My Cook Islands photos displayed in gallery.

I look at the photos — the girl shrieking with laughter; the youngster clutching at her face as her brain cramps from ice cream eaten too quickly; the trio peering mischievously from a market stall — and the walls of the Photographers’ Gallery Hawke’s Bay melt away.

I’m transported back to Rarotonga. The air is suddenly redolent of frangipani; the sun is hot on my neck. There is sand between my toes.

It’s all my imagination of course, but that’s the feeling I hope to evoke in all those who view my exhibit of Cook Islands photographs in the gallery. If someone smiles at the children’s antics or sighs in frustration at not being able to slide into the teal depths of Muri Lagoon, or recalls their own fond memories of the Cooks, then my job here is done and I can count the showing a success.

I landed on Raro the day after Cyclone Pat chewed up the sister island of Aitutaki. I left shortly after the general election. It was my sixth visit to the island in 10 years, and the third time I actually lived and worked there.

Between the two major events that bookended my year in paradise, I compiled a lifetime of adventures, experiences and memories.

As a reporter/ photographer for the Cook Islands Herald, I was the first member of the print media to land on Aitutaki, courtesy of a Royal New Zealand Air Force Hercules, to record the devastation wrought by the cyclone. My job took me into the National Auditorium for cultural performances, to the retirement gala held for Catholic Bishop Stuart O’Connell.

I attended Christmas carnivals and was on the dock when the police boat returned rescued fishermen to the arms of their loved ones.

School children visiting cultural landmarks, the Vaka Eiva paddling competitions, a huge gathering of Zumba enthusiasts, a day spent on the island of Atiu in the company of sunburned travel agents — I attended all these events, camera in hand.

I worked on the 2011 Miss Cook Islands calendar and photographed models for the Herald covers. I wandered the weekly Saturday market, capturing the faces and expressions of these beautiful Polynesian people, committing split seconds of their lives to my camera’s memory.

It was a time of wonder. A time of magic and delight. It was a time of golden days and purple nights. A time of laughter and friendships. It was, in the end, a time gone too soon.

I returned to New Zealand with some 15,000 photographs — and a new tattoo — as a reminder the Garden of Eden really does exist. The plan was always to share my images and, thanks to Shayne Jeffares and the Photographers’ Gallery Hawke’s Bay, that goal has been achieved.

The exhibit is my love letter to the Cook Islands and its people. It’s also a promise to myself to return once more to their warm embraces.

* The Photographers’ Gallery Hawke’s Bay is located at 138 Tennyson Street in Napier. For information: 06 835 8142 or http://www.pghb.co.nz

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Reality checks come in many guises. This week, for instance, it was the kid manning the cash register at the nearby Caltex petrol station.

I’d stopped in to buy a newspaper and, noticing a photo of reigning Miss South Pacific Joyana Meyer on the front page – clad in a coconut bra and grass skirt as she attended the Pasifika Festival in Auckland – I blurted out that I knew her.

(Full disclosure: I actually consider Joyana a friend. I took her photo on several occasions when I worked for the Cook Islands Herald. I also shot her for the 2011 Miss Cook Islands calendar, only to have her father insist he had the better shot. Yes, his sunset was more colourful than mine. But I couldn’t help but notice that Joyana is wearing more clothes in Daddy’s photo.)

The kid was impressed. He asked me how I knew her.

I told him I’m a journalist, that I’d just spent a year working on Rarotonga.

“A journalist,” he said, his eyes lighting up at the sheer glamour of it all. “How do you become a journalist?”

I very nearly told him the truth: being in the right place at the right time, lucky breaks, knowing people. Instead, I put on my Mature Adult Hat and said, “I went to school.”

That was not a lie. I did attend Kwantlen University College for a year. Even scored a Certificate in Communications. Says so right there, on my CV. Not sure I remember anything I learned in class. Not sure anything I learned in class ever helped me get a newspaper job. But, hey, like I said, it does look impressive on a CV.

“I’d like to do something like that,” said the kid. “I’m 23 years old, working in a petrol station, and I don’t know what to do with my life.”

Oh. Really?

I very nearly told him another truth: That faint light I see at the end of the tunnel? It’s a birthday cake with 60 candles on it. I very nearly told him that, even with 23 well and truly in the rearview mirror, I, too, have no idea what the hell to do with my life.

The kid was impressed that I was a journalist. I didn’t spoil the moment by saying I was an unemployed journalist. That I’d just spent the previous week sending off job applications to newspaper editors I am reasonably confidant will never bother contacting me. That I have e-mailed all my media mates in town and none of them has even bothered to expend the energy it takes to hit Reply and type “Go away.”

That, right after I bought the paper, I was heading to a seniors’ residence where I would spend the day in the laundry room, praying to the Baby Jesus that I would not have a close encounter of the fecal kind.

Twenty-three and no direction? Ah, my friends, those were the days.

 

I am currently negotiating a return to Rarotonga and my former job with the Cook Islands Herald. Which means I may soon face the toughest decision a man has to make: where to place my next Polynesian tattoo.

