The waitress at the Blue Note Café that first day on Rarotonga smiled just like Mom. I said nothing, but I felt my heart filling and my eyes welling. Mom died in 1963. It had been a long time. As we left the café my good friend and traveling companion Fran asked, “Did you notice? She has your mother’s smile!” I didn’t need Fran’s independent confirmation, but I was glad for it.
Fran had seen a portrait photo of young Tao Kolvig with her new baby Chris taken sometime about 1944. Weeks later, near the end of our trip, I showed this photograph to four older Cook Island women at the Mormon Church’s Family History Centre. All of the four felt as if they had once known this woman. Probably they never had; Mom would have turned 90 this year. But what they felt was good enough for me.
I never did discover the exact island where my family were born and lived and died. Universally people guessed that the place is somewhere in what is now French Polynesia, in or near Tahiti. That might have to wait for another journey. For now I had learned enough through facts and intuition to claim these radiantly warm Polynesians as my people. From the beginning of the journey and down to my cells, some part of me felt at home with them.
How did I come to feel so quickly at home and comfortable with these folks, more at home in some ways than I have felt among my people in North America? What follows is a big claim, and you don’t have to believe it. For the most part I found Cook Islanders to be psychically intact.
They Like Themselves
Cook Islanders like themselves. I’ll even say that they love themselves. They carry their self-respect with easy grace like humble royalty. Even someone you or I might consider very fat or very homely bears herself as a beauty. Cook Islanders are universally Christian, and they are known as the most devout Christians in Polynesia. But somehow they have taken the best of that great religion and have shrugged off the guilt, the shame, and the self-judgment that usually come with the package.
Not only do Cook Islanders like themselves; they also like others. You don’t have to work to reach these folks. They’re already there — open, friendly, accessible, intimate. Ten minutes into a four-wheel-drive tour around the island of Aitutaki, our guide Ngaakitai was slapping mosquitoes on my bare legs and arms. (I didn’t lay on him my Buddhist trip about killing.) No “Excuse me” or “May I?” He just reached over and slapped with the same easy intimacy we northern folk reserve only for our child, lover, or very close friend.
One day Fran and I were swimming and discovered a magic place: a big basalt rock on shore, another big one off shore, and an enchanted lagoon pool between them. We later learned that this place, Black Rock, was a sacred site on Rarotonga before the Missionary Period. From this ledge, partly on land and partly in the sea, spirits of the dead departed west to the legendary homeland Avaiki.
On this particular day the spirits were very much alive. A group of Polynesian kids played in the pool while a teenage boy watched over them from the ledge. We loved the look of the place but stayed away out of respect for the native people there. One child, maybe ten or eleven, yelled something to us that we couldn’t hear. We approached a little closer. “Come over here. It’s a good place to swim!”
The child was serving as that obligatory native gatekeeper who welcomes the stranger into the sacred space. Thanks to him that splendid pool became our swimming hole for the rest of our stay. And in thirty seconds this radiant kid and I were chatting as if we had been friends for years. He told us the legend of how Black Rock had flown there from the top of a mountain, and I filled him in on the subject of rattlesnakes in New Mexico.
They Came Through Intact
How did Cook Islanders emerge so much intact from a century and a half of colonialism and European dominance, even brief slavery? I’m not sure. For one thing they were never physically displaced as most Native Americans were. For another thing they have never had seizable resources. Poverty and remoteness have saved them from the experience of places like Hawaii and Tahiti: ruinous exploitation by Europeans or North Americans, leading to native alienation and rage. Last year on Maui a native Hawaiian man in a big pickup very nearly ran me off a remote dirt road. From the natives’ point of view the exploitation of Maui has been a disaster.
We papa’a, Europeans/foreigners, have neglected the Cook Islands because there has been nothing sufficient there to stimulate our greed. Cook Islanders tried money laundering a while back, but it didn’t fly. Even tourism there is still quite undeveloped, so these native people still treat tourists as fellow human beings, rather than as walking dollar signs to tolerate as a necessary evil.
However these good people came through intact, they did. Forty years ago they claimed independence. Sometime later they expelled the missionaries and took the churches for their own. Big pieces of their culture have survived. Everyone speaks Maori. The ariki, traditional tribal chiefs, still have power, though they share it with democracy. (My great-grandfather Petao and my grandfather Manaku were supposedly ariki.) Traditional land inheritance survived; foreigners cannot own property. Cook Islanders enjoy their reputation as the best traditional dancers in Polynesia.
