Last Saturday, I woke up, and packed my bag for Rarotonga. IES, the program i'm studying abroad through sets up this trip during mid semester break. Eunice, our coordinator has been going to the island for the past 5 years, so she's great at planning an awesome week. For those of you that don't know, Rarotonga is one of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. It's the biggest island and is inhabited by about 10,000 of the 15,000 people who live in the country. We left in the afternoon and stopped in Aukland on the way. The descent in to Raro was pitch black. There was nothing nothing nothing, and then within a minute of touchdown we finally saw a few lights. We didn't arrive until 11:45pm. Then we cleared customs, and loaded into a van… scratch that, we STUFFED into 2 vans with all our luggage. Thank goodness its a small island and it was a short drive, because we were all in a bit of heat shock coming from Christchurch. When we arrived, I settled into a room with my two sweet friends Erin and Jackie. Then all the people in our group met on the back deck that overlooks the water. It was nearly 1am by that time, but we were all captivated by the stars. You could very clearly see the milky way, o'ryan's belt and the coolest thing was the southern cross which i've never seen before!! Also, the shooting stars were the best i've ever seen. I could follow them for almost 5 seconds some times. Everything was so clear. I started to realize how "in the middle of nowhere" we were. Then it was off to bed to get ready for the first day. We woke up around 7 and walked down the beach a little ways. It was a beautiful and peaceful start to the day. Jackie, Erin and I were on breakfast making duty. We cut up some paw paw (papaya), mango, and assorted cereals and toast stuff. Shortly after we were off to the saturday market (so yes, i lived saturday almost twice). The market was huge, bumping with music, and full of bright colorful things. We watched a few performances, and I bought a pretty new dress to where to church the next day. For lunch, we picked out some home-made bread, pumpkin humus, a few guavas, and star fruits. All were DELICIOUS, and it was fun trying new stuff.
After the market, we walked over to a local families house for some "cultural activities". We tie-dyed a sarong, weaved coconut tree leaves into dinner plates, and head pieces. This was all in preparation to learn our dance. While we were making our head pieces, we sat and laughed at the boys learning their part, but shortly after it was our turn… I can't say any of us will make it as maori dancers. Then we headed over to the taro patch. Taro is starchy like a potato. Its a staple to cook islander diet. We helped the family turn over the soil, and plant a patch of taro. After, one of the guys scaled up the coconut tree and kicked down a few for us to eat, drink, and huck. SO yummy!! We had a coconut hucking competition. They make a sharp stick with a machete thing, drive it into the ground, and then shove the coconut onto the sharp end. Sounds easy, but there is definitely an art to it. It took me about 15 minutes to finally get one open. After my pathetic attempt, the dad of the family literally hucked the coconut with his teeth!!! That's who I want with me if i'm stuck in a jungle. While at the taro patch, I made an oopsy. There was a young kid that had been with us the whole day. It had long hair that was braided and really pretty eyes. So, making assumptions like I never should, I asked his mom how old she was. HE was an 11 year old boy… right. Then we headed back to paradise inn for a shower and a few beers on the deck before dinner. We walked down to the convention center for dinner with the plates, head dresses, and sarongs we made that afternoon. They welcomed us with traditional music and fed us like kings! Thankfully, I made a rather large plate, so there was plenty of room for all the kumara, taro, chicken, paw paw, mango, and passion fruit. YUMM! After we ate, I realized that I should have paid more attention at the dance moves because it was our turn to perform. If that wasn't bad enough, they insisted that we have a dance competition. I was proud to not be the first out… good enough for me!! I wish I had better skills because the winners got the cool hand-made wooden drums.
Sunday, when we woke up, Erin and Jackie went for a run, and I made my way down the beach so that I could see the sun rise. It was gorgeous! Afterwards we had breakfast before we walked down to church. It was communion sunday, so all the mammas and papas were wearing white. My favorite part was the singing. Most I couldn't understand, but it was really cool when I recognized the tune to songs I knew. Also, it was really interesting to watch the behavior of the kids. They mostly sat by themselves, and literally played an talked through the entire service and no one seemed to mind at all. One kid even threw something down on his grandma's hat from the balcony. Speaking of, the women of the church are required to wear hats every sunday. Most of the service was in maori, but some was english, and besides being terribly hot and tired, it was a really neat experience.
