The Catching of Palolo
Last week my host father asked me if I would like to go catch the palolo. They would go out early in the morning for three days to try to catch them.
I had heard of this event before but last year around this time I was still in training and remarkably, given the partial oblivion I live in even now, I was less aware of my surroundings then, so hadn’t gone. I really had no idea what to expect I just knew that I wanted to go.
They told me to be ready to leave at three. I decided to wake up at two, just to be safe. At 2:20am they had the truck pulled out in front of my house and they were knocking on the door. I dumped my cup of coffee into my water bottle, grabbed my bag, and headed out.
I piled into the truck with my host father, a couple of the fishermen that usually rent my host family’s fishing boat, and one of the married couples from across the street that my host parents hang out with. We got down to the beach (about a two minute drive) and waded out to the metal fishing boat. My host family’s blue canoe was lashed to the side.
No one else was on the water as we motored our way towards the coral on the inside of the reef. As I was sitting there, the fact that it was three in the morning began to hit my body. I laid down on the deck with my head on my bag, fully prepared to go to sleep.
“Meka, what is wrong?” I had concerned Rosalia (the married woman who lives across the street). I explained that I was fine, just a little tired. As I closed my eyes, I marveled at the fact that none of them appeared tired and they were all up later than I was.
I woke up about half an hour later to find nearly everyone else on the boat passed out. My host father, it appeared, had just woken up momentarily to check the water with his flashlight. Nothing yet. We all went back to sleep. It continued that way for the next few hours. At one point I woke up to find our boat surrounded by about thirty canoes. Everyone else had shown up but there still was no sign of the palolo.
At about 5:30, the sun started to come up and still we had found nothing. It was decided that there would be no palolo today and we would have to try our luck again tomorrow. Great, there are no palolo when the palagi (“foreigner”) comes along. I figured this wouldn’t bode well and when I sadly recounted that morning with my friend and coworker, Lineta, she explained that my white face must have scared the palolo away. I anxiously began to wonder what would happen if the palolo failed to appear on the second night. Would I be deemed ‘cursed’ and not allowed to come out again?
The next morning there were more people in the truck. Another couple from across the street and my host mother had joined us. When I got on the boat this time, Rosalia pointed out the bundle of jackets she had brought along for me to use as a pillow. Nice.
Same as the night before, we all napped, waking up periodically to check for the palolo. At around four, they finally showed up. My host father, untethered the canoe, grabbed a bucket, a flashlight and a net and took off. The rest of us stood around the edges of the fishing boat with our nets to scoop the palolo out of the water.
Quickly let’s go over basic palolo gear:
1. Net: the nets have a wooden frame that resembles a tennis racket
2. Bucket/Basket: these all had cloth in them to hold the palolo and to allow the excess water to run into the bottom
3. Flashlight: on the second night the sky was cloudy and it was hard to see if there was actually anything in the nets so we used flashlights. I had my headlamp that Laura gave me and found that to be ideal for catching.
The palolo look like broken strands of blue and yellow angel hair pasta. Upon closer inspection they look like something that could be a parasite if it really wanted. I kind of imagined heaps of them rising to the surface that we would just shovel out but they are much more intermittent than that and have to be caught.
Before I knew it the water was filled with canoes. The people who passed close to my side of the fishing boat all laughed and shouted, “Malo Meka!” (“Good Job Meghan!”).
There I was, standing in a fishing boat, covered in sea water, netting worms out of the ocean, surrounded by my village. Peace Corps moment. The rest of the day, I was so tired I had to fight to keep my eyes open but I had garnered a certain respect.
I decided not to go out on the third day and used the time to sleep instead. Later I was told that there had been no palolo and without missing a beat I explained that there were no palolo because I was not there. This was very well received.