Tetautua village on Penrhyn atoll (Tongareva) is not the first village we’ve visited in
our travels that has been small enough to meet every inhabitant, but it’s the
first one we’ve stayed at long enough to do just that. While many of the
villages in the Vava’u group’s outer islands (Tonga) were small, we visited
multiple anchorages in Vava’u, only staying three to five days in each one. Arriving
at Penrhyn atoll with over six weeks until the official end of the Central Pacific
hurricane season---the finale of which would make it safer for us to depart for
Hawaii---we settled in for a month’s stay in Tongareva. Although we also
visited Omoka village three times during that month, most of our stay was spent
off the village of Tetautua, due to its superior anchorage. We learned that
when you spend almost a month in a small village as special as Tetautua, it is
very hard to leave.
Note: Some of the names in this post may be spelled incorrectly. I was unable to verify the spelling of each person's name before posting; however, I have spelled them phonetically to the best of my ability. We learned that in Cook Islands Maori, "r" and "l" are interchangeable, similar to the way in which "b" and "p" are interchangeable in some other island dialects. For example, the word "rito"may also be pronounced as "lito."
|Tetautua village as seen from the anchorage (past cruisers helped pour the cement wharf)|
The lagoon adjacent to Tetautua is clear, with a sand bottom
that is only dotted with large coral heads (instead of being virtually covered
with them like in Omoka.) A well placed anchor allows plenty of room to swing
without worrying about wrapping your chain around a bommie. The prevailing
winds blow from the other side of the motu the village is located on, and there
is little fetch to the wind and waves in the anchorage. We were one of a record
six boats in the anchorage (at one time) during our stay.
While the lagoon, the pass, and several false passes are
teeming with sea life, the visibility in Penrhyn atoll was never that clear. We
saw a barracuda over a meter long in Tetautua pass, and SV Saliander saw manta
rays in both Tetautua and Taruiia passes. There were hundreds of colorful fish on the patch reefs within the lagoon, and we saw some gigantic porcupine fish in the passes. There were also many small sea
turtles within the lagoon. There is no ciguatera in Penryhn, so we fished in both the lagoon and in the pass. Between what we caught, what the villagers gave us, and what fisherman extraordinaire Pete on Saliander shared with us, we ate more different kinds of tropical fish in Penrhyn than we have ever eaten: emperor, barracuda, milkfish, blackjack (black trevally), redfish, yellowfin tuna, bluefin trevally, and parrotfish. If you are lucky, you can arrange a fishing trip with the villagers outside the pass, but we didn't have the opportunity to go on one. The crews from Silhouette and Saliander also went lobstering on the reef on two occasions: once, with two of the villagers and once on our own. Pete was the only one (other than the locals) to catch any lobster, but we enjoyed these night walks on the reef. We saw an astounding variety of fish and invertebrates, including cowries. We also saw our very first lionfish, a fish that manages to look both delicate and dangerous at the same time.These typical atoll diversions were enjoyable, but they were not the main attraction. The villagers and
their way of life were the most interesting thing about Penrhyn atoll.
|The other five boats in the anchorage, from left: Silhouette (Texas), Irie II, Cariba, Just Drifting, and Saliander (Silhouette, Washington is off picture to the left)|
Our first day ashore in Tetautua was a Sunday, so we
attended church services. We were joined by the crew from Saliander and one crew
member from Cariba (the other crew
member was ill.) Although the singing throughout the South Pacific is
legend---and we had already attended one church service in Omoka---I wasn’t
prepared for the stunning beauty of the Cook Islanders’ song in Tetautua. The
men and women sang separate parts, and both men and women sang harmonies within
those parts. A song of praise truly sounded like a song of praise, with loud
voices winging their way to the vaulted ceiling of the church, seemingly strong
enough to lift it right off. You felt as if your heart was going to burst, so
joyous was their noise. Hymns, in contrast, were quiet as lullabies, leaving
you feeling soothed and peaceful. Different church elders, deacons, or members
of the Sunday school began each song and seemed to know exactly when to start singing
without any sort of cue. Likewise, as we continued to attend church on
successive weeks, we noticed that different members of the congregation
assisted the minister (or acting minister) with parts of the service. The
responsibilities for the church service were shared by all. To accommodate
their “English speaking friends,” at least one Bible reading was always given
in English if yachties were present; the others were in the villagers’ native
tongue of Cook Island Maori.
