9° south of the equator

“It’s hot here,” the Pastor’s lovely wife said with a smile, “it’s always hot. Sometimes you can see some flowers blooming and you know it’s Spring, but it’s always hot.” The village of TeTautua does not own enough cars to have much of a road so its houses tend to meander along foot trails, which double as scooter and motorcycle paths, a web centered on the imposing blue and white Cook Island church. Ungirded by streets, houses with deep porches, windows without glass, only tattered cloth curtains, lay scattered at random angles. You might forget to notice that there are no dogs (they have been disallowed by the island council, which makes everything its business). Their absence, as much as the haphazard city planning, creates the feeling of a ghost town, especially if the children are in school and the hot sun is broiling the gray coral gravel underfoot.

Hakono Saitu

The island is losing its population, slowly, people emigrating to bigger more populous islands, or New Zealand. Though there is an abundance of fish, there are few (maybe none) of the occupations that keep idle hands busy in even the smallest midwestern ghost town. In the big village on the other side of the atoll there is a nurse. There is a policeman, somewhere. There are teachers. But there are no stores. There are scant few gardens, a difficult enterprise in the hard limestone pavement that constitutes the earth of an atoll. There are thriving coconut groves, possibly the remnant of a copra operation, the kind that is still subsidized in French Polynesia. For a while there was a booming pearl farm business, which succumbed to cyclones and a disease among the oysters. Perhaps the mental, emotional, spiritual space that in North American suburbia is filled with cars and traffic lights, malls, donut shops, Home Depot and Costco, here is filled by the sea herself and the Cook Island Christian Church.

Takake Akatapuria
Tumukahu Marsters/Pastor

It’s no secret that missionaries did a number on the South Pacific. This is still one of the main places those white shirt and tie young scrubs in the Salt Lake airport are all headed. But it was news to me that God apparently doesn’t want you to fish on Sundays (I thought Jesus was a fisherman). No work, no play, no music, no swimming (sound familiar?). Like a friendly, island version of the Taliban, they take these injunctions seriously in Penrhyn and they made it their business to see that we anchored right by town to ensure that we weren’t off enjoying ourselves on Sundays doing the devil’s worst out of sight of the church’s two story pulpit.

Naturally, we were invited to church. Hats strictly required for women (strictly not allowed in Tonga) but definitely NOT permitted for men. Diana showed up with a beautiful head wreath from Rapa (made for church there) but here she was told she had to have a hat that covered the top part of her head (cuz God is looking down, I guess?). Long pants for men (in the tropics!), luckily Mike had a light pair I could borrow so I didn’t have to wear jeans. The Pastor’s white pants (God only knows how he kept them white) were unhemmed and about eight inches too long for him, so he walked on them, barefoot when he greeted us at his house and then under sandals for the service. He carried a bible, well worn with pieces of folded paper tucked among its pages, King James translated to Māori/Tongarevan, the language of the Cook Islands.

We arrived in the morning to find out that regular church had been cancelled because an elder woman, Mama Takulani, mother of 12, had died in her sleep early that morning. She had lived on Penrhyn her whole life, in this village of about fifty people, with barely one dirt road and about four cars to drive on it, no stores, no post office, nothing but a collection of very simple homes occupied by people who must know each other very, very well.

We gathered at her house, the palangi (foreigners) outside on plastic chairs to witness a three hour funeral, mostly singing, which seemed unscripted and improvised, arising spontaneously from the group of women seated on the patio floor. Men joined in, and the harmonies were unlike anything we’d ever heard, oddly discordant and complex, a fascinating mix of church hymns and Polynesian music, all the more intense as an expression of mourning. Speeches were given by men, long speeches, in the local language, with occasional acknowledgements in English to the visiting Palangi. The woman’s body was carried to the church, in through the left-hand door, briefly spoken over, then exited through the right-hand door. She was buried in a pre-built concrete crypt in a hole dug that morning by a backhoe outside her bedroom. She was covered with a tapestry and laid in the ground. It felt very odd to witness something so profoundly personal and significant for our hosts, though they went out of their way to make us feel welcome, and afterward there was a feast, with an insistence that visitors eat first.