With a population of about 12,000, the sovereign nation of the Cook Islands governs itself to appropriate scale, like a mid-size town. Parliament meets in the kind of building you would find in a poor inner-city strip mall. When we were doing research in the tiny National Library, the young library staff had rap music amped up high. Imagine a nation without a single traffic light. In what may be the only bookstore in the country, I found shelves and shelves of bodice-ripper romance novels but no serious writing except for some Polynesian history and ethnography.
I’d love to tell you about paw paw and other good foods we ate, our cross-island trek among volcanic peaks, how Fran and I succeeded well as fellow travelers, the splendid lagoons, the intense heat and humidity of the tropics in summer, and a dozen other things. But let me stick to just three things that remain important to me from this trip: the land of the body; restoring the altar; and the passage.
The Land of the Body
It didn’t take us long to see that Cook Islanders relate to their bodies, whatever their bodies are, in a different way. It goes hand-in-hand with being psychically intact. They are generally comfortable in their skins, and they have an unself-conscious sensuality that I haven’t encountered much before. Somehow in the West our sex has gotten tangled up with shame, obsession, and aggression. We have learned those things. What a lesson and what a joy to observe people who for the most part haven’t learned those things, whose physical and sexual natures haven’t fractured away from whatever else they are.
(Forgive me if I sound like Rousseau. You may think I’m romanticizing these people. Perhaps I am. What I’m telling you is what I saw. And I have chosen deliberately to write here about the positive things I’ve experienced and received in that place, and to exclude the shadow side which I also observed. For starters some of my Polynesian people ate the flesh of other human beings. Some sacrificed captured enemies on altar stones. Such things are for another occasion.)
Church singing in the Cooks is famous, something you don’t want to miss. The women and men sing call and response in Maori and in harmonies that delighted my Western ear. Women and then men sing back and forth and then together. The men punctuate their singing with deep, guttural, rhythmic grunts that come from far down in their bodies. That universal sound doesn’t just suggest, it signifies, a particular human activity. I was astonished. “Here in church? IN CHURCH?” Yes, in church, and voiced by the most faithful Christians in the South Pacific.
You can’t help having a pounding heart when you watch these folks dance. It’s fast. The drums boom out intense, complex rhythms. I can’t see how those dances survived the prudish missionaries. The women shake their booties at amazing speed. Each cheek, autonomous and sovereign, moves on its own. The men wave their legs back and forth so fast it seems physically impossible. When I got dragged onstage by a skilled four-year-old dancer and tried that leg stuff with her, it was the only time in a month that I doubted I had Polynesian genes.
The women dance. The men dance. The women and men dance together. It is all-body sensual but not lewd. It didn’t disturb me to see that little four-year-old girl shaking her bootie so well because the dance’s sensuality isn’t genital. It is of-a-piece with an ancient culture, and it is carefully contained by a ritual event with a clear beginning and a clear end.
Two emblematic experiences helped us as visitors to inhabit the Land of the Body. On our first Saturday on Rarotonga we joined nearly everyone else on the island at the festive open-air market in Avarua, the main town. After we’d bought our food we walked into the town’s center behind three native women. It was midday and ferociously hot and humid. One woman pulled her pareu, which had been wrapped around her waist, down over her haunches in order to be cooler as she walked. Those exposed haunches were huge! All that flesh moved like great ocean currents converging and diverging and overflowing all boundaries. And this was occurring in the middle of town and in the largest crowd of the week. After we got over our shock and perhaps a bit of revulsion, we realized how good this was, how very good.
That was the female emblem. The male emblem was Tangaroa, the Cook Islanders’ supreme god before the missionaries arrived. He’s depicted as a short, squat figure with a large, almost Cubist, head and a large, even superhuman, er, endowment. This guy is every man’s dream.
The missionaries tried to expunge Tangaroa. Statues during the Missionary Period were desexed. The missionaries are gone now. Though the Cook Islanders are devoted Christians, they have brought Tangaroa back with a vengeance. He has become the unofficial national symbol and appears just everywhere. Walk into the bank; there’s an eye-popping statue of Tangaroa standing in the corner.
I lived three years in Italy and got used to nude statuary in public places. The Greeks, the Romans, and the artists of the Renaissance were all concerned with balance and proportion. One responds to these human forms with esthetic appreciation and delight. During our time in the Cook Islands I never got habituated to seeing Tangaroa, though I loved him every time. No proportion here; he goes far deeper than that. Tangaroa is an elemental expression of the earth, and he touches that elemental earth realm in our own psyches and bodies.
