Aitutaki-Land of Impossible Blues
“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin – his control
Stops with the shore.” ~Lord Byron
A circle is the reflection of eternity. It has no beginning and it has no end – and if you put several circles over each other, then you get a spiral.
~Maynard James Keenan
It is said that life is a spiral, that at the end of our lives we have travelled around a Great Circle and returned to the place where we began. Sometimes it takes a sense of place, or rather a sense of Displace, to realise this.
It was only on Aitutaki, as our guide explained a little of its history, that I fully realised I had been following the migration back to its source, taking the long circle back to Hawaiiki, following the humpbacks which come here each year on their long journey from the south. But then all our lives are journeys back to Source. The inkling had begun in Rarotonga when my friends had pointed out the seven waka (canoes) which brought Māori to New Zealand had left from Rarotonga. Now it seemed I had gone back one chain link in the journey.
Aitutaki floats in the middle of the Pacific, a delicate turquoise shark’s tooth of islands and lagoon adrift on a vast purple ocean. I hadn’t heard of it before, but everyone I knew who had ever been there spoke in glowing terms. You are going to ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT. Their use of uppercase told me it must be special. I furtively looked at it on Google Maps, read a few brochures and promptly looked away before preconception could poison me. It would only be when I had my feet on the ground and could smell the ocean and feel the sea breezes that I could begin to get to know it, to hear what it had to say. But I sense the blue calling, whispering to me across the night.
From time to time, as the plane ambles across a royal-purple ocean, I look down, past the transparent circle of the propellers, waiting to catch a first glimpse. I give up, then wait for the engines to die back and the nose of the plane to tip forward before I look again. At the last minute it appears around the front of the plane, waves quickly then vanishes from sight as we waft in over the coconut palms (tray tables stowed, electronic devices powered off) and float softly onto the runway. Clearly the pilots have done this many times.
The heat and the hard intense metallic light throw their arms around me and I stagger. Too much, too soon and only evaporated yellows and greens to be seen. We join the mêlée for luggage and a welcome lei, then we are driving down the side of the runway towards our hotel which is… somewhere. Elaine, our guide, was enthusiastic. The hotel is under new management, she explained, and it is being done up. We are just unpacking new laundry today and you will be the first to get it. We can only wonder what the old linen is like.
Thomas, who part-owns and manages the resort, greets us on our arrival. He gets our names and then never forgets them or our needs. When I fry myself in the sun, he notices and finds burn cream without being asked. He gives us a briefing on how things operate, including useful tips on coping with the lagoon. Slip-slide your feet across the bottom of the lagoon and you won’t ever tread on a stonefish. My father told me that and it has always worked. Never stood on one yet. Over the week we come to understand that staying at Samade on the Beach is like becoming part of a big family. All the staff know our names, all are genuinely interested in us, and all want to share their own lives and experiences. This is not one of those nose-in-the-air resorts where a subtle disdain and disinterest keeps staff and guests apart. This place is real, the people are real, and the honesty is refreshing.
But the blue is talking to me. It is deeper, richer, clearer and more intense that Rarotonga.it is impossible. I have never seen blues like this. It hums in the midday sun, it sings, it vibrates, it soars, it resonates. It changes across the day, from a soft, gentle blue-grey at dawn to a gorgeous turquoise at midday. It reaches its peak at mid-afternoon, then begins to subside to a deep blue-black washed with accents of gold near sunset, before subsiding into night. There is a distinct and yet connected palette for every moment of the day.
However I am still trying to wash the year out of my system and I am in my own way. I find my Kindle and a deck chair, then bury myself in the adventures of Odd Thomas for the afternoon. Occasionally I look up and make photographs of this impossible blue, of the paddle boarders and swimmers. All the usual stuff. I experiment with composition until I begin to get past the Obvious, to the place where I am out of ideas and becoming open. I realise I haven’t had a do-little holiday in such a long time that I am having to relearn how to relax. The thought comes that God probably came here on the Seventh day to rest, brushed the existing volcano out of the way and settled down for a well-earned break. I imagine him giving the angels a day off, removing the Celestial Sandals, putting His feet up and seeing that It Was Good.
In the stillness of the night, beyond windows where dull-green geckos on our insect screens hang abrupt and motionless, defying the laws of Gravity, and birds make eerie noises in the darkness, I hear the wind moving through the coconut palms, turning over the fronds and inspecting their undersides, and then moving on, gathering its cloak and crossing the island, before making for Samoa. And always there is the sound of the ocean breaking ceaselessly on the reef.
It is only after a couple of days that the rhythm of Aitutaki is able to get under the skin of my illusion.
The apparent simplicity of form and light is anything but simple. Sea, sky and land may be all that there is at first glance, but there are subtleties within those, and a complex interweaving between all three. The understanding comes late one afternoon as I go for a walk to the water’s edge. With no reason to be there other than to look, the fauna makes itself visible. Seabirds and white terns, pivoting on the wind like glowing notes written on a score sheet, are stitching sky, sea and land together. At my feet are small crabs, bullying and bustling on the damp shoreline, never far from their burrows and ready to dash for shelter at any sense of danger. Schools of translucent fish slide past, occasionally erupting in frantic swarms as larger predators attack them. There is safety in numbers, as long as you are in the middle. At night the larger crabs, some 20cm across their shell, come out from their burrows on land. Now I know the reason for the strange burrows among the plants around our cabin, as I catch one slipping back for the day into his hole beside our steps. Apart from the introduced cats and chickens, which seem to come from very limited gene pools, most creatures seem to live across environments. From time to time reef herons sail serenely past or stand motionless on the lagoon banks, thinking inscrutable heron thoughts. On Aitutaki you learn that if you stand still and wait, the natural world is close by and will reveal itself in its breadth and complexity. It is possible here to see the intricate patterns of nature, to see further across the web.
The tenuousness of human existence becomes apparent. This is an environment which will not be dominated. For all its fragility, mankind is the outsider, who if he is to live here successfully, must integrate with the rhythms of the island. Nobody rushes, for there is no need to. Nobody stresses for there is no point. Nobody locks their doors except paranoid tourists, because there is nowhere for a burglar to run and the social ostracisation in a community this small and tightly woven would be worse than going to jail.
Each day the lagoon empties and fills, refreshing itself; each day the cycle repeats, as it has done for millons of years; each day I wear my watch less and less, each day I make the same photographs and each day I dig a little deeper beneath the surface and watch them change. I gather images and file them on my laptop without editing. That can wait. Ma te wa. When it is time. It is only on the second to last day of our holiday that they are ready to be resolved, and the sudden awareness of the way the light reflects turquoise and translucent on the underside of the clouds which makes it possible to begin shaping, filing and smoothing the raw material to reveal the truth within.
And each day I am beginning to understand what drew great names like Gauguin and Robert Louis Stevenson, where their creativity could flourish and grow.