When you go home
Tell your friends and family,
“There is an island called Penrhyn
And it is a Paradise, under the Sun.”
We heard this speech---or a variation of it---several times during our visit to Omoka village on Penrhyn atoll. Indeed, when one considers the makings of Paradise---the lack of physical or spiritual need in a beautiful setting---Penrhyn islanders seem to have it all. The islanders’ physical needs of food, water, shelter, and raw materials are provided by the sea, the sky, and the motus around them. The islanders’ spiritual needs are fulfilled not only by strong religious, family, and community structures, but by having a meaningful vocation and a sense of purpose. In this regard, I would say that Penrhyn is one of the most traditional atolls we have seen, with the majority of its inhabitants occupied in traditional skills (fishing or weaving) on a daily basis (except for on Sunday, when no work is allowed.)
|Fishing launch at rest on the edge of the motu|
|Launch heading across the lagoon|
We were privileged to have an introduction to village life in Omoka, and to experience it in greater depth when we moved to Tetautua, on the other side of the lagoon.
When we arrived in Omoka, we were met by Pete and Rae from SV Saliander. They had arrived from Suwarrow one day earlier than we did and had made arrangements for an eyeglass clinic the morning after our arrival. Patrick and I had offered to help them distribute reading and distance vision glasses donated by the Australian Lion’sClub to the villagers.
|Silhouette and Saliander anchored off Omoka village|
|Pete and Raewyn visiting Silhouette|
|Some of the Omoka Village Lion's Club Eyeglass Recipients|
We spent the next couple of days getting acquainted with the village and the villagers. Like many of the villages we've visited, there was evidence of both hurricane damage and a historically larger population in the number of abandoned buildings.
We went to pick up a loaf of bread that Raewyn and Pete had pre-ordered for us in our absence (bread is only baked a couple of days a week) and met Christine, the baker, and her family. She baked marvelous loaves of bread in an earth oven, using coconut husks for fuel. The fire is lit using the dried coconut oil found lining the husks of dry (but not too dry) coconuts. Tin cans full of water are placed on top of the burning coconuts to add steam to the process. Christine’s husband Alex is attempting to design a solar oven to replace the earth oven.
|The earth oven is divided so that half or the whole oven can be used depending on the number of loaves being baked: In this case, the right side is set up for baking|
|This coconut oil oven starter is lit with a modern lighter|
A couple of days after the eyeglass clinic, the village council held a dinner for us to thank us for our work with the glasses. When we arrived, there was a long table set with covered dishes, and the villagers were sitting in chairs nearby. After a few minutes of greeting and socializing with the villagers, the four of asked were asked to be seated at the table. After the prayer, we discovered that the villagers expected us to eat ahead of them. In fact, the villagers were all seated in chairs in front of us, like an audience, watching us eat! While it was awkward for us, we realized that this is how honored guests are treated in Omoka, and it was meant to be very special. To add to our already uncomfortable and self-conscious status, we were given no utensils (as is customary) and had to eat with our hands in front of this audience. Thankfully, the villagers made some accommodations to allow for our own culture. First, Raewyn and I got to eat with Peter and Patrick. Usually, the men eat before the women in the Cook Islands (both at social events and in traditional homes.) Second, some of the villagers (men only) joined us at the long table so we were not eating alone in front of everyone else.
After we finished our delicious meal (sampling local foods like tuna, pumpkin cooked with arrowroot, breadfruit, fried fish, a leafy green vegetable resembling spinach or chard, and coconut pancakes), we thought it would be the villagers’ turn to eat. But no, we were then asked to take seats in front of the long table (in front of the audience of villagers.) We were completely overwhelmed when the villagers then came up and repeatedly draped us with gifts. One after another, the villagers walked up to us, and---with a kiss on the cheek---placed around our necks a shell necklace, handed us a palm frond weaving or broom, or placed a shell crown on top of our heads. We were definitely feeling the love from Penrhyn, and as I sat there, top heavy with shells and holding a broom, I felt like a very important chief-tess. After the presentation of the gifts, spokesmen for the village gave short speeches about what it meant to them to have us come and distribute the Lion’s Club glasses. Pete made a speech reiterating that the people of Australia donated the glasses and that we were just the lucky messengers who got to deliver them. Patrick made an emotional speech about the reception the Penrhyn islanders had given us, which the villagers clearly appreciated. Raewyn and I just sat there looking pretty.
