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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

A Coconut Tree

The following week, I had a memorable experience learning to climb coconut trees with my eldest brother, Tawita, who was deaf and communicated through his unique sign language. Thanks to him, I quickly picked up Kiribati sign language, surpassing my grasp of spoken Kiribati.

One evening, Tawita invited me to join him in the bush. Using my cousin’s bicycle and my father’s machete as a makeshift safety bar, he led me to our family’s land at the island's end. It was a breathtaking landscape, with lush taro pits and rows upon rows of towering coconut trees stretching as far as the eye could see.

Pointing to a tree, Tawita gestured for me to climb it and perform a task at the top. I nodded in understanding, eager to learn. As he ascended the tree, he skillfully plucked two coconuts and tossed them down to me. The machete I had brought along awaited him at the tree's base.

With a wide grin, Tawita effortlessly descended the coconut tree, retrieved the machete, and expertly cracked open the coconuts to prepare two moimoto, the traditional coconut drinks we had received upon our arrival. Handing me a moimoto, we shared a moment of silent connection as we strolled to the lagoon, where we enjoyed our refreshing beverages.

As our conversation through signs came to an end, Tawita gestured towards me, signaling that it was now my turn to take on the challenge. His encouraging gesture filled me with a sense of pride and excitement, strengthening our bond as we continued our shared adventure.

Feeling up for a challenge, I decided to tackle the coconut tree climb head-on. Drawing on my experience teaching rock climbing back in Ohio, I approached the task with confidence, determined not to look down until I reached the top.

As I ascended, I heard Tawita's vocalizations growing louder, indicating his increasing concern. Ignoring his warnings, I pressed on until I finally reached the summit. Looking down, I saw Tawita urgently signaling for me to descend, but I was faced with a new dilemma: I wasn't quite sure how to make my way back down the tree.

Unlike rock climbing, where I could rely on my harness and gravity to assist me, descending a coconut tree required a different technique. Mimicking Tawita's actions, I wrapped my legs around the trunk and attempted to slide down. To my surprise, Tawita appeared stunned by my unconventional approach, and as I made my way down, I couldn't help but notice the stinging sensation of tree burn along my skin. Despite the unexpected challenges and minor mishaps, the experience taught me valuable lessons about adapting to new situations and the importance of communication, even in unconventional circumstances.

Reflecting on the events, I couldn't help but wonder if I had misinterpreted Tawita's hand gestures. Perhaps he wasn't urging me to climb down after all. Maybe he was offering another moimoto, seeking recognition for his climbing prowess, or even requesting assistance with carrying the coconuts back to the house. However, when I finally descended to the ground, his body language left no room for misinterpretation—he was clearly displeased.

It became evident that my attempt to conquer the coconut tree had not gone as planned, and Tawita's reaction spoke volumes. Regrettably, that outing marked the first and last time he took me to the coconut grove. Despite my best intentions, I had inadvertently disappointed my eldest brother, and the memory of that day served as a poignant reminder of the importance of understanding and respecting cultural nuances, even in seemingly mundane activities.

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