Cook Islands

Arrival in Rarotonga

Days 95-106
November 19- 29, 2012
After a ten hour flight from L.A., arrival in a turquoise and ultramarine blue paradise.DSCN4062

 – Kia Orana: may you live long, is the phrase for ‘welcome’ in Rarotonga. No plane lands or departs – despite the many night flights – without guests being serenaded by a musician. Beautiful women with flower necklaces and fresh blossoms stuck jauntily behind their ears greet new arrivals. They remind me of Hawaiian girls swimming out to greet incoming boats in Hollywood movies, or Gaugin’s exotic paintings of Tahitian women, and not without reason: the inhabitants of the far-flung South Sea archipelagoes are related to one other. More than a thousand years ago Rarotongans arrived here from Samoa and Tahiti by canoe.DSCN4064

This is the quietest, most restful place we have ever been. Our first impression is the complete absence of rushing and the obtrusive body language westerns use to proclaim self-importance and that permeates the air we breath in from earliest childhood onwards thickly with a nervous, jittery energy. It’s as though hot air has been let out of an over-taut ballon that is stretched to the verge of bursting. As the air seeps out, time slows to a halt. Objects we habitually overlook become visible and audible: a fly buzzing in the heat, the rays of sunshine burning down from a cloudless blue sky, thin palm leaf shadows on the ground where well-organized colonies of ants are busy erecting highways over cracked concrete paths and dry sandy soil, clear turquoise water glittering and winking at us invitingly. The heat makes us slow and lethargic, forcing us to take refuge in a cool shady spot, so Christof can put the bicycles back together.
The passengers and their hosts disappear, the grounds are swept and tidied, garbage emptied and the airport building closed and locked.DSCN4107

Everyone is wearing flip-flops and children still run around barefoot, even in school. More relaxed than their western counterparts, they swim in the lagoon during recess – without bothering to remove their preppy English-style uniforms – returning to class happily exhausted and dripping wet. Even the dogs, free to roam without leaches or chains, and drowsing peacefully in the half shade of palms trees, can’t be bothered to get up to chase us.DSCN4110

The island is thirty-two kilometers in circumference, encircled by one main road. Mopeds are the main form of transportation, and because life is slow and the speed limit fifty kilometers per hour, no one wears helmets. On the backs of mopeds children press small cheeks into the sizable backs of elders to compensate for lack of grip, or fall asleep protected from tumbling off by a parent’s left arm curving backwards. Pick-ups pass, jammed with people. A crowd stands in the middle of the cab balancing easily, while the others line its edges sitting down. Buses travel in two directions, clockwise or anti-clockwise.

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We are staying in one of nine bamboo bungalows, made in Vietnam, surrounded by a garden that is raked daily. It has a boat-shaped swimming pool, a gas grill, and a view of the lagoon only a few steps from the beach. The main customers are young honeymoon couples. We can’t quite believe our luck. The biggest decision we have to make is where to sit, under the palm trees, at the beach, on the deck chairs in the shade of our porch, in our little hut, or next to the swimming pool. This is not a hotel or club; there is no Happy Hour, no meals, but we vastly prefer the peace and quiet, and have both a kitchen and the use of the grill at our disposal. We shop at the market for freshly grown produce: zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, yams, pineapples, coconuts, papayas, passion fruit, bananas and other exotic goods.
DSCN4169One day out of curiosity, I buy a gigantic jackfruit. When its rough grey-green skin is opened, I discover a disappointingly thin layer of stringy white, bitter-tasting fruit covering a center crammed with black seeds. A thick sticky syrup covers my hands with a glue-like mass,  that only gets stickier when I try to wash it off. At the beach I scrub my hands with sand, and the gummy substance turns black and remains so sticky that I can’t  touch a thing. What now? Christof suggests asking the advice of one of the locals combing the lagoon in rubber boots – there are dangers even in paradise. Stone and scorpion fish defend themselves when stepped on by attacking offenders with needle-sharp spines, leaving unpleasant swelling and infections behind that can take weeks and need strong antibiotics to heal. The woman I speak to smiles shyly and says the glue will dissolve in oil!