It turned out that the villagers never did get their turn to eat (at the community hall, at least.) Since only the council members came and not the entire village, there was not enough food to feed everybody potluck-style; so the villagers took their dishes back home with them to eat at home. I had brought a banana flambé (sans the rum) to the event (not knowing we were going to be such a center of attention), and Christine gave all the villagers a taste of it as they took their dishes home.
Participating in the community service project was a great ice-breaker with the villagers, and it also opened a lot of doors for us. Whenever we walked through the village, people would offer us a lift to our destination. We were also offered the use of a truck and motor bikes. The mayor also gave all of us permission to visit the other motus in the atoll.
|We were given a lift to the Telecom office atop this load of coconuts|
Patrick and I explored a motu near the entrance to the pass using the dinghy. It had caught my eye because it had a wide white coral beach and was sparsely vegetated with palms. It turned out the motu had its own shallow lagoon around it which was a nursery for baby sharks. White terns also appeared to be nesting on the motu, and curlews visited a small wetland there. We walked around the small motu taking in the beauty of the setting.
|Tern nesting motu|
|Black tip nursery: There are one young and two baby sharks in this photo|
|Another view of the lagoon with a reef shark|
|Lagoon-scape with reef marker and black tip fin|
|Patrick playing with the sharks|
|Taruiia Pass (the calm water between the reefs) as seen from the motu|
|Shadow at the edge of the motu|
On our way back to the village, we were waved over to a wharf for a visit by a man named William. We joined William and his wife, Jemima (not their Maori names), for a visit in their outdoor kitchen. Jemima told us that her great-grandfather was William Marsters, and that her great-grandmother was one of Marster’s original wives. Thus, we learned that many of the Penrhyn islanders are descendents of the Marsters on Palmerston island.
|Part of Omoka village as seen from the water|
|A cyclone damaged building|
|House on the wharf|
We told Jemima we were planning to go to church on Friday morning (church services are held three days a week, three times on Sunday), and she ran down the dress code for me and Patrick. After finding out hats for women are mandatory, not merely decorative, I told her I didn’t have a suitable church hat. Jemima told me to stop by her place before church and she would leave a hat out for me. William told us we could bring the dinghy to his wharf again so that we didn’t have to walk so far to church from where we normally left the dinghy near the boat.
|Get me to the church on time: If you are not in the church by the time the bell stops ringing, you are not allowed in|
|Omoka church, established 1904, flanked by two cisterns|
|Cemetery at the edge of the sea (on the church grounds)|
|Another view of the church bell tower|
We went back to visit Jemima and William several times during our time in Omoka, and I took this photograph of them on one of the visits. The two hats in this photo were made by Jemima: William is holding a man’s hat and Jemima, a woman’s. The hats and the flowers are woven out of a palm frond material called “rito,” and there is a black pearl shell on the crown of each hat. The men's hat has a band of small cowrie shells around the brim. We went on to see many stunning variations of these Tongarevan hats, but Jemima’s were the first two completed hats we saw and we were very impressed with her artisanship.
|William and Jemima with two of Jemima's hats|
|A hat being built around a hat mold by another weaver (The top is finished and upside-down.)|
After about five days in Omoka, the wind began to blow in the twenty-knot range. The anchorage outside Omoka is foul with coral heads and you cannot see the bottom. We knew we had one partial wrap shortening our scope, because our anchor chain was hanging straight down. It presented no problem while it was flat calm, but the boat began to pitch against the chain and the snubber in the wave action created by the wind fetching across the lagoon. Luckily, we managed to drive off the partial wrap before the wind got too strong. We decided it was time to move the boat across the lagoon.
