A Raro Life is a chronological recollection of stories from the six months I spent living in Rarotonga during the 2021 Covid lockdown.
It is exhausting to live with this skin condition. It’s exhausting to wake up and deal with it, it’s exhausting to talk about it, to have my life revolve around it, every single day. But here we are.
It’s been one week since I came to this island.
I’m staying in a small Airbnb, just off the beach. Since my face has been flared up and mangled, I haven’t ventured too far. I don’t want to see anybody. That’s the whole reason I’ve come here. So I don’t need to see anybody.
The island is empty anyway. Its border has just opened with New Zealand, whose border is also closed to the world – a “Covid bubble” they’re calling it, so nobody is here. I was on one of the first flights. But I still keep to myself. I wake up, run, then go to the empty beach and read. To eat, I walk across the street to the corner store. The only foods of substance they have are eggs, bread, butter and ice cream. Sometimes papayas.
So that’s what I’ve been eating for the last week. Egg sandwiches and ice cream. Sometimes papayas.
But today, I look in the mirror and my face looks kinda … better. My face isn’t red. It’s brown. Just one week. Is my skin really getting better? It’s not near perfect, of course, but I look at the patches on my neck, down my arms, and my skin looks … relieved. Maybe my skin likes this place. Maybe I can show my face to the world today. Maybe I can even go for my first swim.
Roberta and Carlo – my landlords – are the only two people I’ve talked to. They’re an old Italian couple. Very sweet. Roberta told me she’s coming by to clean my room today. I told her, not in the morning. She said it has to be before five, because she has somewhere to be. I said two o’clock. So I have the perfect day planned. I’m going to spend the morning reading by the water. Then at lunchtime, instead of walking along the beach, I’m going to swim along it. I’m going to swim to the nearest resort, have lunch, then swim back, read until sundown and go to sleep.
I sit on the beach all morning with my best friend. His name is Kindle. Then just before two, I head for the water. The water is warm, tropical warm. I wade out until it’s shoulder height, set my watch and go. The water feels shallow, but deep enough for me to swim freely. It’s crystal clear. Fish everywhere. Sea cucumbers, blue starfish. Everywhere. As I glide through the water, I mouth a word. Paradise. This ocean is my personal fish tank, there’s nobody but me, and while submerged I can forgot about my red flaking skin, and I just swim and swim and swim.
Six or seven minutes go past before I pass the first resort. I pull up my goggles and scope it out. It doesn’t look right. The tables are all empty. There’s nobody in sight. It looks tired.
I keep swimming. Pass another. Not this one either.
That’s okay. I’ll swim all day, until I find one I like.
After about twenty minutes, I see one. Laid out on the beach, stylish, clean.
I swim to shore, walk up to the restaurant dripping, barefoot, topless.
A friendly lady strolls out.
“You guys serving lunch?”
“Our lunch just closed.”
“It’s alright. I’ll try you tomorrow. What’s this place called?”
“Oh tee what?”
“OTB. On The Beach.”
“Oh, OTB. Cool. See you tomorrow.”
I walk back home, along the beach. A week ago I was shivering through painful winter nights, skin flaring across my face, now, I’m drowning in Pacific island sun. TSW is a complex beast, but I’ve learned a few things – during a flare, my skin loves sunshine, loves humidity, and hates New Zealand. Especially New Zealand winter. So I bask in the sun, breathe the humidity deep into my lungs. It cooks me until sweat starts to drip from my brow and armpits. I rub the scars on my arms, my chest, see the flashbacks of the pain this skin has been through. The sun healed me back then. It will heal me again now.
I get back to the house. From the driveway, I can already see someone scrubbing my bathroom window inside.
It’s Roberta. Or Carlo. Adorable.
I don’t want to get in their way, so I go sit on the lawn and work on my coconuts. I collected them yesterday. I’m terrible at husking coconuts. I wish I could blame it on Carlo’s blunt machete, but I think I’m just useless. The village idiot who hasn’t learned to husk a coconut yet. But practise makes perfect, so I line them up, four, five of them, and chop chop chop.
