You Can Go Back
The main village in the Swallows is on a very small island, adjacent to a string of longer ones of which none is more than a mile wide. With terrible regularity, cyclones batter the group, creating storm surges that sweep the islands from shore to shore. Yet somehow these people survive and thrive.
I sent word into Chief Augustine that we'd be coming in to pay our respects. I'd meant the message for him personally, but when we arrived in the village center, the entire population was gathered. We introduced ourselves to the crowd and explained why we'd come.
As custom demands, I handed out a pile of rolling papers, then passed around a pouch of fine French tobacco. Based on the big smiles, these gifts were apparently a nice treat. In return, I was offered a jam jar of naturally fermented coconut beer. The fluid was thick and sweet, but after only three swigs I could feel its heady potency.
We agreed that four men would join me aboard Roger Henry for a day of diving on the outer reef. With obvious pride, several people told me that Robert was their champion free diver. The word "contest" wasn't used, but make no mistake: These divers take the measure of a man.
In the morning, Robert, Douglas, a silent elderly man, and a teenage boy hopped on board. Each carried with him some straightened pieces of rusty steel wire to use as spears and a strap of rubber tied to a stick as a sling. For food, they brought a bag of dried breadfruit segments, nali nuts, and-of course-a brace of coconuts. The men of the Swallow Islands proved to be naturals on and in the water. They immediately grasped the workings of our yacht, including its tiller, three sails, and innumerable lines. They also dove with the ease and skill of Polynesians. Within a couple of hours they'd filled two buckets with what small fish remained on the overstressed reef.
Whatever respect I had gained with my deep diving was lost when I refrained from murdering a large, lovely, and rare Maori wrasse. The locals just couldn't understand. At 50 pounds, it could have fed their village.
All was forgiven when I brought out a chart that located the richer fishing grounds of the offshore reefs and shoals. I listed distances, compass courses, and reciprocals for them. They clearly understood it all and overlaid my numbers with their knowledge of local currents.