We had entered the lagoon through the main pass of Taruuia to check in at Omoka, but when we moved to the other side of the lagoon, we went around the outside of the atoll to do some fishing along the way. We re-entered the lagoon via the more challenging Tetautua Pass. While the entrance through Taruuia Pass is fairly benign, entering through Tetautua Pass is probably ill-advised in winds greater than ten knots or with an outgoing tide. Tetautua Pass is a very narrow area between two reefs with large breakers breaking over them. A large coral head (marked with a pole) is situated in the middle of the pass. The location of the pass on our chart did not match the actual location of the pass, and we turned around once and headed back out to sea to confirm the position of the pass before entering. This was somewhat hairy for me, as I was stationed on the bowsprit to look for coral heads at the time Patrick decided to turn the boat around and claw off. At least I was clipped in. I crouched down and held on to the bow pulpit as the bow rose and plunged into the large breakers across the entrance to the pass and we headed back out to sea. Water rushed over my feet, but no waves broke over my head. When I saw a good opportunity, I removed the clip from the bow pulpit, clipped into the jackline, and worked my way back to the cockpit along the rail.
After checking a different chart and confirming with each other where our eyes saw the pass in front of us, we came back for a second try. Once we were in the pass proper, we knew it, because everything suddenly quieted down to a calming ssssh, and we carried on through.
We arrived outside Tetautua late on a Saturday afternoon, where the Canadian flagged SV Cariba had already been hanging out for weeks. Within minutes of anchoring, we were paid a visit by the minister. He invited us to come to church the next day and to have lunch at his house afterwards. I told him I didn’t have a hat to wear and hadn’t had time to meet the village women to borrow one. “No problem,” he said. “Stop by my house in the morning and my wife will give you one!”
After the minister left, our second welcoming committee arrived: Roselina, Rio, and Lala paid a visit to the boat by paddleboard!
|Tetautua welcoming committee|
We enjoyed the warm welcome we received at Tetautua and spent a delightful first week there. We were joined by SV Saliander and SV Just Drifting. At the end of the week, all three boats moved back to Omoka to pick up some provisions and attend the closing event of the Boy’s Brigade camp (a week long camp held annually during one of the school holidays.) The Boys Brigade was formed in order to instill self-discipline, obedience, and respect (including self-respect) among the male youth in Tongareva. Many adult males are still active in the organization and act as mentors to the next generation. (There is a corresponding Tongareva Girl Guides organization, but they were not very active at the time of our visit.) The closing event included (after the ritual opening prayers): a feast for the graduates of the Boy’s Brigade (served by the Girl Guides); a birthday cake to celebrate the 130th anniversary of the Boy’s Brigade; speeches by the boys and young men completing the camp and accolades for those youth; a show put on by the Boy’s Brigade to entertain the community; donations to the Boy’s Brigade from community members accompanied by short speeches about how the organization has affected their kids’ lives; and a dinner for the rest of the community to thank them for their support, served by the members of the Boy’s Brigade. The event started at about 2 p.m. and the closing prayer was at 7 p.m.; it was a five-hour long marathon. We are not used to community events that last all day, and it was quite an experience taking part in one. Apparently, there are several events like this throughout the year, including singing and dance competitions between the two villages that center around specific holidays.
Our camera chose this opportunity to malfunction, so the following photos are courtesy of Raewyn Kearney:
|130th anniversary of the Boy's Brigade: The assistant minister from Omoka (on left) and the minister's wife Tata from Tetautua (on right) officiate while both ministers are off-island at a theological conference|
|A graduate from the Boy's Brigade camp gives a speech while his mentors look on|
|A Boy's Brigade skit in which the young men (in drag) selected the male yachties to dance with (Patrick was a good sport, but is off picture to the left)|
During our second trip to Omoka, we met the brothers Al and Phil Donatto, two single-handers buddy boating together on their own individual yachts. The fact that they started their journeys from different states aside, Phil (who left from California) and Al (who left from Texas) explain the fact that they are traveling on separate boats this way: “Who is not going to be the captain?” Phil’s boat is also named Silhouette and Al’s is Irie II. We suddenly found ourselves in the most remote atoll we’ve ever visited with five other yachts. According the the Customs officer, six boats in the anchorage at one time is a record for Penrhyn, where fewer than a dozen yachts are likely to call in an entire year!
The forecast was for calm weather when we headed to Omoka, but the wind got up that evening and worsened the next day. All six boats moved back across the lagoon to Tetautua, vowing to return to Omoka when the weather allowed. It’s been over two weeks since then, and when we move back to Omoka in the next couple of days, it will be for the purpose of checking out, saying our goodbyes, and leaving Tongareva.
Next post: Tetautua Village