Tuesday, December 11, 2018

My Next 30 Years

And just like that my 20's are over.  I can only hope my thirties don't fly by as quickly as my twenties did, but that seems unlikely.  In honor of the occasion, here's my song of the day and the recipe for my yearly birthday dessert (I'm not one for cake).
"I think I'll take a moment to celebrate my age, the ending of an era and the turning of a page.  Now it's time to focus in on where I go from here, Lord have mercy on my next thirty years!"

The recipe for these amazing treats is from one of my mom's good friends, Mildred Youkers.

Fudge Filled Squares

Crust & Topping Ingredients: 
1 cup butter
1.5 cups brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2.5 cups quick rolled oats

Filling Ingredients:
1 (12 oz) pkg chocolate chips (I prefer bittersweet or dark)
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

  1. In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar until smooth and light.  Blend in egg and vanilla.
  2. Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt and mix well.
  3. Stir in oats and press half of the mixture into the bottom of a greased 9x13" pan.  Reserve the remaining mixture for the topping.
  4. Mix together the chocolate, milk, butter, and salt in a saucepan over low heat.  Stir until smooth.
  5. Stir in the nuts and vanilla.
  6. Spread the filling evenly over the base mixture.  Sprinkle the reserved base mixture evenly over the chocolate layer and press lightly.
  7.  Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.
  8. Cool and cut into squares.

The calorie count in these gems is not for the faint of heart (it's over the 500 calorie mark), but if you're only going to eat them once a year then I figure it's ok.  ENJOY!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Leaving Paradise

Carlo (the owner of the AirBnB where I’m staying) was nice enough to let me hang out at his place until it was time to be at the airport, so I had a super relaxed last morning in Raro.  I’m woman enough to admit that when I hopped, ok fine, climbed back onto the bike to return it that morning my rear end did not appreciate the contours of that seat.  I made a quick pit stop at the little bakery to purchase a pastry to accompany my morning cup of joe, leisurely enjoyed on the deck.  Thankfully it was a very short ride back to the rental place and a short walk back to the house.  With breakfast finished it was time for one last walk on the beach.  It was a warm sunny morning, and as I stepped onto the sand the first thing I spied was a plastic bread bag.  Litter on the beach is not how I like to start my morning, but since it was a bag I decided to leave the bread for the birds and use the bag to pick up other rubbish I might stumble upon.  The odd thing about Rarotonga is that there’s hardly any litter on their beaches, but there is a lot of broken glass.  Mostly green glass, from the local beer bottles, so between the glass on the beach and the potential for stonefish in the water, aqua-shoes are a must when visiting the island.  Anyway, I did find out that every major Polynesian language has the same word for ocean, ‘moana’ - so now you know the true name of that famous film wooing adults and children alike.   With a shower and my bags completely packed all that was left was to wait.  The Cook Islands puts out a free magazine called ‘Escape’ and there were a few copies in my room so at least I had interesting reading material.  I think that might even be where I learned the ‘moana’ fact.

You start to realize how small the island truly is when you recognize other tourists whilst people watching at the airport.  Perhaps they sat across from you at an island night show, or you struck up a conversation watching the dancers perform a free show at the market.  Another reminder of how aviation has shrunk the world is the glimpse of a Pittsburgh Pirates hat.  Initially I was not happy to find I had a window seat, as I prefer to be able to get up as often as I want without disturbing other, but I decided it might be worth it for the view o the island as we took off.  Oddly enough I have Polynesian music on my device (from my early love of the movie “The Legend of Johnny Lingo"), so the sounds of ‘Te Vaka’ in my ears I left my little slice of South Pacific Paradise.  After Rarotonga disappeared the layers and patterns of the clouds, back-dropped by the deep blue ocean, were completely mesmerizing and ever changing.  The island music certainly set the mood and I can’t think of a better way to leave such a lovely part of the world.

