Why Not? - The island where happiness starts with a question
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A machete unexpectedly prompts a visit to the local church ~ Local delicacy: rotting fish ~ Love in old age
Today is Sunday and as any good Christian I should wake up with peaceful thoughts in mind. But I don’t. Instead, I wake up with a burning desire to become a serial killer. Yes, a serial killer of mosquitoes, cockroaches, flies, millipedes and of everything that should stay out, not in. Then, if I could only become a serial killer of roosters too, perhaps I’ll finally gain back my peace and declare paradise perfect.
The eternal if’s of our lives. The older we get, the more we collect, and the less anyone cares.
It’s only the third day and I’m already covered in mosquito bites. I look like I have chickenpox. I must do something. But what? How can I kill the biggest killer in the world, the mosquito? Mosquitoes kill one million people every year, did you know that? Unbelievable! Never mind, I forgot we’re more worried about the sharks. They kill about five people each year.
I’m sitting on the deck, lost in thought, when I hear a knock on my door.
“Iao-ra-naaaa. How are you, boss?” Toanui asks, rounding each vowel as usual.
“Good, thank you. And you?”
“Perfect, just perfect. Every day perfect. Look around you, everything perfect.”
“With the exception of mosquitoes,” I say, pointing to the small, itchy red bumps on my legs.
“Tamanu Oil. You need Tamanu Oil. And monoi. And possibly some noni and—” he scratches his head, then taps his finger against his jaw “—and a man to kiss those bites,” he ends it, playfully.
“I need everything that I can possibly find, Toanui,” I reply, amused.
“Tomorrow. We go Tahiti Aromes. My friend work there. Now, a present for you, boss.”
He takes a big, yellow coconut from his truck, brings it over and slashes it open with his machete:
“The drink of Polynesian Gods, the drink of Paradise. For you.”
My eyes glitter: fresh, sweet coconut water in the morning. What more can I ask for? I know. How about a machete?
So, I ask Toanui:
“Where can I buy a machete like yours so I can have more coconuts each day?”
“You want my machete?”
“No, not yours. Of course not yours. I want to buy one.”
“Why not mine?” he asks and scrunches his thick eyebrows in confusion.
“I don’t know…I don’t wanna bother you…”
“You want my machete?” he insists and from the tone of his voice I fear he might be offended if I say no.
“Yes, I do, but…”
“D’accord. No problème,” he says and turns around starting to sharpen his machete on a large, flat stone. He runs his finger up the sharpened blade and then he hands it to me: “Now, better, take it. Careful.”
He doesn’t ask how long I need it. He trusts me. And after the habitual bisou, the cheek-to-cheek French air kiss, he leaves in a hurry, apologizing a few times for disturbing me and promising to bring more coconuts the next day.
He’s so nice, so helpful that sometimes I do wonder if he’s for real. I wish I could offer him something in return. But what? Money? That would be an insult, a violation of Tahitian hospitality, same as pretty much everything else. Your face relaxed into a genuine smile is their reward.
I promise myself I’ll say a prayer for him. Maybe I’ll even start today.
I’ve never been an overly religious person, though not the kind that doesn’t miss a mass. I actually miss all the masses, no exception and never feel guilty about it. Once you’ve been to one, you’ve been to all. That’s how boring they feel to me. Edward Schillebeeckx believed that the pastor should be like a “roaring, hungry lion” to combat dull, dreary sermons. I couldn’t agree more. However, the pastors I’ve met were more like sleepy lions and their preaching was more like the yawning of a koala.
But here, in the Pacific, it’s different, it feels different. It’s light and bright, uplifting and memorable, enlightening and soothing. And it’s easy, you don’t need to look twice as pious as you’re not. You just need a willingness to sing, because there is a loooot of singing going on.
So, on Sunday, everyone goes to church: Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Seventh-day Adventist, everyone. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the atheists went, not for the singing, but to convince others that they are right. Human nature, it’s not enough to believe we’re right, we need to persuade others as well.
I decide to go.
