Travel: Desert island risks

Laid up on an atoll in a remote part of the Pacific, Cleo Paskal is soothed and scared by a tale of the deep

This is not my story. It belongs to Winnie Powell, the indomitable medicine woman of Butaritari. It belongs to her and to her island, which is not really an island but an atoll in the central Pacific. Butaritari belongs to a country no one has ever heard of called Kiribati. It is a real country and this is a real story.

I know it only because I got sick. I went to visit Winnie on Butaritari and within 36 hours was curled up on a pandanus mat, shivering with fever and suffering from what Winnie knowingly called "the flu with a touch of 'epatitis".

Winnie insisted I eat. She offered me the full range of local dishes: bananas, fish, pawpaw, coconut and swamp taro. That was it. The full range. Oh, granted there is a world of difference between roasted swamp taro and grated swamp taro but being deathly ill allows you certain privileges, and it gets to the point where you grab those privileges by the throat and scream into their collective face, "NO MORE SWAMP TARO OR I WILL PUKE."

And that was when Winnie told me this story. It starts, as all good stories do, once upon a time, not so very long ago...

The dolphins and the humans lived in separate but equal worlds. The dolphins kept watch over the sea and the humans oversaw the land. There was mutual respect and liking but they rarely saw each other socially. In fact, there were only two families on Butaritari who had the knowledge to Call The Dolphins.

Calling the dolphins was difficult and dangerous, and undertaken only in times of hunger. When the Caller was asleep, she (or he) guided her dreams towards the land of the dolphins. There, unhindered by physical considerations such as incompatible vocal chords, she could speak to them directly.

The Caller of dolphins was invariably well received. The dolphins loved company. Once the introductory pleasantries were over, the Caller would state the real reason for the visit. "I have been sent to invite the dolphins to a dance in our lagoon. Can you come?"

That always thrilled the dolphins. "Oh yes! Yes, of course, we would be happy to come!" Invitation delivered and accepted, the Caller then politely excused herself and quietly faded back into consciousness.

The next day, just before high tide, the whole village went down to the lagoon and watched the sea channel expectantly. Soon the dolphins started to arrive. The teenagers and young adults of the village took off their clothes and hung them on trees. Then they dove into the lagoon and paired off with the dolphins. The humans murmured sweet nothings while gently holding on to their hosts. As parents and siblings watched from the shore, singing and dancing encouragingly, the human/ dolphin couples frolicked in the crystal aquamarine waters. Occasionally, a mischievously adventurous pair even went out into the darker blue waters of the open sea, returning hours later.

Eventually, the tide faltered and the time came to end the dance. The dolphins knew what to do next. One by one they beached themselves, always in the same spot and always facing the same direction. The swimmers quietly got their clothes from the trees and stood watching. Emotions crackled in the air. Sorrow, pain, gratitude, love and, darting about like an embarrassed streaker, hunger.

Some of the stronger men picked up the hatchets that had been lying on the cool grass since the morning and, caressing the lean and still wet dolphins with one hand, hacked them to death with the other. As soon as each animal beached, it was butchered. The meat was then quickly and equitably distributed throughout the island.

Everyone got a piece. Everyone except the Caller of dolphins. She had known the dolphins as friends; she had spoken with them. It was unacceptable, therefore, for her to eat them.

She also paid another price. The Caller of the dolphins always died young and, when she died, she was not buried on the island. Just off the coast of Butaritari there was a dark blot on the turquoise ocean, a bottomless hole in the sea floor that people believed led down into the home of the dolphins. The body of the Caller was brought to this spot and placed in the water. Other bodies would have just floated away, but hers sank down, down, reuniting her again and for ever with the dolphins, who were always happy to have company.

That sacrifice - dying young, being separated from her family for ever - the Caller of the dolphins was willing to make for the honour of being able to provide food for her hungry island.

And that was the end of Winnie's story.

She looked rather pointedly at the now cold dish of roasted swamp taro.

"Boy," I said, "that swamp taro sure looks good." Brushing away the flies that were not already embedded and struggling in the beige mass, I started munching away dutifully.

And Winnie smiled.

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