Te Itiki Experience

Leading me down an unkempt footpath, Mama Ake Teau walks deftly, scampering in sandals over jagged coral and through thorny bramble.

She pauses, reaches into a thick bush, and pulls two homemade fishing rods of sturdy ironwood and knotted line from their hiding places. Slinging them over her shoulder, she presses on until the brush opens into a secluded beach and we’re standing in a smallish cave sheltering a patch of white sand.

The tide is coming in. The sea is clear, the water catching and reflecting the rays of a hot sun in a shimmering canvas of sequins. Mama Ake squints into the sky as she pierces bits of yesterday’s catch with rusty hooks, then bows her head in prayer.

“In my language,” she says to me with unnecessary apology. She asks God to bless her with a hearty catch, then lifts her head and breaks into a smile, and wades in her long skirt into deeper waters. “I hope that man,” she says, pointing to heaven, “will give us the fish today!” It’s just another day at the office for Mama Ake, who catches her own fish, collects her own seafood from the reef, and picks and plaits maire for export to Hawai’i. She is one of Mitiaro’s 170-odd residents, who live primarily off the land and plan their days around food, family and faith.

The island’s connection to the Cook Islands’ primary industry – tourism – has always been untenable. People can count on one hand the number of tourists who visit annually, and can remember their faces and recite their nationalities. Most of Mitiaro’s population works on a rotational, week-on-week-off basis for the government, and 38 mamas work for half the year picking maire for a profit. Remittances from relatives overseas comprise a large portion of the island’s cash income.

But the dynamics might be changing, as Mitiaro tries its hand at milking the Cook Islands’ economic cash cow. The island has something distinctly Mitiaro to offer tourists – its culture and its lifestyle.

Calling it the ‘Itiki Experience’, Cook Islands Tourism Corporation is promoting a home-stay programme on Mitiaro, giving visitors the opportunity to live, eat and work with the locals. It’s Mitiaro’s chance to tap into the increasingly trendy business of cultural tourism. In a globalising world, as concrete claims more space, tourists are combing the earth for pockets of perfect paradise. Mitiaro is one of them.

Life ambles along at a pace that permits people on motorbikes to shake hands with oncoming traffic. It’s picturesque Polynesia – purposeful piglets scuttling across the road, coconut palms reaching high into a seamless blue sky, flower-studded bushes wafting saccharine into the humid air. People sit idly at the harbour in the evening to watch as the sun sets and motored canoes haul in the day’s catch. Kids run, barefoot and unattended, to the water’s edge, splashing each other in the waning light.

Time is inconsequential. When I visit, mornings begin with a hearty breakfast and evenings end on the beach at sunset, but the rest is unscheduled. When I take a break from my free time to enjoy some free time, I set out on foot to chat with whoever’s willing. It turns out to be a prolonged pursuit. Everyone wants to talk.

People want to talk about how times are changing, but they also want to talk about how the fabric of the Mitiaro culture is still intact. They want to talk about how they’re comfortable living without the trappings of modern life.

Sometimes Mitiaro goes months without a cargo ship. Both its shops run out of staples like rice and bread, and when the diesel supply dwindles the power cuts at night. But people don’t really seem to mind. “If no boat comes we’re alright. We just go without papa’a (foreign) food. We’ve got our local food,” says one of the island’s three chiefs, Temaeu O Te Rangi Ariki, affectionately ‘Aunty Mii’ or ‘Aunty’.

Generally men fish, feed the pigs and plant crops like taro, kumara, maniota and pumpkin, and women gather fresh seafood from the reef, prepare the umu (underground oven) and do the cooking. “Why do we need a job to survive? We can plant or go out and fish,” Aunty’s neighbour Inangaro Taia says.

The island is an oasis of the olden days, a breath of fresh air in a world of plastic and packaging and planners and pollution.

Its spirit of hospitality is quintessentially Polynesian. Dozens of people are waiting for us when we disembark the plane, we are garlanded with layers of ei and ei katu, kissed by countless aunties and offered lifts by half a dozen people who are “going that way”. (Incidentally, they’re all going that way.)

Fresh nu (young coconuts) speared with straws await us at our open-doored hut, and we’re promptly invited to lunch on our host’s patio – a gorgeous spread of freshly-caught fish, pumpkin, sliced pawpaw, taro, roast chicken, coconut meat and spongy uto. We devour it with our hands, and when we’re heavily gorged we pass a bucket of soapy water around the table for washing fingers and faces.

Each of our days on Mitiaro is a blank slate. We can explore as we please, but we’re also welcome to spend time with our hosts. In the four days we’re on the island, we ride archaic motorbikes through the island’s interior, jerking over a pockmarked road through vast swamps and sun-pierced toa forests. We hike across the makatea to Vai Tamaroa, a secluded swimming hole encircled by cliffs. The sun pours into the clear water metres below, we say a prayer as per local custom, and the Mitiaro countdown is on – tai, rua, toru, bombs away. We shiver in Vai Marere, a sulphur-infused pool sheltered by a cave. Locals tell us the water here is healing, capable of curing everything from cuts to conjunctivitis, so we stay in until our fingers are pruny.

Our eyes widen at the sparkling, stately stalactites of Vai Nauri, which point their dripping fingers at a quiet pool below. We jump in, and duck into a low cave, a dark sanctuary with acoustic walls, the space between the ceiling and the clear water just big enough for our heads. We sip wine on the bank of a sprawling freshwater lake in the evening as the sun dips low, dunking our toes into the aquatic abode of the itiki – the eel, a Mitiaro delicacy.

