Rapa Island School Picnic
The school picnic was a day long event. In evening hours the day before, a calf was chased down by the young men, its hind leg tendons cut and then his throat slit. In the morning a fire was made in the schoolyard and a spit set up to roast the beef. Bowls of coffee on the windowsill set near the fire as the men splayed out the calf and began slowly turning the huge spit. The day before also saw several women collecting taro and beating it in the rocks. It was National Geographic-like, but we were really amidst the living tradition. Men and women wear lava lavas and the kids wear the average Tshirt and shorts or lava lavas. My friend the teacher showed me the school with its two classrooms. It had so few visible supplies. Very few books were around.
There was one map of Polynesia. Each classroom had one blackboard. One word came to mind...bleak. Maybe the French government didn't want them to know much about the outside world.
Outside in the dirt schoolyard were several trees which provided the framework of two games. The first was an adult game of "Petanque"
or French Boules (bowling) which both men and women had a spirited match. Rapa Island was a dry community so the laughing and cheering was genuine spirited fun without the booze element. Another game challanged you to work a soccar ball up two ropes tied to a fence by narrowing the distance between the ropes. It was no mean task and we all had too many attempts to finally succeed. There was a Concentration game for which I won a prize. Can you believe a muffin pan made by Mirro?
Most of all, we enjoyed the joy and laughter all around as the locals had a big feast and played games. The food was amazing, even the purple poi. Steve and I filled our faces and realized how sorry we'd be to leave the next day. Steve "Drake" and Donee were visiting with the French government official and the nurse's family for a separate dinner from the town's festivities.
We had managed to mingle and socialize with a lot of folks with very little working knowledge of the French language. Fishing can be a great equalizer.
That evening, a fellow was fishing off the cement dock we were tied to. His rig was a long string with a rock tied on near the end. However, the end was a periwhinkle, cracked but not broken up, tied carefully on so that the fish would swallow it. Then, Voila! Steve broke out his sports fishing pole which had a #4 Mepps spinner, flourenscent orange spoon. He cast it into the lagoon and reeled it in slowly until kaboom. Something ravaged the lure and ran into the darkness curling Steve's rod into a "C". The local fisherman took keen notice as Steve played the three or four pounder. Gradually the fish lost its battle and Steve gaffed it in the cheek and pulled in onboard. It looked like a type of jack but we later learned that the locals called it a white salmon(??). We invited the fisherman to come over and give the rod a try. With a few demonstrations and cues, he was delighted to secure another white salmon, then another and another. He laughed from his belly inside out with every catch until we finally packed the twenty or so white salmon in a garbage bag for him to take home and enjoy. Later we learned that modern fishing gear was not allowed on this island, but I think one Rapaitian was forever dreaming of Shimano spinning rod and reel.
Day Two on Rapa Island
We collected our weatherfax prints of the impending storm as well as our boat documentation and headed off to the council building where the town elders would determine our fate. Rapa Island
is part of French Polynesia, and is governed by the officials on Tubuai Island
, part of the Austral Islands
. Radio communication the previous evening did not sound good. We were not supposed to be at Rapa without permission from the powers to be in Papaeete, Tahiti
. However, we were seeking shelter from the storm, hardly a great excuse for an ocean going tuna troller.
The main town of Ahurei (Ha’urei) was not far down the road along the lagoon. Women were wading around the shallows collecting limpets and snails into their aprons. Rapa was discovered by George Vancouver in 1791 but it was placed under French protection in the early 1800’s. It has remained isolated because of its remote location. (22*29 S. Lat. X 151*20 W. Long.) Vancouver named it “Oparo” and it officially is part of the Isles Bass and not of the Austral Islands. The local officials invited Steve and I into their council room and we all sat around a large oval table to discuss our visit. In my tortured high school French, I explained the weatherfax picture and our mission in the South Pacific to catch tuna. They were not aware of the impending typhoon brushing by Rapa. Their main concern was whether or not we would be a bad influence or spread disease. We ambled back alongside the lagoon to invite folks to an open house.
