Cook Islands 1986: My Gauguin Moment in a Poor Man’s Tahiti

I found an interesting ticket on Air New Zealand. The routing was  LAX, Papeete, Tahiti, Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, Fiji and finally Auckland, New Zealand. All of that for a few hundred dollars. I couldn’t resist. The rules allowed you to stay as long as you liked at each destination. The only caveat was that the flights were a only a couple of times a week. So once you got there you may have to wait a while for the next flight even if you were tired of the place. In those days, I traveled with one carry-on bag that went under the seat. The exact dimensions were 9″ x 22″ x 14″. I had it down to a science. I packed exactly the right number of long pants, short pants, shirts and underwear. Including the toiletries, the whole thing did not exceed 7 kg in weight. No waiting for baggage. I learned my lesson in El Salvador when my friend’s checked bag was stolen. But that’s another story.

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Photo taken at the Gauguin Museum, 1976

Tahiti was wonderful. To begin with, I love French culture. Combine that with the gorgeous Polynesian culture and you have an unbeatable combination. The only problem was that I was still a budget traveler in those days. Tahiti would blow a giant hole in your budget if you stayed there long enough. The reason is that Tahiti is a semi autonomous territory of France. Tahitians are French citizens. In those days, their currency was tied to the French Franc. Unfortunately, nearly everything that wasn’t made on the island was imported from France which was halfway around the world. The result was some eye-popping prices. I remember paying $15 for sandwich at a small snack bar. That was 30 years ago. While I loved the French cuisine and the wine in the restaurants, I winced each time they brought me the check. Soon I would be moving on to a different part of Polynesia, the Cook Islands, which my guidebooks told me was much cheaper. Perhaps Marlon Brando could afford a long stay in Tahiti but a college teacher like me could not.


Papeete Marina

Before leaving Tahiti, however, there were two things I wanted to do. First, I had to see the Gauguin Museum which was a short ride down the coast. Second, I wanted to see another island besides the main island of Tahiti. I chose Moorea which was the most accessible. I would rather have gone to Bora-Bora but time and money did not permit it. The trip to Moorea was delightful and I met a nice Frenchwoman who owned the small resort where I stayed a couple of nights.

The Paul Gauguin Museum chronicled Gauguin’s 10 years he spent on Tahiti and the nearby Marquesas Islands. He died on the Marquesas Islands in 1902, in fact. His paintings weren’t a success until after he died. The museum contains many of his documents, photos, sketches and block prints. I felt a bit of a disappointment to find there are very few original paintings. Since his oil paintings now sell for millions of dollars, I suppose it would be very expensive to keep any of them there. I understand now the museum has gone down quite a bit and is currently closed. I enjoyed my visit along with the ride down the spectacular coastline.


Ferry to Moorea

After Tahiti and Moorea, it was time to leave the expensive French-speaking part of Polynesia and move 700 miles to the southwest to the Cook Islands, an English speaking region. Named for Capt. James Cook who first visited in 1773, the Cook Islands is made up of 15 small atolls and islands scattered over 770,000 mi.². My Air New Zealand flight sat down on the main island of Rarotonga. The capital city, Avarua is on the north end of the island.

I booked a small beach bungalow near the airport. Although the airport was only a few miles from Avarua, the airport shuttle took me the entire circumference of the island all the way back around to my bungalow. Although it took nearly an hour, it was daytime so I got a great view of the whole island.

Cook Islands shack

Hugh Baker’s bungalow

I booked my bungalow with Hugh Baker and his mother, Dolly. I was a bit surprised when I saw that the bungalow appeared to be just a tin shack. Inside, however, it was well fitted out and was a short walk to the beach. Hugh even supplied me with a bicycle to ride the 2 miles into town. As I examined the bicycle, one thing stood out. It was nearly 100% made of plastic. It was engineered to survive the intense humidity, I suppose. I spent the next few days swimming and riding my bicycle and getting to know Rarotonga. The people were extremely friendly and welcoming. Some say the place is like Hawaii 80 years ago.