We well up at the soulful a capella performance of churchgoers at the Sunday service, their powerful harmonies travelling heavenward. We are privileged to observe the biggest food exchange of the year, the akaoki’anga kaka, which marks the end of cyclone season. It is the ceremonial lifting of a restriction on loud and boisterous activity – sport, dance, construction – which the people believe will earn them God’s blessing and shelter them from the storm. Papa Neke Tutini tells me he was 12 the last time a cyclone inflicted major damage on Mitiaro. I do a quick mental calculation – his estimated age minus 12 – and conclude that God is probably listening to the Mitiaro people.

“We show respect and the Lord looks at us and knows that,” says Tungane ‘Aunty Nane’ Pokoati Hodson. “He created the wind and the rain – He’s the creator and they’re His servants. We show respect so He takes them to the ocean and doesn’t bring them to our island.”

Mitiaro chief Travel Tou Ariki believes that the tradition of imposing a tapu during the cyclone season has – literally – sheltered the island from the storm. “During this time there’s not much to do – no big events, no infrastructure work on the island. Everything stops because of respect. To me it works for the island, it really works,” he says, adding that his island “has been blessed”.

Every April, the people give thanks to God for bringing them through the cyclone season alive – Polynesian style, with mounds of food. For weeks people prepare for the feast – the week prior, some government workers even take leave without pay – squeezing grated coconut for cream, fishing for tuna, baking taro in the umu. Their food offerings are divvied up and re-distributed to ensure everyone receives an equal share. And then they eat, and we are of course invited to join.

There are no friendlier people than the Polynesians. A flair for hospitality is hereditary, and like all Cook Islanders the Mitiaro people are biologically equipped to host visitors. Now it’s just a matter of building up the island’s tourism infrastructure.

So far three families have built kikau huts to accommodate tourists seeking a ‘home-stay’ experience. Each is in a somewhat different environment – one on the beach, one surrounded by foliage and maire plants, and one in a carefully-tended garden of local flora, banana and papaya trees.

Tourism is fodder for new niche industries to sprout. Mamas can sell their rito hats and baskets and floral tivaivai, families with a ute can offer airport transfer services, landowners can offer tours to some of the island’s stalactite-studded caves and watering holes.

A willingness to spread the wealth is built into the Polynesian culture, and nowhere is that more evident than Mitiaro. Life in Mitiaro is not lived individually. People are responsible for and accountable to other people – women discipline other people’s children for making noise at church, babies travel from one lap to another, young men offer to mow widows’ lawns. ‘Aunty Nane’ is a certified justice of the peace but has never convened a session of the court, as disputes are always resolved in the traditional way – at a meeting of villages that follows all three of the Sunday church services (6am, 9am, and 3pm). There, people recap the week and air their grievances (“He cut my bananas” or “His goat ate my maniota” or “I left my spade at the taro patch and it’s gone”). There are explanations and apologies. There is resolution.

Anything caught, planted, harvested, collected or killed is shared. Aunty Nane doesn’t have a taro patch of her own, but if she’s out of taro, the solution is quite simple. “I just go and ask someone for some,” she tells me, her expression dismissing my question as ridiculous.

When word gets out that someone’s made the first tuna catch of the season, people turn up to the harbour (a crumbling slipway) with sacks and bags, ready to cart their share home. Same goes for the maroro (flying fish) season. The island’s pastor and its chiefs get the first share, but the rest of the catch is cut up and doled out amongst those waiting at the harbour. “We make sure everybody has maroro,” titleholder Julian Aupuni says. “When it’s the first catch no one is allowed to sell it.”

The playing field is level – everyone gives and everyone gets – but the greatest respect is awarded to the island’s resident minister and its ui ariki, or traditional chiefs. Most Saturdays people spend preparing food for the orometua, or Cook Islands Christian Church pastor, and for their chiefs. “Everyone respects the ui ariki – we always refer back to the ui ariki,” Aupuni says. “We respect all of them, even those who have passed away.”

Today there are three ariki to represent each tribe. Mitiaro is one of three Cook Islands without a Western-style land court, and the chiefs’ word goes. “It works,” Aunty Mii tells me, adding that since inheriting the title 25 years before, she’s only been called to settle four or five disputes. “It was our ancestors’ way and it works.”

Mitiaro is resilient, clinging tightly to its traditions even as it opens its door to the world. Most people are content and happy to be home, but their smiles mask a starker reality – people are leaving for brighter lights and bigger cities. Aunty Mii offers no explanation for the population decline. She thinks for a minute, then leans closer and drops her voice to a whisper.

“I think they want this thing,” she says, forming the shape of a coin with her finger and thumb. I hope the home-stay programme will bring more of that thing to Mitiaro.

Smothered in ei and kisses upon my departure, I leave carrying bags of fresh limes, a woven fan, a whole tuna and a container full of the fermented seafood delicacy mitiore. As we taxi down the pitted coral runway, I send up a prayer for the ‘Itiki Experience’, not only because it’s Mitiaro custom to pray before travel, but because I am moved by the generosity, the quiet strength and the stamina of these people, and that’s something I want other tourists to see for themselves.

Reef fishing
Sandy coves on the south coast
Vai Tamaroa swimming hole
Mamas on Sunday
Preparing an umu
Te Mekameka homestay
Children fishing