An August 1999 trip
to Cook Islands by ricardo
Quote: More than a thousand miles north of New Zealand. At the same latitude south of the equator that Hawaii is north of the equator. It's in the middle of nowhere. But maybe that's what you're looking for!
Raro is the island you’ll always land on first if you come by plane. It has two roads: the Ara Metua, an inner circle around the island built a thousand years ago by the first inhabitants, and the Ara Tapu, an outer slightly wider road that rings the island closer to the beach. (Tapu means sacred or holy or forbidden in most Polynesian languages. We derive the word taboo from it.)
Top speed on the outer superhighway (being facetious there) is 25 MPH, which gives you an idea of the pace of island life. There aren’t that many cars on the island because a lot of younger people ride scooters and most tourists and islanders ride the bus which is comfortable, cheap, and cheery.
The eastern side of the island, near Muri, has the better snorkeling so that’s where we stayed in a bungalow up on the mountain slope. The landscape was well planted with tropical foliage so the view was lovely, but the mosquitoes really do require that you burn a coil or keep the screen doors closed from evening to mid-morning.
Trips to the outer islands are either expensive or very time-consuming. The next most visited island is Aitutaki which is about $400/person for roundtrip air from Raro. Other islands are usually reached by tramp steamers (whose schedules may be fluid).
You can walk to two of them at low tide, and though they’re each only about an acre in size, tramping around under the palms with the geckos among the coral rubble and coconut husks made me want to go right back and re-read An Island To Oneself. (Actually, Tom Neal wrote that book during years alone on Suwarrow, one of the other Cook Islands, an atoll – a reef ring with motus on its edges and a central lagoon – hundreds of miles north of Rarotonga). Suwarrow’s now off limits to all but visiting yachts, but I’d recommend the book since a hermit’s life on a South Seas atoll is still a powerful relaxant on days when your blood pressure is up and you’re wondering why your boss is such an irritating buck-toothed monkey.
The first day tramping across Motu Tapu was the best. Not only did I discover a coral rubble field loaded with fish, but, as I was strolling across the island, along comes a French woman chattering away to her boyfriend. As French women are wont to do, she doffed her top and strolled around in the splendiferous altogether with that wonderful (or infuriating, depending on your perspective) Gallic attitude that she would teach these unsophisticated dolts the proper way to traipse around on a beach - the French way. I know I’m getting old when things like this happen, though, because my first thought twenty years ago when I was a spunky dude would have been Oolala. This time my first thought was Yow! This woman is a red-head. Those things are just going to freckle right up in this bright sun. And sure enough I could see half a dozen English firemen waiting a hundred yards down the beach with handfuls of sunscreen, anticipating just such an emergency. Always concerned for the public’s welfare those firemen.
The Cultural Village is a place I’d recommend. The Cooks don’t get millions of visitors, so the people in their teens and twenties dancing and showing crafts and cultural practices are all quite genuine. They don’t have the zombie glaze of Las Vegas presenters who’ve spoken the same 12 lines 80 billion times. And the meal, featuring things like rukau (taro leaves cooked in seawater) is delicious. Afterwards you can take the circle island tour which helps you identify the spots you’ve gone by 5 times in the local bus and didn’t understand.
In some places you can sign up for an umukai - like a luau (the earth oven used all over the Pacific is called an umu here – imu in Hawaii). On Fridays there are island nights (Polynesian dancing – which Cook Islanders are known for). And on Sundays there’s church. (Don't wear shorts or bikinis or cut offs or tank tops unless you want to be pummeled with a taro root and then struck by lightening.) The entire country closes up shop on Sunday (the missionaries are gone but their influence remains), and the local churches support themselves with tourist visitor donations on Sunday, so it’s a way to help the local community. And you might be invited for muffins and chat afterwards.
One raui area near the motus has shallow water until the highest tide and plenty of small reef fish. Another one farther down has flat-topped bommies (huge heads of boulder and other coral flattened by exposure to the air at low tide). Thousands of fish hover around these natural apartment buildings in the open sandy lagoon landscape, but when the tide is rushing in through the nearby opening in the reef the rip can be dangerous. In fact, when the tide is rising, the current in several places picks up to ferocious levels. Locals know enough not to go in the water at these times, but if you’ve never been on this beach before you can get into trouble. Always keep an eye on children playing in the lagoon.
The activity my kids enjoyed most was collecting sea cucumbers – living creatures that live on the lagoon floor and look like animal droppings (in fact, one variety is called the donkey dung sea cucumber). They arranged a group of them in a little underwater stable, named them all, and toyed with the idea of contests but gave up that idea when they noticed that the cukes hardly moved.
