, in front of the house. It’s painted white with a thick red stripe around the top. All colors and features properly faded by the intense tropical sun and worn by constant exposure to salty air.

Marcelo is the concerned and gentle patriarch, looks to be in his 60s with frizzy grey black hair, a button nose and kind glossy round brown eyes. His belly is rounded out, but apparently not from beer, the family doesn’t drink alcohol. Come to find out the government threatened to evict all 20 families from the atoll because of drunk men fighting. One wound up with a spearfishing spear in his arm. 

Right on the beach stands the center of life for the family and their guests. Dried palm fronds woven together provide a wind break and roof for the lean to. On the side protected from the wind lives a camp stove with assorted seasoning and condiment bottles clustered round. Low day beds with faded tropical print cushions lay on either side of the long wood plank table and benches. Big low wooden chairs move where the conversation does. Here we’d have the honor and pleasure of getting to know the family over countless, epic, feasts.

Our immersion in Polynesian hospitality began with the next morning’s breakfast. We drove the dinghy the two minute ride to shore, dragged it up the sand and were greeted by two little black dogs announcing our arrival. We gathered around the set table, our bare feet in the cool sand. Adrienne brought out a plate loaded with fresh fried golden coconut milk doughnuts. Coconut milk that she’d made that morning by grating the flesh and squeezing it through the natural mesh material that grows between the coconut palm fronds.

She passed a bowl of fresh squeezed coconut milk alongside a chestnut brown syrup in a tall glass bottle. It’s coconut honey, Faimano explained. Honey made by bees that feed only on the coconut palm blossoms. I didn’t even know coconut palms had blossoms. I took a straight spoonful—slightly bitter, complex, caramelized, rich. It was a fine fine honey. 

Adrienne poured the honey right into the coconut milk and dipped her doughnut in the elixir, lifting her chin at us to do the same. The doughnuts were soft, with that satisfying chew from a proper yeast rise. Not greasy and barely sweet, making them a perfect candidate for dipping.

Platters of pan-fried reef fish, like mullet and dart, were steaming hot, their flesh slashed to the bone, skin extra crispy. We tore off succulent pieces of white, oily flesh, leaving just fish bones by the end of breakfast.

Coffee drinkers mixed the ubiquitous instant coffee granules with hot water from the kettle. Upon learning that I don’t drink coffee, Marcelo brought me fresh kaffir lime leaves to make an infusion. 

That was just breakfast. On day one.

Eric and I went fishing early the following morning with Marcelo and another cruiser. We motored 10 minutes in a metal skiff with a sputtering outboard to the inside of the pass. After trolling back and forth for a long while we finally found a spot where the reef fish started to bite our hermit crab bait.

For reference, if you want to use a hermit crab as bait, hold its shell between your forefingers, wait til the crab emerges, then pull it from its home, rip off and discard the hard part with the legs and use the soft end meat full of smelly organs. Fish love it.

Sharks got wise too. They arced around our lures then chomped on newly hooked fish, sometimes breaking the line. So we had to be quick. The water was so clear we could see the whole scene, when a fish was approaching the bait we’d ready ourselves to flick the fish into the boat before the sharks descended. Our shiny diamond shaped dart fish would become a delicious breakfast. 

This is how we lived for a few weeks. Fishing, eating, relaxing, eating, laughing. In a mellow easiness that was only interrupted once in a while by our stomachs upset from too much coconut fat.

Early on, Eric asked if the family needed any of his electrical engineering expertise.  They mentioned a light wasn’t working on Marcelo’s wooden boat. Eric came over with all of his tools and wires, he rewired the whole boat over the course of a day. A huge help to folks who live far away from mechanics and electricians. 

In celebration, we helped Adrienne stuff pillowy white uncooked bread dough with barbecue chicken. She steamed the buns and we bit into their glossy softness gleaming in the midday tropical sun.

Most days Morgan, Eric and I would go snorkel the atoll pass. Eric always took his speargun and float to try and catch a dogtooth tuna, a group of them hung out right outside the pass.

Every time Eric speared a fish he was surrounded by twenty to thirty reef sharks. Swirling around him in a sharknado, trying to take the fish from his hands and nipping at his fins. Once he had the fish out of the water, or the sharks had their catch, sharks spun off from the silent ballet in all directions, coming towards me in an aggravated mood. I never got used to that. 

