07 Oct Aitutaki, Cook Islands – Friday 28 September to Sunday, 7 October, 2001
During the coarse of our travels this past year, three islands have become very special to us and Aitutaki is one of them. While the island of Aitutaki is very beautiful, it is always the people that engrave an indeliible memory on our hearts. Like Ua Pou in the Marquesas Islands and then Kauehi in the Tuamotu Archipeligo, Aitutaki felt like home from our first day on shore.
We arrived the morning of Friday, 28 of September. We were tired because it had been an uncomfortable overnight passage from Rarotonga. The anchorage outside of the reef was very windy and Starr strained on its anchor rode, sailing on the rolling sea like a kite on a string. We had our pick of locations in the anchorage outside of the reef, sharing the space with the supply freighter from Raro. Because we had to anchor outside of the reef, we decided that someone always needed to .stay on Starr. Rob and Donna stayed on board and after settling in Don and I went ashore to check things out. At the old WWII concrete wharf on the waterfront, there was a lot of activity;: liters were carrying in freight in container loads and unloading. As we walked down the one main street of town in the rain, we saw people unloading containers in what looked like empty lots. The town was shabby and run down. It was the first place we have visited that felt like a third world country; however, everyone was friendly and smiled and waved hello.
We walked about a mile down the road and then turned around and headed back. Stopping at the Building Materials store, we asked a man about “Island Night” and almost as an afterthought, Don asked if there was a local canoe club. The man’s eyes light up as if someone had turned on a light switch. “No, there was no canoe club, but they wanted to get one going. In fact, they had been trying to get the canoe mold from Raro for years to try to build some canoes.” Thus, less than an hour in town we meet Ronald Henry, who became our very good friend. He tells us that “We have to talk to his ‘brother’ TJ, everyone calls him Junior, who knows about canoes.” He continues, telling us that “in 1995, Junior navigated a Polynesian double-hulled sailing canoe, Takikitumu, from Raro to Tahiti and Hawaii, using the ancient Polynesian methods of navigation by stars and waves.” We made a date to get together Saturday afternoon and talk to both of them about canoes. Then we head back to Starr so Rob and Donna can go ashore for Friday night “Island Night” and a chance to see the some of the best Polynesian dancers in the South Pacific.
We stay ten days at Aitutaki and make many friends. Once again we “fell” into some special relationships, mostly because of our interests in canoe building and computers. We meet with Ron Henry and Terepai (Junior) Maoate on Saturday and talk canoes. There is no canoe club on Aitutaki, but Junior and Ron want to start one. There are canoes, carved from mango trees and used by the local fishermen, but no fiberglass canoes. After we tell them about our plans to teach Rataro and the young men from the canoe club on Ua Pou how to build canoes, they want us to come back to Aitutaki and teach them as well. Junior is a fisherman stuck on shore running the family business, Maina Traders Ltd, but he wants to get back on the sea. Before the afternoon is over, Junior has invited us to a surprise birthday party for Ron at his home that evening.
The party on Saturday night is an interesting opportunity to see a tight-knit family and friends, some of whom flew in from Raro for the party, up close and personal. This is Polynesian culture in action: more food than the crowd could possible eat, lots of relatives, lots of extended family, all ages from tiny to elderly. The men and women separate into two groups and stay that way for most of the night, merging into one large group by midnight. A lot of eating, a lot of dancing. Conversations flowing in Cook Island Maori and New Zealand English, sliping and sliding back and forth between the two languages. I meet so many people that, as hard as I try, I’ll never remember their names. Best of all I meet Mama Tu, a handsome woman who reminds me of my grandmother and who I immediately adopt as my surrogate grandmother. That evening we learn that Ron and Junior aren’t really “brothers”, but such close friends that they are extended family “brothers”. We also learn that Junior is the son of the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands.
