Seven Selfish Reasons to Become a Cook Island Global Volunteer

It seems that this time of year we feel compelled to create and/or read lists–the ten best movies, the thirty best female vocalists of the decade, five foolproof ways to lose weight, eight helpful hints you can’t live without.  So, I figured I might as well jump right onto the ol bandwagon with MY list.  LIke Letterman, I’ll do it as a countdown.


The KiiKii, your home while volunteering, is right smack dab on the ocean.  But then, just about everything in Rarotonga is right on the ocean–the island’s interior is completely mountainous.  If you have trouble falling asleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore, you need to bring earplugs!

The KiiKii Motel
The KiiKii Motel


Yes,  Global Volunteers’ country manager is indeed the owner of Matutu Brewery. And, as a Rarotonga resident, James knows everything of importance, like where to get the best pizza I’ve ever tasted!   That’s where we were heading right after our brewery tour.  Pizza and beer, what could be a better ending to a volunteer’s day?

James, giving us the brewery tour
James, giving us the brewery tour


The  nicest people become Global Volunteers…take a look

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It seems like everyone on the island sings and dances.  Those in the know (like us volunteers)  catch the professionals practicing the routine they perform at the local resorts.  There is also a show every Saturday at the outdoor market.   Here’s a 30 second clip  of my favorite dancers.  Check out the expression on the little girl’s face, second to the left.  Watching her always made me smile.  


Cook Islanders are gracious, friendly people who welcome visitors to their island.  Family is everything to them.  As a volunteer you become a member of the extended family, sharing food and laughter.

Best of all, you learn to appreciate “island time” and a life style that is safer, slower and friendlier than what you might have been used to.   You come home more relaxed and more aware of what really matters.

Teachers at Takitumu
Teachers at Takitumu


New Zealanders in general, and Cook Islanders in particular, are in tune with nature, and care about preserving the environment–and it shows.   No billboards, no litter, no traffic jams–just flowers and mountains and ocean.

Hiking up one of the mountain trails with Niki
Hiking up one of the mountain trails with Niki.  Check out the size of those leaves!
another beautiful sunrise
another beautiful sunrise


Look at these beautiful faces–how could anyone NOT fall in love?   P1040264

What a wonderful way to spend three weeks!


It’s not ALL work…

Although Global Volunteers work a full week, we have weekends and evenings to enjoy our surroundings.  To be tax deductible, however none of the fee we paid can be used for off duty activities, and the organization can’t make leisure arrangements or recommendations.

This is not a problem if you are lucky enough to have someone like Robyn in your group.   A “returning” Cook Island volunteer, Robyn was a fantastic resource.  During her stay last year, she discovered Air Rarotoga’s day trip to Aitutaki.  P1040027

It didn’t take much for her to convince THIS group that would be a grand way to spend a Saturday.

Back: Willy, Robyn, Larry Front: Dave, Sally and Niki at the Avarua airport, waiting to meet Paul, our guide.
Back: Willy, Robyn, Larry
Front: Dave, Sally and Niki
at the Avarua airport, waiting to meet Paul, our guide.

We got a great view of Aitutaki and the surrounding motus from the plane.

Paul took us on a quick tour of the island, which allowed us to feast our eyes on some very luxurious accommodations!

The pool at the Pacific Resort
The pool at the Pacific Resort

The rest of the day was spent snorkeling and visiting various motus.

Our vessel -- and did you notice that beautiful white sand?
Our vessel

While we were sailing, the crew entertained us with songs and stories.

Our captain and his helper.  It wasn't even "take your kid to work"  day
THEY don’t need an official “take your son to work”day.   Our captain with his helper.

Last Christmas, Willy’s wife Niki bought him an underwater camera. I’d say he put it to good use, wouldn’t you?

