Day 320, Wed. Mar. 21, 2001 – Yep, that’s correct. Today we woke up on a brand new day and it is the same day as yesterday. This isn’t Groundhog Day, it’s one of those weird mind-bending quirks of modern jet travel when you can actually live the same calendar day twice (incidentally, many people take advantage of this on special days like New Years or birthdays so they can have two parties). Yesterday, we left Fiji at 5:00 PM on the 21st, we flew east for three hours, crossing the funky no-man’s land called the International Date Line en route and arrived in Rarotonga at 10:00 PM on the 20th, about 19 hours before we left. If that doesn’t sound weird enough, we now live an entire extra day, having two cracks at the 21st in case we didn’t get it right the first time (where is Einstein and the theory of time warps when you need them?). The bad news is we had to reset our watches and clocks, not to mention rewire our brains; the good news is we had two wedding nights.
We had decided on Rarotonga for a number of reasons: it was on the main route from New Zealand to Los Angeles, we wanted a week to relax and unwind after the excitement of Fiji, all the travel literature says it is amazing (e.g. "what Tahiti was 20 years ago before being spoiled"), and it is a hell of a lot cheaper than Tahiti, which caters to the up-market vacationers. Rarotonga maintains unique ties to New Zealand for both Polynesians and European settlers: It was from here that the "great migration" by canoe departed for Aotearoa, taking the ancestors of today's Maoris; and the islands were administered by the British through New Zealand and still has a "semi-independent" relationship in which national defense and international relations are managed by New Zealand. The islands cover a huge area by Pacific standards, with the Northern group a 4-hour flight from the Southern Group. The whole group is named for Captain James Cook, but he never saw the largest island, Raro, which was spotted by the mutineers from the Bounty. It is very small country, like a Pacific backwater, with just 20,000 people throughout the chain. This is up from less than 2,000 in 1867 after Western diseases wiped out two thirds of the population. Like Fiji, these islands hold their share of pre-European cannibal stories - like the one about Atiuans only eating ugly women and sparing beautiful ones - accounting for the remarkable beauty of Atiuan women today. Due to lack of economic opportunity, there are now more Cook Islanders living abroad than in Cook itself. The economy is based on tourism, black pearls, fruits, and vegetables. There is such an abundance of food, that there are few skinny Islanders and it is said that when Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was filmed here, it was impossible to find 500 people skinny enough to play prisoners of war, so they had to be flown in from New Zealand!
Last night on arrival we took a van to the Rarotongan Beach Resort and checked into our beachfront room. We could hear the surf meters from our door, but we were too tired to go swimming. We did admire the unbelievable night sky – with brilliant stars and the brightest Milky Way we’d seen in a while. Today, we woke to the sound of horses in the surf outside. Poor things- we hope they aren’t the ones to find out where the sea urchins are. After the breakfast overlooking the blue, yellow and red pool area – complete with waterfall and leaning palms, Naomi lounged around the beach while I scuba dived. She had a blast in the crystal clear waters and soft white sand and my dives were spectacular. The visibility was great, the scenery superb and the life beautiful – including lionfish, moray eels, scorpion fish, a turtle and huge tuna. Afterward, we had a gorgeous sunset and watched an “Island Show” of drummers and dancers after a buffet dinner. It was a regular Vegas floor show, complete with costume changes and a Rarotongan John Belushi as emcee. We were literally in the front row, nearest the stage, so we got good looks at sweating guys and hip-swiveling women with strategically placed grass skirts and coconuts. The girls got a little bit more attention from the audience as the flashes and video cameras spun to action whenever they took the stage. We were worried that they would come straight for us during the inevitable “audience participation” portion of the evening, so when the lights came up, we acted busy talking and stuffing cake in our faces (not a problem for us). They picked some hapless (and perhaps even less graceful than us) tourists to embarrass themselves. It was pretty good, although clichéd honeymoon entertainment.
OK, maybe I was a little more interested in the Hula show than Naomi was.