The Cook Islanders use New Zealand’s currency, but they mix in with it interchangeably some currency of their own, including a three-dollar — yes, three-dollar — bill. Tangaroa appears in glory on one side of this bill. On the other side a big-breasted naked woman with wildly flowing hair rides a shark through breaking waves. Whoa! It gets your attention. My favorite is the Cook Islands dollar coin. Her Britannic Majesty graces one side in all her Windsor dignity. The supreme god Tangaroa stands on the other side in profile and with notable convexity. One day as we waited to board a bus and to pay our fare, a prim-enough-looking English tourist ahead of us in line said to her preadolescent daughter, “Now, don’t spend that dollar!”
Do you sense the difference? Picture nude George Washington anatomically complete on the U.S. dollar.
Being in the Land of the Body, and knowing that this land is my land, was through-and-through healing for me. I realized why Mom encouraged us to skinny dip in a time and place where skinny dipping WAS NOT DONE, and why against the odds I have insisted on skinny dipping through my life.
Naturally, with all of this wholesome sensuality all around, I fell in love at least once a day. One bus driver, who had more magnetism than a year’s worth of Oscar winners put together, I called The Polynesian God. Our most significant exchange was about moose.
“Have you seen one?”
“Are they as big as a cow?”
“Bigger, quite a bit bigger.”
Eyes-of-a-god open wide. “Really?”
“Yes. I hope that you see a moose sometime in your life.”
Restoring the Altar
I went to Polynesia with a few resolutions. The chance to fulfill one of them seemed remote. My indigenous friend Eduardo once told me that you have to restore the altar before you can heal the land and then heal the people. I wanted to help restore the altar in the Cook Islands, even though I knew that all of the native people long ago adopted the religion of their European colonizers. I knew that no one practices anymore the islands’ indigenous spiritual tradition.
Imagine my joy when I happened to read a brief article about Ngaakitai Pureariki on the island of Aitutaki. He has saved from overgrown tropical forest a large marae, or sacred site, on his family’s land, and he intends to rescue more. Ngaakitai has cleared the four-acre ceremonial ground. He has replanted flowers and bushes around the ancient formations of large sacred basalt stones that were originally transported from far away. That’s either far away on Aitutaki or much farther if you buy the legend. The little boy in the pool at Black Rock on Rarotonga told us how some of the mountaintop that flew away became Black Rock, and some flew all the way to Aitutaki.
We went to Aitutaki, took Ngaakitai’s tour of the island, visited the marae he has saved, saw other sites still overgrown and awaiting clearing, and talked with him for hours. I will never forget this man. Friends call him Na. He’s 30. He is warm, open, and kind like many other Cook Islanders. And Na is a force of nature, like his beloved god Tangaroa. He bears a pure warrior’s energy, very determined and very strong without a trace of aggression or domination. He knows that his singular mission in life is not only to restore the island’s marae but also to revive, despite intense opposition, indigenous Cook Islander spirituality.
Na and I gave important things to each other. I quoted Eduardo to him about the altar, the land, and the people. I told him, “You are literally restoring the altar here. This is a historic, vital service to your ancestors, to your land, and to your living people.” I could tell how memorably important my affirmation was to him. I promised to send him useful materials from the U.S.
In his turn Na listened to my story about my search for my family’s origin. He gave me good information and good advice about my quest. Then he told me about his love for indigenous Americans. He asked me to bring Native Americans to Aitutaki, where his tribe would house, feed, and honor them. “You must bring them yourself,” Na told me, “and introduce them here to your people.” My eyes welled with tears again.
Thus I fulfilled my resolve to help restore the altar in the Cook Islands. I’ll bet you can guess the occasion for my falling in love on that particular day. What’s not to love? Na made me buy a statue of Tangaroa. It is up on my altar now, beside the Buddha.
If you have stayed aboard this far, I want to end this little memoir by describing to you a passage. All my life, since I was a small child, I have wanted to go to the Cook Islands. At last it has happened, and this event, coming near the end of our visit there, was for me the climax of the journey.
The islands configure this way. The land is surrounded by lagoon, which in turn is surrounded by coral reef. Beyond the reef moves the open sea, which drops immediately to great depth. I loved swimming in the warm, limpid lagoons, especially after we respectfully adopted Black Rock as our swimming hole. But from the first day I felt confined by the reef. Somehow this pilgrim could not journey to the place of his ancestors without getting to the open ocean. I didn’t know why this was necessary; I just knew it was.
One day early in the trip Fran and I tried a reef walk. Wearing reef shoes, we made our way across the lagoon at low tide with calm surf, climbed onto the reef, and stood there briefly at the edge of the sea. Then I tossed out a playful taunt to the great ocean. “Aw, c’mon, you can do better than that. Bring ‘em on!” You just never know when you’ll need to use a president’s words.