The next Sunday (Father’s day!) respecting their local commandments and traditions, I did not fish. The first time that has happened since I became a father, 27 years ago. Instead, we went again to church to be harangued, mostly in Tongarevan, but also in English, by a series of men who (like the pastors of Rapa), utilized a hierarchically arranged pulpit (literally with stairs) to wield their authority. Maybe you need something organized like this on an island with nothing but turquoise water and sun and fish, to keep people from running amok, though it felt so out of place with the usual island vibe of very friendly, relaxed, open people. Singing provided some relief in the service, though the performance was more structured and a little more hymn-like than what we witnessed at the funeral. There’s a lot of this kind of singing in Penrhyn, all through the week, several times a day on Sunday. They grow up with this music, so they sing with passion and confidence and subtlety. The women often hold a hand to their face as they sing, and I wasn’t sure if it was to help them hear their voices (the way you might imagine Sting in a recording studio), or to hide their faces and wide open mouths. One young woman held a book that blocked most of her face. Afterward, there was another generous feast at the Pastor’s house, with pictures of the gathering of foreign visitors (representing several countries in Europe and North America) to be posted on Facebook.

When it seemed we would be on the island for another Sunday (waiting for a weather window to depart, and fishing) we decided we would skip church, but thought we’d better say something about our decision in advance. The Pastor seemed relieved (the unexpectedly large group of sailors must have been hard on his freezer, which would not be refilled until the next supply ship, months out). He did admonish us not to do anything on our boats, especially not swim, and seemed to joke (not sure here) that the sharks were in league with God and would enforce the no swimming on Sunday rule. Diana spent about five hours in the water cleaning our hull anyway, and lived to tell.

Though we chaffed at being required to observe the religious regulations of the island, presented to us as Law (which almost certainly cannot have been constitutional in a country governed by New Zealand) we were also overwhelmed by the generosity of their reception. Gift giving and hospitality is a pervasive and vibrant cultural practice throughout Polynesia, and they outdid themselves. We did our best to give back, too. And although the dogmatic Christianity was a tad stifling, we still managed to have some good connections. The Pastor was a bit of an odd duck in that way, at least for me, it was very hard to engage him in a regular conversation. His relationship to the visiting foreigners seemed mostly about the opportunity to give speeches and express the piety of his flock and the importance of his position as their spokesman.

We were the fourth boat to visit Penrhyn in 2019, but within two days there were eight more boats. Most of them part of a group of kid boats (that is, boats which have kids on them, who generally drive the social schedule), all loaded with school supplies to give to the children of Penrhyn. Liza, of the boat Liza Lu, is a teacher from New York whose class had started a pen pal relationship with Penryhn before coming. She had more postcards to deliver and spent time at the school helping the kids compose new post cards that she would mail back to her school. Our friends on Alondra, marine biologists with two girls, eleven and twelve, brought in microscopes and spent a day with the students peering at everything from fly eyes to butterfly wings and gecko toes. A huge hit. The boat ‘Panacea’ with Tuomo, Reka and their kids presented a slideshow about how they’d come to be there aboard a sailboat, and shared glimpses of all the countries they’d seen. The families aboard s/v’s Luminesce, Calle II, Itchy Foot and Caramba all participated, too, and Adagio’s crew were elemental helping with the mosaic. It was an unusually bustling ‘point in time’ on the sleepy eastern side of Penrhyn … ~MS

Mad for Kio Kio, bonefishing in Penrhyn

Every fisherman dreams about a secret fishing hole somewhere. Someplace no one knows about. No one goes. No one (or hardly anyone) has ever fished. A place where you show up knowing you won’t see a single soul and that the fish have never seen a fly. This dream fishing spot is naturally chock full of fish, too, everywhere you turn. 

The Cook Island’s atoll, Penrhyn, might just be that place.

This atoll lays more than 800 miles of open ocean from anywhere. There are no flights. It is visited by just two supply ships a year. The only way to get here is in your own boat, sailing far off of the normal tradewind route. There was a time when expensive flights from the main islands of the Cooks occasionally brought an intrepid fly fishermen from New Zealand, though because there are no hotels or any other tourist infrastructure on Penrhyn the only way to fish these remote flats, even then, was to stay as a guest with the pastor at Te Tautua and have him take you. This apparently did happen at least once. Years ago. Basically, the only people who ever visit, in very, very small numbers are sailors. The intersection of committed bonefishermen and blue-water sailors who can actually get themselves to Penrhyn yields a very tiny slice of humanity. I’d bet there aren’t more than about five of us in the whole world, and that includes our friend Mike, who’s introduction to fly fishing was walking the flats with me in the Gambier and Rangiroa.

