– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One 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!
Unfortunately 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.
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?
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.
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.
Rod 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.
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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!
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.
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.
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.