Satawal: Learning the Ropes in Paradise

Satawal: Learning the Ropes in Paradise

Silhouette in the evening sky, the “Isatis” sailed away in the distance.

And there I was, in a canoe with a handsome young man steering me toward the Satawal shore.

Filled with a mixture of excitement and awe, I shifted the potted plant I carried on my lap. What a sight I must have been to the welcoming committee on the beach!

With my supply of clothes, food and gifts wrapped in plastic bags, I came prepared to live for a few days with my newly adopted Satawalese family.

As the sailboat slipped out of sight, a touch of melancholy surfaces. What if they never returned? Fighting a feeling I’m sure is all too familiar to the women of this seafaring island, I turned my attention to the shore.

It looked like the entire population of children were gathered on the beach awaiting my arrival. A scream of joy rang out from the crowd when my young sailor positioned the canoe to catch a wave and surf it in.

Once on shore I was enveloped in a sea of little bodies, faces beaming and eyes flashing. One young girl took my hand and led me toward the village. How much of this attention could I take?

Showered with so much warmth and affection, I felt like a queen returning to her home after a long absence.

Arriving at the house, one of the few concrete structures on the island, I was ushered into a room with a slick linoleum floor. Odd for island home, I thought, but it sure did feel good – especially after finding myself perched on everything from logs to coconuts to tin cans and rocks.

After presenting Anna, the matriarch of the family, with the plant I was led outside to the cooking area, only to pull up a coconut and sit down. Thoughts of discomfort were quickly pushed aside as a meal of breadfruit, octopus and fish were put in front of me.

Feeling like someone out of the Swiss Family Robinson, I ate heartily while Manuelina, my Satawalese sister, held a flashlight for me to see.

There are three things that occupy the majority of the islanders’ time: Eating, bathing and going to Mass. Having done the first, it was time to bathe. I was led to a water catchment and stood by ignorantly as Manuelina searched for something. She finally came up with a hose to siphon out the water for a shower.

There is nothing like a good rainwater shower after a few days at sea. Rinsing off the dirt and grime as well as a few of my western trappings, I put on my lavalava (woven skirt). No top. I figured when in Satawal, do as the Satawalese do.

A little self-consciously I walked back to the house where it was decided that I should sleep in the main room with Anna and Luguto and the rest of the family.

They had prepared an air mattress for me to sleep on instead of the woven mats they slept on. I would have much preferred the mat but not wanting to appear insensitive to their hospitality I accepted the mattress.

Being something of a novelty, I sensed that this was no ordinary evening. A radio blaring Guam’s KUAM radio station’s Chamorro hour was the background for the bedtime conversation. Surveying the scene before drifting off to sleep, I found myself surrounded by about 15 people of all ages, lying in a variety of positions on mats on the floor. Wall-to-wall bodies. Feeling the closeness of the family and the warmth they projected I felt extremely comfortable and soon closed my eyes.


Roused from sleep by a church bell I opened my eyes and looked around, no one moved. The bell rang three more times before anyone moved. Then it was a slow progression until everyone was up.

Manuelina, who spoke a bit of English, indicated it was time for Mass. I followed, wiping the sleep from my eyes. The church, just a stone’s throw away from the house, was a large tin structure. The congregation, which was mostly female, sat on the floor with children gathered around. Led by a young woman, the service was a unique experience. Visions of Spanish missionaries came to mind. The service spoken in Satawalese was harmonic.

Having not learned the finer art of sitting or the floor in a lavalava, I squirmed and twisted trying to make sure that my thighs were not showing. I understand that showing your thighs in Yap is similar to baring your breast, in New York City. After returning to the house for a breakfast of eggs, breadfruit and coffee, we were off to the taro patch. The mystical taro patch – I had always heard about the taro patch and had wondered what went on there.

Sure that I would learn some untold truth, I packed my camera, tape recorder, notebook and pencils. I was going to get it all down for posterity.

Manuelina suggested a tee shirt for the mosquitoes and I eagerly complied.

With bag in hand, we set out. It wasn’t too long before Casimira, another Satawalese sister, took the cumbersome bag despite my half-hearted objections. Even though Satawal is only about a mile-and a-half long by a half-mile wide, the winding walk was longer than I had imagined and I was grateful to be rid of it.