I ride to St Joseph’s, a beautiful, small white church with a red roof right beside Cook’s Bay. The car park is filled with brand new Land Rovers, Nissan Pathfinders, Dacia Logans and some old Peugeot models. Tahitians are surely keeping up with the times.
It’s eleven o’clock and the pews are filled with people. Everybody wears their best Sunday clothes. Everybody except me. I have two suitcases full of God knows what, but no proper Sunday clothes. The eternal female mystery: they carry everything, but still they never have what they need.
The local women are in simple, flowing, white lace bottom dresses, some green, others even pink and their heads are covered by assorted beige or white hats adorned with fresh flowers.
Men, a bit more formal, wear black pants, white shirts and fern crowns on their heads that could easily be taken as laurel crowns.
Kids are running around oblivious to the pastor’s sermon. But nobody minds. In the front row, a few older men and women stand up, getting ready to play the drums and ukulele. The stained glass windows are all open, letting the soft breeze come in and carrying the voices over the water.
There is a relaxed, casual atmosphere and the entire service feels like a Sunday afternoon get together with friends.
I’m standing right next to the main door, trying to observe it all while plotting my escape just in case things get too monotonous for my taste.
But after only a few minutes, a woman with long, shiny, black hair, turns and waves, inviting me to sit next to her. I can’t say no. I’ve learned my lesson from Toanui. Everyone is so welcoming that saying “no” is not an option, it’s an affront.
Soon, the singing begins, first mellow, almost putting you to sleep, then the drums start beating louder and louder, faster and faster. Now everyone is standing, holding each other’s sweaty hands, moving their bodies in the same rhythm with the music, singing with one voice praising God, thanking Him for their island, their families and their friends. I hum along and I feel goose bumps all over my body. I’m not a curious tourist anymore, I’m a child of God, same as everyone around me. I’m not one, I’m part of the many. I’m not living in the past or in the future, but in the present. My mind lets go. Each moment belongs to me and each moment is here to make me happy. Ambition, ego, angst and all their great buddies melt away leaving nothing but a deep state of temporary contentment. I hold the brown, soft hand of the lady next to me even tighter and continue to sing with all my heart, God be with you till we meet again.
When the service ends, there is a deep peace and stillness inside of me, a sense of serenity that engulfs me. I feel more compassionate, more joyful, more playful than ever before and connected to everyone around me. This, I think, is all that church should ever be about.
I’m almost ready to jump back on my scooter when I see a man running straight towards me. My first thought is I might have forgotten something on the wooden bench. I can only remember having my camera with me and my camera is right in my hands. So it couldn’t be that. By now, the man is standing right next to me and he insists that I should follow him. The whole congregation is walking towards a large grassy area at the back of the church. I go with him.
Right beside the water, surrounded by palm trees, there are plastic folding tables and chairs, all arranged in parallel rows, musicians playing, and mountains of food on sea shell shaped plates. I’m invited to sit next to a big mama who seems to know everyone. She gives me a strong hug that nearly cracks my ribs, then takes my plate, and dumps a little bit of everything on it: boiled taro, roasted breadfruit, firifiri, Tahitian doughnut with coconut milk, fafa, the local spinach made from taro tops, po’e, a sticky pudding made of bananas with coconut milk, poisson cru, the famous raw fish and vegetable dish, and something that smells like roadkill, but still looks like white fish. When she sees me trying to hold my breath, she explains to me laughing:
“This is fafaru, raw fish marinated in mitifafaru, seawater that’s left to infuse with rotting fish for ten days. Try it, try it.”
But I’m not that eager. The word rotting makes my stomach clench in disgust. My mind goes wild and starts to conjure up an image of a mountain of fish left to rot in the fierce tropical sun covered by a carpet of flies. And now I have to eat this? Imagine my luck!
I want to say: “Sorry, big mama. I don’t like eating something that smells like death.” But just to be polite and please her, I do take a bite, a tiny one. But as soon as it touches my mouth, I have to spit it out. Even for such a food adventurer as I am, it’s way too much and I can’t risk having a queasy stomach all day tomorrow.
