The Last Supper

The announcement had been made at the end of the Mother’s Day gathering at the Sunday School building. Papa Saitu was literally breathing down my neck when he rose to his feet behind me to do what I thought was a last verbal dedication for the mother’s, who just had finished their very own kai kai, supposedly prepared by the men, but rumors had it that was not true. I did hear the word paapas, which stands for white folks, or foreigners, in his speech, but it was not until walking back towards the beach afterwards with Rio that I was informed that the church was going to hold a special diner in honor of our imminent departure. Beatriz had prepared a little present for Mama Kei so we went looking for her. Roselyn, the granddaughter living with Papa Saitu and her, led us to the chair in the shade of the coconut trees, where Mama Kei always rests on her way home from church. Papa Saitu joined her there just as we arrived and he took me by the arm and said: “So you come ashore Wednesday night at six o’clock. The church is giving a special kai kai for you!” The folks of Tautua love to hold kai kais and any reason lends itself to having one. But it is still a substantial honor to be invited to such an official celebration of goodbye!

Come Wednesday we make our way over to the Sunday School building with a blood red sun setting behind us and a feathered drape of pastel pinks being slowly pulled westwards overhead. Kai kais are potluck style where every family contributes with a dish. Entering the veranda we find the usual long table with a dark green plastic tablecloth standing there, set with brown glass plates and mugs along the edges. In the center there are already a number of bowls, each one sealed with plastic wrap. People love plastic wrap here, they purchase huge roles of the stuff and every imaginable thing is wrapped in it. Off to the side are a couple rows of white plastic chairs facing the table. It’s the old folks that are here at the agreed hour, the younger ones come trickling in slowly. It’s a weekday, so some yawning here and there tells of the hard day’s work behind them. They started tearing off the old roof from the school building, so the ones involved in that project have been out in the sun all day. It must be close to seven when finally the head count is complete and Papa Saitu stands up to begin the as always extensive formalities. A short initial greeting is followed by the first hymn of the evening. The sitting order here is more compact than in the church, where people sit far apart, therefore the singing is much more powerful. I let my mind wander through fragments of recent memories loosely retracing our stay here amongst these folks, but the passion of the invocation hurls me back to the present. Papa Rongo is next with a little handwritten note coming out of his pocket. It contains a special verse from the Psalms, emphasizing that our sometimes angry father up in the sky always provides for his faithful by “leading them to the fresh water pool in the desert.”

After some more singing we are ordered to go to the table and eat. The honorees of the kai kai always eat first, while the hosts watch them and entice them constantly to eat more. Since there’s only two of us, I guess they are feeling a little sorry for us and the three patriarchs join us at the table. By now there’s not one empty spot on it. Rim to rim bowls of the many local specialties are looking at us, begging us to dig the big spoons into them. The famous raw milk fish in coconut sauce, the oysters in curry cream, rice and corned beef (sic), different sorts of fried fish, today there’s breaded fish cakes I haven’t seen before, boiled chicken in onion stew, big slices of pumpkin with coconut cream, the supply boat last week brought potatoes, so those have made their appearance with a vengeance at the kai kais recently in form of potato salad, boiled potatoes with mayonnaise, coconut bread and other baked goodies, are you getting hungry yet?

We’ve learned here that you better eat fast. You can have as much as your heart’s content, but it is usually the content of the stomach that puts and end to it, even if the eyes and taste buds lust for more. After all everybody else is hungry too, and there’s certainly an undertone in their constant incentives to eat. Not so much an ‘eat and shut up’, but more like ‘eat, get it over with, and let us have a go at it too!’ There’s a bowl with soap water and a towel at the end of the table. Once we’re done we wash our greasy hands in the bowl and walk back to the audience side of this very peculiar form of spectator sport. But instead of being allowed back into their ranks there are two chairs placed in front of everybody and we are ordered to sit down there. This must be the last judgment coming!

Papa Saitu is now standing up from his position in the driver’s seat of this little community, to our right. “Well, this is how we do things here,” he starts his spiel, “this is how we show our love to you!” Soon another hymn emanates from the well-worked vocal cords and this time we’re getting the full blast of the live audio streaming right towards us. Many times I have felt like living a chapter of source material for the Flintstones here. The characters of this human enclave have something stringently archetypal and now that they are singing their hearts out so blatantly in our faces I cannot help, in spite of the substantial amount of blood drawn away from my spiritual sensitivity by the assault of digestion, to feel a bout of superb happiness watching them. So distracted am I by the human dramatic comedy, that I haven’t noticed until now, when Papa Saitu starts shoving the little girls towards us, that everybody has a couple trinkets in their hands. One by one they parade towards us and we are decorated with conch collars by the bunch, the typical shell pendants of the island made from a piece of polished oyster shell with a series of holes drilled along the edges into which a fan of lito, the palm frond fibers used to make their famous hats, is braided. At the end of the song we also carry two of the beautiful polished sea snail shells and three of the handmade brooms, a bundle of elaborately cleaned ribs from the same palm fronds, braided together at one and rolled up into a spiral. Those are in constant use in all the houses where their sweeping motions keep floors impeccably clean.

Burdened with all these gifts and demonstrations of goodwill and affection, once the song has ebbed away, we’re finally allowed to speak. I stand up with a “You guys are really something!” and choke down a couple tears. I’ve become a real crybaby lately, the overflowing human affection we’ve been subjected too here has softened up the many crusty layers of my definitely Puritan ancestry and many times when I would have had the chance to say something noble or smart I found myself with un nudo en la garganta, a knot in my throat, as they say in Spanish, unable to pronounce anything congruent. But this is not going to happen this time, so taking a deep breath I wiggle my poor self free from the stranglehold of shame and elevate myself to their domain of eloquent speakers. I set out to weave a delicate way between my admiration for their profound and practical humanity, their having found a way to make a little community work, function as a tight knit organism, where each part takes care of the whole, and a stern call to the need for actively guarding their community from the destructive forces of modern civilization. They are, being skillful orators themselves, also very attentive listeners and while their domain of English is not always up to spec, their intuition is sharp and they drink the words you speak to them with an openness equal to the walls of their houses, which let the breeze come inside unhindered by fear and protectiveness.

Beatriz also has a go at it, much more down to earth, about feeling part of an all-embracing family, sharing joys and fears alike. She tells them about how much she misses having her own family around, which is going through some very difficult times back home in Bogota up the high and windy mountain ranges of the Andes. The warmth and gentleness of everybody here has made her feel at home so far away from her own very defined Latin roots. Yet another shower of well wishes closes off the evening and nurtured in mind and body the congregation disperses. Paddling Alunita back to our watery home we wonder if what we have been learning here can be applied to other human communities more torn by conflict and alienation. A half moon illuminates with cold silver shine the puffy clouds that wander across the sparkling constellations. Is harmony really a question of size?

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