“The atmosphere is poisoned in Europe,” he said stiffly, with a terse anachronistic grimace. “I am looking for an island wis no people.”
He had given up everything in Germany to fund his South Pacific dream coop in the Cooks. As proof that he meant business, he showed me his funds: $20,000 U.S. dollars in cash, which he kept rolled up with a rubber band in his jacket pocket. He would wire home for more.
“Hey, you should be careful with that. You might get mugged,” I pointed out.
“Vas? Zere is no crime here.”
“Won’t you be lonely on a deserted island all by yourself?”
“I vill get a servant to cook meals. Zat is company enough.”
The German, now shaking uncontrollably, lifted up his hand like Dr. Strangelove and suppressed a smile. “I must have escape, yes? I can get a boat! Someday zere vill be a nuclear var. It is safer here.”
It was from this German eccentric hellbent on dropping off the planet that I first found out about the motus (small deserted islands) off the coast of Aitutaki. I think Paul Gaugin would have preferred Aitutaki to Tahiti, for it sure fits any description of an island paradise, with its swaying coconut palms, caramel-colored beaches and pretty Polynesian villagers.
When I first met a local Aitutaki family, one of them, without jesting, asked me, “What island are you from?” Seriously!
“New York,” I said, with an inward smile. “I mean, Manhattan Island.”
They had certainly heard of New York from watching videos, but they looked as if they had run into a vaguely famous movie star, probably of the ilk of Christian Slater or Crispin Glover.
My “Girl Friday” and I ended up staying in a “free house” with this Polynesian family, helping out with odd jobs. After a month of lying sunnyside-up on the beaches here, my tan was as even as a pair of Banana Republic khakis.
We had been away from the United States for almost a year on an around-the-world ticket taking in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the Cook Islands and Tahiti. Soon we would be forced on by schedule to French Polynesia.
But before we left, we wanted a real adventure. So one day while I sat listening to my breathing on the porch, smoking cigarettes and flicking the ashes into a large seashell, I asked our host family if it was possible to camp out on the motus. I had heard that this was illegal.
The Polynesian family told us yes, foreigners were not allowed to stay overnight on the motus, but it wasn’t exactly illegal if you went with an islander family.
We arranged a trip in their boat to a nearby motu, taking with us our portable home: our tent.
The day dawned and we loaded our gear. The water was calm and clear, like a slow gin fizz. On the way to the first available motu, the father of the family energetically tried to spear an endangered sea turtle. We were glad he missed. The shells are worth a fortune though, we couldn’t fault him for trying.
Onshore, on mystery motu, the family laid out some nets and built a coral fire. We ended up eating unfamiliar fish cooked on corals in a kind of depression called an umu (earth oven) with coconuts pulled from nearby trees. We ate off banana leaves. We swam in the crystalline light acquamarine waters. We crisped our skin under the balled-up blaze. Then we passed around my duty-free whiskey bottle and told stories, none of them very good.
When night approached like a wine stain on a loud shirt, I felt man’s insignificance in the larger scheme of things. On this lonely desert isle, we no longer felt transient or homeless. We belonged.
It’s as simple as this: there is nothing like sleeping in a tent on a deserted island.
Even though the next day we had to leave this motu home, with absolutely nobody else upon it, I was glad to have had the experience of actually playing a Daniel Dafoe character on a bonafide deserted South Pacific island before continuing my long adventure back to the United States, with my father’s last phone call echoing in my ears, “John, when are you going to get a job?”
When we returned to Aitutaki, I gave the family a gift of a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Unabridged Classics). Their expression said thanks, but their eyes betrayed disappointment. Maybe they were just sad to see us go. We weren’t sure if our host family did much reading. Though they went to church every Sunday, at a nice white clapboard structure, we noticed they snored like goats during the sermons.
If you find Hawaii ho-hum and Bora Bora boring, take a side trip to remote Aitutaki. Experience the real South Pacific, more perfect in person than any postcard. Where else can you confront the real remote and your fears of falling off the map?
As we prepared to leave by boat from the dock, I came across a dentally-challenged villager who appeared to be suffering from a hangover. When I told him I was American, the old guy piped up, “I heard that the Americans sent men to the moon.” The man brooded silently for a couple of seconds. “But I don’t believe this. The moon is too far.!”
Despite his laugh, I couldn’t tell if the old man, who relinquished the secret of his name, which was Neville (a carryover of Kiwi colonialism), was joking. Maybe imagining I was a writer or something in search of an ending, he delivered the perfect punchline.
But I agree: the moon is too far. The German guy I met probably subscribed to a conspiracy theory that Hollywood just hatched up the moon landing to pull the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting public.
Instead, there are otherworldly direct flights to the Cook Island of Rarotonga! Landing on the right boat to out-of-this-world Aitutaki, after that is a matter of extreme happenstance.
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