My reaction amuses her terribly. She goes on telling everyone around us about my love affair with their fafaru which ended up in such a disaster. Now they are all half laughing, half hiccupping. However, it’s not a cruel, mocking laugh, it’s warm and hearty and all I can feel is a deep comfortable pleasantness being with all of them. I have no choice other than joining the laughter, hoping that the worst is now behind me. But hope is never as close as we hope it to be.
And the big mama doesn’t give up easily:
“More, more, try more. With this,” she says, handing me a bottle of something that looks like milky saké. It would be wonderful if that’s what it was. It would wash away that awful taste that keeps lingering in my mouth. But I’m pretty sure it’s not. And I’m right.
“This is Miti Hue, fermented coconut milk with juice of river shrimp.”
Wonderful! Just wonderful! Another delicacy. Just what I needed! Was the river shrimp left to rot as well? Otherwise, what’s the point of trying? I want to ask. But, my self-preservation instinct tells me some things are best left unknown. Instead, I thank her and try to look away. That po’e smells fantastic and the raw white tuna with cucumbers, carrots, lime and coconut milk is even more appealing. Actually, everything on the table seems to have been dipped at some point in coconut milk.
What surprises me is that there is no particular order in which the dishes are served. The sweet things like po’e are eaten at the same time as all the others. Smart people, why bother if they all end up in the same place? I’ve often asked myself that, too. No one ever bothered to respond. It’s one of those things done out of habit, forgetting to question the rationale of the habit in the first place.
Forks or spoons are well and truly forgotten. Everyone eats with their delicate hands and the most you could hope for are some napkins, but that’s only towards the end. In the meantime, the fingers are cleaned one by one, the natural way, with saliva, and then used as toothpicks. I decide to try this last part in the privacy of my villa. If successful, I promise to come back and expose it to the general public.
Between burps and lip smacking, people talk constantly over each other, sometimes in French, sometimes in Tahitian, most of the time in a fusion of the two.
I find out about a seventy-five-year-old newlywed man who is about to move to New Zealand with his eighty year old love. Although, given the high concentration of tears and romanticism, love stories never quite interest me, but this one starts promising:
“She came here on holiday, a year ago,” the frumpy woman next to me says between a bite of fafaru and another of po’e. “They fell in love, got married. Beautiful, just beautiful. Now, he has to go.”
Poor man, “he has to go,” indeed, I mumble to myself, feeling my face turning green with envy. I bet I won’t get the hots when I’m that age. Let alone, get hitched.
I think it takes quite a young heart to fall in love and quite a foolish mind to believe it will last forever and sign the damn paper. Yet, those who possess both are usually going through life happier than the rest. It might not always work out, but as long as they keep trying, there is always a chance it might.
Another woman, blonde, wrinkled as a sun dried raisin and wearing a long red dress and a bougainvillea crown on her head, is telling a young man half her age, about a trip to Europe she plans to take next year.
“Last month, I turned ninety-five. The trip is my son’s present. Too bad I couldn’t go this year. In August, I’m going to Japan.” Her eyes seem to sparkle with each word.
You hear that Vicky? She’s going to Japan in August and to Europe next year.
This time I’m not envious, I’m shocked. Not only because it takes a young heart to still wish for those things and a foolish mind to plan such trips, it takes a lot of guts to go ahead and do it.
After all, what do people her age do most of the time? They complain. If it’s not their health, it’s their kids, if not their kids, it’s their choices in life. Lots of bickering back and forth goes around each day.
Not this woman. This woman has long term plans and she is far from giving in. Life still holds plenty of surprises for her. And she just cannot wait. I do wonder what the secret of her longevity is. Is it rest? Is it diet? Or is it simply what the French call le joie de vivre, the joy of living?
