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(In June 2003, journalists
Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair uprooted themselves from Los Angeles and
moved to the South Pacific. Their first stop is Rarotonga. They brought their
two young daughters with them.
)

Mark’s obsession with ukuleles has been replaced by a
fascination with coconuts. It’s all he talks about lately. His goal today is to
make coconut cream, which he will then use to make coconut chicken, creamy
pasta sauce, and scones from scratch.

He recruited Sarina to help him in his mission. They
collected fallen coconuts this morning, spotting a few next to our laundry
lines, and a couple more scattered around the border of our lawn.

Now Mark and Sarina are out in the front yard, trying to
open the fruits, which is no simple matter. The edible part of a coconut is
encapsulated by a fibrous shell, which is protected by another, thicker shell
that — as Mark has learned — cannot be penetrated by whacking it with a sharp
rock.

While Mark pries the outer shells open with his handmade
ironwood spear (which took him two days to carve and sharpen), Sarina sits on
the grass with a bush knife in hand, whacking the inner shells in half.

“You could slice off someone’s head with one of those
knives,” I hear Mark say.

“Really?” Sarina squeals.

I flinch as she raises the knife up into the air, and
wonder if I should interfere. I don’t think a bush knife, which must be in the
same family as a machete, is an age-appropriate tool for a 6-year-old. But then
she cracks the coconut open, a perfect split, and she and Mark hoot with
delight.

Once the coconuts are all opened, the white “meat” needs
to be grated. Again, this is no simple matter. It’s not something you can do
with your ordinary cheese grater. The fruit is tenaciously tough and must be
shredded with a coconut scraper. After days of looking in shops for a scraper,
which everyone on the island seems to own, Mark found out that no one sells
these tools. They are handmade by bolting a section of a car’s leaf spring onto
a small wooden bench.

Until Mark is able to rig together one of his own, he’ll
be borrowing our landlord’s scraper.

Mark and Sarina argue over who gets to scrape the
coconuts, and Sarina wins. She straddles the bench with half a coconut in hand,
bends forward, and begins to scrape the inside of the shell against the metal
scraper. The moist shreds fall into a bucket. She stops for a moment to peel
off her shirt, then continues to grate until she runs out of coconuts.

Mark scoops the white mush into a large piece of
cheesecloth and wrings it into a jar, which also contains fresh clear milk from
the coconuts. It’s surprising how much liquid squirts out of the cloth.

He’s now ready to begin cooking.

Jane is napping, so I decide to steal Sarina for the
afternoon. We head down to the beach and rent a bright-orange kayak. The boat
has an inch of water that sloshes around our feet as we paddle out to a motu,
or islet. The bottom of the shallow lagoon is patched with huge black spots,
which, we soon find out, are clusters of sea cucumbers. Sarina leans way over
the boat, almost capsizing us.

“What are you doing?” I shout.

She laughs and holds up a fat limp cucumber, as if she’d
just won a trophy.

We come home famished. Mark walks out to the front yard to
greet us, looks up at our palm tree, and by sheer luck, witnesses a coconut
falling from its top. It thumps to the ground with a force that could crack a
skull. His eyes water with amazement, the way Moses may have wept when he
witnessed the parting of the Red Sea.

I make a mental note to stay clear of that tree when
hanging my clothes on the line.