Day 321, Thur, Mar. 22, 2001 – Today we took a sea kayak out in the shallow reefs that fringe the island and snorkeled from there. The fish were beautiful – especially the funky-looking Picasso Triggerfish. While Naomi shopped around town, I went for another two scuba dives – much rougher seas than yesterday, but good dives. Graham and Grant of Pacific Divers were great. Sunset cast a pink glow over the beach and surrounding trees. We couldn’t find a nearby restaurant, so we were stuck at the hotel. Good thing, because some tourists there told us that the Russian Mir space station was due to crash down just 70 miles off the coast of Rarotonga. What incredible luck – there must be a million square miles of Earth to crash into and we happened to be where it is. We all sat on the deck of the restaurant scanning the skies - it was amazing, but a little cloudy compared to yesterday. We saw a few mysterious flashes and a slow-moving satellite, but no tell-tale fiery space junk hurtling across the horizon. After a couple hours even the most interested of us gave in. We went to the TV room and were disappointed to see that the 6-piece wreckage made a spectacular showing outside Nadi in Fiji - pretty ironic as we had just left there (and got married there) yesterday. We hope no one’s trying to tell us something.
Day 322, Fri, Mar. 23, 2001 – Today we called it quits on Rarotonga and took a 40-minute flight to the small coral lagoon isle of Aitutaki – supposedly the most beautiful in the pacific (where have we heard that before?). We landed at a huge airstrip built by the US during the Pacific War. We were a lot happier to visit here than William Bligh was, 17 days before his crew turned on him. We were met by the driver from Maina Sunset Motel and driven 15 minutes to the hotel – a small, tidy joint down a dirt road on the muddy West side of the Island. I was lucky to arrange a dive while Naomi slept off a cold. The dive master, a kid named Nathan with yellow dyed hair and tattoos, picked me up in a truck with a body completely made of wood and painted yellow. He said it was necessary because metal rusts so quickly on the salty island. The owners have a small side business in wooden vehicles now since other islanders admired their work so much. The dive was over an hour in huge caverns of dead coral with many fish. Everyone I meet recently talks about “the good old days” when the coral was alive and vibrantly colored – before global warming and “El Nino”. We did find some interesting caves, some giant clams and a wrecked barge. There were many crevices at just 5 meters, with tidal surge back and forth with the tide – it was a lot of fun exploring – especially sticking our heads inside a moray eel’s cave. We would have done a second dive, but Nathan had to get to his volleyball game. Friday is sports night on the island, with most people choosing volleyball since rugby was banned a few years ago when one guy was killed and another was paralyzed when their tacklers employed some American-style head-spiking into the turf. After the dive, we saw the village gathering around the volleyball courts, picnicking on blankets in the shade. A broken basketball hoop nailed to a coconut tree in a corner lot looked forlorn and sadly neglected. Back at the hotel, a short tropical rain pelted us in the pool just before sunset, making for a gloomy sky but interesting pictures. We were picked up for the weekly “Island Night” at Ralphies – partly because it was supposed to be better than in Rarotonga and partly because it was one of the only places in Aitutaki for dinner anyway. The food was great, but the restaurant was crowded and steamy and the show started too late. I got some air outside and joined a game with some kids. It seemed easy – hitting a tennis ball back can forth over a line with your shoe – but I got a sneaky feeling they kept changing the rules on me. The show finally started and the drummers were great, but some of the dancers were pretty young to be shaking their hips in revealing costumes (one girl’s coconut bra was a miniscule replica of the woman’s next to her). I think we know every taxi driver on the island already, as the same guy took us back to the hotel.
Day 323, Sat. Mar. 24, 2001 – Fitful night since Naomi is still suffering from mosquito attacks – too bad we gave our mosquito net away already. We took a boat cruise around the lagoon and several of the islands around the rim. It really is as gorgeous as they say. The water is just a few feet deep for hundreds of meters out to the fringing coral reef. We could see the bottom easily and were surrounded by fish when we snorkeled the clear water. Naomi jumped from the boat and nearly landed on top of a sea turtle – one of her favorites. She also spotted a real moray eel. Not “real” meaning that the past ones were imaginary, but real in the sense that this one was about 6 feet long! I swam down to coax it out and Naomi screamed underwater when she saw the true size of it. It was very scary-looking although mostly harmless (unless you scare it by swimming up to it or something - oops).
Our captain, Ke (aka “Captain Wonderful” according to his hat), was wonderful – singing songs, playing guitar, and telling us about the islands and related legends. At Tapeteaua (One Foot Island), he told us the legend of the man running from trouble (from cannibals, naturally) with his son. The man saved his son by hiding him in a coconut tree and walking back on the kid’s footprints so he would not be tracked. Ke said, “we were eating each other before the Europeans arrived. Now we don’t love the taste of each other – we love each other.” We walked a couple hundred yards out to a small sandbar in the middle of the lagoon – it was like our own private island. Ke also took us to a “honeymoon” island where sea birds nest and couples plant coconut trees, and to the former leper colony island that was used for the filming of the “Shipwrecked” TV program. Those kids didn’t last the three months required, but Ke said he could last his whole life. The whole trip was beautiful – and we shared it with the miniature United Nations of New Zealand, England, Australia, Germany, Italy, and Cook.