I made a big sheet cake and lots of lemonade and we scrubbed the boat squeaky clean. All afternoon folks dropped in to see our boat, and the kids to watch cartoons. The language barrier did not prevent any of us from having a good time. The town nurse and his wife and two kids visited for a while. More people brought vegetables and fruit to trade for tuna. We tasted our first salad in months, with escarole and tomatoes. The fifteen square miles of Rapa Island contained a few hundred residents, and we must have met half of them that day.
Don and Darrell were several hundred miles to the northwest on a line to Pago, and were suffering the effects of the nasty weather. Darrell had nearly run out of drinking water to the point that his crew was collecting it from the defrost cycle of their refrigeration system. They maintained a speed of three knots against the rough seas and gale force winds. It was sheer misery for them and we tried not to rub it in that the lobster tasted great along with a salad and a glass of wine. Our watermaker was also making 150 gallons a day and that rubbed Darrell the wrong way too. It was a costly piece of machinery, but worth every penny. We had shared our bountiful water supply with several other boats who ran low. It was an at sea transfer process whereby we ran a long hose to the other boat as it followed right behind us for a few hours. In return we might get a few movies or some Tom Clancy novels. We were supposed to transfer some fresh water to Darrell near Rapa, but he didn't want to wait for us or stop at the island. There was a feeling among many ocean trollers that one must go right from the grounds to port. We knew this was a once in a lifetime chance to experience Polynesian culture untainted by tourism. This proved to be true as our new friends invited us to the school fair the next day.
The Reception at Rapa
It was a harrowing passage through multiple coral heads, but the reception was warm and friendly. Say language barrier, however. Rudimentary high school French was all I could muster, and even that was pathetic. With lots of smiles and gestures, we realized that our arrival, and subsequent tying up to the dock, was the day's entertainment for the Rapa Itians
. Historically, some Easter Islanders were enslaved by maurauding
Polynesians and taken to Rapa
. This island became known as Rapa Iti
, or little Easter Island. This historical tidbit was told to us by one of the local school teachers who invited us to her home to chat. The locals speak French and a generic Tahitian.
We hit it off as fellow teachers and this bond was to carry us through an amazing four day visit.
First of all, however, the local officials paid a visit and took our passports. That is never a good sign, but we agreed to meet with them in their government building the following day to discuss our arrival and departure, and the reclamation of our passports. All this was in broken French and sign language and took a long time to negotiate, dictionary in hand.
Our evening visit with the schoolteacher and her husband was a lesson in culture shock. Although the island grew coffee for Tahiti, the coffee of choice was Nescafe
instant crystals served in bowls with canned milk and lots of sugar. Steve and I snuck
a glance back and forth to see who would take the lead in drinking the coffee from their bowl. Should we spoon it up to our mouth or sip from the bowl? Our hosts were politely waiting for us to start. As I was thinking it over, I spied a gargantuan cockroach creeping up the wall behind Steve. In fact there were several lurking specimen of the palmetto bug or roach watching the action on the table from many vantage points. You see the homes here had no doors, only doorways with a tapa
cloth curtain. The critters and varmints crawled in and out at will. Back to the coffee. I ventured a guess that coffee was to be sipped out of the bowl and gave it a try. Steve followed suit as did our hosts. Whatever the correct ritual, we were not to know until the school picnic two days later that we had chosen correctly.
With our new friends using their English/French dictionary and trying their English, we stumbled around in a French/Spanish/English stew. One item of animated discussion was about lobster. When I used the Spanish word "langosta
" it rang a bell and out came a giant spiny lobster from their freezer as a gift. Well, that meant giving them a tuna or two, which gave us the idea of putting on an open house the next afternoon. We told our hosts of this plan and they agreed that the town's curiosity would bring many visitors. First we were to deal with the only dour personality we had encountered on this beautiful island; the gendarme, or chief. Only he and the impending storm had control of our immediate future and as we were later to find out, the storm was not only of the weather kind.
Labels: Friendly folks at the dock