A Raro Life is a chronological recollection of stories from the six months I spent living in Rarotonga during the 2021 Covid lockdown.
We’re at Mai’i.
“My favourite restaurant on the island,” Amandine says.
But she also said that about Mooring Fish Cafe.
We’ve just been to yoga with Michelle. I’m eating fish and chips. Roberta’s eating kumara fries. Amandine’s got the sashimi platter.
Roberta isn’t doing much eating, though. She’s talking. Entertaining us with stories of her teens – when she backpacked through Brazil in the seventies or eighties, did all the crazy backpacker things. She talks and talks, and I can see Amandine zoning out, then I zone out, and it’s Roberta talking to herself, then after a few minutes, we zone back in. She’s still talking.
So the island is like home, now? She finally asks me.
I nod. Every day there is something.
Tuesday and Thursday is yoga, Amandine says.
Friday and Sunday is music at Waterline, I say.
Saturday is the rock band.
Just Wednesday is free …
Wednesday you can go to Lucille’s house! Roberta says.
Amandine perks up.
Yes! The magazine thing!
They start laughing.
You want to go tomorrow? Roberta asks.
Amandine nods. Yeah!
She turns to me and starts explaining.
So it’s this thing – you take all these pictures from magazines, but you don’t even think about it, you really don’t think anything about it, you just take it and then make this picture, and then when you finish you will have a card with all these pictures, then you can make like four or five cards or however many cards you want, and at the end all the pictures will tell a story about your life …
It’s really fun!
Even Kamil went once.
Yes, he hated it.
Because he’s Kamil, that’s why. But we should go!
I know I’m not even allowed to say no.
We will goooo, Roberta says. We can leave at foouuur.
I wake early the next day. Go to the beach. Read.
Just before lunch, I lace up for my run.
As I leave the house, I spot Carlo in the garden, shirtless, doing garden stuff. He grins at me.
You run everywhere!
Yep, I smile to myself. Seems to be all I know now.
Carlo is so jolly. He has a permanent smile, like it’s painted on. When he talks, he lifts his eyebrows, high as he can, like he’s putting in eyedrops. His Italian accent is so thick you almost need subtitles. You can’t not love him.
I walk down the driveway, around to the front of their house. I don’t know if he’s a carpenter, but I guess he built this house himself. It’s soulful, tropical, built in a nest of trees, straight out of an island movie. The guesthouses – where Amandine and myself stay – are on the bottom floor. Carlo and Roberta live up top, in their breezy idyllic treehouse. I’m jealous. It’s beautiful.
I start my run, down their long gravel driveway, same as always.
The funny thing about Rarotonga – it’s nearly impossible to get lost, because there’s only one main road, that circles the whole island. I don’t even know if it has a name – people just call it Main Road. It makes it the most beautiful place to run. Normally, in a foreign country, you need to keep a damn GPS in your head when you run, remembering every turn, every landmark so you don’t get lost. But here, you can just run and run, and when you get tired, just turn and run back. You can’t get lost when there’s only one road.
I hit the main road and hang left.
I run past the Edgewater Resort, where I had gone for lunch on my first week.
Were you running this morning? The waitress had asked.
Yes I was.
The next day, I went back for a swim.
The guy on duty grinned at me.
Saw you running this morning bro. Chyeah!
Go for a run, everyone on this island knows. No secrets here.
I run past Alberto’s Steak House. Pretty good food, Carlo had told me on the first day, on the ride from the airport.
Next, I pass the bakery that Amandine likes, with the one-dollar Spanish rolls.
A few minutes down, there are roadworks.
I run by the orange cones. The guy standing there does a little hop step.
Wanna race, bro? He grins.
I grin back.
I run by Black Rock. Oceanside now. I follow the road all the way to the wall that runs along the sea. They call it the Sea Wall.
Even though cars are zipping past, it’s soothing, running the Sea Wall. Hearing the ocean crash, tasting the fresh salt in the air.
I look at my watch. Three kilometres.
I turn around, start to head home.
Along the Sea Wall again, past Black Rock again, past Alberto’s again, back to Carlo’s driveway. But I get to Carlo’s driveway and I don’t want to stop. This weather is too beautiful, this sun is too warm, the humidity is too nourishing.
I keep going.
I run past the Crown Resort. Then OTB. Then Beluga. Then Waterline. This stretch of resorts and restaurants, I’ve run it many times now. This part of the island is Arorangi. I know it by heart. Without even realising it, it’s become home.
As I run this stretch of road, there is a moment when all cars have cleared the road, I see no buildings. All I see in front of me are bright green trees hanging still, piles of coconuts gathered by the roadside, and a spotless turquoise sky glowing in the sun. It sits there like it’s in a photo frame, and all I can think is how I regret not having my camera, but I know I’d never be able to capture the perfection anyway. The beauty stuns me, like a beautiful woman, or a beautiful sunset – my eyes try to take it all in, and it’s almost overwhelming, to the point I just want to stare into this blue and run forever.
How did I not know this island existed until now?
Just as I’m locking up, I can hear Roberta and Amandine outside, walking towards my door.
Do you think he still wants to come? I hear Amandine say.
They pop their head around the corner and see me.
Oh yeah, he’s here!
