South Pacific

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Refuge

See this painting? It’s been driving me crazy. It hangs on a wall of the dining room of the Matavai resort and every morning while I’m drinking my coffee and eating my plate of fresh papaya and pineapple, the woman in this painting accusingly stares at me. I feel like screaming at her, “What the hell do you want? Why won’t you leave me alone?” Even though I’m sure that she wouldn’t answer me even if she were standing before me in the flesh. She seems like the type that likes to suffer in silence.

 

Mark Cross' oil painting Refuge

Mark Cross' oil painting Refuge

You can’t really tell just by looking at this little photo, but the painting is actually quite large—about 6 feet wide and 4 1/2 feet tall. And the detail work is amazing. Sometimes I get my nose just a few inches away from the canvas and admire how each little grain of sand was carefully painted, each square inch of rock meticulously detailed. It must have taken at least a year to paint this.

The artist is named Mark Cross and he lives here on the island. I asked Hemi, the manager at the Matavai, about him and he loaned me this book Mark published a few years ago which is partially about his art and partially about his philosophy on life which, if I had to sum it up in one line would be, “Art is a way to learn how to live.” Which is a Henry Miller quote.

This painting that has been unnerving me for days is called Refuge and, according to what Mark says in his book, he painted it after coming upon “this enchanting glade of sand and salt-weed situated amidst the most hostile environment I had ever seen. This landscape became the perfect stage for my idea that compares the glade with the mother’s womb where the outside world is often hostile and impenetrable and we are safe and ignorant in the oasis of the womb.”

Which might seem a little paranoid until you discover, as I did from the book, that Mark’s eldest daughter, Mishca, died from cancer a few years earlier. And after I learned that, the painting made more sense to me. And I stopped seeing the pregnant woman as angry. Now I just think she’s sad. Because she knows what’s going to happen once she gives birth to her baby.

I asked Hemi if Mark is on the island right now and he said, yes, he has a small art gallery in Alofi where I might find him. So later this morning I’m going to go into Alofi and look him up. And ask him some questions about this painting. Like, is the pregnant woman your wife? And maybe if I’m lucky he’ll tell me about Mishca. But then again, maybe he won’t. And that’s fine too. 

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Itty-bitty fangs

Annie was right when she said the black-and-gray striped critters I saw popping up on the surface of the ocean all around us were not, technically speaking, snakes. They were indeed sea kraits. (So what’s the difference, right? As far as I can figure it, sea kraits like the Niuean katuali return to the land in order to mate and lay their eggs while sea snakes pretty much just stay in the water—but don’t hold me to this.) And it’s also true that while they’re one of the most deadly creatures in the world, they don’t really bother people. Mostly because they have these itty-bitty fangs (if fangs can be itty-bitty) and they’re in the back of their mouth. So basically you’d have to jam a finger down their throat to get bitten.

That said, there was still something a little spooky about snorkeling over a cave-riddled and coral-covered lagoon and watching as hundreds of banded sea snakes (I’m going to insist on calling them that) uncurled themselves and, in lazy loops, slithered towards the surface—sometimes just a foot or two away from where I nervously floated—to take a breath of air and have a look around. Then, just as quickly, they’d slither back down to the bottom where they’d curl up with a dozen or so of their pals.

 

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

I was not tempted to touch one (Annie says their ventral scales, needed for slithering on the shore, feel “creepy”). I was not tempted to stick my fingers in any of the little holes in the rocks where the small coral fish they like to feed on hide. In short, I behaved myself. Which is why I was so surprised, after our successful outing, to get out of the water and step directly on a sea krait. Which did indeed feel creepy. Fortunately, the katuali was very cool about everything. And did not bite. Even as I screamed like a little girl. Which brings us to another Niuean Rule: Just because there are snakes in paradise, that doesn’t mean you will necessarily end up being banished. It’s all up to you. Nonetheless, watch your step.  

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Swimming with the snakes

With electricity out on the island again yesterday and the dive center’s back-up generator kaput, it was easy to see why Annie was so thoroughly frustrated. Without electricity, it would be impossible to fill the tanks for this morning’s scheduled dive. Leaving four divers, myself included, with little choice but to cancel the outing and tramp back through the jungle to our hotel, the Matavai, where we’d laze away another day around the fresh-water pool drinking beers and hoping to spot one of the pods of spinner dolphins that usually spent their mornings in the cove below us. But Annie, anxious not to lose paying customers, had something else in mind.

“What do you reckon, David?” she said in her Aussi accent. “Are you game for a little snorkelling in Snake Gully?”

Hmmmm….You know what? I love diving and hanging with Nemo and the parrot fish and other denizens of the deep, but I’m not crazy about snakes. Particularly snakes in the water. Did I really want to go swim with a creature whose venom, they say, is ten times stronger than that of a rattlesnake? Not so much.

 

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

“No worries,” Annie assured me. “No one on Niue has ever been bitten by a sea snake. Or if they have, they never lived to tell the tale.” Aussie humour—don’t you just love it? Seeing the concerned look on my face, she smiled and slapped me on the back. “Besides, they’re not really snakes. They’re sea kraits.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “Not much, I reckon.”

There’s something faintly Garden of Eden-ish about this remote South Pacific sanctum and, as you’ll recall, a snake—literally and metaphorically—plays a key role in paradise. This was much on my mind yesterday morning. It was foolish, I knew, yet I couldn’t help feeling that simply because my week on the island has been so magical, eventually something bad had to happen. I mean, that’s always the way it is, right? You take advantage of what’s offered—float on your back naked in a sacred pool, stuff yourself to the gills with pawpaw and taro, swim with the snakes—and invariably someone comes out of nowhere bellowing, “Now you’ve done it! You’ve messed up! And you are henceforth banished!” So certainly you can understand why I wasn’t crazy about the idea of swimming with the snakes. Or kraits. Or whatever they were. But, you know, life is what it is and sometimes you go along with the plan even when your gut tells you, “You’re going to get in trouble big time if you eat that apple.”

