Cook Islands – Earthwatch Placement – March 27 – April 14
Week 1 – March 26 – April 2
After a restful three days at Bette’s wonderful harbor side flat, with nothing more exhausting than deciding what to drink at the bar when we went out with a group of girls, I boarded the plane for Cook Islands.
Cook Islands is an independent country with ties to New Zealand and pretty much seamless travel between the two countries. The Cooks lay North East of New Zealand and are back over the international date time. So I took off at 4:10 (actual time was closer to 4:50 pm) on Sunday, March 26 and landed in Rarotonga, Cook Islands at 11:15 pm on Saturday, March 25. We were delayed taking off because a knob in the cockpit had fallen off and they needed to make sure it wasn’t lose in the machinery and a potential danger to us. I had a lovely compliment from the ticket agent who checked me in as he kept looking at my face and my passport. I showed him that I was even wearing fuchsia to match my passport photo and he said he noticed that but that he was having a hard time believing my age. I chose to view it as a compliment. I owe it all to Mary Kay Cosmetics.
I was the last one off the plane and therefore the last one to go through customs. We were met in the lobby of the airport by a man singing island songs. From the welcome information we received, we found he has met every plane for the last 15 years.
Joe Testa, our program manager met me at the plane with lovely and fragrant lei of white and yellow flowers. I do love that Polynesian custom! Off to the Kii Kii Motel, which was on the north end of the island, past the little town. Joe was becoming used to driving the van and we announced our progress with the horn at intervals and celebrated my arrival with the back, and sometimes the front, windshield wipers waving with abandon.
At the Kii Kii, you could hear the surf from my room and it has a ceiling fan, which goes full tilt any time I am in my room. The room has a single and a double bed, kitchenette, TV (with one station only and limited hours) and a door off the little kitchen to a private balcony with clothesline. Very handy for the nightly laundry. My room is right above the pool, which is okay, except on the weekends when you have a chance to nap, it is normally filled with enthusiastic youngsters whooping it up.
Sunday, March 26-orientation day for the team, or shall I say SQUAD 74.
Breakfast at 9:00 and I met the rest of the team. This is the first Global Volunteer experience for the team with the exception of Joe and I. Alexis from NJ is an OT and very nice. The family of four – Robert (Psychiatrist), Joan (Social Worker, Psychologist, and soon to be author of a book about how to successfully raise twins), and the twins aged 17, David and Johnny. The family are very used to community service and volunteer work and the twins have volunteered from the age of 13 in Israel.
Joe has done lots of GV trips, including annual trips to Rosebud, SD and has lead many trips, but this is his first time in Cook Islands. He is stepping in for the usual team coordinator who just got married to a former global volunteer and is taking a well-earned and long honeymoon. So, we are all learning about the Cook Islands as we go. Flexibility is the name of the game for all volunteers, not matter what agency.
Robert has taken on the extra job of coordinating some of our dinners out and our free time activities. Alexis and I are sharing the responsibility of keeping an eye on the items in the kitchen, as we need to pack our lunches to take to our work sites.
We had our opening exercises to get to know each other and set both individual and group goals for the team. At this point, David was labeling his water bottle with masking tape and as we are the 74th Global Volunteer group, dubbed us SQUAD 74. Joan indicated that David sees the world through sports language.
Monday, March 27 – Tour of the sites
After breakfast, we loaded into the van and began a counter clockwise circle of the island (which takes all of 45 minutes with no stops) to visit all the potential sites for job placements. We would visit one adult resource center for mental challenged adults (the Creative Center), two primary and one secondary school and the mental health offices. Alexis as an OT was asked to step in for the usual Island OT who was away for a few weeks. Alexis is happy to help, but also wanted the opportunity to work at one of the schools as her clients at home are usually children. The twins found they liked St. Joseph’s, the first school we visited, and they needed help with the 5-7 year olds. My school is a public school, right at the end of the runway for the airport where I will help with reading, organizing the resource center and cataloguing the library. (I must admit when I saw the state of the resource center, my fingers itched to get in there and straighten things out!) Joan and Richard are at the college (the secondary or high school) and are again working on reading skills. Bette was a bit amused when she heard that I would be teaching English because English is spoken in the Cooks. I have found that to be true everywhere I have been. My school, however, does teach in Maori until grade three, when English is introduced.
