Ariki is a young local boy who lives on Taravai in the Gambier Islands. The island has a population of just 7 people, of which he is the only child. He lives on what many people would consider a ‘paradise island’ and has almost free reign to go and play wherever he wants. At first I thought it must be very difficult for him being the only child on this entire island. What will his social skills be like when he’s older if he only ever interacts with the same 7 people? There are no shops on Taravai, his family mainly live off the land – growing their own fruit and vegetables, fishing and hunting their own meat. His dad makes the 10-mile journey to Mangareva once every few weeks in a motor boat to buy some supplies and from what I can tell, Ariki usually stays on Taravai. Would this child grow up to even understand the concept of buying something from a shop? Would his education suffer from being home-schooled rather than having a formal education? Was he sad to not have any other children to play with? His upbringing is worlds away from my own and it got me thinking about how different people place priority on different values. I have some really fond memories of my own childhood and I can’t imagine it being the same without many friends to play with, a school where I could get a formal education and lots of toys! Surely Ariki is missing out on so much?
I soon realised, however, that my views were incredibly narrow-minded and that just because his upbringing is so different to my own, that certainly doesn’t make it wrong. In fact, in many ways it’s a whole lot better. He doesn’t have computers or Iphones to play with, or any fancy toys in fact. Instead you often see him with a stick and a saucepan lid, climbing a tree pretending to be a heroic warrior with his sword and shield – climbing the castle walls to save a stranded princess. Or he’ll be entertaining himself with a box and a broken oar, frantically paddling to escape from the evil sea monster that’s chasing him. He is incredibly healthy, active and independent precisely because of his upbringing. His parents, Hervé and Valarie, are incredibly friendly and welcome many passing sailors into their home. They host barbeques, coffee afternoons, volleyball games and dinners, and everyone is welcome. Because of this, Ariki is constantly exposed to a wide variety of people – all from different parts of the world, speaking a multitude of different languages and all with their own stories. He also meets many other children this way, and whilst his main problem is learning to share attention, overall he is a very sociable boy who communicates very well with pretty much everybody. He is home schooled by his parents and this means that he has two full time teachers. He learns his education in a fraction of the time it would take in a school because the focus is 100% devoted to him. This frees up time for him to be creative, learn other life skills such as living off the land (very useful in French Polynesia) and to be active. It’s precisely because he lives off home-grown organic produce, freshly caught wild fish and meat, is active in the outdoors, has focused education from his parents and is constantly meeting new people that he is creative, intelligent, sociable, healthy and most importantly, happy.
We were invited to his fifth birthday party last week and he absolutely thrived on a day that was completely dedicated to him. His parents made him a birthday cake and bought him a new pair of flip flops. They weren’t particularly fancy flip flops but he had lost his last pair and didn’t currently own any shoes at all. It’s not because his parents couldn’t afford to give him shoes (the Gambier people are fairly wealthy from the pearl farming trade), just that he didn’t really need them on Taravai and the local culture puts less of a focus on material things. He also got a few more birthday presents – Alex and I gave him one of Alex’s caps and made him a second birthday cake. He was also given a water bottle and a bar of chocolate from Mehdi and Karine (the owners of another boat) and a homemade ticket machine from Jesse and his brother Jack (NB – John has now sailed to Tahiti in the 26-foot Sparrow and Jack flew in to help Jesse take care of the farm in John’s absence). Ariki loves to give people tickets for events that his parents host so Jesse and Jack made him a ticket machine out of wood and some rolled up paper, it was a perfect present for him. I can imagine many children in the western world being disappointed with this array of presents, but Ariki was thrilled. He loved the day dedicated to him with all his favourite foods, lots of attention and lots of fun and games on the beach. He was even allowed to join in with the adult game of volleyball which made him very happy indeed.
Ariki is growing up in a way that is very unusual to me, but seeing how he is being brought up made me take a step back and contemplate the things that are really important in life. I still don’t have a clue really, but I’ll try and be more open-minded in the future and take the positives from the amazing people I am fortunate enough to meet.