After a week of orientation with Cook Islands News he wrote to our staff: “Thanks so much for the warm and beautiful welcome you’ve given me. I’ve been blown away by the love and commitment you all show to telling the stories of these islands, and to the grace and kindness with which you have opened your arms to me and, it seems, to everyone who walks in the door of the office.
“I could not be more excited about bringing over my family – Georgie, Monty, Joe, Gus and our dog Rusty – and introducing them to all of you. I feel like they will have a whole family of aunties and uncles here!”
He filed this story as his parting contribution to the Sunday Star Times:
The social network of the tropics
It’s five o’clock somewhere. But not in New Zealand: there, it’s 7.45pm, Tuesday.
And not here. Here in Rarotonga, it’s 9.45pm, Monday. There are no lights. The Milky Way wends along the dark horizon like a thick, inky sea cucumber.
Still, I’ve had my five o’clock beer and now I’m knee-deep in the warm waters of Muri Lagoon, phone in hand, trying to explain to my curious, sparkling-eyed seven-year-old son the discrepancy between the time zones. But the Facetime Messenger video connection is bad and my face is just an eerie glowing orb in the dark. Joe can’t hear me at all.
I’m distracted, too, by the thought that it would feel more authentic if I could tell him of the feeling of white sand between my toes. So I’m trying to kick off my jandals and fumbling the phone and
whoops, there goes one of my $30 Havaianas in the outgoing tide. It’s dark. It’s gone.
And as I try vainly to use the light on the phone to spot the disappearing jandal, I lose the call too.
THIS IS US, THIS IS NOT US
Let’s take one barefoot step back.
It was Saturday, March 16, the day after the mosque shootings. I was sitting at home in Auckland, frustrated. As a former Sunday newspaper editor, I should have been leading our online and
newspaper coverage of the aftermath of the terror attacks, striding the newsroom, shouting down the phone, spraying ideas and directions, making myself useful.
But I’d left that job two months earlier.
So instead, I’d planned to take our three boys to the lyrical, colourful Polyfest in south Auckland that day. But police cancelled that because of the perceived security risk of bringing together thousands of people to celebrate New Zealand’s youth and vigour and diversity.
I had nothing left to do but prowl social media, watch the rolling news coverage -- and reluctantly, to mull over the grim events of the previous 24 hours. Twitter and Facebook and I were all a bit
confused, trying to work out what we were meant to think. This is us. This is not us. You are us. You are you.
And I thought, one thing is certain. This terrorist didn’t know and love his neighbours. As was becoming clear, he was a lone gunman in more than one sense. If he had grown up playing cricket with Muslim kids in his Queensland schoolyard; if as an adult he had broken flatbread with his Lebanese and Turkish workmates; if in his formative years he had stepped outside his cultural comfort zone and been welcomed with those words, “hello brother”, then surely that previous day’s atrocity could never have happened.
My wife Georgie and I have three sons, Monty, Joe and Gus. I’m pretty confident they’re in no imminent danger of adopting white supremacist ideology. But I also know that if we want them to open their eyes to a big, beautiful world in all its Jackson Pollock paint-splattered tones and hues, we want to take them beyond their white picket gates in suburban Auckland.
Perhaps we could take them to live in Jerusalem. We could take them to Mecca. We could take them to the Dalai Lama’s mountainous city of Lhasa, or to the busy banks of the River Ganges.
But I happen to have a job offer, to getaway from the world’s bustle and urgency and constant connectedness and to edit the Cook Islands News. Georgie and I talk, and that evening I pick up the phone. Yes please, I’d like to take the job.
A DATE WITH DATA ADDICTION
Back when I edited the Sunday Star-Times and Sunday News, my email inbox would groan with 60 to 80 emails an hour, Monday to Friday. I became accomplished at deleting half of them without even
opening them, but even so, my life could sometimes become driven by other people’s agendas, other people’s priorities, other people’s digital deadlines.
