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The Cook Islands
We left for the Cook Islands, from San Francisco on Tuesday, August 1st. After a short flight to Los Angeles (about an hour and a half) and a two hour lay over in LA, we flew to Honolulu, Hawaii. That flight took about five hours. After a two hour lay over in Honolulu, we flew to Raratonga, The Cook Islands. That flight took about six hours. We arrived on Raratonga Wednesday, August 2nd at approximately 8:00 AM.
We were picked up at the airport by Bill (the lesser half of the Bill and Anna team) the proprietors of the International Backpackers Hostel. We decided to "live on the cheap" by staying at this hostel. It only costs $32.00 (New Zealand dollars) a night for our own room which is equal to about $16 US.
The conversion rate on the island was almost exactly 2 to 1, US to NZ. The Cook Islands have there own currency but it is on par with NZ money and is used interchangeably. We changed our money at Westpac bank in the main town on Raratonga, Avarua. There is also another bank in town -- ANZ. If you visit The Cook Islands, be sure to change your money at one of the banks and not the hotels as they will screw you on the exchange rate.
The International Backpackers Hostel is definitley not plush accomodations. The Lonely Planet guide rates it as "lower end". It's basically four walls and a bed. (We called it cell #19 - our room number). There is a community kitchen and living room, community showers (with no division between sexes) and a lock on the door. That's all you get. But for $32.00 (NZ) a night, what do you expect. You can definitely go the other extreme on this island if you choose to. You can spend over $500.00 (NZ) a night for a beach side bungalow. We checked them out and they are nice, but we decided to go the other way so we could spend more money on activities like getting certified to scuba dive and the Cross Island Trek with Pa.
We crashed most of the day Wednesday as the previous day of flying had taken its toll. Wednesday night we took the bus into Avarua. Buses travel both counter clockwise and clockwise around the island. You can flag them down pretty much anywhere on the main road. The cost is $2.00 one way or $3.00 for a round ticket. While waiting for the bus we met a interesting fellow named Larry. He is a college professor from Kentucky who spends the summer months traveling. Wednesday night we had dinner at Trader Jack's, each of us having an excellent plate of fresh fish.
Thursday, the 3rd, we went back into town and rented a motorcycle. You have to get a Cook Islands drivers license to drive any vehicle on the island and if your current driver's license doesn't state that you can drive a motorcycle you have to take a practical test. (Which basically consists of you driving around the block with a police officer following you and "if you don't crash, you pass". The test costs $5.00 (NZ) and the license costs $10.00 (NZ). The bike itself cost $200.00 (NZ). Unfortunately, there is a hidden cost for the motorcycle that they don't tell you about.
After we got used to driving on the other side of the road, we used the freedom of transport provided by our "100cc's of fury" to check out the rest of the island. You can drive all around the main road of the island in about one hour. It's just one big circle around the outside of the island. It is truly a beautiful scene, with the big blue ocean on one side, with the huge waves crashing into the coral and the lush tropical mountains of the interior on your other side.
Some of our activities on Thursday were -- loading up on grocercy store food, that we prepared at the hostel, continuing our "living on the cheap theme", had lunch with Larry at the Pacific Resort resturant, swam in the ocean on Muri Beach and went to a native dance festival in the main auditorium in Avarua.
It turns out that August 4th was the 35th anniversary of The Cook Islands' independence from New Zealand. The traditional dance festival was the finals of a week long dance contest to select The Cook Islands best native dancing team. It was incredible to watch the dancers perform movements that have been passed down generation after generation.
Friday, the 4th, we woke up early to do the Cross Island Trek, with the big "celebrity" on the island, Pa. Pa is an amazing character -- probably the most famous trekking guide in all of the South Pacific. He is an herbalist, practicing herbal healing passed down through 68 generations. On the trek across the interior of the island he would point out plants and herbs and explain their use for healing by The Cook Island people. But Pa is not only a "medicine man", he is a celebrity of sorts. He is married to a Polish Princess and parties in New York with the likes of the band the Smashing Pumpkins (or the Broken Pumpkins as he called them.) He is full of energy and life - possessing true charisma and that is what you are really paying the $45.00 (NZ) per person for to be guided across the island by Pa. If you wanted to go across the island yourself, you definitely could. But if you want to take in the "Pa experience", sign up for his Cross Island Trek.