My flight arrived early into Auckland and since I’m an IHG Credit Card holder my room at the Holiday Inn was free and I even got upgraded to a suite!  Dropping my bags in the room I quickly headed down the road to the store to pick up some of the special flavors of ‘Tim Tams’.  When I’d found out about these flavors my brother had asked me to send him some.  Once I found out how much it would cost to mail them I told him to just wait and I’d bring them home.  Luckily for him the store was only five minutes down the road because I don’t like wandering around large cities in the dark.  Back in my room I succumbed to the pull of technology and connected to the free hotel wifi.  While it’s nice to be without a connection, sometimes the backlog when you return makes me wonder if it is worth being unplugged.  My current state (i.e. Alive & Well) was relayed to various parties, an email about my potential position at work was responded to, and photos were uploaded.  Everything else was ignored...if you’re going to unplug you might was well make the re-plugging process slow, just in case there are unknown dangers ;)

Sunday, September 9, 2018

An Island on Sunday

As mentioned previously, the locals still hold fast to their Christian beliefs.  As such, the six churches built around the island by the London Missionary Society in the late 1800’s are still used today and are frequented by locals and visitors alike.  Most visitors come to hear the beautiful sound of the Maori hymns and songs sung a capella by the congregations.

Surrounded by their voices, the sounds echoing off the ancient walls, the experience is quite moving.  Conducted in both English and Maori (the official languages) I was able to at least understand the sermon, while the majority of the other proceedings (an infant baptism, weekly announcements, and singing) were done in Maori only.  I did find it a bit sad how many visitors came and went during the service - it just seemed disrespectful.  Overall, it was a nice way to spend a Sunday morning. I was reminded of the Apostle Paul as the pastor instructed those of us visiting to “take our greetings back to your home countries, as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

For the last couple days I’ve been reading my way through a wonderful coffee table book (which you might have noticed I’ve quoted quite a bit in my blog posts), so upon returning from church I sat on the porch outside my room and continued reading for about an hour.  My coffee and oatmeal for breakfast had become a memory and I decided I would make my way across (technically ‘around’ as no roads cross the island) the island to the Muri district and finally (hopefully) get to try the famous fish sandwiches at The Mooring Fish Cafe.

 Most things in Rarotonga are closed on Sunday, remnants of the “blue laws” originally put in place by the missionaries, so I was hoping that my hour-long bike ride would not be in vain.  In addition to the Sunday caveat, many businesses close between 3-6pm so I needed to make sure I arrived before 3pm.  Blessedly they were open when I arrived and I got to order their FOB sandwich (crumbed mahi with lime mayo).  It was huge, but thankfully I was quite hungry by this point and had no trouble consuming it entirely.

With fuel in my belly I decided I should carry on and continue my loop.  Before arriving in Rarotonga I had not been on a bicycle in nearly a year and the seat on this bike was definitely not adjusted to the correct height.  So, although “just” 32km around the island, I was definitely feeling it by the time I arrived back ‘home’.  The bright side is that I can now say that I have successfully circumnavigated Rarotonga, so there’s pride in the pain I suppose.  Although, I do have to spend a lot of time sitting in the next couple days, so hopefully I don’t regret my trek.

With my last full day in the Cook Islands coming to a close, I most certainly was going to view my last sunset on the beach.  A brisk walk on the beach to work out the kinks from my bike ride and I was soon settled on a towel to enjoy the view.  I enjoy a good sunrise as well, but there’s something about a sunset.  Perhaps because a sunset seems to linger.  Even after it has sunk below the horizon you can still gaze out at the colors streaking the sky or burnishing the clouds.  While it wasn’t the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen, it was serene: only the sound of the waves and the faint rustle of palm fronds overhead.  Back in the flat I thumbed through the DVD collection and settled on something suitably diverting.  With only one TV channel on the island (it never seems to come in clearly anyway) and internet being rather expensive, DVD’s are still going strong here.  And that, my friends, was my last night on the island.  Tantalizing, I know...

