Among numismatists this tiny cluster of islands, quite literally specks in the vast azure of the Pacific, has an outsize reputation, for it is among the smallest nations to produce its own postage stamps. If the remote location of this collection of fifteen coral and basalt atolls wasn’t enough to deter the intrepid stamp collector, he would also have to get his timing just right. The post office on the main island, Rarotonga, is only open Tuesdays and Thursdays 10am-4pm, closing for lunch roughly noon until 2.30pm. Happily, the Cook Islands also possess a number of other alluring attractions with which to occupy oneself during during off-hours.
On Rarotonga, the capital, and largest and most populous of the fifteen Cooks the overwhelming sense is of time standing still, and if not of an oasis exactly, then somewhere not yet destroyed for the benefit of the western tourist. And that’s not just philosophically a good thing, it’s as it should be. After all, the Cooks lie not quite halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, and strewn across about a million square miles of ocean. You would presume that anyone looking for business opportunities would find them elsewhere rather more easily.
Raro is tiny: one can lap it comfortably in under an hour on a motor scooter. The tin-roofed airport terminal is just that, a tin roof with no walls, and the runway’s edge abuts the “National Stadium” — a dusty patch of weeds with rugby posts at both ends. The generously-titled supermarket stocks only canned food, and the Parliament building is a former hotel.
Raro’s pristine and largely empty beaches are littered only with fallen palm fronds and washed-up coconuts, and lapped by the kind of tropical lagoon waters that would make Robinson Crusoe weep. Its steep, khaki interior of jungly hardwoods, primeval ferns and creepers through which whiskery, semi-wild porkers rustle for fat beetles and fallen mango is crowned with a towering, moss-clad caldera shrouded in mist.
The island’s only river morphs from a placid trickle to a torrent following rain briefly turning Wigmore’s Falls (Takitumu) from a shapely but modest cataract into a pounding chute flooding the inky pool below and blowing spray across the adjacent sylvan glade, usually populated only by a pair of placid brown cows. Legend has it that this occasions a phenomenon two days hence when bumper crops of folklorically-potent magic mushrooms pop-up across the meadow rendering the island’s only supply of fresh milk undrinkable. (This may also be when vacationing stamp-collectors, postcards all taken care of, can exercise their dormant tongues and lick a cap or two.) The hazard of falling into the murky pits — used for generations for swamp taro cultivation — that edge the meadow should not be underestimated when under the influence of hallucinogenics, I hear. All of which is to say nothing of the stunning desert-island beauty and solitude to be found on the outer islands, of which Aitutaki — think Bora-Bora in miniature — is the largest, and the only one with direct flights to the capital, all others being reachable by overnight (or longer) boat rides.
Flying into Raro might be likened to the terrifying ordeal of landing in Hong Kong, minus all those tall buildings. The emotional journey going something like: “There’s no way this big plane can land on that tiny island!” to “Jesus, we’re going to mow down all those kids playing rugby!” to “Good God, we’re going too fast! We’ll hit that shack (the terminal) over there! We’ll never stop in time!” When you leave, it is almost as traumatic just, well, in reverse. First you’re convinced the plane will pitch John Kennedy Jr.-style into the ocean, then you’re sure the wheels will clip the rugby goal posts, likely hastening point A, and moments later you can’t believe a plane this big could fit on such a tiny dot. And in between these imagined crises, you find yourself wondering if there’s there enough to do on Raro to fill a long weekend and justify all this agonizing.
The diminutive nature of the Cooks is such that one might easily imagine seeing everything there is to see inside a few days with plenty of room for lazing on the beach staring at the horizon. That more than a few circuits of the island, even those pleasantly punctuated by stunning tropical vistas and snack breaks for the star fruit and papaya that are, quite literally, there for the picking, might be maddening and claustrophobic. And for some, that is certainly true.
Neither is Rarotonga a competitor for Ibiza, Aya Napa, Cancun or Montego Bay in the wild, tropical nights stakes, even if more recently it has developed a reputation as the “Mallorca of New Zealand”. Back nearly 20 years, when I visited, the power went out at 10pm every night and those without generators or a stockpile of batteries, had no choice but to turn in if they wanted to avoid stubbed toes and bruised shins from staggering blindly in the pitch black. On clear nights, especially with a big moon, lights weren’t necessary, perfectly illustrating how the ancestors of the Cook Island Maori had found their way here and between the far flung archipelago.
