Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Land of the Birds: Memoir

Atiu, Cook Islands, is a raised coral atoll with a circumference of about 20 miles and land area of 10.4 square miles. Its 230-foot-high central plateau is surrounded by low swamps, beaches, and a 66-foot high coral reef containing many underground caves. Fertile volcanic soil and freshwater springs in the valleys allow cultivation and export of citrus fruits, taro, bananas, copra, and papayas. Coffee is also grown. Shipping is hampered by the lack of an adequate lagoon behind the fringing reef but there is an airstrip on the northeast coast. In the 1980s more than 1200 people lived in the island's five villages (by 2010 there would be only 511). 

Early in 1988 the corporation I worked for was acquired in a hostile takeover and my department eliminated. My March 50th birthday put me in a "protected" category that increased the size of my severance check, and I found consulting work one week a month for as much income as I'd been making in a full-time job. Suddenly free of traditional work hours and with plenty of money, I could do something I'd been interested in for a long time -- join an Earthwatch expedition.

Though tempted by Tracking Orangutans in Borneo (more about this later), I was most intrigued by an archeology/anthropology expedition to Atiu Island (or Enuamanu, land of the birds) in the Cooks. My friend Nikki joined me. The following and some future posts will cover highlights from the journal I kept during the trip.

Our room in Rarotonga
Tuesday, July 5, 1988: Nikki and I are sharing a room in Rarotonga before catching the cargo plane to Atiu with the other volunteers. The weather is cool, overcast, and windy. Our back window looks out on jungle and our front window on the ocean, framed by coconut palm trees, hibiscus, orchids, and bougainvillea.

Dr. Sinoto and Dr. Stephenson
Our expedition leaders Dr. Rebecca Stephenson, Dr. Hiro Kurashina, and the senior investigator, Dr. Yosi Sinoto held a press conference this morning describing our goals -- to trace the route of Polynesian colonization through archeological artifacts and to observe changes in island culture by comparing our journals to similar information collected by Becky in her year on the island for her doctoral study a decade ago.

At lunch today we were told the difficulty of Earthwatch trips varies a great deal. One woman, on her eighth expedition, said the Borneo trip was the toughest. At times they tracked the orangutans through waist-deep swamp water and afterwards had to pull leeches off each other. Because they moved from place to place, their camp sites and facilities were temporary. At one site, the team leaders were concerned about a wild boar in the area. So their night visits to the latrine -- a wooden plank over a large hole -- required balancing on the plank while holding a flashlight and a club.

Nikki left front, Mary middle front
In contrast, we look forward to a welcome from friendly and loving Māori islanders. Two members of our group have been to Atiu with Earthwatch before. Both are back because they became so attached to their hosts. Each of us will live with a family for two weeks, and those two will stay with the same families as before.

At today's briefing we learned that Māori is a directive language. Technically, "please" and "thank you" do not exist, so we shouldn't be surprised if told "Do this!" Reciprocity is integral to this culture. If you admire something, an Atiuan will feel obligated to give it to you. The same goes for us -- we'll know what gifts to give members of our families by what they admire among our possessions. The Māori have a saying that things "get legs." The children will be curious about jewelry, or small alarm clocks, or watches. If we leave such things lying around, they might disappear.

Umukai (feast)
Because we're guests, we will probably eat alone until our families get to know us, and we will eat with our hands, as they do. Shoes are not worn in the house. Both men and women are affectionate and will hug and kiss on the cheek. When attending the dances, a tap on the knee by a man will be an invitation to dance. After the dance a tap on the rear end will be an unspoken "Thank you."

There will be a conspicuous display of food, and we'll show our pleasure by eating a lot, though not necessarily everything. We asked a man who was here last year what that really means. He said, "It means six meals a day."

Thursday, July 7, 1988

Nikki and I awoke early in Rarotonga yesterday from anxious dreams about being in unfamiliar territory. After two weeks on the island of Atiu we'll probably come back to the "civilized" world and wonder why we do all the things we do. But in these early days we'll have to adapt to a simpler life. Few Atiuan homes have running water, for example. Instead, most collect rain water. Becky says "When it's time to wash up you'll take a pitcher and basin to the bath house. Do it the way birds do."

Nikki wearing a pareu
In Atiu's traditional Christian culture, women are expected to dress modestly. Bathing suits, short shorts, or low-cut tops are not acceptable, although families may have different standards for attire in the privacy of their homes. For swimming and as a cover-up at home, Nikki and I each bought a pareu (sarong), two yards of cloth to wrap around the body in various ways. We chose the same dark blue and green on white pattern.

