Kia Orana from the Cook Islands!
My suspicion that I am, in fact, the luckiest girl in the world was confirmed this fall, when I was invited to go on the Carleton Studio Art study abroad trip to the South Pacific. I studied Biology in Australia last winter (or, as we call it down here, "summer"), and had an amazing time. To be able to come back to this part of the world, this time visiting the Cook Islands and New Zealand in addition to Australia, is an unbelievable treat.
And so just a year after I struggled to write a first blog post from down under that encapsulated my experiences in a very different world, I'm having a bit of deja vu.
Where to start, where to start... well, first, let's talk about the island of Rarotonga. The Cook Islands is comprised of 15 distinct islands, of which Rarotonga is the largest and contains the nation's capitol city, Avarua. Rarotonga also has the largest population of any of the islands - nearly 75% of Cook Islanders call Rarotonga home.
But here's the catch:
When I first searched "Rarotonga," Google Maps actually asked me if something was missing.
No, Google Maps, nothing's missing. That's just the island. There's just not much there.
Those 75% of Cook Islanders who live on Rarotonga? They amount to a whopping 13,095 individuals. That's about 50% smaller than Northfield, and Northfield isn't exactly a booming metropolis.
What about these other 14 islands, you might ask? Well, in order of most populated to least populated, there's Aitutaki (population ~2,000), Mangaia (pop. ~700), Atiu (pop. ~570), Pukapuka (pop. "less than 500"), Mauke (pop. ~300), Manihiki (pop. ~280), Mitiaro (pop. ~220), Penrhyn (pop. ~200), Rakahanga (pop. ~127), Palmerston Island (pop. ~50), and Suwarrow (pop. 1 - yes, one). The rest are uninhabited.
Rarotonga essentially has two roads - the outer circle, which extends all the way around the island, and the inner circle, which is a somewhat spotty frontage road. There's a public bus on the island that runs two routes - clockwise and counterclockwise. The interior of the island is densely forested mountains, skirted by some fruit farms.
Okay, so I think I've established the fact that the Cook Islands are small. But when you finally break through the clouds on your descent after a 9 hour plane ride, the magnificence of the place is most overwhelming. The direct flight from Los Angeles to Rarotonga is a cruel trick of time and space, as the two places could not possibly be more different. When the last land you see is the overcrowded, built-up, smog-coated area around LAX, finding yourself among at the mountainous jungles that slide gently into plots of tropical fruit trees and finally into coral reefs at the break of dawn is sort of how I would passing out of London, through the wardrobe, and into Narnia.
We arrived on Rarotonga somewhere around 6am, but it's difficult to be sleepy when you're just arriving in Narnia. After we walked off the airplane and across the tarmac, we entered what was, essentially, a one room airport. Departures and arrivals door, gate area, baggage claim, customs - just like a miniature US airport, except all in one place and at this one, we were met by a man singing and playing the guitar. A truly glorious thing to wake up to. Our bus arrived to take us to our lodging for the week, and the bus driver gave us each a fresh, handmade, fragrant lei. Clare was pretty excited about it:
We spent the week at the Paradise Inn. Quick warning: those of you who are somewhere where it's 4°F right now (like, say Northfield), beware. The following images may provoke a deep jealousy. The Paradise Inn was, well... paradise. We lived in 3-4 person apartments, cooked our own food most of the time, enjoyed being just about as close to the ocean as possible.
The Paradise Inn from the beach:
The beach from the Paradise Inn:
People doing... erm... "school" on the deck (drawing):
We arrived on Rarotonga on New Year's Eve. Cook Islanders have an unusual several-day-long New Year's holiday, during which time none of the businesses or stores are open. I couldn't quite figure out what people did during that time, because the road was always busy with cars and scooters. Perhaps they were visiting beaches and relatives and friends, or perhaps they were just zipping in circles around the island until they got dizzy. Either way, the fact that shops were closed gave us lots of time to walk, hike, draw, and explore the area. I had an inkling beforehand, but when shops started to open on January 3rd and 4th, I realized I really liked Rarotonga. There seemed to be an oddly comfortable interaction between tourists and locals. The Cook Islands have no large-scale exports and no real economy besides tourism, and yet I felt particularly untouristlike there. The locals I met went out of their way to me feel welcome and comfortable, to share their culture with me, and to learn about my culture. Even though their whole economy is geared towards tourism, there aren't any huge, super fancy resorts on the island*. I heard that Rarotongans struggle financially, but I found it interesting that I didn't see any obvious human signs of a failing economy. People seemed friendly and happy. The streets were fairly clean, but not so clean that it felt like they were putting on a front for tourists. Comfortably clean.
Movie theater in the capitol city, Avarua:
Speaking of the streets. One of my favorite things about the island were the wandering dogs, cats, chickens and pigs. A dog followed us on a hike that led us across the island, through a couple creeks, and over a mountain, just because it seemed like he liked hiking and liked the company. It's really interesting - because Rarotonga is so small and because it's something of a closed population, there has actually developed a whole phenotype of mutt that is unique to Rarotonga: short legs, short snout, and kind, gentle personality. Few dogs are actually stray (most have people who take care of them), but without fences or leashes, the dogs seem to live in a state of "pleasant anarchy". I never seemed to have my camera ready when these short-legged "Raro dogs" were around, so here's a picture elsewhere on the internet.