Friday night we walked the beach and watched the sunset and then we went into Avarua and watched a movie at the local theater. It was interesting that they had an intermission for a normal length movie. It was actually representative of the whole theme of the island -- everything is slower. There is this "laissez faire" attitude and everything moves at a slower pace. You gradually ease into it and enjoy the calm relaxing atmosphere. A clock we saw in one of the resturants summed it up. The numbers on the clock were all mixed up and the clock read "What time is it? Who cares.".
Saturday we went to the Punanga Nui outdoor market. We found a collection of stalls selling fresh fruits and vegetables, clothing, handicrafts and takeaway foods. The rest of the day we spent at Muri Beach and then Saturday night we went to another movie at the theater in Avarua.
Sunday, after a nice breakfast at the Sandwave Cafe, we went on another island trek, this time on our own. We hiked to the top of Raemaru. It was other difficult trek, but the view on top was spectacular and well worth the effort.
Sunday night we went out to dinner at The Flame Tree with our new freind Larry and a couple from New Zealand -- Paul and Cushla.. Paul had just "popped the question" two days earlier so the dinner was a celebration of sorts for their engagement. They were very interesting people -- full of life and energy, high off the excitment and intensity of the moment (their engagement). It was a lot of fun.
Monday we spent most of the day in Avarua. We worked on the web site at Telecom, went on a tour of Rarotonga Brewery, took a picture of Lisa in front of the Seven-In-One-Coconut Tree, bought a Cook Islands $3.00 bill at the Philatelic Bureau, checked out the Beachcomber Gallery and ate octopus at the Blue Cafe.
Monday night we hung out with Larry and watched a video tape of him scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. Larry took off back to the states Monday night.
Tuesday morning we had breakfast at The Cafe and then worked on the website some more. Tuesday afternoon we layed out at Muri Beach. On the way back from Muri Beach we caught a local soccer match. We decided to hit the sack earlier so we could get up nice and fresh for the first day of our dive instruction.
Wednesday was the first day of a four day course to get certified as open water scuba divers. One the first day we were in class all day from 8:00 AM until 4:30 PM.
Thursday morning we went into the lagoon and practiced skills and then in the afternoon we did more classroom work.
Friday we went into the lagoon again in the morning and then we did two open water dives in the afternoon. Friday night we "carbo loaded" at The Spagetti House in anticipation of our big following day.
Saturday morning we finished the course with two more open water dives.
Pacific Divers and our instructor, Graham, were excellent. Scuba diving was awesome. The felling of floating - neutrally boyant - is incredible. The fish and other aquatic creatures were incredible to look at. An experience like scuba diving makes you feel very grateful to be alive.
Our PADI cards will allow us to dive all over the world. Our scuba certification will open up a whole new world for us. Since we are traveling around the globe, we figured we should experience all of its terrains -- including those under the sea.
Sunday morning we experienced church in The Cook Islands. They really "sing off the roof". The rest of the day on Sunday we just hung out at The Sailing Club on Muri Beach and drank fruity, slushy drinks with tiny umbrellas in them. The sunset was beautiful.
Monday, after french toast and lattes at The Cafe, we found an amazing pastel of a female Cook Islands Dancer. The sketch is truly striking, reminding us of the dancers we saw at the traditional dance festival.
Monday night we had another great dinner at Trader Jacks and then saw a movie.
Tuesday we found an aweosme hand carved statue of Tangaroa, the god of the sea and fertility. We spent the rest of the day preparing for our departure to New Zealand. Tuesday night we enjoyed another excellent dinner at Trader Jacks.
We left for New Zealand on Wednesday, August 16th at 9:55 AM and even though it was only a 3 hour flight to Auckland, we arrived on August 17th. The reason? We crossed the international date line. You see, The Cook Islands are effectively one of the last places on earth; tomorrow starts later here than almost anywhere else.
Next stop New Zealand . . .