I am the only team member, except for Joe the leader, who will be in the Cooks for three weeks. Before I left for the Cooks, I had an e-mail asking me if I would assist the Red Cross my final week with their newsletter. I said I would be happy to, and lucky for me, their office is a short walk from the Kii Kii.
During all of our visits today, as we met the teachers and principals, Joe invited them to join us at the Kii Kii for a catered dinner, so that we could get to know each other a little better. We had three guests from the Creativity Center and the Mental Health offices and our Island host, Ver???? Our host was fascinating and told us how she developed and spearheaded the CIANGO (Cook Islands Association of Non-Government Organizations) 22 years ago. She is a dynamo and very lovely. She reminds me of a Polynesian grandmother whom you would feel comfortable sitting with all day eating lovely food and swapping stories. The catered dinner was from a restaurant and major chef called Mama Here. The food was great and included taro, bbq chicken, octopus in fermented coconut, curried octopus, ika mata (a marinated fish similar to ceviche), fresh fruit and lovely sweetened desserts called poke that was banana, pawpaw or taro with arrowroot. YUMMY!
Tuesday, March 28 – First day at our placements
Joe took each of us to our first placements, but from here on, most of us will ride the buses to and from work, if we cannot walk. The island has buses the circle the island in both directions, leaving the main station at set times. I can leave the Kii Kii going in the counter-clockwise direction at 15 after the hour or the clockwise bus at 5 past the hour. From here on out, I will catch the 8:15 to be at school by 8:30 and catch the 2:35 to be back at the Kii Kii by 3:00.
I arrived at school at found the principal, Anna, who has only been in the job at this school for three months. She has taught before and has definite ideas where she sees the school heading. I as taken to a fourth grade class taught by a very tall Fijian young man who was beginning the reading lesson. I observed for about thirty minutes and found, as you would expect, kids are kids the world round. The girls where trying to pay attention and the boys were throwing spit wads and generally goofing off. The older boy, who is in the class to catch up on his reading, became the class bully as soon as the teacher disappeared to get a cup of tea. When the teacher came back, I was given a list of 5 kids to take for individual reading lessons, which was reading from very simple books and doing matching games with flash cards.
My first student was Malachi, the older boy, and he had some difficulty reading, but once he began sounding them out, did pretty well. The next boy William, looked absolutely terrified and needs quite a bit of work. My third boy John did pretty well but wasn’t very forthcoming or friendly. My fourth boy Taoe was very good and pretty confident. My last student was one of the very patient girls Manu for Emanuella, who did very well and even smiled. I hope to make further in roads tomorrow.
By this time it was am break, which is when the teachers eat breakfast. Finally, I was let into the resource center and I had 2 and then 3 very enthusiastic girl helpers around 9-11 who made lots of noise, wanted to teach me Maori and were inconsistent with their help. I have several helpful phrases to review from today and asked the girls to give me a new phrase a day for me to practice. Luckily, at lunch break at 12:00, they went to lunch and then went off to practice the singing, dancing and instrument playing for the big cultural competition that will be in the city auditorium a week from Wednesday in the evening. Tickets are $7 NZ.
My goal in the resource center was to sort through all the books and magazines by subject and put them on shelves. Permanent shelving will be put into the room and then I will transfer my stacks to them, and the mobile shelves will move into individual classrooms. Not sure when the permanent shelves will go up. Most of the books were very dusty and had 6 or 8-legged inhabitants. Some were glued shut with mold or mildew so I asked the girls to gently pry open the books to see if they could be saved.
Once the older girls had left, I was visited by a 4-year-old girl that I finally found out was named Alia. I tried my new Maori and she was totally unable to understand me. When I switched to English off she went. She kept wanting new books to read and as soon as I disappeared around the stack, she said she was finished. At one point, she had all the blocks and the play money on the floor and decided to take the play money home. I explained that the play money belonged to Miss Anna and she put it back. She disappeared and brought back a friend her and at that point, I told her that I was leaving soon that I would see her tomorrow. Then I had 30 minutes by myself, except for the screaming hordes hurtling by outside in the corridors.
I finally locked up the room at 2:00, said goodbye to the Miss Anna, found the girls bathroom and was ready to wait for the bus. Anna said that one of the teachers would give me a ride back on her scooter. Joe had warned us not to rent them, as they don’t come with helmets. I was reluctant, but I am home safe, without road rash, and I now know the bus schedule for tomorrow.
I spent a lovely early evening sitting on the deck overlooking the ocean, after the sun went behind the building, and watched the waves crash. It is so soothing, just like watching a fire in the fireplace and I could happily do that every night, with the addition of wine, cheese and crackers.
