We have lived together, four generations of women from Mama Lui, to Ted, to I, to baby Tangitane.
Sometimes Kalowia, a niece, comes to stay for a while.
We have washed clothes together, prayed together, gutted fish, baked bread, and sat on the porch for hours taking in the wind.
“Last time I left, I thought I would be back soon,” I told her, even though I wasn’t, but this time I don’t know when I’ll make it back.”
“That probably means you’ll be right back,” she laughed.
Pukapukans know that we can’t control life and the force guides us in unexpected directions. I certainly never thought I would sit on her porch in Pukapuka. Or maybe I always knew I would. Some people wonder what I am doing here while others wonder why I would ever leave. I am leaving for the same reasons most Cook Islanders leave – transport, health, education, family and friends, work.
The truth is I can really only handle Pukapuka for about six months and then my body needs fruits, vegetables, and dark chocolate.
It’s a privilege to eat wawa, coconuts and fish daily and a blessing to have money to buy boat food (the staples – canned corned beef, powdered milk, milo, sugar, flour, tin fish). “We are lucky we have so much food,” says everyone, “not like those other countries where people really starve,” which is true.
I will miss the treat of kaveau, the roasted birds, raw tuna and the taste of freshness.
I will miss salty NZ canned corned beef on cabin bread.
Still my body needs fruits, vegetables, spice and variety.
The worst reason I ever heard someone say, however, for leaving was that “the kids miss McDonald’s and KFC so we’ll be going back to Australia.”
There’s more in that answer too, the kids used to a different lifestyle and way of living unable to adapt to the land of their ancestors. I once heard someone from Palmerston say she would take the next boat because, “my daughter misses ballet and gymnastics.”
Pukapuka has no grocery stores, no fast food, and no ballet, just plenty of coconuts, wide-ocean and fresh air.
Most people won’t leave because they love “the freedom.”
“If you want to go to work, you go to work, if you want to sleep, you sleep, if you want to cook you cook, if you want to go to the uwi you go to the uwi ” said Ane Lavalua, echoing the sentiments of many where time is cyclical, seasonal and often unscheduled. Fly-fishing happens in the middle of the night and chasing pigs “when you feel like it.” There are government jobs and external responsibilities too, of course, still it’s a rhythmic take in the wind community life close to the sand.
Many challenges make it hard for me to live in Pukapuka permanently.
The biggest challenge is transport. The current system requires time, patience, money, and no schedule.
There aren’t many places in the world harder to get to, which also makes it so special. Over the years, I looked into learning to fly a small plane in and out of Samoa, wrote numerous CI News articles about the need for transport, and tried to get the voyaging vakas up here all with no luck.
Maybe Pukapuka is meant to be hard to get to.
The lack of adequate health care remains another challenge.
The Pukapuka Hospital does not have well-stocked medicines, medical equipment, and it is hard to get out.
During my parent’s time with no airport, emergency cases had to try to flag down fishing boats and go to Samoa or Rarotonga—wherever the boat would go.
Over the years I had boils, infected mosquito bites, rashes, chest infections, and more.
I took antibiotics every month. Luckily, I never got anything serious.
Luckily, we have qualified professional nurses and a doctor but they can only do so much without more medical supplies and access. Without regular transport, I missed numerous weddings, graduations, and birthdays. Everyone in Pukapuka has family and friends missed on “the outside.”
International texting, phone calls and Skype make it easier to stay in touch.
“You’re lucky,” said my mother, “we only had telegrams.”
Still, as my parent’s age and my nephews and godchildren grow up, I need to live closer.
I will miss too much from here of course. I will miss Tumatini, our beloved village fool, coming to wake me up after the 5am church service to ask about waka and mechanics class.
I will miss Mama Lui yelling at me for not planting the piki correctly.
I will miss the sound of the waves crashing on the reef.
I will miss children showing up on the porch to ask for candy.
I will miss being called a mayakitanga. I will miss going to the motu. My best times in Pukapuka have been on the motus, though today people go more rarely, especially with all the development projects. On the motu life gets stripped down even further to simplicity and nature with bucket showers and houses with no walls.
I will miss purpose-driven work. For the last two years I had the privilege of working for the Ministry of Education to start and run the Te Ulu o Te Watu Training Institute.
We ran mechanics, carpentry, cultural, and computer courses and offered work experience.
The young men built a waka and sold it to the museum, the young women sewed a tivaivai, and we held a mako (chanting) competition for the first time in thirty years.
The village youth groups started up again. Interest in the program waxed and waned depending on the season. I learned more than I gave. The program relied on the rich existing knowledge already within Pukapuka. With the support of the Ministry of Education and community it can continue. It belongs to them.
I will miss writing for the Cook Islands News and being known as the “Pukapuka girl.” While I received a hard-earned doctorate in psychology, I always dreamed of journalism school. John Woods, Matariki Wilson and Pukapuka helped me nurture a gift. Pukapukans always talk about “a gift.” Each adult passes on a gift and every child has a gift. These gifts contribute to the whole of the community. I never realized all the gifts my parents gave me and in Pukapuka I re-found my gift for writing.
Over the last three years I amassed one thousand pages of messy daily reflections and began to look through my father’s ten thousand pages of field notes.
Somewhere in that mess there lies a New Book of Pukapuka.
I welcome editorial and financial assistance, and new stories.
“What’s the plan for the afterlife?” asked John. The answer is Pukapuka, but in the meantime I plan to return to Hawaii, help out my family, teach at the university, write and return to the Cook Islands for consulting and holidays. I never lived a boring life before and I doubt I will in the future—another adventure always awaits.
For those that wondered, I had three sad love stories—one for Hawaii, one for Rarotonga, and one for Pukapuka.
Those, however, belong to the private orifices of the heart.
The muscle of the heart beat hard and like all muscles healed with time, strengthened for the next round.
I couldn’t help but fall in love with Pukapuka. I found here the large extended family I always dreamed of.
I felt a deep connection, history, belonging, and remembrance.
Pukapuka connects me to something larger than myself. It does this with everyone related, community obligations, adoption, reaching back through time to exist beyond time, stories, burials, births, genealogy, humor, team sports, play, prayer, and God. Rachel Reeves said of Manihiki, “It somehow makes you feel more human.” I never before attended so many funerals nor heard so much singing. I touched infinity here. I will get buried here. “You found what you were looking for,” said Pio Lavalua, “a sense of belonging. You’re part of the history of this place now.”
I did not find lasting love, have numerous biological and adopted children, build a home in Rarotonga, learn the Pukapukan language, journey on the vaka, have flash consulting jobs, nor the many other dreams that passed through along the way.
The journey never swallowed me whole. “You have a life on the outside,” said Lavalua. And he’s right. Maybe I had to come this far to appreciate what I already had and to take the best of both these worlds. Of course, I’ll return. Time is circular. The circle returns whole.
I have left two bottles of Johnny Walker whiskey for Papa Charlie Frisbie. If I give it to him, it will be gone by morning so my sister will take over barmaid duties.
“She’s a better barmaid than you,” said Papa Charlie, “she’ll give me two glasses and you’ll only give me one.” Papa Charlie grinned. “I am going to tie you to a coconut tree,” he laughed, the same joke he makes every time someone he loves leaves.
Wherever I am, I can toast a glass of Johnny Walker to Papa Charlie and know he’s doing the same.
Pukapuka exists beyond time and is sometimes sweeter in absence, longing and imagination. I finished the akalepo (mulching) for my three taro patches. Mama Lui will harvest it in the spring. “Of course you’re sad to go,” said Annie Williams, “your heart is here. But there is something waiting for you out there, something good, that’s why you have to go.”