This is Raro: and how I learnt to not be an imperialist

IMAG0037Last week I spent five nights in Rarotonga. It was my first time having an “island” holiday. The closest I’d come was a week in Phuket. It was not what I expected.

Rarotonga is underdeveloped as shit. The whole island itself is tiny. We did a lap of it in a car in about 40 minutes, a bit longer on a scooter. Dotted along the road were shack-like houses, many in a state of disrepair. Graves were a frequent feature of many people’s front yards. Chickens, dogs and a few cats ran freely among the properties and onto the roads in front of the traffic.

The tourists are largely New Zealanders getting away for a bit of warmth in our winter. There were a few Aussies, one or two British families and I think I heard one American and one Canadian accent while I was there. Tourism is overwhelmingly the Cook Islands’ largest driver of its economy. Talking to a friend who lives there, she said it was about 70 per cent of its economy. The next largest is offshore banking.

With this in mind, it puzzled me why they didn’t make more of an effort to be more tourist friendly. Why did it feel like I was visiting a country in the 1990s if that country was so dependent on my money to survive?

Everywhere I looked there were things I wanted to improve. The road was paved only through the main township, other than that it was terrible. The water was apparently undrinkable from taps. The internet was hopeless and expensive. My friend paid $90 a month and got 16gb for the pleasure. Sky TV is equally horrendously expensive. There’s a $500 installation charge, then it’s $200 a month for about five channels.

The currency is NZ dollars. And shit’s expensive. You go out for dinner, if you have a main and a couple of drinks each you’re looking at a bill of around $100NZD. And you don’t go to Rarotonga for the food. They tend to overcook most things so that what once was flavourful is now no longer. Obviously most things have to be imported so that drives the price up. But when people complain that New Zealand is a low-wage high-price economy, we ain’t got shit on the Cook Islands. I think someone told me the minimum wage was $6 an hour. Frankly I don’t know how people survive on that. But then most people are working multiple jobs.

We did a quad-biking trip, the next night we went to one of those kinda crass cultural evenings where the guy who had been our guide on the quad-biking trip was also a barman at the cultural show. He also flew planes between islands for Air Rarotonga. I asked him how many jobs he had. Four, he told me. I assume this is for two reasons, firstly because they need that many jobs to make ends meet, but secondly there is jut nothing else to do. Rugby and God are the two main preoccupations of the Cook Islands.

During our cultural tour, it was pointed out to us on more than one occasion how ironic it was that when the missionaries came they frowned upon a lot of the behaviour that went on – such as toplessness from the women, but now it is the Cook Islanders who frown on the Westerners for the states of undress they like to get into.

IMAG0075The cultural show fascinated me. Cook Island natives, are basically first-gen Maori. But their cultural displays are far less aggressive than the traditional Maori Haka. The dancing and singing is also, what one might call, more upbeat. I don’t know why this is. I’m going to have to ask.

But back to my earlier question, why is it, that if the Cook Islanders are so heavily dependent on foreigners coming and having a great time and spending a lot of money, do they not try harder? You will have heard of “island time” no doubt, it’s a way of life there. They just do not give a fuck. At our resort there was an AVIS car rental desk. Its main feature was a sign that would say “Back at 2pm”. This would often be at 2:45.

And then I realised.

I was projecting some hard white colonialism onto the people of the Cook Islands by even asking my question. Because saying they are “heavily dependent” on me is presumptive. They seem perfectly happy with their lot. They love their life, they live it how they want. I ask the question above because the island isn’t developed how *I* think it should be. Me, a first-world white westerner. Basically I’m trying to project my values onto a completely different culture. One that refuses to meet me. And bloody good on it.

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