Sunday, February 28, 2016

Restful Days in Rarotonga

Rarotonga, about a 10-hour flight from Los Angeles, is the capital of the Cook Islands and the largest of the 15 islands that make up the nation. A self-administered territory of New Zealand, the Cook Islands use the New Zealand dollar, although coins are minted that are unique to these beautiful islands.

Taken from the deck in front of the swimming pool at the cottage we stayed in.

Just down the breach from us.

We liked Rarotonga. The island is not large: you can ride a bike around it in about 3 hours. Of the 13,000 people in the Cook Islands, 10,000 live on Rarotonga. A few islands are very remote, with supply ships reaching them only every two or three months.

Some guidebooks have described the island as “like Hawaii used to be,” and it does have the flavor one associates with a Polynesian land—coconut palms, sandy beaches, lush vegetation, and friendly people.  More than 18 international flights land on Rarotonga every week, but there are fewer tourists here than in either Fiji or Tahiti. 

The island has no stop lights, and scooters are the preferred mode of transportation for locals (including entire families on one bike) as well as for tourists. The two buses that circumnavigate the island are labeled (sensibly enough) Clockwise and Anti-Clockwise. We bought a 10-ticket pass for the bus, which served us for the week.

The little cottage we stayed in at Manea Beach Villas was just about perfect for our needs. Simply furnished with wicker furniture, it had a bedroom with air-conditioning, a small, but efficient, kitchen, and a deck overlooking the pool and the lagoon beyond.

­­We were within walking distance of two small grocery stores and the wifi store. Wifi was very expensive ($19 NZ for 200 megabytes, about $12 USD), but we realized that we were lucky to have Internet access at all, given how far we were from any mainland. 

 The view from our deck made it a favorite spot for relaxing.

 Our cottage was right behind the boat house.

While the lagoon lay just beyond the pool.

We had a TV with two channels,­­­­ one in the Maori language. One channel was from New Zealand, but I couldn’t tell if the Maori channel was local or also from New Zealand. (The Maori languages in both places are similar, which is not surprising, since the original inhabitants of New Zealand came from the Cook Islands.)

One day, when I was trying to tune in the TV looking for news, the rabbit ears fell off and one broke. I reported this to Rachel, the manager. “Did you notice any difference when it broke off?,” she asked. “Well, no, I can’t say that the picture was any better or any worse,” I said. “Welcome to our world,” she replied.­­­­­­­­­­­  (I simply propped the rabbit ear against the wall, and I was never charged.)

We spent our days mostly lazing around the cottage.  I snorkeled in the lagoon and swam in the pool. We read a lot and guarded our rapidly depleting megabytes of Internet usage. I had wanted to finish my blog entries for Morocco, which I had failed to complete at home, because I was sick when we were there for the holidays. But in Rarotonga, both the cost and weak signal kept me from making any blog posts, forcing me to relax. 

And why not, when we had the lagoon to explore?  We could walk over to the motus (small islets) when the tide was low.

We enjoyed our brief forays into town, where everyone was friendly. 

The other tourists were mostly New Zealanders and Canadians. We had some good chats with the Canadians, including one woman, slightly older than I, who said she was thrilled that Justin Trudeau had been elected the new Canadian prime minister. She said, “We saw him grow up. And most of the women my age think of him almost as a grandson.”

I loved the fact that while there are a few large hotel complexes, there aren’t many.  Even the larger ones are nestled into the vegetation, and none is taller than the coconut palms.  Many resorts are small mom-and-pop operations, like ours, which had only about six cottages.

We sampled the local cuisine very cheaply. Four nights a week there was a night market just down the road from us, where we could buy local specialties from the stands.  Mostly, they were dishes of fish, chicken, or pork with rice or couscous, but most were quite good. Kevin even made a friend.

Flowers were everywhere—lining the roads, and in the hair of the local women.  It seemed to be the local style, not something done just for tourists.

In town, we visited two sad little museums, one a local one associated with the library, and the other, which we think was a state-sponsored museum. Both were sad little places with not many exhibits, because the best artifacts from the Cook Islands are in the British Museum or elsewhere. But a talk with a woman (the director?) at one museum explained that Rarotonga does not have the money to properly care for rare pieces (humidity control, for instance). She told us about one of the newer exhibits that featured modern fashions using traditional materials. The prize-winning costume had been financed by a grandfather, who was born in Rarotonga. Yet he had wanted the costume to be exhibited in Papua New Guinea, because he knew the facilities there could preserve it.

While we appreciated the charm of Rarotonga, we were also aware that times are often tough for the local people. The community is small, and they help each other, but jobs can be hard to get, and the profits from the resorts, especially the larger ones, go primarily to New Zealand and Australia, where the investors live.

Rarotonga faces another problem.  In the last few years, it has been battling an algae bloom in its lagoon, and if that issue isn’t solved soon, tourism will rapidly decline. The algae, which is like a seaweed that attaches to the bottom of the lagoon, is all around the island.  It is caused by sewage effluent flowing into the lagoon and, I think, is exacerbated by warming waters. The officials have threatened to shut down some resorts by April, if they don’t bring their septic systems into compliance with the law. Also, owners have been told to remove some old fish traps that have kept the lagoon from flushing with the tides. 

In spite of the difficulties, everyone in Rarotonga hastened to add that the lagoon was safe to swim in, and the water that is not affected by the algae is crystal clear. But the need to snorkel around the bloom detracted from the beauty. (The dark patches in the water are algae.)

We did not go to Aitutaki, an island about a 50-minute flight from Rarotonga, which still has a pristine lagoon.  With fewer tourists and little infrastructure, it is said to be the remote island paradise of one’s dreams. But it would have added significantly to our costs to make that excursion, so we decided to stay on Rarotonga.

We hope Rarotonga can solve its algae problems. It should be possible. After all, our own Lake Washington in Seattle was once so dirty that swimming was unsafe and its fish were dying. It was the first large lake in the U.S. to be reclaimed from pollution. So Kevin and I will hope for the best for Rarotonga. We liked its people, its beauty, and it’s lack of glitz. We savored its laid-back lifestyle, including the goats--and the stray dogs and chickens who paid us daily visits.

 A beautiful spot. Don't you agree?

Addition:  We were amused that the blast zone where the jet-wind from takeoffs is at its highest is marked on a map of Rarotonga as a fun place to be! (See center top of map.)

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