A friendly neighborhood fowl family:
Why yes, there were pigs eating coconut on our beach:
What with all the flying into Narnia, living at the Paradise Inn, and following chickens around town, sometimes I forget that I'm actually in school. In fact, we're taking three classes (the same number as we would have had we been at Carleton), and receiving 18 academic credits this term. We're enrolled in a drawing class, a printmaking class, and a cultural studies class. The printmaking class happens only when we're in Auckland, NZ and Melbourne, AUS when we have access to printmaking studios, but the drawing class and the cultural studies class are ongoing. Because we're in "school", we sometimes have these things that sort of resemble classes. Let me illustrate by walking you through a couple days on the island.
We often began our days with an optional early morning snorkel on the reef, followed by breakfast and a figure drawing sessions. This consisted of all 26 of us sitting in a circle on the deck of the Paradise Inn. Each of us would model for a minute or so while the rest of the group sketched us using pens, brush pens, ink or watercolor. I'm not very good at figure drawing and I find it a bit stressful in the moment, but because we're doing it almost every day, I feel like it can only go uphill from here. It's truly amazing what some people on the trip can produce in sixty seconds.
On one specific day, I packed up a lunch (cheese and avocado sandwich with a passionfruit on the side - no complaints) and a group of us headed out to Muri beach, a popular beach that overlooks several small islands. Annika and I decided to wade across the water to one of these small islands. It was high tide, and at some points the water came up to our chins, but we survived.
We a few hours on that island, drawing palm trees and beaches and the mountains on the main island:
The mainland from the small island:
A couple dog friends. The whole time we were there drawing, these dogs were running around the island, playing, exploring, chasing each other, swimming... it just looked like they were the best of friends, out for a day of fun on the island:
A "pebble" beach made entirely out of bits of coral:
One day, we took a cross-island hike with a local guide named Pa. Pa grew up climbing the mountains of Rarotonga and said he's done the steep hike over the mountains 4,280 times (yes, he counted). At one point in his life, he was a marathon swimmer and won numerous long-distance swimming records. His current wife even wrote a children's book about him entitled "Pa and the Dolphins". Now, he's 72 years old, still takes long ocean swims every day, runs the cross-island trail once a month to stay in shape, and hiked with us barefoot. I wouldn't mind being in that good shape when I'm 72.
Ferns and fern-like things on the hike:
"Bad dog", who followed us (from a safe distance) all the way across the island, even though he wasn't supposed to. Perhaps he should be called "guilty dog" instead?
We also had the tremendous opportunity to meet with some of the best artists on the Island.
Learning from Virara, an expert tivaevae maker:
In a session on drawing figures in motion, led by Judith Kunzlé. Judith is an artist who specializes in drawing Rarotongan dancers, and she had us draw these two dancers while they were dancing. I had already been feeling rushed when our models only held still for a minute, but these people never stood still! It was challenging, but it was pretty amazing to see how much my understanding of human movement improved in the hour and a half we were there. Here, portrait drawing:
My final big adventure for the week was supposed to be a bike ride all the way around the island. However, we encountered a few hurdles along the way. First, the company that rented bikes only had six: two suburban cruiser-style bikes, two mountain bikes, and two electric bikes. "Okay," the five of us said, "we'll take what you've got" (riding on the electric bike turned out to be one of the scarier things I've done). Second, it took the rental company a full hour to process the paperwork for us to rent bikes. "Okay," we thought, "we're in no rush, we just have to be back for dinner at 6:30". Then we encountered the third problem: the rental shop closed at four. Since it was after two when we finally succeeded in renting the bikes, our hopes for circumnavigating the island were shot. And so we set off for a less big, but quite lovely adventure.
Ride through the countryside?
Oh, hello cow:
We dropped off our bikes at four, but still had a few things we wanted to do. First, we had heard rumors of delicious "chips" made from island roots and fruits. Although I don't remember what exactly it was we were eating, and although Holly's facial expressions while eating the mystery fries may be ambiguous, they were actually quite tasty.
The "chips" were followed by some hammock drawing...
And some hammock relaxing...
And, naturally, a gigantic sundae topped with fresh, locally grown papaya ("paw paw") and watermelon.
And so, there it was. My first rambling, overreaching attempt to record my southern hemisphere adventures and share them with you. I've been in Auckland, New Zealand for the past week and a half, so a (hopefully shorter, more concise) blog about that will follow! But for now, I'll leave you with a hibiscus flower, some waves, and a Rarotongan beach.
*This is not entirely true. There is the physical structure of a Sheraton on the South part of the Island, but in the 26-odd years since the building was erected, no guest has ever stayed there. The story, in brief: In 1987, the Cook Islands government signed a $52 million deal with an Italian bank to build a five-star hotel on Rarotonga. The Italian government insured the deal and an Italian contractor was 80% finished with the project in the early 1990s when then went broke. What happened to the hotel in the following years is a most exciting story (the full of it which can be read here: http://www.lostresorts.com/?p=598), complete with land claims by local tribes, embezzlement, fraud, and the Italian mafia. Stories don't get much better than that.