To help me get in the mood to add more ink to my body, I’m presenting the story I wrote for The Herald in 2001 about my first experience under the needle:

Years from now – SEVERAL years, actually – I can see my future grandchildren taking a break from whatever entertainment system is considered flash at that particular nanosecond.

They will gather at the foot of my rocking chair and ask me what I did during the early years of the century.

I could dust off an album of yellowing photographs, or dig out a wooden carving of Tangaroa from its resting-place deep in the attic. But, instead, I will simply tug up the sleeve of my housecoat and watch as the youngsters’ eyes bulge in disbelief.

“Grandpa!” they’ll squeal in delight. “You’re, like, so ancient and you drool quite a bit, and you’re a bit stinky but, whoa cool, you’ve got a tattoo!”

Cool isn’t exactly how I’m feeling as Tetini “T” Pekepo revs up the needle gizmo that is about to inject black ink into my skin. The owner of T’s Tattoos in Avarua, T explains how some people have fainted at the mere sound of this instrument, their brain equating the insectoid buzz with that other modern instrument of torture, the dentist’s drill.

Drugs, friends told me. Chow down a couple Panadols and you won’t feel a thing.

Sound advice, but I am scheduled to return to the office later, and I don’t believe my job description includes sleeping off the effects of painkillers while curled up under my desk.

Besides, I’m a Canadian. True North, strong and free. I’ve been hit in the head by ice hockey pucks. Wrestled a polar bear that wandered too close to my igloo. Elected the same prime minister for two consecutive terms. Pain? Bring it on.

A slick of deodorant ensures that the central image is in place, then T goes to work. As the needles dance over my arm, I realize the gravity of my decision. While I’m being transformed into a flesh-and-blood canvas — a scary thought, considering the price of laser surgery these days – I do my best to banish images of faded hula girls smeared across some ancient mariner’s saggy bicep.

Unlike a growing number of tourists, I have not come to Polynesia seeking a tattoo. The idea has flickered through my mind for several years, but it only took root when the thought struck that this would be a jazzy way to mark that part of my life now being spent in the Cook Islands.

I had a rough idea of what I wanted, the themes I wanted to incorporate, and T did the rest. That’s how the collaborative creative process works in this shop.

“People will have a rough idea,” T explains. “They’ll talk about things in their life, in their past. About people, desires, fantasies, whatever.

“I’ll design the tattoo around that, and I’ll use designs unique to Polynesia, and create what they want.”

Visitors often come to the South Pacific seeking tattoos in the mistaken belief that the art form originated in this part of the world. T sets them straight, tells them that his ancestors brought the handiwork with them when they migrated west.

“Tattooing started at the beginning of mankind,” he says, as my new armband develops before my eyes. “It was well-known throughout Europe. The Romans did it, the Egyptians did it.

“It was a form of identification, whether you were a witch doctor or a soldier in the army.”

In Polynesia, several of the tattoo designs derived from woodcarvings and were considered a form of fashion for the highest-ranking chiefs.

Fashion. Identification. These are still considered incentives for getting a tattoo. But the work should be as equally inspiring for the man behind the needles.

“It’s not about making money,” T says. “It’s about expressing oneself artistically. That’s what I believe artists are all about, not just pumping out things just to make money.”

That’s why T won’t repeat the same design twice, unless it has some connection to family, tribe or island. He also steers clear of the work being done in Europe and North America. Don’t even bother asking him to do a skull.

“I don’t like to do a lot of things that they’re doing in Western countries,” he says. “If you want something like that, go over there and get it.”

My tattoo is nearing completion now, two hours almost to the dot. Did it hurt? Hell, yeah. But not as much as I feared it would.

In fact there were places on my forearm where the skin simply went numb and there was very little sensation at all. That all changed when T moved to my underarm area, one of those little-used areas of the body that never seems to toughen up. Despite constant applications of ice and antibiotics, that section would bruise up quite ripely over the next couple of days.

And then it was over. There is no flourish at its completion, no great sweeping removal of the cape that denotes the conclusion of a visit to the barber.

The needles simply cease their whine and, in that great aural void, there is a quiet sense of some new permanency in my life, as if I’ve grown a new limb or fathered another child. Something has shifted and realigned in my personal universe.

I listen with particular intentness as T explains the meanings of the various elements, translated into English so the papa’a can understand.

The central motif, that of a moko poised vertically, that’s the guardian. Inside his body are spearheads, to add positive attitude. The actual band itself consists of several stylized images: People joined together (for unity), waves (voyaging), a bird (travel), and three small triangles inside a larger triangle, which is a blending of past, present and future.

And on the tender meat of the underside? A set of shark’s teeth.

“They represent courage,” says T. “The shark, to us, wasn’t something to be afraid of, but to respect.”

I return to the office a changed man, as if there is a talisman of great power barely concealed by my shirtsleeve. Look at this, I say, baring my new soul to the CITV ladies. Don’t ya think this is sexy?

There’s a lizard crawling up your arm, they laugh. You should have gotten a dolphin.

Oh, great. Now you tell me.