DSCN4088Unfortunately we have almost no contact to the Islanders. ‘Magic Reef’, a grand name for the nine-bungalow complex, is owned and was run by a couple from New Zealand, until the husband unexpectedly died of a heart attack this past summer. ‘Magic Reef’ is now on the market, a dream for anyone wishing to live on a tropical island. Until a new owner is found, their friends, Joe and Rod, also New Zealanders, are keeping the place in order, and making sure the group of three giggly Philippine girls, who clean the bungalows thoroughly once every three days, tow the line.DSCN4135

We ride around the island, stopping to look at other resorts and hotels. All of them are larger complexes; rows of bungalows crowded together like tents in a full campground, leaving a view of the water only to those able to afford front row accommodation. Surprisingly, although there is less space, less privacy, these resorts are more expensive than the bungalows at ‘Magic Reef’. We are happy where we are and want to stay on. It is still low season and because they aren’t fully booked, Rod lowers the price and throws two-and-a-half days into the deal for free. How can you resist an offer like that?DSCN4137

My tooth worsens, demanding immediate attention. Rod makes an appointment with a Maori dentist, saying he can’t guarantee the medical quality; neither he nor Joe have ever been to a doctor in Rarotonga although they’ve been here many times. A promising sign is the diploma from Dunedin, New Zealand, hanging on the wall. Rod suggests I go in for an estimate, and see if I feel comfortable enough to have the work done.
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The waiting room is an open porch in front of the dentist’s home. The practice has two small rooms and equipment from the 1940’s. A breeze stirs curtains half-covering unscreened, open windows. A bare-footed little boy, just home from school, taking a short cut, races through the practice. The dentist, a man in his fifties, dressed in shorts and flip flops, gives me a clear, concise idea of what needs doing and an exact estimate of what it will cost.
I trust him to do the repair. The dentist shows Christof, who accompanies me, each step of the process. A tooth brittle due to a double root canal done in Germany, broke when I bit down on a piece of pizza in California. Now both the broken tooth and the filling, which reaches up to the root, need to be removed. A titanium post has to be inserted into the root to hold and stabilize the rebuilt tooth. The dentist works quickly and efficiently. I have complete confidence in his abilities. When we thank him, with a melancholic look in his brown eyes, he says:
– You people think that we islanders are primitive. The work we do here is state-of-the-art and no different to dentistry elsewhere in the world. The materials I use are from New Zealand where I trained on scholarship.

DSCN4104Rod and Joe invite us to join them for an evening show:
Drums of our Forefathers, a tourist program about cultural life of the islands. Each guest is picked up at his hotel by a bus, and driven up windy roads to the top of a mountain at the center of the island. We have a wonderful view of the rainforest-covered hills and the ocean in the distance. A hundred guests dismount from four buses and are divided into groups. Each group, we are told, represents a ‘waka,’ a canoe. Each waka gets a color and a ‘chief’ is picked to lead the group. Rod is our chief.
In a mosquito-infested clearing in the jungle, actors act out and describe tribal life. The different ‘wakas’ simultaneously visit different stations. At the marae, the sacred worship site, an ariki, the High Chief, tells us about his role in the tribe, pointing out a group of young warriors standing guard in a wide circle around him.
He chants and stomps, exhaling threatening, archaic sounds.DSCN4145

– Friends welcome. Foes eaten! !
Grunts, and a menacing gesture towards an enormous cooking pot hanging over an open fire.
Imagine, what missionaries risked to spread Christianity!
I prefer our comfortable, politically correct religious tolerance, with polite reticence in speaking  about religious beliefs and practices. Our generation is painfully aware of the incongruence of waging wars of forced conversion. Even unbidden proclamations of religious orientation can offend the sensibilities of those of other faiths. Religious life, in our eyes, needs freedom and tolerance. Only in an open atmosphere completely devoid of fear can pluralistic worship and mutual understanding grow and flourish.