But, what they lack in area and liveliness, they make up for in charm and personality. And, among the biggest personalities on the Cooks for decades, was the impressively-titled Piri Puruto III. Born and raised on the outer island of Atiu (pronounced ah-tchoo, like the sneeze) in 1941, Piri moved to Auckland, New Zealand — a time-honored route for Cook Islanders who were the first humans to arrive in NZ and from whom the New Zealand Maori descend — after his 18th birthday. There he honed his boxing skills, becoming Auckland City middleweight champion in 1959, a title he retained the following year.
He eventually returned to the Cooks in the 70s to work in security at the Sheraton — at that time, the only resort to be built on the island. I suspect that was when his boxing skills fell dormant unless the island was going through an unusually grumpy period. During my stay, the closest anyone got to a fist-fight was arguing who should ride up to the Bottle Shop for more beer. It’s perhaps little surprise then that, during a quiet moment whilst securing not very much at the resort, he came up with the idea for the tourist show that would put his boxer’s physique to use and earn him the moniker “Cook Island Coconut King”.
In fact, it was Puruto’s act that, arguably, put Raro on the tourist map. So great was it that one Australian newspaper described him, somewhat hyperbolically, as “one of the most natural showmen on the face of the Earth!” “So, what did this amazing act comprise?”, I hear you ask. Well, rather like Raro’s cultural village and cultural market, Piri’s show was excellent, if rather limited. And I use the limited deliberately, but not in any way to diminish Piri for whom I have great affection, because it was limited to his donning of a coconut-hair hat and a loincloth and shinning rapidly up one of Raro’s many tall, swaying palms, with only the help of a palm frond twisted around his ankles.
Once at the top, swaying madly, and at least a hundred feet up with not a hint of a safety rope, he would turn and wave to the awe-struck crowd first with one hand and then with two, provoking gasps and cheers in equal measure. “Tek pitcha now – quick, quick!”, Piri would shout before wrapping his arms around the trunk and letting go with his feet. Howls from the crowd continued while Piri clowned some more, before he began his rather slower descent, during which he often slipped more than once.
Once safely back on the ground, the crowd let out one final cheer, Piri bowed humbly to their applause and gave a couple of awkward high-fives to a pair of round New Zealand ladies who, once he had passed, I overheard gossiping:
“Ooooh, he shouldn’t be doing that at his age, should he?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well… did you see his face when he came down? It was all grey and sick and he was covered in sweat. I could’ve sworn he was going to keel over!”
“Don’t worry – he’s used to it. Does it every Sunday, and look at ‘im, he’s fit as a flea. Not a pickin’ on ‘im! I wish my man looked like that or had that kind of energy, if you know what I mean!”
And, while it was true that Piri did have a wonderful physique and did his show every Sunday – and had done for more than 20 years by the time I saw it (I was lucky enough to see it twice) – it was also true that he wasn’t getting any younger. He even admitted as much to me as we sat around a fire at his place later after we’d feasted on the also-weekly umukai dinner of pit-roasted pork and taro, and spear-caught octopus from out by the reef. At 58, he said, he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep doing his show, but he would continue for as long as he could because he wanted to give tourists the chance to learn a bit about the Cook Islands during their stay. Gesturing at his son, Riki, he continued “and for the young-uns here too. Since we got that supermarket, they aren’t interested in the foods we all grew up eating. It’s all canned meat and canned fish all the time. If I can show them how we used to gather our dinner, maybe they’ll take an interest in it one day.”
Knowing what I know now about my generation and our appetites for instant gratification, I’m not confident of Piri’s success. Fortunately for him, he didn’t have to rely on revenue from show tickets (such as ticketing was – really it was more of a show-up and put NZ$10 in a hat) for his living since he’d bought Piri’s Coconut Beach Hostel, where I stayed. Backpackers from around the world, on their way between New Zealand and Figi, provided him with a comfortable living. In fact, Piri himself admitted that renting beds for NZ$15 a night so that pale kids from cities ten thousand miles away could brown themselves under Raro’s sun was an easier option than either climbing trees for food or being punched in the face for a living.