Day 324, Sun, Mar, 25, 2001 – This morning we rented a moped from Mahe at the hotel, put on the cleanest clothes we could muster and rode into town to the church. It is the oldest in the Cook Islands as Aitutaki was the first foothold of the London Missionary Society. The church sits in a green field near the harbor with a small cemetery, and palm trees rustling in the breeze. The villagers were arriving as we pulled up – women in their finest flowered hats, men in their nicest collared shirts and kids as neat as they could be. The church is famous for the spirited hymn singing every Sunday. It was incredible – the bass line belted out from huge old guys in the pew in front of us – the men stopping only briefly to wipe the sweat despite the fans rotating above. We looked out the window to the palms outside and the turquoise lagoon beyond.
We took the moped around the island, stopped for lunch at Tapauna Café, got attacked by swarms of mosquitoes at the famous stone maraes in the jungle, drove through a huge banyan tree surrounding the road, then stopped to look at the other side of the island. The beach was overrun with little crabs with black bodies and one huge red claw dominating their bodies. They looked comically lopsided as if they shouldn’t be able to walk. But they could, as they scampered when Naomi chased after them with a little boy. He caught a couple for boiling, but we didn’t see any of the famous huge coconut crabs that climb the trees and chop down coconuts to eat the flesh inside.
We continued out past the long airport runway and rented snorkeling gear at Samadee from a Jimmy Buffett look-alike. He’s from Oregon, but “can’t afford not to” spend a few months each year in the islands because he loves it and can live like a king here. We parked the moped and snorkeled off the end of the runway (we can only imagine what can be seen at the end of the runway at LAX in El Segundo). The coral was dead, but the fish were great, and it was fun to navigate through the rocks and channels in the shallow, warm lagoon. We saw plenty of Matu Rori sea cucumbers, which locals eat raw after squeezing the spaghetti-like guts out like toothpaste. Seemed like sushi to me, but Naomi assured me that it is nothing of the sort. After snorkeling, we checked out the neighboring resort – way over-priced for what you get. We found some pretty good shells at the beach then went back to the other side of the island for the sunset reflecting off sparkling sand. We had a delicious dinner of salmon and pasta at Crusher then rode back under the stars and finished the last of the Fijian rum in the pool. A very fitting last night to our adventure.
Day 325,Mon, Mar. 26, 2001 – Filled up the moped with gas and returned it, waving to the locals as we drove by – some actually recognize us by now (it’s a nice feeling). As we had before, we are sad to leave small, peaceful islands (Zanzibar, Le Digue, Gilli Air). As we waited for the hotel van to take us to the airport, we laid on the bed under the ceiling fan and our minds drifted to what we wanted to eat first and what we had missed the most in the past 325 days:
Na: “Taco Bell”
Ja: “Tommy burgers”
Na: “Salami and pepperjack cheese…”
Ja: “Philadelphia cream cheese”
Na: “…on Triscuits.”
Ja: “In N’ Out Burgers”
Na: “California Pizza Kitchen Chopped Salad”
Ja: “CPK tequila lime chicken fettuccini”
Na: “Louise’s Trattoria”
Ja: “Chilli John’s”
Ja: “Fat free ice cream”
Na: “Paco’s Tacos”
Na: “Puffed corn”
Ja: “Hot chocolate chip cookies and ice cold milk”
Ja: “The omelets on Sunday morning at the farmer’s market’
Na: “My Car”
Ja: “My Bike”
Na: “Our Own Bed”
Ja: “The Jacuzzi”
Na: “Our own bath”
Ja: “The sauna”
Na: “Our balcony”
Ja: “Our fish”
Na: “Different clothes”
Na: “Working out”
Ja: “Our Music!”
Ok, so it took us a while to get to the real important stuff. The point is, we got there and we’re really starting to get excited about coming home.
Mahe drove us to the airport in her van. She says she gets a lot of attention when she drives because her license plate is “69” – the van is very popular for photos with tourists. At the airport, we saw the same 10 tourists we had seen all weekend. We sat looking out over the grass landing strip, sad because this was the last day of the trip. On the plane, we could see the changing colors of the water as the light turquoise of the shallow lagoon gives way to the deep cobalt past the protective reef around the island.
