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A "Welcome" from Paradise

Kia Orana!  If you don't happen to speak Maori, the official language of the Cook Islands and I'm guessing that a few of you probably don't that means "Hello."  It's supposed to be pronounced "key-a orana" but most Cook Islanders just say "key-rana."  It's like saying "lo" in America instead of the full-blown "hello."


Above:  Vara's Studios on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, where I'm writing this entry. 

So where the heck am I?  The Cook Islands are in the south Pacific, about as far west as Hawaii and as far south of the equator as Hawaii is north.  In fact, the Cook Islands remind me a lot of Hawaii, though they're much smaller, much less crowded, much less touristy, and much less expensive.


Why am I here?  It all started in Portland about five years ago when I read an article in the travel section of the Sunday  Oregonian newspaper, written by a guy who had just returned from Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands.  His idyllic description of Rarotonga, with its beautiful, sandy beaches, friendly locals, pleasant weather, low costs, and relaxed lifestyle made me decide to visit it.  For the next week, I walked around the dismal, gray streets of rainy Portland saying to myself, "Someday, I'm going to Rarotonga."  Since Rarotonga is a free stopover on the Air New Zealand route from Los Angeles to Auckland, I figured this would be a great opportunity to stop for a few days and see it.


I've been in Rarotonga for a couple days now and have gotten a good feel for this place.  But before I describe it, let me get you caught up on how I got here.

The Last Frantic Days in Bellingham

As you may know, I returned to Bellingham, Washington in late October from my four-and-a-half month road trip around America.  According to my original schedule, my U.S. trip was supposed to last only a couple of months and I was supposed to be in New Zealand by September 2001, but I threw that schedule out the window somewhere between Austin and the Louisiana bayous.  Then after I returned to Bellingham in late October, I figured it would take me only a week or two to get ready for my trip overseas.  Wrong!  More like five weeks and even at that, it was pretty frantic towards the end. 


Above:  Packing up my belongings at my dad's house in Bellingham and getting ready to spend several months overseas.  It was a mad dash at the end.

If I were going to be overseas for only a week or two, it wouldn't have taken me long to prepare for it.  An eight-month trip, though, requires a lot of preparation, much more than I ever realized.  I'd never traveled overseas before, which also added a layer of complexity.  But I've learned a lot, so the next time I go on a big trip like this, things will hopefully go a lot smoother.


I was planning to buy a series of one-way plane tickets that would take me completely around the world.  However, as the folks at AirTreks.com, the agency that sold me my tickets, told me, the fares for next summer hadn't been set yet.  Therefore, they could sell me tickets only as far as Hong Kong, which I'm planning to visit after I spend several months in New Zealand and Australia. 


Because of that, I'd have to leave America with my around-the-world schedule still up in the air (so to speak).  Having that flexibility isn't a bad thing, though, and depending on how I feel in a few months, I may come back to the U.S. after visiting Hong Kong instead of going all the way around the world, but I won't need to make that decision for a while.  Heck, I might not even go to Hong Kong.  We'll see.



Above left:  The first snowfall of the year in Bellingham.  So much for my trying to avoid winter this year, eh?

Above center:  My dad with Doti's cat, Lila.  Lila is definitely a lap cat, and for some reason she likes my dad's lap a lot more than mine.

Above right:  Finally ready to go.  This is at the shuttle bus pickup in Bellingham.  I'm carrying everything I need for the next several months well, hopefully everything!

On The Road Again

Above:  I left Bellingham and flew to Los Angeles, where I'd catch an Air New Zealand flight for the Cook Islands the next evening.  This is the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, which my great-uncle Henry Swang helped build back in the 1930s (see Henry's picture below).

After spending several weeks frantically packing and getting ready, I left Bellingham on the morning of Friday, December 7.  That's Pearl Harbor Day, of course, though hopefully my trip overseas won't be a bomb.  I rode a shuttle bus for three hours down Interstate 5 to SeaTac Airport, then flew from Seattle to Orange County Airport in southern California. 


That airport was renamed several years ago to honor one of America's most celebrated "heroes," John Wayne a guy who fought in every war except a real one and who, during Hollywood's Red Scare in the 1950s, tried to rat on his fellow actors by telling lies about them.  As you can tell, I'm not a big John Wayne fan.  And neither is my dad, who actually fought in World War II instead of making movies about it.  Every time he saw a John Wayne movie on TV, he turned it off in disgust.  Perhaps the characters that John Wayne portrayed were heroes but he certainly was not, so I still call it Orange County Airport instead of its official name today, John Wayne Airport.


My flight for Rarotonga didn't leave Los Angeles International Airport until the next evening, but I flew down to southern California a day early so I could spend an evening visiting my brother Dave and his wife Mary in Orange County.  I also wanted to see my Aunt Betty, who lives nearby.  Aunt Betty is my mother's only living sibling, so we spent a few hours together talking about my recent discoveries in North Dakota, and she filled in some of the gaps in the family story.


I said goodbye to everyone on Saturday evening and drove up to the L.A. Airport, then caught my 9:30 p.m. flight to the Cook Islands.  Being a light sleeper, I didn't get much sleep on the 10-hour flight across the Pacific.  In fact, I didn't get any sleep, not even with the mega doses of melatonin I had taken beforehand.



