It’s 5 o’clock in the morning and I’m running through waist-high grass toward a pack of frenzied dogs. Their cacophonous barking drowns out the squeals of a wild pig, who’s preparing to pay a price for the crops he and his fellow swine have uprooted.
Sweat drips from my hairline and red mud streaks my bare arms. I’m fighting a slight hangover; it’s a reminder of the night before, a night I spent in a thatched-roof hut with the locals, drinking homebrew from coconut shells, singing to the plink of a ukulele and the rhythm of a twig tapping an overturned bucket.
I’m tired but I’m determined not to let my weakness show. My barefoot guide – a pious man who prayed over this journey before he picked up his machete and loosed his starving dogs– is challenging me to prove my great-grandmother’s blood does in fact course through my veins.
I’m visiting her island, this place the locals call Enua Manu and the world calls Atiu. It is one of the 15 Cook Islands in the South Pacific – a Polynesian paradise that’s home to one school, a handful of general stores, and 500 of the world’s friendliest people. I’ve been here four days, and already this island has captured my heart.
“Hurry! You reckon you’re brave enough?!” my guide is yelling. He raises his eyebrows in a laugh, but he is not joking. I take the knife from him, inhale, and silence the pig.
When it’s over, I’m smiling. I know it’s macabre, but I can’t help it. I’m new to the concept of living off the land and it makes me feel grounded.
Yesterday, I stood on a shallow reef, up to my thighs in translucent sea, and fished for snapper using live crab as bait. Last night, we paired it with fresh taro and bananas plucked from a tree in the yard, and as the sun dipped low and we ate the fruits of our foraging, we were wordlessly saying the same thing: This is the life.
There is something about this island – the rugged masculinity of its caves and cliffs, the promise of adventure in its gnarled jungle, the self-sufficiency of its people – that has wiggled its way into my soul.
Its beauty is jagged in some places and postcard-worthy in others. Its17 square miles accommodate a drastically varying landscape – there is footprint-free white sand retreating into a glassy lagoon and there are frontiers of raised gray coral, sharp and forbidding and hot. There are vast swaths of swampland hosting taro plants green as candy, and there are quiet lakes lapping against a mysterious, prehistoric forest.
And then there are the caves, a subterranean labyrinth hiding the secrets of generations past and the ancestral bones of the Atiuan people. They are vast, full of intrigue, with banyan roots and birds coursing through their damp darkness.
This island is at once peaceful and full of adventure. Here, I am free from the suffocation I sometimes feel in the tangle of city concrete, free from the anxiety I sometimes feel within the confines of my cubicle. Here, I am not bound by alarm clocks and Google Alerts and gridlock traffic; instead I am at the mercy of the phases of the moon and the swell of the sea and the creatures of the earth.
In a big and busy world, crowded and contaminated by people and pollution and politics, Atiu is an oasis, a place where I can be close to the land and the people who work it, a place where I am free.
About the Author: Rachel Michele Teana Reeves: I’m a reporter, columnist and freelance writer based in Los Angeles. I recently moved back to the U.S. from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, where I wrote for a daily newspaper and a local travel magazine. I have an abiding love of travel that’s taken me through the Pacific, Asia, Europe, Mexico, and Aruba.