Bob's travel journal

Bob's travel journal

Please send feedback on these entries to Bob , not to Tom.

Rarotonga: Screensaver Island


I say this in all seriousness: for the first couple of days, I had a little trouble believing this place is real.

Imagine water so clear that you can often stand on the shore and simply watch as brightly-colored schools of tropical fish swim by in all directions, just as if you were snorkeling without a mask.

Imagine an island so small that you can ride a mountain bike all the way around in just a couple of hours... so quiet and isolated that it's hundreds of miles to the next largest island, and almost two thousand miles to the nearest actual city... and so thinly-populated that after just a few days, you realize you're seeing the same friendly faces again and again, wherever you go.

Y'know that "beach" screensaver you see sometimes? Back home, when I stop working for more than five minutes, my Macintosh begins a montage of ridiculously green trees, blue water, and white sand. This is that. I can't swear to it, but it sure seems like they must have taken some of those pictures here.

This must be what Honolulu looked like 50 years ago, before Waikiki became a shopping mall with a beach. This must be what Tahiti looked like 25 years ago, before Papeete began turning into a newer Waikiki.

It doesn't take long to realize this isn't actually paradise -- a six-inch gecko losing its grip on the ceiling and dropping into your bed during the pitch-black night is enough -- YAAAAGGHHfumblefumblejumpgrabgrabgrablightswitchYIKESohgeez -- but there's sufficient bliss to make you forget that humans here make the same mistakes they make everywhere, and the island suffers from many of the same exact problems you see on the rest of the planet.

Until that sinks in, those first few are very good days. If you ever come to Rarotonga, enjoy those first few tripped-out days as much as you can. Enjoy the "shaquille, shaquille" calls of the ubiquitous mynah birds. But whatever you do, don't make any sudden decisions.

People do come untethered from with reality here.

Rarotonga is littered with the detritus of impossibly large dreams, lunatic schemes that no sane person could have imagined... but which are oddly understandable here, remembering the first few days when oxygen was new in my lungs.

As I write these words, it's just a short walk from here -- actually, a short walk from about half the island -- to a tour operator who invested a wide selection of Harleys, figuring perhaps that tourists would travel thousands of miles for the chance rent a big ol' hog and blast a lap around the 1000-year-old road that winds through fields of arrowroot and papaya.

Um, no. That narrow road, nestled among coconut trees and banana fields and dappled with bright wild hibiscus flowers, is for slow, observant walking. You can literally feel it in your feet. So... the Harleys are just sitting there.

A little further on, there's another guy with a giant speedboat, who figured (because he likes to careen wildly, one assumes) that tourists would pay top dollar to strap on life preservers and bounce around in the open sea, salt spray bashing their giddy faces.

But the island is surrounded by a circular coral reef, which breaks 20-foot waves into bathtub ripples right before your eyes. The water here demands quiet. So... the speedboat is just sitting there.

Not far past the village of Avarua -- a gathering not much more than one city block in size, and the Cook Islands' national capital -- you can even find the remnants of an old Polish train. Once upon a time, a European visitor became intoxicated with the great green mountainside and imagined a steam-powered choo-choo chugging along its bends.

But the mountain is jungle, and refuses our engineering. So... the train, covered in foliage, is gradually being claimed by the island.

A few miles in the other direction -- and thus almost halfway around the island from the train -- is an enormous ghost resort, a five-star uninhabited derelict in which no tourist has ever stayed. The Sheraton corporation once got halfway into full-on Waikikiification of this place. Now the empty giant concrete rectangles echo with the flapping of mynah wings.

Which returns me to mentioning to humans being the same here as everywhere else. The Sheraton project failed from more than just hubris; according to what I hear in the RSA club (analogous to a VFW hall), corruption and graft were the true reason for the super-resort's downfall. Paying off the loans for the Resort That Never War apparently still accounts for half of the national debt.

The nation which owes that debt, I should add, is the Cook Islands, a semi-independent confederation of far-flung flecks of land, only about half of which are even inhabited, occupying a total area smaller than Los Angeles, but dispersed over a stretch of the Pacific as large as all of western Europe. If you're curious, find Hawaii on a map, then follow your finger south. The Cooks are usually indicated by an enormous polygon of water, in which, if you squint, you might see a few brown flyspecks. I'm writing this from one of the southernmost specks.