The pastor insisted on taking us to his spot, though we had our own dinghy and knew from Google Earth exactly where to go. Wishing to be gracious guests of the island, we accepted the ride. We spotted the first pod of fish even before getting out of the boats and over the next four hours (the limit of the pastor’s desire to stay and harvest noddy bird eggs), I landed at least fifteen bonefish (which is a lot of bonefish), considering the amount of time it takes to land each one and the fact that a fighting ‘kio-kio’ clears the immediate area on the flat of willing fish. Mike caught nearly that many, as well, and we were often doubled up with fish on at the same time. 

We fished this singular spot for a couple weeks going back on our own, and it wasn’t always as good as the first day, the tide and the weather have a lot to say about how good the fishing is going to be, but it was always our spot and the fish were always there. They aren’t as big on average as the bonefish in French Polynesia, but Penrhyn is chock full of them. 

We pinched ourselves regularly to make sure it was not just a dream. ~MS

 

Sweet Tuamotus, Last round through …

 

The majestic Humphead/Napolean Wrasse. This guy is 3.5 feet!

I’m going to ask Marcus to wax poetic about our final weeks in the Tuamotus. Suffice it to say that this region of French Polynesia is most definitely a favorite of ours and I even heard Marcus say he could live there. If fresh produce was available, I might be on board! For the time being, these pics can be a placeholder. These are shots from Tahanea, Fakarava and Rangiroa.

I shot a gazillion shots to finally snag this one! Thanks, Katie, for holding such enthusiasm!

 

 

Gambier Finale

We spent about 6 months in the Gambier between two visits, which was enough time to start to make some connections and get to know people a little bit. Herve and Valerie on the island of Taravai nurture these relationships with sailors, warmly welcoming everyone who drops anchor behind the reef.  Eric and his family became near and dear and when tragedy struck (Tina was lost at sea in August of this year), we grieved together. 

We learned our way around, becoming comfortable with how things worked with the supply ships, buying gas in 200L barrels and negotiating to pump diesel straight from the boat. We got used to the idea that it was nearly pointless to try to get an internet connection, even in town.

We got to know some of the people along the water in Rikitea’s harbor: 

Mike the fisherman and his wife, Agnés, the school teacher, offered us fresh fish and tried to organize an excursion outside the reef with Marcus, but the timing never seemed to work out.

Vaitea, the guy at Jo Jo’s (the ‘magasin’ or market) who made key resources manifest when there were supposedly none and was the recipient of multiple loaves of banana bread. 

Louison, the body builder who rented us extra scuba gear – always laughing and smiling, paddling his Va’a in the harbor, delivering us tanks and gear wherever, whenever. 

Eric’s sister-in-law, Juanita, and her friend Tao who drove us around the island in search of fresh fruit and invited us into their homes with open hearts. 

Tehoto, who grew up on Kamaka island, who’s wife, Noella runs the pizza place, which is sometimes open on the weekend, depending on what else they have going on, allowed us on his private island, sharing his haven with us.

Iolanie rented us her car for a couple island excursions and stored our bikes in her front yard and later, in her store and would accept nothing in return.  

Josie and her husband from Las Vegas ran one of the magasins and they volunteered to bring us veggies out to our anchorage about 8 miles away, as they were going by to a nearby motu (island) anyway … and this on Christmas Eve! 

And then there were the cruisers, considerably more this year than last, who sought refuge from inclement weather in these eastern Polynesian waters, namely cyclones. A comradery naturally developed as we ended up seeing the same boats around the islands. We sat out a tropical depression at Herve and Valerie’s place in Taravai with a handful of other cruisers and were all poised to help out our neighbors as need be. The community of sailors is one of the highlights of this nomadic lifestyle and generosity, much like in the local culture, is a ‘given’ concept and knows no bounds.  

Over two seasons, we covered most of the waters that comprise the Gambier, and yet it was hard and strange to leave knowing we would probably never make it back to this beautiful, remote Archipelago apart from the world. 

Elizabeth and Michelle, Mom/Sis team 2, Gambier!

cerulean seas

rain storm snorkel,

diving (with and without weight belt),

sharks, shells, sand, sailing in the lagoon 

bugs on the beach, turtles

coconuts and an ancient village

Taravai petanque, ukulele and guitar

gusts from the mountain

anchoring pandemonium, 

slow time and quick time 

Valerie’s painting with sand

more fish more music

more fish more fish

damsels, butterflies, leatherbacks, grouper

parrot fish, sling jaw, guinea fowl puffer

canyons of coral, warm water

singing, laughing, lazy days

~MS