Tightrope Crossing the Generation Gap

The old guard controls the waterfront. Papa Saitu and Papa Henry’s clans occupy the row of houses between the main street and the lagoon, where each family has their own private slice of beach with rows of aluminum skiffs nicely pulled up on logs or on those yellow cart wheel shaped fishing floats you find washed up on the beaches at the seaward side of the atoll. In fact it took us quite some time to discover that there are other people living further back in the houses towards the seaside. All those folks at the Sunday service should have been a hint, as should have been the offerings of fish we received from people we were unable to place in any of the couple houses we knew. But then the persistent “Come, come!” that calls out from the shades inside the waterfront houses whenever we leave our canoe tied to a coconut tree and do a couple steps on land, has prevented us from exploring what turned out to be the other side of a deeply encrusted rift fracture running straight through the heart of this little community.

After one of our bi-weekly visits at the school, which is located at the seaside of the village, we decide it’s time to pay that mysterious other half of town its long overdue visit. Truth is we had been in one of “those” houses before. Penui’s family lives in a yellow house right in front of the church and on our second Sunday on the island he had us follow him there after service. He handed us a thick book stuffed into a beige protective envelope and told us to enter information about our vessel into the Tautua Yacht Registry. This book had obviously grown beyond the intended size of its envelope and the Velcro strip at the flap did not want to sit still on its partner. It reminded me of the sweaty shirt button of an overweight clown in a cheap circus, stretched exhaustively to one extreme of its hole, struggling furiously against the expansive tendency of its master’s custard cream pie filled innards and shinning damply with the very apparent resignation that it could fail at very short notice the one and only purpose of its life. The registry turned out to be fascinating reading. Going back to 1986 apparently every visiting yacht’s crew had done their duty and with various degrees of artistic talent filled one page in the book with memorabilia, drawings, photographs, notes, business cards etc. portraying their floating homes that had brought them across the wide ocean blue to this lonely but charming spec of precarious human habitat. After almost a month of being in our possession we had finally gotten around to composing our own fleeting message in a collage of snippets we found laying around forgotten in Aluna’s drawers. Returning the registry to its guardian was now our good excuse for trespassing onto the other side of the rift zone, should we ever happen to come upon the need for one.

February had seen a veritable construction boom all over Tautua village with just about everybody feverishly adding walls and roofs to their houses, enclosing freshly poured concrete pads. Most of them gave the same good reason for the expansion, when asked: That come Christmas the family members who had emigrated to the developed world would come back in drones and it would be impossible to accommodate them in their present space. The work went on even more frenetically because everything had to be finished by the end of the month. March according to the Cook Island Christian Church’s complex and vast set of rules and regulations is categorized as a “Humble Month”, where noisy activities like hammering and the use of screeching electric tool is to be strictly forbidden. The reasoning is that March draws the cyclone season to a close and is considered its climax with the most activity and noise might just disturb the delicate temper of the weather gods enough to attract a disaster. Wrongful human action in the Tongarevan mindset is subject to drastic and even brutal punishment by the ever-powerful hands of the Almighty. Last year’s once in forty years visit by a class 11 depression is still fresh in everybody’s memory and its aftermath crudely visible wherever you look. There are rumors that it was all caused by the heathens from the other side of the atoll who are a sinful bunch and had disrespected the commandment of silence by zipping around town in their noisy scooters on Sundays in March!

Since our last visit Penui’s house has doubled in size and the additional space still sports bare walls and all kinds of fittings are lying around waiting to be installed. His wife and two of her lady friends are chatting away over a bundle of cloths that quite obviously need to be folded and stowed away. Penui and his older brother, fittingly called Big Tom, seem to be struggling with a leaking paint gun hooked up to a brand new air compressor, the cardboard packaging of which still sits behind it leaning against the wall. We are greeted to the tone of: It’s about time; how come you have not come and visited us before; you seem to prefer the others! Penui brings to accusations to a climax with: “We like white people, people from the yachts! You see, whenever I catch enough fish to share, I bring you some! You never come and see us!” I sense the need to tackle this bull by the horns and jump into the ring with: “Well, now we’re here and we would like to know what the hell is going on in this place. Why is there so much hate between you and the “others” over there?” The answer in their heads seems simple enough: It’s politics! They are in support of the one Member of Parliament representing Penrhyn Island in the national government down in Rarotonga, the main island and seat of the Cook Islands’ capital. Papa Saitu and Papa Henry aren’t, in fact the speak bitterly and despicably about the guy, accusing him of not doing anything for the island, and the little he seems to be doing according to them is all for Omoka on the other side of the lagoon, and no good whatsoever comes over to this side. That seems to be enough reason for profound dislike and outright hating. There apparently are bad comments made about each other during church services; greetings are returned with deadly, stone-faced silence; access to community goods and commonly owned machinery is denied. The list goes on and on, making this marvelous little hamlet all of a sudden look like any other place on this planet, infested by human misery.

Over a steaming cup of coffee, made from instant Nescafe in a rusted tin can, which by the way sets you back a whopping $42 a pound in the store of imports over in Omoka, I try my usual push for unity, for the need of working together instead of bickering over such little things as our favorite politician. “We have tried, believe me, everything!”, I’m told, “they don’t want to change. Nothing can be done. We’ve all but given up and are trying to make the best of this strange situation.” It’s all the other’s fault. This ancient song sounds its sagging verses of human resistance to change. The game of blame continues until the end of the world. “But there’s so few of you here,” I persist, “this village is literally dying out. People are leaving in drones!” Just a little over a year ago the headcount in Tautua village was 80, five years ago more like 200 and during the occupation of the island by the US army during WWII there were a whopping 500 souls living here, at that time in huts made from the trunks of palm trees and their roofs covered with palm fronds. The last time in church this past Sunday where supposedly every able body is obliged to appear, suited up the males and dressed festively and capped with the world famous Penrhyn hats the ladies, I counted 34, plus us four intruding yachties. Last year’s tin roof peeling cyclone provoked a spike in the exodus, as did the earlier collapse of the pearl market in 2003. “We’ve given up, now we just leave them alone. And we hope they’ll do the same with us. Leave us alone, we say to them!”, this seems to be their final verdict and quite obviously I’m included in that call. They want me to wrap it up and go dig dirt somewhere else. But not before taking part in the big kaikai, Tongarevan for potluck, barbecue or food feast. This one sports red and blue lobster from an outing they did last night along the reef flats. At night those creatures crawl up from the deep and underneath the pounding surf, then feast on small creatures within the fickle reach of their claws before returning again shortly before dawn, again crawling under the crashing waves to retreat anew into the depth and darkness of the ocean blue. That of course only if they haven’t been wrestled down by a feisty Tongarevan in the blinding light of a torch, picked up and thrown onto the plywood flooring of an aluminum skiff, becoming themselves a feast for man, for the family, for our family that is, making sure that life is good on this side of the aisle! No, wait! Making sure that life on this side of the isle is better than over there. They are the ones to blame after all, so they can’t have it as good as we do, right? They can’t, can’t they! Politics! Nasty business it is, that’s for sure. Polytricks…

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