Saitu

Papa Saitu does not have many teeth left, but the few of them make for a wicked smile, whenever he tells one of the many stories he’s got running around his head. Those are stories from his heyday years when he was the first of the island to equip his vaka with an outboard, a 2hp Seagull, which any sailor that has been around for a while remembers. British made, rugged enough to keep working even after dumping it in the sea, noisy like hell and easy to start by wrapping the starter cord around the notched spool on top of the flywheel. Other stories come from the time he was mayor of the island, receiving important politicians at the airport, but not having time to look after his house and family. He’s old enough to remember the Americans who occupied the island in WWII for four years. They built the airstrip South of Omoka, he tells with a boyish gleam shining from his broad cheeks; they built a movie theater, which ran reels all day and all night, they shot down an airplane with their huge gun on the North island.

His eyes are blood shot, one of them doesn’t work anymore, he complains. “When I close the good one, I can’t see you anymore.” They have a hint of Asian complexion and can stare you down if you dare to ask the wrong question. In spite of his humble, actually quite boyish appearance Papa Saitu is the patriarch of a vast family of no less than 44 offspring, the latest of which is a baby girl born the day before yesterday to his daughter Martha at the government hospital in Rarotonga. His wife, Mama Kei, not only did her part in the production of such a bounty of descendants, but still micromanages Saitu’s thinking by feeding suggestions in local Maori from her open air bunk during our customary after Sunday church coconut drinking get-togethers, which then emerge from between Saitu’s lonesome incisors converted to a lisping, very melodic, broken but almost archaic sounding English that climbs and climbs in pitch until it is brought back down to earth by yet another bout of cough that clears his through explosively. His character could certainly be classified as reserved. You have to jump start conversation with him, sometimes a couple of times, before the richness of his over seventy years of living on one of the most remote atolls on earth starts to spring forth. But once it does so, boy, you’re in for a treat, as anecdote after anecdote are strung on a delicate thread of time right through the ears of the group of listeners, like a necklace of the precious golden pearls that grow slowly and silently in the many tiny Pipi shells right out there on the bottom of the turquoise lagoon. Let me try, as best as I can, to reproduce one of them here.

“That boy, you know, that boy was with me, when we went out to the big ship. They had all kind of good things on that ship, so da local people went there to trade. One of the officers had a watch, very nice watch, yeah! So this boy wanted that watch. He really wanted it, you know. He offered the officer five pearls, hey, a couple of them really nice ones. The officer looked at the five pearls, looked at his watch then looked at the five pearls again. That boy asked me if the five pearls were enough. I told him no, you need to give ten. Stupid boy! Why did he ask me, right! So that boy put another five pearls on the table. Then there was also that old man. He had come with us too! Very old man he was. He was a farmer, a good diver. He wanted that watch too! Before the officer could say a thing, that old man took out a whole bottle full of pearls. Really nice pearls. How about all these pearls for you watch, he said to the officer. The officer took that bottle full of pearls, quickly you know, and gave the watch to the old man. That old man was really happy now, with his watch. I think, you know, he wanted it so badly for his grand daughter. We asked that old man: Why did you trade all of your pearls for that watch? Too many pearls for that watch, way too many. But that old man, you know what he said? He said: There are so many pearls on this island. What can I do with them? I can always go and get more. But a watch like this you can’t find it here. You cannot! Now I have this watch!”

“You see,” Saitu takes a sweeping look around deep into the wide-open eyes of the tiny audience sitting around the linoleum-covered table under the low tin roof of his beach house, “that man was now happy with his watch!” Then he stops after yet another “You know! A happy man!” He lets the subtle meaning of his simple story emerge in our minds without any further explanation, without pushing the point, without squeezing the moral from the mystery. Then with a “Do you want coffee? Another coconut?”, he brings us back to earth, the warm shine of a lucid smile still emanating from his glossy cheeks like a contagious luminescence, an innocent benevolence grown on this rare awareness that sharing is the best cultivar of any wisdom worthy of that name. Mama Kei mumbles another subtle something in melodic Maori before we know it we’re tasting breadfruit cooked in coconut sauce in an earth oven the previous night and the next story is about “that other boy”, who got payback from his companions. They had been picking on him for nothing over and over so he diverted his dive on a hunt for pearls and hid on the side of the boat until his friends were convinced he had drowned. Now all of a sudden they were very sorry for having frowned on their friend…

 

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