All hail the King


Where: Rarotonga, Cook Islands, South Pacific (Look at that! You can click on the link to see where this is. Three cheers for me becoming more tech savvy!)

Lovely, tranquil Rarotonga

Plate of food: During our stay in Rarotonga, we ate at a fantastic restaurant, called The Flame Tree, which offered an eclectic mix of flavours on its menu. With fresh fish and seafood as the base, the dishes melded influences from Japan, India, New Zealand, Indonesia and beyond. I remember enjoying our dinner there, but after 12 years, the food has faded from memory. All that remains in my mind is the short drive to the restaurant.

I was perched on the back of a small motorbike (ubiquitous on the island), my skirt tucked in around my legs, as Matt drove along the one road that circles the island. On our right, I saw flashes of shimmering sea between small bungalows; on our left, there was only dense forest sloping up into the hills, all shadows and night noises. The wind rushing by my face was distinctly tropical: salty, warm, and scented with frangipani. It started to rain as we drove – large, heavy drops that seemed in no rush to fall. As they hit the asphalt it released its pent-up heat in small bursts of steam. After a drive like that, who cares about the food?

I do remember, however, the breakfasts that were delivered to our small hotel room each morning. A tray full of fruit, coffee, and pastries would appear and we would take it outside to the front stoop. There we would eat the most delicious papaya (locally known as pawpaw) – deep orange in colour and sweet as honey. We would sip our coffee and contemplate our next move: reading on the beach or snorkeling in the shallow lagoon? Hmm.

Wild chickens and roosters darted through the hedges and streaked across the grass, bobbing their heads at us. Our view of the white sand and the turquoise water was unobstructed, except for two tall palm trees. Any time I eat papaya now, I return ever so briefly (too briefly!) to that front porch.

The best: One evening near the end of our trip, we walked along the beach at sunset. The falling darkness was a relief after the heat of the day. The sand felt cool between our toes and the breeze blowing in off the sea was fresh and gentle. We sat at the edge of the palm trees to watch the moon rise and the stars blink. Behind us was a small community church hidden behind the bushes. We could hear the inflection of conversations drifting out to us. Suddenly low singing started and quickly gained strength. Soon many voices were singing in beautiful harmony in Rarotongan/Cook Islands Maori. The sound drifted out to us on the beach, accompanied by the rhythmic rolling of waves. We sat in silence and enjoyed this impromptu concert. The foreign words held no meaning, but the lyrical, uplifting sounds felt like a special celebration of Rarotonga. Best moment on the island!

I swear you can hear the singing if you listen hard enough...

Story that needs to be told: We briskly set off walking one day – to the local shop, I think – and soon the heat radiating up off the road and the sun beating down on our backs slowed our steps. We must have looked fairly pathetic/crazy/sad (take your pick) because a small pick up truck pulled over and the driver offered us a ride. Matt immediately said “Yes”, and vaulted into the back.

I hesitated; I don’t hitchhike. It’s not safe, we all know that, right? Matt looked at me questioningly and reached for my hand. “It’s Rarotonga”, he said. Good point, I thought. I sat down in the back and tried to look carefree and trusting, but in my head I conjured up images of us being kidnapped and dragged off to…somewhere scary in Rarotonga (a place, let me remind you, that has a man standing on a wooden crate at the tiny airport, playing the ukulele to welcome you). Still, hitchhiking is dangerous.

Luckily we survived the short trip and we thanked the kindly man who saved us from heat stroke. He then revealed with great pride that we had been picked up by none other than…the Coconut King! Um, who? It turns out that this man was Piri Purutu III (a name fit for a King, no?). He does performances around the island, showing off traditional fire making skills and scaling tall palm trees to retrieve coconuts. He offered us the chance for a private performance the next day at our hotel.

He appeared the following day in full Coconut King regalia, which consisted of a wig and a loin cloth, both made from coconut fibers. The wig was styled in a rather smart-looking bob. The loin cloth was, well, shorter than I would have liked.

This is going to take NY Fashion Week by storm.

Across the street from our hotel he regaled us with tales of the traditional island ways, then he stripped some fibers off of his loin cloth (easy, now!) and tied them in a figure eight. He put his feet through the loops and shimmied quickly up a tree. Quite amazing for a man in his 60s! Once at the top of the swaying palm tree he climbed through the fronds and stood on the very top. From this vantage point he plucked a coconut and threw it up in the air. The sickening smack of a coconut on the ground is not the sound you want to hear as you watch a man perform stunts at the top of a tree – it might be something he should consider changing for future shows…

At this point I was really hoping he was wearing something under that loin cloth.

Safely back on the ground, he showed us how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together and using the coconut fiber as a nest for the glowing sparks. The whole show was impressive, but mostly because of his enthusiasm and energy. By all accounts, the Coconut King still reigns in Rarotonga; you should find him if you ever go. Just promise me that you won’t hitchhike.

Photos: Just a note to say that these photos were taken, wait for it, on a camera that took FILM. Thus, the photos have been scanned and look as though they were taken in 1978, not in 2000. If there is anyone reading this blog who thinks 2000 might as well be 1978, then you probably listen to Ke$ha and we, unfortunately, can’t be friends.

“So much of who we are is where we have been.”  William Langewiesche


5 responses »

  1. I saw the King doing his thing – back in 86′ I think it was. I also hitched in the pitch dark one night with a dude on a scooter. People where just plain friendly.

    • Thanks for stopping by to read! I love that the Coconut King has been reigning for decades. It would be great to get back to the Cook Islands to see him again. 🙂

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