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For the first time though, I glimpse the courage and burning fire of conviction necessary to risk life, health and comfort in order to voluntarily  join the Apostles’ mission of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. We grew up cringing at the arrogant superiority of ‘saving primitive heathens,’ and saw Christian missionaries as narrow-minded fanatics, blind and ethnocentric in their disrespectful disregard of existing cultural traditions.
At another station we learn about the arrival of the missionaries in Rarotonga. They came in the early 19th century, bringing both Christianity and illness – smallpox and dysentery – along with them, severely decimating the population in the process. They convinced the airiki, the high chiefs, to lay down their weapons – burn their idols, and leave the mountains, where six tribes had been warring with each other for centuries. They moved down to the lowlands where they took up a peaceful agricultural life style. Christianity was openheartedly embraced, and today both churches and parochial schools abound. Visiting lively song-filled Sunday services has become a popular tourist activity.

Joe

Joe

The crowd at the cultural evening finds it natural to be led through a prayer of thanks before partaking of the island specialties cooked in the umu and arranged artistically on the plentiful buffet: vegetables, salads, fish and meat. The umu, a traditional barbecue pit, demands laborious preparation. Digging a pit, gathering firewood, heating volcanic stones, covering these with banana stalks, wrapping food in banana leaf packages and covering and steaming them for hours.
During the 1980’s, the younger generation, fascinated by the traditions of their elders, felt the call to preserve Maori culture before, watered down by foreign influences, it was lost forever. The land that had been holy to their forefathers, now covered in dense tropical growth, was cleared and a cultural center built.

Rod

Rod

On stage a charming young woman humorously demonstrates different ways of tying a pareo, a traditional large piece of hand-dyed batik cloth. Pareos, inexpensive tourist articles, hang in colorful bunches from palm-leaf-covered stands along the roadside. Depending on how it is folded it can be used as a:
– beach cover up for a drink at the bar,
– shopping outfit,
– short shirt for an evening of clubbing,
– long flowing dress for formal occasions such as mother-in-law’s 80th birthday,
– church-going dress.

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Four young couples put on a dance performance in traditional costumes. Covered in patterned tribal tattoos, warrior-like, well muscled men, brandish their spears aggressively while stomping and ejecting short sharp shouts. Beautiful girls roll their hips gracefully keeping their hibiscus skirts in constant motion, matching the changing rhythms of the drums played by the men. They flutter their eyes flirtatiously, moving their arms and hands in imitation of plants swayed by mild tropical breezes. A move called ‘watching the plane’ has dancers, shading their eyes with their hands, while looking up at an imaginary plane in the sky. This dates back to the airport’s opening in seventies, when one plane a week came to Rarotonga, fully circling it before landing. Every one – including school classes led by their teachers – indulged in the biggest excitement of the week: ‘watching the plane’.

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When the queen opened the airport in 1974, one plane load of tourists a week changed life on the island as radically as the arrival of the missionaries had  roughly a century earlier. Today tourism is the main trade and the Cook Islands are sold as a honeymoon paradise of bamboo bungalows, warm tropical waters, exotic fruit and cocktails to couples wishing to escape the grey, cold weather of northern climates.
The story is told of courageous Maoris braving the open seas in seven ‘wakas’ – canoes – landing safely in New Zealand and populating the North Island with their descendants. Archeologists and academics doubt the historical validity of oral traditions, although, undisputedly, a kinship between Maoris in New Zealand and the Cook Islands exists. A group of 7th and 8th graders, on a cultural exchange from New Zealand, are invited on stage to perform some Maori chants accompanied by the arm movements and stomping they have learned from their teacher. Hoots and cheers from an appreciative audience!
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I wanted to come here for a number of reasons:
– a love of Gauguin’s paintings
– a wish to study Anthropology after reading Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, both of which inspired a warm interest in South Sea Culture during my late teens.
– my admiration of Else Klink, an early charismatic Eurythmist. An islander herself, brought to Europe and enrolled in the first Waldorf School by her German father, she was picked out and placed in the newly founded Eurythmeum by Rudolf Steiner, where she went on to become one of the most renowned Eurythmists in the world. In her eighties when I arrived in Stuttgart to study with her, I studied Eurythmy instead of Anthropology, she impressed me deeply and indirectly influenced the course of my life.