The combined population is less than half the size of the small town in Ohio where I grew up, the national police headquarters isn't much bigger than my mother's house, and when I waved at the Prime Minister as his unescorted car (recognizable by the "PM" license plates and a small flag on the hood) went by, he waved back, then motioned kindly for me to get a hat on my unprotected balding head in the tropical sun.

The Cooks are almost part of New Zealand, but not quite. They were once, and might be again, but at the moment, they're independent -- although Cook Islanders carry New Zealand passports, the islands primarily function using New Zealand currency, and the economy is highly dependent on New Zealand foreign aid for its survival.

Tourism perhaps should be a major draw, of course, but Rarotonga's isolation is both its greatest asset and hindrance. That's the thing about rarely-visited, almost untouched places: they're rarely visited, and almost untouched.

That's not to say that local culture remains in its pre-European form. God, no (and I choose that phrase purposefully).

Just as British colonists once decided to save the island from its insects by importing mynah birds -- which quickly drove every other bird species either into extinction or far into the hills -- nineteenth-century missionaries managed to largely obliterate not only the local Maori religion, but a large number of the Maoris themselves. As in North America, the newcomers may have meant to bring salvation to unenlightened souls, but their primary gift was rampaging cooties that destroyed innocent bodies. First came Jesus; then came smallpox, measles, and dysentery, with such intensity that the Maoris eventually concluded (surely with no small prodding) that they were being punished by the Lord Of Peace for not converting more quickly.

(Nice god: if you don't do what he wants, he kills you, horribly. Sure, sign me up to worship that guy...)

In any case, Rarotonga is now slathered in Christian churches of all denominations, and on Sunday, almost the entire island shuts down for a morning of well-dressed singing to the skies.

My own thoughts on religion aside... what singing it is! I'm not precisely sure how the harmonies are structured differently from, say, American gospel, but I am certain that I have never heard hymns sung with such soaring beauty, and all while set against a complex rhythmic structure derived from indigenous dance. The resulting musical creole is breathtaking.

I suspect this Christian-on-the-surface, Maori-underneath cultural character extends into other customs on the island as well. I wish I had time to learn more, but signs of this are everywhere -- in the naming of children, certain rituals surrounding food and dress, and (most obviously) in the constant sight of Tengeroa, a spectacularly well-endowed fertility god, whose gigantic display of wooden genitalia is featured on everything from postcards to local coins to the logo of the tourist information office.

I bet the Victorian missionaries wouldn't have approved.

In the center of Avarua, one of the gift shops prominently displays a man-sized Tengeroa with a genderstick as long as your arm and as wide as your thigh. The statue actually leans on this appendage as a stabilizing third leg. Yet small children (some actually dwarfed by the wooden phallus) play on the sidewalk without a care. Nobody -- nobody -- bats an eye.

Obviously, no civilization ever fell because the kids saw enormous wooden penises. But I think John Ashcroft would see this and just fall to the ground, weeping in anguished prayer.

Incidentally, you might have noticed that I'm referring to the indigenous locals as Maori, just as in New Zealand. That's no coincidence; the two are clearly related (as are most Polynesian cultures as far east as Easter Island), although historians and archaeologists haven't fully agreed on precisely who went where when. The general consensus involves a large exodus from Rarotonga to New Zealand on outrigger canoes about six hundred years ago; there's even a circle of stones marking the spot.

Keep in mind how advanced these folks were -- navigating thousands of miles of unimaginably open sea in handmade wooden canoes -- hundreds of years before coastline-hugging European explorers were able to do anything remotely similar. Which means they also must have understood certain basics of astronomy (since that's how you navigate in open sea at night) at a time when more "civilized" Europeans were burning and torturing people for suggesting the Earth might not be the center of the universe. (And suddenly I picture John Ashcroft climbing up from the ground, wiping away his tears, and feeling much better...)

Speaking of the night sky... an aside:

"Up" in the southern hemisphere is a remarkably cool thing when you've spent your whole life getting used to the northern "up." I've spent my whole life under one particular sky, the one you've probably known since childhood: Ursa Major is over there, and the brightest seven stars are the Big Dipper, and if you follow the leftmost two upward you reach the North Star, which is attached to the Little Dipper, blahblahblah zzzzzzzz.