We go to church the next morning, the oldest church in the Cook Islands with good music and lovely accoustics. At church I see Mama Tu and inquire if any of the women on Aitutaki might have a tivaevae, a handmade appliqué and embroidered bed cover, to sell. I would like to find one for a wedding gift for a favorite relative. She tells me the “they are very expensive” and not usually for sale. She says that “she will ask around the corner” and see what she can find. In much of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, tivaevae are made as gifts for special occasions and are not usually for sale and there are not many old tivaevae around, as often people are wrapped in a one when they are buried. I hope that she can find one for sale. After our conversation she climbs onto her motorscooter, with her going-to-church hat on her head and purse in hand, and putts off home.
Aitutaki is a small, lush island with low lying hills, with a beautiful lagoon that is said to be one of the most beautiful in the South Pacific encircling the island. It is easy to get around on foot, but most of the locals ride motorscooters. Its lagoon is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the South Pacific. Don and I take many long walks and one day we ride our bicycles around the island. On the far side of the island, we meet Koro, in a dirty and torn t-shirt, working his land. We stop and admire his plantation of taro, sweet potatoes, watercress, etc and his big, fat pigs. He offers us a coconut to drink and chops it up with his machete on the spot. He tries to give us several more, but we decline as we are riding bicycles. He asks if we would like some bananas. Again we tell him that we can’t carry them on our bicycles, so he offers to bring some to the wharf. The next morning he brings us a big box of bananas and other fruit. Koro is a typical Polynesian and we are constantly amazed by the generousity of people who go out of their way in order to give us something with no expectation of anything in return.
We join some of the sailboaters who are also anchored outside the reef and go out to “island night”, which happens every night of the week at different restaurants and bars around the island. On Wednesday night a dance group sponsored by Junior and Paula performs at The Blue Nun, Ron and Christine Henry’s restaurant on the waterfront at the wharf. It is the best dancing that we have seen anywhere. The dancers of Aitutaki are known as the best dancers in the South Pacific and we now understand why. They dance “in the old style” we are told; they also dance from their hearts. As we had Ron and Christine and Junior and Paula out to Starr to dinner earlier in the week, this night we are the guests of Ron and Christine Another “feast” of island food, dance and friendship.
Mama Tu finds a tivaevae. Mama Josephine has one almost finished that she is willing to sell to me. Mama Josephine operates the Women’s Artesana at the wharf. She is the Cultural Liason for Woman on Aitutaki. If the women of Aitutaki need anything, Mama Josephine is the one who asks the government for help. I spend time “hanging out” with the mamas, as Mama Josephine and Mama Tu and a few of the other Mamas gather at the Artesana and finish my tivaevae. It’s like an old-fashioned quilting bee. Mama Tu tells me that “I am very lucky” to get this tivaevae, that she wasn’t sure that it would be a good one until she saw it herself but that it is a good one. She also tells me that it is good for the women of Aitutaki for me to leave my money on the island.
The morning before my beautiful tivaevae is finished, there is a raffle drawing at the wharf. Junior and Paula’s dance group is going to Tahiti and the raffle is to raise money for the trip. Mama Josephine asks me if I have a dollar to buy a ticket. When I take out my purse, she takes five dollars and gives me five raffle tickets. The prizes are several big palm baskets of food. I tell the mamas that if I win we will all eat it for lunch. I don’t win, but one of the mamas does and we all eat it for lunch anyway. A feast of roast chicken, roasted breadfruit, banana poi and other goodies. Yum! A handsome young man from one of the sailboats in the harbor is invited to eat with us, and Mama Josehphine’s sister, a mama with 17 grandchildren, asks him “where were you twenty years ago?” Although he is twenty-something, he doesn’t get it;. these mamas are never to old to flirt.
OUR COMPUTER PROJECT FOR AITUTAKI: We also met Larry Richards, a retired teacher from Eastern Washington College, who now lives on Aitutaki. Larry teaches computer classes (for no pay) at the college (equivalent of high school). We learned that they are using very old, slow computers in the schools and we are trying to gather up a container load of refurbished computers for the children of Aitutaki. For additional information: check out “Larry Richards” in Profiles and “Computers for Aitutaki” in Don’s Notes on the homepage of this website.