Arriving to RAR by plane felt like arriving to a party at which we were part of a group of honored guests. We landed at sunrise, stepped onto the tarmac and into the small airport ready to deal with the normally tedious task of going through customs. But, there with his voice and a ukulele, was 70 year-old native Jake Numanga to serenade we new arrivals to Rarotonga from atop the baggage carousel. And there he stayed and played until the last people (we) left the airport.
We’ve traveled quite a bit, arrived and passed through so many airports, and this was a first. I was intrigued, and asked others about him during our stay. Some refer to him as “Uncle” and say that no matter what time of the day or night, he can be found at the airport welcoming and bidding farewell to visitors, and that he’s done it for as long as they can remember.
Jake was kind enough to talk with me before we boarded our flight back to the U.S. I learned that he was born and bred in Rarotonga. His great-grandparents came from England and Germany and immigrated to Rarotonga as missionaries. For years he worked as a firefighter while moonlighting singing in hotels. In those days Rarotongan firefighters stationed themselves on the airport tarmac for flight take-offs and landings. He didn’t get very many fire calls during his career.
It was 27 years ago when Dr. Woonton, then Chairman of the Board of Directors for the airport, invited Jake to sing to tourists as they came & left Rarotonga. He jumped at the chance. Since then, Jake has greeted and bid farewell to 2-3 flights per day, an average of 20 per week. No small task when you consider that he did it all of this while he and his wife raised seven children (now in their 30’s and 40’s).
In the early days before retiring from firefighting, Jake would stay on the fire truck until planes safely landed, then quickly shift gears to serenade arrivals & departures. Since retiring from firefighting, gigs at hotels often follow his airport gig. Sunday nights he’s at the Muri Beach Club, Monday nights at the Pacific Resort, and Tuesday nights at the A’roa Beachside Inn. He even performs at weddings. Jake says that his airport performances are always his first priority, and delays there, mean delays for other performances.
For arrivals, Jake starts playing when the first person enters the airport from the tarmac, and doesn’t stop until the last person leaves with their luggage. One of his favorites is “Welcome to our World.” He tailors his sets to suit his audience, often recognizing regulars to the island. For Australians, he’ll break out in “Pump with no Beer.” Departures follow arrivals, so once the last arriving visitor leaves the airport, Jake heads over to the departure gates, where he sings farewell songs from a small stage. Each of his sets average 10-15 songs.
When asked why he does it, Jake says he enjoys seeing people come to Rarotonga. He must, his 27-year commitment has been a solid one, with only a few absences. Of any retirement plans he says, “Nah! I’m still going! As long as my voice is still going, I’ll still sing- I enjoy it!” We’re happy to hear that, as we’d like to visit Rarotonga again, and would love Jake to be there to musically bookend another amazing visit.