When they were in their calmer state, the reef sharks cruised through the narrow coral gullies, like a high school gang, patrolling their section of the yard. A turtle surprised me once, and I them—it jetted off into the crystal clear distance with a few waves of its flippers. An eagle ray glided over the shallow reef and headed into the deep periwinkle blue beyond. A giant barracuda glinted silver and menacing.

I always felt unsettled out there, exposed to the wide open ocean. But the beauty and spectacle kept me coming back. One early morning, I looked up to the water’s surface after diving down. Each trough of each tiny dimple in the sea sparkled with its own diamond, creating a vast web of exquisite undulations.

We’d head to dinner with stories from the pass—fish stories or reasons-why-there-wasn’t-a-fish stories.  We started bringing the boom box and traded off dj duties between us and the sisters. The table was always set with a drinking coconut for each person atop a glossy green leaf. It was usually just Zephyr and our hosts, but sometimes there’d be other cruisers too. All were welcome.  A dinner spread would include poisson cru (Tahitian or Chinese style), grilled or pan-fried fish, steamed or curried coconut crab, garlicky land crabs, rice, fresh heart of palm salad, plus whatever sashimi or dish we’d bring.  

To be in a remote place and to eat like this with such loving company felt special, every time. And we tried to always surprise each other with new dishes and treats. It was a never ending, delicious battle.

Adrienne made the most perfect dessert one night—chilled fresh fruit cocktail with two kinds of papaya, pamplemousse, banana and a bit of sugar with a splash of rum. It was the perfect cool balance of tart and sweet, a dream. I almost cried from the pleasure. From the honor. She shared her limited supply of home grown, perfectly ripe fruit with us. Other nights she brought out a cool, crisp watermelon from the garden. We found out the girls adored chocolate so we brought a different fresh baked chocolate cake, brownie or plate of cookies each night. Their eyes widened with glee and it was satisfying to see them content.

After breakfast one day, Faimano and I walked across the skinny atoll to the beach that faces the open ocean. She offered to show me where a monohull sailboat had wrecked on the reef a month ago.

We felt a growing friendship between us—we recognized in each other our appreciation for the natural world, for languages (we spoke Spanish together), for silliness and for quiet.

She told me stories of her home as we walked through the coconut groves. How migratory birds nest here and they sometimes harvest their rich eggs. How the wrecked sailboat was captained by a friend who fell asleep.  The de-masted hull sat askew on the reef, waves crashing around it, surprised, as if it were a whale that thought it could walk on land for the day.

Without speaking, we both understood that we’d walk along the beach, both collecting what we wished. The dogs followed along, gingerly bounding through the sharp coral and exposed reef.

Faimano found a two by four with nails in it, a jerry can, tamanu fruits (for infusing in skincare oil), and shells. I offered to help her carry her finds, admiring her eye for things that’d be useful back home. Things the universe washed up just for her on this remote atoll. I kept some bits of branching coral and delicate shells. She rested the wood beam across her broad shoulders, her relaxed arms bent at the elbows with her hands over the top of the beam. As natural and at peace as could be.

Our chill was only momentarily broken when a lone older sailor came walking toward us from afar. He’d made inappropriate jokes at mealtime and sat a little too close, trying to flirt with the sisters. He started to talk to us on the beach and we both gave one word answers and continued on our way, never breaking stride. Both recognizing that neither of us wanted to give him any of our good energy.

After the family found out that we loved crabs and lobster, the sisters went hunting. We walked the few minutes from their home to watch dinner plate sized coconut crabs climb over fallen palm fronds in the coconut groves.  Faimano explained they leave the fronds instead of clearing them so the coconut crabs have a better habitat. This method worked to great success, we feasted on coconut crabs often, like royalty.

But of all the dishes we ate, Faimano’s coconut curried reef lobster was the standout for me. At low tide, the sisters went to the reef facing the ocean to grab the lightning fast lobsters with their hands. Faimano split the lobsters lengthwise and steamed them in a pan with a bit of water, garlic and soy sauce. She let them finish cooking in a fresh squeezed coconut milk curry sauce. Gently spiced and luxurious with the sweet succulent lobster flesh. Masterful.