The hike to the taro patch was an enjoyable experience. With the early morning sun, the jungle took on a golden hue. Along the way, the girls stopped and picked plants and flowers. The plants were for fertilizer, the flowers for our hair. What a wonderful life! Seemingly so uncomplicated, I found myself singing. Taking the cue, Manuelina and Casimira began singing. Soon we were trading songs – all the way to the taro patch.

Upon seeing the taro patch, I was mesmerized. It seemed to stretch on forever. The taro leaves shone amber. Overcome by the beauty of it all, I ceased my seemingly endless barrage of questions.

Walking on in silence, we made our way to the section of the patch that Anna and Luguto’s clan were responsible for.

Meeting other taro dwellers, early morning amenities were exchanged. I elicited more than one laugh from passers-by with my awkward gait. Shedding my footwear, after rescuing them once too many times from the zorie swallowing mud, I continued on barefoot as well as more sure of foot.

Reaching our section, we took a break and sat down. After a short breather Casimira gathered up a fallen palm frond and began weaving a basket to carry the harvested taro in. Meanwhile, Manuelina headed into the patch. I decided to follow and immediately found myself up to my calves in mud.

Feeling a little foolish, I looked to my sisters for guidance, the moment turned comical as they tried to explain the finer art of taro patch walking. With my non-existent Satawalese and their smattering of English we soon gave in to fits of laughter, which did nothing but push me deeper into the ooze. Eventually I freed myself from the gooey mess and made my way over to Manuelina, to the amusement of both sisters. Trying not to appear too ignorant I followed her lead and began to weed out the smaller plants from the base of the main taro plant.

After a few moments, Casimira joined us. She picked some mint leaves and fashioned a mwarmwar out of it and placed it on my head. I demonstrated how to eat mint leaves, which I’m not so sure was the thing to do, but at least they’ll remember me, after all, I’m sure not too many visitors eat their mwarmwars.

Getting back to the task at hand, I muddled through the muck, grabbing all the little weeds I could. My enthusiasm soon waned as the sun rose higher in the sky. Straightening up, I marveled at the stamina of the women. Hunched over a row of taro, with their hands in the mud, they still managed to smile and joke with one another. By comparison, I headed toward the shade, lightheaded and near exhaustion.

Manuelina, noting my spent condition, suggested we sing. She sang me a song in Satawalese and in return wanted me to sing a song in Chamorro. My Chamorro being what it is the only song I felt comfortable singing was the Guam hymn.

So there I was, sitting under a tree in a taro patch on a beautiful Friday morning in Satawal singing the Guam hymn.

As the morning progressed, I realized there was no way I could keep up with the girls so I retired to my little shady spot and observed.

Shortly, the sun became too much for them and they joined me in the shade. Casimira continued weaving her basket and Manuelina cleaned up the taro she had collected. Periodically, someone would pass our way on their way to their own little section of the patch. While exchanging a few words with my companions they usually would direct an amused smile my way.

The throaty call of the triton shell signaled it was time to stop work. With the same leisurely pace that we started out with, we headed back to the house. Detouring from the path we had come on, I was led to a freshwater spring. Peeling off my sweaty T-shirt, I gladly drenched myself with a bucketful of water. Feeling clean and refreshed, we headed back into the village.

After relaxing a bit, Manuelina suggested it was a good time to wash the clothes I had brought from the boat.

Walking past the dispensary, she mentioned that a woman had just given birth. We took a peek a the new baby. A relative smiled back and muttered a greeting. The infant was fast asleep in a woven cradle suspended from the ceiling.

Arriving at the same water catchment I had showered at the day before, we filled a large metal basin and began scrubbing. Although the work went twice as fast with two of us working, I reflected on the clothes I was washing. In a gentle climate, I really didn’t need my Calvin Klein jeans.


Today was the day for collecting breadfruit so after breakfast we set off. The day seemed far more festive than the previous days and I wondered if it was because it was the weekend.

Our contingent of females ranged from children to grandmothers, as we made our way down a jungle path to the tree where a male member of the village waited high in the limbs.

Almost as soon as we arrived the breadfruit started falling. I never saw the young man shimmy up the tree, but there he was pole in hand, setting that breadfruit flying.

The women waited beneath the limbs and collected one breadfruit after another. The women made a game of it, pointing out a much larger and better fruit for the young man to get, laughing all the while.

Meanwhile, the younger girls were weaving the baskets to carry the breadfruit home in while the children ran off to collect flowers for mwarmwars. I learned from Manuelina that all the women were from the same village but they had “borrowed” the young man from another village because all the men from their village had gone fishing.

