The Cook Islands: Paradise & More

“Open your third eye,” says Pa as we walk through the jungle learning about medicinal plants and the wisdom of nature. It’s my last day in the Cook Islands, and I feel very connected to this remote destination in the middle of the South Pacific. It’s uncomplicated here, and there are deep ties to ancient cultures. The Cook Islanders celebrate their heritage. They don’t try to bury it under modern conveniences. 

A sense of abundance prevails here even though you can’t easily obtain modern conveniences—packaged foods, appliances, the things we think we can’t do without. What I’m learning here in the Cook Islands is how unnecessary these can be. In this Garden of Eden, you can find an abundance of resources—coconuts, fish, free-range chickens, and a variety of plants providing sustenance and therapeutic value—everything you need to live well on these tiny islands. You discover, in fact, how little you really do need.

That’s what I see when I open my third eye.


SINCERE GRATITUDE

A rooster’s crow welcomes me as I stand on the balcony of my hotel room on my first morning in Rarotonga, the largest and most populated of the Cook Islands. I’ve just arrived, along with six other travel writers, and will be staying the first two nights at the Edgewater Resort and Spa, a large modern hotel right on the beach. 

The ocean spreads before me like a multi-colored mirror with patterns of sapphire and cerulean blue and emerald and teal green. Right in front of me, I see a sliver of a rainbow just over the horizon—a reminder that not everything needs to be complete and perfect to be beautiful.

It’s a lesson the Cook Islands will teach me over and over again. At the airport in the pre-dawn glow, the locals present me with a lei of the most fragrant flowers imaginable. Although I slept poorly on the plane, the intoxicating smell brings me to my senses, and I feel alert and ready to explore this island paradise.

After a change of clothes and a quick bite to eat at our hotel’s tiki-topped terrace overlooking the sea, I join the other writers and we head out for a bike tour. We meet a New Zealander named Dave, who owns Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours, a new business whose mission is to ensure guests “experience the authentic Rarotonga.” Dave came to the Cook Islands in search of a simple life, a place where he and his wife could raise their family in a safe, wholesome environment. The tropical climate is also pretty wonderful, Dave says, smiling. He outfits us with hybrid bikes, perfect for the various terrains, and introduces us to a local storyteller named Uncle Rua, who leads us in a heartfelt prayer before we commence our bike ride.

Cook Islanders pray a lot. Converted to Christianity by missionaries who arrived in the 1800s, they embrace the Christian faith with zeal, mingling it with their own traditions. Everyone visiting the Cooks should try to attend a church service, I’m told, but my itinerary is too packed to fit it in. No matter. Every time we turn around we hear a prayer: before bike rides, meals, tours, and even traditional performances. There’s no proselytizing: just an expression of sincere gratitude to the Creator for the bountiful world we live in and the good people we share it with. Being thankful for all of life’s gifts is yet another lesson the Cook Islands is teaching me. 

We bike along an ancient coral road surrounded by soaring palm trees and lush, verdant tropical plants. Green mountains define the horizon. We stop for a water break and learn about the flora and fauna on Rarotonga. Uncle Rua points out native plants— passion fruit, cassava, pineapples, oranges, breadfruit, star fruit, bananas, bay leaves—and shares legends of the Maori culture, such as the origin of the coconut tree involving a beautiful woman and an eel. 

If you want to find out more, you have to come to the Cook Islands. Storytelling is an important part of their heritage, and the Islanders believe their stories belong to them and should only be told by them. That said, the next time you come across a coconut, pay attention to the face on one end. You might just see an eel staring back at you!

After our two-hour bike ride, we rest beside a peaceful blue-green lagoon and enjoy a picnic under swaying palm trees. The breeze from the ocean is strong, but feels refreshing, just like the cool coconut water we drink with straws straight from coconuts. Lunch features delicious curried fish, spinach, rice, and taro root, a starchy staple here in the Cook Islands. In the distance I see the rim of fossilized coral that acts as a barrier between the lagoon and the Pacific Ocean, keeping the strong currents and waves from eroding this island paradise. 

In the afternoon I doze on the beach in the shade of a palm tree next to my room at the Edgewater. I can’t resist sifting the superfine white sand—silky and warm from the afternoon sun—through my fingers. Normally I get bored lying on the beach, but thanks to my jet lag, I’m too tired to get bored and happy just to rest here, eyes closed, listening to the palm fronds swish overhead and happy guests swimming and snorkeling nearby. 

In the evening I join a Progressive Dining Tour, offering a glimpse of island life. Instead of eating at a variety of restaurants, we visit the homes of three families, who share native dishes with us and let us peek into their worlds. In each home, prayers are offered before we eat, a reminder that gratitude is an inherent part of daily life. At the first house, we enjoy an amazing ceviche: big hunks of albacore tuna, “cooked” in a lemon marinade and served in creamy coconut milk with diced tomato and spring onions. 