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I wanted to go to Tahiti, but our Round-The-World ticket has strict limitations. It was easiest to stop on Rarotonga, an island said to be similar today to what Tahiti was like fifty years ago before the advent of tourism.
Because it’s socially unacceptable to take photos of complete strangers, I was unable to point my camera at scenes I would have loved to share. For this reason I’ve included some of Gauguin’s paintings that capture the colorful simplicity of a tropical, flower-decorated lifestyle, that still exists, despite mopeds and mobile phones.

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The days pass quickly, and the motivation and urge to do anything at all leaves us completely. We relax into a state of timeless presence, enjoying the luxuriant plant growth, the coral filled beaches, the sound of waves breaking on the reef in the lagoon, the magnificent sunsets, and at night the sight of palm trees silhouetted against the moon.

Goodbye USA!

Goodbye USA!

Days 92-94
November 16th-18th 2012
The last three days in the United States pass in a haze. Chris and I both have ‘travel fever’. After seeing so many different landscapes and meeting such interesting people, we are full, unable to take in another thing. Perhaps due to the rain and this feeling, the last days in LA are somewhat uneventful.

Getty Center

Getty Center

We get boxes from a bike shop in Santa Monica where I break a molar while eating pizza at a place in a small strip mall – Christof at first wants to leave because of the strange smell. He thinks it emanates from a disgusting smelling cleaning fluid, but once he discovers that its source is freshly cut rosemary, is willing to stay. We are served by a spunky blond waitress wearing a brown poncho, her short hair waxed into spikes, and tapping across the floor boards energetically in cowboy boots. She brings us the freshest, most mouth watering delicious pizza we’ve had in ages.
The next morning, a Saturday, I try to find a dentist in, of all places, Hollywood. I call someone on duty for emergencies, whose number is listed on the internet. After mailing back and forth, waiting for each reply until my patience is about to snap, I finally understand that he is checking to see if the job is lucrative enough to warrant his time. Interested in a broken crown, but not in what I as a layman diagnose as being a lost filling, he obviously sees no reason to interrupt his weekend for peanuts. Fair enough, I’ll have to chew on one side of my mouth until I find a dentist willing to do the job.
The traffic in LA is crazy, nothing but freeways and merging rivers of traffic. Coming into the well kept, cultivated home of Cindy Hindes, the priest of the Christian Community, is like entering a sheltered oasis, a welcome escape from the modern madness of LA. We have long cozy conversations over tea at the kitchen table, speaking about the presidential election campaign and our observation that poor people are easily guided into acting against their own interests. Cindy says that people are led by playing on their base emotions, fear and anger. Finer emotions, those tempered by the soul, are rarely cultivated in this culture. She says that Americans are not ‘thinkers’ but ‘doers’. It is easy to steer a mass of people by appealing to their base emotions, leading them from anger or hate directly into action, bypassing reflection altogether. It’s the rare person who stops to question if what they are being fed, in the way of campaign information for example, is even true. Christof, especially, enjoys these talks with her.