Thus, I shrugged and told Annie, What the heck. I reckoned I’d go snorkelling in Snake Gulley. 

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Better than religion

Sundays you might just as well go to church on Niue since there isn’t a damn thing open except, in the afternoon, Willy’s Washaway. The question is which church since the island has more places of worship than villages. So I asked Levu, the young girl who brings me my coffee and milk in the dining room every morning, which church would have the best music.

“Ekalesia church in Tamakautoga,” she said.

Really? I said. That’s the best?

“Best singing,” she said, smiling. “Everyone knows that.”

I asked her if she sang gospel. She sheepishly nodded. “And what church do you go to?”

“Ekalesia,” she mumbled, pouring the milk into my coffee.

In what village?

“Tamakautoga.”

So around 10 I walked down the red dirt road about half a mile to the little village of Tamakautoga. The Ekalesia church—a long, narrow building with a blue tin roof, seemed to float in the middle of a lime-green field that was being picked over by bush chickens. I chatted with Taso Tukunou, wearing leather sandals and a baggy suit, until it was time for him to go off and toll the bell atop the church.

 

Taso Tukunou, the bell toller

Taso Tukunou, the bell toller

I saw Levu, wearing a white linen dress, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and tied with a red ribbon, coming across the field with her mother and she waved at me. There were men in white suits and little girls wearing bright-colored sun dresses coming into the church but mostly there were the church ladies, all dressed in finery once commonplace only on Easter in the deep South—fine white linen dresses and wide-brimmed hats decked with flowers and lace.

 

Tamakautoga church ladies

Tamakautoga church ladies

Being in shorts and a barely-clean polo shirt, I felt a little out of place so rather than go inside the church, I just stood outside the open door along with some of the more fidgety kids and the bush chickens who, every now and then, meandered inside the church in hunt of a green grasshopper or multi-legged centipede.

 

Photos by David Lansing

Photos by David Lansing

Levu was right. The music was good. There was a lot of calling out and some tremulous angelic solos but mostly it was just a buttery blend of mostly female voices from a small choir swaying back and forth in the still air in front of the church. I couldn’t tell you what the songs were or what they were saying, but I could have stood there all day listening to Levu and her sisters sing. You want to shiver from the touch of god, you don’t need to read any nonsense in the bible or listen to angry preachers. Just close your eyes and listen to a girl like Levu sing in a way that makes you feel you’re having sex just by listening to her. This type of singing isn’t religion—it’s better than religion.  

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Chickens on a hot tin roof

God it’s hot. Like 90 degrees. And probably 125 percent humidity. Or at least it feels that way. I’ve never had curly hair in my life. But I do today. Wet ringlets from the sweat that seems to ooze out of the top of my head.

But I shouldn’t complain. I don’t have it near as bad as the little 8- or 9-year-old boy sitting atop boxes and boxes of chickens on a truck parked beneath a coconut tree (I guess the driver of the truck doesn’t know about Niue’s Rule Six). Each box holds six whole chickens and there must be at least 40 boxes. I’m not sure if he’s sitting on the boxes to wave away the flies or to keep people from walking away with the chickens (on second thought, it can’t be to keep the flies off since there are too many of them and the kid seems totally oblivious to their presence).

 

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

Actually, it’s not the boxes of chickens sitting out in the fierce noon day sun (sans ice) that bothers me as much as the 50 or so dead pigs piled on a cart beside the chickens. Is it a good thing for dead porkers, blood caking their slit throats, to age in heat that would curdle a glass of milk in five minutes?

 

Sunbathing porkers

Sunbathing porkers

The chickens and pigs, along with bundles of taro and giant clumps of sweet finger bananas, are gifts for the villagers here to celebrate the hair-cutting ceremony for Marc Teliga. Traditionally, Niuean boys do not cut their hair until they become teenagers. Then there’s a big party, organized by all the sisters and mothers and aunties in the village, and everyone comes to watch some grandfatherly-figure chop off the boy’s locks. Just about everyone in the village is invited to the party and there’s punch and taro cooked five or six different ways (I like the taro casserole with rings of pineapple on top) and a couple of guys strumming guitars. As part of the deal, the guests bring envelopes stuffed with money and, depending on how much they give as well as their station in life on the island, they get to take home a pig (if they made a sizeable donation) or a chicken (not as much cash) or some bananas (if it was just a token amount).

 

Each ribbon-tied lock becomes a souvenir for hair-cutting ceremony

Each ribbon-tied lock becomes a souvenir for hair-cutting ceremony

According to Ida, it’s all part of the Niuean culture—a way to link families of the village together and also a way for the community to look after its own. So how much would I need to donate, I ask Ida, to take home a pig?

She shrugs. “Maybe one hundred dollars,” she says.

And for the bananas?

“Maybe twenty.”

So I slip a twenty in an envelope and give it to one of the family members. They smile, shake my hand with great enthusiasm, and then give me one of the warm chickens the boy has been sitting on all day.

“Oh, how absolutely lovely,” I say. And then Ida and I make our exit. When I drop her off back in Alofi, I hand her the sun-baked chicken.

“You don’t want it?” she says.

“Normally, yes,” I lie, “but tonight I’m going out to dinner with friends I’ve met at the Matavai. So you enjoy it.”

That night the Matavai has a barbecue on the deck. Barbecued ribs, roasted chicken, skewers of curried gizzards. For some reason a salad sounds really good to me. 

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