Back in Rarotonga, we had a whole day to spend before taking an overnight flight, so we stored our bags and rented a jeep. We drove all over the island, seeing some things we didn’t see the first time – green volcanic mountains, rock formations, and waterfalls. I think it’s going to take some time for me to get used to driving on the right side again when we get home. We snorkeled for a while, then shopped for souvenirs and gifts, checked internet to see who was winning Oscars and NCAA basketball games, then collected souvenir money as we had from 29 other countries. We love the cool $3 bills with a naked island maiden riding a shark. It was apparently inspired by the legend of a young girl riding a shark to meet her lover on another island. We think it was just some perverted designer in the treasury department, but it’s still our favorite currency note of the trip. We had our last seafood dinner after sunset and drove back to the airport, leaving our jeep in the parking lot unlocked with the keys on the floor as instructed (this would last about five minutes in L.A.). We retrieved our bags from storage at the Fire Station, rearranged some things, then interviewed the guys at the station. Sitting outside the station was the guy who had been playing ukulele when we arrived:
"Family is the most important thing. In everything, the family comes first."
Day 326, Tues, Mar. 27, 2001 – Now it is sometime in the middle of the night, we are somewhere over the Pacific and according to the in-flight computer projection, we just crossed the equator. The flight was delayed an hour, and by the time dinner was finished, everyone was dead tired. Now they are all asleep and the only light in the economy cabin comes from my screen as I type this. Naomi’s head is tilted 90 degrees on her shoulder as she snoozes away. My wife. It seems so odd to write that, much less say it out loud. Some 36 years into this life and I am no longer a single man (or “bachelor” as the marriage license had indicated). Our lives are intertwined now in more ways than they ever had been before, and we will be much better for it.
So we return home - some 11 months and 30 countries later, having completed what we anticipated would be the longest, most amazing pre-honeymoon in history . We may not have achieved as much as we originally planned with One World Foundation, but we have gotten to know ourselves (and our world) much more intimately. Most things we like (or at least they were not surprises), but some things still trouble us – the imperfections that make us human. We saw them in every country – amongst the most beautiful sites in the world, the human fear, hatred, ignorance and material deprivation – the mere survival that takes the place of “living” in many places – places that represent the sad vast majority of our human family. Will the apathetic continue to turn a blind eye? We met many who didn’t want that to happen. We talked to hundreds of people, collecting opinions, but some observations are truer when left unsaid – the playful banter in the marketplace, women smiling with enormous loads on their heads, old guys without a care in the world other than their next toss of baci ball, drunks sleeping in the streets, men quietly herding cattle, kids laughing at the simplest of things made into toys – a piece of string, a rock, their shoes. These things we hope to remember – and impress upon anyone willing to listen: We are all in this together, the past is prologue, we need to start working on solutions together, and care about what happens in our world. After all, “we have not inherited this world from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children”.
By the time Naomi woke up, we were descending towards LAX and watching the screen with the miniature airplane plot our course. As we approach the familiar brown cloud of smog over home, we hold hands and touch down. Entering the terminal is a surreal experience after so long – the “Welcome to Los Angeles” sign, the English language, the old familiar customs agent routine. Naomi’s mom met us at the airport with flowers and a balloon and gave us a ride home to Santa Monica. It was weird driving out, but the sight of convertibles, Mexican restaurants, cell phones, hundreds of billboards, enormous SUVs and In N’ Out Burger made us realize we were home. The traffic on Lincoln Boulevard was bad but it’s only going to get worse when that ridiculous Playa Vista project is finished. Our house was like a time warp. Chad had taken good care of it, but we found ourselves going “oh yeah, we had this furniture, and these plants, and these fish, etc." We made a mess of it in very short order with luggage, boxes shipped back, mail, etc. We had a lot of things before, and shipped back many more things – mostly gifts and souvenirs we need to go through and give away. They are reminders - triggers that set off explosions of memories – but still just things. They don’t mean nearly as much as the memories we have inside.
Post-Script, April 28, 2001 - Well, we've been here for a month already - enough time re-acquaint ourselves with our home town, see some friends and family, and start in on 94 hours of video and 90 rolls of film. Our town is familiar - there's still too many people here, the Dodgers still lose pretty while the Lakers win ugly, cell phones are still stuck to most ears, the beach bike path is still crowded with interesting folks, and Venice Beach is still the best freak show in the world. Welcome home.
A few days ago we sent the following email to our extended friends and family a month after being home, getting our bearings, and letting it all sink in:
All the best,
Naomi and Jamie