(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.)
Carla and I drive into town to pick up Sarina from school. We find her playing tag on the lawn with another girl. This is Vaiana, says Sarina, panting. Shes in my class, and she wants me to play at her house today. Vaiana cocks her head and smiles, swinging her shoulders back and forth. She holds her hands behind her back.
Where do you live? asks Carla. Vaiana swings one arm out, pointing to a house across the street. Her arm disappears again.
We cross the street and walk through a gap in a tall hedge. Its a large yard, shady with mango, avocado, breadfruit, custard apple, guava and coconut trees. Long clotheslines stretch between the trees, holding lots of school uniforms. The house is very small. Most of the window screens are torn or missing.
A couple of kids are playing on homemade swings hanging from the branches of a tree. The swings are at right angles to each other, and it looks like the kids will bash into each other if they get out of sync. Another kid is crawling on a tractor parked next to a chicken coop. When they see us, they stop what theyre doing and sprint over. Hello! they say. Are you Sarinas mum and dad? Their clothes are faded and stained.
Is your mother here? I ask the oldest-looking boy.
Yes. Shes inside, come in. He leads us to the open side door of the house. There are more kids inside, and even more kids are coming through the door. Theyre wearing the same blue-and-white school uniform Sarina has. I count seven kids. The house has only two bedrooms, a small kitchen and a combination dining room/living room, which contains a large table, chairs, two pianos, shelves and two computers. Theres barely enough room to turn around.
In the middle of the maelstrom of kids, the mother sits at the table, drinking a cup of tea. Shes small and birdlike, with pale hair and gold wire-frame glasses. Shes got a wry smile and tells us her name is Jean.
Are all seven of these kids yours? I ask.
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Yes, she says. The other one is sleeping. She looks over at one of the bedrooms. I see a baby sleeping on a bed.
One of the older girls, about 16 years of age, goes into the other bedroom and picks through a massive pile of clothes. A mountain of shoes lies next to the clothes heap. Several beds, including a trundle bed, bunk beds and an extra mattress on the floor, are packed into the room like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. (Later, I find out that in addition to the eight kids and two parents, a young woman from the church also sleeps at the house.)
One of the kids asks if Sarina wants to see the chickens. The seven kids, Sarina, Carla, Jean and I go to the back yard. The kids show us a baby chick, which Sarina cuddles between her hands. They also bring out a small hen that enjoys perching on my arm. The kids lead Sarina to the chicken coop, and pick handfuls of grass so she can feed the chickens. Sarina is in heaven. The animals calm and focus her.
As the days go by, we are spending more time at their house. Jean shows me how to husk and scrape coconuts, and gives us warm doughnuts from her kitchen. The kids, who have never heard of Disneyland, and happily play with sticks and hermit crabs instead of toys, are intelligent, joyful and fun to be with. I hope that this family rubs off on Sarina as much as theyre rubbing off on me.