No one really knows, but there are mutters suggesting the girl’s appendix has burst. Most of the village is here, at the hospital, crowded around her bed, one of two in the little sun-washed room.
The orometua prays aloud, and then the people erupt into an imene tuki, a Maori hymn, its power reverberating off the white walls. The entire Cook Islands Christian Church congregation is here; when the service ended, we all proceeded to the hospital. People are standing, sitting, crying. Some are gathered outside, shaded by a tree from the tropical sun.
Here, on Rakahanga, in the far northern reaches of the Cook Islands, we’re eight hours and 1200 kilometres from the country’s capital, a surgeon, or an international airport. The government is paying Air Rarotonga more than $20,000 to pick the girl up and take her to Rarotonga. But there’s no airstrip here; she needs to get to Manihiki, an atoll 45 kilometres away, before the plane arrives. The seas are rough and all we’ve got is the aluminium fishing boat we came in, but for the hardy island people, difficulties like these are easily overcome.
With astonishing efficiency and a resourcefulness borne of living in isolation, the men of the village organise the patient’s transport. Her uncles and cousins lift her mattress onto the back of a tractor, the most suitable vehicle in the village for this task, and at the wharf they lower her into the boat. Two sticks are cut from a nearby tree, a rope tied between them, and a tarpaulin draped over the top like a tent, to shield the girl from sea spray. Throughout the two-hour journey to Manihiki, a nurse will sit next to her mattress, holding an IV high above her head.
We came to Rakahanga from Manihiki in the same boat. The purpose of our quick trip was to bring a nurse who would replace the woman that had finished her six-month rotation in the Rakahanga Hospital and would be returning to Rarotonga. At the time I was staying on Manihiki doing research for a book I was writing, and I was invited to come along.
The men we came with were atoll fishermen who knew how to read the stars and the swells, how to interpret the rhythms of the natural world. When they picked me up from a tiny dock near the place I was staying, the aluminium boat was packed gunwale to gunwale with fuel drums for Rakahanga’s generators and containers of food for cousins. I was offered smiles, a raincoat, sunblock, and a coconut – provisions I would appreciate equally over the course of the journey.
The man who would be steering the boat prayed for a safe journey. On the horizon were rough seas and a curtain of rain. We motored slowly out of Manihiki’s lagoon, through a passage in the reef. During the two-hour journey across a wind-whipped ocean, the sea splashed us in bucketful’s.
When we arrived at Rakahanga, the captain’s eyes were red. He’d navigated without instruments, using only the sea and the sky, even in stormy conditions. We tied up at the concrete wharf, and some locals got up from where they were sitting, on the back of a tractor, to unload the boat. They helped us onto the tractor for the drive to the hospital, its courtyard a gathering place in the centre of the village. Dozens of people were seated around two long tables laid with bowls and platters of fish and taro and papaya and rice. Flies circled lazily over the food.
We were the guests, so we ate first, island style, with our hands. The nurse who would be leaving Rakahanga to return to Rarotonga spoke to me in English about how she wasn’t ready to go. She missed her kids and her island, but she would miss the freedom of this place and its total separation from the stresses of city living. Compared to Rakahanga, Rarotonga feels like an urban sprawl.
This atoll of four-square kilometres and 90 people, about 10 of them elderly and 30 of them kids, has one crushed-coral road. It winds through fishponds and taro swamps; pigpens and palm trees; colourful houses with pareu for doors; a cemetery in the forest with tombs big as houses; dense thickets you can get lost in and white-sand beaches you can have all to yourself.
The afternoon was intensely hot. Most people were on their verandas, fanning themselves, sleeping on mattresses or sitting in chairs, waiting for the heat to ease. I borrowed a motorbike and drove to the island’s undisturbed outer edge, where there were only birds and breaking waves and peninsulas of makatea jutting into the sea. I came across a group of women sitting on plastic chairs by the lagoon’s edge, weaving mats of pandanus, their children swimming, their babies sleeping on pareu in the shade.
I paid a visit to the island’s seaside school, Rakuraku School, which has a student population of 26. The principal is a Kiwi who feels at home in the islands; he spent years teaching on Atiu, he fishes and hunts and has Cook Islands tattoos. He’s proud of his students and eager to show off his library, stocked by books that people all over the world donated when he posted a plea to his Facebook page. “I wanted to come here to teach on a sinking atoll,” he said to me, gazing at the seashore bordering his school, “but now I’m here for different reasons.”
In the late afternoon, there was a village football game. The grass field was bordered by coconut palms, silhouetted against the pastel glow cast by a setting sun. Old people and young children watched and cheered as everyone else – schoolchildren, their principal, their parents, the pastor – rotated in and out, sharing shin-guards and high-fives. Fumbles prompted a cacophony of laughter from the sidelines. In the Cook Islands there is always laughter, at comedy and tragedy and discomfort, because there always should be.
My camera intrigued the kids. They pulled my hair and smiled and stared and posed for photos. One asked me if I’d ever heard of a place called Avarua, the capital of the Cook Islands. It struck me that he’d never been to Rarotonga, which for most of the world is already a step back in time.
As on the other atolls of the northern Cook Islands, life on Rakahanga is simple. Here, it’s back to basics. This kind of life is wrought with particular hardships, but also with particular privileges – it just depends on how you look at it.
Rakahanga gets a boat carrying basic cargo – rice, flour, sugar, fuel – every four or five months. Very few tourists come here. The young people who watch movies or return home after living overseas complain that life on Rakahanga is boring, but the ones who leave miss it. Always their dreams return to their island home – the fresh fish, the pervasive peacefulness, the air that smells of woodfires and sea salt and tipani trees.
When I returned to the place where I was staying, the 11-year-old daughter of the house was on the couch with her cousins, watching Mr Bean in French, the only programme on TV. They asked me if I knew anyone famous and then they wanted to take photos. After a beautiful dinner of sweet kuru and barbecued fish, the girls disappeared into a room, giggling, and then emerged with their hands behind their backs. Shyly they presented me with gifts of a rito hat, a kikau broom, an ei of shells – the woven handicraft a physical expression of true Cook Islands hospitality, a spirit of giving that renders you speechless and penetrates your soul.
Bedtime was early because it was Saturday and church begins at 6:15 am on Sundays. Like most Pacific Islands people, the people of Rakahanga are devout. The Cook Islands Christian Church holds services on Wednesdays and Fridays, and three on Sundays. At dawn I donned my new hat and a borrowed dress, three sizes too big, and joined the procession of people moving toward the limestone church – men in jandals and suits, women in woven hats, children in plaits. Inside the green church, the rafters are dark tamanu – Pacific mahogany – and between them are lacquered floral patterns. From the ceiling hang a chandelier and a Union Jack.
Somewhere the middle of his Maori sermon, the orometua stopped to address me in English.
“Hello,” he said, looking down at me from a lace-draped pulpit. “I don’t know your name, but thank you for being part of our family.”
After the service, the whole congregation walked together down the coral road to the hospital, to pray for the patient we would be taking with us to Manihiki.
As we’re loading the boat, I hear a chorus of farewells.
I’m getting hugs and kisses and shouted prayers, and I’ve only been here 24 hours. It strikes me that there’s something extraordinary about a community that showers you with love and kindness and welcomes you as one of its own, even though no one really had a chance to get to know you at all.