They collected all the breadfruit in a pile and then doled it out to each family, as was the custom. It looked like there was enough breadfruit to last the whole village a week to me. I was told they would have to collect some again in a few days.

Returning to the house after stopping off at a few other trees the women gathered around the outdoor oven, where the older women had stayed and prepared a lunch of breadfruit and chicken.

Mostly everyone sat around doing various tasks needed to prepare the evening meal. One person pounded breadfruit, another grated coconut.

I even got into the act and grated a few coconuts. But you could always tell mine. I had the most brown shavings in my bowl. They had it perfected it so they rarely ever scrapped the shell.

And of course we had to sing. So I taught them the children’s song about grating coconut…”kamyo, kamyo, kamyo niyok.” They translated it into Satawalese and we all laughed about that.

But Saturday seemed to be a time for fun so the girls agreed to try to teach me to do a traditional dance. It looked easy enough but I soon learned that it takes a lot of coordination to get the slaps and stamps just right.

Their dancing is similar to a march, it is various combinations of slapping hands to thighs, feet and other parts of the body while also doing a sort of marching step and stamping your feet. Doing this and swinging the hips and turning a quarter turn every so often. Needless to say, I got lost and decided to exaggerate my movements believing that would somehow help. It ended up with me looking like I was flapping my wings and stomping my feet. The group broke up laughing hysterically and as soon as I realized it, I did too. I laughed so hard tears came down my face and the harder I laughed, the more they did. We laughed for quite a while and then were too tired to continue. My dance lesson ended there.

All the excitement tired me and when a young girl grabbed my hand and led me to the house I gladly obliged. Laying down on a mat, I was surrounded by children. One young slip of a girl, Endrina, took my hand and began to clean my fingernails using a small piece of coconut fiber. Another took my feet. I lay in total submission. Waking from my short nap I was suddenly inspired to try my hand at weaving the beautiful mwarmwars the islanders wore.

Endrina and her little friend eagerly led me into the jungle assuring me in their broken English that we were headed for the best spot for flowers. When ever Endrina would see a flower along the way she’d shout “Jillette! Flower!” and I’d quickly pick it.

Her little friend never quite got the correct translation and would say “Hey, what’s your name!” when she wanted me to pick a flower. Endrina, pointing to a flower I couldn’t see and eager for me to pick it, halting English, “Look, Jillette, look, the flower in the sky.” My heart melted.

Returning with our cache we dumped them into a big bowl of water to keep them moist and went off to find some fiber to weave them with.


The mwarmwars are woven with three sections, I was surprised at how fast I picked up the weaving but discouraged at my slow progress. The other girls had completed two to my partial mwarmwar. By the time I finished, the flowers at the beginning were dead.

While I was cleaning up the mess I made, some of the men returned from fishing. Richard, who was married to Manuelina, said they had sighted a sailboat in the distance. Seeing my face light up, he quickly added that it was not the “Isatis” because this boat had blue sails. He suggested I go down to the beach and welcome the sailors. I eagerly complied. With a band of children in tow, I made my way to the beach. I spotted a sail but it was too far away to recognize. I sat on the beach and contemplated the likelihood of two sailboats arriving on the same tiny island in the same week. It certainly seemed unlikely. Earlier I had asked Luguto if Satawal received many visitors on sailboats. His reply was “Oh yes, we had one just leave – last year.” Deciding to wait and see I made my way back to the house. I’d soon find out who it was.

Returning to the outdoor kitchen I ate a delicious meal of fish, taro and breadfruit. My mind was working overtime trying to predict who was on the boat. I hoped it was the “Isatis.” I had so much to tell Mark and Jean. But Manuelina assured me that it was much too early after all, they had just talked to them on the radio that morning.

I helped Manuelina clean up and was washing my hands when a little boy ran up and said “It’s them, and they’ve got twelve turtles!” I rushed to the room to put on my wrap…I was still a little self conscious in front of them. Returning to the front of the house I was met by Jean and Mark.

They had caught thirteen turtles and brought back twelve. They had eaten one while they were on Pig Island. .

Eager to share our tales with each other we headed out to the boat in the dingy. Looking back at the group on the beach with their torches and flashlights silhouetting their forms… a calm came over me. I turned and look toward the boat realizing I was truly a fortunate person.

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