Off the team went for fish and chips and then we had an adventure trying to find a store open past 7:30 pm that might have ice cream. Found it at the convenience store at the gas station at the airport.
Most of the team has been eaten alive by the mosquitoes and we are all sharing bug spray and Actifed to cut down on the itching. I have gotten a few bites today and must admit that I am a little weary of putting on bug juice and sunscreen daily. But, as I look ahead, it will be a daily drill for most of the time on the road. I think I will be able to stop by the time I am in Romania in December. Maybe!
Joe, our leader has been limping around and has decided to find a dr. tomorrow to see what the problem is. He went swimming with the group before I arrived and may have cut it on a rock at the waters edge.
Wednesday, March 29
I had planned to take the counter clockwise bus this morning to work, but after I had stood for 25 minute, I was informed by the staff at the Kii Kii that the counter clockwise bus doesn’t run until 8:25 and would pick me up at 9:15, far too late to get to work. So tomorrow, if I take the bus, I will need to take the 8:05 clockwise and get to school just before 9:00.
I am back with the same 5 readers and have determined that they have really great memory. I can’t say that they are really reading, more like guessing at words and/or depending on the pictures. They have heard these books so often and in the same order that they know the story and guess at the words. We are reading a book about a kids playing in a sandbox and building a mountain and a tunnel. They can’t remember tunnel, so they say hole. My main emphasis is to help them sound out the words and try to see patterns in the words and the spelling.
I had asked the universe for a quiet day in the resource center and that is what I got. Essentially a day to myself, with short visits from the older girls but no long-term helpers or 4 year olds who want to be entertained. Two boys about her age were pushing Alia, the 4 year old, in a small plastic car. She is very enchanting and demanding, but eventually they tired of pushing her. She kept yelling OYE at the top of her lungs but to no avail. Her charioteers had abandoned her.
Bugs – One of the differences I find during my travels is the abundance of bugs. As I work in the resource center that has louvered window on three sides and not all of them in tact, I find little 6 and 8-legged beasties who scuttle, scurry, slump, leap or fly away when I disturb them. Some of the resources are over 20 years old and have staples, which have rusted due to the heat and humidity. There are portions of the books that are mildewed or molded and stuck together. All the oversize large print books are in huge plastic sleeve hung from hangers that again have rusted over the years. At the end of the day, my fingers are black from dust and other things.
I ended up working until 2:30 today, 45 minutes later than usual, as I wanted to get the final bookcase in order as the shelves may start at any time.
Still a little hazy about when the buses would come past the end of the drive, I went down the road to wait. I had hoped to catch the clockwise bus as that would have me back at the motel in 20 minutes and just as I arrived at the end of the road, saw the bus hurtling past me with no way for me to signal for it to stop. A consultation of the listing told me I had 45 minutes to wait until the next one. 48 minutes later, a teacher from the school came down the road in her car and offered me a ride. I gladly accepted and kept an eye out for the bus, which we never passed. Thanks God I accepted the ride.
Joe’s visits to the dr. and hospital for blood work have earned him two prescriptions for possible gout. When the blood work confirms it, at least he will know.
Robert had found a restaurant that advertised a steak dinner for $10 so we went to the Nu Bar for Dinner. We were at picnic tables in the almost dark but for a single candle. The rump steaks were really very good and indeed, $10NZ per person. We finally shut off the candle due to the heat it gave and shared chocolate sundaes on the dark for dessert. As we left the restaurant, the stars were so bright and you could clearly see the Milky Way.
Another wish that I expressed to the universe was for rain to hopefully cool down the air. Again, it delivered and it bombed rain several times during the night and we had a mini lake around the van in the am.
Thursday, March 30
Joe took the boys and I to work today and today, I took the laptop to work in order to begin the inventory of the resource center and library at the school.
Reading today involved use of the flash cards and sorting them into lumps with the same beginning letters and putting them into groups. The kids had no problems matching like letters together.
In the resource center, I managed to put all of the sets of English books and half of the oversize books on the computer today in an excel spreadsheet. I estimate it will take me one more day to finish the books tomorrow. There aren’t many of them, but I will probably not make good time as I slow down when I start entering the Maori books. All three of the older girls wanted to help me type into my computer. Joe had warned us about making promises to anyone at the work sites or singling out any one with special treatment, so I declined the assistance.
