Eating Out In Butaritari

by Cleo Paskal

How do you say 'no' to food? In many places, it is simply the most important gift imaginable. To refuse it, is to refuse the embodiment of place. It is like going to church but, when communion time comes around, peering suspiciously at the wafer and saying "No thanks, I... uh... just ate". To travel is to taste life and, sometimes, it tastes awful.

I have grinned through gritted teeth while choking down whole garlic cloves laced with pickled octopus tentacles in the Yaeyama Islands. I smilingly pretended the Okinawan raw horse meat I chewed, for what seemed like several weeks, was actually (very) rare roast beef. I graciously plunged my hands up to the wrists in a congealing brownish glop that my Malian host assured me had been, at one time, goat and muttered "yum yum" as I sucked on the sinewy chunk that had snagged my fingernail. You do what has to be done.

However hard it was for me, the giving is, often, more difficult than the receiving. Who knows how many precious chickens were throttled in my name; how many winter stocks I have inadvertently pillaged. Procuring food takes it's toll. Which is why I want to tell you this story. It's not my story, it belongs to Winnie Powell, the indomitable medicine woman of Butaritari Island. It belongs to her and to her island, which isn't really an island but rather an Atoll in the Central Pacific. Butaritari belongs to a country no one has ever heard of called Kiribati. It is a real country and this is a real story.

I only know it because I was sick. I went to visit Winnie and, within 36 hours, was curled up on a pandanus mat, shivering with fever and suffering from what Winnie knowingly called "the flu with a touch of 'epatitis". She mixed me some medicine out of twigs, roots and rain water (which doesn't actually qualify as 'food' so I will pass over them as quickly as they passed through me) and initiated a regime of massages designed to lower my temperature and channel the flu into my stomach. This didn't seem like such a good idea as my stomach seemed to already have its fair share of the flu. Which brings me closer to The Story.

What with my stomach filling up with flu and all, I wasn't very hungry. Winnie insisted I eat and offered me the full range of local dishes: bananas, fish, paw paw, coconut and swamp taro. That was it. The full range. Oh, granted there is a world of difference between roasted swamp taro and grated swamp taro but being deathly ill allows you certain privileges and it gets to the point where you grab those privileges by the throat and scream into their collective face 'NO MORE SWAMP TARO OR I WILL PUKE."

And that was when Winnie told me The Story. It started, as all good stories do, once upon a time, not so very long ago....

The dolphins and the humans lived in separate but equal worlds. The dolphins kept watch over the sea and the humans oversaw the land. There was mutual respect and liking but they rarely got together for a chat. In fact, there were only two families on Butaritari Island who had the knowledge that allowed them to Call The Dolphins.

Calling the dolphins was difficult and dangerous and would only be undertaken in times of hunger. It started when the Caller was asleep. She (or he) would guide her dreams towards the land where dolphins dreams. There, unhindered by physical considerations like incompatible vocal chords, she could speak directly to the dreams of the sleeping dolphins.

The Caller of dolphins was invariably well received. The dolphins loved company. Once introductory pleasantries were over ("Thanks for returning that lost sailor." "No problem, glad to do it. He had a lovely way of caressing my blowhole."), the Caller stated the real reason for the visit. "I have been sent to invite the dolphins to a dance in our lagoon. Can you come?"

That always thrilled the dolphins. They would get excited and the shades of their sub-conscious would glimmer a bit brighter. "Oh Yes! Yes, of course, we would be happy to come. How many of us would you like? Just the big ones or the small ones too? The usual place?". The Caller would say "of course the same place" and add how many were invited and of what age. Then, politely excusing herself, she would quietly fade back into consciousness.

The next day, just before high tide, the whole village would go down to the lagoon and watch the sea channel expectantly. Soon the dolphins would start to arrive. The teenagers and young adults of the village took off their clothes and hung them on The Tree Upon Which You Hang Your Clothes, then they dove into the lagoon and paired off with the dolphins. The humans, gently holding onto their hosts, would murmur sweet nothings into where they imagined dolphin ears to be. As parents and siblings watched from the shore, singing and dancing encouragingly, the human/dolphin couples frolicked in the crystal aquamarine waters. Occasionally, a mischievously adventurous pair would even go out into the darker blue waters of the open sea, returning only hours later.

Eventually, the tide would falter and the time would come to end the dance. The dolphins knew what to do next. One by one, they would beach themselves, always in the same spot and always facing the same direction. The swimmers quietly got their clothes from The Tree and stood watching. Emotions crackled in the air. Sorrow, pain, gratitude, love and, darting about like an embarrassed streaker, hunger.

Some of the stronger men picked up the hatchets that had been lying on the cool grass since the morning and, caressing the lean and still wet dolphins with one hand, hacked them to death with the other. As soon as they beached, they were butchered. The meat was quickly and equitably distributed all throughout the island.

Every one got a piece. Everyone except the Caller of dolphins. She had known the dolphins as friends, she had spoken with them. It would be unacceptable for her to eat them.

There was also another price she would be expected to pay. The Caller of the dolphins always died young and, when she died, she could not be buried on the island. Just off the coast of Butaritari there was a dark blot on the turquoise ocean, a bottomless hole in the sea floor that, it was believed, led down into the home of the dolphins. The body of the Caller of the dolphins was brought to this spot and placed in the water. Other bodies would have just floated away , but hers sunk, down, down, reuniting her again and forever with the dolphins, who were always happy to have company. And that sacrifice, dying young, forever being separated from her family, the Caller of the dolphins was willing to make for the honour of being able to provide food for her hungry Island.

And that was the end of Winnie's story.

She looked rather pointedly at the now cold dish of roasted Swamp Taro.

"Boy," I said, "that swamp taro sure looks delicious." Brushing away the flies that weren't already imbedded and struggling in the beige mass, I started munching away dutifully. "Yum yum."

"But Winnie, is that true? Do they still Call the dolphins?"

"The last time the dolphins were Called was about thirty years ago. I had just had my first child so I couldn't swim with them. I watched though... You know, my husband's family is one of the two who can Call. I ask my sister-in-law why she won't do it. She says she doesn't want to die young. I told her it's too late anyway since she is already in her sixties but she still won't do it. I guess she prefers the safer honour of buying the whole island tins of corned beef."

Youth today -- don't know the value of a good meal.

From: Food: A Taste of the Road; Edited by Richard Sterling; Traveler' Tales; San Francisco; 1996. Copyright Cleo Paskal, 1996. Reproduction in any medium forbidden without consent of the author who can be reached at and who is much nicer than this stern note implies.