Thursday, August 29, 2013

Journey to the Rock

Black Rock that is.  Located on the Northwest corner of the island in the village of Nikao on Rarotonga, Cook Islands sits "Black Rock", a series of large rocks set on the beach.  But this is not about the Rock; this is about the images you can get at sunset.  Please not:  NONE of these photos are altered or Photoshopped.  There might have been some contrast going on, but no vivid, bright adjustments were made.  This is what we saw with the naked eye.

This was what the beach looked like the day before, when not during sunset.

The sun is just starting to go down.  We thought we were doing pretty well with the colors.

I mean, look at this view.
Because I'm not real patient (to put it mildly) at this point I was saying to my husband,
"okay, we can go, it's not going to get much better than this."

Wrong.  It got much better.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

You Never Know What You Are Getting Yourself Into

The day started out thinking we would blast our way around the island taking photographs.  I knew across from Rutaki Primary School would be a copse of palm trees hanging over the ocean.  We found them easily.

Yeah, we found the palm trees
It was great and we got some beautiful photos.  When we ventured further down the road, we saw a group of people and many of them were in the water.  We pulled over, grabbed our cameras and headed to the beach.  

This is what we saw from the shore.

We watched for 15 minutes as a group of people were in the water started slapping at the water and walking toward each other.  It was then that we realized they were in circle formation.  

When we finally got up the nerve to ask what they were doing, we were told they were fishing.  The slapping of the hands/shirts/flip flops/stick on the water shocked the fish into the center of the circle.  There was a net on the outside of the circle and as they walked toward each other, the fish became caught in the center.  Then they would load the fish into boats, bring it ashore and start over.  

Everyone was involved, young and old.  Upon further investigation there were two villages working together for a huge dinner feast that night.  It was Easter Weekend which is a four day weekend and two villages gathered on a Rarotonga version of a camping vacation on the beach.  Since there were hundreds of people they needed to be fed.

There are blue shirts and red shirts.  Each shirt is a different village

Part of the catch.
By this time we met up with our friends from New Zealand and continued to watch the show.  We were taking some pictures of some fish when a gentleman came up and told our friend, Nico, to follow him.  Coming from New Zealand and the United States, we were very wary of this.  Nico reluctantly followed.  We followed as well as they walked down the beach.  Soon Nico was taking his shoes off and putting on reef shoes.  This is a little frightening when we (myself, my husband and Nico's wife) don't know what's going on.  We are in our paranoid state coming from our own experiences.  In our own countries we would have walked away, telling them wear to stick it, all the while gesturing with our middle finger.

Bye, Nico, we'll miss you

But, since we're not in our native countries, we figure, when in Rome - er, Rarotonga.  It didn't take long for us to realize that Nico was in no predicament at all.  He wasn't dinner - he was helping catch dinner.  The stick in his hand was used for slapping the water to make noise, not for self protection.  Jeesh, the things our countries have taught us.

Hi, Nico, Welcome Back!

The whole time all this is going, on we were being invited to their barbecue (again, not as a part of the menu, hello, we had just been to Highland Paradise when they talked all about cannibalism).  If we bought a t-shirt for $10 NZD then we could even become a part of their village.  

The whole experience left us with a huge sense of family, community and open arms to other.  They welcomed strangers to take pictures, watch their play and, best of all, taught us to not look for the negative in EVERYTHING! 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Getting Some Religion in the Cook Islands

There are grave sites that surround most churches.

The Cook Islands are very religious.  After all, missionaries began showing up in 1821 and have been spreading the gospel ever since.  Coming from the United States, where separation of church and state rule the country, hearing the words of Christ spoken in schools and markets and everywhere in between was refreshing.  The first time I heard someone mention the Bible and Christ in public, I had to do a double take and look around to search for defensive reactions.  There were none.  It was glorious!


