Dorothy Conlon is an octogenarian globe-trotter who, often traveling alone, explores destinations that are well off the beaten track. Combining personal travel with volunteer/service learning experiences, she has traveled from the far reaches of the Amazon to Africa, Asia, India and many other locations. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Dorothy as she travels to and volunteers in the Cook Islands.
Day One – Monday
Here I am at small Aitutaki airport on an Embraer plane with 8 other passengers at 10 AM, having left home in Florida on Saturday evening. I came here to the Cook Islands as a volunteer under the auspices of Frontier, a UK organization. There was nobody to meet me, but the friendly assistant station manager phoned Naomi, the principal of the school where I’ll be working. (Everybody on the island knows Naomi.) Ten minutes later she pulled up, adorned me with a fresh floral lei and wreath for my head, and we took off for a short orientation tour of this tiny island before reaching Tekaaroa School.
Kids, mostly in blue and white school uniform, crowded around to greet me with “Kia Orana” and many shook hands. I sat with Naomi and two other teachers for a short get-acquainted session. They wondered what I would like to be called, being an American senior, different from the British Gap Year student volunteers they had had previously. Auntie Dorothy was the decision. Then we two headed to my new home, via a lunch stop at a small snack bar. Sweet potato French fries & salad for me. She bought me some bottled water and a hand of small bananas as well. Before long we reached “my” house, an empty modern bungalow with three bedrooms, a nice kitchen and bathroom—with solar hot water yet, all spotlessly clean. I was bushed from so many hours of travel. Ah, welcome rest.
Later that afternoon, Naomi and her granddaughter—also Naomi, called “Nam”—picked me up to visit “Gilbert’s,” a grocery store on the opposite side of the island. I bought everything I could think of to feed me for the next two weeks. Another smaller store closer to my house is apparently more expensive, and I like to save money. Milk, juice, coffee, butter, eggs, peanut butter, tuna fish, etc. for a total of US$50. Their only bread was huge loaves, white, but we were able to get delicious dark bread at another store the next day. The fruit on this island was fabulous. I gorged myself on mango, papaya, soursop and an occasional guava or passion fruit. I remembered soursop from living in Indonesia and was overjoyed to taste it again.
And so, I slept happily under a mosquito net my first night in my new home in a new part of the world, eager for whatever the next two weeks might hold.
Day Two – Tuesday
When I signed up with Frontier to volunteer here, I knew little about the Cook Islands, except that they were a cluster of 15 Polynesian islands in the South Pacific, south of the Equator and west of Tahiti. I was surprised to discover that I would be working not in the largest, Rarotonga, but in Aitutaki, an atoll stretched around a large turquoise lagoon. Population: just over 2,000 souls in six small hamlets.
Naomi picked me up at 7:30 in the morning, the back of her pickup truck carrying Nam and several other kids. Enrollment is 100 from kindergarten through sixth grade. I was assigned to assist Ekoura, the 5-6 grade teacher and liked her immediately. We had only 14 in our class, mostly boys. School hours, presumably from 8 till 2 with a 1-hour break at 10:30, were mighty lax. As a church sponsored school (Seventh Day Adventist), classes started and ended with prayers, often in the Maori language. The native language here is Maori, although many families have lived in New Zealand and are fluent in English. The students’ level of English varied considerably, especially in writing. That gave me plenty to do to help them improve.
The school was getting ready to compete against two other elementary schools on Sports Day next week, so on our first break we all walked down to the picture-postcard perfect palm-shaded beach for broad jump practice. Back at school it was relay races, never mind math and geography. We got in a bit of class work before the closing bell rang at 2. About 35 pupils left on a green and white bus, the rest of us piling onto motorbikes or walking. I saw very few sedans or SUVs on the island, but plenty of well-worn pickup trucks. Most people got around by moped or motorcycle—no helmets.
Day Three – Wednesday
At school I worked with the students on a geography lesson which Ekoura had started, while she was out of the room on some project or other. That seemed to happen quite a bit in all classes, but the students simply played around when left on their own. In some such situations I’ve seen fights erupt, but not in this peaceful part of the world. When in doubt, I could always read them a story, or get them to sing. Aitutakians love singing and harmonize naturally.
Back home in the afternoon I explored a bit, taking a short-cut path down towards the center of this tiny town to check out the small general store. They carried a range of hardware and local souvenirs as well as food and toiletries, but almost no fresh produce. Going back, the shady short cut climbed a bit, through stubble, with several goats tethered along the way. Chickens wandered everywhere; I often thought some would come right into my open house. People passing me on their motorbikes invariably waved or called out a greeting.
