Sunday is for Sinners

Trip Start Nov 02, 2008
Trip End Nov 23, 2008

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Where I stayed

Flag of Cook Islands  , Southern Cook Islands,
Monday, November 10, 2008

At home I'm not a big churchgoer. But in the Cook Islands, everyone is at church. All of the businesses close, people stop working in their yards, the dogs lay down for naps, the chickens stop chuckling....everything here stops for church. I heard a story of a fisherman who was lost at sea, and in the midst of the search and rescue effort...well, Sunday came around. The rescuers stopped being rescuers that day and went to church instead. I swear, it's a true Cook Islands legend about the importance of church to the people.

So today I made an exception and went to church. My new roommate Stephanie (who I'll talk about more later) and I tried to find clothes that covered up enough skin, which is rough when it's like 90+ degrees at 9 am. We set out from the Kii Kii Motel on foot and made our way into downtown Avarua to attend the Cook Islands Christian Church. Before arriving, I made a pit stop to safety pin my dress closed (cleavage not welcome in church, crazy tourist!) and to take off my tennis shoes and put on my lovely sparkly church sandals. The CICC (shorthand for the church we attended) is in a beautiful whitewashed, hand-crafted structure, the grounds of which include a large cemetery. I've included photos, so I won't spend more time describing....but the effect in person is quite amazing. Stephanie and I found a seat in the right-hand isle next to a shining yellow-glass window rising vertically into the high ceiling. Outside my yellow-glass window I noticed I had a peek-a-boo view of a splendid palm tree. Throughout the service, I referred frequently to the palm tree, as I seemed to be waving and seeking my attention. Maybe it was a sign?....

Now, prior to leaving the US, I was ignorant to the details of which language the Cook Islanders speak. I know now that they speak Maori. In fact, the Maori people of New Zealand are actually descendants of the Cook Islanders... not the other way around as I had thought. The church service was conduct in the Maori language, with a smattering of English for kicks. On a large projector screen, the song lyrics were posted for sinning girls like me who didn't have them memorized and needed a visual reference. Stephanie and I were able to sing along in Maori and were not stared-at whatsoever.

But we were not the stars of the show here.

THE STARS OF THE SHOW: The Cook Islands women transform themselves for church. I am a huge fan of Paul Gauguin, and if you've been in my living room, you will see him everywhere. But I had never understood his painted images of church ladies...I never felt they were beautiful or compelling.....until this morning in the Cook Islands Christian Church. Now I understand why he painted these ladies so often. They positioned themselves in the center pews of the church, and for the umpteenth time this week, I felt transported to a different era. There they were, Gauguin paintings in flesh and blood here next to me. Dressed in white and ocean blue button shirts and dresses, tropical prints and lace. These tall, strong women with single braids of the darkest chocolate hair laying like thick ropes down their backs. Atop the braids, they wore bleached fine straw hats with wide brims. Around them, strings of shells, delicate fringy flower buds, and plumes of palm leaves. They needed no visual reference screen for their singing. One would suddenly stand in the center of the room and begin to sing in the strongest voice I'd ever heard...and then everyone would rise after her and I was absolutely surrounded by Maori song. Up in the balconies, mostly mens and teenage boys, also adding to the incredible stew of sound.

After the service, Stephanie and I streamed outside into the tropical humidity, barely able to see the path over the sea of hats and braids. Once on the front road, we were quickly identified as foreign girls and were politely invited to join in tea. We went into the community hall next to the church, where there was a massive wooden table sporting a massive spread of treats and cakes and tropical fruits. The spread, we were told, was all prepared by the "mamas" or elder women of the church to welcome the guests like us. But before we could enjoy the treats, a church elder named Kura Strickland approached us and gave us a brief talking-to about the history of the church, how the glorious missionaries had come to Rarotonga and saved the heathens who had previously been worshipping their wooden Gods, how girls should not be riding motor scooters in their bikinis, how Stephanie and I should happily select one of his grandsons to marry, etc. It was a strange but totally entertaining talking-to, and Kura finally released us to enjoy the treats on the table.

I know it's a cliche, but I ate a homemade doughnut. It was delicious. I also had some nice watermelon and considered the lemon and pineapple meringue cake, but took control over my sweet tooth.

Papa Kura, being a kind church elder, also loaded us up into his extended cab Toyota and gave us a lift back to the Kii Kii Motel.

Nothing else in the day was quite as interesting as my trip to church. I'll continue to be a sinner, I'm sure, but it was gratifying to sing my sins away for one morning at least.

THE PROJECT:  Yesterday marked the beginning of our service project, and all of us volunteers finally were able to meet and greet at the Kii Kii Motel. I have a fantastic room on the second floor overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The ocean is wild on this side of the island--no swimming beach. Just gorgeous rocks and waves and wind---I never slept as well as I did last night with the sound of the sea outside the door. I'm sharing this ocean oasis with a girl from Michigan named Stephanie, who I've already mentioned. Stephanie is cool and the youngest person in our group...I'm the second happens that our group consists of 13 people, only two of whom are current wage-earners. That's me and Stephanie. Everyone else is a retirees. So let's check out my statistics...on the last service project, I was the oldest person in a group of about 30 18-year old Brits. This time, I'm the second youngest in a group of affluent U.S. senior citizens. One lady in our group is 85 years old. It's just sort of funny how this happens. I'm not actually picking on my group, because they happen to be really decent fun people...but they're still old (sorry Mom & Dad :)

I won't bore you all with details of orientation, etc. But it turns out that I'm assigned to the most perfect project in the world. Starting tomorrow morning, I'll be working at a school near the Muri Beach area (where I stayed previously). During the mornings, I'll be helping with the reading program. And in the afternoon, I get to change into my bikini (modestly covered by a t-shirt and shorts tho') and play water sports with the kids. Holy cripes, could it be more perfect? Thank God there are at least two of us on this team who are able to run and play with the kids without fracturing a hip! :)

Until next time, I hope all's well with you at home.

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portiajules on

Happy Monday!
That church sounds like when I went to Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta..the church ladies were amazing! I felt so welcome, even though I was very much the minority there...
I am excited to hear about your teaching experience..way cool girl..
Love ya lots,

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