At one point today, I noticed that that I had screaming children on either side of my workspace. To my right, was the playground for the preschoolers and there are tears and threats at least every hour from various factions. On my left side, I realized after the fact, I heard unhappy children from the dentist office. Luckily, both sources weren’t going off at the same time.
The shelves have begun and may be done by Friday. If the shelves are done on Friday, will move all the resources to free up the shelves for the teachers.
TODAY I CAUGHT THE BUS! SUCCESS! It dropped me in town as I wanted to wifi and do a little shopping and just as I arrived, it rained for 10 minutes.
I treated myself to a wonderful lunch at the Salsa Café for gazpacho topped with wonderful bruchetta and a slab of tuna and a latte.
Two reasons that I wanted to get to the Wifi was I needed to make a payment for my ItoI placements and I wanted to keep abreast of the progress of moving the cats to the Brett and Betty’s, my wonderful pet sitters. My payment kept failing and I could not call any of the offices due to the time difference. I will need to try and call either tonight to NZ or tomorrow am to Denver.
I caught the bus again, two successes in one day, to the motel. Once home, I napped and watch the sun go down over the water. Heaven.
Tonight, Robert coordinated our trip to the Staircase Restaurant and island show. Poor Joe was having a medication reaction all day and didn’t eat dinner but came back for the show. The food was okay, sort of a sampler plate of typical island fare. What we had at our catered dinner on Monday was superior, but there were several things that were good.
The dance show was wonderful. The band was made up of about 8 musicians and three additional singers. Our band mc was a large bald man with a great sense of humor and showmanship. The show began with one of the male dances in traditional grass skirt and leggings, headdress and belt calling out the history of his people and how they traveled from Hawaii. He was a stitch when he would pose for a picture during his talk. Then the rest of the dances, 4 men and 5 women, came on stage. The Cook Island skirts look like Hawaiian skirts, but are not green, but red, blue or white. The women wear half coconut shells as a bra (OUCH!) and have that wonderful hip length black hair that I so envy.
I think you have to be a Polynesian Woman with extra equipment in their pelvis to achieve the extra hip movements they do. Our MC said it was like grinding coffee for breakfast or a washing machine. I watched mesmerized and tried to analyze the movements. (More on this later). So the women have two styles of dance, the lovely slow hula with intoxicating hips and gently flowing hands, or the amazing washing machine hips with upper body totally still. They have isolation dancing down to a science. The men mainly have sharp movements with their arms and do the chicken dance movement with their knees like knocking their knees. Within one dance, all their bodies gleam with perspiration, as it is quite a workout. During the last segment, each dance member selects someone from the opposite sex to learn the dance. Johnny was our representative from Squad 74. All the guest dancers were very brave souls and did very well. We were the only American’s on stage and all the other guest dancers were from NZ, OZ or England. One islander from Atuitaki , Cook Islands, was warned that he better know how to dance. He did.
It was a wonderful night.
Friday, March 31
When I finally got through to I to I and my bank, I found that I had not understood my daily limits on my credit card. Once established, I made a payment and will make another on Monday.
There was some confusion over who was being transported this am, so I was a little late for work. I will aim to take the bus from now on.
Reading today involved more exercises with the cards and sounding out words. By the end, each of the kids were doing much better. Joe, recovered from his medication problem and now on ½ doses, came with his camera to take pictures of us at work. Both John and I and Teao and I were immortalized on film.
During teachers break today, Anna has brought in boiled island chestnuts. They are huge, about the size of a small bagel. She commented that the staff eats too much starch and we have found that a lot of the food options lean towards starchy carbohydrates, Taro, potato and bread. This is not uncommon in the islands; Joe said it is also found in Jamaica.
During break today, I read the Island Dept of Education newsletter and they mentioned Women’s day in March and World Water Day in April. On March 8, I was in Thailand and they also celebrated Woman’s Day, which is meant to bring the topic of domestic violence into view. Today I also saw a sticker on a car that said, REAL MEN DON”T HIT WOMEN. I had never heard of these days and ask Anna. She said that they follow the UN Calendar. Some times I feel like I grew up in a box. So I have another thing to look up on the web and find out more about - the UN Calendar.
I finished the resource center today and was visited by one of the older boy, Ridge, who has a beautiful golden Mohawk in contrast to his black hair. He was very friendly and was amazed I was working by myself. He said he thought it was sad and I told him that I did not mind. Here again I was reminded how much a close community means to most of the world, a concept that I see that I am not very familiar with. Ridge told me that he would be in the dance concert and that next week, they would be making their costumes in the school colors of green, red, and white.