I talk to her for a few moments. She tells me that until eighteen, she was proudly raised in California by her single Dutch mother, and then she fell hopelessly in love with a handsome French guy and moved to France. But she couldn’t stand Paris. The constant rush, the winters, the old gray Haussmann buildings set against a similarly colored sky, it was all too much. Call it luck, call it karma, she fell in love again. This time with an Aussie. She followed him to Australia, but she felt she didn’t belong there either. If the French were too mannered, too sophisticated, the Aussies were too rough. A bunch of convicts with the pretense of lords, she called them. Never mind, rough did the job and she had three kids with the Aussie bloke. But then on a short holiday in Tahiti, she fell in love for the third time. This time, not with a man, no, she’d had enough of those, but with an island. She had to move to Moorea and for thirty five years she has been living here.
“Sure, I had a few lovers all this time,” she explains to me kindly. “Life is no good without love, without lovers, you know… Time goes quick when you have someone to share it with, when you make love, dream of each other… But then, the older I got, no one wanted me. I mean no young fellow wanted me. And the old ones, I don’t want them. But I know love is a game of patience and I’m in no hurry. I’ll find someone… Maybe in Japan. I won’t move there though… I’ll never leave the island.”
She invites me to spend a few months next year over at her place. Although she barely knows me, she means it.
“That is, of course, if the Japanese guy doesn’t move in,” she adds with a wink.
“Of course,” I reply, also with a wink.
A large group of women, all dressed exactly the same, in long, blue dresses with bright phosphorescent green tiare flowers start singing, crescendo after crescendo. The heart they put into it is amazing. In their singing I can see a glimpse of the best of what humanity has to offer. The whole world out there might be doomed, but here, there is still hope.
The celebration goes like clockwork. As soon as everyone is done with the eating, some people clear the tables, while others pack the remaining food to be distributed to the poor and sick ones who couldn’t make it. Three buses are waiting to bring everyone back to their home. In less than half an hour, the whole place is clean and empty and one could hardly tell that only an hour ago, more than a hundred people were eating, singing, and dancing here. The proverbial island time seems to be long forgotten.
I pick up the Tahiti Beach Press magazine and quickly flip through it. A big square box which occupies almost half the page catches my eyes:
Attention all tourists. Has someone locally been exceptionally nice to you? Nominate that person for a Mauruuru Award, the only special recognition for people in Tahiti and Her Islands.
I smile. If I were to nominate someone I wouldn’t know whom to start with. But the idea of encouraging friendliness and hospitality by public recognition shows me once more the concern Tahitians’ have with keeping the same values the islanders are so famous for.
On the way back, I stop by Hibiscus beach, one of the few narrow stretches of white silvery sand where palm trees kiss the water and at sunset, black tipped reef sharks come close to the shore. I’m alone. I sit at the edge of the water reflecting on my day.
The complexities of the modern world are gone here. All is reduced to the essentials. There is no protocol to follow. To be invited to a party you don’t have to know anyone. Just happen to be in the vicinity when a party is going and you’re invited. You don’t have to be introduced. Everyone mingles with everyone and it’s hard to say who has been friends for years, simply acquaintances, or today is the first time they’ve met. When it comes to food, to grab a bite you don’t need a fork, a napkin, a plate or a seat at the table. You just need a healthy appetite and someone to share the meal with. Everything is simple, no unnecessary fuss. The way it should be.
I draw a long, deep breath. The air, palpably still, is filled with a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain magic that draws me in. Times slows down. Silvery translucent fish leap out of the lagoon looking for trouble. And here it comes: frigate birds swoop and dive, searching for a fast meal. The game of chance has started. In the distance, a few locals paddle their canoes, turning on their flashlights one by one, ready to fish for their dinner.
As the red sun disappears into the ocean and twilight deepens, the old me fades away and a different me, more peaceful, more insightful, more joyful emerges from the darkness. The sweet moonlit solitude heals old wounds and my thirst for life awakens once more. My mind becomes a blur with possibilities, hopes, dreams, each more daring than the next.
One by one, millions and millions of little bright wonders, shy at first, then more bold, come to say hello. I wave to the Milky Way, then to the Southern Cross and they wave back at me. In their fluttering movement they drop one faithful servant after another who turn into long, shooting stars crossing the entire sky in their search for my wish.
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, Have the wish I wish tonight.