Cindy Hindes

Cindy Hindes

On opening night, surprised that tickets are still available, we see the premier of Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln. Coming away impressed by Daniel Day-Lewis’ uncanny portrayal of Lincoln, where it was like  having him directly in front of us, going back in time and looking over his shoulder while he worked. Within a small window of time, and against all odds and adversity, Lincoln got the 13th amendment ratified. A herculean deed! It is impossible not to see parallels to Obama’s present situation. The film shows how very difficult and tedious the process of democracy is. To be able to see problems and challenges from varied stand-points, often compromising private opinions in assemblies, in order to get the work that needs doing for the greater good of all, done.
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At Remix, a store specializing in vintage shoes, an absolute must for swing dancers, forgetting entirely what the young fellow in San Francisco said about conscious consumerism, I run around like a star on a Hollywood set, ordering a patient saleslady to bring me all the models that catch my fancy. Before long I’m ready to purchase five pairs of shoes! Christof hits the ceiling and pulls me back to reality by convincing me that two pairs are more than enough for someone who won’t even be dancing for the rest of the year.
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– But, I sputter, hating to have my dreams interrupted by the voice of common sense, I may never, ever again be in LA!
Common sense wins the battle and two pairs of shoes are shipped to my parents’ address.
On Sunday I go to church while Christof strolls through the adjoining neighborhood to get an impression of how ordinary people live in LA.DSCN4044

Too tired to absorb any more culture, we drift through the Getty center, an impressive fortress-like building made of Italian travertine stone, surrounded by gardens of great variety, taking photos of the plants and wonderful views of the city sprawling amongst the desert mountains with the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Wandering aimlessly through the light-filled spaces of this unusual building designed by Richard Meier and opened in 1997 after eight years of maneuvering concrete, steel, aluminum and around 1,200,000 square feet of travertine to the top of a mountain completely reshaped to accommodate the new center, we are too  jittery to look at the museum’s permanent collection.DSCN4051

Christof gets the bicycles ready for the flight in the parking lot at Venice Beach where we go for an afternoon walk and a coffee, absorbing the colorful Californian lifestyle and atmosphere before heading for the airport and our overnight flight to the Cook Islands.

Venice Beach

Venice Beach

Hearst Castle

Visiting Hearst Castle

Day 91
November 15, 2012
Today is my 52nd birthday. Christof congratulates me, apologizing that he doesn’t have a present. Every single day of this trip has been like having a birthday and Christmas rolled into one. What more could I possibly wish for?
We pack up quickly and are on the road by 8:00 a.m. because we want to be in LA tomorrow, grabbing a coffee, and what looks like a homemade cinnamon bun, at a mountaintop place. Although it’s deserted, masses of picnic tables bear testimony to an ability to cater to crowds during high season. DSCN4000From the guard rails of a look-out, we watch uncountable masses of elephant seals lying piled up on top of each other, playing and sparing, or hopping along the beach in comical seal-style. Some loners nap in solitude away from the crowds, enhancing their sleep by covering themselves in a blanket of sand with a flick of their fins.
A box of pamphlets in the parking lot asking for donations educates us. Although elephant seals have a home-base, where they breed and give birth, most of the year is spent out at sea. The pups weigh 60-80 pounds at birth, females grow to be about twelve feet long and weigh 1,800 pounds. Males can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, growing to an amazing sixteen feet!DSCN4002When road signs for Hearst Castle appear, I tell Christof that my birthday wish is to stop and visit it. He agrees. While waiting for the departure of the next tourist bus to take us up the mountain, on a winding road too narrow and unsuited for tourist traffic, we see a forty-five minute film about William Randolph Hearst’s life. His happiest childhood memories are of camping on this land with his family during summer holidays. As a ten-year-old boy, he was taken on a year long Grand Tour of Europe where his interest and passion for art was enkindled. He started a collection of Spanish and Southern European art, increasing it yearly and filling numerous warehouses with treasures.
In his fifties, he decided to build a castle on top of the mountain he had loved as a child to house and properly display his stored collection of art. He hired Julia Morgan, a forty-seven-year-old architect from San Francisco, to plan and design it.

Randolf Hearst with Julia Morgan

Randolf Hearst with Julia Morgan

Although he told her he was  building ‘a little something’, they had ample time to develop a firm partnership during the twenty-eight years it took to complete the project. Solid enough to withstand the stresses  of building, and rebuilding, no small feat since reenforced concrete was the material used to withstand earthquakes, they were united in the process of realizing a common dream for almost three decades.