We were in Rarotonga for Easter which included a FOUR day holiday.  Schools have performances that include the walk of Christ and his Resurrection.  They sing songs to the Creator.  And they are in the native Maori language.  We went to Rutaki Primary and they did a fantastic performance.  We went to Avarua Primary the day prior and saw the rehearsal.  Again, fabulous.


So regardless of your faith, plan on attending a service.  Gals should wear skirts or a dress (the signs we saw frowned upon women in slacks), guys nice shorts or slacks.  It might not be your native language and there isn't air conditioning, but it will completely be worth it.

Avarua Christian Church in Avarua, Rarotonga


Oh, and at the end of our service, we were invited into another building next to the church where we were fed a snack of all sorts of bread and fruit!  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Chicks On The Beach

Get your mind out of the gutter - I'm on a roll with the animals of Cook Islands.  This one is about chick-ens.  And the fact that they are everywhere (and the dogs leave them alone - go figure).

A mamma and her babies were a very common sight.

You'd think with all these chickens wandering the island, fresh chicken would be on the every-other-day-its-not-fish menu.  Nope.  When we inquired about this, we were told "too skinny."  They bought frozen in the bag from New Zealand.  Okay then.

One night we heard a peeping sound and looked all over for it.  Finally we found it in a bush!  This, probably week old, chick had made it two feet off the ground to roost at night.  Then blew it's cover by peeping like crazy.


A side note as you look at these darling pictures:  Our daughter has been raised on a farm.  She knows how to catch almost any animal and has no qualm about grabbing snakes, lizards, roosters (see this story about catching the rooster on the Cross Island Trek: Rooster Catching ).  She did manage to catch quite a few chicks, but sometimes at the risk of a pissed off mamma hen (sorry, there was no delicate way of stating that).  So catch at your own risk.

Roosters are the most common complaint we read about while researching Cooks.  The fact that the Cook Island roosters seem to think 3:00 am is the time to wake up.  1:00 am is bedtime.  This was, for the most part true.  I guess if you live in the city or the suburbs where neighbors aren't allowed to keep roosters, this would bother you.  We, however, live on 55 acres and have one of these creatures ourselves (with neighbors far enough away that they don't complain) so this is a typical sound for us.  Frankly, I didn't even hear the thing outside our door.  Or on the back porch like the reviews on TripAdvisor said.

The rooster on the trail across the island.  Yes, Kira caught this one too.

Be aware that you can find these critters anywhere and they don't bother you at all.  It's hard to tell, but this was photographed in the ladies restroom at Punanga Market in Avarua, Rarotonga.

It's A Dog's Life

On Rarotonga, you probably want to be okay with dogs.

Like, really okay.  Meaning, these critters are everywhere.  They are friendly.  And they love to be in your business.  It is, after all, their island.

On this afternoon we arrived at Muri Beach.  It was touted as the place to snorkel and swim and just be in general.  So, we, being good tourists, followed the rules (Surprise #1) . We didn't have any snorkel gear (Surprise #2) so we were forced to just wander.  With cameras.

We photographed the beach.

We photographed the kids playing rugby in the water.

And we photographed the dogs.

What we didn't get a photograph of (Surprise #3) was the dog jumping onto the kayak of the unsuspecting couple as they kayaked off into the sunset (or, into the lagoon to put it less romantically).  Total, absolute SHOCK to have a dog on a canoe with you.  Especially when it's not your dog.  But it was the norm.

These dogs are friendly and spend hours in the water looking for SOMETHING.  I don't know what, but something.  For hours.  And hours.

  This is just 12 seconds of what they would do all day.

Heaven forbid you think you can read in peace.  At one point we had FIVE dogs 'laxing with us on the beach.  This one thought my daughter's beach bag made a good blanket until she removed him/her off it - and even then it stuck around!

On another day, at Fruits of Rarotonga, a dog chose to swim out to some kayakers.  They were clear out where the reef was and that dog was still swimming.  They did try to get it in the kayak, because by then it seemed so exhausted, but it was still going when we had to leave (we were searching for a missing camera, but that's a whole 'nuther story).