I was on my phone constantly, night and day. Talking, emailing, text messaging, instant messaging, scanning the news and Facebook and Twitter. One of my sons, when he was just a toddler, would pace up and down the length of the room holding a brightly-coloured wooden building block up to his ear, barking “no”, “no”, “yes”, “okay, gotta go”.
I had a company iPhone, unlimited company data. I could have spent my life on Netflix if I hadn’t been so busy spending my life deleting emails.
Yet here I am planning to move to the Cook Islands, a remote Pacific archipelago that’s not wired up to the world. There’s no undersea cable yet. Locals rely on a painfully-slow, exorbitantly-priced and erratic satellite internet connection to the world.
In New Zealand, for about $70 or $80 a month, a dazzling array of fibre providers will compete to switch your old 120GB/month copper broadband connection to a fibre-optic stream of unlimited data, and boast of nearly 1000 Mbps download speeds.
In the Cooks, there is one monopoly provider: Bluesky. (Locals call it Bluesteal). And yes, Bluesky will sell you an $89 broadband package too – but for that money, you’ll get just 15GB of data, at a maximum speed of 4Mbps. That’s after first paying $80 to connect your phone, $14.65 a month to rent a handset, a $250 bond on the phone line, another bond on the broadband, and buying your own ADSL modem. (This, in a country with a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour).
Bluesky will happily sell you a bigger broadband package with 150GB of data, positively racing down your copper cable at 12Mbps. That will set you back $699 a month.
All of this leads to just one conclusion: it’s time to take control of our data addiction. Sayonara, Spotify. Vamoose, Vimeo. There will be no Game of Thrones. In sunny Raro, winter is not coming any time soon.
I ask nine-year-old Monty: What will you do if you can’t stream video programmes?
He pauses. Monty loves animal shows. And, like his dad, 35 years before, Dangermouse.
“ Dangermouse counts as an animal show,” he explains.
So will he miss them? “It’s okay. We’ll have Lego. And swimming obviously. And really awesome climbing trees. I’m going to learn to climb coconut palms.
“I think you and mum are more addicted to the internet than we are.”
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
The salary I’m being offered is a decent one by most New Zealand standards. And by Cook Islands standards, it’s top dollar. (Remember, for a comparison, that $7.25 minimum wage).
So why do I find myself buried in budgets, trying to work out how we can make ends meet when we get to Rarotonga?
In part, it’s because the economy works differently in the Cooks. Newcomers can’t buy land there.
And that’s a good thing. Cook Islanders have retained their ancestral lands, when New Zealand Maori and so many other indigenous peoples have lost theirs. Even the biggest resort chains must lease their sublime white sand idylls from local families, and so support the local community.
To get by on any of the Cook Islands, you need to live on your family land. Accommodation costs aren’t really factored into the wages. If you don’t have family land, like the young people coming to Rarotonga from the Outer Islands in pursuit of work, then life gets difficult. Most of those workers live in big monolithic hostels in Avarua, around the corner from the library and sports stadium, one hostel named for each outer island where their visiting labourers doss down. Eventually, the costs become unsustainable, and they board a flight to the Cook Islands’ biggest city: Auckland.
For “papa’a” expats like us who want to rent a home, we must compete with the all-consuming demand of AirBnB. Very few houses are offered up for long-term rental; as in Queenstown, locals
have discovered they can make more money from holidaymakers.
Today’s high-speed internet may not have reached the Cook Islands, but internet business modelsare certainly disrupting local business and culture.
The other reason we’re struggling to balance our budgets is simple: we’ve been accustomed to a style of living that our parents and grandparents would raise their eyebrows at. It’s tough to create a budget spreadsheet that no longer has a line for cafe espressos, a second car, for Spotify.
’EI, WHAT’S THAT?
I flew into Rarotonga airport this month, as the advance guard visiting to set up a house and work. The Cook Islands News’ wonderful general manager Tere Joseph met me in the airy international arrivals terminal and placed a fragrant floral ’ei around my neck.