My room in Papa Tu's home
I'm now sitting in bed in my small room in Atiu at 5:15 a.m. The canopy is made of white lace, and a gentle cross-breeze flows from the window to the open hall in the middle of the house on this hot, muggy morning. Papa drew the plans for this house, and he and his brother built it from cement block, with a raised tin roof to let the air circulate. I'm glad I brought a battery-operated book light, because electricity on the island is turned off between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Our outhouse in back
Washing up was easier than I expected because the collected rainwater flows from a spigot in the bath house. Before "doing as the birds do" last night, I brushed my teeth and rinsed the brush in my bath water  I was a bit nervous using the outdoor toilet in the dark, but found it flushes with only a little help from a bucket of water kept at the door of the outhouse.

So much is new, some expected because of our briefings, some surprising. It's certainly true, as we've been told by many people, that families here are wonderfully generous and caring. I have the good fortune to live at the home of the mayor, called Papa Tu by everyone because of his position in the village, and his wife Teu Mere, or Mere for short -- a name pronounced like mine: Mare-Ray, though I'm to call her "Mama."

Mama (Mere) on the right, in blue
As promised, our plane (one of two) was met yesterday by our host families and we were draped with eis (called leis in Hawaii) and our hair bedecked with garlands of flowers. I went with Mama right away to our home, where she served me fresh coconut milk (in a coconut), and two kinds of coconut meat: the nutty, mature meat and the immature flesh of the sprouting coconut -- fluffy, juicy, and very tender, similar in flavor but more delicate. 

After the second plane arrived, we were all taken to two umukais (feasts), the first an official greeting by Papa Tu and the head ariki (chieftain). Because it's customary for guests to eat first, our hosts did not join us in this feast of passion fruit juice, chicken, bananas, cookies, marinated squash, and a staple of the island called taro. This bland-tasting root looks somewhat like a sweet potato, although it can be grey or white or pink. Papa Tu says the color varies by where it's grown and how much moisture surrounds it.

Umukai (feast)
The second umukai followed a brief religious ceremony at the Sunday School. Papa Tu, who is also the assistant minister, introduced the minister -- a younger, quite heavy man with a booming voice, who gave a sermon on love. I taped the traditional hymn which was sung in Māori, eerie and beautiful, all the voices clear and joyful.

My island family is highly religious. Yesterday evening, after I was shown to the bath house and we had coffee, tea, and more taro with butter, some of the children and Mama's sister Rongo came in for evening devotion. Papa Tu played the guitar while all sang a folk hymn in a combination of Māori and English. Mama and the children alternated reading verses from the Bible in Māori. In my honor, Papa Tu read in English. Then we had a closing prayer.

Papa Tu and Mere have raised 21 children; only the two youngest boys still at home. Newton is 10 years old and very handsome, named after the town in New Zealand where five of their children lived at one time. Another son lives in the next village because he has a girlfriend there. I asked if they are married, and Papa Tu said, "Not yet. It is better that they know each other first, so they don't divorce right away, as so many have done." This son and his girlfriend have a two-year-old boy.

Papa Tu is very proud of his family, especially his oldest brother, who has passed away. In their inside sitting room are photographs on the walls, decorated with shell necklaces. This brother's picture is displayed prominently next to one of Papa Tu when he was younger. This oldest brother, Vainerere Tangatapoto, was Becky Stephenson's "Papa" on the island -- the one she lived with for a year and a half thirteen years ago while collecting data for her dissertation in anthropology. Papa says his brother loved Becky like a daughter and she loved him like a father.

Clearly, Papa Tu's favorite son is his namesake, who lives in New Zealand and is very much missed. Papa recalls with great tenderness Teio Tu's helpfulness as a boy. Mama says Teio Tu helped Papa put up the kitchen ceiling when he was only 12 years old.

There are other children about, mostly nieces, and one granddaughter. Of one of the nieces, Tau, Papa Tu says her parents are "not good." These relatives of Mama's, he said, drink a lot and go away at night with their "gang," leaving the children unattended.

Papa Tu with the children
Humor is a big part of their lives. Papa Tu teased Mama that only her relatives are bad. Even his nephew joked with Papa at the feast last night, saying everyone hoped Papa would keep his speech short.

Mama speaks English quite well, though not as fluently as Papa. This is, I suspect, partly due to personality, and partly to roles. Papa Tu does most of the talking and he's the one who decides what's appropriate behavior for me. Mama is present, adding comments or laughing.

In this morning's briefing we were asked to describe to the Earthwatch group what we've observed so far, and I found myself tongue-tied, trying to share how open my family has been and how touched I am by their stability and spiritual depth. Though many described themselves as happy with their families, I believe I'm the luckiest to be with mine. I'm interested in the island's history and traditions, and my family holds to most of the historical culture.

