Youths call Sheraton ‘home’

Wednesday July 12, 2017 Written by Published in Local
Getting away from family dramas and calling a couple of dilapidated rooms at the Sheraton hotel site their makeshift home are (from left) Noah Davey, 19, from Aitutaki; Puna Teinakitama, 19, from Manihiki and Leanne Rio, 17, from Rarotonga. 17071101 Getting away from family dramas and calling a couple of dilapidated rooms at the Sheraton hotel site their makeshift home are (from left) Noah Davey, 19, from Aitutaki; Puna Teinakitama, 19, from Manihiki and Leanne Rio, 17, from Rarotonga. 17071101

As the morning sun casts a shadow over the ruins of  the graffiti-daubed Sheraton hotel site in the south of Rarotonga, silhouetted figures can be seen moving in and around a downstairs room.

With a history of bankruptcy, failed rebuild attempts, and more lately of vandals and squatters, the ill-fated luxury five-star hotel has a chequered history – and what some say is a curse hanging over the property.

After spotting figures amongst the buildings a couple of times while driving past,  I decided to take a closer look to see who had recently checked in.

A makeshift sign sits at the roadside entrance advising would-be snoopers that it is private land and you first need to report to the blue house directly across the road.

Outside, sitting on a deckchair bouncing his grandson on his knee, is Rouru Tangatapoto, a cheery papa who happens to be the caretaker of the hotel site – and the man who runs Sheraton tours upon request at $5.00 per punter.

He also oversees the site on behalf of local landowners and the Ariki for Takitumu.

He openly explains that some of his workers are currently occupying a couple of the abandoned hotel’s rooms.

The workers he’s referring to are teenagers – mostly from the outer islands who have found themselves in Rarotonga without a job and or place to live – and on the verge of getting into trouble.

Tangatapoto says he’s trying to help and guide them in the right direction.

He is offering the young people work in his grounds maintenance business, which includes the Sheraton site – and in return, apart from a meagre pay packet, they get somewhere safe to stay.

“They come here with nowhere to live and no means to survive and it would be easy for them to fall into crime,” he said.

They work doing lawn-mowing work around the island for motels, resorts and private residents.

Tangatapoto says it’s something that the Ariki  is happy with as they also keep the Sheraton site’s grounds well maintained.

Tangatapoto is evidently a man with a big heart –and a vision to help the young generation .

Apart from helping stop the kids getting into high-risk behaviour, it seems his “it takes a village to raise a child” philosophy is working.

He says he is trying to teach them life-skills and how to budget their money – encouraging them not spend it all on alcohol.

I ask him about people recently seen on the site in red shirts, who I thought might have been aid workers.

He says that they are “under-the-radar Chinese investors” who are looking into a possible lease arrangement to develop the site. But he  says,  “that’s all hush hush for now”.

Hanging around the outside unit, four young teens suspiciously look me up and down as I approach from across the road.

I offer up a friendly “kia orana” and explain that “papa” said it was okay for me to have a look around. They relax, and I ask them if it’s okay if I ask them some questions.

One of them shrugs and says that it’s okay – but he straddles a motorbike and zooms away, leaving me with his three friends.

Leaning against a wall to the outside unit, Noah Davey, 19,  explains that he’s over from Aitutaki to escape “family drama” and that he works for “papa”.

Noah says he’s been at the hotel site for two months and is grateful for the work “papa” has given him and his friends. He says it gives them enough to survive, and also somewhere to stay.

A young girl inside the room turns over under a blanket on a makeshift bed while Puna Teinakitama, 19, originally from Manihiki, sits before me on a comfy looking chair as if he’s the king of the castle.

From behind dark shades he says he’s been there six months and explains that he’s here also for a break from “family drama” at home.

Leanne Rio, 17, has been living with them for the past three months, and again mentions “family drama” in Rarotonga. 

The common theme here isn’t too dissimilar to homelessness more typically seen in urban areas of society, with kids couch surfing at friends’ homes to escape dysfunctional families or abuse.

What first troubles me is sanitation. But I  find out that some of the toilets in the complex still work. The upstairs and downstairs units they’re occupying still do. There is also running water with a hose out the front.

The room to their immediate right is mostly full of trash and a couple of large boxes full of discarded beer bottles.

The room to their left stores the tools of their trade – edge trimmers and other lawn mowing and grounds maintenance equipment.

The one thing that is apparent to me is how well-mannered and chilled-out the three teens are.

Overall, they seem very content, even if their surroundings are unusual and just a little paradoxical.

I ask them if they feel safe living here, and they all agree that’s it is “fine”.

Not only that, Puna says that he’s used to living off the land and the sea, having grown up on Manihiki.

The teenagers aren’t the only people making use of the Sheraton site.

 A paintball and laser tag company use the furthest wing from where we are standing on a regular basis for free, as long as they clean up after themselves.

Just as we are talking a convoy of six four-wheel drive buggies zoom past along a well worn muddy path.

The buggy tour apparently pays a fee for the use of the grounds. I ask the kids about the possible Chinese investors scoping out the site. They say they had heard about it and had also seen them recently, but were all sceptical that anyone could afford to buy their particular slice of prime real estate paradise.

“They’d need more money than Donald Trump,” one of them says.

 As for what eventually becomes of the eerie hotel site, and what some people label as a cursed piece of land, is anybody’s guess – but so far offering a handful of transients teenagers a place to live is the first good news story coming out of its bleak history.            

1 comment

  • Comment Link Catherine Wednesday, 12 July 2017 17:47 posted by Catherine

    Lovely story Chris!

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