My Plastic Bicycle

Unlike Hawaii, Cook Islands is a self-governing island state in free association with New Zealand. The Kiwis provide for their defense and help finance their debt. Many of the professionals working on the island are from New Zealand. My landlord, Hugh Baker, worked at the airport and rented out bungalows for extra money. With only 14,000 native Cook Islanders left living in the islands, there are now more Cook Islanders living abroad than at home. In recent years, the islands have become a well-known tax haven and offshore banking center. While I was there, everything was unbelievably cheap. The kiwi dollar was about $.55 to the US dollar. A large bottle of delicious Steinlager beer only cost one kiwi dollar.


On one of my afternoon bike rides, I discovered the Banana Court Bar on the main highway. Although quiet in the daytime, the bartender told me to come back on a weeknight, Wednesday was ladies night and that would be best. They had a local band and the place filled up. I made a mental note to do that before I left the island. But first, I wanted to do as I had done in Tahiti and see an additional island. I chose Aitutaki because it was an atoll. Raratonga was formed by a volcano. An atoll is formed by coral and is usually ring-shaped with a large lagoon in the center.


Cook Islands Air Flight

This was the case with Aitutaki. Cook Island Air had regular flights there. The view from the was spectacular. I enjoyed a relaxing two or three days. I rented a motorbike and explored the atoll. The place was very quiet and idyllic. The only other tourists on my part of the island were a couple of Australian families. After two days of it, I was raring to get back to Rarotonga.


Aitutaki Atoll View

When I arrived back at my beach shack I realized two things. First, I only had two more nights on the island and soon I would have to move on to Fiji. My Air New Zealand ticket was booked and would be difficult to change. Second, I remembered it was Wednesday. This was the night for the Banana Court Bar. I needed to plan ahead. I didn’t want to be riding the plastic bicycle in the center at night. So when evening rolled around, I walked nearly a mile to the general store and called a taxi to take me into town.


When I arrived at the Banana Court Bar, I discovered the guys were right. The place was full. The music seemed to be a mix of American music and some local tunes. As I enjoyed my Steinlager and looked across the crowd, I noticed many of the women had flowers in their hair and wore tropical style dresses. Some of them looked as if they had been plucked from a Gauguin painting. I kept exchanging eye contact with one of the pretty young women. I can’t remember if I ask her to dance or she asked me. Probably she asked me because I tend to be shy and not very aggressive in bars.

No matter. We enjoyed three or four Western-style dances and I learned that her name was Justine. She had a charming slight New Zealand accent. I thought to myself, what a pretty name and what a lovely, exotic young lady. At that point the music changed and she asked me if I wanted to dance a local dance called the Ura. Why not? She had me stand in a semi-crouching position with my feet firmly planted on the floor while keeping my upper body steady. I was then to move my knees to the rhythm of the music. Facing me with her feet between mine, She stood above me, raised her arms and swayed and undulated to the music. OMG, what an incredibly sensual experience! This was not the dancing the Mormons had taught me in Utah many years ago. I was in heaven. I was smitten.

After a few more dances, her girlfriend showed up and said her group was leaving. When Justine hesitated a bit, the friend took her hand and began pulling her toward the door where her other friends were waiting.  Justine paused, smiled and looked back at me and said,” I work at the library”. Yes! I got the distinct impression she wanted to see me again. Why else did she tell me that? Was I being presumptuous? Cross cultural nonverbal communication is sometimes hard to read. Maybe she was just being kind to the forty-something American tourist. Well, we’ll find out. Tomorrow I’ll ride my bike into town and visit the library and say hello and see what develops. That night, as I fell asleep, I remembered dancing Ura and started having fantasies about dropping out of the American rat race and living the Gauguin lifestyle on the beaches of the Cook Islands.

Morning came and the rain started. It wasn’t just light tropical rain like we experienced a few days earlier. This was rain of biblical proportions. In my beach shack, I didn’t have a TV or radio. Probably this was a typhoon. There was no way I could ride that plastic bicycle into town. I doubt if I could even walk it when it was raining 70 miles an hour sideways. I had no other choice but to wait. And wait I did…the entire day. That night the deluge subsided a bit. The next morning I was able to walk to the general store. Annoyed, frustrated and wet, I booked my airport taxi for the confirmed flight to Fiji which was later that day. The tropical rains had washed away my Gauguin fantasy. I told myself I would return there soon. I never did. Life happened.


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