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Rarotonga Market & Scuba Diving

I decided that renting a bike would ensure I could travel around with a bit more ease, and a lot less time spent in the process, so on Saturday morning I walked down the road to a bike rental shop.  Since I wanted a basket I had to get a "beach cruiser" which, sadly, only had 3 gears.  Oh well, the leisurely pace was fine.  About thirty minutes later I had arrived at the Punanga Nui Market (the reason I had left Aitutaki on Friday).  After locating a small palm tree and chaining up my bike I was free to wander around.  Cook Islanders are very skilled craftsmen; carvings, paintings, hand-woven baskets and hats, beautiful jewelry from their special black pearls - everything was so tempting.  A delicious, fresh-made fruit smoothie kept me cool while I browsed the stalls.  I nearly bought a few paintings, there were so many beautiful ones, but in the end I just couldn't bring myself to buy any of the items.  I certainly don't need more stuff, and my suitcase was already pretty full.

When I had mentioned to Carlo that I was hoping to go to the Saturday market, he advised that at 10am there is usually a performance at the main stage.  He was absolutely correct, and it was put on by Highland Paradise!  The same MC and a lot of the same drummers.  This time the dancers were all the little kids (tamaiti), and they certainly were cute!!  

They were still learning their choreography, but they use the show as a fundraiser.  They take the kids to do shows around the world promoting Cook Island culture.  I also managed to catch a video of him explaining the complexity of the drumming to which they are dancing.

I had booked an afternoon scuba diving trip with Dive Rarotonga, which was a 2 minute walk from my flat, so after a quick bite to eat I headed back there.  Although I'm open-water certified, I haven't been diving in a couple years and wasn't sure I would feel comfortable doing a regular dive.  The introductory dive ended up being an excellent choice as I was definitely a bit rusty.  The instructor Paul was fantastic and since the Italian-Polish couple, while not certified, had been diving a few times we sped through "introductory" portion.  While gearing up for the skills test in the pool Paul asked me if I was actually American.  He told me he was surprised when he saw my address listed on my form as the US, as my accent didn't sound American to him.  I told him I had been living in New Zealand for the last 6 months, but he said that wasn't quite it.  He pointedly asked if I had been spending a lot of time around people from the Northern UK.  Shocked by such a specific question, I laughed and said, "Yes.  I was house sitting for a couple from Wales and Scotland and their friends were from Wales and England!"  I couldn't believe he could tell, I really didn't think I had picked up much of an accent.  As for the diving, Paul told us that on the morning dive they could hear the whales talking to each other, so we were excited for that possibility.

The clarify of the water was astounding.  I'm guessing the visibility was at least 12 meters, but it was possibly more.  We saw several unusual fish and lots of coral.  There were a few creatures that when Paul got near them and snapped his fingers they either disappeared inside a hole or changed colors!  I had forgotten to put my camera on underwater mode before we started our descent and once we'd reach our depth the pressure was too much and I couldn't use the buttons to switch modes.  Oh well, I was able to edit some of them.  In the end we never did hear any whales, but we got to see a turtle!!
All in all, it was a great afternoon under the sea.

After a shower I took a walk down to Black Rock Beach and then enjoyed a spectacular sunset.  As the song says, "Life was good today!"

Friday, September 7, 2018

Cook Island Culture

T'uanu didn't take me to the airport Friday morning, he was already there!  I found him in the waiting area as I arrived.  Ever the gentleman, he eventually saw me sitting by myself and came over to chat (he'd been talking to Rino beside him when I arrived so I didn't join them).  He was heading back home to Auckland, but was heading back to Rarotonga via Atiu so we weren't on the same flight.  You simply can't help but immediately like him - he befriends everyone it seems.  As I headed to the tarmac he gave me a hug and a kiss goodbye.  He's definitely my island Grandpa, even if he doesn't know it, and I'm incredibly glad to have made his acquaintance.

An uneventful flight (no cockpit visits) and 40 minutes later I was collecting my luggage.  I was staying at an AirBnB on the western side of Rarotonga owned by Carlo, an Italian native from the Venice area.  He gave me a quick tour along his area and pointed out the areas of interest and places to eat that were within walking distance of his home.  I had one of their little flats for the next three nights and after dropping my bags I decided to go for a walk.  I found a great little bakery and treated myself to some passion-fruit cheesecake.  It wasn't a baked cheesecake (which is my preferred type of cheesecake) and I couldn't quite figure out what made up the crust, but it was delicious.  Their sign said they aren't open on the weekends, which made me a little disappointed, but I figured I'd try again Monday before I left.  After returning to the flat I lathered on my sunscreen and headed to the beach.  Just a 2 minute walk (that's probably generous) down the driveway and around the neighbor's wall is the path to a great little spot.

