Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022
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I prescribe a trip to ... the Cook Islands

Doctors become travel writers!

Dr Joanne Lysack was born, raised and trained in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This trip to the Cook Islands was her first adventure in the South Pacific. She now permanently escapes the cold on the Pacific island of Saipan, where she practises family medicine and works for the local Department of Public Health. She and her husband Dr Ryan Bates are looking forward to exploring Southeast Asia and other Pacific Islands from their new base.

We landed on the Cook Islands, and it was yesterday. Somehow, we had arrived before we left. You have to be on the lookout for that tricky date line as it snakes between islands in the South Pacific, otherwise it can sneak up on you. Having a day added to your life could be seen as one of the pleasures of travel here. But ultimately it hardly matters, since you'll lose all track of time the minute you arrive.

Located between Tahiti and Fiji, the Cooks are a collection of 15 small inhabited coral atolls and volcanic islands sprinkled in the South Pacific. They are remote, isolated by vast swaths of ocean. It is an 11-hour flight from Los Angeles, nearly four hours from Auckland, and the islands are spread across an unbelievable two million square kilometres.

All journeys to the Cooks begin on Rarotonga, the largest and most populous of the islands, and currently the only one with an international airport. Nearly all international flights land at night, keeping the island's beauty veiled a while longer and prolonging the suspense. You can hear the ocean and feel the thick, fragrant tropical air, but cannot see what lies beyond the lights.

In the morning, pointed, rocky peaks stretch upward from the island's centre, piercing the clouds. The mountain's slopes are blanketed with lush green jungle, and the occasional field of palms planted in rows. A calm turquoise lagoon cushions the island, while the ocean crashes outside the reef.

Tied to Tradition
The Cook Islands' mere 19,000 inhabitants are nearly all Maori, related to the Maori of New Zealand. The Cooks have been independent from New Zealand since 1965, but locals are still New Zealand citizens, although New Zealanders cannot be citizens of the Cooks.

The Cook Islands Maori are proud of their Polynesian heritage and carry on its traditions. All the land is owned by families and passed down through the women. There is respect for extended family members and a generosity that ensures no one goes without. You will not see riches on the Cooks, but the poverty often found in tropical lands isn't prevalent.

One thing you will see are front yards filled with rocks that look an awful lot like tombstones. How odd, you might think, until it dawns on you that there are indeed graves nearly everywhere you look. According to Maori tradition, the matriarch of a family is buried in a concrete vault in front of her home. Family members who knew her lovingly tend the grave. Once these family members die, there is no obligation for others to care for the grave of someone they did not know.

The only structures on the island that surpass the graves in number and grandeur are churches. There is a gleaming white church around every bend, with nearly every Christian denomination represented. When the Cooks converted, they converted hard, and they take their churching very seriously. You can party until 2 am on Friday night, but on Saturday the island shuts down at midnight: it's time to get ready for church. Firearms, pornography and any materials deemed indecent are all strictly prohibited -- and no adult material may be brought to the islands by tourists.

It's interesting, then, that absolutely everywhere you go -- to the bank, the grocer and even at customs -- you will see a little pot-bellied statue with the hugest, most impossible manhood imaginable. It is the sort of thing that North American soccer Moms would shoo their curious kids away from, shielding their little eyes.

Here on the Cooks it is called Tangaroa, the god of the sea and fertility, and it is worshipped. Tangaroa even joins Queen Elizabeth on the local currency (I'm sure she's thrilled). Despite all the churches, pornography bans and the Saturday night shutdown, the Cooks seem to enjoy a bit of a naughty reputation abroad. When the owner of our Fijian resort heard that we were off to the Cooks, he told my husband Ryan that Aitutaki, an island north of Rarotonga, was beautiful, but that he would never go there on honeymoon.

"It's a great place mate, full of hula girls."

"Maybe my wife can take a hula-dancing lesson," my husband volunteered.

"Oh, they don't give lessons, mate -- not for this kind of dance."