After church, we loaded up and headed off to the eastern shore of the island to snorkel!!! It was SOOOO cool. There are over 100 species of fish just off the shore in the lagoon. I'll stop here and tell you just a brief bit about the island. Its volcanic and then theres a fringing reef that surrounds it. It is reallllly important. It breaks the surf to help prevent erosion of the island among other things. Anyways, it made for some awesome snorkeling. there were tons of beautiful fish and other marine creatures including an eel. YIKES! We lounged on a beach for a while afterward and then were served passion fruit and coconut. Later, we went to play put-put before dinner. It was a beautiful evening, and actually quite fun to play with my friends. Out of our group of 5, I managed 3rd which I decided was respectable enough. The same place prepared another FANTASTIC feast for us. oh my gosh. This was a meal that I enjoyed like the one I had in Springfield that Kaeko prepared for me. My favorite part was this fish that they put a paw paw chutney over. SO SO delicious. On top of that there was super tender and yummy steak, and an assortment of potatoes and salads accompanied by really good garlic bread. And then of course, desert was cream puffs, some chocolate meringue type thing, and fruit salad. We came back to the Paradise Inn deck and played cards with the rolling pacific ocean close by.
In the AM we had the typical breakfast and then it was off to USP (university of south pacific) for a couple lectures. Sounds boring, but they were great! The first lecturer is the president of the voyaging society of the Cook Islands. They make these vakas that resemble what their ancestors used when they stumbled upon the pacific islands. Then they sail around the pacific without GPS. Their navigators rely on stars, sun, wind, currents etc to make their way across the ocean. It's amazing. It would be a unique opportunity to go on a voyage. They've traveled to Tahiti, New Zealand, California, Hawaii, among other places and currently there's a vaka coming back form the galapagos islands. He was a fascinating guy, and the hour flew by! To be honest, he did say that often times the captain carries a GPS and records lat/longs or safety reasons. If they were to become in danger, they would need to be able to transmit their location, but this information is not shared with the crew. The voyaging society is an attempt to maintain the cook island culture. It's really a cool practice. The second lecturer works for the NES (National Environment Service. He is tasked to work with one other person to maintain the biodiversity on the islands. What a job for two people!! To put in more manageable terms, the cook islands land area is about 2 disney worlds, but their exclusive economic zone (aka, the water thats considered cook islands), is the size of Alaska and Oregon put together. That comes from measuring 200 miles off the coast of each island. He's quite a busy guy, but was nice enough to come speak to us. He taught us all about the flora and fauna of the island. There are several native and endemic species he works hard to maintain. Most are threatened by human impact and invasive species. 3 of the 15 islands are uninhabited, and work as a great location to manipulate and isolate animal populations. They've had a lot of success growing up species on these islands. Back to the EEZ. Within CI waters, there are trillions and trillions of dollars worth of resources. I think it was something like 30 trillion dollars worth of lead. Even better, its sitting there in ball shapes just waiting. The cook islands are being very cautious in assuring that the mining won't do more damage than good before they release any permits to the several countries waiting for a green light. The big hold up is to develop technology to suck the lead and other resources from the ocean floor because we are not allowed to scrape it. After the lectures, we ate lunch and then met a local guy and his son to start on the cross island walk. It's marginally marked and decently treacherous. The track leads from the Avatiu valley, up to the Needle, about 400 metres above sea level, then down through the Papua valley to Wigmore’s Waterfall. I must admit it was a little more intense than I anticipated. It was like climbing up very large stairs for about 25 minutes which is 20 too many. Though, when I got to the Needle, It was well worth it. The views were spectacular. I could see both shore lines, and the lush green mountainous center. Funny enough, we ran into a rooster that lived up there which I guess isn't too much of a surprise because they're literally EVERYwhere on the island, and they LOVE to wake you up in the morning. Anyways, it was an awesome hike complete with river crossings, steep slopes, beautiful views, narrow pathways, a few near death experiences (kidding… sorta) and I had the company of some awesome people. At the Wigmore's waterfall we went for a swim which was well deserved after being wet with sweat after the 3 hour hike in the super humid forest.