One morning, we heard reports from other cruisers that humpback whales were hanging out just outside the pass. We scooted the dinghy into the open sea, luckily it was a calm, sunny day. We were ready with snorkels and fins to see if we could swim with the giants. After an hour searching and listening underwater for their calls, Eric asked if I wanted to try driving. Sure thing. 

I headed along the outer reef at a good pace then all of a sudden, without warning, a massive humpback breached 50 yards in front of us. My heart stopped. The whale filled my entire field of vision. Time stopped. I saw all the white, foamy water running like rivers off it’s wrinkled belly, it’s pectoral fins out to each side accentuating this exuberant leap. Time began again, the whale crashed into the sea, geysers of water shooting up from its massive heft. Morgan and I screamed with fear and awe. Eric wanted to get closer, I handed over the reins, shaking. I realized then that the world is more than enough for me, to be loved and to love it back.

We followed along with the three whales and our new cruiser friends from the Netherlands, Hans and Roos. A young couple with a fun, striped cat named Bo aboard. No one got in to swim with the whales, we gave them a respectful distance.

That night the family made a special feast. When we arrived, Marcelo was at the grill, a cut in half lengthwise metal barrel with a screen on top. He jostled burning coconut husks around to increase the heat. Marcelo beckoned me over to check out his next trick, a super hot black volcanic stone on the grate. Adrienne poured fresh coconut milk into a bowl, then watched as Marcelo placed the hot rock into the milk. It steamed and sputtered, and caramelized the natural sugars in the milk. Adrienne dipped her finger in every 30 seconds or so to monitor the cooking and then she and Marcelo agreed it was done, so he removed the stone.

We dunked chunks of whole roasted breadfruit into the sweet, smokey caramelized milk. The warm, starchy nuggets soaked up the sauce like a sponge. I love breadfruit. It is an important staple in Polynesia, breadfruit leaves and fruit designs adorn stained glass windows in churches and are carved alongside baby Jesus and the Virgin. Breadfruit fruit looks like a neon yellow green nerf ball, with pebbled skin, the size of a couple grapefruits. When roasted whole, it is slightly sweet, like a cross between a new potato and a sweet potato. 

We cozied up around a bursting table, full of heaping plates of steamed white rice, bowls of grated heart of palm and raw orange-fleshed squash salad, fresh drinking coconuts, curried coconut crab in coconut milk, plates piled high with coconut milk doughnuts, tuna sashimi made by Eric, curried coconut milk clams from Karina and dogfish tuna fish pate. We’d told the family we were leaving the atoll for Tonga soon, so the feasts became an ever more dazzling and surreal experience.

I danced a few steps from the jovial table to the calmer beach alongside kind waves. Under the full moon, hermit crabs scuttled in halting, mysterious paths. I sat down in the cool sand to breathe, a respite after the feeding frenzy. Faimano, then Karina and Adrienne joined me. I started doing a few mellow yoga stretches, then they wanted to learn too so we circled up under the stars, bossa nova in the background and stretched and laughed. In French, Tahitian, English and Spanish. Adrienne let her hair down for the first time, the breeze wafted the roasted coconut scent from the copra drying nearby. Their little black puppy played with us in the sand. Flopping against my thigh with her soft, silky coat.

One afternoon, Faimano offered to help me make a bracelet with black pearls gifted to me in Apataki. Her wrists were already adorned with woven waxed brown string interspersed with shells. Delicate and strong. We sat in the shade, she concentrated on knitting the string around itself.

She told me she loves to windsurf, anytime sailors come with a board and sail she asks to use it. Her dad is always terrified of her getting hurt doing the sport, but she goes anyhow.

I ask if she is happy here, if it’s hard being isolated from friends who live far away. She says she is happy here, especially now that her sister came back to live here a few years ago. They sometimes take a break from making copra and go camping on the far side of the atoll. They hunt coconut crabs and build bonfires. “You should come!” she invited enthusiastically, with her signature twinkly eyes.

The next afternoon we dinghyed over to the far side of the atoll. Karina and Faimano putt-putted behind us in their metal dinghy, one person always bailing out water.