George, the giant trevally.  The leg on the left gives you an idea of George's size and how close he came to us.
George, the giant trevally.  The leg on the left gives you an idea of George’s size and how close he came to us.
Another photo by Willy--the giant clam
Another photo by Willy–the giant clam

I didn’t see “Survivor: Cook Islands” when it aired in 2006, but once I got home, I watched the video. I wasn’t interested in tribal councils or challenges. Nope. I just wanted to enjoy all the spectacular background photography. Die-hard fans might recognize some of the sights. The show’s opening shots were very much like our view from the plane.

What is left of the Survivor campsite
What is left of the Survivor campsite
Big deal--Ozzie captured a bird.  Even I could have caught THIS guy.
Big deal–Ozzie captured a bird. Even I could have caught THIS guy.

We were starting to get hungry from all the snorkeling and touring. Fortunately, unlike the “survivors” we didn’t have to catch our food.

Lucky for this guy, we had better options.  

Lunch was part of our package, and what a lunch it was!
Robyn clued us in to a special feature of the tour…getting our passports stamped at “One Foot Island”, so called because it is shaped like a giant foot. Its real name is Akaiami Motu. Paul taught the CORRECT pronunciation:  “eye-k-yummy”.
It was SO worth the $2!

My passport
My passport

Time to head back.  Another great day, with wonderful friends, in a beautiful corner of the Pacific Ocean.

These hotel "rooms" are over the water.
These bungalows extend over the water, and for a mere $1,20o per night, it could be all yours.

A perfect memory for a snowy New Jersey day!

Long Live the Queen!

Timing is everything in life, and Vaca 139’s was perfect.  How many other Global Volunteers got to watch a Rowing Regatta AND witness a Maori coronation?  Not many, I assure you!

As one might expect, the coronation took place at the palace. So what comes to mind when you hear word “palace”?

You ready?

I took this picture from the bus (I DO love those bus rides) the day before the big event. If you look closely, you can see the red plastic chairs that were being set up on the palace lawn for the expected guests.  Not quite Buckingham Palace, but a whole lot friendlier and far more inclusive.

The Palace
The Palace

As mentioned in an earlier post, there was a bit of disagreement over the line of succession, and protesters were anticipated. Not to worry–these guards were ready!

The guards
The guards

Okay, so maybe this protest wasn’t quite what you might have envisioned either. No riot police, no gas masks, no picketers with signs. In fact, if Willy hadn’t made friends with a Maori lady who translated, I would have figured that the shouting we heard was all part of the celebration.

The Maori are very inclusive, so all were welcome to join in the festivities. Old…
Visitors from the good ol US of A.

Willy and his new friends from Utah
Willy with his new friends from — can you guess? The white shirts are your hint. Utah, of course.

Climbing on walls, trees, chairs, the stage — all was allowed, as everyone tried to see over the crowd to catch a glimpse of the queen.
And here she is, dressed in gold, regally listening to the man serenading her.  I’m not revealing how I got that shot, but remember, climbing WAS allowed.

Isn’t it fascinating to see the juxtaposition of tradition and technology?

Tribal costume, complete with headset
Tribal costume, complete with headset
Cell phones, ipads, microphones--all capturing the action
Cell phones, ipads, microphones–all capturing the action

Sharing food is very much a part of the Maori culture, and this event was no exception. An enormous pig was presented to the queen. Sorry, I wasn’t able to get a shot of the pig–all I could see were the tops of the heads of the several men it took to carry the beast over to her. Not a very compelling image. So, instead, I took pictures of the “take out” packages that were being prepared for all guests.

Coconuts, chicken, pork, sweet potatoes, etc all packed into these biodegradable containers.  We could learn a lot from the Maori!
Coconuts, chicken, pork, sweet potatoes, etc all packed into these biodegradable containers. We could learn a lot from the Maori!

This will give you an idea of how massive an undertaking it was to feed the crowd.

