The lukewarm waters had managed to cool off our worn bodies just a little bit and now under the still scorching afternoon sun we are paddling over the barely submerged reef towards a bright yellow beach at the southwestern extremity of the island. As we approach the sand at the water’s edge a group of children comes hollering from underneath the shady trees behind the beach. They help us carry Alunita up above the line of debris marking the limit of the waters at high tide. After a short mutual introduction, answering their standard ‘Wats yah neim?’ and in turn asking for theirs, we are taken by the hands and lead inshore.
There in the shade a bare hundred meters in from the beach sits Lapita Tikopia eagerly awaiting our visit. She looks sad covered with a green tarp but from a quick glance along the waterline her hulls appear sound. We continue in the shade of the trees towards a settlement where low set houses thatched with sugar palm leaves are framed by washed cloth hanged on lines strung between bamboo poles and cooking stations where shiny pots and pans await their next use. A little black and grey striped piglet crosses our path and hurries away to the great amusement of the young friends holding our hands.
The chief’s house only distinguishes itself from its neighbors by a slightly bigger size. A two-foot-high entrance opens on one corner and a plaited mat is rolled out from it like an inviting tongue. One of our guides crouches down to have a peek inside and announces that unfortunately the chief is not at home. A voice emanating from the house next doors proclaims something in a shrill native tongue, and we are informed that the chief has in fact gone to the gardens. Resigned that we might have to come back the following day we return to the beach with our local guides.
There a fiberglass skiff had just pulled in and we recognized Danny, the chief’s younger brother, who had come out to greet us as we had dropped our anchor. We help him drag the skiff up the short slope of the beach and after a short chitchat we are delighted to hear that the chief is now awaiting us.
Staring once again at the entrance to the chief’s house down at our feet, I hear a full-chested voice coming from inside, pronouncing my name and inviting me to come in. ‘But through the other door!’, it continues. I look to the right along the house but cannot distinguish any other opening. My questioning look is answered by the kids with gestures towards that same entrance at my feet. Down on my knees I go and crawl in through the entrance. An imposing figure sits there cross-legged in the shady twilight. A friendly grin decorates the round face of the chief and he extends his hand towards me in greeting. ‘Please, sit down over here!’, I’m told.
We had brought a small collection of little gifts for the chief, as we were told is customary. I extract from my backpack the water tap I had managed to obtain from the Office of Natural Disasters in Late, to hopefully put the water tank donated by them to the island a couple months earlier in working conditions. A throttle cable for his outboard motor follows, about the need of which I was informed back in Luganville by the skipper of the German backpacker expedition boat ‘Infinity’. I had talked to Ariki Tafua a couple times previously by phone and during one of these conversations he had dropped the innocent sounding sentence: ‘Don’t forget to bring the batteries for the crayfish!’ It took me a while to figure out that this was not a surrealist joke about nature’s apparently infinite supply of energy, but a petition to bring AA alkaline batteries for his diving torches. Hinting at the modest material wealth pertaining to our personalities I next hand the chief two four packs of such batteries and finally, as something ‘purely practical’, a small envelope with a couple fish hooks.
The chief does not pretend to show any specific appreciation, but quietly deposits the gifts behind him on the matted floor. He is sitting in front of a queen size mattress under a mosquito net hanging from the rafters. These rafters are sizeable beams of timber suspended on six massive poles dug into the ground. ‘Our houses have to hold up to cyclones pretty much every year.’, comments the chief having followed my gaze, ‘This pole there in the back is the oldest. It is over one hundred and fifty years old. My grandfather installed it there.’ The pole he gestures to is painted black and sports strings of tiny squares carved into its sides. Beatriz asks if it is all right to go and have a look at it. ‘Yes, but don’t pass through here’, the chief replies and sends her through the back of the house, quite obviously to make sure that she does not pass to close to the chiefly bed.
Two drinking coconuts are brought in, cut open on one side with a thumb sized opening that has a bright white rim with the nut’s delicious flesh. Coconut water is the elixir of life, if there ever was one, and its freshness pouring down my throat alleviates a good part of the oppressive heat. Ariki Tafua announces that the day after tomorrow there will be a celebration in honor of Saint Michael, where the whole island population will congregate in the church right where Aluna is anchored. Not only will this be our first opportunity to observe the Tikopian ‘custom’ dances, but the other three chiefs will be in attendance and before heading home to their villages on the east side of the island will meet right here at Ariki Tafua’s ‘fare’. This will provide the perfect opportunity to inform them of the planed work on Lapita Tikopia and hopefully get them to support the project by sending some of their best people to come and help.
Towards the end of the meeting the chief’s jovial air comes to an abrupt end. In a rather serious voice he says: ‘You have to observe the ‘custom’ while you’re here on the island. In the chief’s presence you have to always crawl on your knees. And that door you came in, that is the chief’s door. Only for the chief!’ My quick apologies are well received. ‘It’s all right, you didn’t know!’, he smiles again, ‘But it is my responsibility to tell you. You are my guests! So it is important, especially when the other chiefs are here, that you respect our ‘customs’!’ As we had just been instructed, we crawl backwards out of the entrance, the correct one this time, the one for the common folks. It would have been to my left, had I looked there before entering.