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 Island Trading...by captain Dan Oddworm


 The last I heard of ole Captain Oddworm and Sandra of SY "Mariposa" they were short of money and heading for Chagos to shelter for a while. They are on a leisurely and low budget circumnavigation that may eventually return them to Florida, USA.

This is a very fine example of the stories that are created at the right landfalls with the right outlook. Captain Dan Oddworm, story teller and Island Trader.

 By Captain Oddworm, SV “Mariposa”

I am an inexperienced trader and so have a difficult time distinguishing the difference between cost and value. Thus, I was feeling a bit anxious as I motored toward shore. Sandra sat serenely holding our bag of tradable treasures while I worried. How much was any of this stuff worth? What if no one wanted anything we had? How are we going to cut a deal in a language we don't speak?

As the dinghy grounded on the black volcanic sand my mind took a tack. What do these guys have but a bunch of fruit hanging off trees that they probably didn't even plant? It's not like anybody is really bustin' ass planting and harvesting and doing all that farming stuff. They can trade or watch it all rot on the ground the day after the next big wind! Yeah, that's right. Before I can kill the outboard the boom in my brain swings to another tack.

Why am I thinking tough? Why be presumptuous? These are probably nice, friendly, and maybe even generous people. They have too much fruit and we have a collection of odds and ends for which we no longer have any use. Yeah, that's right! All I really need to do is keep a sense of proportion and shoot for a win-win out come. Am I crazy? What am I fussing about anyways? Of course, I know the answer to my own questions. It's basically the language thing.

After two years of working on a re-fit, spending thousands of dollars on gear and charts and guides, I find myself sorrowfully unprepared. The fact that I never studied French doesn't bother me because, after all, no one can learn every language needed to sail around the world. But the fact that I overlooked buying a French dictionary now seemed a bit lame. But then again, who can read a French dictionary anyways. Silent letters are bad enough, but silent syllables? And then there are all those stuffy noises in the nose and those gargling “Rs” in the throat. But…, but…,but! Rationalizing is Bull! We are in French Polynesia now and I am determined to communicate.

As I swing up the motor, Sandra is already wading in the warm knee-deep water, and up near the palms I spot the stocky little man who lives here. He bird-walks down the beach with the stiff legged gate of age to greet us with a broad toothless smile.

“ Bo jue, masure. Vou exchangux?”, I venture.
“Sure, you want fruit? O.K.? Come, come”, he grins.
Wow! The old guy speaks my language.
This simplifies everything…or so I thought.

As it turns out, this opening line was nearly all the English he did speak but it was the critical ice breaker. With this instant thaw came a feeling of warmth and I relaxed. Without further delay the old guy starts picking his trees and filling our bags. We never discuss price or any sort of exchange value, which again set me off balance. I absolutely hate feeling obliged and now, with his fruit in my bag, the feeling is strong. Well, I figure, I'm in for it now.

We sit in the shade of a broad leaved almond tree, gaze about at the scenery, and say nothing. Our almond grove is situated in a wooded ravine, squeezed between tremendous black cliffs which reach up and cut the sky into a pie-wedge of washed out blue. I can make out tiny specks of birds swirling about the cliff face and realize that they must be quite large to be seen from this distance. The day is hot and clear but the sea breeze and shade are pleasant so we just sit. All is as it should be and there is no hurry. Then a tiny brown woman emerges from her thatched hut and sits beside me. She offers everyone a big toothless smile and I sense that it is time to begin. I nod to Sandra who opens our treasure sack.

First she pulls out an old bread knife and lays it on the clean white sand before the woman. To my surprise, the old gal seems totally uninterested. Then Sandra pulls out a frying pan but again, no response. Next come two sure winners; a “T” shirt and a base ball cap. And still we get no response.
I am starting to watch the woman very closely now. She looks so happy and content, and so completely uninterested that I begin to wonder just what, exactly, is going on.


Sandra presents a few more items to no avail and then pulls a small tray of silver rings from her bag. For a fleeting second I again see those happy gums and I detect a faint sparkle in her dull wrinkled eyes. Yes! The rings score.
At last, our new friend is unable to contain her pleasure and she paws over the treasure. Every ring is tried on every finger as she hums a quiet little tune.
 I am feeling good. We are relaxing beneath a cloudless sky. Closing my eyes on the soaring cliffs which surround us I listen to rustling of palms, sounding like distant rain, and bask in the warm serenity of the afternoon. Our host is enjoying his wife's playfulness and the old woman is taking her sweet time; and the time is ever so sweet.
I open my eyes upon a happy brown face. The woman is holding two small bands of silver. I smile and nod my approval and in an instant she pockets the rings and sweeps up all the other trade items lying in the sand.

Hey…Wait a minute!

Before I grasp what's happened, the old guy is gleefully pumping my hand and his wife is waddling off to her hut. Unsure of myself, I glance at Sandra who only shrugs. Then the old fellow heads down the trail toward the beach so I figure the deal is done. We fall in behind like puppies and Sandra breaks out laughing. I, on the other hand, am beginning to feel hood winked. But I'm still unsure. Was the old girl being clever or did we suffer some sort of communication breakdown? Were we now getting the bum's rush or was this island etiquette? My mind reeled through unknowable possibilities and scenarios.

Well, I guess the “bottom line” here is; I got what I wanted. And yet I still felt like a confused kid, which isn't good at fifty.

Several months later and many islands away, I told my fruit trading story to an old time cruiser who got a real kick out of it. Her name was Pam. She had years of experience trading all over Asia and Africa and found my neophyte blunder amusing.
“You idiot!”, she laughed, “She played you.”
“Come on Pam,” I defended, “How can you know that. You weren't even there!”

“So what! You were a babe in her hands and she knew it.”

Damn! I knew she was right; I felt it at the time but didn't have a clue as to what to do about it. So, I figured it was again time for this Old Dog to learn another trick.
“So enlighten me Oh Master. How shall I play this game in the future.”
She then gave me my first lesson in island trading, and that my friends, is really the point of this story. This lesson was only a beginning but, so far, it is working well for me. It goes like this:
Pick up the things you want, look them over, and place them down without too much excitement. Then produce the item(s) that you are willing to offer in exchange. Then, and here is the hardest part for me, wait. Just relax a while and see what happens. If, after a while you feel dead locked, put your stuff away and make a different offer. And again, wait.
By nature, I am an impatient man but even I am getting the hang of it. It works! And now, since I have your attention, I'll clue you in on something I have learned first hand.
When trying to make a trade, I found myself trying to find items that I felt would be of interest to the person I was trading with- boys things for boys, not showing women's stuff to men, holding back “inappropriate” items, and so on.
Sandra always seems to master the obvious stuff that flies right past me and so, after one particular trading session, she asked, “Why didn't you show him the shoes?”
Feeling the sting of criticism I bristled, “Why would I show a pair of number nine shoes to a Guy who has spent his entire life running barefoot through the jungle on gun-boat sized hooves?”
“How 'bout, he has a son who needs them? Or a brother, cousin, friend? Or try this: He'll trade them to a neighbor for his extra water jug. Or to the Run Boat captain in exchange for carrying his bananas. Or, lets see now… shall I go on?”
“I think not, thank you.”

I realize now how presumptuous I was being. To effectively trade in this manner requires a high degree of skill in mind reading. Upon reflection I have come to understand that I can never really know the people I meet. They have wants and needs, desires and schemes and involvements at which I can only guess. In other words, they have Lives. The best I can do is to simply show the items I have, relax, and wait.



 Copyright 2010 The Coastal Passage