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Hiking Up the Volcano

(In June 2003, journalists Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair uprooted themselves from Los Angeles and moved to the South Pacific. Their first stop is Rarotonga. They brought their two young daughters with them.)

Sarina’s new school sits on the side of a green dormant volcano called Mt. Victoria. Even in this cool weather, I break into a sweat huffing up the steep hill to pick her up from class. When Mark and I get to her room, the first thing I notice is an awesome view of the bay from the window in the back of the classroom. It’s dotted with fast-moving sailboats carving around gigantic container ships slogging toward the Auckland harbor.

We’re now living in Devonport, a seaside village of winding streets, Victorian houses, and a ferry that can take us to Auckland in 10 minutes. Devonport is also where the first Maori immigrants docked their canoes in New Zealand after leaving Avana, Rarotonga, around A.D. 1350 (coincidentally, our house in Rarotonga was in Avana).

When the school bell rings, buzzing 6-year-olds surround us. Sarina wants to hang out on the playground, but Mark and I want to explore.

"Come on," I say. "Let’s see if we can climb to the top of this volcano."

Behind the school is a nicely paved road that corkscrews up to the top of the mountain, but Sarina doesn’t want to take it.

"Let’s climb up the side of the volcano," she says.

"The side?" From where I’m standing, the mountain looks nearly vertical. There are no boulders to grip onto, only long green grass and patches of tiny white flowers.

Sarina is excited and starts running upward before I can stop her. Mark is saddled with the baby and tells me he’s taking the road.

I lean my body forward for balance as I take one step at a time.

"I wish I was a goat!" Sarina screams, already half way up the mountain.

I don’t have the energy to respond. With the wind slamming into us, I can’t understand how she moves so quickly. It’s hard to keep my feet from sliding down the slippery grass, until I discover a path of freshly notched steps that someone else made. Relieved, I take this path and make it to the top in 10 minutes.

Mark isn’t here yet, so Sarina and I walk past a man flying a large remote-controlled glider over to a large boxy cement structure, which we enter through an opening in one of its walls. Inside we find a large cannon, and Sarina climbs on top of it. A plaque on the wall tells us we’re inside a bunker that was used in both World Wars.

I reach into Sarina’s school backpack to get a bottle of water. Inside the pack there’s a drawing. Something about it seems odd, so I pull it out. It has a furious crayon scribble over the picture.

"Why did you scribble all over your drawing?" I ask Sarina.

"I didn’t do it," she says. "Tanya and Orly did it. They scribble on everything I draw, and they steal my eraser every day."

"What? Why didn’t you tell me?"

"I don’t know," Sarina shrugs, yanking on one of the cannon’s many levers.

"Does anyone else bother you at school?" I ask.

"Some boys throw dirt at me whenever I walk by the big trees behind the sandbox, and they hit me sometimes."

My stomach lurches. I’m stunned that she never told me about any of this before. She’s usually so open with me about her life. "Honey, you should always tell me when anybody bothers you or hits you."

Sarina doesn’t answer. Why are we here? I ask myself.

We climb out of the bunker, back into the wind and sunlight. Mark and Jane are there, watching the man with his glider.

On the way back down, Sarina collects a bunch of the ubiquitous little white flowers growing along the path. The wind is even stronger than before, and I feel a few drops of rain hit my skin.

"Let’s pick up the pace," Mark says.

Sarina hands me her bouquet. I’m surprised that it smells like onions. We rush the rest of the way home.