“What Happens In Raro, Stays In Raro”Auckland, Spring 2012
I think the thing that will stick with me, long after I leave New Zealand and graduate and become whatever I’m supposed to be, is the kindness of the people of Rarotonga. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to go to Rarotonga, the largest island in the Cook Islands, the day after I had gotten back from my ten-day South Island excursion. I am so glad I went, because Rarotonga, apart from being an island made up of gorgeous beaches, is a place where I felt welcome, and that was due to the people that shared their home and hearts with us for the week.
I had about twelve hours to recuperate and then had to wake up, 5:15 AM-style, to head to the airport on Saturday morning to meet the rest of the IES gang. We had fourteen people total, including Andrew, our handy-dandy IES Abroad Coordinator, and Mara, a graduate student from Auckland University getting her PHD in Anthropology of the Pacific Islands. The South Island Crew (Zach, Spencer, Olivia, Erin and I) were all there, and us three girls ended up rooming together. We flew Air New Zealand to Raro, which honestly deserve all of their best airline accolades, and landed in Raro in mid-afternoon. We drove to our base, the Paradise Inn, where we would spend many a night playing LCR, Wizard and other card games, and saw that we had a beach right in front of us. While there are no shortages of beaches in Raro, the island is surrounded by a coral reef, and some parts of this reef are thicker than others. The beach around Paradise Inn was filled with coral, incredibly blue starfish and a lot of spiny sea urchins, so we couldn’t really go swimming (it was a really cool place to find hermit crabs and other wildlife, though).
Our days followed a pretty simple pattern, for the most part. In the morning, we would usually walk down the road to the University to listen to a lecture on anything from biodiversity in the Cook Islands to social issues on Rarotonga; then we would grab lunch and have a cultural activity, like weaving; and finally we would have a large buffet-style dinner at various restaurants around the island. Although this sometimes led to some pretty early mornings, for the most part the trip was leisurely and a lot more like a beach vacation than our South Island trip. One of my favorite events was the progressive dinner. The idea was that to get a better idea of how people on Raro really live, we were invited to share a meal in three people’s homes. The first home we went to had appetizers, the second had the main dishes and the third had dessert. All of the parts of the progressive dinner were delicious (supposedly the woman who made desserts was famous on the island for doing so), but what really stuck out was how warm and welcoming every person was when twelve American college kids showed up at their doorstep. They gave us a tour of their land, or their home; shared local dancing and songs with us; and continually told us how blessed they were to have our company. I’ve been missing home a bit, especially my mom, but the second we stepped into these people’s homes it felt like I had found my mom on Raro in the love that these people shared with us. At the end of the night, our host from the first house, who had been traveling around with us to the rest of the houses, sang and played a song on his ukulele while our bus driver harmonized, and it was hard to find a dry eye in the room. Not only were our stomachs full, but our hearts were as well, and it was a perfect night.
While we learned a lot about planting taro (which is very similar to a potato, in taste, color and the way that it grows), husking a coconut (I did it the fastest in my round and won!), and the traditional dances in the Cook Islands, I really enjoyed our visit with Pa, the local medicine man, the most. I’ve been learning a lot in my Maori in the 20th Century class about the divide between traditional healing methods and the more modern, westernized methods, and I was intrigued to hear what Pa thought of those issues. He was a staunch supporter of solely using traditional methods, which usually included a mixture of plants, fruits, roots and different powders for healing, and gave us many examples of times when he healed people of lung cancer and other serious illnesses with plants where hospitals and western doctors had failed. He was a very kind man, who showed us various cures for our knee aches, colds, sore necks, migraines and mosquito bites, always making sure to mention the fact that he could not do any healing without first consulting his higher power. He told us amazing stories about his life: how he was a long-distance swimmer who once got attacked by a shark only to be saved by a dolphin; how for his 72nd birthday that was coming up in a couple of days he was going to go spend it with the Dalai Lama; and how he interacted with the world around him as a Buddhist and a medicine man. He was such a good storyteller I could have sat around listening to him speak for hours. It was a real treat to spend some time with someone completely different than me who also made me feel very welcome.
There were a lot of things we did on the trip that were equally as exciting: we went snorkeling in a lagoon and saw octopodes, eels and a million kinds of fish; we volunteered at the Ester Honey animal shelter and played with nine two-week old puppies; we went kayaking and played ultimate frisbee in the ocean; we ate delicious food, everything from stir fry to pumpkin to freshly barbequed fish; and we got to explore the mountains and the beaches and all the environments in-between on Raro. I learned a lot about the culture and the people, but what I’m really taking away from the trip is a sense of rejuvenation: a calmer mindset as I head into the rest of my semester at Auckland Uni, and a greater sense of the world around me, and that’s due to the love and kindness of the people of Raro.
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