Hans and Roos were kite surfing on the far side, Roos was taking her turn kiting while Hans followed alongside in their dinghy, its motor cover painted in thick bands of red, white and blue for the Netherlands flag. Roos’ freckled high cheekbones raised even higher into a smile when we passed by. Her athletic legs flexed under the pressure of sliding a board over the wind chop. She sped along the turquoise water, her kite full, wind in her curly red hair.

We rolled the dinghy up the white sand beach and began to walk. This part of the atoll is completely wild, there are no lean tos or houses, and the multi-tufted pandanus trees, like skinny white barked Cerberuses, clustered together to form an atoll forest. Underneath the trees, atop the coral sand, blue footed booby birds nested. Lucky us, this was the season for booby babies. Milk carton sized snowy white feathered baby birds looked at us with a mix of embarrassment and incredulity. As if they expected no one to ever see them in this phase of life, let alone strange mammals. 

Faimano took a left turn from the shore and we followed her into the forest. Hans and Roos joined in too. We spotted a nest of eggs and went to peer at it. Queue Jurassic Park music because one of the eggs began to hatch before our eyes. Of course this process for such a small creature can take a long time, and we had coconut crabs to hunt. Off we went.

“How do we find the crabs?” we asked Faimano, as we surveyed the forest floor full of dry serrated edged fronds from those tufted trees. “Look for shredded coconut husks,” she directed. The crabs can break through a coconut with their claws, but they have to meticulously shred through the fibrous outer husk first. 

We fanned out in the surreal dappled shade, strange birds called out like velociraptors above us, a bit ominously. A few coconut palms appeared, mixed into the forest. Faimano showed us under a tree root where a blue shell coconut crab lived, but she could see it was still too small to eat. A few minutes later we began to gather round her, she found another den, this time with a big crab inside.

These crabs can Faimano put her bare hand and arm up to her shoulder, into a dark hole. Full of a giant coconut crab. She had a peaceful smile on her face, the one she usually has. She patiently tucked and folded the crab’s legs, over the course of 20 minutes until finally she could pull the crab out of its hole. It was a magnificent success, we all applauded, amazed. Karina handed her a length of twine and Faimano easily bound up the resigned crab for safe transit.

She inspired a hunting zeal, we all understood now what a den looked like. We yelped if we saw a coconut crab and Faimano would come over to investigate, letting us know no we can’t take that one, it’s female, or no that one is too small. Eric and Karina were stung by wasps. Another coconut crab was caught. It was a good, sweaty hunt.

We exited the forest through thick shrubs onto the outer side of the atoll, facing open ocean. The late afternoon light meant it was time to walk back towards the dinghys and head home.

On the way, Karina and Faimano stopped to lay out a long fishing net with floats along the top edge and weights along the bottom. They’d spotted a brilliant school of technicolor parrotfish in the shallows.

The sisters worked together to herd the fish into the net, and all of a sudden Karina made a surprise belly flop to scare the fish into their doom. She flopped and laughed at the same time, Faimano joined in peals of laughter. They’d succeeded just barely in keeping the fish from escaping.

Of course, reef sharks arrived on the scene and started picking off fish through the net. Karina lunged at them with a machete yelling “Shitty sharks!” in her thick island accented English. We all laughed, shitty sharks is her catch phrase, said with no fear, as if the sharks are just harmless street dogs.

Faimano and Karina waded back to shore together, each holding half of the wadded up blue net studded with wet, gleaming fish. Their toasted brown skin glowed in the late sunrays, Karina’s long curly black hair in its full salt water mane glory. They appeared whole, as they truly are, island huntress queens. 

They dropped their net to the beach and unrolled it, piling 18 gasping fish into our insulated cool bag. Faimano explained they are both still learning this fishing technique and admitted they almost blew it. Their brother Hio, she said admiringly, is an expert, and can toss the net casually, no belly flop required. 

Eric, meanwhile, chucked rocks at crabs to kill them, always keen to provide food for the table. However, Faimano’s method of spearing them with her machete tip gleaned more appetizing results.

We rode back through choppy seas under a glowing sunset, clouds lit rose and orange. Content with our day full of surprise, potential injury, fresh meat and camaraderie.