Mama dressed me in a traditional costume
In contrast, Nikki is with a "modern" family -- they watch TV (VCR) till midnight, drink Diet Pepsi, and eat mostly tinned food. I'm sure her "Mama" believes she is serving her guest especially well, but Nikki isn't experiencing the old ways of the islanders.

There was much laughter in my family, for example, when Mama dressed me in this traditional costume.

Friday, July 8, 1988

I slept soundly, in spite of some on our team telling me of cockroaches and other insects in their rooms. Awakened by bird calls, I remembered being a child on my grandparent's farm and hearing the cocks crow in the early morning, though the Mynah birds are certainly a new touch.

Mama waiting for me to eat
For breakfast we had shredded coconut, taro, fried eggs, papaya, cabin bread (a thick cracker), butter, and mashed bananas fried with arrowroot (looks like a potato pancake)--delicious. And Mama is generous to ensure there's always hot water for my herb tea. For lunch we had the same food as at breakfast, with the addition of both fried and fresh bananas. I think Papa Tu gave Mama this instruction because I said I love bananas. Mama says grace in Māori before each meal. Papa Tu repeats it in English.

I've learned to say Kia Orana ("May you live"), a special greeting that's more than "hello." This morning, as Papa Tu and I sat outside the house in front, everyone who passed said "Morning," with an Australian-sounding accent. I learned this was not for my benefit, but rather a typical greeting. All the Atiu tupu talk and joke in Māori in my presence. I feel happy rather than excluded, knowing they act naturally around me, even though I'm sure they're sometimes talking about me.
With Jay at today's dig

One team member, Jay Powell, is staying at the home of Mama's sister, who sent him over here for lunch because she didn't know we'd take a mid-day break and hadn't prepared food. Papa was charming and funny, trying to get Jay to eat more. I said I'd already proven I "eat like a pig." This is a family joke because the Māori word for papaya, vipuaka, literally means "food for the pigs." Before the Europeans arrived, the Māori never ate papaya; they only fed it to the pigs.

I'm sitting near the cab, white socks and sneakers
On the way home from the dig today, our truck driver stopped at the harbor to let off a young German woman and English man who had wandered the island while their ship unloaded its cargo. On the deck we saw crates and crates of beer marked Atiu Motel. Papa has told me of attempts to reduce the amount of drinking in the village, especially among the young people. He discussed this with all the parents, who agreed to enforce a curfew. Many wanted to completely ban drinking, but Papa understood this would simply lead to rebellion, and too many young people were already leaving the island.
Papa Tu

As Becky has explained, Māori is indeed a directive language, and Papa Tu's efforts to guide me sound like commands. Even so, he's pretty flexible. He'll say "Eat more," followed by "You do not have to finish if you are full." After I returned this afternoon he said, "You should take a little rest and then a bath before dinner." I asked if I could take a bath first and he was hesitant, but I think this was more because Mama wasn't around to find things for me. When I showed him my soap and told him my towel was in the bath house, he seemed more at ease with my impertinence. But later when I left my room after writing in my journal, he said "You go back and rest. I will tell you when Mama is back and dinner is ready."

Spirit House (Marae)
Tonight after dinner Papa Tu told me about the Cook Islands celebration held each year to commemorate "the coming of the Gospel." Each island celebrates according to its own history. On Atiu, villagers prepare and rehearse a play. Our village, Tengatangi, reenacts the arrival of John Williams. Before his landing, a woman had foretold the coming of strange men, their bodies covered from head to toe. They would bring a new god and all the present gods would be cast away. The islanders had thought her crazy, but the head ariki was the first to be convinced. When others protested, he demonstrated the power of this God by eating sugar cane from a sacred place, a Marae, to test their belief that doing so would lead to possession by the devil. When nothing happened to him, he offered this as proof that the new god had greater power. Soon afterward, everyone accepted the Christian God.

Earthwatch Team and families in front of C.I.C.C.
I'm back row, second from right
There are three churches on Atiu: Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and the Cook Islands Christian Church (C.I.C.C.) to which Papa Tu and his family belong. They and the minister, as well as some others, are Born Again Christians who want to move their church toward a more literal interpretation of the Bible, banning musical instruments in church.

Papa Tu told me today the traditional hymn we heard on our arrival is from Psalm 25:
Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken, but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forever more. The sceptre of the wicked will not remain over the land allotted to the righteous, for then the righteous might use their hands to do evil.
Some of the children surrounding me
This sounds very Western and formal, and I couldn't have imagined those words from the haunting, traditional singing that ushered in our arrival.

