Coconuts

Stephen Trussel

When I was staying on one of the small islands of Kiribati, in Micronesia, I discovered an interesting way of meeting people. I learned it by accident one day... I was trying to husk a coconut using the local method. They did it very quickly and easily, with a strong pointed branch stuck into the ground. They thrust the coconut down onto the stick and pushed, and the point quickly removed the husk. They did it just a few times, and there was the coconut, ready to open.

Only when I tried it, nothing went quite the way I expected. The husk wouldn't come off the stake at first, and then when I could get it off, I just had a coconut with a hole in the husk. After a few minutes of struggling, I noticed a man nearby, watching me, laughing. Finally he came over, silently took the coconut from me, and expertly removed the husk. Then he picked up another and handed it to me, and under his guidance I tried it until I had mastered the technique. Of course, this all led to some friendly conversation, which was more important to me than the coconut.

I thought about that experience for a while, and decided to try an experiment. I found a pandanus tree, a strange island tree with roots sticking out of the ground and long leaves with sharp thorns. They had a way of splitting the leaves down the middle, removing the thorns, and smoothing the leaf out into something they used to roll tobacco in to make cigarettes. So I sat down by the tree with a pile of leaves and tried my hand at splitting them. Of course I couldn't do it, but in only a few minutes someone appeared next to me, demonstrated how it was done, and patiently taught me the technique. Another new friend.

After that, whenever I wanted to meet someone, I just tried to do some simple local activity. The i-Kiribati, recognizing my efforts to learn their culture, invariably showed up in a short while, laughed gently at my meager efforts, and taught me what to do. So not only did I learn a fascinating variety of native skills, I made a lot of friends at the same time. I guess the moral of the story is, when in Rome, try to do as the Romans do, but don't do it too well; they'll soon come over and show you how.