But suddenly, I look up, and I recognize nothing. Whee! The stars aren't pre-grouped in my head. They're just random dots of light I don't comprehend. It's like being a child again; the night sky fills me with wonder. Heck, it's even better -- Rarotonga, which requires burning diesel fuel even to generate electricity, doesn't exactly glow at night, so in the hours between the setting sun and rising moon, the night sky becomes a brilliant, luminous playground.

Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. If you've ever enjoyed letting your mind automatically turn the random cloud shapes into pictures (the exact process responsible for superstition, religion, and occult beliefs, incidentally; we humans are inherently irrational, and quite brilliant at it), this is the same thing, but with the lights turned off.

So I plunked down on the beach and let my mind draw pictures in the sky: stick warriors, snakes, geometric shapes. I now officially cut the Greeks more slack.

Then I saw a big H thing, a lot like the constellation Orion, but upside down. And then I realized that this was precisely what it was. Cool: I'm on the other side of the planet. Uncool: maybe the fun's over, and my mind is only gonna start recognizing things instead of organizing them anew.

And then I saw it. I swear to God this is true.

You may have to drive to the middle of nowhere to see it, but I'm really not kidding...

There is a gigantic rubber ducky just to Orion's left. Plain as day. It's the clearest image in the starry sky, at least when there's hardly a damned bit of light for a thousand miles and all the stars are out.

From here, she (imposing gender) is just to the left of Orion, about the same size, and turned 90 degrees so her bottom points toward Orion and her beak is pointing to Earth. Which means, I guess, that in the northern hemisphere, Bob's Big Rubber Ducky (as I hope future astronomers will call her) would be to Orion's right, with the beak pointing away from the ground.

I'm really not kidding. I pointed out the BBRD to a young couple walking on the beach, and (once they got done thinking I was nuts) they saw it, too -- even laughing about how obvious it was.

I may have to start a cult or something.

If I do, and I rake in tens of millions of dollars from naive people who don't know how their own brain imposes inductive rules on the world, Rarotonga is also a good place to move my ill-gotten riches. Up in Avarua, hidden among a small array of souvenir shops and food stands, you'll find about a half-dozen deceptively modest storefronts with names involving the word "trust." You wouldn't even notice them if you weren't specifically looking. They look like rundown travel agencies might: inside, there's typically a guy with a small computer sitting at an unimpressive desk on an old rug.

And that guy's probably handling a couple of billion dollars.

I'm not gonna get into the ethics or morality or sheer damn lack of common sense of international banking laws right here. Not because there isn't room; it's just that there's nothing to argue. On an island where most people make in a year what you probably make in a month, enough money to feed and educate every child for 2000 miles -- more money, as near as I can tell, than the entire nation's Gross Domestic Product -- flies in and out at the furtive click of a computer mouse, thus avoiding taxation in some other country with its own batch of people without a damn thing to wear, just so some rich selfish motherfucker can continue a personal quest to own everything he sees in blissful unaccountability.

Arguing that this is sane makes you an asshole. It also puts you firmly in the mainstream of early 21st-century economic thought. Which explains a little about the two billion of us on this tiny planet without clean water. I digress.

But speaking of assholes, there's this thing called global warming, which assorted first-world liars living on high ground have the privilege of denying exists.

Tell them to come to the South Pacific, where everybody knows the water level is rising. Tell them to come to Fiji, where 90 percent of the population lives in vulnerable areas along the coast. Tell them to come to Kiribati or the Marshall Islands, whose entire disappearance is increasingly considered likely. Tell them to come to Tuvalu, a nation about to go Atlantis in the next fifty years, whose entire 11,000-person population is planning to offload en masse to New Zealand.

Or tell them to come to Rarotonga.

Climate change is far from Rarotonga's main problem. The island is actually a lot more likely to be flattened by a violent storm long before sea levels rise. In fact, this outcome is almost certain: the same recent cyclone that whacked Niue missed Rarotonga by hundreds of miles, and still blasted the crap out of six kilometers of coastline here, with several small resorts heavily damaged by flooding. (I saw the results firsthand; my plane landed the next day, while everyone was still cleaning up.)

Next time they might not be so lucky. The harbor at Avarua is tragically unprotected, and only minimal amounts of seawall exist anywhere else on the island. Seawall costs money, unfortunately, and except for the guys in the tiny offshore banking offices tip-tapping away, nobody here is particularly near significant cash. (If you ask me, the ghost Sheraton sure looks like a great source of concrete barrier wall, but what do I know...) Which means someday a storm is gonna come from a slightly more northerly direction, a lot closer than cyclone Heta did a couple of weeks ago... and WHUMP.

