The Coconut King
Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Piri calmly waves at us from the top of the palm tree while a light gust sends him swaying from left to right like a metronome. “Get your cameras ready,” he shouts, his voice still loud even though he’s one hundred feet above us. He wraps his legs around the trunk and waves at us with both hands this time. For Piri this is an everyday task, for the small crowd gathered on the beach, it is a chance to watch a living legend in action.
Piri Puruto III is the self proclaimed coconut king of Rarotonga; with skin as tough and tanned as leather and shoulders as broad as the horizon, he probably wouldn’t make a particularly handsome postage stamp, but he is a little more approachable than your average monarch.
A small group of us were staying at Piri’s place, a cosy little hostel only a few yards away from a strip of beach and on the right side of the island to watch the sun dipping into the Pacific each night. Unsurprisingly we were also surrounded by palm trees. There’s not much that Piri can’t do with a coconut, and as Piri would often tell us, “Before the white man come the coconut gives us fire, gives us water, gives us meat, but first we have to get the coconut.”
The coconut was vital to life on his home island of Aitu, and his show is a demonstration of this, as apart from his sprint up a palm tree, it also consists of traditional fire lighting (using coconut fibers), plaiting plates (from palm fronds), traditional cooking (involving shredded coconut and coconut oil) and of course, Piri’s life story (which he tells while wearing a traditional Aitu warrior outfit, made from coconuts).
Now, of course, life is different, and all an average islander will tell you about coconuts is that they could kill you if you sunbathe beneath a fully laden palm tree. In fact, tourism may be the only thing that is keeping the secrets of the coconut alive on Rarotonga. This may also be the case for the other popular traditions on the island, such as the island dancing groups and traditionally carved souvenirs.
The problem is that just as the first wave of Westerners to these islands converted the natives to Christianity, a new, modern wave of travelers are now converting the locals to consumerism. Every day new missionaries arrive with digital cameras, Nike trainers and stories of air conditioned cars and fast food chains. The more tourists that visit therefore, the more the younger generation want mobile phones and burgers.
The result is an exodus of the young, who, with a combination of automatic New Zealand citizenship and the Trans-Tasman agreement, are able to live, work and study in New Zealand or Australia without difficulties. It’s easy to forget that while many may view the Cook Islands as paradise, those that have grown up here have had to put up with a lack of jobs, mediocre medical facilities (an important issue due to an increase in diabetes – caused by the fatty foods introduced from the West) as well as the threat of hurricanes and the clear environmental impact of the tourism (locals on the outer islands refer to Rarotonga as the Big Smoke, as most of the rubbish here is burnt), it’s not surprising therefore that many look forward to leaving.
Piri, now in his sixties, could well mark the end of an era on Rarotonga. When he does finally reach the end of his reign, will there be a successor to his coconut crown, or will it simply float off into the warm Pacific waters along with his knowledge? Whatever happens, no one will forget Piri in a hurry.