Saturday, 13 April 2013

Into the Great Blue Yonder: Rarotonga

We come at long last to one of the more out-of-the-way countries I have had the good fortune to visit these last few months: The Cook Islands. In many ways, this tiny island nation in the middle of the South Pacific (east of Fiji, west of Tahiti and South Polynesia, and a 4-hour flight northeast from Auckland across the date line) was the country I was least prepared for. There are few references to it in popular culture (none that I could name offhand) and I have had little opportunity so far to learn much at all about the Polynesian islands, so apart from it being a group of islands of rare and famous beauty - as I had found when googling where I was going - I had very little idea what to expect.

The most important thing I had to get used to upon my arrival on Rarotonga was 'Island Time' - a bit of a cliche, but things really do work at their own pace and in their own way out there. Since my flight arrived at 1am I decided to save a bit of money, spend the night at the airport and make my way to my hostel the next morning. Now at most airports this would involve an uncomfortable night on a set of chairs in a vast floodlit hall, to the accompaniment of loudspeaker announcements and over-the-top air conditioning. Not on Rarotonga: the airport consists of one room - where we were greeted by a rather tacky but welcoming ukulele player -
surrounded by grassy courtyards which provided ample space for a weary backpacker to curl up in his sleeping bag and admire the stars which became visible in all their glory once the airport lights were turned off. The spot I chose was right at next to the stone wall pictured below and was dark enough at night that security guards passed me by and I slept unhindered till 7am. 

Baggage retrieval accompanied by ukulele choons...
...and followed by a surprisingly pleasant night by the bottom left corner of this stone wall!
And so I found myself surprisingly well rested for my first day on Island Time. Rarotongan public transport, there only being one road, consists of a bus which goes clockwise along said road once an hour (and an occasional counterclockwise one). The driver will pick up and drop off passengers at any point along the road and, in my case, dispense helpful advice on where to get some good breakfast. 

Arriving at Vara's Beach House, then, I found a dorm that was delightful in a number of ways. Not only did it open right onto the property's balcony on the beach at the picturesque Muri Lagoon, it was also permanently open and host to a plesant sea breeze: there is simply no need to lock things on Rarotonga.
The path leading to Vara`s; it doesn`t really get much lusher than this...
The view from the dorm and the verandah adjoining it...
...and from a few minutes` walk down the beach, closer to the motu (islet) shown here; it is the biggest of four in the lagoon, easily reached by snorkelling and home to some pretty spectacular fish.
 With a big smile on my face and still not quite believing that places like this really (still) exist (how many more times I was yet to think this over the course of the next two weeks...but that's a story for the next post!), I headed off to the weekly Saturday market in the Cook Islands' capital, Avarua. This is basically a larger-than-usual accumulation of buildings lining the island road, with a couple of roads leading a block or two inland. The market proved a pleasant introduction into the way things work out here. It was nice to see that the "local" arts-and-crafts market is actually local here, and the food...oh, the food. The aforementioned breakfast consisted of a big slab of coconut bread (a lot like cake) and coconut milk to go with it - and some taro, a purple but otherwise very sweet-potato-like affair which one of the vendors just gave to me for free when I asked what it was; I tried to pay for it, but she flat-out refused when she heard I had only arrived that morning.

A local drumming group fundraising at the market.
Downtown Avarua.
On my way back to Vara`s - about 12km down the road - I decided to walk: how hard can it be? However, I did not reckon with the ridiculous humidity - manageable when not moving but deadly otherwise - and the shitness of my flip-flops, a 2-pound leftover from Goa, and at about halfway I began to think walking might not have been the best plan in the world. Yet again, Islander friendliness (or laziness?) came to my rescue. Bewildered that anyone, let alone a tourist, would walk instead of renting a scooter or a car, an elderly lady driving her even more elderly mother home from church stopped next to me to check if I was alright and if I wanted a ride, an offer which I gratefully accepted. 

OK, so I lied above: a few impressions from inland Rarotonga confirm that it does indeed get lusher...and this isn`t even Aitutaki yet!

I say "laziness" above because, in general, exercise seems to be a bit of an unknown concept on the Cook Islands. Obesity is abundant (although this is partly due to the recent influx of fatty western fast food - there is no McDonalds but a incredibly tasty burger-type takeaways abound), and when I declared at the tourist office that I intended to walk some 2km they looked at me aghast, like that was some outrageous feat. Granted, it is sweaty work doing anything out there, but still...

I will be frank - most of my remaining time on Raro was spent doing very, very little. It was far, far too easy to spend the days lounging on Vara`s verandah reading and chatting to other travellers marvelling at the nature of the place. That aside, abundant and beautiful snorkelling, a massive rope swing (mounted some 15m up in a tree), and the couple (a Cook Islander and an American) who ran the kitesurfing school next door and provided a coolie bin full of beer one afternoon - leftovers from a house party the previous night - made sure that boredom never became an issue. Unfortunately, this also means that I never got around to doing the famous cross-island trek, a 4-hour walk through the forested interior of the island and up to the spectacular 650m "Needle", the highest point of the island. However, given the ridiculous views which are apparently mostly obscured by the foliage up there but readily accessible at the beach, and the fact that I had such a good time nevertheless, render my feelings of guilt minimal.

And thus I leave you with a few final impressions of Raro, to return soon with an update on Aitutaki and, as soon as possible, Japan!

The Needle providing the backdrop to a grave: in the Cook Islands people prefer to bury family members on their own land, so that public cemeterie hardly exist. This also means that the graves are often either decorated to provide a tasteful addition to a garden, or are even incorporated into the house in some way.

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