Long tables filled with food
Long tables filled with food

Full disclosure, I haven’t gotten the hang of videoing under the best of circumstances, and this event was a challenge to capture. BUT the singing was beautiful–the crowd quite colorful and entertaining, so if you would like to experience the queen’s entry or listen to the flag raising ceremony, just click and make your way over to YouTube. You’ll feel as if you were there, after imbibing a large quantity of wine perhaps. Or maybe you’ll need to drink some first to flow along with my camera!

Rollin’ Round Rarotonga

Remember the John Candy movie “Planes Trains and Automobiles”?  If it had been filmed in Rarotonga it would have been called “Buses, Scooters and Pick Up Trucks”– and we rode them all.

Where else does the bus driver stop to pick up his breakfast and come back with a load of bananas for everyone on the bus?  The food stand owner knew we were all going to church, so she wanted to show us a little love.

"Superman",  one of my favorite bus drivers--with our gift from "Mama"
“Superman”, one of my favorite bus drivers–with our gift from “Mama”

There are two bus routes on Rarotonga.  The Clockwise bus leaves from the center of Avarua on the hour; the Anti-clockwise bus leaves on the half hour.  Their only route is the circle around the island that is Rarotonga’s one main road.  Although technically there ARE bus stops, standing anywhere by the side of the road and waving enthusiastically works too. And there if there is one thing I have plenty of, it’s enthusiasm!

My other favorite driver was Bob Hopeless, who turns a bus ride into a bona fide tourist attraction.

Bob Hopeless
Bob Hopeless

If you’d like 30 seconds of the Bob Hopeless experience,  click this link. If you want more, you’ll just have to visit Rarotonga.  And yes, the road was that bumpy, which is one reason I decided against renting a bicycle.  The other was bus rides were so bloody much fun!

Maybe in Boston, (at least according to “Cheers”) everyone in the local bar knows who you are; on Rarotonga, it was the bus drivers.

Because we are workers, we get a special red bus pass–10 rides for $20–which almost functioned as an ID badge, differentiating us from the other Pakeha (non-Maori) on the island.  Our Global Volunteers fee covers transportation to and from the worksite; any non-work related travel (even going to church) we fund ourselves.   Anyway, before too long the drivers were greeting us and they knew exactly where we were headed.

But buses were only one method of transportation.  This is a VERY friendly island.  Sometimes we’d decide to walk back from school. We’d start off but before we got too far, we’d hear someone shouting our names and we were hopping onto or into one vehicle or another.  One day a pick up truck, the next a scooter.
Niki and I jumped out to get ice cream while Patrick (in the front seat) and Willy continued on the last few “blocks” to the KiiKii Motel.  My seat was right over the left rear wheel.

Note the water bottle in Willy's hands; note the disappointed look on the boy;s face.  Willy had promised to squirt Niki and me, then thought better of it.
Note the water bottle in Willy’s hands; note the disappointed look on the boy’s face. Willy had promised to squirt Niki and me, then reconsidered.

No photos exist of my rides on the back of Engia’s (the principal of Takitumu) motor scooter, but Niki did take this one of me hitching a ride with Bud before our hike up the mountain.

We also got offered rides in regular cars, but what made those trips memorable were the conversations with the drivers.  Tora is a Maori who emigrated to Australia and joined the army.  He was a military attache to the US army who had served in Afghanistan.


Tora clued us in to the controversy surrounding the upcoming coronation. It seems that a former king had three wives and some thought that the wrong line had been selected to replace the prior queen. He explained that the dissenters would be letting their feelings known at the coronation.

Okay, so NEXT post will be about the coronation. I promise!

There was ONE more method of island transportation that us “three weekers” experienced vicariously. The 10th Annual Vaca Eiva went from November 23 until November 29 and drew rowers from all over the Pacific region: Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, even one team from Hawaii, and of course The Cook Islands. The racers rowed right by my hotel room, giving me great opportunities to capture the action. Because they all wore event tee shirts and not their team shirts, it was a little tricky to determine who was who. Fortunately, the KiiKii was also home to a Kiwi team and when their supporters started cheering wildly, I started shooting.