So open your arms to your new four legged friends.  If you want an island without dogs, go to Aitutaki - they aren't legal there.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

10 Things You Should Not Miss in The Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are a nine hour night-flight away from Los Angeles so you really need to make it worth while.  Beautiful beaches, wonderful people, fantastic food, there are way more than 10 things to should do.  We traveled for two weeks to two of the fifteen islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki and here is what topped our list of don't-miss-its.  

1  Visit A School

You want to see how the locals live?  Go visit one of the schools and you’ll have every question answered  (and be asked quite a few on the way).

Hooking up with the school in the Cook Islands is as easy as an email.  Most schools are government run with a handful of private locations.  If you go to the Cook Islands Ministry page and click on the tab for schools it will give you a list of the schools.  If you want your visit to entail working with younger students, contact Primary schools.  Teenagers/High Schoolers are at the Colleges (which flipped me out a little because college in the US is after High School – in Cooks, college is after primary, University is after college.  See, perfectly clear).  Once you have emailed a couple schools, arrange to either work with students with reading or math, have a question and answer session with a classroom or just hang out during lunch break.  We chose the question and answer session and they were one of the best parts of our trip.  At first students are shy (they are sometimes worried about their English skills), but they warm up to you quickly!  If you are traveling with kids or teenagers, this is an even better experience – for everyone.  We traveled with our fourteen year old and the fourteen year old Cook-Islanders had lots of questions for her!

This also gives you some “celebrity” status later in your visit when you are wandering town, because the students have no problem coming up and talking to you.  We were told some of the best non-touristy places to eat, snorkel, and shop during these impromptu run-ins.  We got invited to dinner, church, dance class and favorite swimming holes.  A piece of advice:  do this early in your trip and plan on more than one school.  We thought it would be hokey until the first school, and then my family wanted more so we ended up visiting four schools on two islands.

2 Snorkeling/Scuba/Kayaking

This could easily be numbers two, three AND four, but I bunched them all as one – two - whatever.

If you look at a satellite map of Rarotonga, you will see the island, some pretty blue water just off the shoreline and then deep blue water outside that.  The pretty blue water is within a reef, about a 100 meters worth of lagoon.  This means that the water does not get very deep and offers wave protection within the lagoon (bottom line – keeps the big waves and sharks out).  The water is smooth for kayaking because there is no fighting the surf to get out to the calmer water.  We pulled the kayak out and it was remarkable smooth sailing (even in a sudden rain squall).  The kayaks glide right over all the coral (even though it doesn’t look like it will).  We did have to be careful with the oars to make sure we didn’t hit any of the live coral. 

Snorkeling was a joy because you didn’t even need to put any gear on to see the fish!  When we stood in three feet of water off the shore, we saw Picasso triggers, convict tangs, puffer fish and many other forgot-the-named species right from where we stood.  We saw things in the Cook Islands we’ve never seen anywhere else in our travels.  We stayed at the Palm Grove and had a great spot right outside the door.  Fruits of Rarotonga is another popular snorkel spot.  Beaches can seem hard to find because they aren’t really labeled.  Literally, the cafe “Fruits of Rarotonga” is across the street from the “parking lot” for the beach.  There is a bus stop there too.  Muri Beach was popular, but we thought too crowded.  Check the map or Jason’s guide for the two locations where snorkeling is not recommended.  Other than that, anywhere seemed good to us. 

3 Go to Another Island

It’s a big world out there off the island of Rarotonga.

Head out to one of the outer islands like Aitutaki for the snorkeling or Manihiki for the black pearls.  While you can get a one day flight/snorkel package to Auitutaki, everyone I’ve ever heard from has wished they could have stayed longer.  It will add to the cost a bit, but stay for more than one day.  Trust me, it’s worth it!

4  Progressive Dinner

Not the most promoted activity, but this is the way to get a taste of the real local flavor.

