Cannibals in Drag: Musings from Mangaia

We boarded the single-engine plane with three other passengers and a fuselage stuffed with cargo then set out on our journey, banking over Rarotonga and into a boundless, blue, ocean horizon.  I stared out the window at cotton-batten clouds, pensive and a little worried this single-engine aircraft couldn’t handle its bloated stomach, when suddenly my hair tossed wildly in a gust of wind.  I shot my head up like a sparrow just as the co-pilot jettisoned a candy wrapper out the window and pulled the window shut.  Julia and I glared at each other with gathering terror.

Our destination was Mangaia, part of the archipelago known as the Cook Islands.  Outside of the Cook Islands, few even know it exists, and the only reason we chose it was because the flight to our intended destination, Atiu, was booked.  With two available seats on the Mangaia flight, an Air Rarotonga employee called her friend (Tu) and booked us three nights at Ara Moana Bungalows.  This impromptu change of plans seemed mildly adventurous, so off to Mangaia we went, with no expectations and no idea what was about to transpire. 

The plane lit on a gravel runway and trundled to a stop in front of a wood and corrugated-steel building, with a hand-painted sign saying “Kia Orana” and “Welcome to Mangaia.”  A large woman stood at the edge of the canopy.

“Tu?” I asked, assuming it was her, since the airport was otherwise deserted.

“Kia Orana,” she responded, her face brightening like an island sunrise.  We attempted to shake hands, but she opened her arms wide and consumed us both with a motherly hug.  She guided us to her 4×4 pickup truck and we set off through lush tropical foliage, following earthen tracks formed by the balloon tires.  Twenty minutes later, we arrived at Ara Moana, which was buried under a canopy of palm and pandanus trees.  She showed us to our bungalow, a tiny A-frame building painted coral yellow.   From the outside, it looked like a garden shed and on the inside, the inside of a garden shed.  Carving out most of the main room was a double-bed and toddler-sized furniture.  Looking to the back, which was about six average paces, there was a toilet, a sink, and a cold water shower that only allowed you to rotate on axis.  We instantly realized that this was not the “Polynesian Room” at the Fantasyland Hotel, but the broom closet at the Howard Johnson.

With no itinerary, no apparent recreational activities, and a queue of gangly black hornets on the door-handle of our bungalow, we walked over to chat with Tu and her sister.  They were weaving brooms from broad grasses and coconut husk, which made us feel part of a museum diorama for traditional crafts of the Maori.  Tu’s sister told us she had moved back to Mangaia after her husband died, but that she could still feel his presence.  Glancing around, I observed that Ara Moana had all the ”cabin-in-the-woods” slasher movie tropes, even Tu’s nephew was named “Jason.”

Tu suggested options for our three-day itinerary: “You can take the stairs to the bottom of the cliffs.  You’ll find a lovely beach down there.  There are many hiking trails.  I will talk to my cousin Tere and see if he’ll take you on a cave tour.  Tomorrow morning I’ll drive you to the craft market, oh, and you’ll have to come to the island festival tomorrow night; it’s our biggest festival of the year!”

How serendipitous it was for us to arrive at the same time as their biggest festival of the year.  We expected a cultural showcase of intricate percussion and knee-jerking, hip-jiggling, Cook Island dancing.  We booked Tere’s cave tour for the morning then were forced to retire early because the electricity cut abruptly at 9:00 pm. With little ambient light in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the darkness was profound and unnerving, the perfect location for Jason to launch into a killing spree.  The door on our bungalow didn’t lock.

We awoke the next morning to dazzling sunlight and walked to the patio where we met Jason, the resident chef and an expert with knives.  A large box of Corn Flakes and jug of milk were perched on the table. I poured some cereal, milk, then listened while Jason apologized for the breakfast choice. 

“There’s no electricity for the toaster,” he said. “The island is rationing diesel fuel for our electrical generators because a TV show, “Survivor,” has commandeered the supply boat for filming  on Aitutaki.  We get three hours of electricity per day and only in the evening.  Oh, and we don’t know exactly when the power is going to be cut.”

“It’s a little rustic,” I said to Julia, “As long as we keep our flashlights close by, we should be fine.”

I passed Julia the box of cereal and as she tipped it over, a cockroach the size of a prune, tumbled out of the box and into her bowl, scrambled out, skittered across the table, leapt off, then disappeared between the floorboards.  I stared blankly at my half eaten bowl. [CLANG!] Julia dropped her spoon and buried her face in her hands.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” she whispered intensely.

After breakfast, we greeted Tere beside the garden for our cave tour.  His Saddam Hussein style mustache belied a friendly, jovial demeanor.  Minutes later, a man approached and introduced himself as Benny.  He, his wife, and another couple had arrived that night, having flown all the way from Sweden.  Our group of six followed Tere into the cave where he carefully pointed out every jagged obstacle that could break an ankle, or stalactite that could cause a cranial wound.  We climbed deeper until we came upon a three-metre wide crevasse.

“This is called the tortoise,” Tere said, pointing to a rock that emerged from a semi-circular mound resembling a tortoise shell.

The tortoise and crevasse.

“Ah,” we all said in unison.

