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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Cook Islands Time

"Would you like to dance?" A young sweaty (sexy) man, clothed in little more than a grass skirt, asks while gazing at me from dark brown eyes. Not one to be shy, I eagerly jump up from my seat and follow him to the stage, where a growing throng of people are gyrating to the beat of island drums. My sweaty dance tutor places his hands on my hips and pushes them in this up-down-side-to-side manner that felt unnatural and silly. After showing me the female dance moves, he switches to his dance where he where he knocks his knees together, pumps his fist up and down, and whirling around the dance floor. Quickly I'm swallowed in grass skirts and coconut shelled bikini tops twirling around me, the beat pulsing in my head, and my hips trying to keep up. My dance partner smiles and giggles at me. My hip-wriggling attempt is only a trifle of movement compared to Cook Islander women, many of which start to dance before they walk.

This night finishes a ubiquitous Island Night, which begins with a feast fit for a King, and ends with an energetic dance performance, all a must-do event for any visit to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Rarotonga is the largest of the 15 Cook Islands scattered over 2 million square meters of the Pacific Ocean, between New Zealand and Hawaii, with a total population of only 19,000 people. Although Rarotonga is the largest island in the group, it can be circled by scooter in less than 30 minutes, or an hour or so on push-bike. I rode my bike around the island 4 times during the week, once on accident! The complexity of the island road network can be explained like this: The Island is nearly circular, and has a 20-mile long road that encircles it near the coast. Despite being so small though, the island even has public transportation! There are two buses that travel the island: 'Clockwise' and 'Anticlockwise'.

In a way, the road network is symbolic of the uncomplicated way of life on the island. This laid-back lifestyle, balmy temperatures, crystal-clear lagoon and numerous resorts attract plenty of tourists to its 15,000 population. The interior of the island is rough, rugged, rocky, volcanically extinct, and inhospitable to settlement by anyone other than the odd goat or pig. Polynesians arrived in the Cook Islands sometime around 1000AD, and ‘peacefully’ existed until missionaries arrived in 1821. Peaceful is a careless term to use, I suppose, considering cannibalism was a regular part of warring Polynesian tribes.

My seven days on the island were framed by two island nights (one on my birthday!), an international bbq amongst new friends, horseback riding through the bush and on the beach, snorkeling coral reefs, learning traditional Cook Islands cooking, and a cross-island trek through the middle of the island with a local medicie man!

Let’s talk more about this cooking business… Piri Puruto III, famously known as the Coconut King for climbing coconut trees, spent his heyday youth as a boxer in New Zealand. An entire traditional meal is cooked for several hours in an underground 'umu', including taro (potato-like tuber), taro leaves (spinach-like with coconut milk), chicken, bananas, breadfruit, and anything else around. Fresh fruits on the side (coconut, mango, papaya, starfruit, passionfruit…), plus a raw fish marinated in lemon juice and soaked in coconut milk, called ika mata, another signature Cook Island dish, which is simply divine.
Preparing the packets of food wrapped in banana leaves

All in all, this week was simply divine. I went from hearing my name called at least 45 times an hour with a million questions, to the most peaceful island adventure one could ask for! Alas this wraps up my 2009 trip to the South Pacific via email (finally!!)
Hugs to all, Jessie

My pictures Cook Islands

PS- Funny story:
When I was initially changing my flight to add this Cook Islands stopover at the end of my journey, I considered 3-4 days would be sufficient. While talking to the travel agent, he informed me it would have to be 7 days, “There is only one flight a week from Rarotonga to Los Angeles.” OK, one week it is!

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