It feels like a short drive to Lucille’s house. I have no idea where we are, but we pull up a long driveway which eventually opens out to a beautiful, sprawling lawn. A large house sits in the middle, immaculately kept, straight out of a Home & Garden magazine. Around the house is an L-shaped deck, lined with statues and carvings. My first thought – I’d love to live in a house like this.
We pull up to the doorstep. There are no other cars in the driveway. Just us.
Lucille is waiting to greet us on the deck. She’s a retired French lady with a soft voice who reminds me of a fortune teller. It’s everything – her wavy blue clothes, her shallow eyes, her pillowy voice.
Behind her on the deck is a long table filled with stationery – glue, glitter, coloured pens, candy.
She offers us tea – not normal tea, of course, but tea with turmeric or lavender or masala or some combination of these.
Can I steal an M&M? I ask.
She gazes at me strangely, then looks over at the bowl of M&M’s on the table. Smiles.
“Oh, of course. They’re all for you.”
As I chew on M&M’s, she introduces herself. She hands me a piece of paper. Across the top are the words Soul Collage. She asks me some questions. Where I’m from, what I do.
Then she finally tells the ladies to go ahead and get started, before sitting down beside me.
“So, Brendan, what I would like you to do is to go to that table, spend some time looking through all the pictures, and your task is to choose one, only one. I want you to choose the one that jumps out at you. You won’t need to think about it too much. You should know as soon as you see it. We’re looking for that one picture that, when you see it, you feel that ahhhhhh inside of you, you just know it’s speaking to you. Do you know what I mean?”
I know I’m supposed to say yes.
I go to the table. There are hundreds of loose pages torn out of magazines and brochures, with pictures of everything – beaches, cars, people, plants, animals. I flick through them all quickly, and eventually I pick up a page with a small photo of a bonfire, and I stop.
I stare at it for two, three seconds.
It brings back memories of Afrikaburn. A happier time in my life. Right before everything changed.
I guess this is what she was talking about.
I take it and go and sit back down with Lucille. She looks at it.
“Very good. This is the centrepiece of your collage. Remember, it can be anything in this photo that speaks to you – it could be the fire, it could be the people sitting around it, it could just be the colour. It’s all about what you see. Now I want you to return to the table and pick one more picture. This second picture will be your background.”
I go back to the table. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I find a picture of a guy. He has a leather jacket and he looks confident and focused and most importantly, at peace.
I take it back to Lucille.
She puts a pair of scissors and a glue stick in front of me.
“Time to be a kid again,” she tells me.
She’s right, it is like being a kid again. I cut around each picture meticulously, like I used to in primary school, agonising over the angle I should paste it on, over the straightness of the edges, over getting just the right amount of glue.
I look up at Roberta and Amandine.
Silence. Intense concentration.
We are all kids again.
Lucille comes over and looks at my finished piece. She smiles.
She holds it up and shows the girls.
“Che belloooo,” says Roberta.
“It’s beautiful,” says Amandine.
“Isn’t it?” Says Lucille.
I try not to laugh. Am I supposed to say thank you?
She hands it back.
So now, I want you to do it again – look for the pieces that speak to you. But don’t limit yourself this time. Use as many pictures as you like. And remember – don’t think, just listen.
We spend the next thirty minutes glueing pictures from magazines onto cardboard. None of us talk. None of us take a break. Somehow, it is so simple and meaningless, but so engrossing at the same time. It feels almost … sacred.
After we’re finished, and still sitting in silence, Lucille comes out of the house. We’ve been cutting and gluing for hours.
“Shall we share?”
The day is dimming now. The sun has started to set. She takes us over to some couches on the edge of her deck.
We sit in a circle, around a small coffee table. She asks Amandine to go first.
Amandine talks a lot about loneliness. About being on this island for so long. Being away from her people. I hear her, but I’m not really listening. I’m looking at my own cards, wondering what they mean. But the truth is I know exactly what they mean. I’m just wondering if I’m courageous enough to say it out loud.
Amandine finishes. She hasn’t looked up the whole time. How much of her soul has she bared, I don’t know. But she finally looks up at us and smiles, and suddenly it hits me how bizarre this is, how we barely know each other, yet sharing things so intimate.
“Brendan, would you like to go next?”
I have three cards.
I pull out the first one.
I stare at it, and it takes me a while to start talking.
“When I saw this guy, I saw … confidence.”
“I know he is living freely. He’s not afraid of anything.”
My voice starts to quiver.
“I miss him. Because I used to be him.”
I pause. I didn’t expect to be this emotional, but the words catch in my throat. Tears want to collect in my eyes.
I don’t let them.
“I chose the fire because … I remember when I had a fire that burned bright like that …”
“My fire is gone now. I feel like it was taken away from me.”
“All I want is to heal, so I can have that back. I want to be this guy again.”
I don’t look up. I’m afraid a tear might fall if I do. I don’t want to see if they’re looking at me, if they’re listening, if they even care.
I just move on to the next card.
But somehow, saying this out loud, looking at this card in front of me, it has moved me. I’m reminded the fire is mine, nobody can take it away. You nurture it, fight for it. It can only die if you let it.
Suddenly, I am so grateful I am sitting here. Maybe there’s a reason I met these people. There’s a reason I ended up on this island. Around this table. I needed to do this. Maybe this is what healing looks like.