No photos are allowed inside the church, so I have no photos of the interior of either the Omoka or Tetautua churches.They were lovely, with vaulted wood ceilings and stained glass windows in basic geometric patterns rather than Bible scenes. The church in Tetautua was more decorative with wood-brocaded diamonds and hearts framing parts of the ceiling. The changing times were reflected in the church chandeliers, which held a mixture of both incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs.
After church, the yachties had all
been invited to lunch at the minister’s house. We enjoyed a meal of local foods
and conversation with the minister’s family before returning to the boat.
On Sundays, no work is allowed on
Penrhyn. Sunday truly is observed as a day of prayer and rest. Villagers attend
three church services on Sundays (along with morning services two other days
each week.) The use of motor driven
vehicles is not allowed on Sunday, except to get to church and back. This
includes boats and dinghies. Out of respect for the Tongarevan culture, no one
moved their yacht on Sunday (whether to change anchorages or to leave the
atoll), and none of us used our dinghies after returning from church. This
meant long, sweltering Sundays spent in confinement on the boat (there is also
no swimming allowed on Sundays), unless we wanted to return to the village for
the evening church service. In the evening, with the 7 p.m. bell, the sabbath
was officially over and the prohibitions ended. Some villagers left in their
aluminum launches to go fishing on Sunday evenings.
The church bell rang every evening
at 7 p.m., and the bell called the villagers to prayer three days a week. The
sound of the bell was part of the rhythm of the village, and we became fond of
The next day we set about
exploring the village and meeting many more of the villagers. One of the things
most noticeable about Cook Islanders, and Penrhyn islanders in particular, is
their hospitality. As we wandered around the village, we were often called over
for a chat or offered a cup of tea. Sometimes, we were invited into peoples’
homes, but often, meetings took place in an outdoor work area that almost all
villagers had adjacent to their homes. Much of the work of the village took
place outdoors because it was simply cooler there. In the weeks to come, we
spent many hours visiting the villagers. The people of Tetautua welcomed us
into their homes and their lives, allowing us an intimate glimpse into the life
of the village.
Sometime during that first week,
SV Just Drifting joined our midst. Maureen and Wade had caught a
40-lb tuna on the way through the pass and immediately invited us all to a
barbecue on the beach. (Al and Phil had not yet arrived on their boats.) Maureen and Wade asked permission from the village to build a
bonfire, and a suitable location was suggested. We all brought something to
share and had a feast on the beach. This photograph is courtesy of Raewyn Kearney, who is not pictured:
After we got our bearings, the
villagers put us to work. Most of the male yachties were asked to help with
specific tasks, and they kept Patrick and the other men busy fixing outboards,
sewing machines, battery chargers, and motor bikes. Al and Phil, who had finally moved across the lagoon, helped to tear
down and put up a ceiling; while Pete repaired a chain saw. Female yachties participated
in whatever work the women of the village were engaged in at the time. While
visiting the village women, it was natural to lend a hand with preparing the
palm frond material (called “rito”) used for weaving or with dying fabric for
curtains. I also helped both village men and women open oysters (“pipi”) in the
late afternoons (after the divers had come back from the pipi) to look for the
natural golden pearls found inside.
|From left: Pen Nui (villager), Patrick, Kirsten, Maureen, Wade, Pete |
In return for our assistance, the
villagers brought us fresh fish, gave us bananas or a papaya, or prepared us a
meal. On Penrhyn, we had more of the experience that cruisers in the past might
|The Fix-it-up Chaps, from left: Al, Phil, and Patrick (not pictured: Peter, Wade, and Gabe)|
We really appreciated receiving
that fresh food. The Cook Islands have included some of the most remote areas
we have traveled to, and we have been out of fresh produce for over a month and
fresh meats for almost two months. Other than the few fish we caught ourselves,
or some generously shared by Pete on Saliander,
this was all the fresh (or frozen, for that matter) food that was available.
After about a week of helping
intensively at Tetautua, when the first of the six yachts was preparing to
leave the atoll and move on, the villagers invited us to a community dinner
intended to thank us for our help. On the appointed evening, we all dressed up
and came ashore, bearing potluck dishes for the feast. We were crowned with
fragrant flower crowns of frangipani and tiare maori made by Aloha and Mama P. Before
dinner and while we were filling our plates, some of the village men
entertained us by playing ukuleles and guitars. When it was time to eat, the
yachties were served first and seated at a long table. However, we did not have
to eat in front of an audience like in Omoka. Once we were served, the
villagers helped themselves and sat around eating with us.
|Mama P making flower crowns for the men while Panapa and Papa Rongo look on|
|Ukelele and guitar music provided by (from left): Pen Nui, Tu Loa, Tom, William, and Gabriel|
|Lining up for the kai kai|
After dinner, I helped the women wash the
dishes, which they did seated on the coral rubble using large bowls as sinks.