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Upon completion ‘The Ranch’, as Hearst modestly called it, hosted exquisite parties graced by top Hollywood stars and prominent people of the time. Hearst loved activity. Besides riding, swimming, tennis, and pool games, guests were asked to put on impromptu theater presentations after dinner in his private theater, often with less than an hour to prepare for the performance.
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Christof found the Hearst castle appalling, an incongruent and inharmonious mixture of styles and art forms. I saw the Hearst Castle as more  than just a wealthy man’s whim. True, he inherited both money and land from his father, but how many wealthy sons go on to expand and enlarge their inheritance?
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Starting his career with the San Francisco Examiner, a failing newspaper inherited from his father, he built a massive media empire that included twenty daily newspapers and magazines; Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Harper’s Bazaar were among them. At its height, Hearst publications were read by one in four American households. He was a controversial figure, initially imitating Joseph Pulitzer’s style, known as ‘yellow journalism’ based on comic strip figures of the day. Yellow Journalism’s aim was to sell newspapers and used large frightening sensationalist headlines, pictures and cartoons, faked interviews and false information, to grasp public attention. It was more effective and successful than painstaking research and balanced reporting.

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Later Hearst used his wealth to gain the upper hand of the market, eradicating Pulitzer in the process. He lowered the price of his New York Journal to half of what Pulitzer’s The World cost, and lured away his best journalists and illustrators by offering them better salaries.
Although Hearst was a successful, if ruthless businessman, he was a political failure. He spent two million dollars running for a presidency he didn’t win. Too ambitious to fill the elected office he did win – to the House of Representatives – he simultaneously ran for both the offices of mayor and governor of New York, while managing a growing media business and was not reelected again.
He married Millicent, a show girl who gave him five sons, the daughter of a woman who ran a notorious New York brothel. Although they became estranged, the couple never divorced, and went separate ways. Hearst openly lived with another showgirl, Marion Davies, shocking and angering his contemporaries by openly flaunting accepted moral standards.
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I think that he deserves acknowledgment for the thought, resources and energies invested in building his castle. Realizing a project of this scope, taking a dream and making it reality is, in my opinion, admirable. The castle was given to the State of California when he died, and is now a State Historic Park, but the cattle ranch still belongs to the family. We had a delicious Hearst ‘hormone and antibiotic free’ hamburger for lunch.
Strong winds brought in the rains through which we drove for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The missing birthday present, still on Christof’s mind, causes him to stop at Staples so I can run in and ask if they have a Kindle Paperwhite. The new eReaders that have background lighting and a technique in which the letters are supposedly like real ink on paper are so popular they are back-ordered until Christmas. Christof hopes that in an agricultural area where reading is not a priority, there might be a chance of finding one.
The Kindles are sold out, and because I don’t want to disappoint Christof, I ask the salesman if I can buy the display model. He thinks that I can. . . until the manager appears and says the salesman doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Seeing our faces fall, he asks us which direction we are traveling in, and checking his computer finds a Staples with two Kindles 1 1/2 hours away! Unable to believe our luck, we drive straight through to Camarillo, where two Kindle Paperwhites are reserved and waiting for us.
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After checking into a Hampton Inn, we sit on the clean white duvet covers, drinking wine and eating Knäckebrot and Guacamole (who cares about crumbs in a hotel room?) while downloading books onto our new readers. Imagine, all you have to do to buy a new book is to connect to wifi, click a button that looks like a shopping cart, and once your account is set up, type in the name of book you are looking for. Most titles are available digitally. You can browse the literature you are looking at, downloading samples or if you want to purchase, one quick click on the word ‘buy’, prominently displayed under all titles, and in less than a minute the book somehow magically appears on the tiny light reader covered by a digital ribbon, a sign that the book is new and unopened. The shopping cart connects the customers directly to Amazon, the only place Kindle owners can shop.
I feel like Rip Van Winkle, waking up to a world that developed while I was asleep. As the owner of an iPad and a Kindle there is no doubt that I have finally – as a former classmate pushing me to leave ‘snail mail’ behind and to register for an email address once put it,
– ‘Gotten into the millennium’.