Published: June 22nd 2008May 7th 2008
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). Ahoy Rarotonga!! 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 Hawkin’s of the world (two points if you can guess which book that character belongs in.) We arrived dockside in Raro on a sweltering March afternoon, ready for a 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
Reefed boats in Rarotonga
Either the Captain had too much to drink or he blinked for a moment too long
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!
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 onboard 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
Our dockage in Rarotonga was far from ideal. We were tied up against a rocky, jagged wall and the small harbour 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 pummelled 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 travellers 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, practising 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 ethnicities. 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 parrotfish. 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?
It certainly sounded like
an interesting stop so we gladly accepted Bob’s proposal and his pencil drawing of anchoring directions. We were lucky to have fair winds on our trip to Palmerton and we sighted land in record timing, only three nights on the sea this time. As traditional spirit prevails on Palmerston, the first islander to stop a visiting yacht is the “sponsor” of the boat during the boat’s length of stay. As we motored up to the lagoon, Edward Marsters came out to greet us and help us tie up to a mooring. Instead of anchoring in the crystal waters of the calm lagoon surrounding Palmerston and her islands, we were outside of the reef, swaying gently in twenty feet of pristine waters. I jumped in with my snorkle right away to cool off and was rewarded with a viewing of some spectacular (and slightly scary) white tipped reef sharks. I took to watching them from the safety of the nets until they decided the boat meant no harm and stopped circling their territory.
We launched the dinghy, expecting to motor back and forth at our own free will. However, it works a bit differently here on Palmerston. Firstly, I'm sure
they didn't want strangers landing and exploring by themselves. It was a small island and privacy was well guarded. Secondly, there was quite a spectacular reef surrounding Palmerston and our little dinghy wasn't quite up to the challenge. It took a special hand and some local knowledge to motor a small boat through the sharp corals of the protective reef and Edward was our expert. He came out every morning to pick us up and was ready to deliver us back to QQ when we were finished for the day. We communicated by radio, channel 16, which is what all the islanders used for communication as phones were not present. All islanders carried little walkie-talkies clipped to their belts and everyone monitored the conversations going back and forth.
...........One word for Palmerston: bizarre....something not quite right.....
Edward, wife Shirley, brother Simon and his two little boys were extremely hospitable, talkative, and friendly. They gave us fresh, COLD drinking coconuts, offered a nice walking tour of the island, introduced us the the local school teacher and her eighteen students and made a fantastic beach picnic with lots of yummy fish. Every night, Edward and his family trooped into
his boat and rode with us out to QQ where they tied up and climbed aboard for evening snacks and chatter. The boys loved fishing off of QQ for hundreds upon hundreds of fish swarmed our keels, drawn by the dim glow from our sterm and anchor lights. One evening they caught over 200 parrot fish (which they shared with the rest of the island the following morning.) The school was more than welcoming. Eighteen students between the ages of six and seventeen shared a one room schoolhouse. The yard was bare and sandy, complete with shade trees and a volleyball court. Empty coconuts lined the boundaries of the volleyball grounds and the kids were all experts at bump, set, spike - sometimes a bit too forcefully!
However, there seemed to be a bit of an odd, strange, almost eerie atmosphere on the island. We had one island “meeting” with Tere, the administrator/secretary of the island in which we shared our careers, strengths and hobbies (presumably to see if we could help in any way. Wes shared his computer savy talents and mom had a chat with the island nurse). Other than this , nobody stopped by to say
hello the entire time we were visiting Palmerston. We saw shadows walking through the bush every now and then and caught brief flashes of skin as islanders ducked in and out of the low hanging trees. Everything that came into the island was strictly inspected by the island's "administrators." There was also a serious lack of young ladies and school aged girls. Upon questioning this observation, it was noted that the young girls are usually taken overseas to be schooled or sent to another relative for upbringing. With a population of a mere 45 individuals - eighteen of those being schoolchildren - Palmerston was indeed in need of some new blood!!
On the other hand, it was certainly a laid back way of life, a place that subsists on the sea and coconut trees, a haven for those wanting to shed the atrocities and stresses of modern day life. No television news that ranted the horrors of the world, no need to lock your doors against thievery, to hold your child's hand crossing the street or shield their eyes to teenage pressures, and no threat of poverty. As Tere said, "only a lazy man will starve and not be
able to feed his family" as everything is provided free of charge to those eager to find them.
In the end, even though we raised our eyebrows several times and had some lingering questions (for instance, what happens when these teenagers are suddenly thrown into the modern world to seek further education when they haven't yet experienced the simplicities of the modern world - cars, public transportation....even shopping for food and managing money), the islanders were extremely happy and content. On the last morning of our visit we walked barefoot on the sandy beaches, choosing beautiful shells and savoring the island's quietness and tranquility. Edward once again delivered us to a waiting Queequeg and gave huge hugs goodbye, reluctent to leave his new friends. He took our presents, stashed the liters of fuel we shared in his tin fishing boat and stuffed scrapes of paper containing our addresses into his well worn pockets. We lifted anchor and waved and shouted farewell until his little fishing boat was almost out of sight. Our smiling friend then turned and started making his way back to his tiny paradise in the South Pacific.
There are more photos below