Get ready for an amazing three weeks vacation in the Tuamotu archipelago and, more precisely, on the Atoll of Ahe in order to visit some old friends of mine.
As we are on our way with my father and two younger brothers, we keep thinking about the moment we will be able to take a sunbath and test the temperature of the ocean, it’s the only thing we have in mind. As soon as we arrive at the local airport of Ahe, we can feel the overwhelming heat. We rush towards the exit only to be warmly welcomed by Philippa (as he likes to be called) and Georges, my father’s friend. It’s crazy how quickly you can change of scenery, everything is so different from Tahiti right here. After a few greetings and a typical welcome from the so-called “Tuam’s”, we are heading to the car… Wait a second, where is the road? Where are the cars? Oh sure, it turns out that there is only one road on the atoll and it does not lead to our destination, it would have been too easy. Philippa, Georges’ worker, points a small boat located not far from here. Well, we will set sail then! Nothing better than starting your holiday off with wind in your hair, contemplating the coconut trees as you glide the blue crystal lagoon…true paradise on earth!
After having comfortably settled, we seize the opportunity to jump in our natural turquoise pool. The sun is shining, plenty of fish are swimming around and we can even spot some black-tip reef sharks away. I’m living my best life, indulging myself, taking some time to rest and to get a tan.
I enjoy every minute of it because I know that tomorrow we have a lot of work ahead of us as we will learn how to make copra.
The copra cultivation is deply rooted in the Polynesian culture; it is a real tradition, some would even say a way of life. The copra represents a huge part of the local economy, especially here in the Tuamotu archipelago, which concentrates about 65% of the total production. In order to obtain it, you have to remove the pulp of the coconut and to air dry it outside, under the sun. Then you need to squeeze it all so as to acquire the famous coconut oil. This traditional method has been used since the 19th century in French Polynesia and even though you can obviously find thousands of coconut trees in other islands, the atolls generally offer better conditions regarding its cultivation, especially as it enjoys a warm and dry climate. In these secluded islands, which happen to be quite forsaken by the tourism industry, the production of copra and pearl farming turn out to be the main sources of income of the inhabitants.
It is 5:30 am, rise and shine ! No alarm needed when you are surrounded by roosters crowing and dogs barking. There is no Netflix and Chill here… In Ahe, people do not have access to electricity or running water Philippa had to you come and pick us up with his flashlight for breakfast. Why shall we have to wake up that early? Because the sooner we start, the sooner we finish. Besides, it is almost impossible to work at noon, under the sun.
After breakfast, we are heading towards the backyard, by the sea, where it all begins. Accompanied by my father and Georges, Philippa gathers the coconuts he had been collecting the day before and then splits it in two with a machete. Once he has cut more than a hundred coconuts in half, we turn them upside down arranged in columns so as to let it dry for one day or two and soften the pulp.
One more check.. Umm seems like the pulp of the coconut is ready to be extracted. This step appears to be the roughest and the more laborious as it requires a lot of strength and an undeniable dexterity. Don’t even think about your manicure…say hello to blisters and blackened nails. Nevermind, you will be proud of yourself at the end of the day! Sitting on my little stool with my sharp blade in hand, I grab the coconuts one by one and remove the flesh, listening to Philippa’s advices. It took me at least 10 minutes to remove the pulp of my first coconut while it took Philippa just a few seconds… no comment please. Meanwhile, my father collects the coconut pulps and puts it in a flat area to let it dry under the sun. Be careful, two days, no more, the idea is not to let it dry completely otherwise the pulp will go mouldy and attract insects, parasites, birds and other rodents. The flesh will be of poor quality, which will lead to a brownish coconut oil. Guess what, if it’s raining, you will have to run, oh yes run… in order to gather the copra and protect it from humidity (the property is huge; I know you can picture me going crazy). And when the sun comes back, you have to do it all over again.
Once the copra is dry enough to Georges’ liking, we put it in hessian bags, which may wheigh up to 85kgs and place the cargo in the ship si as to be delivered to the oil factory of Tahiti. Established in 1968, the latter buys all the harvest of the coconut growers in order to carry out the transformation into raw oil. More than 95% of the production is intended to be exported worldwide, either as the famous “Monoi de Tahiti” or for alimentary use. Coconut oil happens to have several benefits and can be used under various ways forms.
Once we have loaded all the bags, we breathe a sigh of relief. And this is how this rough week comes to an end. I am very proud of this first experience in the copra industry and I admire even more the strength and courage of all the copra growers.