Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Farewell Cook Islands!

Here are a few photos from our time in the Cook Islands, which was capped off by a great dinner out at the Tamarind House. That's me on the raft...
Fresh tuna sashimi!

Our rented bungalow.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Kia Orana

Kia Orana is the standard greeting here in the Cook Islands, and it means literally "May you live long!" My wish may be to just to live long on this island. Helena and I were both completely taken with Rarotonga, its relaxed pace and its friendly, outgoing people. All Cook Islanders can be traced back to 6 tribal chiefs who came here around 400 AD, and a sense of family and community pervades to this day. In contrast with so many other places I have traveled, one doesn't see see neglected people or animals, or families living in abject poverty. It seems that families take care of each other (of course, the contributions of the New Zealand government helps with things too).

On Thursday, I took a day trip to another island in the Cooks called Aitutaki, and sampled the fine snorkeling over there. It was a 40 minute prop plane ride, and an easy day trip, although the island is worth spending more time. Next time....

Out snorkeling I saw heaps of giant clams and all kinds of other tropical fish is crystal clear water about white sand punctuated by large coral towers. Lunch was prepared by a local couple beachside for our group, with many local dishes (such as banana and papaya salad with curry dressing) to accompany the grilled parrotfish.

Other than my daytrip to Aitutaki, Helena and I spent our days snorkeling and swimming, exploring the island (even visiting the Prison Craftshop!), and watching the Vaka Eiva (outrigger competition). We also went on a hunt for the best coconut oil to bring home. It seemed to be something we just couldn't get enough of!

Helena went home last night, and I head home to tonight, with much sadness. Our 2 weeks in paradise were over so quickly!

I will post more photos when I get home to my computer, so stay tuned!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Boxfish and Snake-Eels

Today we set off for Muri, on the opposite side of the island, to experience a difference in location for snorkeling (we had just been exploring the reef outside our door so far). While it was sunny and brilliant at our place, we found first clouds, then pouring rain on the other side. After being held hostage in a shop, we thought it was starting to clear and made a run for it on the scooter, only to be caught in a full on downpour for 20 kms. We were soaked through and through. Poor Helena was in front, taking the brunt of the wet, steering like a champion on the slippery 2 lane road. Back on the west side, the rain soon gave way and we again hit the local reef with our reef fish identification card to spot more exotic fish. In addition to the standard Bullethead Parrotfish, Threadfin Butterflyfish, Convict Surgeonfish and Picasso Triggerfish, today Helena and I saw a Spotted Snake-Eel! It's a freaky 100cm eel that moves across the ocean floor like a snake. We also saw a Snowflake Moray Eel - it snuck up on me while Helena tried to get my attention and I nearly jumped out of the water when I saw it (even though they don't bite, they are just ugly!) We've also seen Yellow Boxfish, so called because they are actually square.

I have not yet seen one person surfing here. The waves break on shallow reef, and it seems so treacherous, I can't bring myself to try it without someone showing me how. I don't mind - I like exploring the other side of the reef!


It's hard to believe that we have been in Rarotonga a week already! Our days have been filled with beachcombing, shopping for food, snorkeling, eating and exploring the island. We rented a scooter, and have been blasting around the 32 kms, looking at wind and swells, flowers and beaches. Having grown up combing the beaches of Southern California for shells and other interesting sea remnants, Helena and I have enjoyed just wandering the beach, seeing what we find on a South Sea island. The photo shows a few of our finds. Yesterday, we found that with umbrellas we could even enjoy wandering the beaches in the rain (which has plagued us many days so far).

It has been handy having our own cottage with full kitchen. Super fresh fish is super cheap and we have been gorging ourselves on tuna sashimi, ika tata (raw fish and coconut milk salad - like ceviche), and fish curry. Needless to say, we have also been downing as much papaya (paw paw), mango and pineapple as we can eat. I'm lucky that Helena is an inventive and passionate cook!

On Saturday, the Vaka Eiva came to Rarotonga. It is one of the largest outrigger canoe events in the world, attracting competitors from all of the Pacific Islands (including Hawaii), Australia, and New Zealand. While the main action is in town, about 8 kms away, we have enjoyed the ceremonies, special markets and events that have come along with it. We've seen a couple traditional dance performances, which are fantastic; all hips by the women and knees by the men dancing to hollow log drums. The Cook Islanders are very proud of their cultural heritage and they seem to work hard to keep it alive.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fresh Fish and Volcanoes

Rarotonga is only 20 miles in circumference, smaller than Oahu. Today Helena and I hiked across it, on the only real hiking trail on the island. Up through ferns and hibiscus, Polynesian chestnut and orchids, we climbed to the base of the landmark spire of the Needle, before heading down the volcanic spine to the south coast.

In three days there hasn't been much water time. Yesterday was stormy and cool, and today was windy and churned, with 15-20 foot swells breaking over the reef, and fouling the stillness of the lagoon. I haven't seen anyone trying to surf - the swell appears surfable, but by surfers much more skilled than I! My sister complains of the loudness of the surf crashing on the reef, but somehow it doesn't bother me. She is happy I am too chicken to sample the surf; she says she doesn't fancy scraping me off the reef.

We have been enjoying incredibly fresh albacore tuna, wahoo and swordfish, and Helena has been working her magic in the kitchen of our bungalow, turning out a wonderful Burmese fish curry, coconut lime fish salad, pan seared fresh albacore steaks with soba noodles…. No need to try the restaurants! There are also papaya, mangoes and bananas everywhere. Heaven!

Interestingly, given the fair distance, a lot of the fresh food comes from New Zealand, including the milk and fresh baked bread, not to mention tinned goods, ice cream and cheese. Helena feels right at home!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The South Pacific

I arrived on Monday morning in Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, to blazing hot sun and humid breezes: exactly what I expected. My sister, having flown in the day before, was there to meet me.

It was a bumpy flight on the way down: almost 10 hours from LAX, 1/2 with the seat belt sign illuminated. Nonetheless, I managed to get some sleep and arrived on the island fairly fresh. For those of you who don't know where the Cook Islands are, they are a group of 15 islands in the Southern Hemisphere 3,000 miles due south of Hawaii (same time zone as Hawaii). Since they are in the south, it was only about 4 hours for my sister to come from Auckland, and there seems to be a large contingent of Kiwis here due to the proximity.

My sister had organized a beach cottage for our 13 day stay here, and it is perfect! We are right on the sand, with 100 meters of protected coral reef right in front, giving us immediate access to snorkeling. At the edge of the reef there is one of the few surf breaks on the island - a heaving, thumping, messy left. The Kiwi proprietor of the cottage said that I might try it if I was feeling "courageous", which I interpret to mean "insane" in Kiwi-speak.

While the first day was hot and sunny, our second broke with howling winds, horizontal rain and cloudy skies. Only then did my sister mention that yes, this is cyclone season. So for mow we are staying in, honing our Scrabble skills, and hoping the weather breaks soon!