Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We really are the droids you're looking for - Rarotonga redux

We planned to spend as little time as possible in Rarotonga and it was just as well, because the longer I stayed the more Truman show I felt. The plan was to arrive from Atiu late morning into Rarotonga and leave for Auckland at about midnight. It was not to be.

At the airport they announced the plane to Auckland was cancelled, because the pilot was sick. By this time I was a bit caffeinated as I had known I would be up all night (I don't sleep much on planes). The announcement that the flight was cancelled left me a bit excited; I am told I was 'all over the place' and 'talking all the time to everyone'. We queued up to have our fates decided for us.

There is always such a diversity of response to perceived adversity. We met three European back packers who were thrilled to be staying longer in Raro and especially to be put up for free in a resort. We gave them our left over vego pizza and they were thrilled with that too. Then we were accosted by Panini Man. He was furious about the cancelled flight and actually waved his arms around and pointed and shouted. He proclaimed that he had been forced to eat two paninis and drink a beer, and that was $31 dollars he would never get back. Wow. I imagined devious Cook Islanders holding him down, feeding him paninis and beer, and extracting $31 from his wallet. His plump sad wife looked on patiently.

When it came to us, I used my caffeinated state to employ the old Jedi mind trick. We had come from no accommodation and the back packers we had stayed in previously was not to be recommended. I focused my mind into a laser pointer of will, and silently projected 'Edgewater Resort, Edgewater Resort'. The person behind the counter said 'I will see if I can try to get you into the Edgewater Resort'. Whoah! It worked! These really are the droids you were looking for! We had not been overlooked.

Then came several long weird days at the Edgewater Resort.

There were activities. There was crab racing (don't ask). There were Island Nites. There were drinks with amusing umbrellas in them. There was a gift shop. It rained. Day by day there was no news about when we could be rebooked. We talked to others who were part of the now-famous Virgin Offload. They were all disgruntled and trying to get home to sit exams and go to sports tournaments and get back to their jobs. We met one couple who had been placed at Edgewater who found it just impossible there, just not their sort of place at all. Their own accommodation had been too expensive for the airline to cover. The woman just broke down with the awfulness of it. She cried and cried and cried and finally they went back to their previous place. When we met them next she was on a social media crusade against the horror that is airline offload.

I became withdrawn by the peculiar liminality of our situation. I imagined being at the Edgewater Resort for years and years, like Hotel California, sitting at the same table with the same drink (with its amusing umbrella), becoming a small ghost. I would die there and nobody would ever sit at that table again. I would just gradually grey out into the rain. I would write the great Cook Islands novel - which would be about an honest and deeply religious policeman who returned from the mean streets of South Auckland to his home on Mauke, only to be caught up in a terrible conspiracy involving murder and corruption in the very heart of the tourist industry. The novel would be discovered under my bed and published posthumously, to great acclaim.

We did stuff of course, went for walks and so on. During our previous stay we met up with a couple of Kiwi teachers on a contract to teach for three years. They had that terrifying world weariness of ex pats. They were well over Rarotonga. The locals were just unstable, they had funny names and they didn't seem to care about the right things. And they were fundamentally lazy, honestly, you just can't think about what will happen to your work after you have gone. You employ a gardener, and as soon as you turn your back they just stop work. They don't cultivate anything. They don't even care about their own arts and crafts. All the real work is done by foreigners.

So when we went walking we often commented on this. Whenever we saw cultivation we commented on the lazy sods who had clearly never done anything. You grow taro in swamps, for example. To grow taro you make a swamp, and then after you have cultivated the taro you have good land you can drain and plant things like tomatoes. It all looks a bit like work to me. We also commented on local people who were somehow overcoming their inherent laziness to do things like mow their lawns and trim their hedges. And we even saw a local woman going for a run. Now, that is a real proper western style legitimate activity because it involves expensive brand name shoes.  Running without expensive brand name shoes isn't really running - it's just rushing around. It's probably even running away from something. In fact running without expensive brand name shoes is practically criminal.

Three days later we were among the lucky ones. Thanks to some ferocious lobbying from my travelling companion, and many international phone calls, we were on a plane. Others remained stranded in paradise, eating from their $50 a day vouchers and stressing about work and the costs of the cattery. But we were back in the cool of a New Zealand Spring, having enjoyed more than we bargained for.

And here, not well photographed unfortunately, is my all time favourite fish, the Seal Faced Puffer Fish. It is from the Whale and Wildlife Museum, a good place on Raro. Go there.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On Atiu - In which I go caving and discover I am only a hobbit after all

When we got off the Bandit at Atiu airport we were greeted by an amusing sign:

So we handed in our weapons and were given the usual beautiful fragrant ei and welcomed hugely.