Adrienne and Marcelo were tired when we arrived for dinner, we should’ve been back earlier and they looked like they’d been worrying about their daughters. After a supper of fresh mullet poisson cru with shredded green papaya we rested on the day beds. This was our last night together, the weather was good to set sail for Tonga. 

Faimano brought out her guitar and French song book. She played softly, her sister and mom laid like tired puppies alongside her, and sang when they felt like it. Marcelo and his heft took up a bed and his snores joined the chorus now and again. I sat next to Faimano, then laid down next to her too, enjoying the cool breeze and sisterhood. Eric and Morgan fell asleep on the dinner benches together, I put a blanket over them because it was getting chilly. After a time of coziness we returned to Zephyr.

We arrived on a sunny morning for our last breakfast together. As Eric walked up the beach Adrienne greeted him with jewelry she’d made him, a large black pearl necklace adorned with shark vertebrae and beads, and a matching black pearl bracelet. Morgan helped him clasp the necklace, worn close to his neck, he looked like a king.

She presented Morgan and I with gorgeous earrings she made from purple sea urchin spins, tiny shark vertebra and beads. They were stylish and lightweight, she beamed, radiant to see how much we loved her gift.

Since we had stayed a couple weeks longer than we had provisioned for, we were out of fresh produce. Marcelo and the sisters beckoned us to the counter next to the dining table, it was full of fresh foods for Zephyr: orange squash, a giant heart of palm, a cooked coconut crab, green papayas, bok choy, coconuts, fresh coconut bread and coconut doughnuts. We’d continue to eat like royalty even after we were hundreds of miles away from Maupihaa.

We gave them our humble gifts: books, three pounds of chocolate, soy sauce, crispy seaweed snacks, nail polish and recipes. I gave Faimano shells from Mexico that she could use to make jewelry. Eric hatched a secret plan to return to Maupihaa next season to bring Marcelo a navigation unit for his boat.

Adrienne handed us the thick guestbook, chock full of cruiser photos, drawings, flags, stickers and embroidery. Like us, many sailors were grateful and astounded by this family’s genuine, boundless, warm hospitality. After asking for input from Eric and Morgan, I’d written an entry that we all took turns transcribing pieces of into the book:

Dearest Adrienne, Marcelo, Faimano and Karina,
Thank you for giving us a life changing experience.  We voyage the oceans searching for moments like those we’ve shared with you.  Your generous, self sufficient, close to nature way of life opened our minds to how we’d like to live someday. With a garden and wildlands so bountiful that we could always invite everyone to dinner. 
Thank you for welcoming us into your home and daily life, for sharing information about your farm, your sea and your culture. You’ve helped us fulfill dreams we’ve had for a long time—to spear a dogfish tuna and to catch a coconut crab!
Faimano and Karina—it was awesome to watch you hunt, fish and play together, to see your fearless and joyful sisterhood in action. Adrienne—your kindness, work ethic and connection to natural rhythms shines through in you and your daughters. Marcelo—your supportive and educational spirit creates a safe and comfortable environment for your family to grow and explore together.  You are all role models and we will think of you always as examples of how to live fully. 
Thank you for sharing your favorite recipes with us—curried lobster, brûléed coconut milk with a lava rock, firifiri! We had so much fun sharing our recipes with you too—making breakfast crepes, sushi and a Mexican fiesta.  We feel a true friendship with you and are grateful to have new friends as sweet, happy and kind as you all. 
Sending you hugs and kisses from wherever we are in the oceans! We hope to laugh and share stories with you all again someday.

After adorning our entry with the final heart sticker (yes, I travel with stickers), we were all quiet and looked at eachother with tears in our eyes. Rain began to fall from nowhere, it was time to go.

We all hugged and when I looked into Adrienne’s eyes they were shining and happy like mine. We both silently expressed our mutual love for eachother and the knowledge that goodbyes are part of life.

We lifted anchor and motored away. Adrienne, Faimano and Karina started doing exaggerated yoga poses on the beach and Morgan and I responded with our own high kicks and dance moves. We echoed eachother until we were spent and waved our last waves as we headed out into the open sea.

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