At the next stop, an amazing buffet of food awaits, but before we eat, the matriarch of the family tells a few stories about her husband, whom she calls the “houseboy,” and her relatives, who come to visit “in abundance.” No wonder. We feast on a chicken and pumpkin dish, more tuna, taro fries, cassava fries, and a green salad. At the last home we visit, a variety of desserts is served, but most of us can barely eat any more—plus jet lag is seriously kicking in. 

On the bus ride back to the hotel, our guide plays the ukulele and sings old favorites like “Your Cheating Heart” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” as well as Cook Island folk songs. I sleepwalk upstairs and fall into my comfy bed.

 

TREE OF LIFE

On our second day in Rarotonga, we take a lagoon tour on a glass-bottomed boat, which includes snorkeling and a BBQ lunch on a nearby island. It’s windy on the water and visibility isn’t ideal for snorkeling, but we manage to see a few colorful tropical fish. Back in the boat, we wrap ourselves in towels for the short ride to the island, where a warm sandy beach awaits on the leeward side. 

While lunch is prepared, we meet a champion coconut picker. Coconut picking, by the way, involves climbing an extremely tall coconut palm tree, using your bare feet and hands. The young man demonstrates his skill for us with a rope coil around his ankles—picture a figure 8—and a piece of rope in his hands that helps to hoist him up. He literally jumps up the tree. It’s amazing. He demonstrates slowly and then invites us to videotape him mounting a tree at full speed. We barely get our cameras ready before he’s up and down the tree in seconds. We drop our jaws in amazement. 

After his daring ascent, our champion sits down with five coconuts beside him and—somewhat out of breath—tells us that in the Cook Islands the coconut tree is known as the tree of life. Coconuts are extremely important to the Islanders’ survival and furnish water, meat, oil, and medicinal value. The five coconuts beside him represent different stages—from young coconuts, which contain the most water, to old ones characterized by a large sprout, the birth of a new coconut tree. In between, there are stages ideal for enjoying the meat as well as harvesting coconut oil. He walks among us, squeezing oil from grated coconuts over our arms. It feels rich and luscious on my skin.

Lunch is soon ready, and after a prayer of thanks, we dig into lovely grilled fish, rice, and salads. We dine at picnic tables under the blue sky, surrounded by postcard-perfect views.  After lunch we loll on the beach before the boat takes us back to the main island and the bus waiting to return us to the Edgewater. 

That evening we are treated to the Te Vara Nui Dinner and Island Night Show, a spectacle featuring grass-skirted dancers, colorful costumes, music, and chanting. The highlight of the performance is the reenactment of a conflict between warring tribes, settled when one tribal leader offers the hand of his daughter in marriage to the opposing leader. It’s a good example of how to resolve conflicts and a lesson in how giving away something that’s precious to us can bring abundance into our lives. My third eye opens wider, it seems, the longer I am here in the Cook Islands.

 

A NEW PERSPECTIVE

In the morning we learn about the navigational skills of the Polynesian ancestors of the Cook Islanders, who made their way to these tiny islands in the vast Pacific Ocean using celestial navigation. We’re on board a vaka—a wooden vessel with two canoe-like hulls—called the Marumaru Atua, which means “under the protection of God” in Maori. We meet Tua Pittman, a navigational expert and member of the Cook Island Voyaging Society. He’s one of a handful of Pacific Islanders who can steer by the stars, using the methods of their ancestors.

Tua shows us a giant compass rose embedded in the floor of the vaka which depicts not only the four directions—north, east, south, and west—but also words in their native language that mean whisper, bird, empty, home, and sun. These concepts are integral to the navigators’ ability to use the stars, wind, even animal patterns—which direction birds fly at a certain time of day, for example—to find their way to wherever they are going.  

In 2012 and 2013, this vaka embarked on a two-year voyage, using celestial navigation to plot their progress. The crew visited San Francisco, L.A., San Diego, and Mexico, bringing awareness about the Pacific Island culture to others. Soon a film called Our Blue Canoe about the voyage will be released, Tua says. 

Tourists can take a mini-voyage on the vaka or join a “Navigation at Night” event and learn about celestial navigation. There’s no time for us to do either, unfortunately, but I’m glad to know that people like Tua Pittman are keeping traditions like these alive. As we leave, Tua says we have given some of our power to the vaka just by coming aboard and touching it. Likewise, he says, “You leave a little of your spirit, your story behind.”

Isn’t that true of everyday life as well? We share our energy, our power with those we meet each day, and when we interact with others, we are leaving something behind of ourselves. If you think about life this way and see your interactions with people—friends and strangers alike—as opportunities to spread the best of what’s within you and tap into the best of what’s in others, it’s like seeing the world with a new perspective—perhaps seeing through your third eye. 

My adventures in the Cook Islands continue next month.

Air New Zealand flies nonstop to the Cooks weekly from LAX. The Cooks are on our side of the international date line. For more information about visiting the Cook Islands, go to www.paradiseincookislands.com

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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