Cook Islands

I went to a small University in Nanaimo, BC that had a good Anthropology program and even better professors. One of the great things was the variety of field schools that were available during the summer. Professor Gary Tunnell took students to Polynesia, Cheryl Roy took students to study archaeology in Belgium, Imogene Lim took students to Tanzania.

I heard all about the trip to Polynesia because a friend of mine went on it. They travelled around New Zealand and the to the Cook Islands. I was very jealous and wanted to go during the next summer but rumour was going around that there would not be a next year, the resources and connections in New Zealand were drying up making the field school hard to organize. I was saddened by this news. Gary had a meeting with some of the interested students about doing the entire field school in the Cook Islands spending time of the islands of Rarotonga and Mangaia. This sounded like a good compromise to us so we decided to go ahead with the field school.

I’m not sure how much each part of the trip cost, only that over all we paid about 6,500$ for the six week trip. This included hotels, flights, tuition, and odds and ends. Meals were paid out of pocket.

In the end 15 students decided to go on the field school. We had pre-departure meetings and classes at the university. We had books to read and papers to write. After all of that was out of the way we met at Vancouver International Airoprt (YVR) for our flights. We travelled YVR to LAX with a few hours layover. Then it was LAX to RAR. We flew with Air New Zealand and we flew before airlines began really tightening their budgets. This meant pillows and blankets on every seat and alcohol was included.

The flight is 10 hours a large Boeing or Airbus plane must be used but usually will not be close to full. In fact hen we flew nearly the entire back of the plane was empty. We had a few drinks and then went to the centre seats of the plane that were 4 wide and put the armrests up to sleep for most of the flight.

Arriving was a little scary. The Rarotonga runway is surrounded on 3 sides by ocean, so if you over shoot the run way or there is a problem with the breaks you go into the water on the other side. Thankfully this didn’t happen but it is a thought that runs through your head when you see the landing strip.

From there we were transported to our hotel Paradise Inn. We took over most of this small hotel while we were there. The hotel was right on the beach with a wonderful patio where we spent many nights drinking and singing and watching beautiful sunsets. I shared a room with Alex my BFF and another friend Jessica. The room was split level with 3 beds so we let Jess have the private space upstairs and Alex and I had beds on the ground floor. The room had a small kitchenette so we could have cooked, had we not been poor college students.

We spent our mornings (9-1) going to the University of the South Pacific with guest lectures and locals coming to share knowledge. We were taught how to weave and symbols in traditional paintings. We went on local flora and fauna walks. We were welcomed to the island with traditional ceremonies and feasts. I gave up being a vegetarian for this trip to be able to respect the people and the culture. These people who live in such a remote place and have very little to give gave as generously as they could. They made traditional meals and put on traditional dances. I did not want to be rude and refuse the food that they had generously provided.

A large reason that I was a vegetarian was the issue of sustainability within the environment, the use of land that could grow food crops, and the large use of food crops for the small amount of meat protein that comes from it, and the treatment of animals in small confined spaces. In places like the Cook Islands this is not an issue. Meat animals are mostly pigs and chickens. They eat the remains of meals and scavenge food. Their waste is used to fertilize other crops. They are treated well and have space to roam, all parts of the animals are used in different ways.

We spent our afternoons and weekend renting bikes are riding around the island. We hikes up and over the central mountain peak, we swam and snorkelled. We went into town to the “clubs”, many on roof tops. We found an Indian restaurant on the island that had 5$ lunch specials and a buffet dinner. We went to the restaurant multiple times. Some days we lazed around playing cards or reading books. We were lucky because one of the guys on the trip was a bartender, so every night was a good, good night.

I remember one night I had over indulged and was being violently ill and Alex was holding my hair back and other people kept coming in the room to see if I was okay and I just wanted them to go away. Our other room mate was talking about how I had such grace and poise even while being sick. I will absolutely never forget. The rest of the trip Alex and I spoke of grace and poise.

One day we went for a walk and found a fresh water stream. We sat to put our feet in it for a few minutes. It didn’t take long to notice the buzzing of mosquito’s so we left. Upon returning to the hotel it was pointed out that some of us (those who went in the water) had a large number of bites. I had been wearing an open back style of shirt and had more that 100 bites on my back. Thankfully we had brought lots of calamine lotions and other no-itch creams. It was still horrible though.