For dinner that night, we hopped on a bus to begin a progressive dinner. We started at the house of this nice man who showed us all around his piece of land. If you are a cook islander, you are entitled to land somewhere within the islands, and this man and his family live on theirs. Several family members all on in one place. What's cool is like most families on the island, they're nearly self sustaining. They have taro patches, ALL sorts of fruit trees (coconut, passion fruit, guava, oranges, limes, star fruit), as well as a vegetable garden complete with tomatoes, lettuce and various other things. In fact, everything we ate except the fish was from their property. Its a special month for this family because the man (i can't remember his name for the life of me… ) is accepting his responsibility of king of the family name from his mother who passed away 2 years ago. After the ceremony, he can't leave Rarotonga unless one of his son's is there to act as "power of attorney" (ok, i'm a little tired, and when I was writing this I wrote power of eternity, got through another sentence, and then THANKFULLY caught my stupid mistake. haha!) They were so welcoming and wonderful to take us all into their home. The entire night, the sweet man and his sons came around with us playing ukulele and guitars. The main course was served at a really nice house just above the new sports auditorium. This auditorium was built by the chinese. They came in with their supplies, tools, and workers to build the arena at no cost to the CI…. sounds all too fishy if you ask me. All they ask in return (for now) is that CI acknowledges one China (this means they don't consider Tiwan as a country). They also want fishing permits. Something to keep your eye on thats for sure! Anyways. the main course was once again, DELICIOUS and served by the sweetest couple. When we all sat down she came in and welcomed us to her home. She's no more than 5ft tall and she half jokingly informed us that she was in charge and then said "claps for me". haha it reminded me of my mom, the admiral. She said her husband was just the helper boy that sleeps in her bed. They were the most endearing people constantly telling us we were now part of the family and welcome to return and stay with them whenever we wanted. Two of her grandkids also came by and performed for us. It really is part of their culture to dance, sing and play instruments together all the time!! Desert was served by a couple. The husband is a cook islander and his wife is a kiwi. He's 3 generations from William Masters, a man with a super unique story. It went something like this. He had a child with one lady, then married her sister. then left England and one one island he made friends with the chief and got 3 more wives whom he had kids with. On a voyage to another island he met another lady who he promised he'd come back to. He did, but it took too long and she was already married to another man. Then he came to Rarotonga and met a woman who he stayed with for the remainder of his life. Funniest part about it is that he came with the London Missionary Society! They served a delicious desert. Guava, mango passionfruit cheesecake, fruit salad, banana bread, and meringue with passion fruit on top. It was great!! I really enjoyed the opportunity to spend time in these families houses and see how they live daily.
In the morning, we headed off to Takitum Primary school for a visit. When we arrived, they gave us leis and hurried out to their positions. On Fridays and when there are special visitors, they do an assembly. A few kids play the drums, and the rest go out and march around this perimeter. They're so sincere and adorable in their uniforms. After their march they came in and sang songs and when it was time to pray before lunch, the principle told them to close their eyes. It was near impossible for them to not watch us. There's a funny picture i put up that shows the little girls and boys really struggling to not watch all of us sitting in front of them. They served us a delicious lunch, and then we played with the kids for a little over 2 hours. It was a blast! we played soccer for a while, and then I sat down with several little girls playing ring around the rosy. After a few minutes, we went for a water break. I sat down on the mat with them and they went to work on me. They braided my hair, sprayed "perfume"on me, and wanted to do my makeup! Thankfully I talked my way out of the last one. Lord knows i needed some perfume though. It was another scorching hot and humid day. After several hours of games, we loaded back on the buses and headed to the CICC (Cook Islands Christian Church). This is the new name for the CI London Missionary Society. We went to their theological school. The timing on this one was a little poor. We were all exhausted from the school that staying awake during his talk was near impossible. Thankfully, it wasn't too long before we headed out to Parliament. When went into the room where Parliament meets and actually sat in their chairs. Most exciting was the fact that the building was air conditioned!!! SO exciting. A sort of jack of all trades for the Legislative branch of the government gave us a quick history of the country and current problems and concerns. It was quite interesting. They had a huge recession in the early 90s that was followed by a controversial election where tons of money was spent to bring voters from NZ which ended up invalidating the results which were then simply given to the opposition for all offices. He told us about a lot of their current issues. Land ownership is probably the cause of the most drama which was technically supposed to be handled by the House of Sek (which is the native leaders), but it's too complicated considering some plots of land may be entitled to up to 30 people. China is a significant concern also as well as the trillions of dollars of resources in their waters. I really liked the simplicity of the place. A small room where all the legislation is passed through. Their budget is something around 110 million for a population of 15,000 heavily relying on tourism. Speaking of, on the south side of the island, theres an unfinished hotel that stands near the end of the cross island walk. It looks like a scene from a movie. It's all over grown and looks like they just up and left in a hurry. The Rarotonga Sheraton got pretty close to completion in the early 1990s, but dodgy behind-the-scenes dealings; including the embezzlment of large amounts of money, Italian mafia connections, and attempting to build on “cursed” land meant this hotel has been a lost resort for nearly 20 years. So the concrete structure just stands there empty.