“What are you saying?” Fran yelled over the sound of the surf. Almost immediately the great ocean playfully responded with a bigger wave breaking over the reef, then a bigger one, and then a third that swept us off our feet and dragged us across the coral. I grabbed for a handhold to stop our slide and slashed open my right hand. Coral cuts are a no-no. The cut was not deep, but the blood was copious. That was our last reef walk.
After that tantalizing close encounter with the open sea, I watched keenly on Rarotonga and then on Aitutaki for a way to get out to sea. Trying to swim from the reef would be too close to willful self-destruction. But there were about three narrow gaps, called “passages,” from Rarotonga out through the reef to open water, and there was Rarotonga’s tiny harbor in Avarua. I looked around the harbor hoping to find a kayak to rent for a jaunt out, but no one rented them there.
Then came fierce storms with high seas thundering over the reef into the lagoon. Even after the storms had gone, the big surf continued day after day. At times it was too rough to swim even in the usually protected lagoon. We were quickly approaching the time to leave the Pacific. As that end neared, getting through to Mother Ocean became my highest priority. With those big roaring waves it didn’t look likely.
Finally I went to Muri Lagoon at least to gather information. This lagoon is tourist central on Rarotonga, a large, gorgeous body of water with picturesque small islands and with, I guessed and hoped, at its end a passage through the reef.
The big guy who rents kayaks on Muri Lagoon is a warm, engaging jewel of a man, half Tahitian and half Cook Islander. I wish now that I had learned his name. He explained to me that people could not take his kayaks beyond a certain island in the lagoon because of danger at the passage.
Aha, so there is a passage.
I told him that I would like to paddle through the passage, that I was not seeking thrills but rather hoping to honor my ancestors, and that I would not hold him liable for whatever might happen. Mentioning ancestors gained his interest and sympathy. He agreed to rent me a boat and even offered to give me his personal kayak, a better craft that would give me a better chance.
“But,” he said, pointing to the high surf crashing over the reef, “if you try to go through the passage today, I guarantee that I will have to call the rescue squad.” That was kind of a big “But.” He explained in a friendly, kind way how big waves mixed with coral reef pose mortal danger, including a vacuum current that can suck a small boat to the bottom. “Whenever they can’t find a body, I always know where to look.” He had heard that the high surf was supposed to last for another week. That would be well after our departure for the States.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m no fool. I take risks but not crazy ones. That’s how I’ve lived to be on the verge of 60.” I had been moved by the offer of his personal boat and thanked him with feeling. If the seas stayed high as predicted, he wouldn’t see me again. If they calmed I’d be back.
The next day we got up early for a swim. The sea was much calmer. I hustled to catch a bus for Muri Lagoon, guessing that my best chance would come about 10:30 that morning. The tide would turn then, with no strong current running either way. I couldn’t know then that this quieter surf was a brief, providential window. Within hours the waves would be booming again.
“You’re back,” the jewel of a man said.
“It’s calmer,” I answered. “What do you think?”
“Well, it’s calmer.”
I asked if I needed my reef shoes. “Wear them, just in case something happens.”
“If something happens, I’m staying at the Oasis Village Motel, and my passport is here in my daypack.” I set the pack on a shelf.
As he had promised, he gave me his personal kayak and told me not to try entering the passage if the currents looked choppy or confused. I gave him my word on that. He was the expert.
That very small boat was another jewel. Molded cheaply out of purple plastic, nevertheless it lay very low and stable in the water. Within a few strokes I found it gracefully easy to maneuver. I was well equipped.
It was a long four kilometers or so down the lagoon to the passage. As I approached that goal, it did look almost daunting. Because of the surf it was hard to see for sure, but the opening through the reef looked quite narrow. On both sides of that opening the big waves broke and smashed with power — power — across the reef into the lagoon. Clearly, if I wanted to enjoy my 60th birthday I couldn’t get involved with that. But the waves did not break at that small grace of an opening.
I told myself that I would paddle slowly and carefully and just check it out. The currents were not choppy or confused. Almost before I realized it I had passed through all that thundering water, kind of like the Israelites but without the reassuring presence of Moses, into the open sea. Now to get out beyond those breakers. The swells out there were so much larger than I’d imagined, massive, high. But that little purple boat just bobbed up one side and down the other. When I felt far enough out to be out of danger from the surf, I slowed enough to feel one of the most thrilling moments of my life.