The water was amazingly clear and the views were beautiful.  As with all of Rarotonga (and all of the Cook Islands I believe), there are stonefish (one of the most venomous fish) so water shoes of some sort are a safety requirement.  Anyway, you can walk out into the water up to your waist and stand still and the fish will eventually swim up to you; no snorkel needed, you can see them clear as day!  In between my trips into the water to cool off I walked the beach and read my book.  A perfectly relaxing afternoon.

At 5:30pm the shuttle for the Highland Paradise Cultural Show picked me up.  Although I had done the "island night" when I first arrived, I was told that there are only 2 authentic cultural nights on Rarotonga and this was one of them.  Since I had been unable to do their day tour when I first arrived I chose them over Te Vara Nui's dinner show.  The evening started with a tour of  the ancient village of Tinomana Enuarurutini Ariki (an ariki was a high chief or ruler).  When he and his people converted to Christianity in the 1830's they left the settlement and moved down to the coastline.  Our guide talked of how the Cook Islands and New Zealand, specifically the Taranaki region, have a special connection as that is where some of the first Maori people who sailed from Rarotonga settled.  The people now known as Polynesians spread across the eastern Pacific by sailing in double-hulled canoes and formed a cultural triangle between Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand.  As in New Zealand, the indigenous people are generically known as Maori, as is their language.  A marae is a "communal or sacred place that serves religious and social purposes in Polynesian societies" and although not much was left of theirs, its significance still remains and we partook in a tapu lifting ceremony there before dinner (you can read more about the topic of tapu here).

For dinner I ended up seated with a couple from Sydney visiting Raro on their honeymoon and a nice young German girl who was also traveling solo.  The umu (earth oven) feast was delicious and I was able to try another of their local dishes called "rukau" which is taro leaves cooked in coconut cream.  Unlike the poke, which I loved, this was certainly not something I was longing to eat again.  Their dance troupe was called Tu Rama and they were excellent - our table was right next to the stage so I had a much better view than at my last cultural show.

Because the people lacked a written language legends, dance, and song were how the earliest Cook Islanders passed on their history; many of the dances we saw were introduced with an explanation of their origin or the story the dances told.

Although the dances were excellent, the drummers were just as impressive.   I definitely enjoyed learning more the culture and history of the island during the evening, so it was well worth the unplanned expenditure.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A South Pacific Lagoon Cruise

It poured all night and was still sprinkling on and off when I got up this morning.  While not thrilled, I know how the weather can change here in the tropics and I was determined to hope for the best.  “You can get burnt on a cloudy day, but can you get burnt when it’s raining?” I thought to myself.  Because if you can’t get sunburnt in the rain that would certainly be a silver lining… Traveling by oneself in the tropics certainly makes proper sunscreen application a bit of a trial.  I’m decently capable of applying sunscreen to my own back when by myself, in front of a mirror, but on a boat with lots of people...you either must swallow your pride and find someone from whom you might ask help (without seeming creepy or seductive) or manage yourself and pray you don’t miss any areas.  Anyway, back to the day.  I was taking a day cruise to some of the smaller islands around Aitutaki, so sunny weather was certainly a perk.  As I walked out to the road to await my pickup the sun came out!  T’uanu was crossing the road from the car rental shop and he joked that my appearance had brought the sun.  I was the first pick up and the only other one for us was an American family from San Jose, CA.  Upon finding out that I was from Pittsburgh, they made sure to let me know they were Sharks fans.

We were seated at the same table on the cruise and they jokingly adopted me into their family (despite my Penguins fan status).  The boat was very neat, and very comfortable.  We set off once the day-tour group arrived (you can fly in from Rarotonga to do the cruise and fly back to Rarotonga the same day).  We had six crew members, including the captain; and three of them serenaded us throughout the day as we were cruising along (to be fair the captain sometimes joined in on the spoons, so I guess there were 4 musicians).  They were quite good and it definitely set the mood.  There was no way you could look out at the world-class view, listening to the ukelele and drums and not think you were in the South Pacific.  As with the Island Night show, a prayer was said before we embarked, they take their Christianity very seriously here.  It has become part of their culture, so although I have no idea how genuine their faith, I appreciate it none-the-less.