They had an interesting water conservation system of using two wash bowls (a
first wash with very dirty water to remove the heavy food waste, then a second wash
in cleaner water) and a rinse bowl to wash the dishes. The dishes were then
laid out on the coral to dry.
|Guests of honor (from left): Patrick, Pete, Gabriel, Isabelle, Al, Wade, Maureen, Phil, Kirsten (not pictured: Raewyn) Photo credit: Raewyn Kearney|
The final event of the evening was
the premiere showing of a video that one of the yachties, Isabelle, had been
working on with the school children. Each of the primary school children was
responsible for reporting on a segment of village life, including a tour of the
village; fishing; weaving; using coconuts; gathering wild bird eggs; and pipi,
and the results were not only informative, but hilarious. Not only ourselves,
but the villagers were in stitches, as they clearly enjoyed the “kids’ eye
view” of village life. It was a wonderful, memorable evening, and a good time
was had by all.
|Tu Loa ("Mr. T") and Aloha|
|Maureen and Wade (SV Just Drifting)|
|Happy kids with William, Rae, Pete and Solomon in the background|
All too soon, it was time for some
of the yachts to be moving on. Just Drifting and Cariba floated through the pass. We spent another week and a half in Tetautua,
learning more about the village.
|Raewyn and Peter (SV Saliander)|
“Going to the pipi” to dive for
oysters was one of the activities of the village, and both genders participated
in diving for pipi. “Going to the motu” to gather palm fronds, catch milkfish,
or hunt for bird eggs or pigs was another common activity. (In this case, “the
motu” referred to a different one than the village was located on.)
|Tom and Rose heading out to dive pipi in some questionable weather|
|Tom, Tamu, and Mama P prepare to open some pipi|
|Natural golden pearls, graded by size (These pearls were collected by a diver in Omoka)|
has the good fortune of being located near a very productive fishing ground at
Flying Venus Reef. Fishing for wahoo, tuna, and blackjack outside the pass was
one activity in which only men seemed to participate; but women helped to salt
and dry tuna after it was caught.
|A pearl that is attached to the oyster shell: The villagers polish these shells and make necklaces or earrings out of them|
|Warren, Papa Saitu, and Tamu inspect the day's catch: 12 tuna and one wahoo|
|Tamu cleaning a wahoo|
One of the village activities I will miss most dearly is that of the children swimming and splashing in the lagoon. The older kids use halves of fifty-gallon drums and an old paddleboard as flotation devices, while the toddlers simply splash in the shallow water in boat haul-outs next to the wharf. The children often swam while black tip and nurse sharks were in the vicinity.
|(Mostly) black tip reef sharks in the fish cleaning area|
|Village kids cooling off in front of SV Silhouette, Texas|
Another village activity going on at the time of our visit was the building of the lagoon's first catamaran. While historically, the villagers used to fish out of open wooden boats, these have by and large been replaced with aluminum launches powered by outboards. However, the cost of petrol/gasoline for a simple trip across the lagoon (which some villagers make on a weekly basis) can be high. Papa Rongo, his grandson Small, and the minister's son Tai Tai were building a sail-powered vessel by hand.
|Nurse sharks are reportedly "gentle giants"|
One of the things we admired about Tetautua is how the villagers treated each other like family. If a project needed doing, all the villagers pitched in to lend a hand. If one or two boats got a big catch of fish, the fish were divided equally among the villagers. (If the catch was big enough, sometimes even the yachties experienced this largesse!) People helped each other out instead of having the attitude of "everyone for themselves." (The flip side of this was equally alive and well. Everyone always wanted to know your business: where you were going and what you were going to do there.)
|You can see why they call him Small: Small and Tat working on the catamaran (to right)|
Only women did the weaving, but both men and
women helped prepare the rito, clean “honiu” (another type of palm frond
material) for brooms, and polish shells to be used in hats and jewelery.
