South Pacific – The Cook Islands
Life goal #132: Learn to shake my hips as swiftly and rhythmically as the dancing ladies on the Cook Islands. (This ambition comes right after #131 which is teaching myself how to play the ukulele).
Another landing for Queequeg, slap-bang in the heart of the South Pacific ocean, a startling sea-side paradise and haven for the aspiring Jim Hawkins of the world.
We arrived dockside in Raro on a sweltering March afternoon, ready for an ice cold Coca-cola and some fresh veggies, the kind that are crunchy and green and not prepared with affections towards the Jolly Green Giant. My dislike for canned food items is growing by the hour with every tinned, boxed and pre-packaged meal we eat and there seems to be a lack of grannie-smiths in this neck of the woods. I have searched high and low for a cruising cookbook for those of us who are vegetarians and don’t have the luxury of an oven, grill or refrigeration. They don’t exist.
Just as I was getting accustomed to the “French Polynesian” way of life – i.e. the peculiarities of unisex bathrooms and greetings with kisses on the cheek (although to this day I’m still not sure if you’re suppose to air kiss on either side of the face or really kiss each cheek), we departed Tubuai and set sail for Captain Cooks historical landing. Good wind and smooth sailing past uninhabited Maria Island with only seven days at sea and one day of sea sickness. I’m getting better at this! Perhaps I’m cut out for life at sea after all.
Arrival in Rarotonga
Rarotonga is beautiful from afar and grew even more breathtaking as we sailed closer and closer. Pity we couldn’t start exploring immediately. After arriving in a new port, we are not allowed off the boat until our yellow quarantine flag is taken down by Health and Immigration. No Sir. No matter how much our feet are itching to run and explore dry land ( or how much we really, really want to use a clean, non-marine toilet), we are left to twiddle our thumbs and stare at one another until we are officially cleared. Some islands are quick and efficient and these are the best. Others…..we wind up waiting an entire afternoon for officials to arrive and check our passports and boat registration. These are usually the same officials that a take our entire stock of perishables for ‘safety’ reasons. It is well-known to eat all the cucumbers, onions and apples on the boat before arriving in port. In explanation for walking off with our fruits and vegetables, they claim to be preserving their sacred ecosystem. True, yes, but I think these yummy perishables actually wind up on the dinner table instead of the incinerator.
Luckily the Raro customs was friendly and speedy. They arrived handsomely dressed and took of their leather loafers before climbing on board to firmly grip our hands and welcome us to their island. Before long, they were offering local advice and inviting us to the island dance show later in the week. (The Health Officer was also the MC of the show as everyone is multi-talented and holds down two or three jobs on the island.) We found out later that the choreographer of the dance show also owned Raro’s popular Whatever Bar!!
Our dock in Rarotonga was far from ideal. We tied up against a rocky, jagged wall and the small harbor was completely open to strong northerly winds that frequent the islands. As a result, QQ banged against the wall relentlessly and caused us to bite our knuckles in frustration as our lines rubbed and frayed and our bumpers were pummeled and battered. We couldn’t anchor out for the surf was too strong and we would be in danger of capsizing our small dinghy upon coming to shore. If anything was to be learned from the four shipwrecked boats along Raro’s coral coast, it was to respect the surf and keep guard at all times. With that in mind, although we stayed tied perilously to the wharf, we kept someone on board continually to check lines and adjust them if necessary. Such is the life of a seafaring sailor – – never a dull moment, never a dull day.
Raro is the main hub of the Cooks, the port where wandering yachts check in and a starting point for travelers continuing on to outer islands. There was a scattering of cafe’s, eateries, and shops to keep us occupied during the humidity of the hot afternoon sun. Sitting in the shade of a frangipani tree and slurping a double scoop gelato became an afternoon habit. Nighttime brought about cool breezes and drinks at Trader Jacks, a quaint, ramshackle restaurant overlooking the marvelous lagoon. Here, we watched outriggers rowing back and forth, in and out of the bay, practicing their long fluid strokes until dusk darkened the coves. I found a movie theater in the heart of the small town. The movies were a few years old and we had to sit around and wait in the lobby until a sufficient amount of patrons arrived to pay for the cost of running the generator. Four was the lucky number and we happily trailed into the musty, shadowy auditorium. No fresh popcorn and the air conditioner was kaput but it was enjoyable to prop my feet up and relax nonetheless, even if I did have to fan myself with a paper bag.
The Cooks have an eclectic mix of ethnic groups. From the Indian curry house to the Chinese fast food hut where I bought splendid $2 mango shakes every afternoon, there are a variety of expats and a rainbow of skin tones everywhere. One afternoon brought a curious traveler to our dock. Bob Marsters and his family stopped by to say hello and share some freshly fried parrot fish. While chatting, they invited us to their own special island, called Palmerston, about 300 miles north of Rarotonga. Bob was the mayor of Palmerston and he raved of the beauty, simplicity, and naturalness of his home. Apparently, all the residents on this tiny atoll owe their heritage to one man, William Marsters. In 1863, William married three different Polynesian wives and took them to start a new colony on Palmerston. Today, although there are only fifty residents living on the islands, it is said that the number of ‘Marsters’ living internationally reaches into three or four figures (there is even a rugby team in Melbourne composed completely of Marsters cousins). No money is exchanged on the island, There are no shops and only one school and one church. A generator runs for only six hours a day. Everything is shared among the families, from the fisherman’s daily catch of fish to the housewife’s fresh bread. A freighter comes about three times a year to deliver supplies such as pasta, flour and rice while coconuts and fish make up their diet the rest of the time. How’s that for out of the way travel?