Tonight at evening devotion Papa Tu's family and I sang this song in English, accompanied by Papa Tu on guitar: He is able, He is able, He is able to carry me through, heal the brokenhearted, set the captive free, make the lame to walk again, make the blind to see.

Mama and Papa Tu's son, Ina Ina, who lives in another village, was here for dinner tonight. We had taro leaves (somewhat like spinach, but tastier) cooked with corned beef, fish in coconut sauce, bread, butter, boiled bananas, and a choice of tea or coffee. The fish was excellent. The boiled bananas take some getting used to, their taste and texture somewhat like artichoke hearts, only more dense. We started eating before Papa returned from the bath house, and Mama taught me to slurp my food as a sign of enjoyment. When Papa came in we demonstrated, and after that we all ate noisily. I'm sure they had restrained themselves from this in earlier meals.

This led to a story from Papa about a visit to New Zealand, when his older brother taught him how to use a fork. In one restaurant Papa embarrassed his brother by asking a member of the staff if he could eat with his hands. The answer was "Yes." Then lobster was brought in, and Papa felt a step ahead of everyone.

Islanders & Earthwatch team; I'm in red shirt, middle
Saturday, July 9: We had our first work day yesterday, but not a long one, only about five hours. We can walk to this site and cleared off about one-third of the Marae at Vairokaia, on land next to my family's plantation. Among the whole team we excavated pig's teeth, a flake, and what appears to be the top of a fireplace, as well as many shells. The boys from the village, who helped us clear away the site, climbed up nearby trees and brought us fresh coconuts to have with our lunch. After drinking the coconut milk, we were shown how to scrape the fresh coconut out with our thumb nails.

Musicians at singing competition
In the evening there was a singing competition and dance. Two of the four finalists, as well as the guest singer, are from Papa Tu's extended family. It is the custom here to take small coins (10 or 20 cents NZ) and throw them in a basin in front of the entertainer. Some people show their pleasure in the music by dancing on their way up to throw a coin. With only a little coaxing from Mama, I danced my way up with a coin.

Today, I learned from Papa Tu the meaning of some names. Our village is Tengatangi after a chief of the old days--Tangiia--who was very popular in the Cook Islands. The village's original name was Taturoa ("standing point that is long"). A village farther toward the coast is Ngatiarua

Papa Tu's given name is Teiotu-O-Tangaroa ("The Standing Mirror of Tangaroa). Tangaroa was the god of gods, and the "standing mirror" refers to a clear lake where Tangaroa was said to have looked to see if all the other gods were happy.

Mama and Papa Tu in front area of house
Mama's name, Teu Mere, is her wedding name, not the one she was given as a child. Her older sister was Papa Tu's first wife, who died in her early thirties. Papa Tu considered moving to New Zealand at that time, but the families got together and decided he should marry his wife's younger sister, who was then 18 years old. The name Teu Mere means "something surprising," referring to her sister's sudden death. Their twin sons are named Rouru Ina Ina ("gray hair," after Papa Tu's mother-in-law) and Tangiia (after the famous chief).

This morning, after being notified that our trip to the caves was postponed due to rain, some of us walked to the Atiu Motel. There are three units, with a fourth being built. The owner was away, but we met a couple from Canada staying there who showed us inside their unit. It's an A=frame with indoor plumbing, a double and a single bed, and a loft that could sleep two more people. Food is supplied in the small kitchen area, and guests are charged only for the food or beverages they use. Papa Tu says the motel owner, Roger, met his Atiuan wife in New Zealand and came here "to get away from the rat race." The islanders are not happy with him, some even urging that he be deported. He built a saw mill to produce the lumber for his motel, which is made almost totally from materials found on the island. But he charges dear prices in the mill. Also, while shops in the village are open only in early morning and late afternoon, he keeps his shop open for long hours, and the Atiu tupu believe he is trying to steal their money. Finally, he doesn't impress on guests the ways of the people here. Papa stopped one woman riding by on a motor bike wearing short shorts, telling her angrily to go back to the motel and put on some clothes.

I'm ready to walk to the dig site
The women and female children in Papa's family never wear pants. I wore Bermuda shorts once, but could see from how he looked away that he was uncomfortable, so I only wear long pants or a skirt at home. The women here sit with their ankles crossed, and rarely cross their legs. Yet I've noticed children bathing together outside next to the house. I asked Papa at what age the boys and girls are separated to bathe, and he would only say, "When they are older."