The young Kiwis staying at our hotel came in third!
The young Kiwis staying at our hotel came in third!

The Tahitians were #1 and 2, but our Kiwi friends did quite well, and were thrilled I had managed to capture the moment for them. And I was thrilled to be able to show MY appreciation for the warmth, friendship and hospitality I experienced while visiting their country by giving something to them. And isn’t that what Global Volunteers is all about?

Global Volunteers, Cook Islands

Let me introduce you to Global Volunteer’s Vaca 139. Why “Vaca”?  Because it is the Maori word for boat, and  it serves as a reminder that we are all in the same boat–we’re in this together.

The 139 is self explanatory:  we are the 139th group of Global Volunteers to serve in Rarotonga. Of Vaca 139’s ten volunteers, six have been here before, which speaks volumes about this assignment. Half of the group will be staying for two weeks.  I am one of the five that opted for three weeks.

Standing:  Dave, Larry, Willy Middle: James, Lynda, Shelley, Bud Front: Robyn, Patrick, Sally, Niki
Standing: Dave, Larry, Willy
Middle: James, the country manager,  Lynda, Shelley, Bud
Front: Robyn, Patrick, Sally, Niki

So what were we going to do during our stay?  Larry and Sally split their time between the prison and the high school.  When she was not in jail, Sally was a one woman “beautifier”, sprucing up the exterior of Tereora College.  She was leaving HER mark in flowers, while Larry, a former math teacher, gave his students practical skills, such as learning how to calculate nutritional values and convert celsius to fahrenheit.

Robyn and Dave worked in Titikavaka College. Bud, an Ob/Gyn, returned to the hospital to offer his assistance, and Lynda worked with the Ministry of Education, developing plans for special needs children.

Willy and Niki, Patrick and I were delighted to be assigned to an elementary school.  Papa Patrick, an artist from Florida, very thoughtfully brought along a suitcase full of watercolors and paper.  He spent the first two of the three weeks at the school, helping the children make cards; the last week he taught disabled adults at the Creative Center with Lynda.


Uncle Willy worked with the third graders during class time.

Uncle Willy with the third grade class.
Uncle Willy with the third grade class.
Can you see why it required more than one attempt to photograph THIS group?
Can you see why it required more than one attempt to photograph THIS group?

Once the drums started beating (yes, that’s right–there are no bells, there are drums that mark the start and finish of school periods) he was out in the field, playing soccer with boys of ALL ages, regardless of the heat and humidity.

Time to get into your classroom!
Time to get into your classroom!

If you would like a more vivid drumming experience, Just click on this YouTube link.

Niki and I preferred more sedentary (and cooler) ways to interact with the children during “free” time.  During the school day, she worked one on one with fourth and fifth graders.

My first week was spent helping out in the office.  Their secretary had abruptly quit right before we arrived, leaving a mountain of unfinished paperwork.  A basic principle of Global Volunteers is that you do whatever you are asked to do, so I got busy copying, doing excel spreadsheets, data entry, and report cards.   James figured that my years in the insurance industry would mean I was good at office work.  I didn’t bother to tell him that wasn’t quite what I did, and once I left the world of paid employment, I said goodbye to PCs to become an Apple devotee.  I was shocked at how much windows and excel had changed in just a couple of years!  Fortunately, speed was not important, and I was able to figure it out–although the copy machine WAS a bit of a struggle.

The best part of my assignment was I shared the principal’s office, so I got to know this warm, gracious, interesting woman. Because she had recently married, she generously shared her wedding photos and the stories about people in them, her extended family.

In the principal's office
Engia, the principal, and her new secretary

Of course, I was able to take several breaks during the day to play and read with the children, who LOVED to have their photos taken, AND to take photos.   Here are a few schoolyard shots.



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Stay tuned for the next post–the coronation!