My Maori is not progressing very fast and I admit that I have not been making a huge effort.
It was very hot today and at the end of the day, I sat a watched the kids practice for the dance performance next week. Without the skirts, I finally got to see the hips movement that is so amazing when done at speed. If you remember the Karate Kid, the movement of washing the windows, if done with the hips gives the most amazing movement of the grass skirts.
The group went on a drive of the inner island road this afternoon. The two boys were not feeling well so the proposed trip to the waterfall was postponed to another day. I had planned to opt out, as I wanted a nap and some quiet, but went along for the ride. I rode shotgun and navigator that was hazardous as the road was only one lane and Joe, in his attempt to drive to the left, put me through the bushes at times. I have also found that the van is difficult to sight see from as you sit very high and the windows are not large. We did make it down to the Sheraton on the south side of the island, a deserted shell of a development that has left the island with a huge debt 15 years ago. The buildings have sat empty all that time. Now there are two companies vying to continue and either way, they will divert the outer road to come to the front of the hotel complex and give the hotel beachfront access.
We were told about the land rights around the island and how it is split into 12 different villages, each with a chief. Land ownership can only be by Cook Island Families and they each have a pie shaped wedge of the island, smallest part up in the mountains and the larger wedge by the water. In the olden time, it was thought that this way, the family would have access to all the resources they would need to sustain their family. Outsiders can only lease land for up to 60 years and there is no guarantee that you can renew it.
For the most part, the houses on the island are modest, 4 rooms tops, louvered windows and one level. The homes on the beach have the opportunity for the breezes, but the ones on the inland road have better access to shade. Animals like pigs, goats, horses and cows are tethered with one long rope and only have access to immediate area grazing. Hogs are tied by a back leg and are walked to and from areas by the owner. There are some families that have multiple sources of income. The owners of our hotel, for instance also run the water bottling company, soft drink concession and the island movie theatre. The one thing that is unusual to us is that in some of the compounds where people live, there are graves of relatives. There are also graveyards in some of the villages, possibly for the members of that village only. We are not sure why some people go to the graveyard and others are in the family compound.
Dinner tonight was at Trader Jack’s, bar and restaurant that is downtown and had excellent seafood. We are all pooped and even though work is not always long or very stressful, the week in the heat and the sun has taken it out of most of us. I am looking forward to a quiet weekend.
With the exception of Joe and I, the rest of the group is off to Atuitaki for the weekend. Joe due to his foot and me being cautious my first week, plan to go to one of the other islands on a later weekend as we have more options.
Tomorrow, I plan to go to the am market, do a little shopping, do some walking in the surf and watch the sunset from the porch with wine, cheese and crackers.
On Sunday, I may read all day and just take it easy. May get into town and do some wifi.
Saturday, April 1 – outline format
Got up early to ride to the airport with the group. Breakfast at Mama’s Café and coconut pancakes. YUMMMMY!
Saturday market - where I did lots of looking and only bought one coconut roll, the benefit of going shopping on a full stomach. I walked all over downtown and did lots of window-shopping and price comparisons.
Met Joe for travel agent research and lunch at the Blue Note café – Fabulous fruit smoothey and fruit salad with yoghurt.
Rode the clockwise bus for one circuit and saw the ocean view.
Walked the beach and looked in the tide pools. Found crabs, sea cucumbers, mini fish, sea urchins and dogs.
Drink at the Tumunu bar and restaurant – music from 1970, Kenny Rogers and glass of wine.
Excellent dinner at the Tuoro Restaurant. Grilled beef salad and cranberry juice. Only two apartments (that sleep 4 in two bedrooms) at this lodging for $295/night with a glorious pool and view of the ocean. The owner is German and his wife Dutch and they had quite a story about getting the facility built. The first builder did not come through. The second one gave them a reasonable quote and after they had started indicated that the contract was only for the outer walls. If they wanted interior walls, that would be extra. Ah - the vagaries of construction in a different culture where you may not be aware of the customs or have total control over the language.
Wifi and loaded the last entry from Peru with updated pictures.
Sunday, April 2 – outline format
Slept late, patchwork breakfast and blogging, grocery shopping, waterfall and swimming on a southern beach. FABULOUS DINNER AT A RESTAURANT ON THE BEACH. Wifi.