Papa treats "Mommy," as he calls her, gently, and shares decisions and some tasks with her, though roles are traditionally delineated. She cooks, cleans, washes clothes. As head of the household, he governs through participation much the way he governs as mayor. Mama rarely tells me what to do as he does, but apparently influences his decisions. For example, I had told her I couldn't eat all the food she sent with me for lunch, and when Papa was late for dinner she confided in me that she had told him not to insist on so much food for me. When he is away, she and I laugh as if we were sisters, and even plan jokes to play on him, as we did with my noisy slurping of food. They both laughed heartily with me.

Papa Tu's home office is in the front bedroom across from mine. He says Mama insisted on having a bed where he could sleep when he works late. 

The children seem to live next door in the second house, where Mama's sister also lives, and only come here for devotional services. When they do peek around corners Papa admonishes them to be quiet.

He told me they are "too noisy" to live in this house, but I think some of them sleep here when there are no guests. 

Sunday, July 10:
Wero ("to cast a spear") is a traditional Māori challenge at a pōhiri, or welcoming ceremony, to ensure that visitors come in peace. It also establishes their steadfastness, and the prowess of the challenging warriors.
The male members of Nikki's family took her to a tu munu (brewery) last night, where only women visiting the island are allowed (for local women it would be considered a disgrace). tu munu sites are in the middle of the jungle, the beer brewed and stored in the hollowed-out trunk of a coconut tree. The brew itself is fermented orange, and generally takes about a week to be ready to drink. Nikki said the beer tasted like fruit punch and she didn't drink much, worried it would be too easy to get drunk. A recording she made sounded like a noisy bar anywhere. Singing, music, laughter.

Meanwhile Jay and I accompanied my family to their Saturday evening prayer meeting, where everyone in the group was asked to share something. When it was my turn, I spoke of my pleasure to come half-way around the world and hear children singing songs I had learned as a child: "Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham" and "What a friend we have in Jesus." I could barely keep my composure when members of the group sang a welcome song, then filed by, kissing each of us one by one and saying "I love you, in the name of Jesus." Papa Tu also read Psalm 133 in Māori: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity. . ." 

Mama has a very clear singing voice, and helped guide me through the hymns in church today. I was also able to follow the hymnal pretty well. She told me later that people watched my lips and were happy to know I was singing in Māori.

After church there was a meeting for women only. This involved a combination of individual responses to today's bible text and spontaneous dancing, usually started by an older woman. Mama says they call this woman, Mama Mika, their "comic." I was invited to dance, and tried to imitate the hula-like movements, which generated much laughter.

Though some Earthwatch members modeled traditional island dresses made for them by their Mamas, most of the local women wore modern dress to church. All them have brimmed hats, and Mama loaned me a white one with white ribbon trim. She had hand-woven this hat, heavy enough to withstand today's strong winds. When I commented on the winds' force, Mama said her parents were in a hurricane before she was born that was so terrible all the houses and trees were flattened. People survived only by running into the valley below.

I am slowly learning the names of the children. Today after church, 5-year-old Maru took my hand walking home. Her mother, Mama's sister, is Rongo. In addition to Mama and Papa's son Newton, their daughter is Miimetua, and they have a "feeding child" (adopted) who is actually their niece, named Ngatokorua. Other nieces are Tau and--born in New Zealand--Jennifer and Darlene.

Returning from a walk after church, I met a young woman from New Zealand as she was leaving our house. She's here to study local music in preparation for a Master's degree in music, and was seeking Papa Tu's permission to tape record his family's traditional challenge to distinguished visitors. Though she'd tried to convince him it might otherwise be lost to posterity, he would not give permission. I asked Papa about this, and he said it is a welcome greeting allowed only to his family. I've seen him willingly agree to other requests, so I know this is a real family secret.

Mama making tapa cloth.
This afternoon after lunch, our Earthwatch senior investigator Yosi Sinoto came by to find out who in Atiu is most skilled at making tapa cloth from ava bark, and Papa pointed to Mama. She showed us a photograph where she is pounding the cloth over a log. Yosi said Hawaiian Air will pay her airfare and hotel for a week in Honolulu, plus $75 a day. In return, she will present at a two-day workshop demonstrating and answering questions about this traditional method.

Papa, trained by his father in the traditional ways, answered many of Yosi's questions and is negotiating to accompany Mama. He showed us a hand-knotted fishnet used to catch flying fish in the old way. Papa is now the only one on Atiu who can make an akeikei (fish-catching basket) in the traditional manner because none of the young ones want to learn how. He also spoke of picking anani (oranges) as a boy and rowing a thousand cases at a time out to the ship, because the reef is too dangerous for ships to dock at the wharf. Mama said the pickers would climb the first orange tree, then leap from tree to tree by the branches.

(to be continued)

No comments: