French customs officers checked my passport in Papeete International Airport and eyed me curiously. My entry stamp was from Nuku Hiva, a Marquesan island, from almost three months prior, indicating I was not your average tourist. “You only have three days left on your visa,” the hunky tattooed officer informed me, “Yes, I know.” “Are you planning on coming back to French Polynesia anytime soon?” he inquired, “Yes, in a few weeks, I am sailing from here onwards to Tonga and New Zealand, with friends” I responded, calmly. After a few more questions he let me leave French Polynesia to board my flight to Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Island group.
I gazed at Moorea outside the Air Tahiti airplane window. She looked surreal, an imagined paradise, her peaks jutted skyward like water jumping up in spires when you place an extra strong bass speaker nearby. Deep emerald green ringed with white sand, luminous turquoise shallow water and crashing waves on the outer reef, all surrounded by endless sea, in all directions, dimpled like a hammered copper pot.
It was strange flying over the sea instead of sailing it, in just a few hours I crossed ocean that would take over a week to sail later on.
I hand’t researched Rarotonga more than the bare necessities—where to stay, what language to speak, tourist visa length. I needed to pause my French Polynesia visa so I could rejoin my friends on SV Zephyr in a few weeks and sail with them from Tahiti to Tonga. Rarotonga was recommended to me by Captain Liz Clark, a badass lady sailor who I trusted to give me good advice.
Cozy tropical air welcomed me as I walked down the airplane steps to the tarmac. Rarotonga is a few miles around, with one main road circling the perimeter, the center dominated by lush rugged mountain ridges. That much I could tell from the air.
A solo ukulele performer crooned to folks as we waited in the customs line in the clean but aged terminal. The customs officer spoke in New Zealand accented English, asked for my proof of a plane ticket off the island and stamped my passport. Outside the airport, I took out New Zealand cash from the ATM. I came to learn that the Cook Islands form a sovereign nation, but have a close relationship with New Zealand. They use New Zealand currency and Cook Island citizens are allowed to work and live in New Zealand without applying for a visa. However, New Zealand citizens still need to apply to live and work in the Cook Islands.
I booked a fourteen night stay at Rarotonga Backpacker’s, a fifteen minute taxi ride from the airport, going counter clockwise on the main road. The taxi driver explained that city buses run clockwise and counter clockwise, seven days a week, there are no stop lights, you just wave down the bus and they pull over to pick you up. Oh also, it is a left side driving country, the opposite of the US. I love surprises!
The hostel was a series of beach cabins centered around a raised pool, surrounded by a wood deck that joined a central building with co-ed dorms, bathrooms and a shared kitchen. It wasn’t cozy, but more or less clean, save the odd mouse running under the refrigerator. I flip flop stomped one and tossed it outside for the cats, my co-backpackers were a mix of horrified and impressed at my can-do mouse extermination attitude. You can take the girl off the farm…
Hammocks hung below the raised beachside cottages and looked out over the inner lagoon reef and the crashing waves on the nearby outer reef. It was lovely, and for $15 USD a night for the dorm, an excellent deal.
Most of my hostel-mates were visiting from New Zealand. Many were originally from other countries—Canada, Chile, Argentina, Spain, Israel, the US, the UK, Ireland—and were on vacation from their working holiday visa life in New Zealand. It was an unexpected bonus—I learned a ton from talking with them about New Zealand life, two women worked in an apple orchard and pack house, another in a kiwi picking operation.
Also, friendship! A group of young British women doctors-in-training were placed at the Rarotonga hospital for the summer and lived at the hostel. Then there was a friendly Kiwi family made up of a mom and her three sons from 18 to 25 years old. The boys were usually bouncing off the walls, or doing flips, and always invited everyone to come along on a hike or any kind of “mish” aka mission. They were an incredible resource to dive into Kiwi slang. They also had a rental car, which was a faster way to get around versus hitchhiking or waiting for the bus that didn’t follow a schedule.
Tessa, a recent undergrad from Colorado, found a soft spot in my heart. She was quiet, a writer I found out, and doing some soul searching. I fed her nourishing food and listened to her when she wanted to talk. I love growing the sisterhood.
We all hiked up the Raemaru trail behind the hostel, which tucked into thick tropical forest after well-kept family plots ended at the mountain’s feet. The path opened onto steep crest line paths, red velvet soil cushioned our feet and ferns cascaded down the thousand foot precipice face to one side. I try to find a high point when exploring a new place, it makes me feel settled, able to internalize where I am more fully. Like a cat exploring every inch of their new house.
A rock wall stopped our progress. Thick ropes hung down from above and U shaped metal rods sprinkled the face. I secured my backpack and started up, my heart pounding, but encouraged on by the rambunctious Kiwi boys who hadn’t missed a beat. There was no room for mistakes, the mountain edge fell off into the lush abyss. Tiny homes clustered at Rarotonga’s skirt edge with the ocean filling in the dance floor in all directions, meeting the blue sky stamped with puffy white clouds.
After the ropes ended, I tiptoed along the foot-wide path and grabbed onto tree trunks and roots to clamber up to the slanted mountaintop clearing. We took pictures along the expansive lookouts and walked up to the highest point on the large, fern covered meadow. Delicate wild purple orchids popped up along the path and led us to a bare spot, we felt the wind all around us and gazed on the neighboring architectural peaks glowing in the late afternoon sun. This was a special place, one I promised myself I’d return to alone later on.
As a crew we did two other hikes, the Cross Island and the Ikurangi trails. Both were full of red mud slippery steep butt slides, white knuckle rope climbs, ridge walking with thousand foot drops on either side and lush tropical beauty. The Kiwi boys hid in the trees ahead of us, making realistic monkey noises and kept up their funny slang banter the whole time. It was awesome to have friends encourage me to adventure where I’d be too afraid to go on my own.
Of course, everyone wanted to check out the bars and clubs in town. I’d gone out a sum total of one time in the last few months, to a club in Papeete, and was not eager to join. In the name of team spirit though, I dug out a skirt from the bottom of my backpack and hitchhiked with the hostel crew to start at the Hula Bar, across from the airport. It was mellow, with some danceable music, and cute local guys, super groomed and wearing beautiful tailored tropical shirts and linen shorts. I felt entirely underdressed and less than groomed, but danced well enough to catch a few glances. More importantly, I made my new Canadian lady friends cry-laugh with my non-stop Polynesian style hip moves.
We walked towards another club and hitched a ride with local folks who were just starting a 24 hour celebration for their friend’s 21st birthday. This club had a big fog filled stage and sloppy drunk Australians. I danced half-heartedly and longingly looked next door at the neighboring bar, where the locals had recommended we go, but due to group logistics we didn’t. All in all, not a bad night and it was fun to dance with new friends. I’m still getting used to sober club-going.
Back at the hostel though, I jumped into the pool naked, scaring the very polite and very British doctor women. The Kiwi guys didn’t seem to mind—I’d given up caring about being naked in front of strangers after my carefree time on the rainbow boat in the Tuamotus. Why deal with a wet bathing suit when you don’t have to?
More fun, by leagues, was the night when all the women hung around the dining table and chatted for hours, snacking on chocolate and fruit. We were honored to witness geckos mating on the ceiling above us and we live narrated the event, crying from belly laughter.
I got into my healthy routines, cooking vegetables, working out or doing yoga daily, hiking. I spent hours each day in the beach hammocks reading Blue Latitudes, a great book that Eric lent me about Captain Cook’s voyages through the South Pacific and beyond. It was perfect reading about places I’d been and about places I would visit, learning about their history in a way that sticks for me.
On Saturday, I woke up at sunrise to catch the bus and shop the weekly farmers’ market in town. Mostly women vendors displayed their farm harvests: giant taro leaves and roots, drinking coconuts, glowing orange turmeric root, ginger root, white and green bok choys, nubby bitter melon, okra, pumpkins, bulging star fruit, avocados, oranges, mandarins, limes, all sizes of papaya, long beans, small bananas, large bananas, tomatoes, lettuce, passionfruit and soursop. Alongside the fresh produce they displayed stacks of plastic to-go containers filled with local delicacies: purple and orange banana and pumpkin poke (sweet tapioca cake cubes smothered in fresh coconut cream), banana tapioca pancakes, curry chicken filled roti, boiled taro with steamed river shrimp, ike mata (raw fish ceviche with coconut milk), braised pork neck with rice, pineapple lemon meringue pie, sea snails in fermented grated coconut and onion (mitiore ariri) and slow roasted taro leaf packets full of unctuous coconut cream.
I walked to the corner shack where local folks dug their fingers into hot grilled whole flying fish swimming in fresh coconut milk, lime juice and chilies, with steaming golden cassava root to soak all the goodness up. We tried to harpoon flying fish on two unsuccessful hunting missions in the Tuamotus and I was excited to finally taste this elusive treat. “We don’t have any left,” said the man at the grill, who was turning fifteen fat fish in front of him. He pointed at the man in front of me and said that he had ordered a lot. “What time do I need to come next time?” I asked, “5:30 in the morning,” he replied. I put it in my mental calendar for next week.
The main town near the market has a mix of local and tourist necessities, law firms and newspaper headquarters next to souvenir and scooter rental shops. I beelined for the internet provider customer service desk—I’d already blown through way too many gigs on my phone and it was expensive here. Come to find out, all the internet comes through satellite—no wonder. I hardly used it for the rest of my trip, which helped me be more present anyhow.
When I did use the internet, I used it well. After two weeks at the hostel, I was ready to explore another part of the island and ideally with locals. Backpackers are fun and interesting, but then your friends leave and new people come—a similar get to know you cycle repeats.
Luckily, Sam responded to my CouchSurfing request. I’ve had decent luck with the online community network of international hosts, staying with folks across the US on my solo road trips. Sam happened to be the captain of the local traditional voyaging canoe in Rarotonga. I told him about my sailing trip and he welcomed me to stay with him and his black cat Biggie for a week and to sail with his crew!
Sam is of mixed Polynesian ancestry, including Samoan, New Zealand Maori and Cook Islander. He is classic Polynesian big too, tall and strong thick, with dark brown skin and straight shiny black hair pulled back into a ponytail or twisted into a bun. He is a trained chef, worked in kitchens for many years in Europe and the UK and is an expert in traditional Polynesian cuisine. I’d say he is around middle aged, his face shows the hard earned wisdom gained about the difficult and beautiful ways of the world. Biggie, his mink-pelted, British blue black cat, is sassy and curious, rarely cuddly, a good cat. Even when she jumped on me at night from the window ledge in my upstairs loft room. Still a good cat.
Marumaru Atua is a 72 foot long fiberglass hulled and wood everything else traditional voyaging canoe or vaka. Remember the boats in Moana? Like that. She is a catamaran with two identical hulls and triangular sails painted with a round bold Polynesian design. She elegantly floated at her mooring in a calm nook in the turquoise Muri lagoon on the southern edge of Rarotonga. Turns out this is the very lagoon that ancient Polynesians gathered in to sail together to the new frontier of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Boats from across greater Polynesia met here and brought giant rocks from their islands as gifts to Rarotonga islanders. Those rocks still sit up in the hills. And voyaging canoes still travel with special rocks from their home islands to give as gifts to islands they visit.
Sam invited me to join the weekly crew training day, so I sat on the fancy wood dock in the lagoon to wait for my ride out to Marumaru Atua. The dock displayed a small shiny plaque indicating that it was a gift from the government of Japan. Japan fills local government coffers and plies that influence to, among other things, secure fishing rights in Cook Islands waters. Their industrial fishing operations have already depleted stocks in the region, local fishermen explained to me as they set off from the dock. They invited me to fish with them the next morning.
A tall, athletic and affable young guy walked up to greet me in rugby shorts and a tank top, or singlets as folks call them here. His traditional Cook Islander intricate necklace tattoo balanced his masculine stature with its fierce femininity. He took off his sporty sunglasses to reveal handsome diamond blue eyes, the old soul kind. Meet Alex, a Cook Islander, voyaging canoe sailor, dad and kind hearted jokester. We walked over to the shore and Sam dinghyed over to pick us up.
Up close, Marumaru Atua glowed. She had freshly oiled dark wood decks, shiny varnished wood mast and booms, wood railings inlaid with abalone shell and intricate carvings on the bowsprits and across the helm platform. All of the rigging is made from line (rope) with no steel shrouds to keep the two masts up. A net spans the distance between the two front hulls, and a round central cabin pops up from the otherwise exposed deck. Inside the cabin is a shiny new stove, electronic navigational equipment and a chart table. She looks brand new, and that’s because she is, more or less.
An arsonist set fire to this beautiful vaka in 2017 while she was docked in Rarotonga’s main town. The Cook Islands Voyaging Society rallied together and secured a quarter of a million dollar donation from the Cook Islands government and a donation from the shipping company Matson to ship the boat to New Zealand for a complete restoration. Only a few months ago, she sailed back to Rarotonga. So it was a huge honor to be invited to sail with the crew who’d just switched from fundraising and rebuilding mode to sailing her again.
I stood back and observed the crew getting the boat ready to sail—they hoisted the booms, pulled the sails out laterally and closed the boom vertically to touch the mast. Totally different than how modern sailboats work. The sailors pulled all the lines by hand, with no mechanical winches, no mechanical advantage, just human powered.
Sam divided the ten odd crew into teams to rotate through tasks. I tied a few proper knots so they let me on a team. I watched, learned and stepped in when I was asked to help.
This vaka has an engine, which makes the difficult exit through the narrow lagoon pass achievable even when a large swell crashes over each side of the natural coral break. Crew members posted themselves along both hulls to point at the reef edge so the navigator could give directional hand signals to the person at the tiller. Right, so there is no steering wheel, instead there’s a large wood tiller—you use your whole body to lean against it at times to stay on course. At the end of the tiller is a paddle that you can shift up or down into the sea depending on what you want the boat to do. And what the sea and your body will let you do.
After we cleared the pass and headed into open ocean they gave me a chance to steer. I tried it for a while and my face couldn’t hide the effort involved, captain Sam asked “Is it hard to steer?” looking at me surprised, because the seas were calm and the wind light. “It is for me,” I answered, and crew came over to teach me how to better position my body and how you can sit down on the tiller at times to lift it out of the water, only getting up again to correct the course.
Charlie, a smiley, twinkly blue green eyed schoolteacher and lady sailor hung out with me while we crewed. She moved back to Rarotonga after working for a time in New Zealand, a common story for Cook Islanders who can make more money abroad. We sailed past her school which hugged the beach, lush mountains behind it and crashing sea beyond. She explained that the lifestyle here is rich, even if the wages aren’t.
After a few hours of sailing and practicing tacking, we headed home and made it through the pass again. Crystal waves magnified the reef below right before they crashed, it was like looking into an ephemeral aquarium. After we stowed the sails and tidied the lines, Numa, an artist and activist gathered us into a seated circle by the tiller to share kava, a traditional beverage made from the dried root of a pepper shrub. Intricate swirling tattoos adorned his shoulders, he smiled through freckles and his sensitive green gold eyes listened to each person as they shared their thoughts about today’s sail. We passed coconut shell bowls full of the brown drink around the seated circle. Each person drank all the bowl’s contents in one go and then passed the bowl back to Numa, who refilled it for the next person from a large wood bowl. You clap twice before you drink. My mouth tingled and went numb for a few minutes, then I felt extra mellow and chatty after a few servings. This was the right drink to encourage community building.
I sailed with the crew as many times as I could before my departure. One day, a New Zealand Maori film crew visited to shoot an episode about traditional Polynesian celestial navigation. Navigators train for years to memorize over 600 constellations and to understand how to use them in relation to the swells and weather patterns to find small islands in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Two of the young film crew had intricate Maori face tattoos, striking blueish black scroll line patterns, under and around the woman’s lips and where a full beard would be on the man. They expressed their gratitude to the Marumaru Atua crew for welcoming them back to the place where their ancestors originally departed from to discover New Zealand. This was not just a shoot for them, it was deeply meaningful for their personal and community stories.
It was a still day, with zero wind, so we snacked on massive platters of tropical fruit as they filmed on the bow. I learned that abalone shells inlaid along the railings reflect moonlight at night, straight back to the navigator’s chairs next to the tiller. There is also a large carved star compass on deck near the navigator chair. With these tools, the Marumaru Atua navigators successfully find their way, and if they get extremely off course, captain Sam tells them because he monitors the route with the boat’s modern mapping instruments.
Numa blew the pink conch shell—it sounded out like a proud, mournful, ancient animal across the sea. Magically, a few minutes later, humpback whales puffed their fishy breath skyward near the boat. Then Numa went back and forth, calling them with the shell. The film crew was ecstatic, and it was the first time for many of them to see a whale in the wild.
Per Maori tradition, the film crew gave the Marumaru Atua voyagers a gift, this time in the form of a delicious lunch at the fish restaurant on the lagoon’s edge. The crew thanked everyone individually and when the man with the Maori face tattoo came to Alex, he thanked him in the traditional Polynesian way, where both people smush their noses together, look into each other’s eyes and share each other’s breath. In that moment, I felt I’d time traveled. Alex’s smile lines deepened around his eyes, there was mutual understanding, love and brotherhood between these two men who had only known each other a few hours. It was an honor to witness.
On another sail, I met Kura, a fellow lady voyager. She is a Cook Islander, professional musician and leads reef walking tours. Her loyal black and white dog Mahi is always at her heels. She’s voyaged far and wide on this vaka and it was awesome to see her strong, feminine self at the tiller, like an old pro. Intricate, traditional tattoos swirled up her from her foot along her entire bronzed leg. We were on the same team together, and bonded as we hung onto lines, using our full combined body weight to backwind the mainsail.
Every so often on my travels I meet a woman who has an inner fire, a playfulness, who laughs, dances, and is unabashedly herself. Who speaks her truth and demands respect. Kura is one of those women and it was a total joy hanging out with her and supporting her at one of her weekly music gigs.
I walked out to the same fancy Japan funded dock one morning to meet up with Tupalea and Alfred on their snazzy 25 foot long metal fishing boat, the Vahine Koca. They invited me to join this chartered trip for free, one of many instances of classic Polynesian hospitality I’ve experienced on this adventure. Two tourist fishermen fellows joined us, and we sped out the pass, the Marumaru Atua disappeared into the distance at her protected mooring.
The guys set out eight fishing lines, all precariously close together behind the boat. Some lines dragged whole flying fish for lures, with lead weights attached to each head. It was a relatively calm day at sea, Rarotonga was still within sight, a gorgeous island alone in the vast Pacific, clouds cozied up to her peaks. After a couple of hours without a bite, all of a sudden three lines zinged out. One line crossed over the other and melted it due to friction. Alfred’s line was the only still with a fish, he slowly reeled in the giant beast over 45 minutes. Glimmering silver skin flashed near the boat, it was a yellowfin tuna. I’ve never been near a fish this big. Tupalea gaffed it and it took both strong men to haul the fish over the side of the boat. It looked to be around 130 pounds, a fat beautiful tuna. My mouth watered as they put the fish into the cooler.
Tupalea asked if I wanted to drive while they all set about putting new lures on the lines and fixing the damaged ones. He instructed me to retrace the track that we came in on and to troll under 9 knots. It was fun to drive a power boat, and it felt good to be given a responsibility.
Alfred cut up bonito they’d caught yesterday for a sashimi snack. It was silky and perfect, he explained if you rest the fish, whole, for a day it lets the muscle fibers relax. We came through a flock of seabirds and the lines started zinging. Tupalea hollered at me to get on a line and I started reeling in my fish. It was difficult! I hadn’t reeled in a fish in forever. And when I saw how small it was, maybe an arm’s length sized bonito, I laughed. I had much more appreciation for how hard Alfred had worked to bring in his giant.
The guys graciously gifted me the fish to take home, and I luckily crossed paths with Sam in the wharf parking lot. I hopped on his scooter and held the fish tail sticking out of the garbage bag on my lap, with my hair in the breeze, like a proud cat bringing home the bacon. Biggie, the actual cat, was enthused with my catch, she looked expectantly up at Sam while he filleted the fish, and got her luscious scraps in the end.
We collaborated on dinners over a few nights, making different versions of poke, coleslaws and other island veg. Then lounged on bean bags, ate chocolate and watched movies. Cats, fish, chocolate, great company, movies AND bean bags?! Thank you Sam for being the best CouchSurf host ever.
Luckily, my trip to Rarotonga coincided with their annual cultural performance week called the Maeva Nui. After watching a dance extravaganza in Papeete, I was curious to see how this performance would compare. Sam and I attended two nights, and there were excellent performances throughout both. The difference between here and Papeete was the performers had more authentic energy and talent in Rarotonga, and their friends and family were nearby cheering them on in the audience. Some of the dances brought me to tears, especially the one where the dancers told the story of how burning plastics pollutes their village’s air. Their costumes, movements and song all wove together to tell this story and at the end they rolled out a modern trash can as a way to move beyond trash pile burning. It was a heartfelt, effective way to continue the traditional art form’s purpose—to share important stories among the community. And of course there were sexy costumes, war dances and the like. But these weren’t for tourists, these were by and for the local people, who practice all year for this show.
Sam and I hitched home afterwards because he lost his scooter keys. Luckily, gorgeous Miss Cook Islands picked us up in her shiny pick up truck. It was Sam’s first time hitchhiking, and I told him its not usually beauty queens who pull over. But alas, we were in beautiful Rarotonga. Thanks Reihana!
I filled my last few days on the island with hiking, snorkeling and premium New Zealand ice cream. On a few early mornings, I hitchhiked or caught the bus to the Raemaru trailhead. Sam looked at me like I was a bit out of my mind as he made coffee and fed Biggie while I tromped off through dewy morning grass. I felt comfortable now going alone because I knew the route and the rock climb. After one night’s heavy rain, the trail was full of tiny white moths. With each step they rose around my feet, the whole way through the forest. Red spotted blue and black butterflies sucked nectar from purple flowers on the sun dappled cliffside.
There are a couple excellent snorkeling spots inside the reef in Rarotonga, with interesting coral structures and clouds of unafraid fish. One day I saw a giant clam! It’s psychadelic patterned flesh and tendrils poked out through its opened wavy white shell, the entire creature was the size of a microwave oven.
Oh and Tip Top scooped ice cream from New Zealand is all over the island. It is affordable, and so good. I went for the passionfruit most times, real passionfruit seeds gave it a fun crunch.
Sam’s house is across the street from the beach, so in the mornings I did yoga on my towel in the sand. In the evenings, I went for long solo walks at sunset. Sometimes I felt lonely, but inevitably nature’s beauty comforted me. And being alone helped me experience her magic in a quiet, intimate way. As the last light faded, tiny mirror surfaced waves lapped on the shore, like mercury chiffon skirts, slow motion twirling against the sand. I felt at peace.
On a mellow, sunny afternoon, Sam drove me to the airport in his grey truck. We daydreamed out loud about what kind of sorbet flavors we could make with the fancy Paco Jet machine hiding in the culinary school’s cupboards. I knew I wanted it to be something that could go with fried cassava root. It was fun nerding out with a fellow cook.
When he got out to hug me goodbye, he rested a delicate, yellow shell lei necklace around my neck, and gave me a pink dyed woven palm bracelet. It was such a sweet and kind gesture, we’d grown a true friendship. “Message me when you figure out the sorbet!” he called out, and I said I would.
After a harrowing half hour waiting at the check in desk, I finally got the go ahead to enter the security line. French Polynesian customs officers didn’t want to allow me back into Tahiti without a plane ticket to leave the country. Even though I was going to sail out of the country, and had a letter to prove it, they weren’t satisfied because the letter wasn’t printed on letter head. I stayed calm and the Rarotongan airline worker saved me by printing a temporary ticket to appease French customs. Bless her.
Captain Liz Clark was spot on, Rarotonga was a dream place to unexpectedly visit. Thanks Liz!
I texted Sam later: “local honey sweetened, island chestnut coconut sorbet on top of fried cassava with salted caramel sauce and toasted cashews.”