“Here’s the problem,” grumps the mama in the red-and-white pareu that shows off her strong shoulders and arms. “Tourists come to me and they want to order fruit out of season.”
Sorry, I stammer, it’s just that when I asked if you had any passionfruit, well, you see, I’m new here, I don’t know what’s in season, when. So ... when is passionfruit season?
“Oh, it’s now,” she says brightly.
And she reaches across to move some bananas and cress to reveal a basket of beautiful plump passionfruit, far bigger and richer than their prune-like overseas equivalents.
Rarotonga’s Punanga Nui Market is a beating heart to the island on a Saturday morning. The dancers and drums at the centre draw in the tourists like oxygen-starved blood cells, them pump them out again to the surrounded stalls, fresh and enlivened.
They stream out around the ukuleles hand-carved by inmates at Arorangi Prison, loaves of sour-dough bread, fruit smoothies, vanilla-infused oils and liqueurs, hand-carved black pearls from the northern atoll of Manahiki and, of course, stall after stall of vividly-coloured pareu, the Cooks’ answer to a sarong.
At the back of the market, Teremoana Napa’s partially-roofed wooden stall is a surprising repository where passionfruit season comes when you least expect it, where the lemons and grapefruit are the colour of limes, the limes are the colour of oranges, and the oranges look a dark indescribable colour that entirely belies their name …
Here, behind the stern demeanour, is a generous woman who knows everything there is to know about her local fruit and veges, and lives to share that knowledge.
Do you enjoy doing this, Teremoana?
She leans in towards me as she replaces a grapefruit on the bench.
There’s a crinkling of the corners of her eyes, as she enjoys her own flagrant disregard for any Cook Islands Tourism Corporation script.
“No,” she continues, “but I know fruit. I grew up with produce. When I was a girl my parents would test us, to see if we knew the difference between the different fruit, the different varieties.”
Teremoana is from Arorangi on Rarotonga, the daughter of the chief Tinomana Ariki of Puaikura, Napa Tauei Napa. Her school-teachers assured her she could do anything she chose – and at age 11 she won a government scholarship to study at Solway College in Wairarapa, New Zealand. She trained as a dental nurse and returned to the Cook Islands in 1969, where the government would send her from one outer island to another, spending months living on each island and fixing the kids’ teeth. She would disembark at each tiny atoll with her motorbike, her foot-powered dental drill, and, from 1972, with her little daughter Chantal.
As an 11-year-old Chantal returned to Rarotonga and, when Teremoana finally retired from a last stint working as a school dental nurse in West Auckland, Chantal persuaded her to return home to be near her grandchildren.
They bought the hut at the market and, this year, she turned 70.
“Kia orana. Ko Teremoana Napa toku ingoa. No maua ko taku tamaine teia hut e, e okooko kai ana maua ite au Maanakai ravarai. E okooko ana maua i ta maua uaorai kai e ta to maua ai taeake katoa.
“So basically, my name is Teremoana Napa. My daughter Chantal and I own this hut and I come on Saturdays to sell produce on behalf of friends and family.”
As we talk, Teremoana is never sitting still, constantly moving, adjusting the display, bringing new stock from the back to fill gaps out the front, pricing the pawpaw and grapefruit with a marker pen …
The first time we met was my first visit to Rarotonga. I wanted to buy some passionfruit; I pulled a fresh $50 from my shiny black wallet. She snorted. “You can’t come to the market with just big notes like that!” And she grumbled as she hunted out change for me.
The next time I came, I checked my wallet as I drew near her stall. A $50 note again. So I began with a sorry-not-sorry apology. I’ve got $50, I’m sorry, but I’m going to spend most of that with you so I guess you’ll just deal with that?
From there, I think, we started to get along ...
I visit Teremoana every Saturday, usually with my wife Georgie and some of our three boys.
Today she’s explaining to a visitor: “Pawpaw are like women, you’ve got to look after them”
Teremoana’s advice doesn’t invite schoolboy titters.
“I do this on behalf of other people,” she explains later to me. “I don’t want to be here. I moan and I groan and I don’t want to be here, but it’s important, it’s important that somebody does it.
