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House Hunting

Finding a house here hasn’t been as easy as we thought it would be. Before we arrived in Rarotonga, we’d envisioned a thatch-roof Polynesian bungalow with shady porches, hammocks, and an interior made of polished island hardwoods. Instead, the places we’ve been shown look like they either came out of a crate or were converted from a henhouse. Most of them are falling apart. Window screens are shredded, inviting centipedes, mosquitoes and cockroaches. Outhouse doors dangle from a single hinge. Bedrooms reek of old cat litter, even though there are no cats in sight. Gaps between the walls and the roof promise drafts and indoor rain.

Today, we’re visiting the last house on our list of possibilities. We strap Sarina and Jane into our rental car — a subminiature Hyundai Atoz van with a broken passenger door — and drive counterclockwise around the one main road circling the island. But we can’t find the house. Most of the streets don’t have names, and none of the houses have numbers. We dead-end at a mound of burning rubbish, turn around and try another dirt path, this time ending up in a patch of taro plants. We take another road, this one full of deep holes that threaten to swallow the Atoz. There’s no place to turn around. I back out slowly. We see a woman with her hands on her hips, standing in the middle of the road about 20 yards up at a spot we’d passed at least three times.

"Is it not easy enough for you to find the house?" she says. She’s about 60. "Could my instructions not be more simple?" She’s smiling but it seems like she’s mocking us.

"Oh, she’s going to be a great landlord," whispers Carla. The woman wears large, untinted glasses, a traditional red floral print dress, and an old cone-shaped straw hat that keeps her entire body in shade. She turns and walks through a gap in a tall row of hedges leading to the property. We follow in the car. There’s no driveway, so we roll right across the grassy front yard (we later find out it’s customary in Rarotonga to use front and back yards as parking lots).

The house is a tiny, synthetic, cream-colored box situated in the middle of a very large yard. This, it turns out, is typical of houses in Rarotonga. It’s the opposite of L.A., where people build colossal houses on puny lots.

An old guy is in the yard smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and unenergetically hacking away at overgrown foliage with a bush knife. He waves and goes back to work. "He’s cutting the hedges," says the woman as we get Sarina and Jane out of the car. "It’ll keep the mozzies away." We hope she’s right. We’ve already gone through a bottle of DEET, and our ankles haven’t stopped itching since we arrived.

The woman opens the door and lets us in. The sound and sight of the pounding surf come through the kitchen window. She plops into a chair, shrugs and says, "Look around."

The house has no heater, no air conditioner, no fans, no dishwasher, no garbage disposal, no clothes dryer. Hot water comes from a solar unit mounted on the roof. The refrigerator is half-size, and there’s only one shelf for food. In other words, it’s just like all the other out-of-the-crate style houses we’ve seen here, save for one important thing: It’s immaculate.

"How much is it?" I ask.

"Three hundred a week." she says. (US$720 a month.)

We don’t even have to look at each other. "We’ll take it," says Carla.

The next day, we check out of our holiday bungalow, load up the Atoz and begin driving to our new house. In the rearview mirror, I watch our bungalow recede. We’ve left the security of the tourist bubble, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

(In June 2003, journalists Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair uprooted from Los Angeles and moved to Rarotonga, a tiny island in the South Pacific. They brought their two young daughters with them. For more background, visit http://www.laweekly.com/ink/03/36/features-frauenfelder.php


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