He paused, sat on a rock, then pulled his leg towards his stomach.

“Let me tell you about this place,” he said, his voice deep and oozing gravitas.

“There was once a tribe who lived in this cave that only came out at night. They hunted children from local villages and brought them here.  The children were slaughtered, cooked, eaten, and their bones were discarded down here.”

He leaned over and peered into the crevasse then invited us to look into the black void. 

“Finally, the local villagers came after them,” he said, “There was a great battle in the cave, but the cave people lost.

He gazed back into the crevasse.

“Now their bones are down here too.”

There was a long silence, broken by Tere who, suddenly upbeat, said, “My ancestors, they were misguided.  C’mon, let’s move on.”

Tere’s oral history fused wit with dark humour and was relayed with a toothy grin under his thick salt-and-pepper mustache.

“When the first missionaries came to Mangaia, we ate them, so they sent more, and we ate them too,” he chuckled, “Finally, missionaries came from Samoa with a picture of a man tied to a cross.  It looked like how my people performed sacrifices.  That image led Mangaians to adopt Christianity and end cannibalism.  Did I mention that my ancestors were misguided?”

The trail eventually led us to a field of feral coffee plants and pineapple bushes.  Tere explained that Mangaia had once exported top-quality coffee and their pineapples were “the sweetest in the South Pacific.”  In the 1990s, globalization gutted agriculture then New Zealand austerity measures slashed government services and forced a mass exodus of the Island’s young people.  Most sought service or labour jobs in New Zealand, leaving their children behind to be raised by grandparents like Tu.  I asked Tere about promoting tourism and he told me that Mangaians have rebuffed opportunities to build tourist infrastructure on the Island, choosing instead to preserve Mangaia in its pristine state for future generations.  Mangaians, he explained, are stubborn and fiercely independent, the only Cook Islanders to worship the god, Rongo, instead of Tangaroa.  But with a population of barely 500 and dwindling, Tere worried their very existence was now threatened.

“Soon,” he said softly, “there may be no Mangaians left to stop development.”

After an educational and entertaining morning with Tere, we returned to Ara Moana in mid-afternoon for a brief rest.  At dusk, Tu drove us to the Island festival, where we joined Benny, his wife, and the other Swedish couple as “guests-of-honour” in the front row.  It looked like the entire population of Mangaia was in attendance.  Lanterns swayed and palm fronds sizzled in the humid breeze.  With heightened anticipation, the first group walked on stage and the music started.

Unlike groups on Aitutaki and Rarotonga, Mangaians had few instruments besides ukeleles and a few acoustic guitars they all shared.  Empty plastic tubs and other discarded household containers were used for percussion, but the music sounded virtually the same: a highly-syncopated, time-shifting rhythm, jumping between melodic choirs and pounding, aggressive, drum stanzas.

Between musical interludes, they performed a pantomime about a great warrior who fell in love with a simple peasant woman.  It was an enchanting story, but there was something odd about the peasant woman; she had a chiseled physique like the Statue of David. The second act also featured a female performer with a muscular body and I was beginning to have suspicions.  I bumped Julia with my elbow.

“There’s something odd about these women,” I whispered, “they seem very muscular.”

“I think they’re men,” she responded.

Once the third act began, it was evident: we were watching a drag show.  The crowd howled with excitement as successive men performed transvestite burlesque.  The group from Tu’s village told the story of a princess trying to seduce a lonely king.  She gyrated around the stage and shook her buttocks towards his face, but he only yawned and slumped deeper into despair.  When the princess’ servant boy arrived, the king, suddenly aroused, had a steamy love affair with him while the princess danced obliviously toward the audience.

There’s definitely something odd about these women.

The crowd roared with laughter then cheered heartily with approval.  When the festival ended, we sat for a few minutes dumbfounded, glancing at each other, mouths agape.  What did we just witness?  Was this culture or folks just letting off a little steam?  I still don’t know, but whatever that was, only six people outside of Mangaia have this story to tell, and four of them live in Sweden.

Driving back to Ara Moana, I sat with Benny and a group of children in the box of Tu’s truck.  The glowing red tailights receded into night as we swayed and yawed.  With our backs against the cab and our asses bouncing on the bare truck bed, Benny and I grimaced every time the truck hit a bump.  The children laughed at us.  Then, seemingly on cue, they all started singing a traditional Maori song.  Their angelic voices rose above the crumpling stones beneath the truck wheels; a sharp crescent moon followed us through the corridor of palm fronds.  Benny and I sat in silence, ingesting the experience, then he turned to me and said exactly what was rattling around inside my head.

“You know, at this moment, there’s no place in the world I’d rather be than right here.”

I smiled and nodded.

That night, with Mangaia blacked-out, Julia and I sat at the cliff edge drinking a bottle of wine.  The Milky Way speckled the night sky, the stars so vivid, they beamed down like billions of minuscule laser pointers.  It felt like we had stepped off the end of the World and were floating in outer-space.

“I’m so glad we came to Mangaia,” I said to Julia, watching a solitary fisherman swing a glowing lantern while strolling across the reef below. “That was an incredible day.”

“It was,” she replied, “but we’re still leaving tomorrow.”