“I read in the Cook Islands News that Robert Oliver the chef was promoting local fruit and produce and I thought, why is a papa’a doing that? We need one of our own people doing that. So here I am.”
Teremoana doesn’t have a grocer’s truck. She doesn’t even have a car. Old mamas will call her up and say, I’ve got a couple of bunches of plantains on my tree that I can’t eat. Or some mangoes I can’t get down off the tree. So she’ll head over there.
“I race around Raro on the bus,” she says. “I don’t need a car. And I don’t need to be doing this. It’s just, I grew up in an agriculture world, and I love fruit.”
Other growers will drop off a box of this or a bag of that at her hut.
“When we had the airport there was 20 tonnes of produce flying out of here, air-freighted. For 20 years. And then they said, tourism’s the way to go.
“So they stopped planting. So I feel that these growers, once they’re gone, that’s our agriculture industry gone too.”
It’s hard to talk because of the noise of Cook Islands drums on the nearby stage.
So she pulls out a red plastic peeler and removes the outer rind from three oranges for my boys, then cuts a hole in the top of each. Don’t eat them, she gestures. Drink them like coconuts. They’re that juicy. Joe, 7, sucks his orange all the way home, until it’s dry as a coconut husk.
She shows them the tough-looking ice cream fruit. Crack them open, and you can pluck out the sweet, melt-in-your-mouth flesh, then compete to spit the big shiny black stones across the grass.
With her paring knife she carves the cop off a passionfruit, and shows 9-year-old Monty how to use that top like a teaspoon to eat the magic seeds within. Don’t ever cut them in half. Do it this way, and you won’t lose a single drop off the golden juice.
One day, when I visit with 4-year-old Gus, she brings out an uto from the back. This is the sprouting coconut, the last stage in the life cycle of the nut of life. Plant it, and a new tree will grow. Or cut off the sprouting top to discover inside a sweet flesh that has combined with the milk to create a spongy substance like marshmallow.
Gus is delighted. He devours the whole uto, clawing out whole handfuls, then gets home and tells his brothers about it with relish. They will have to wait another day to experience it themselves.
I’d always thought taro to be stodgy and flavourless. But Teremoana explains how to lightly boil or steam the taro taraua until the skin just slides off.
One week Teremoana introduces us to one type of plantain; the next week to another. They can be eaten fresh like bananas, or cooked.
Then there are the generations-old tips for identifying fruit. Like the citrus: when the limes are orange and the oranges are not, she shows us to just scratch the rind with a fingernail, then smell it. The fragrance gives away its secret.
Pay attention: One week I wasn’t listening properly and confused my guava with a sour green mango, and I paid the price. The knife slipped on the hard mango and sliced deep into the back of my thumb.
Another week, she tells me how the market managers are planning to hike the rents. The tents out front will go up from $15 to $20 a week; the huts out back like hers will more than double from $30 to $70 a week. It may not sound a lot of money, but these are old folk selling produce and handicrafts. They have no margins.
“Obviously someone is not paying their part, so we’re all being penalised,” she complains. “And that’s the story of living in Rarotonga, some of them get away with it, and those of us that are conscientious are penalised.”
I publish a story about the market rents in the Cook Islands News, and it stirs up a minor storm.
When I see her the following Saturday, she gives her crooked grin. “Market management is really pissed off at me.”
She pauses. “It was a good article. Management just aren’t thinking about the mamas and the papas.
“I just feel it’s a service, Jonathan, and that’s the best part. There’s a lot of stuff on the front of the market that’s not explained. And a lot of people don’t know the produce, so you have to explain how to use them.
“So I sell on behalf of families, and some of my own stuff. My friend Nan makes my chutneys. And she gets all my scraps for her ducks. So it’s like a little communal thing. She picks me up and brings me here, or an elderly relative does. And then I sell their produce.”
It’s a Friday morning and I’m heading into work a bit late. I pull up outside the Super Brown 24-hour grocery store and petrol station.
Teremoana is sitting on the bench seat outside in the shade, and we chat a while about politics, and about the MPs awarding themselves a 45 per cent pay rise.
I realise afterwards that she was waiting for the bus, making her rounds of the island to collect a bunch of this or that from her mamas and papas.
And I wish I had offered her a ride.