|Village men erecting an outdoor bathroom for a family dwelling|
|Kura weaving flowers out of rito for one of "Miss Cook Island's" costumes|
Preparing the rito for weaving is a time-consuming and labor intensive process. First, young palm fronds are cut from trees (entailing climbing the tree with a big knife in hand.) The palm fronds are separated into two parts: The tender green leaves are stripped from the fronds and tied into bundles to be made into rito, leaving a coarser, tougher edge that will be made into material for brooms (honiu). The green leaves are then scored horizontally across one end using a needle, so that a thin, almost-transparent layer can be lifted off. This looks much easier than it really is (I tried it), and the sound of expert weavers stripping off a layer of rito is like the sound of tearing fabric. After the thin layers are stripped off and again, tied into bundles, they are boiled for whitening (and, I assume, to kill pests.) Next, the bundles of rito are hung and dried. Finally, some of the rito is dyed using natural root dyes. In the present day, store-bought dyes are also used to create colors not available in the plant dyes. After the dyed rito is dried a second time, it is almost ready for use...but not quite. Each strand of rito first has to be smoothed first, using the dull side of a paring knife. At minimum, the entire process of simply preparing the rito for weaving takes three days; but if dyed, it can take up to five.
|Matasa stripping layers of rito from bundles of palm leaves|
|Boiling the rito: limes are added to help bleach the rito|
|Rito drying in the sun|
|Bundles of dyed rito on either side of natural (after cooking) colored rito|
|Mama Roriki sorting rito into bundles of short and long strands|
|Tata and her hats: These are just some examples of the spectrum of creative expression and endless variety of woven hats we saw on Penrhyn|
An experienced weaver can make a hat in a single day, if she works on it from dawn until dusk. Since most of the women have other domestic chores they are responsible for, it typically takes them two or three days to finish a hat. The hats are built around a hat mold (usually a piece of native wood.) These days, many of the hats contain a polished black pearl shell in the crown of the hat. They look very elegant, but the village elders (the "mamas") complain that the shell is a crutch because the younger women don't know how to start the hats properly. If the shell breaks, they explain, there goes your hat! The most experienced weavers in the village can make a hat with a durable solid crown, woven out of rito.
Tongarevans are very religious,
and a lot of their customs and traditions center around the CICC (Cook Islands
Christian Church.) One such tradition is “White Sunday,” which occurs on the
first Sunday of each month. After its moniker, on White Sunday, the entire
congregation dresses entirely in white clothing. (Khaki or cream pants are
acceptable for men, although many do wear white pants.) The women, of course,
wear white hats to accompany their white attire. This Sunday, we learned, is
the communion Sunday for the church. (They do not have communion at every mass
like the Catholics.) On a coral atoll in the South Pacific, we discovered that
“the body of Christ” is symbolized with coconut meat; while “the blood of
Christ” is coconut water.
|Mama P making a sun hat out of pandanus, another native plant used for weaving|
|Arriving back at Silhouette after White Sunday: Pete, Izzie, Rae, and Kirsten (I have already returned my borrowed hat to the minister's wife)|
The Monday following "White Sunday" is set aside as a community work day. While we were there, the villagers were busy cleaning up the graveyards on the island. As on many South Pacific islands we have visited, people are buried on family land, and multiple small cemeteries exist in the form of family plots. Coconut husks and palm fronds that had fallen over the graves were gathered up and burned; weeds were pulled; and a layer of sun bleached white coral was spread around the ancient graves. I assisted with spreading the coral around one of the cemeteries.
Another set of Tongarevan customs
and traditions, also involving elaborate attire, revolves around the Christmas
holidays. We happened to arrive at the atoll during a very busy time for both
villages: the beginning of their
preparation for the holiday season. Yes, Christmas begins in Tongareva in
October, and you will soon understand why. First of all, the villagers were
expecting a large delegation of former islanders now living in Australia. These
Penrhyn natives return home for a visit every holiday season. Since many of
them own homes in the village---which they allow other families to stay in
during their absence---a period of house renovation precedes the owner’s return.
Additionally, hats and brooms are woven as gifts for the returning kin.
|This is not the cemetery I worked on, but it was part of the same project: Note the fresh white coral spread around the ancient graves|
Second, the entire holiday season
is a big deal in Penrhyn---not only because of the visitors from Australia---and
it involves many festive customs. All the houses in the village change the
color of their curtains one week before Christmas (some also change the color
of their house paint), so this tradition entails the making of new curtains,
starting in October. Atoll homes have a multitude of doors and windows for
ventilation; thus, there are many more curtains than one might imagine. Some of
the curtains are dyed in a clever way. A large board is routed with the
intended pattern for the curtain. Then, the fabric is pinned to the board and
textile ink applied with a paint roller:
It’s sort of like making a reverse block print.