For millions of years, the sea cucumber’s response to attack has been to squirt some of its own intestines into the water. The predator eats the intestines and leaves the rest of the animal alone. So, sea cukes (called rori in the Cooks) have the ability to heal tears in their own intestines quickly. The local people use this to their advantage by jamming a screwdriver or knife into the animals, squeezing out reams of intestine and tossing the animals back into the lagoon to regenerate. Sometimes this is done for a snack, the intestines eaten raw on the spot. But sometimes, the guts (which look like very fine yellow-white al dente vermicelli) are cooked in butter and spices. If you see "spaghetti" listed on a menu in a restaurant, it’s more than likely this kind of spaghetti. In fact, sea cukes were actively harvested for decades throughout the Pacific (called beche de mer) to provide just this delicacy.
The most interesting thing in the lagoon for me was the foot long lizardfish I watched lunge out from its hideout half buried in the sand at a school of yellow tangs. If I’d had a video camera with me, I’d have sent in the film to the PBS nature film folks. Kind of a way to complete the circle.
The huge number of expatriates is clearly the result of the land policy in the Cooks. The CI government does not want the archipelago to go the way of Hawaii and New Zealand where the native populations were forced off their own land and where the original inhabitants of the islands are now its poorest citizens. So, the national laws state that property cannot be sold to outsiders. It can be leased, but at the expiration of the lease, the property reverts back to the original owner along with all buildings on it (and it’s illegal to knock down a building on leased land, even if you put it up). So, everyone in the Cooks has a place to live. Property is handed down from generation to generation (and the plots get smaller as the land is divided between children). But the property is worth almost nothing on the open market because no one can sell it. As a result, people on the islands live mostly in simple whitewashed limestone houses. And everyone who can work off-island does so - leaving kids, old folks, and those who can earn a living from local tourists on the islands.
The Cooks are not poor islands. A visit there is not like going to Haiti or Tijuana. But they are not wealthy islands either. It’s not like going to the Caymans or Bermuda. They look like the rural Polynesia that I’ve seen in photographs of Hawaii from 100 years ago. People live simply. They grow food in their backyards and hope for letters from their children at university in Australia or working in New Zealand or Salt Lake. Most people attend church on Sunday, and dress and sing with enthusiasm. Children and young people tend to be quite beautiful – as most Polynesians are. Older folks tend to be chubby because most Polynesians have the thrifty genes that store fat – after generations of living in an environment where fatty foods were almost unavailable. Everyone tends to be relaxed.
The people in the out islands, such as Aitutaki, regard Rarotonga (about 11,000 people) as the roaring metropolis. The people in Rarotonga see New Zealand as the big time. And a lot of New Zealanders see Australia – a country with a population smaller than that of greater New York City - as the big deal. It’s all relative.
I work in the computer world. If someone doesn’t answer an e-mail from me in a day or two I assume they must be sick on vacation, or mad at me. And I’m used to making travel reservations instantly on the net. But in the Cooks no one has the slightest incentive to answer e-mail or any other kind of mail expeditiously. So they don’t! The first place I chose on the eastern side of the island, a bungalow up on the hillside overlooking the lagoon, didn’t respond. I waited 10 days, assumed the proprietor must be dead, and then sent another note explaining that because I’d never heard anything and because my plane was leaving for Australia in two weeks I was withdrawing my request and sending a note to someone else. The next day I got a note saying they were just getting to my mail. I sent a request to another place and waited 11 days. Then I sent a note that said, "I’m assuming your e-mail system is broken so I’ll send my request again - several times a day - in hopes that one of my messages will eventually land on your server". Faced with the threat of inundation they got back to me right away, the day before I was to leave.
I don’t think of myself as a harried person, in fact just the opposite: relaxed and easy-going - but I sometimes got the impression in the Cooks that the entire population was on drugs. I mean there’s island time and a casual approach to life, and then there’s downright hypnotic somnambulannce. Wait a minute. I should reframe that last remark. I found the people wonderfully polite, considerate, intelligent, capable, well-spoken and affable. I know that, since folks in the Cooks are mostly devout and trying hard to live a good and genuine life, drugs are the last things anyone is on. But if you come from a culture where people talk fast, drive fast, and push themselves hard – as I do - then a vacation in the Cooks might actually drive you insane before you learn to relax. Or maybe we're insane now and the Cooks are a good place to find sanity. I know. Speak for myself.