Finally, I get one open, and go inside to get a spoon. Roberta is in there, scrubbing the floor, and Carlo is in the bedroom doing something. And there’s a young girl in there. Chatting away. She sees me and smiles warmly.
I turn to Roberta.
“This your daughter?”
I turn to the girl.
“You’re her daughter?”
“Their adopted daughter,” she laughs.
Her eyes are brown. Her hair is brown. Her skin is brown. But not chocolate brown. More like a Mediterranean olive brown. She has a button nose, and a slight overbite with nice straight teeth. While standing in my kitchen, scrubbing my bench, she tells me her real story. She’s Swiss. French Swiss. French accent. Very French. Geneva, probably.
“I was only supposed to be here for two weeks, she tells me. Then we had the pandemic. So I’ve been stuck here since then. Fifteen months.”
I figure she’s told this story a million times already, so I don’t ask.
“How do you know Carlo and Roberta?”
“It’s a small island. And I go with her to yoga sometimes. There’s yoga tonight actually. Tuesday. You should go!”
“You do yoga, Roberta?”
Roberta pops her head up from under the kitchen counter.
“Yessss! Toniiiiiight. You waaant to goooo? Fiiiive o’clock.”
“And it’s Michelle tonight,” the Swiss girl says. “She is the best, oh! She is amazing. Amazing! You will love her. Seriously.”
I think about it quickly. I want to stay home. Read a book. Like every other night.
C’mon, I convince myself. Do something. It’ll be good for you.
“Yeah, okay. I’ll go.”
Five p.m. rolls around. I go sit outside Roberta’s door. I’m excited. Maybe anxious. My first Raro activity.
Roberta comes down very yogi-looking, yoga pants on, yoga mats tucked under her arm.
The car ride with Roberta is – how do I say – entertaining. Italian people know how to talk. Like a non-stop stream of consciousness pouring out, with an Italian drawl. Naturally, I learn a lot about Roberta and Carlo on this car ride. I learn that Carlo makes a fantastic pizza. They used to own an Italian restaurant on the island. People were sad when it closed. They met in their thirties. But only got married ten or so years ago. She can’t even remember the year, and laughs about it. And I can tell, she loves Carlo. Carlo is really good at this, he’s really good at that. This little bald Italian man with a pot belly, but with the million dollar smile, he has this lady swooning. I see it. Carlo is indeed a pretty cool dude.
We get to the yoga place. I have no idea where we are, which side of the island, north, south, inside, outside. But we wander down the long driveway, pass under the little arch, and emerge into a little sanctuary. There’s nice curtains and flowers and lots of green open space with fruit trees and aloe vera plants and stepping stones. We walk across the immaculate lawn to a beautiful covered deck with Christmas lights.
“This is Brendan,” Roberta says.
“Oh hi!!! Hi!!! I’m Michelle.”
Michelle’s name shouldn’t be Michelle. It should be Sunshine. That’s what she is. Absolute sunshine. She’s in her forties, fifties, I don’t know, but has the body of a nineteen-year-old gymnast, long, messy blonde hair, tattoos from her feet to her shoulders, and from the moment we meet, I can feel her warm smile and soothing voice and kind eyes, her loving spirit oozing with tenderness. All I can think to myself is, she is sunshine. At a time in my life when I am desperate for sunshine, I have now met sunshine herself.
The yoga class is small. Four of us. As the sun sets on the island, we spend an hour listening to Michelle telling us to breathe and twist and stretch and finally, once we’re all dripping with sweat, to lay down and relax. Shavasana. I lay there and make peace with the mosquitoes, and the mosquitoes make peace with me. The others swat their arms, but for some reason, I stay unbitten. Somehow, all my pain is gone. For the first time in months, I have no pain. No pain. My skin feels normal. I am at peace here. I don’t want to leave. I want to stay. Not just on this deck. On this island. I want to stay here forever.
… to be continued.