PALMERSTON...The Island Of Many ChristmasesBy G. Nowak (Barefoot Man) - from The Weekender Magazine
Palmerston atoll is about as remote as remote can get. Located around 500 km north of the capitol of the Cook islands, Raratonga, and some 3,000 km from New Zealand. Palmerston has a total land mass of approximately one square mile, the surrounding coral reef covers about 3, 600 acres. Palmerston is a classic atoll consisting of eight main motus (islets) and scattered rocks.
Approximately 62 people live on the main island of Palmerston. The economy is based on fishing, copra and tourism - very little tourism at that. With no shops or markets, along with Palmerston’s detachment from the rest of the world, the old-fashioned barter system for goods is more practical than the exchange for money. Electricity, telephone and internet service are available - a few hours per day. The people who complain about CUC service in Grand Cayman need to move there. The island has no airport or large cruise line type of docking facilities, but cargo ships do make semiannual visits and stay moored some 500 meters beyond the reef to avoid the shallows that protect the island from high seas. When a freighter drops anchor, no matter the time of the year, it’s like Christmas. Families prepare food, the women of the island don their brightest muumuus, and the men tune their guitars and ukuleles. Every citizen on the island gathers by the beach to retrieve their supply of food stuffs, mail, and parcels from the other islands; the freighter in a sense becomes Santa’s sleigh and the ship’s crew can be conceptualized as elves as they ferry back and forth with provisions and gifts. The scene is festive as children run up and down the beach with their new soccer balls, women fill baskets with fresh vegetables and fruits and the men scramble for their share of cigarettes and New Zealand beer. “It’s a celebration, it’s like Christmas” says Melbourne Marsters, our local guide and host when I visited in the early-80’s.
Depending on the weather the freighter may stay the night and then the women prepare a huge feast or “Umukai”, which involves baking food in an underground oven, and is usually accompanied with traditional entertainment. If there is one outstanding ability which appears to be shared by all Cook Islanders it is music and song. Their close harmony can produce goose-bumps, especially when you hear their beautiful, haunting hymns or chants in a church performed with traditional ukuleles fashioned from coconut shells.
When the freighter continues its journey all quickly returns to the normal humdrum of daily life on a lonely isle. Conceivably it could be another six months before the next cargo ship drops anchor. Once the islanders waited 18 months before a freighter was sighted in the distance, I can imagine the celebration then. Occasionally private yachts traveling in the area will make a stop, however with no deep water passage into the lagoon and dependency on good weather, such visits are rare. If all the elements fall into place, a visitor to Palmerston is in for a treat. Right from your arrival you are welcomed into one of the families, Palmerstonians are the masters of hospitality. Their openness and genuine warmth of welcome will fill you with admiration for these beautiful people. Polynesians show their hospitality by their food, so to refuse can be considered an insult. Don’t plan on losing weight while visiting Palmerston.
Any sailor traveling on a private yacht in this faraway part of the Pacific knows to carry extra provisions such as candy, medical supplies, canned foods and of course beer, tobacco and rum. It may have been months since the last freighter visited, so to the islanders any visiting vessel is a lifeline and another excuse to feast, celebrate and declare a holiday. Fish, lobster, coconut, crabs and bird eggs are in no short supply on Palmerston however simple commonplace necessities such as coffee, sugar, cigarettes, aspirin and candy are prized. “When I see an old sloop or rusted freighter on the horizon, I start singing ‘Here comes Santa Clause’ ” declared one old timer during my sojourn on Palmerston. Here in the middle of nowhere negotiation and barter are a way of life: a carton of cigarettes could be traded for a burlap sack filled with lobster or a pound of coffee could reward you with ten pounds of fish. The year of my visit two freighters and four yachts visited, it was a good year for the islanders, in other words on December 25th , 1982 there was cause for extra celebration.