The water is nearly indescribable, only because any words I could use would not do the shades of blue justice.  Even a photograph doesn’t quite capture what the human eye can perceive.  Needless to say, they don’t call this paradise jokingly.

We stopped for a short while at two islands (one was called Akaiami and the other I can’t remember) for a walk or a swim, and then had a stop in the water so we could go snorkeling.  While the fish didn’t seem to be as numerous as my times at the Great Barrier Reef or Ningaloo in Australia, the visibility and clarity of the water (despite all the rain last night), was excellent. We got to see a Giant Trevally and lots of giant clams.   I enjoyed my ocean time and managed not to get any sunburn on my back or legs, so it was a definite win in my book.

After snorkeling the food was blessed and then they served us an amazing buffet lunch - cooked right there on the boat while we were snorkeling.  There was fresh fish, freshly grated coconut (one of the crew had done a demonstration earlier in the itinerary), fruit (raw and grilled - delicious either way), taro, ‘poke’ (the local dessert made using mashed and baked banana, arrowroot, or pawpaw - very odd texture, but delicious).  I was also able to try breadfruit for the first time, at least I believe that is what I ate - not a favorite, but they’ve been eating it here for centuries.

Our final stop of the day was at Tapuaetai, more commonly known by its nickname, “One Foot Island”.  **You can watch a film version of the legend of One Foot Island below**  We got two souvenir passport stamps, one from the One Foot Island and one from the The Vaka Cruise.  With a prayer of thanks for the day, we all disembarked and said our goodbyes. 

All in all, it was a fabulous day and I’m ruing my decision to prioritize a visit to the Saturday market in Rarotonga over staying in Aitutaki another full day on the water.  Back at Rino’s at settled by the water with a book until sunset.  It wasn’t spectacular, but you can’t get this view back in PA and there’s always something relaxing about watching the sun sink beneath the horizon.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

From Raro to Aitutaki

Today was one of those days.

No, not one of THOSE days, one of the days that as you crawl into bed you’ve still got a smile on your face.  It’s hard not to go backwards, since those memories are most recent, but I’ll retell the day in chronological order.  I stored my luggage at the hotel upon checkout and walked down the road to rent a bicycle.  They obliged and gave me a basket for the front, so I paid them, plopped my bag in the basket, and peddled off.  Beautiful morning, lovely sunshine, the kilometers kept whizzing by as I headed southeast towards Titikaveka Beach.

A few photo stops along the way, but mostly I just enjoyed the views as I traveled along.  About 9.5 miles later I arrived and had a relaxing walk along the beach.  I had thought that all the amazing beaches in Australia had spoiled all others for me - someone told me that while there and I was inclined to believe them, that is, until I came here.  The South Pacific has well earned its fame.  The stunning aquamarine, with the bonus of warmer water temperatures and more palm trees, does have Australia beat in those categories.

Without knowing exactly how long it would take to get back I turned back.  After a quick lunch stop in town, I returned the bike, collected my luggage, walked across the road and was checking in my bag and waiting for my flight.  It’s a very small airport, no security screening for a domestic flights, and just 40 minutes in the air and you’re in Aitutaki.  “The sand, palm and seascape of this lagoon is one of the Cook Islands’ most beautiful physical features, whether viewed from the air or the water.” Smith & Lay As we were getting ready to land the flight attendant interrupted my perusal of the local newspaper to inform me that on Air Rarotonga they choose one passenger to invited into the cockpit to watch the arrival.  Did I want to go?  Absolutely!  The view from the air is incredible, you can see exactly where the reef ends as the color changes to a deep blue.
“From a plane Aitutaki appears gradually from the dark blue ocean water as a turquoise triangle bordered by a ruffle of white where the Pacific swells are turned to foam by its reef.  Inside the triangle the water is the palest shade of green, mottled with pink by the coral heads which stud the lagoon’s floor.  The motu come into sight, a long line of narrow islands, some only a few metres across, others which taper away into the distance.  The motu are crowded with coconut palms which jostle each other at the shores and crane their long necks out over the sand towards the shimmering water.”

