The lost Cooks

It’s my first time in the Pacific on an island. As a kiwi who has traveled the world, I feel slightly negligent for saving some of the best til now. Here are some of my reflections on the beauty of the land and the food and health of the people.

Life was simple on the island.

Palm trees lined the white sand beaches, scattered with hibiscus with flowers of yellow, red, orange, pink, and coconuts. There were two roads: the beach road and the inland road. The tourists and traffic stuck to the beach road, the locals to the inland road, the most interesting road. Simple patches of property were green fields with one, two or three goats, the occasional beef or horse to mix up the animal gene pool, with the staple items: chickens and a rooster. Roosters and dogs were by far the most prolific of the island, both territorial, both loud at certain but different times. The former with two legs, the latter with three mostly.Rarotongan home and land

Roosters screamed at dawn and dusk, some sounding like a party popper that should have been recalled or a child being strangled to death, others with strong vocal chords, dulcet tones for the hens not tourists.  Day was marked though, by the sounds of these animals. It was soon time to get up once they began in the morning, it was soon time to have dinner when they screeched the end to the day at dusk.

Dusk was the best part of the day, roosters aside. The golden light catching the trees and turning everything into dreamy orange and yellowy golden hues. Green looking more lime in its tones, brushed now with yellow. The shadows of tropical hedge rows seemingly darker, the leaves a richer green or striped red, here the leaves of plants were different colourful combinations of reds, yellows and greens. Sometimes purple. The brown fertile soil painting the land with rows of hoed soil up: taro and other crops growing up strong and healthy, loving that last breath of evening light. A light breeze, warm, moving the leaves, the dark banana fronds, the broken paper like leaves from windier times floating in the breeze. The palm fronds fluttering, each end a finger on a key quivering. The glossy leaves of the bigger trees shining now in light. Yes, dusk. Dusk was the best time of the day.

Everything was cool, but still light. It was like a positive reflection upon the day, a chance to look back on everything with a glowing appraisal, it was a good day, you see. Yes, a good day. And why? Because life was simple on the island.

Saturday market
Saturday market- get your bananas!

The tiny island with a 32km circumference can easily be biked in a few hours. Still some subsistence agriculture survives here, bananas, paw paw, fresh coconuts, even some umu (hangi like ovens in the ground) being cooked up along with some goat stew, apparently popular at Christmas. But for the most part, the local food here (outside of the $30 mains for food in resorts), is takeaways. I always like to see where locals eat and here it’s popular little chicken and chips shops, a grill shack, the occasional pizza place, with fish and chips and burger bars the most popular. The counter to these high saturated fats are diluted public health messages on the TV and signs around the country calling for a more active and healthier lifestyle. And for some it is working, there were lots of people out on the sea training in their waka, local gyms have dance classes zumba island style incorporating local dance moves. But like many places globally (New Zealand included) Coke is cheaper than water in the supermarket and tins of imported green beans from New Zealand 40% cheaper than the $6 a bunch of freshly picked local green beans.

Coconuts and bananas, popular market produce

There are many little road side vege stalls and a popular and well stocked markets throughout the week and on the weekend selling taro, fruits, coconuts, bananas and homemade treats like taro leaves soaked in coconut milk. But the first time I went into a supermarket I was surprised (and strangely I think I was a little proud) to see it was all brands from New Zealand, rows of Griffins biscuits, Bluebird chips, the Coke range, Yoplait yogurt… Watties beans and tins of everything. My pride didn’t last long when I realised what we were exporting. Usually my favourite thing to do in a new place is spend hours in the aisles of supermarkets finding different types of foods, but here it was like the canned section of a store from home, all the time and frankly depressing. The difference being there ain’t no fresh fruit and vege aisles as you come in to calm you and make you think of nature and buy more. I figured this was for two reasons: they have the beach in sight all day so no false calms are really needed and there aren’t really any fruits and veges to sell.

Despite fruit and vege sales much of the food sold is takeaways
Despite fruit and vegetables for sale at markets like this, much of the food sold is high in fats and heavily processed

On the shelves I saw the infamous corned beef in a can and noticed people buying it. Michael Tuffery’s “Pisupo lua afe” Corned Beef 2000 sculpture of a bullock made of these cans came to mind in the store and I started to think that all these brands of canned food are just a modern extension of that concept, namely the dependence of the islands on imported foods. I started to see giant beetroots made of beetroot cans, corn, beans, tuna…

It must be so heartbreaking to have to leave this paradise to go and work on the sister-land of Aotearoa. While having its benefits for education and work, the withdrawal of white sand beaches and beautiful weather and flowers, replaced with crammed houses in rainy Auckland with little thanks, must surely take its toll. Those family and friends returning to the island in the earlier days must have craved foods, like KFC, or fish and chip shops. Over time on the island, shacks to quell the craving of takeaways have popped up to feed people in a cheap way.

I started to see how food connected our two lands. I thought of the irony, as traditionally ancient waka/vaka of Cook Island Maori connected the tupuna/ancestors of both lands and voyagers made the journey over weeks across the Pacific ocean to Aotearoa with kai/food like tubers such as kumara on board. Centuries later the food swap returned, except it’s not kumara, but deep fried chips, a reverse food staple that we see transplanted across the island. It’s cheap and it has the taste of south Auckland, perhaps a good compromise for those returning to the island on their plane voyage of recent times.

My first concern for a little island like this in the middle of the ocean far from any where, is about climate change and the loss of these beautiful lands. Although some of those 500m high stunning mountain ranges will be here for a while, everyone lives within 2km of the beach in the circle around the island. Smart that the tourists are sacrificed first, perhaps. Now though after seeing the size and unhealthy eating that goes on, I think the non communicable diseases and obesity is a greater threat to the people of the Pacific. The 350 Pacific message is the powerful motto “We are not drowning; we are fighting!” While their quest and message is inspirational, I can’t help but feel the food war is one that needs a bigger and healthier army to tackle the issue and enable them to be around to adapt to those threats.

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