Memories of Rarotonga

Isabelle Galko
September 17, 2019

As the mid-semester break arrived, I had the opportunity to travel outside of New Zealand for a few weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I love everything about Auckland…but the IES Abroad program’s trip to Rarotonga (an island in the Cook Islands) had left me dreaming of sunshine and warm weather for weeks.

Landing on an island where dark green vegetation crept to the vibrant blue of the coral reefs was my first introduction to this island paradise. I settled into a beachside room for the evening and spent one of many nights with the sounds of ocean waves in the back of my head.

The first day, I made my own sarong (a colorful wrap you can tie around your waist like a skirt), playing with paint rollers and long, rectangular pieces of cloth. I puzzled over weaving coconut leaves into ei katu (a Cook Island head crown with flowers) and tried to dance like the locals (a lot of hip shaking!). I also learned everything about climbing coconut trees and husking coconuts. Little did I know I would be addicted to the sweet taste of a nu (or young coconut, perfect for drinking) by the end of the trip.

Our group was later welcomed at the local community center with music and singing. I immediately knew I would love this break from school as I danced with local kids who giggled at my lacking moves—though they were much younger than me, they were incredible dancers. I ate from a bountiful table full of bowls of food I’d never seen before, dishes like taro (a starchy root vegetable), ika mata (a raw fish dish), papaya, and rukau (cooked taro leaves). I officially felt less like an outsider and more like a visitor on this friendly island.

Rarotonga is a paradise for those who never get tired of sand in their toes, sun-kissed skin, and living on “Island Time.” The coral reefs are within wading distance of the beach, where hours can be spent staring at fish, sea cucumber, or even a lucky octopus or moray eel. With afternoons of napping on the beach and evenings hanging out on the sandy shores a few steps from my bed, I enjoyed every day and night on the island. 

The night sky of Rarotonga (one of the best I've ever seen), lacking backlight from buildings or cars, was lit merely with stars and the Milky Way. Under these twinkling lights, I felt incredibly small, just one person on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean.

Later, at the highest point on a cross-island hike, I could see 360-degrees around Rarotonga. Every coastal village, boat on the ocean, and person walking on the shore was a small dot from up high but I realized that though Rarotonga was small, the size of the island didn't matter. It was really the people I met, the new things I explored, and how happy I was while I was there that made Rarotonga take up a much bigger place in my heart.

Before coming to Auckland, I’d never heard of Rarotonga, or any of the other fifteen islands in the Cooks. Settled in the middle of the Pacific—almost halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii—my home for a week introduced me to a new culture and tons of new friends. I had so much fun with my IES Abroad group and couldn’t wait for my second week of mid-semester break, when I would be exploring more new places!

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