The two pilots were very nice and when they asked where I was from they were surprised by my answer.  They informed me that I didn’t have a very American accent.  I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just told them I’d been living in New Zealand for the last six months and we all agreed that must be why they couldn’t tell I was American right away.  When they found out that I was traveling around by myself, the one commented, “Well that’s ballsy”.  I never know how to respond when someone informs me that they view my solo travel in such a light.  Even Inge told me she couldn’t imagine traveling by herself, but I’ve digressed.  After we landed and I came out of the cockpit, one of the other passengers, an older woman, cheekily asked if the pilot was my boyfriend.

My arrival into Aitutaki just keeps getting better as I’m greeted by what can only be described as the most adorable island grandpa.  I’m sure he was quite the looker in his day because he still has a handsome face and a winning smile.  With the greeting of “Kia Orana” he placed a beautiful ‘ei around my neck (presumably made of frangipani and pandanus - it smelled amazing), gave me the customary kiss on the cheek, and introduced himself as T’uanu.  If I remember correctly, he is Rino’s cousin, and on our ride to the airport I find out that he’s lived in Auckland for the last 50-odd years and has 8 children, 27 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren.  He’s a very affable guy and in true Cook Island style, loves to kid around.  Apparently he only picks up the single girls from the airport, he makes someone else pick up the couples - wink, wink.  After setting my stuff in the room I head down to the beach for a walk.  I didn't wander too far and soon decide to walk down the road a bit to find some dinner.  Twenty minutes later and everything I found didn’t seem to be open (most takeaway places don’t reopen until 6pm), so I turned back towards “home”.  Another reason I like this island is that while walking people would smile and wave as they went by, some even said “Kia Orana”.  That definitely didn’t happen in Rarotonga.  Cafe Aitutaki was open by the time I walked past again and I decided to stop and order a burger.  When asked if it was “for here or takeaway” it must have been a God-thing that I said, “I’ll have it here”.  What possessed me to sit alone, outside at a little table, in public, when I could have taken it back to my room and eaten it at the privacy of my patio table with a view of the beach?  Halfway through my burger (which was phenomenal, by the way) who should rock up but T’uanu! Ever the gentleman, he sat down and started talking with me.  When he found out I would only be staying on the island until Friday morning, he politely asked if he could show me around.  He had no qualms about putting his takeaway burger in the trunk; he’s such a sweetie he even opened my car door for me.

Our first stop is the lookout point, where on a clear day you can see all the way to the other islands belonging to Aitutaki.  From one end of the island to the other, he drove me to all the highlights, occasionally apologizing that I was unable to see much (not long after the lookout point it was dark).  While we drive around, he tells me about his life, interspersed with interesting Cook Islands facts, points of interest, the meaning of the names of different areas and from where the names came.  I soon discover that his grandfather, uncles, and father were all policemen, and as the only child he was expected to follow in their footsteps.  He informed his Dad that he didn’t want to become a policeman and that he instead wanted to study horticulture.  He managed to get a scholarship to a university in New Zealand and in the end he never moved back to the Cook Islands.  Eventually he quit school, because it was all textbook and he wanted the hands-on practical stuff of horticulture, and got a job planting trees.  As time went on he decided that to honor his fathers wishes he would join the police force, but it seems he did not tell his father that he had joined.  Exciting escapades as a detective and a case that brought him back to his home island undercover he cracked a forgery-theft case and made it back home without anyone in his family ever knowing.  I enjoyed our little tour immensely, for reasons that had very little to do with the tour.  When we got back to Rino’s I gave him a big hug and thanked him for his time.  I had the biggest grin as I headed back to my room.  What a lovely little island.

Fun Aitutaki Facts: You are no longer allowed to build any buildings taller than a coconut tree.  The island is also entirely dog free.

**NOTE: All quotes in this post are from "The Cook Islands" by Ewan Smith & Graeme Lay, 1998