Reflections on the Cook Islands
Rarotonga, capital of the Cook Islands is a rare slice of paradise at first glance. I could see myself living there—-almost. It is a place of contrasts that juxtaposes the idyllic with the distasteful.
Christianity arrived relatively late in the Cook Islands, with the first missionaries arriving in the mid 1800s. Until that point, the indigenous peoples worshipped a variety of deities; some common to many tribal groups and others more closely associated with individual groups. Along with a pantheon of deities came a history of bloody tribal warfare, with one of the largest battles occurring just prior to the arrival of the first missionaries. The contemporary interpretation of history suggests that Christianity, with it’s message of monotheism and love, was eagerly taken up by an indigenous population that couldn’t wait to abandon its traditional ways of worship and cultural practices. Taken at face value, it suggests a cultural transformation as dramatic as any coups in history. Today, Christianity pervades the culture of the Cook Islands. By casual count, I recorded five separate Christian denominations with multiple associated houses of worship on Rarotonga; an island with a population of less than 10 000 people. It permeates society and hangs over attempts to revive traditional culture within the island group. A cultural event we attended conveying the history of the indigenous peoples through dance and song was framed within the context of its relation to the advent of Christianity. Through the lens of a Canadian, coming to terms with our own history of colonialism, there are disquieting parallels between our experience and what exists today in this tourist paradise.
One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about Rarotonga was the people we interacted with. Rarotongans, for the most part, are friendly and resourceful people. The main economic driver in the Cook Islands throughout most of the 20th century was agriculture. There remains evidence on the Rarotonga of large scale plantations which at one time provided huge quantities of citrus fruit and bananas throughout the South Pacific. By the late 1960s, that economy had largely collapsed, whereupon, Cook Islanders turned to tourism as the new economic engine. They do it very well, attracting nearly half a million visitors a year to Rarotonga alone. Tourism is a lifestyle in Rarotonga as daily life revolves around responding to the needs of tourists—-to a point. In a quirky way, Rarotonga still refuses to completely capitulate to tourism. For example, stores close anywhere between 3 and 5 p.m. an unthinkable situation for most North Americans. I met a tattoo artist who arranged his day around the weather, choosing to golf rather than accept clients if a particularly fine day beckoned. Many restaurants don’t stay open past 9:00 p.m. making the prospect of late evening dining a bit dicey. Perhaps the most noticeable thing for tourists is the limited nature of internet service—scandalous for social media junkies. With only Wi-Fi hotspots available, trying to get a reliable internet connection had us looking like we were playing Where’s Waldo, or engaged in a particularly frustrating game of PokemonGo. In all, these were relatively superficial irritants in an otherwise wonderful setting, but tourism has exacted a price from the Islands.
My impression of Rarotonga as an environment is that it sits on the cusp of monumental change. In the last decade, there have been significant efforts to engage in more environmentally responsible practices and create sustainable sources of energy. There has been significant investment in solar energy here, with solar farms doting the landscape. Islanders took to sustainable energy with the zeal of the converted as it was sold as an effect means of cutting high monthly energy costs. Ironically, although individuals invested in solar energy, government investment in the energy grid lacked, meaning that it was unable to handle all the electricity being supplied. As a result, many islanders have solar arrays sitting idle on their houses while they pay for electricity. In addition, as Rarotonga continues to be developed for tourism, the demands on an inadequate power grid keep rising. Another associated cost of tourism is waste.
Away from the beautifully groomed beaches in front of neatly kept holiday resorts, there is trash in abundance. Although local government promotes eco friendly practices, they appear to have forgotten to get that memo out to the populace. Casual littering is astounding. Done with lunch? Just drop it on the ground. Couldn’t finish your half liter bottle of Heineken? Just drop that anywhere. What is truly astounding is that is not really the problem. The climate in the islands is tropical, so organic matter degrades very quickly, heck, even bottles disappear into the undergrowth alarmingly quickly. The larger problem is industrial scale waste that results from tourism. For example, there are hundreds of scooters, cars and tour buses of varying sizes on the island. They never leave. Each year old, worn out or wrecked vehicles continue to pile up and slowly rot out from the salt air, leaching chemical waste into the ground. On an island that you can circumnavigate in under an hour, there isn’t a lot of extra space for junkyards. Even with the most rose coloured glasses, you cannot overlook the toll of tourism.