28 Sep Rarotonga, Cook Islands – Friday, 21 September to Thursday, 28 September 2001
Don and I are certainly not “ugly Americans”, but we are fairly typical Americans in our inability to speak languages other than English. In our six months of travel in French Polynesia, we never learned to speak French. Our wonderful new friendship with both Pere Joseph and Rataro in Ua Pou and Edward in Kauehi was possible because they both spoke quite good English. What a relief to arrive in Rarotonga where everyone speaks English. I hadn’t really realized until arriving here how frustrated I had been, not speaking the language of the country we were visiting. While I can speak Spanish fairly well, that didn’t do me any good in French Polynesia where people in the more isolated areas often spoke very little English. Over and over, I would become extremely frustrated by my inability to communicate with people whom I really cared about and wanted to get to know better. Often we would quickly run out of words and simply sit in silence. Conversation became a major struggle or stimply not possible. This happened with Aro in Ua Pou and with Xavier and Tania Chebret and Rosina Temere, Edward’s wife, in Kaeuhi. Now, here in the Cook Islands, everyone speaks English and life suddenly became much easier. I resolved to be able to speak French if we ever returned to the Marquisas or the Tuamotus.
Entering the tiny harbor of Avatiu on Rarotonga felt like”deja vu”. With the old rusty frieghters and the eight or ten sailboats, it felt like a cross between Point Hudson in Port Townsend and many of the harbors in Alaska or British Columbia stuffed full of a mix of sailboats and old fishing boats. It felt like coming “home” to a very familiar place. It also felt very “safe” after the last three days of uncomfortable passage. It wasn’t until the next day that we had more time to look around and discovered that four of the sailboats in the harbor were from Seattle, one was from San Francisco and one was from British Columbia. We introduced ourselves to our fellow voyagers, and it felt very strange for all of these sailboats from the Pacific NW to have landed in this tiny little harbor in a country so isloated that most people back home have never heard of it.
We arrived at Raro at 0930. Don goes ashore to check us into the Cook Islands, while Rob, Donna and I scrub the boat which is incrusted with salt. Later we change money at the bank (New Zealand dollars) and explore this small town of Avarua, that is the center of government for this small country of 18,000 people. When we visit the Tourist Information Office, we learn that there is a dance performance that night at the Cultural Center in order to raise money for the CICC (Cook Island Christian Church). We have dinner at the Punanga Nui Market site, right next to the harbor. People come to the market grounds, set up awnings and tables and sell dinner. It is the Cook Island version of a “food circus”. Don has Curried Goat and I have Spicy Chicken for dinner, and then we have the make the difficult choice of Pavlova or Trifle for desert. I take a vote among the locals at the desert booth and opt for Pavlova with fruit and ice cream. The portion fills a large dinner plate, so Don and I share. We walk to the Community Center, past the CICC church and through the graveyard surrounding the church to the Cultural Center, pay our $5 NZ and enjoy a show of the best dancing we have seen so far. Everyone takes part, from little four year old children to the “Mamas” (grandmothers). Some of the dances have fifty or sixty people performing at one time with another twenty people playing drums and instruments and singing the dance songs. What a first day in port.
We stay in Rarotonga for a week. While we are in Raro, we shop at the Saturday morning market, where famers bring their fruits and veggies straight from the fields to sell. We ride our bicycles around the island, 34 perfectly flat kilometers, clockwise. We meet “T”, the president of the outrigger canoe club and learn that they have about fifty club members, both men and women, but only have two old junky boats that are unsafe to take out of the lagoon. We check out their efforts to build a fiberglass OC6, and later in the week, the club takes delivery of a used OC6 that arrives on the freighter from New Zealand, a gift from the Outrigger Club in Wellington. We rent a car and drive aroung the island twice, once on the main road on the edge of the water and once on the “old road”, dating back to before Christ, which travels through many small family farms. We go the the University of the South Pacific buy two books written by Papa Tom Davis, a past island doctor, graduate of Harvard University and NASA medical officer. We meet June Baudinet who has a small shop in Raro and go to her home for dinner. June is very worried because her son has just started college in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There is still not much information about what is happening in the U.S. and she is very freightened for the safety of her son. We tell her what little we know and reassure her the best that we can. We learn a little about Cook Island politics from June, who has been a local activist at various times in her life.
My most vivid image of Raro is of the memorial downtown for the victims of the September 11 attack. It is also of the ladies moving among the crowd at the Friday night food fair, collecting money for the American Red Cross. At the Police Station there was also a sign and collection box for donations to the American Red Cross. The people of Rarotonga are poor. The country is poor; the government of the Cook Islands declared bankruptcy in the late 1990’s. The standard of living in Raro is very basic, with absolutely no frills. Yet, these warm generous people raised more than $3000 to send to America for the victims of September 11.