Georgie messages me that night. The boys had seen my photo on Facebook. “What type of flowers are you wearing?” asks Joe. “Why are you wearing them?”
This should be a chance, I realise, to talk to Mama Tere. To learn from her about the tiare maori and pandanus and skills passed down from mother to daughter that go into weaving the traditional garland. To break away from that reliance on social media and 24/7 crowd-sourced search and streaming video and mobile data bundles and ill-informed speculation. To put down the phone, to sit down and stop talking and start listening.
But old habits are hard to break. Pacing the room, I tap Joe’s query into the Google search app on my iPhone: “What flowers are used in a Rarotonga ’ei?”
And I can smell their deep fragrance and I can hear the gently receding lagoon murmuring againstthe darkened sands – as my face reflects eerily back at me from my phone.
THE BEST SOCIAL NETWORK
That very first night, I blow my data.
At the airport’s Bluesky outlet, ’ei draped around my neck, I’d bought a $49 tourist SIM card with 3GB on it. It was meant to last 10 days. Once, 3GB was a lot – when I got my first computer, evenhard drive capacity was counted in megabytes, not gigabytes. Now, a gigabyte will barely stream you a single GoT episode.
I diligently worked my way through dozens of apps turning off mobile data and background refreshes so my phone wasn’t slyly sucking up the internet, but I forgot that my laptop was quietlybackground syncing my hard drive to two different clouds. It took me half an hour to realise – and by then, my data was almost all gone.
A couple of mornings later, I borrow a car from the Cook Islands News and set off from their office tofind the unlikely-monikered Snowbird Laundry. The humidity is taking its toll on my shirts; I’ve tried washing my clothes at the villa where I’m staying, but after three days hanging on the line, my clothes are still damp.
Google Maps says Snowbird’s at the other end of town, on a corner by the big Rarostore before one heads out past the docks to the airport. Nothing on Rarotonga has a street number, of course.
Typically, visiting someone entails following directions like: head down the Main Road, about two minutes past the Blackrock store, and after you hit a big pothole on the left, look out for a house with lots of chickens around the family burial plot, and then you know you’ve gone too far. Finally I find the corner where Google Maps thinks Snowbird should be.
So I ask at the neighbouring rental car business. Ah, the woman says, as she hoses down a car.
They’ve moved. They’re back through town, by the big church. (There is a church on every second block, I think).
So I head back through town and find Snowbird – immediately across the road from the Cook Islands News. It’s hard to miss.
If I’d just looked up from the map app on my phone, or asked one of my news workmates, I could have saved myself a lot of time. Social media and search engines and map apps may work in NewZealand but, here in the Cooks, I think the best social network is face-to-face.
TIPS FOR REAL LIFE
Making and giving an ’ei
To the staff and customers of Cook Islands News, she is the all-knowing boss, Mama Tere. But more than that, Tere Joseph is deeply part of her local community, of her church community, and a mother to six grown-up children.
The first time I meet her is at the airport, when she places a floral ’ei around my neck. With heavy rains leaving Rarotonga short of native blooms, this ’ei has been made on the island of Atiu, 221km away, and flown across two days earlier.
It is made of the Cook Islands’ national flower, the delicate white tiare maori, and the more robust ’ata (pandanus), and kept in the fridge since arriving in Rarotonga.
Since ancient times, says Tere, ’ei have been used to mark special occasions, welcoming people or family members arriving from overseas.
The art of making ’ei has been passed down from generation to generation and, as time goes by, the art has been improved and taken to a higher level.
“We teach our young ones as early as three years’ old – as long they can hold the needle and sew through the flowers, they are marked for life.
“Making ’ei is a symbol of friendship, love and respect. It can be worn any time of the day and night.”
Flowers used to make ’ei include the tiare maori or tiare taina (gardenia), Rarotonga’s two most beloved flowers. But today, any seasonal flower that is in bloom may be used, and even the leaves of any plants.
“You wear an ei, you are considered to be an islander or you have visited the Cookies.”