This tour starts with a bus ride to the first house where you actually  have a menu created by those that live on the island.  You eat what they eat.  The evening starts with an entree at one house, travels to another house for the main course and yet another house for dessert.  The locals host it and you get to dig deeper into the culture as well as have amazing food that you won’t get from the local restaurant. 

5  Attend Church Service

Even if you do not attend church regularly.

You can find Christian, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventenst, Baha'i and more.  You won’t hear much English in these services as they are primarily in Maori, but it doesn’t stop the feel of the movement.  Services are held across the island every Sunday, and Easter is a four day event.  Aside from attending even if you don't go in your home country, nothing will be open during Sunday.  Might as well be in church.  

6  Punangua Nui Market/Roadside Stands

From farmers to fruit stands to your hands.

The Punangua Nui Market is held every Saturday from 8:00-1:00 and is a perfect place to get fresh fruit, veggies and fish for the duration of your stay.  Not only are there food stands galore, but there are also booths/tents of handmade crafts done by locals (although some are brought in from Bali, so watch what you are getting if authenticity matters to you) and other souveniers.  Have a smoothie, grab one of the local foods and enjoy.

If your trip cannot include a Saturday visit, stop by any of the roadside stands for local fruits and vegetables.  They are cash only and are great on a middle of the week day when you realized you ran out of avocados - which by the way are the size of a small child's head.         

7  Catch a Sporting Event

If you don't know the rules, it's even more fun!

During our two week visit, we saw soccer, netball, cricket, vaka (canoe) races, and a rugby rivalry game between the Rarotonga Bears and the Aitutaki  Sharks.  When we arrived at the rugby game at the Arutanga Sports Field, we didn't bring anything.  No chairs, no blankets; just our curiosity and a couple of cameras.  We didn't know which side to root for, which side was what team, the rules, nothing.  We picked a side and stood to watch the game.  A family that brought a blanket, cooler, snacks and several kids laid down their blanket, sat down next to where we were standing,  and invited us to sit down next to them - on their blanket.  Yes, it is that friendly.  We later determined that one of the players on the field was the father of the two little girls next to us.  They thought it was a kick when we would take a photo of the play and then zoom into their dad's face on the LCD screen on the back of our camera.

At Muri Beach, there was a cricket game going on.  It is not out of place to join in the audience and become part of the booster club.  Regardless of the outcome of the game, this small piece of the life of the locals is not to be missed.

8  Swim to Another Island

Why?  Hello – just to say you did

Heading out to Muri Beach, you will see a series of small islands.  Totally unplanned, we swam to Koromiri Island on our excursion one day.  We had two pairs of flippers and snorkel equipment and we found that if you had fins, the current was not as intimidating.  When you get to the beach, look around, see what the locals are doing.  If you don't see anyone else heading over, they probably know something you don't.  We saw grandparents walking across so we went for it.  Now we get to tell everyone that we can swim far enough to get to another island.

9  Drive the Inner Road

Built in the 11th century, the Ara Metua road deserves a little respect.

Get a map and pay attention to where there is a cut-off that goes in land and then follow until it takes you back to the main road.  While it doesn’t go all the way around the island, you have to get off and one a couple times, it is a fun excursion off the beaten path and you will see more of the local life rather than the touristy sections.  Oh, and most roads are not marked and tend to look like driveways, but don't let that stop you.  Locals are very forgiving.    

10  Take A Picture

Of everything.

Pick times of the day, early morning or late evening, to just drive somewhere for the sole purpose of taking a picture.  The Islanders we ran into had no problem having their photo taken.  During the Easter Weekend, we ended up at a fish catching opportunity.  In the US, someone would have looked at us funny (not to mention accusingly) as we snapped away.  Here, in the Cooks, they gladly held up their prize catch for us to burn into digital history.   It took a long time to get here; make the most of your memories and go out, on purpose, to take pictures.