Set right on the edge of the lagoon, but without a beach, Piri’s hostel was almost as modest as his show — little more than a few low-slung, white-painted buildings with tin roofs fronted with French windows opening onto the sea. A couple of these cottages had their own little gardens in front, made private and pretty by flowering bushes. Stepping out of the French doors, if you looked to your right, you could see the resort Piri used to work at about half a mile up with its man-made beach and unused sea kayaks and neatly-planted palms. To the left, the shoreline curved in and then out creating a shallow little cove with blindingly white sand strewn with fallen palm trunks that were perfect for propping oneself up against, half-submerged in clear, bath-temperature water or, as my stay wore on, for use as back-scratchers to slough off my peeling shoulders. Next lay the abandoned foundations of another resort, now taken back by the jungle – creeper-clad concrete columns stained with rust scars and, beneath a raised platform, a colony of diminutive feral cats. Beyond that, a tiny palm-thatched bar/restaurant with a balcony from which, at high tide, you could drop potato chips to schools of colorful fish and spy the occasional flash of a silver-sided barracuda.
In fact, it was somehow preferable to focus on the struggles of miniature marine life close-up than consider the massive ocean beyond. A storm out to sea that brought only squalls and wind to Raro was enough to stir up the Pacific to swells that crashed on to the reef, rendering the lagoon temporarily grey and disturbed. The drumming of the rain on the roof that night, the banging of an unsecured window, and the creaking of the palms made it all seem flimsy and likely to blow away in not much worse conditions.
On my penultimate day on Raro, still comparatively cool and overcast after the overnight storm, though in reality only in the low 70s, Riki, Piri’s son and live-in manager of the hostel, remarked to me “Yeah, mate, I hate it when it get cold and miserable like this. If you tourists weren’t around, I’d still be wrapped up in me blankets, beanie on me head.” “In winter,” he continued, “we’ll sometimes have a whole month when it doesn’t get above 20 degrees (Celsius aka 68F)! It’s terrible. Feels like it lasts forever!” I was about to point out to him that there isn’t technically a winter season in the tropics and that he was talking to someone from a part of England where even during a good summer the average temperature is unlikely to get close to 68 Fahrenheit, but I hesitated momentarily, long enough for him to add, “My dad can’t do his show when the weather’s like this and he always says it remind him of the winters he spent in New Zealand.” It prompted me to ask how much longer he thought his old man would continue with his tree-climbing antics. “I dunno, mate”, he responded, “but I know he’s still got his strength. Just the other week, he caught me smoking and he gave me a proper slap right around me chops. Swear I thought I was going to lose a tooth!”
Since departing the next day and seeing Raro diminish to a speck in the boundless blue and then vanish behind a cloud, I have thought of Rarotonga and Piri only occasionally. It’s not the kind of place my everyday life reminds me of. The closest I have gotten might be landing in a tiny plane on the modest air strip in Vieques, PR, buffeted by a rain shower.
I didn’t leave Raro thinking I would return nor did I have any idea how unique that fortnight would be in the subsequent run of my life. But during a recent visit to my Dad’s in England, while raiding his attic for my old cricket bat, I unearthed packets of photos from the trip that sojourn in the Cooks was part of. Leafing through them I relived moments that I had not thought of since, and, in a fit of nostalgia, I decided to look Piri up to see if he was still doing his show.
The news was saddening. Far from scaling coconut palms for the pleasure of tourists, I learned that Piri passed away in 2013, aged only 72. I understand his passing was deeply mourned in the Cooks, though further reading about what became of he and Riki since our last meeting suggested that he will not be missed universally and that Riki isn’t much of a hotel manager.
Finding out that Piri died and that Riki, who even 20 years ago, couldn’t have been even generously described as a hard-worker, has let his father’s place go, felt a bit like looking up an old flame on Facebook and finding that they aren’t now – or perhaps never were – what you thought they were. It left me feeling slightly empty, like my memories were incomplete or false, somehow alienating me from twenty year-old memories withal so vivid.
I can still taste the smoky coconut sweetness in the octopus from the wood it cooked over. I can still see how the gay greens and yellows of the parrot fish faded to greys the moment Riki shot it with his spear-gun that morning in the lagoon. I can still feel the burning pain of scraping my knee against rough coral. And, I can still hear the swish and rustle of palm leaves and the susurration of the Pacific on the reef as I awoke each morning.
It’s quite likely that the younger me failed to notice that the place wasn’t spotless and ignored the moldy showers, the stench of the revealed reef at low tide and the mosquitoes that plagued all the other guests. It’s also possible that Puruto’s show was as cheesy as some commentators have claimed, that it gave a false impression of life on the Cooks and was nothing more than an opportunity for Piri to show-off. But even as young and impressionable as I was then, to me, Piri’s company felt rich and warm for a fleeting but genuine moment. What’s more, it remains the pick of my experiences on that trip.