How to Poison Your Friends in Tahiti

It was Sunday again. Like in the movie Groundhog day, I had lived an entire day that was being repeated all over again. Such is the paradox of crossing the international date line from New Zealand to Tahiti. I had half expected to find myself in a place that looked like a Gauguin painting, but the area near the international airport didn’t feel like a tropical paradise at all. It’s the part of French Polynesia that you don’t see in the tourist brochures.

As I watched the future passengers swarm around me in colorful shirts and dresses, I met Doug. Doug was the leader of a small group of 4 English people who just happened to be in the same place at the same time as me trying to drum up transportation. I suppose I had appeared to be a little lost when his group approached me, but we soon became friends. They were renting a car for the day and planned on driving around the island. The good news was I was invited.

It was a rainy morning as we began our drive along the coast. I had made no plans of where I’d be staying or how I’d get around once I arrived. I had an open schedule with nothing on my list that needed to be checked off. I had just spent 6 months hitchhiking around Australia and I’d gotten into that “let’s just see what happens” mode of travel. My lack of preparedness  paid off because my new posse had done a little research on where they were going, spoke French fluently and had a plan. They had rented a hut of sorts and there was room for me if I wanted to continue with them. Of course, I did. I had never traveled to a country with French as the primary language and I knew nothing other than “bon jour”

We arrived at the property a few hours later and I must admit, I had never stayed anyplace quite like this. There was no traditional room like what one might expect, rather a giant communal tiki hut with no walls. There were thin mattresses with bedding on the ground for each of us and a table and some chairs for dining. The shower and bathroom was the exact opposite. There was no roof, just walls made from palm fronds that gave one a small illusion of privacy. Gilligan’s island was more modern than our lodging. The weather was perfect once the rain abated and with the ocean only about 100 feet away from our hut, we had the sound of the waves to lull us to sleep. In the morning, our alarm was the owner’s chickens, but there was another sound that awoke us. Coconut crabs are one of the few crustaceans who make noises, but they make up for all their mute brethren with their clicking sounds and the din they produce from cracking coconuts open. They are the strongest creatures on the planet for their size and our camp was full of them. Hearing them at night was especially creepy. They crawled up trees like little aliens.

We had nearly a week of living the island life. We spent days exploring, snorkeling and reading. Our host prepared our meals, simple fare with local fruit and fish. I started to wonder if a person could survive on this island without ever visiting a store. The more I thought about it, the more determined I became to try an experiment. I would prepare dinner using what I could gather from the island. The owner had a speargun I could borrow, so I took his little floating raft out to the reef and soon speared our main courses. A little wandering around the area uncovered some ripe pineapple plants to add to our bounty. Finally, I dug up some of the taro roots that make up a big part of the islanders’ diets and cleaned them so I could prepare them for dinner. Plumeria blooms made up the garnish and with about an hour of borrowing the kitchen, I had produced a beautiful presentation of island fare that looked irresistible (at least to me). Everyone sat down at the table and complimented me on my hunter gathering skills.

We chatted about our day and sampled my pan fried fillets before moving on to the taro. Doug was the first one to take a bite. A few seconds later he started clutching his throat and gasping. Had he swallowed wrong? Was he just making fun of my cooking? Suzy took a curious bite and started choking. I realized that I had inadvertently poisoned my friends. How such a thing could have happened was anyone’s guess. There was no hospital anywhere nearby. We were in the middle of an island with no one to help other than the owner. I ran over to him and tried to explain what had happened. My new friends thought they were going to die, but he reassured us that it wasn’t the case. However, it would take several hours before they would feel back to normal.

What I learned later is that the taro plant not only has many varieties, some of which are poisonous, but even the edible versions have calcium oxalate crystals in the corms that when ingested, constrict the throat and make the person who’s swallowed them feel like they’ve eaten glass. If the tuber is cooked long enough, the crystals break down and have none of the unpleasantness that one’s which haven’t been cooked long enough have. I had no way of knowing how long to cook a taro root or that it even mattered. Thank goodness I hadn’t pulled a poisonous one out of the ground.

A few hours later everyone was fine, but the rest of the dinner I prepared was thrown out. No one ever asked me to cook again.