Above left:  I got to warm and sunny southern California on Friday evening.

Above right:  Dana Point Marina at sunset.



Left:  My brother Dave and his wife Mary, at their house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. 

Mary's holding their lovably kooky and irrepressible cat, Precious.




Above left:  Precious getting her last licks in before the dishes got washed. 

Above center:  I spent a few hours visiting my Aunt Betty, my mom's only living sibling.  This is a 1908 photo that she showed me of her mother (my grandmother) Helga.  That's Helga (rear right) and her four siblings.  Henry Swang, the bridge builder (see News:  June 14, 2001), is front left, and Albert, who was injured in Europe while fighting in World War I, is front right.  For more on the Swangs, see News:  October 18, 2001.

Above right:  Checking in with Air New Zealand at LAX.



Above left:  Then going through security.  It took only 20 minutes not too bad in these days after the 9/11 attacks.

Above right:  38,000 feet above the Pacific and about half-way through a sleepless, 10-hour flight on Air New Zealand.  The cabin stewards were great though, and plied everyone with copious amounts of wine and champagne.

Perhaps the Stupidest Thing I've Ever Done

Our jet landed in balmy Rarotonga, the principal island in the Cook Islands, around 5 a.m.  I was hoping to watch the landing but even if I had a window seat, it was too dark outside to see much of anything.  I took a picture of the jet after I debarked and then left my laptop computer sitting on the tarmac.  I didn't discover this until an hour later when I was riding to Vara's Place, my lodging on Rarotonga.  Vara, the pleasant owner of the lodge, was quite concerned (as was I, of course) and she called several people at the airport, even though it was early on a Sunday morning.


Losing my laptop computer would have been a huge disaster, much worse than losing my camera, plane tickets or even passport, because of the information I have stored on it and because of the many ways in which I use it, such as my website, e-mail, managing my finances, processing my photos from my digital camera, and, of course, playing my MP3 tunes every night.  I thought it was ironic that, after months of planning for my big overseas trip, the very first thing I did when I landed is to lose my laptop computer! 


Fortunately though, the airport security staff called back a few hours later and said they'd found my laptop.  It was a big relief to me, and a testament to the honesty of the Cook Islanders.



Above left:  This postcard is the only aerial shot I have of Rarotonga, which is a mountainous island in the south Pacific and the main island in the Cook Islands group.  Muri beach, the best beach on the island, is in the foreground.  I'd highly recommend staying on Muri if you're going to "Raro."

Above right:  A bunch of groggy tourists stumbling off the plane at the Rarotonga airport at 5 a.m., Sunday morning.  After taking this picture, I left my laptop sitting on the tarmac (hey, it was a long flight).  But fortunately, I got it back the next day.

Kicking Back in Raro

I spent the next two days traveling around the island of Rarotonga.  Rarotonga is almost perfectly circular and, unlike many islands in the south Pacific which are flat, coral atolls, is very mountainous.  Rarotonga, given its topography, reminded me of Kauai but is much smaller, only 20 miles around.  About 11,000 people live here, almost all of whom live on the flat periphery of the island.  Nearly the entire perimeter of the island is settled and there are lots of small "mom-and-pop" motels and convenience stores scattered around the island.


I figured this would be a good place to practice driving on the wrong (oops, I mean left) side of the road, in anticipation of my upcoming visits to New Zealand and Australia, so during my second day here I rented a car in Avarua, the main town on Rarotonga.  It was strange sensation to drive on the left side of the road, so I kept telling myself, "Left, left, left," hoping that I wouldn't smash straight into an oncoming car or, more likely, a scooter.  After a few hours, though, I got the hang of it and it became almost second nature.


Rarotonga, as I discovered during my tutorial drive around the island, is a pretty nice place.  It wasn't the absolute tropical paradise that I had envisioned from reading that newspaper article in the Sunday Oregonian, being much more settled than I had thought.  In fact, other than the rugged interior of the island, there aren't many places you can go on the island for seclusion.  But still, I liked the laid back attitude on the island, the tropical weather, the beautiful beach at Muri where I was staying and especially the cheap prices.



Above left:  My studio at Vara's.  Like most motels in the Cook Islands, it's equipped with a full kitchen.  It's only 50 feet from the beach and, best of all, costs only US$35 a night.

Above right:  While still worrying about my laptop, I took a Sunday morning stroll on Muri Beach, the nicest beach on Rarotonga.


Above left:  Muri is lined with small hotels, motels and private houses.  I think it's the best place to stay on Rarotonga.

Above center:  Tai's Weather Rock is used to forecast the weather on Rarotonga.  As the sign says, if the rock's wet then it's raining.  Gee, thanks Tai.  

Above right:  Here's the main road on Raro, which goes completely around the island.  This is a typical store and "takeaway" (or takeout), where I got a huge seafood dinner for only $6.



Above left:  Avarua is the capital and largest city in the Cook Islands.  Motorbikes are everywhere.

Above center:  Even the license plates here are friendly with their "Kia Orana" greeting.

Above right:  Which child?



Above left:  Downtown Avarua. 

Above right:  I rented a car on Rarotonga for a day and got used to driving on the left side of the road.  I spent most of the day driving around (and around and around) the island and didn't manage to run into anything.  So mission accomplished.



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