Another Penrhyn holiday tradition
is that all of the village women wear identical hats on three specific dates
during the holidays: Christmas, New
Year’s Day, and the closing of the holiday season about one week after New
Year’s. On these days, as well as on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, holiday
celebrations are held which include (in addition to the usual church services),
singing and dancing competitions between the villages of Omoka and Tetautua and
holiday feasts. When I say the village women wear identical hats to these
events, I don’t mean that they wear the same hat on all three occasions. I mean
that they design a different hat for each of the three important dates. One
woman is responsible for creating the design for each of the special days, and
all of the village women follow that design when weaving their new hats. And
when I say “hats,” I mean that the women weave identical hats for each female
member of the family. Depending on how many daughters a woman has, this could
mean weaving three or four hats for just one of the three dates.
|Patterning curtain fabric on a routed board with textile ink|
Added to this daunting task is the
creation of new dresses (for the women) and shirts (for the men) from fabric
matching the hats. Again, the garments are identical for the entire village for
each of the important dates and are created in multiples matching the number of
people in a household.
If this weren’t enough work (and
enough spectacle!) for the holiday season, we also learned that each family
creates hat/clothing designs for both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Holiday
activities are held on these evenings during which individual families dress
identically (their hats and fabric usually matching the color of their new
curtains), but the entire village does not dress identically.
So, if we add all this up, the
holiday season entails the creation of five outfits for each member of the
family and five hats for each of the female members. Depending on the size of
the family, this could mean weaving up to twenty different hats for the holiday
season alone! Now you know why the women of Penrhyn begin their preparations for
the holidays so early!
|Aloha weaving one of the Christmas hats: An identically patterned hat is to her left|
What a sight Tetautua village must
be, all decked out for Christmas, with new curtains on every house and everyone
dressed in matching clothing and hats! I wished we could stay through the
holidays. Few yachties witness these events because the Christmas holidays
occur during the cyclone season, when most prudent yachts have left the area.
The villagers very fondly told us of one yachting family that had stayed in
Tetautua for over a year. Their yacht had been dismasted, and it took that long
to find and ship (via cargo ship) a new mast to remote Penrhyn atoll. They may
have been one of the only yachting families in recent history to witness the
spectacle of Penrhyn atoll during the holiday season.
We reluctantly had to leave after a month's stay at Penrhyn. Cyclone season was coming and it was time to move on.
|Rain squall at the end of the motu|
It was very difficult and
emotionally draining to say our goodbyes to Penhryn. I didn’t realize---until I
was confronted with having to do it---the difficulty I would have saying goodbye to the children
of Penrhyn. They are some of the sweetest, most innocent children we’ve met
anywhere. I turned into a blubbery mess and did not
realize how hard it would be to say goodbye until I actually did so. I think I
worried some of the children, who had never seen me in a distressed state before. I wish that I had been able to say goodbye with a big smile on my face, but I could not control my tears. It was so easy to love the children of Tetautua. I will really miss them and the entire village.
|Silhouette (Washington) off Tetautua|
Of all the places we've been in our travels, Tongareva (Penrhyn) is the one place I would like to revisit in five or ten years to see how the people are getting on.
|Me and Mama P: Both my grandmothers are dead, but I found any number of grandmothers on Penrhyn|
Thank you for sharing your lovely photos and your experieces to the island.ReplyDelete
Thanks your your comment! We hope you also saw the post about Omoka Village titled "An Island called Penrhyn."
Hello my gramps was a US Army doctor who was one of 12, yes 12, Army personal On Penhyrn during WWII. I am wondering if the elders in Omaka mentioned anything about an American Doctor from all those years ago. The WWII photos of my gramps are similar in content to your modern ones, Ie things still done the same way.ReplyDelete
Thanks for your interesting comment and piece of Penrhyn history. The villagers did mention the Army personnel stationed on Penrhyn during WWII, but didn't mention the "American Doctor" or your grandfather, specifically. Sorry we can't provide more information. It's nice to hear that things haven't changed much, but with the introduction of smart phones and tablets to the atoll (which happened just before our visit), we think change will probably accelerate on Penrhyn.
thank you for your reply! do you remember any of the comments about the Americans? as an aside I am traveling to hawaii in the fall to meet johnny Frisbie who, with her dad robert dean Frisbie wrote a few books from that time in the Cook Islands. she remembers my gramps as well as mentioning him in her book from 1943Delete
if I could figure out how to post pictures ,it would be interesting to compare my grandfathers from WWII and your modern ones!Delete