She holds her doctorate in community and cross-cultural psychology. She is a regular contributor to CI News and the Atlantic Magazine online and today she shares her thoughts on living in Rarotonga and the challenges of finding her way back home to Pukapuka.
I recently left Pukapuka, after six months back on the atoll.
I came to Rarotonga for professional development with the Ministry of Education.
I never expected to be stuck in Rarotonga for this long.
When the Air Raro plane landed on the runway, I looked forward to eating cheddar cheese and ice cream, visiting the dentist, and wearing miniskirts.
Walking into Foodland in Avarua, the initial excess astounded me.
So much food, so much waste, and too much chicken.
Where were all the fish and coconuts? And where was the conservation?
During my first week in Raro, I treated myself to chocolate cake and a mojito at Bamboo Jacks.
I couldn’t stop taking photos of the food. So much whipped cream!
Fresh mint! One of the many beautiful things about Pukapuka is that it makes you appreciate everything.
An ice cube is a cold, melting miracle.
Honestly, when one hasn’t had an ice cube in six months you close your eyes and savour it. I remember my mother describing eating a cucumber after six months of nothing close to the cool, refreshing taste.
But the truth is I don’t need any of these things. I don’t need ice cubes or cucumbers or cheddar cheese.
And when I have them, I appreciate them that much more.
When I first returned to Pukapuka in January, I made a long list of all the things I wanted the next Kwai cargo boat to bring from Hawaiia stand-up paddle board, a solar-powered battery charger, anchovy paste, curry paste, candied ginger, a new ice cream maker, more books, a skirt for church and the list went on.
As the months went by, I slowly crossed each thing off my list. Pukapuka has all the resources I need, it has all the resources we all need, really.
“Prayer and play is the secret,” said a psychologist mentor of mine.
And Pukapuka is all about prayer and play.
Sterling Hayden who wrote the beautiful memoir Wanderer (1963) wrote: “what does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, the dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”
The first time I came back to Pukapuka , whether by accident or by fate, I fell in love with the place but felt I had to get back to my “real life” and be a professor at the university and get back to native Hawaiian community research. This last time I returned to Pukapuka required an upheaval of my previous life, true risk and bankruptcy of purse. I have not looked back, or if I have, only briefly and with the aim of building bridges.
I went back to write and learn and see what would happen. It has been magical, along with the many painful hurdles that all risk-taking requires. Writing and hearing the feedback from people from Cook Islands News Pukapuka articles has been one of the unexpected joys. I sent the articles off into the internet void not really thinking who would read them or ever seeing the copies of the paper.
While eating my chocolate cake at Bamboo Jacks, Kelly Pick came and introduced herself “are you the girl who writes about Pukapuka?” she asked. She offered me her motorbike and to house-sit while she and her husband Brendon Heath went to Aitutaki for a week. She has become something of a guardian angel during my time in Rarotonga. As have many others, including everyone at the Pukapuka Hostel.
In Rarotonga, it has been great spending time with all the thinkers and doers at the Ministry of Education, making liaisons with grant agencies, learning about hydroponics, collaborating with the Pukapuka community in Rarotonga/New Zealand/Australia, looking at arts and crafts export, and getting more resources for our community and strengths-driven programmes in Pukapuka. We have a lot of exciting projects to do as part of tertiary education and the “University of Pukapuka”.
I went to Te Ipukarea Society to talk to Kelvin Passfield about setting up a co-operative dried fish business. Teina Mackenzie came up to me afterwards, “you wrote about the yolonga,” she said, “that meant a lot to me. Knowing your burial place.” I have had many such touching moments.
Most writers, certainly in America, never meet their readers. I am grateful to the friends I’ve made on the street, for people finding resonance in my story with their own, for people better understanding the magic of Pukapuka, to the support of the Ministry of Education for projects in the north, to Cook Islands News and of course to the whole Pa Enua Pukapukan community.
There have also been awkward moments. “Do you really like living in Pukapuka?” ask some. Riding around on a motorbike in the rain, I wear a big garbage bag. “You bloody Pukapukan,” says someone. Honestly, the garbage bag works better than the poncho.
“I could never live there. Too isolated,” is one of the most common comments.
When people say Pukapuka is isolated, I am not sure what that means. Isolated from what? From Rarotonga? Yes, transportation can be a challenge and I would love to have my own little plane to fly to Hawaii and visit friends and family regularly and to attend births and weddings and funerals. But at the same time the lack of transport has kept Pukapuka’s traditions and uniqueness alivethe village events, the careful conservation, the village structure, the sports, the celebrations, the fresh food, the fishing, the taro patches, the strength of community, the language and the list goes on. Even my mother, living there in the late seventies, moving from the big city of Chicago loved it. “I dreaded the boat coming,” she told me, “I loved the peace and the men’s singing on the motu. It was one of the most joyful and tranquil times in my life. It’s a Polynesian Shangri-La.”
Pukapuka sits closer to God. Living in nature, with the sea and the taro patch and community. I firmly believe that Pukapuka has much to teach the “developed” world and I would choose Pukapukan civilization over the rest any day. I am surprised that people are surprised that I love Pukapuka. It’s Rarotonga that I don’t love quite yet. I am grateful to be able to come and go from Pukapuka, for a big Katoa family, and to write and teach and criss-cross this beautiful wide ocean. There is nothing isolated about living closer to God and nature.