They have the best coins in Rarotonga. The one dollar coin has an image of their local god, Tongarowa. We had re-named him Donga-rowa because he was an actual tripod. The two dollar coin is a triangle coin.

After 3 weeks on Rarotonga we pack small bags to travel to Mangaia island. We left much of our stuff in one room at the hotel and travelled lightly because we were going to be on planes so small that we had to take two trips to get to Mangaia the 15 of us and our professor were to many people for the small Embraer plane that only seats 15. It was matched by the airport in Mangaia, with the unpaved coral runway that made Rarotonga’s runway look like a dream, and the small two room airport building with no doors and no employees.

We were taken into town by truck and dropped at the YWCA where we would be staying for the 10 days we were there. There were three rooms, the main front room, the bathroom, and an office. Gary slept in the office and we all shared space out front. Locals had donated single mattresses for us to put on the floor to sleep along with two blankets and a pillow each. Alex and I pushed our mattresses together to share her mosquito net. We also took the extra blankets that no one seemed to want in the hot weather and put them under us to create more of a cushion on the mattress.

There was no university to study at in Mangaia. The island only has a population of about 600 people. Instead everything was hands on. We learned about traditional cooking and watched children scale coconut trees in the school yards to get a snack. We toured the taro fields, a staple food in the region. We weaving and how to turn the weaving into household goods like pots, baskets, brooms and other items. We learned the history of the island including the brutal warfare that used to dominate and the practice of cannibalism. We toured the old coral caves carved into the islands tall cliffs. We saw where remains of felled victims were placed into crevasses in the caves, their bones still retaining the marks where their flesh was cut off. We learned about local flora and fauna. We went to the schools were the children studied to see how they learned.

Mangaia was an experience I’ll never forget and two times stay largely at the front of my mind. The first was waking up one morning to the largest ****ing spider I have ever seen on the outside of the mosquito net. Thank heavens for the net, i would have died if I woke up with that thing in my bed. It’s body was like a large grape and it’s legs went out as wide as the circle I make with both thumbs and forefingers touching. I was not getting out of bed until that thing was gone, even if it meant peeing the bed. I yelled to wake up anyone else. Eventually we were able to find one of the guys who was not scared of spiders who caught it and took it out side. Good for nature but for my fears of it returning to kill me, dead.

The second was walking though the caves. I was walking ahead with Brendan and we came to a bit of a pit. It was dark and the bottom could not be seen, neither could a way to cross it except a small ledge against one side of the cave. Now Brendan is a rock climber with a much better chance of crossing this then me. So he went first and said it was easy. I went second and almost fell to what could have been my probably death. Brendan caught me and luckily because of rock climbing had great upper body strength and was able to pull me up and out.

After the rest of the group came around the corner and I wondered how they would manage to get across. The guide gave us this horrified look because we were across the pit and pulled a ladder out from a crack in the rock and laid it across the hole for people to use to cross the hole. And that it why you wait for the guide. Remember you may feel immortal in your early 20’s but you’re not.

After our time in Mangaia we returned to Rarotonga for a few more days. Jessica and I decided that we were going to get tattoos to remember our trip by. Not traditional tattoos though, which are done using ink and taping a bone needle into your skin. We went with the modern electric option.

I went with no idea of what I wanted, only that I wanted something Polynesian and I wanted it on my foot (painful place for a tattoo) to represent my itchy feet and love of travel. The tattoo artist said in the local mythology the turtle and the frigate bird were the two animals that travelled long distances. She drew my a quick design that I liked of a turtle with a frigate bird in the shell and then she tattooed away.


Then the trip was over and we got back on a plane that took us back to LAX and then YVR. I was super sad for the trip to be over because it was one of the best I’ve been on.

I was in a tropical paradise surrounded by great people, including one of the university’s bartenders and my BFF. I was there with a great professor who has travelled all over and lived through many great adventures that he would share over music and drinks. I was able to learn and experience things in a really in-depth, first hand manner. I’d had adventure, passion, and a life changing experience.

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