Atiu has a population of something just south of 500. Similar to Mauke, the villages cluster around the centre and the outer rim consists of makatea, which is fossilised coral sometimes making formations the height of doorways. We were here to see the kopeka, the Atiu swiftlet. The kopeka is endemic to Atiu. It is unique in that it uses its eyes in the light, and echolocation in the cave where it lives. We went caving to see them.

We walked across the makatea, which is treacherous stuff. It is sharp and has sudden crevices, and you need good boots. We were given ironwood staffs. I liked mine a lot and I was Gandalf and said You Shall Not Pass a few times until someone told me I was only a hobbit. i have always liked caves and this one was characterised by amazing banyan tree roots which penetrate the roof of the cave and then drive straight down to the floor, just one long tough root after another. The kopeka themselves were magical. It was nesting time, and they were feeding their young. We could hear them twitter as the flew into the mouth of the cave, and then begin echolocating with audible clicking sounds. They would call to their babies who would respond, and each bird would find each baby. Like bats. With torches off, in the dark, the clicking was too loud for speech. Then some of us who were brave swam in the underground pool. The water was soft and warm; i was swimming in it and drinking it.

On the way back we attended a tumunu, or drinking session with local men. Traditionally this is a council meeting/piss up for the local men but tourists are allowed for $5. They pass around a wooden bowl with 'orange beer' in it which is neither orange nor beer. It is a fairly sedate affair. i suspect as soon as the tourists leave the bowl gets a lot bigger.

We stayed in a home stay with a guy called Marshall. Each night was a dinner party. We had hot water for the first time in the Cook Islands. Marshall was very knowledgeable about Atiu, and all sorts of things for that matter.

On Sunday we went to church. There were ten of us tourists on the island and eight of us went to church. The couple who didn't had their absence duly noted. The Cook Island Christian Church has had difficult time recently with some scandal and some defection to other denominations. Everyone in the Cooks is Christian, except there is a small Baha'i community. So there were about seventy people present and eight tourists. i can tell you that the CICC is the only place in the world where a man can wear a white suit and not look like a 1980's gigolo (much). And the singing would lift the roof - you have never heard Once in Royal David's City like that before, close close harmony and LOUD. i listened and hummed along and thought that whoever we are, when we reach for the highest, we get there.

On Friday night we hung out in town, by which i mean the Super Brown store. We got a decent burger and watched the jeunesse doree of Atiu rock up on their motor scooters. The dogs of Atiu, who lie around all day, mobilised themselves and form excitable packs. Like teenagers, they become suddenly preoccupied with something wonderful and go racing down the street. A pack rushed past us, but one ungainly little short legged fellow couldn't keep up. i have a thing for ungainly little short legged creatures so i gave him my meat from the burger. Now i have a friend i can stay with on my return to Atiu.

There were more exquisite bejewelled coves with crystal sea and coral sand, and a million tiny hermit crabs. We saw where Captain Cook arrived and sent his men to treat with the people of Atiu, who were then known for their ferocity. And we saw hump backed whales from the beach. A mother and her new calf processed just a few metres out, just rising and dipping in the sea, just cruising around the island where they come to give birth. i fancied these were whales i had seen near Brisbane. It is certainly the same migration. One of the women i was with said to me, I am an atheist, in fact when I told my daughter I had been to church here she asked, did the church catch fire? But seeing these whales I feel - blessed.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Community Policing and the Little Pigs of God