But even if that storm never comes, most of Rarotonga's people and history are along the low-lying coast. Since its volcanic peaks rise thousands of feet, Rarotonga certainly won't disappear anytime soon. Instead, local inhabitants might someday join the entire non-mynah native bird population in slowly heading for the hills.

However it shakes out exactly, a century from now, climatologists predict that life in this region is going to be unrecognizably altered. And the screensaver beach where I sit writing these words will likely not be here.

On my last night on Rarotonga -- the last night of my around-the-world trip, in fact -- I rented a small kayak and started paddling into the ocean. The sky was clear, the moon was an hour from rising, and upside-down Orion and all the other completely random stars came out in full glory.

I sat in silence, wobbling gently against the reef-broken waves, looking at the shore of this tiny island, sadly wishing away my knowledge of its fate. The idea that this beautiful place could be in such quiet danger, that its people are facing several forms of eventual impending doom, was more than I wanted to think about.

And I couldn't help but feel, just for a moment, like I was looking at a microcosm of our tiny, fragile planet. Which, once you've been all the way around, can never seem large again. All of us -- all of us -- are living on a tiny island in a hell of a lot of trouble we don't want to see.

I looked up at the giant Rubber Ducky and smiled against tears, wishing I had the slightest idea how humanity will avert the many disasters we've managed to create for ourselves. Wishing I didn't have to go home and resume the struggle. Wishing I didn't feel so tiny in this giant rising ocean. Wishing I could at least feel more certain that all the damn fighting was worth it -- that there really was at least enough hope to keep trying.

And then came a violent splashing noise behind me. I tried to turn, but that's not easy for a novice in a kayak, and so for a moment, all I knew was that something large and loud in the dark was headed right for me.

And then I realized... it was giggling.

They were giggling.

Two Maori boys, maybe ten or twelve years old -- I couldn't really see for sure, to be honest -- had apparently seen me paddling along the shore and thought it would be fun to hop in the water and either help push me along or grab on for a ride.

I never figured out which, since between the laws of physics and my utter lack of kayaking skills, it could have been either one. Either way, nothing happened, other than a whole lot of pointless splashing and gleeful kicking.

And I was laughing, too.

I wish you could have heard their laugh. In fact, I wish everyone reading this could have heard the laughter of all the children I heard everywhere on the entire trip. Because it's the same exact laugh.

In Kuala Lumpur, near the Patronas Towers, there's a pool with a waterfall in a park. And the kids there splash and go Whee! just like my own niece and nephew in Ohio did at that age.

In Singapore, when the young Chinese girls gave sand-breasts to their male friend buried to his neck on the beach... the laugh was the same.

On a beach south of Cape Town, as I was taking a picture of a modest little resort, a African kid about the same age surprised the hell out of me by leaping out and performing a running airborne somersault in front of my lens. Sure enough, my digital camera caught him in midair -- I'll post this and my other favorite pictures on my website soon, I promise -- and when I showed him the picture in the camera's little display, he let out a delighted squeal.

And here's the thing I realized: as you read these words, I bet you already know exactly what that giddy giggling sound was like.

All children, everywhere, laugh pretty much exactly the same way.

The more I think about it, the more I think that's the single best thought I've ever had.

Honestly.

I can't help but feel instinctively that maybe we're still gonna be OK somehow.

I wish everyone could hear the laughter of kids halfway around the world and recognize it as their own.

And so, the Maori kids kept churning away, splashing and shouting. I paddled to no effect whatsoever, laughing along with them. This lasted only about a minute or two, tops, but in memory, it's already one of those perfect moments that stretches into hours.

Eventually, my arms were exhausted, just as the kids got tired and sloshed back to shore. We waved, and they wandered off, one chasing the other.

So, at last, I just sat there, bobbing in the tide, looking at the sky and watching as the gigantic Rubber Ducky showed Orion her bottom for what must have been the millionth time.

And finally, at the end of the longest trip I will probably ever take, I realized that I am only writing these very words, reaching out to people I don't even know halfway around the world in a home I'm not even certain of...

because I am full of hope.