After parliament, we headed to Aro'as Bar and accommodation. It was such a cool bar area on another beautiful beach with a sunset brewing when we arrived. We all got delicious cocktails served from mason jars and sat out watching the colors paint the sky. They also served us dinner which was AWESOME. the best part of the meal was desert. They made guava cake that was phenomenal!! SOOO yummy. When we got back to the hotel, I was dead tired. I crashed in no time. At about 5:30am, i was fast asleep when a crab or spider or cockroach (still unsure) climbed on my arm. YIKES! Thankfully, Jackie had just gotten up to go to the bathroom, so in my scrambled attempt to shine my phone light on on the object I could not see without my glasses, she saved the day and smashed the creature. then for the next 10 minutes I had a serious case of the creepy crawlers. And sure enough, within 15 minutes, another creature was on my leg. I slapped it away and then begrudgingly wrapped the sheet around me so I could fall back asleep. yuck.
The next morning we had breakfast and then headed over for a lecture from Nan at the Whale Research center. She gave an great presentation about all her research on the humpbacks that use Rarotonga as a corridor. She does a lot of work to prevent whaling and is currently studying migration technoques etc.. After the whale center we went to pick up our bikes for the rest of the afternoon. It started raining just as we got there. Regardless we all rode down to black rock beach anyways and went for a swim. It was GORGEOUS. The water was super warm and crystal clear. after an hour or so, it was time for volunteering at the only vet clinic in the Cook Islands whose director came to Rarotonga simply as a handy man with no training. His girlfriend is a vet and they're supported mainly by volunteers that cycle in, some for 1 week up to a few months from all over the world. Generally its just as long as they can take time away from an income. We cleaned the animals cages and then fed them. There were some adorable kittens, newborn puppies, and a small dog with tetanus. Apparently, he will be fine, but he looked like stuffed animal with his paws stuck out like that. I also got to see a dog get spayed. It was pretty interesting. haha After Animal shelter it was time to dry off and then head to the cultural show. Erin and I ate BBQ Kebabs there sitting in rice with coconut milk mushroom sauce. SO delicious especially considering we followed it with a giant slice of banana cake. The cultural show was performances by all the local schools on Rarotonga. IT was really good! The first few were just plain cute because these itty bitty kids were dressed in coconuts and little skirts shaking their hips best as they could. It progressively got more impressive through out the show, but let me clarify that we were there from 6:30-10:30. They haven't quite got the "on time" and "keep things moving" theme from showbiz in the states. We finished the night with ice cream sundays and attempted to go out for a drink in town, but didn't get there until 12 which is when everything closes. So instead we came back to the deck and had a few drinks. It was a beautiful night.
The last morning, we rolled out of bed extra early to make bacon, eggs, and pancakes for breakfast. Afterwards Chloe, Miranda, Erin, Jackie and I went back to Takitum School for another day of volunteering. They were once again SO welcoming and wonderful to us. We organized sports games, and helped situate their classrooms for the Easter holiday (2 weeks). I ended up using this little straw "broom" to sweep some classrooms which actually took quite a bit of time. Thankfully, the sweet kids 'helped' me out best they could. We stayed for almost 3 and a half hours before we biked back to Paradise Inn. Then we packed up again, and headed to the beach. ended up being a great few hours wading in the perfectly clear water and playing frisbee with my friends. It was a fantastic way to finish the trip. After this it was just a quick stop at the Inn to pack our bags and pay our tabs. We left Rarotonga in a 777 to Aukland. It was a 4 hour flight, and by the time we got to Aukland, it was too late to make a connection to CHCH so we rode to the hotel and went to sleep pretty quickly because it was a 5 am wake up call. After the short flight to CHCH it was LAUNDRY time. It was near impossible to get anything to dry in that humidity, so I can't say my bag smelled like roses. I'm happy to report I'm all cleaned up and ready to leave Monday on my next adventure up to the North island. I'll keep you posted!!