Happy talkin' talkin' happy talk

Trip Start Oct 29, 2003
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Cook Islands  ,
Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Rarotonga is the largest in the group that make up the Cook Islands, 15 small islands spread over an area of more than 2 million square km in the South Pacific. They are yet another place in the world named after the remarkable Captain Cook who has quickly become my second favourite Englishman of all time, hot on the coat-tails of Sir Winston.

The three hour flight from Auckland was the most turbulent flight I've ever been on. Trays had to be held on to and I had to neck my vodka'n'orange pretty sharpish as the tarts with the carts ran for safety. Maybe all that turbulence was caused by us crashing through the dateline, as when all the bouncing around had finished it seemed as though my two-day stubble was shorter and my feet didn't smell nearly as much. All of a sudden we had gone back 22 hours and it was June 1st again for the second time. I had now gone so far east I was west of where I started.

Rarotonga may be the biggest of the Cooks but that isn't saying much. Only about 4,000 people live here, and the one main road circles the island in just over twenty miles. I arrived at 1am at the hostel to a snoring, sweaty, farty dorm room buzzing with mossies. I fell asleep thinking how fortunate it was that the Prime Meridian ran through London so that the date line - being 180 degrees from Greenwich - happened to land in the near-empty waters of the Pacific. Imagine how hard it would be to record your favourite TV programmes if it ran through the middle of the country instead.

I had booked into the Rarotonga Backpackers for the week, located about seven miles from the main town of Avarua, and about 500m from a rocky beach. I spent the first day relaxing by the pool getting to know the twenty or so other travellers (all English except a mad Welshman, an annoying Scotsman, a loud Aussie chick and a tiny Japanese girl). Everyone was very cool, which was a godsend as the weather was bad for a few days and all we could do was sit around talking and reading. And drinking. With no TV, no newspapers, no internet, a ping pong table with a ball that had lost it's ping, it was just like being in the Big Brother house.
The best way to get into town is by motorbike. The majority of tourists rent these, and for NZ$15 you buy a license and take a silly test, and judging by the queues at the police station it must be one of Raro's biggest money-spinners.

A different bar in town hosts a Party Night each night for the tourists: a pretty good way of keeping us all in the same place and leaving the locals to drink in relative peace. On Wednesday we all got spastic on vodka at the Banana Court; Thursday was 'Island Night' at the Staircase (one of those tacky tourist cultural shows that had so many kids and sock-and-sandal wearing old men with flowers in their hair and video camera glued to their face it was a bit like being at a wedding on a cruise ship); and Friday was the Pub Crawl night. A load of us from the hostel got a minibus for the night with the driver coming into the bars and drinking with us as we went. Sad to say, but drinking and driving is the only way to get around the island, the the sight of oversized Polynesians weaving around the road on an undersized scooter is quite amusing. [A sign at the hostel states that they drive on the left here, except when drunk in which case it doesn't matter - just get back in one piece.]

On the Saturday afternoon four of us went to watch some local rugby, with Ben from Bath trying to get a game. He didn't get into the main game but the Over 35 Golden Oldies were a man short so he played for them - despite him being only 22. After the game we were invited up to the clubhouse for beer and food, where we were introduced to the chiefs of the two villages, and listened to speeches given in English for our benefit instead of Maori. We also got to chat with the Cook Islands national coach - a passionate man with the unlikely name of George George - who told us about him playing against England in the Hong Kong Sevens. It was a really interesting day, and one you won't see in a guidebook, probably.

Like all God-fearing people I was up early on Sunday to attend the Arorangi village church service to thank the Lord for getting me home safely from the rugby (the fact that there was free food afterwards was purely coincidental). The service was held in Maori, but the singing was joyous and uplifting, even if I couldn't sing along. The ladies' hats were impressive, and the sandwiches, cakes, chicken and fruit weren't bad either. Definitely worth the two quid I threw into the collection plate.

We hopped on the bikes in the afternoon and made it round to the other side of the island and the popular Muri Beach. Golden sands, coconut palms and abundant hibiscus overlooked the lagoon to Koromiri Island, accessible by a 400m chest high wade through ridiculously clear water. After a few hours toasting on the beach we made it back to the hostel just in time for another torrential downpour.

That night a few of us had signed up for a traditional Island Feast at a nearby bar/restaurant run by a Scotsman. For about a tenner it was all-you-can-eat local food, such as roast pork and chicken, octopus curry, smoked seafood salad, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, boiled taro and steamed clam-like shellfish called paua. This was followed up with ice-cream, pavlova and cheesecake. I absolutely loved it, but unfortunately it didn't love me. About half of us that went had trouble that night, and I spent all day Monday in bed too tired and achy to swat the mossies, annoyed that I wasn't able to go out on my last night on the island.

I managed to hold down some toast on Tuesday, but I had to hang around all day until my flight at 11pm. Fortunately I was feeling decidedly better by boarding time, although the thought of my first food in two days being airline food didn't do me any favours.
I had a great time on Raro, more to do with the people than the island, but it was so much more than I expected - and I'm so glad I didn't go to Fiji! Next stop is civilization - if you can call LA civilized - as I start the last leg of my trip in California.
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