Having chosen a privately owned apartment to stay in on Rarotonga, the capital island of the Cook Islands, there was no representative and fancy minibus to meet us as there was for some of the other tourists. Instead we flung our backpacks on and made our way to the bus stop, joining locals as they finished their days work. We sat in the back, our packs propped up beside us, and followed our progress on the tourist map we’d picked up at the airport. The one main road on the island of Rarotonga hugs the coastline like a 32km ribbon separating the land from the sea. We counted off the various smart beachside resorts and the rustic guest houses, the simple white-washed churches and the small convenience stores which serviced the string of small villages we passed. Between the palm trees that stood proud and upright above the sandy shore we caught glimpses of the sea, glistening and shining as though the sunlight was bouncing off a million tiny diamonds that floated on its surface.
After about forty minutes we arrived at our apartment, on the the south eastern edge of the island, which was to be our home for the next two weeks. It was just as we had imagined. Open plan living, allowing the warm breeze to circulate, a kitchen to cook what we want when we want – a rare treat – covered porches on either side to catch the beginning and end of the sun’s daily journey and a wardrobe to give our clothes, which for the main are kept squeezed and flattened in their cramped travelling conditions, some freedom.
But housekeeping could wait. The sea and all the treasures that lay within it called to us like a bevy of beautiful sirens. It was a glorious sight as bands of blue and white stretched to the horizon and beyond. A layer of creamy white sand blended in to the exquisite turquoise of the lagoon then a fringe of frothy white waves which were breaking on the outer reef. On the horizon the deep royal blue of the Pacific Ocean changed to a soft cornflower blue as the sky reached up and over my head like a huge awning.
The water was cooler than I had imagined, but so clear and clean I was easily lured in. The coral looked as though the colour had been washed out giving it a somewhat grey and bland appearance, but there were a myriad of shapes and textures giving the fish a playground of hills and valleys and caves. There were fish a plenty. Grey and white striped Damsel fish were the most curious. They swam up to peer in to my eyes and to investigate the fingers I waggled at them. It was a buzz having them around me and a wonderful sight to see David who was a little way off surrounded by about 20 of these little fellas as they swam alongside him. I was struck by a smaller, longer fish with colours like that of an iridescent rainbow and another whose colourings of pinks and greens would have looked wonderful on a roll of fabric. There was a giant clam with it’s wavy mouth opening and closing giving glimpses of its velvety blue interior and strange long, tube like fish almost translucent, with an extraordinary long nose which looked like it belonged in a sci-fi scene. On the sea bed were fat, black sea slugs, a blue star fish like creature that looked like it had been made from plasticine and something that looked like a rolled up, mauve cotton rag rug, which I later found out is called a prickly-red fish. Despite the plethora of sea creatures to be amazed by what I found most magical were the patterns of sunlight that played on the sand beneath my floating body. I hung there suspended, hypnotised by the shards of light as they moved and changed shaped, merging and colliding and breaking apart. Although I knew others may be seeing something similar I felt alone in this watery world and special, as though this light show, unique as it was to this moment, defined by the position of the sun and the movement of the sea’s surface, was put on especially for me.
I thought these snorkelling experiences would be ten a penny, that we’d explore different spots around the Island, and float in this liquid fantasy world each day. However, a low pressure weather system arrived the day after we did and has been sitting above us, as sulky and reluctant to move as a bored teenager. The grey skies, torrential rain and crashing waves have stirred the sand and brought writhing streams of red-brown mud from the central hills to the lagoon, limiting the visibility and my enthusiasm for getting in the water. However, we’ve been to the beach every day whatever the weather and marvelled at how the shape of it has changed, indeed it seems to change every day as it is moulded and re-moulded with the force of the tide, the wind and rain. We’ve seen dramatic scenes as enormous waves rear up like a row of boxers, summoning their energy in coiled muscles ready to place that final punch, only to fold in on themselves, defeated by the greater staying power of the outer reef. Plumes of spray rise up like the spirits of these dying champions and are carried on the wind until they gradually disperse and disappear. We’ve paddled a kayak over the choppy waters to the reef and from our ringside seat, against the backdrop of a dark, steely grey sky, we have marvelled at this eternal battle playing out before us. From our apartment, which is just 70 metres from the beach, we can hear the constant roar of these giant breakers as they continue to rise and fall, live and die. And we hear the wind, another force and player in this scene, whipping around the house and watch as the fronds of the palm trees dance to its tune.
Each morning we get up, draw back the curtains and look out to judge the percentage of grey cloud to blue sky and try to predict the day. We make plans and stick to most of them – hiring bikes to explore the inner island road which, having been formed in the 11th century, is narrower and quieter than the main road. It meanders through taro and banana plantations which are lush and verdant, in part due to this life sustaining rain. Rambling homesteads, where we have to dodge piglets that run squealing across the road and are barked at and chased by territorial dogs, lie cheek by jowl with neat holiday homes. It can be energy sapping cycling in to the wind and there’s the occasional shower, which could threaten to dampen our enjoyment, but none of it does. There’s something rather visceral and life affirming breathing in this newly cleaned air, fragranced with the sweet smell of damp soil and gardenias, and feeling the strength of my heart and leg muscles as I propel myself through this garden of paradise.
We go each day to the beach just because it’s there, just because we can. Sometimes we swim, sometimes we just walk, our feet sinking in the new layer of soft sand that’s been brought to shore. When the wind drops off and the rain is soft, the surface of the water becomes still and calm, having an almost oily appearance. On one of these occasions with no one else around we slipped in to the water and had the entire lagoon to ourselves. Submerging our faces, our eyes came level with the surface and we saw the moment the rain drops hit and bounced back up before the surface tension gave way and engulfed them in to this engorged grey, green mass of water.
Sometimes the weather is too much of a force for us and we relent. Donning waterproofs and walking close together under one umbrella we set forth one Sunday morning to attend church. I am not a church goer, I find my gods in other places, but I love to sing and to hear and be around others who find joy and connection in music. We have been told that the heartfelt singing, the harmonies and the pure joy of communion on these islands is a “must do”. It’s raining as we leave and it just gets heavier and more persistent. Twenty minutes in we are only half way there, and are late. Walking hip to hip has slowed our progress, we are soaked and arriving part way through a service, dripping and disheveled, just doesn’t feel right so we abandon the idea. Despite the ridiculousness of the situation, or probably because of it we have a Gene Kelly moment. Laughing, fooling around in the puddles, happy to be alive and free, we begin singing for ourselves in the church of the open sky.
As I finish writing this I am sitting on our back porch looking out at the jagged, tree covered mountains which dominate the centre of Rarotonga. I am beginning to feel that the sulky grey cloud, still hanging heavy and determined over them may never leave home! And then I remind myself of the Buddhist saying that “this too will pass” and I relax, knowing the truth of this. It’s also true that despite some disappointment and frustration in the length of time we have been beholden to this weather system, it has given us another view and experience of the island. It has also given me the opportunity, once again, to let go of what I think I want and to embrace what I am given. To make the most of a situation, whether or not it matches my dreams, is I find, a useful and enriching life skill!