Aop Beach, the regular Sunday hangout. Horned Helmet Shells can occasionally be found outside the coral to the right. ©S. Combs 1987.
. . . It was showering when we got up this morning, but by 1000 the sun was shining, so we got organized and rode our bikes down for our regular Sunday beach picnic. It was quite windy, as it tends to get towards mid-morning in the winter here (trade winds or something from the east). Because it was so windy, I wasn't too hot on going into the water, but after an hour-and-a-half or so, I just couldn't resist just a short dip. The visibility wasn't all that hot because of the waves stirring things up, and all of the fish were hiding behind rocks from the waves, but I saw a turtle right off. I tried to swim with him, but he wasn't having any of it and took off. I can't blame him, as I've seen people walking down the road carrying hunks of turtle. After another few minutes, I had had enough and headed back.
Then I made my weekend. I saw a rock on the sea bed with things sticking out of it, and thought "That looks like a helmet shell". I pulled it out of the sand, and sure enough, it was. It is much bigger than the one I bought at the market a few weeks ago, and more colorful. It measures 9 3/4 inches, which approaches the maximum 10 inches listed in our shell book. Of course, I've seen a few much larger. My "Golden Guide" says it is a Cassis cornuta L. or "Horned Helmet". Whatever it is, it is simmering on the stove right now for supper. Unfortunately, it is bigger than our largest pot, and I am having to cook it in stages, turning it over every half-hour or so. (It made a very tough chowder, and the boiling process marred the shell, which sits behind me as I edit this in Canada.)
. . . The other thing was that all Malekula has been ecstatic this week because "Mr. Wilkins" is visiting. He is the former British District Agent (1957-77) who built Lakatoro. I didn't even see Keith (my boss) upon my return until yesterday, because he has been running around from one welcoming ceremony to another with Mr. Wilkins. The only reason Keith came up yesterday was so Mr. Wilkins could take a look at the changes to his servant's quarters, where we live. Holly and I took the opportunity to have him in for a chat, since we figured he would be a good source of information. He's a pretty good guy, and of course, really knows the score around here. He is actually Australian, and didn't bring his wife because his last visit was a disappointment due to the physical changes here (remember my wish to be here when the former administrators saw the bush kitchens behind their fancy houses?). Now he is used to it and really glad he came back. He is thinking of putting up a shack on a piece of ground he was given and vacationing here in the future.
The domocile of Mr. Wilkin's former Housegirl, later occupied by a succession of Canadian and Japanese Volunteers. Photo ©S. Combs 1987.
Wednesday, July 22,1987
All the big news around here is in the animal kingdom. Keith's son showed up yesterday with two more fledglings for us (just what we needed). They are nalakalaks, small birds that fill the hummingbird niche here. The rumor is that they will survive on ripe fruit like our coconut lorikeet does. One escaped from the veranda before we rounded up a cage (from Keith, as I figured that if his family supplied the birds, they could also supply the cage), but I found him in a nearby bush this morning hiding from an enterprising kingfisher. They are hopping around their cage this morning, to my surprise, having survived 24 hours of uncertain diet and mauling by children. As we seem to have gained a reputation of keepers of things that fly, I will not be surprised if someone shows up with a baby flying fox one of these days. They have the reputation of making good pets, and the supply is liberal as the babies are found clinging to mothers that have been shot for food.
The two nalakalak, who were eventually were set free. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.
The other local sensation has been a snake that has been spending his days on tree branches near my office. I would never have noticed him, but the eagle-eyed ni-Vanuatu pick him out every day, even after he changes trees. Despite not having any poisonous snakes in Vanuatu, everyone is desperately afraid of them. I told them that I used to have a pet snake, which is related with wonder to everyone, who give me looks like I am either crazy or in league with the devil. I think my comment that they eat rats was news to everyone; one neighbour asked me if I had fed my snake papaya (considered an all-purpose food for pets, I guess).
Note: I later learned that snakes are considered to be regular snakes, with short tails or "custom" or magic snakes, with long tails. My comment that tail length denoted sex (females short, males long) was not given much credence. On Vao Island (off North-East Malekula), we were once warned not to look up into a certain tree lest we make eye contact with a custom snake who would take over our minds.
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©S. Combs, 1987