Naomi had told me they’ve had a 3-month drought. But that evening we had a welcome light shower. Weather here is fairly constant year round, I was told, with high’s in the 80’s and low’s in the 60’s. My closed house was always hot when I got home from school, but opening it to the sea breeze soon made it comfortable, especially with the help of a standing fan.
Day Four – Thursday
Rainwater was stored in a huge green tank beside my house. I forgot about turning on the pump at first. Despite the reported drought, we seemed to have plenty of water—if one just remembered the pump. On the kitchen counter I was provided a huge glass jug of purified water; from which I filled smaller bottles for the fridge, including my own bottle which I took to school daily. Mosquitoes weren’t as bad as I had been warned, but I applied deet each afternoon and used calomine lotion liberally on the bites I did get. Geckos came out in the evening, just as in Florida, and helped keep the mosquito population under control.
Ekoura picked me up this evening to go to Island Night at one of the resorts. We knew the dinner would be expensive, so we ate first and arrived after 8 PM, before the outdoor performance started. What a fabulous show! It started and ended with fire dancing. In between were numerous dances by costumed young men and women, with plenty of fast wiggling hips, hula style but sped up. You expected their flouncy grass skirts to fall off; maybe they were glued on. I got tired watching the constant fast action, but the dancers seemed tireless. They were accompanied by various drums, guitars and ukuleles. The final demonstrations of fire dancing were the most spectacular of all. All done so effortlessly.
Except for this evening, I’ve seen almost no tourists. Too bad, because more tourism would provide more work for the residents. They do lots of fishing and export some bananas. Otherwise, it’s a very poor place to live, but everyone smiles and seems happy.
Day Five – Friday
Friday was Kia Orana Day at school. That typical greeting literally means “may you live on.” Instead of blue and white uniforms, most of the children wore bright flowered shirts, and many sported floral leis and wreaths on their heads. Assembly was held in the chapel room, only on Mondays and Fridays. The kids all sat in rows on the floor. It was in Maori, so I couldn’t tell—other than the hymn singing—what it was about. School ended an hour early today, at 1pm. I got a ride home by motorcycle with another teacher, “Ba,” by way of her village of Vaipeke, on the east side of the island. Most of the villages here are simply a few houses lining the dirt road. The main one, where I stayed, Arutanga, had a post office, police station, a store or two, 4 or 5 churches, a school, and a few residential streets. In my side yard and at others there were raised white tombs of family members. I didn’t see a regular cemetery anywhere, but Christianity is an important part of Cook Islands life.
Day Six – Saturday
Today was the Sabbath for the SDA’s, and I attended their 10:30 service. But first I went to check out the Aitutaki Market. It turned out to be pretty pitiful with only a few baked goods and a small amount of produce. I bought a cucumber for one dollar. At the church Naomi grabbed me to sit with her in the middle under a fan. It was maybe half full. I was told there may be 400+ Adventists on Aitutaki; they have three churches which share one pastor.
Today there was a visiting preacher from New Zealand, the head of the entire district. His sermon was too long for my taste, but the enthusiastic singing of several hymns was lovely. Afterward, at a pot-luck lunch, the guest pastor and I were seated at a table in front and had to eat our meal first, before anyone else would. I loved the variety of dishes–taro, yams, eggplant, fried fish. I didn’t even peek into half the platters, but the sea grapes, new to me, were a special treat.
Day Seven – Sunday
Yesterday felt like Sunday, so today was a bonus day. Naomi and her husband picked me up to go to a beach near the airport where three groups of Pathfinders (like Scouts) were practicing various relays, fire-building, etc. Ekoura was the busy leader of one group. We spread out a woven mat on the sand under a casuarinas tree. Again there was a big table of home-cooked food, but first we all had fast-melting ice cream cones. Good! Some people, including Naomi, were eating fresh mangoes out of hand; I had never seen that before. I felt lucky to have come here in mango season.
In fact, I felt lucky to be there on the idyllic isle of Aitutaki at all—a place I had never heard of six months ago—among attractive friendly people who live simple lives. It’s a wonder that its beautiful white sands, amiable people and laid-back atmosphere haven’t made it a number one tourist destination. But since that hasn’t happened yet, it’s a fabulous treasure for anyone seeking serenity amidst beauty—Paradise perhaps? Just don’t tell anyone I told you about Aitutaki, okay?
This was Dorothy’s 24th overseas volunteer experience! Dorothy is the author of “At Home in the World: Memoirs of a Traveling Woman.” Her next destination is Cuba, and she hopes to have another book, “Born with Wings” out in the next few months. You can learn more at www.dorothyconlon.com.