When we got off the Bandit at the airport at Mauke, one of the Cook Islands 'outer islands', we were immediately stopped by a uniformed police officer. We thought he would inspect our belongings for forbidden vegetables, but instead he put eis* around our necks and told us to wait for our luggage. We waited. My companion said, uh, we were going to be met by someone from Tiare Cottages....the police officer laughed and said he was wondering how long it would take us to figure it out. He was also the proprietor of Tiare Cottages, the only place to stay on Mauke, pop. about 450. We were made so welcome. We were two of the three Papa'a** on the island. We stayed far too short a time. We saw the world's biggest banyan tree, which occupies over an acre. We also went to both of the shops. And we walked a lot and pottered around in tiny exquisite coves and on coral beaches. We found many interesting sea cucumbers. Here is a sea cucumber doing a poo: We visited the divided church. When the church was built there was fierce debate about its design, and it ended up being divided into two halves, with each half decorated in its own way, and the preacher standing in the middle. Everyone on Mauke is Christian of one sort or another, our hosts being two of the 9 Seventh Day Adventists there. In the church, my travelling companion told me about how the missionaries translated the Bible into the island languages. They were not fixated on literalism. They tried hard to communicate, changing the symbolism to suit. An example: Jesus could not really be called the lamb of God in a culture were nobody knew what a sheep was. So they translated the phrase as 'little pig of God' On Mauke we saw many dear little pigs of God, as well as little goats of God and little chickens of God. Most creatures there are pretty free range, and as sweet and blessed as they can be. Tiare Cottages is run by Tangata, the policeman, and Teata, who teaches high school. They had lived in South Auckland and came home to Mauke once their children had grown. Ta talked about community policing on Mauke. At first when he arrested people he had to take them home. Now he has a police station, although some of it he has built himself. Recently he put up a stop sign. He then went around the corner to see if anyone stopped. Of course they didn't. These are dirt roads, and most people travel by motor scooter at low speeds. Ta took note of all the people who didn't stop, and visited them. He told them when they visited Rarotonga and went through stop signs they would be fined - they should see this stop sign as practice for urban living. Most of the people of Mauke are related to Ta and Teata. Ta is trained in a community policing model and really I could see no other way of managing it effectively. On the last day we were there Teata asked us to help with her Year 11 social studies class. They were doing a module on human rights, focusing on Amnesty International and issues for women in Egypt. There are 6 Y11 young people. Only two have internet access. They are village kids. Teata asked us to talk to her class, so we gave a lesson on Amnesty and women in Egypt. One girl asked me what is the difference between human rights and social justice. They were preparing a brochure to deliver to every house on the island, on this very abstract topic. I am a frustrated wannabe teacher - I love prancing about in front of a whiteboard. This school is trying to teach the New Zealand curriculum with few resources, and blackboards not whiteboards, and certainly no power point presentations. Teata routinely asks her guests to take a class, partly to expose the kids to outside influences. Her last guests were Finns and they taught Finnish football. Mauke is awesome. I could live there, and just hang out on the beach and teach random classes, and befriend the little pigs of God.

* An ei Cook Island Maori for lei, a garland of fragrant local flowers.
  ** White people.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

It was Suicide Awareness Week in Rarotonga

It was Suicide Awareness Week in Rarotonga when we arrived. I talked to the people at the market stall and looked at their pamphlet. It said: 'Stop. Your Family Cares. Your Friends Care. We Care'. Think. Of One person you can trust. Talk. To someone.' I hope that is true. I think that many suicidal people feel nobody cares. They feel very alone. It is a bit of a cliché, trouble in paradise. Gaugin it ain't. But it never is. Emotional difficulties are universal. Rarotonga was bijou. There is one road that circles the island. Tourists hire scooters and we hired a small car. You can just go round and round from resort to resort. I thought I was in the Truman Show. None of it was real, it was all being rolled out in front of me just as I approached it. The same people, again and again. Hello Mr Brown! There's the lady in the straw hat, and the muscular guy on the bike, and the sleeping dog. I got wise. I figured I was in the Truman show when I realised I was the only one who ever did a U turn. Everyone else just goes round and round, in the everlasting sunshine. We trekked in the forested centre, and went looking for marae, which in the Cook Islands means sacred sites, places where important meetings were held or rituals performed. Since the advent of Christianity, people moved from the forest to the coast at the request of the missionaries. Now the marae are abandoned and they appear as rock-rimmed platforms.
We stayed in a back packers', and the young people there were preloading with strange Finnish spirits bought in plastic bottles. They went off to their pub crawls on the neon bus. The wind was constant and strong. The third night it seemed worse, and things were banging around. I fitfully dreamed about trying to rescue people I cared about from a tsunami. And I dreamed a whole new word I made up. Hrodlhrafn. It means an important thing left behind. Here are two hrodlhrafn from my life. The first one is soap left in a pension in Istanbul. I left it in the shower and when I went back for it, it had plainly been stolen by the guy who had the shower after me. I confronted him on the stairs and he didn't deny it. He didn't give it back either. The second one is a cellphone left in Melaka. It went on to have adventures of its own. It went all the way from Melaka in Malaysia to Waziristan. Then someone used it as a phone box, and we got a bill for, eventually, $8000. The bills were so big they arrived in A4 envelopes. I was appalled by the cost, of course, but fascinated by the circumstances. I wanted Vodafone to sponsor a trip to Waziristan, where I would trace the travels of the phone. I would wander around in a burka like a little Pacman ghost, and learn all about these fabulous cultures, and when I found the person who had the phone I would find out about their life. Of course my hrodlhrafn is something someone else might find. If found, it is called a karrnhrafn. I made that up too, but not in a dream. After three days in Rarotonga, we went to Mauke.