This was not a time for playful taunts. It was a time for reverence, gratitude, and awe. In that tiny boat, not so much longer than my outstretched legs, I felt the primal, immense, kinetic power of the great mother sea. I could probably survive if I bowed to that power and tried to work with it, but not if I opposed it.
Despite the majestic scale of the rollers, it was actually pretty safe on the open sea, as long as I headed directly into the swells, avoided the white cap breaks at the tops, and didn’t get caught by the strong contrary wind. I had never before paddled a kayak more than a few hundred feet. What a splendid craft this one was.
What happened then was unplanned and spontaneous, prompted by a thought of my mom. I found myself calling out in a loud voice to my ancestors. I called them one by one, beginning with my mother’s native name. “Pappuaannah Musomon Aatteiio, Mother, I’m doing this for you!” Kielo her brother, my uncle; Licao her long dead son, my brother; Manaku and Jeannette, my grandparents; Petao and Rosita, my great-grandparents — one by one I addressed my dead Pacific kin to let each know that I was there on the ocean for her or for him. Then I addressed all of the generations I do not know, all the way back. The shamans say we can heal back seven generations. Why not all of them?
Then I called to my dead American kin, one by one: Brother Chris, Sister Beulah, Father Einar.
My Danish ancestors had been seafarers too. I named every Kolvig I could remember, back to Great-great-great-Grandfather Frederick Abraham Kolvig, who died at sea in 1819, age 34, saving another man’s life. The boat with two aboard capsized a mile from land. A passing boat came to help. When they were going to take Frederick, he shouted, “Take Anders. He can’t swim!” He was a good swimmer and reached the capsized boat and clung to the keel. When they hauled him onboard, he was dead from hypothermia. “I am here especially for you, ancestor Frederick Abraham Kolvig.” Then I addressed all of the paternal generations I do not know.
Finally I called to myself. “I am here for myself too, here not to die but to live. I am alive, and I am the living vehicle for those I love who are not alive. I am here for us all.”
It was a good spontaneous ceremony. It climaxed and fulfilled my journey to find a land and water, with their people, I could call home. All my life I have been an outsider, crouching warily in the twilight margins beyond the firelight of my culture. I could not stand in the center of a people and place marred by genocide, slavery, empire, and greed.
There on those massive swells of the open sea, just outside the passage to the lagoon and the Polynesian land beyond it, I floated in the center of something, in the center, in the heart where I could belong.
In the end I know that I belong only to emptiness. But something earthly in the heart longs to belong to something earthly in this world, even if it is only an illusion and a dream. The something in me chose there.
It had to be brief. I had known from the beginning that the greatest danger of this little jaunt would lie in the return. I could not afford to wear out my energy on the open sea. The passage had been obvious and clear from the lagoon. From out there at sea, bobbing from top to trough of those high rollers, it seemed like threading a needle with off-and-on sight. If I mistook the place there would not be a second chance.
It had been quite simple to point straight out into those big waves. But running before them, when I could not see them coming, was different and harder. Each one picked up the little kayak and thrust it forward toward the lagoon.
I knew from whitewater canoeing that I needed to move faster than the water in order to maneuver the boat. If coming out had been careful and slow, going back in had to be a dash. The big swells carried me swiftly. I paddled hard. My mind felt preternaturally alert and concentrated, watching the breakers crashing on the reef and gazing for that narrow place where they did not break. Remember to breathe!
Somehow it worked. Once I reached the safety of the lagoon, I stopped to collect. Unconsciously I had been gripping the kayak paddle so hard that every knuckle hurt sharply as I pried off each hand.
High tide had passed. All the water in the lagoon was rushing toward the passage to get out. Paddling for about four kilometers against that current and a headwind was a bear of an effort and an anticlimax. This old body was ready to stop when I finally reached the kayak rental.
“I’m glad you’re back,” the jewel of a man said. “I was worried for you.”
“If you were worried, then what a gift you gave when you gave me your own kayak. If I had been lost, you might have lost your boat.”
He wanted to charge me only ten dollars NZ. I gave him more. He would never know all that I had just received thanks to him.
Another islander there said in a friendly way, “You know, people go out there and don’t come back.”
“It was a reasonable risk, and I’m glad I took it.”
Then I, Eric, son of Pappuaannah Musomon Aatteiio and in that moment a warrior worthy of my kin, bowed to my noble lavender barque on the beach and walked to the road to meet the bus. I looked forward to a good rest and a cold Cook’s Lager. As the bus approached I couldn’t help peering to see who was at the wheel. If it was The Polynesian God, this would be a perfect day.