Life on a Lagoon
On Rarotonga, we were staying at Reflections (tel: 682-23703; fax: 011-682-23702; in one of three beautifully furnished new villas directly on Muri Beach, and our hostess was beside herself. The previous guests had some CDs and pocket change stolen when they forgot to lock the patio door. Petty theft is not unusual in most holiday destinations, but it doesn't happen here. Our hostess knows everyone on Raro; she would know the kids who did this and that bothers her. "It may have been street kids," she says hopefully -- troublemaking teens from New Zealand sent by their families in the hopes their relatives can reform them by reconnecting them with the traditional ways. They don't live on the streets, they simply roam them.

Unlike Australia, a land teaming with creatures that can kill you painfully and quickly, the Cook Islands contain nothing that can even seriously harm you. Including other people, apparently, since there is no violent crime. Until I visited the South Pacific, I assumed that every tropical Eden came with its serpents; God's way of balancing out the perfection of paradise. But the Cooks are free of snakes and have no poisonous insects. There are sharks, but, unlike other South Pacific islands, no one I spoke to could ever remember a shark attack here.

The following day we took an hour flight to Aitutaki, a very small island north of Rarotonga. Islets, called motus, ring a green-blue lagoon. The largest of these, and the only one inhabited, is Aitutaki. It's often cited as the South Pacific island most in touch with Polynesian tradition and is often compared to the Bora-Bora of the 1950s, though it's probably one-tenth the price of Bora-Bora today. Only 13 square kilometres, Aitutaki is easily explored in half a day by bike or scooter. Many people come here from Raro for a day trip. They all regret it. One day is not enough. Come for a week if you can; it is the perfect place to relax and do nothing.

Big Blue
The Fijian resort owner was right -- Aitutaki was beautiful, but we hadn't seen any hula girls yet. In fact, we had hardly seen anyone at all.

It was 2 pm and we were floating on a seatless dive boat just outside the lagoon, in front of the main village of Arutanga. "It's too busy on this island now," our dive master complained. "I used to have time to play in the Chicken Run [weekly golf tournament], but now I am too busy." Nathan, the 20-something dive master, has the only scuba-diving operation on the island. We were the only two divers. We couldn't see anyone in town, though there were a couple of young men spearfishing in the lagoon. Aside from tropical fish, a turtle and sea cucumbers encountered during our dive, we hadn't seen a lot of other beings. It was beautiful and pristine and anything but busy.

Aitutaki sits at the north point of a 12-kilometre lagoon. There are 21 motus around the lagoon and a number of islands so tiny that they are essentially sand bars, disappearing when the tide comes up. There are no buildings, no garbage and nearly no people. The local water taxis will take you to your own tropical paradise for a day, and isolation comes at bargain-basement prices. The water is always warm, the sun always bright and the snorkelling is superb.

After a busy day of relaxing on the lagoon, the restaurant of your choice (there are presently six) will come pick you up at your hotel to take you to dinner. No trip to the Cooks is complete without attending Island Nights -- an evening of local food and dancing. Rumour has it that the most authentic is held on Tuesdays at Samade, a sand-floored restaurant directly on Aitutaki's lagoon. I am always wary of this type of entertainment. It's never far off from the tacky tourist shows at the all-inclusive bargain destinations where the "local dancing" seems to showcase some of the same moves you saw at a show halfway across the world.

But Aitutaki was different. That's right: real live hula girls, mate. We finally found them, in all their teenage glory. And I have to say they were quite lovely. And they did have moves you couldn't learn in a lesson -- at least on the dance floor.

South Pacific Islanders hold dance competitions like we hold softball tournaments and curling bonspiels. And the Aitutakian dancers are known to be faster and more dexterous than all the rest. The girls are young, classic Polynesian beauties in grass skirts and coconut-shell bikini tops, which seem glued on. Amazingly to me, their proud mothers stood just offstage, silently wiggling along with pride. My mother would have had a fit if she ever saw me dressed like that -- and if she ever saw me move like that (I only wish I could), I would have been banned to the basement forever. But, these mothers were once hula girls too, and they beamed with pride.


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