Now, having moved to her family’s home island of Atiu last month with three young children in tow, Chiavanni is finally living that dream.
“I have always wanted to move to the Pa Enua, to learn my Cook Islands reo and to ensure that my kids learn their mother tongue” says Chiavanni, whose grandmother was born on Atiu.
“I suggested it to my husband when we first returned to the Cook Islands in 2014, but he believed we could learn here in Rarotonga, so to compromise we stayed and the kids attend Apii Takitumu, an awesome school.”
While her children were doing well and learning Maori at school, over time Chiavanni realised that “to ensure we all speak Maori, it needs to be reinforced at home and at school”.
So she enrolled in Maori language classes at the Cook Islands Tertiary Training Institute, and also even started her own classes, inviting other students to attend after she found someone who would teach them.
During this time, while working as a tax advisory officer, Chiavanni was encouraged to further her education by Cook Islands financial secretary Garth Henderson, so she embarked on a bachelor degree in business, majoring in finance and management.
Then, earlier this year, Chiavanni was awarded a domestic scholarship, which included an allowance that would allow her to live and study in a place of her choosing.
“I decided that it was the perfect time to take my children to the Pa Enua to reinforce our language by total immersion,” she says.
“I chose to return to my home island to study and share an experience with my children to ensure they learn and understand the values of appreciation.”
Taking leave from work, Chiavanni prepared to move herself and her children to Atiu, leaving husband Rene behind to manage the family pie business.
Laughing when asked what people said when she told them she was moving to Atiu, Chiavanni says a common reaction from many people was, ‘Why? There’s nothing in Atiu’.
“But I’ve come to realise that Atiu has everything that you need,” she says.
As for her husband, he was slightly harder to convince that the move was a good idea – but Chiavanni was set on her course.
“I guess he didn’t believe it at first, but there wasn’t really much that he could say to make me change my mind, so he became supportive of the move,” she says.
“On the day we were leaving he finally found the courage within himself to wish us all the best, a safe journey, and that he would anxiously await our return.”
Barely having set foot in Atiu, Chiavanni soon got her first taste of the realities of the Pa Enua lifestyle.
“We put all our stuff on the boat, and we were told the boat was going to arrive on a specific day, so that’s the day we flew in,” she explains. “However, when we got here, I got another update from the boat, and it was just waiting for more cargo – it ended up taking three weeks.”
“Actually, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. I adjusted myself, and then I thought, ‘You know what, if everyone else can wait for the boat, then so can we’.
“Instead of stressing about it and my things, like all the others who live here permanently I waited for the boat, just like them. I wore the same clothes every day, washing them at night ready to wear the next day.
“That’s what’s really cool about being in the islands and having a lack of resources over here,” she adds.
“Some of the Western resources that we’ve gotten used to like fashion, makeup and all those things – that’s not a real necessity here in the Pa Enua. It’s not a big deal here. People just really don’t seem to care. Which is really quite nice, not to be judged about what you’re wearing and things like that.”
While Chiavanni faced something of a learning curve adjusting to outer island life, her children – 12-year-old son Kiani, eight-year-old daughter Revas and her six-year-old ‘baby’ Halem – dived right in.
“You don’t have to worry.” about the kids,” says Chiavanni.
“They go out and they play, they have fun – and they come home."
“They just find anything to play with, whatever’s on the side of the road. You don’t necessarily need toys here. There’s a lot of stuff for them to do, they’re so busy."
“My baby Halem is loving it the most. He finishes school at 1.30pm yet does not return home until just before dark. The first day he was out I was so scared and my heart just sank – where could my six year old be? “All the crazy thoughts of him falling off a cliff or falling into a lost cave hole in the middle of Atiu were ringing in my ears. I drove up and down the village in search of my son. Finally, on dusk, I found my son’s bike on the lawn of a nearby neighbour. “I ran to the door to see if he was there and he was happily sitting in another family’s house, whom I have now come to know as my family, on my Poona side, watching cartoons."
“The beautiful thing about out here is that in this community, everybody takes care of everybody’s children. So my child is your child, and your child is my child, and that’s what everyone keeps reminding me, because I’m used to the Western way of things.”
So far, less than halfway through her four-month stay on Atiu, Chiavanni says living on the island has opened her eyes to a whole new way of life.
“Life can be a rat race sometimes,” she says.
“You get up, you go to work, you send your kids to school, you come home to feed them, and then you do it all over again the next day."
“Here in Atiu, life is a lot simpler. And you can enjoy it in abundance."
“I hear Papa Sonny Williams in his show on Saturday nights at the Edgewater commenting on how Rarotonga is the ‘city’ of the Cook Islands, encouraging the tourists to go to the Pa Enua to get away from the traffic jams and the smog of city life. The tourists burst out laughing, as you can only imagine the places they come from."
“But in reality, the peacefulness and tranquillity of the Pa Enua truly is bliss. The people are all very humble and caring, everyone shares everything, and resources are limited as the boat service is inconsistent. “Everyone is forced to live off the land as much as possible, until we are blessed with the additional resources supplied to us by the boat. I actually wouldn’t change a thing about the Pa Enua life – I love it just as it is.”