Those of you who follow me on Facebook probably saw that I spent Christmas week in the Cook Islands. Where? Yeah, that’s what I said when my friend Eric (the same Eric who let me stay at his cabin last summer) said he and his fiancée were planning a beach wedding during the holidays. I had to google it. I’ll save you the trouble: it’s in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from anywhere you’ve heard of. You know New Zeland? Kind of in that neighborhood… but not really. You fly Air New Zeland to get there, and the locals, who are Polynesian, speak English with that charming Kiwi accent and use New Zeland money (except for their odd little triangular coins, which are guaranteed not to roll under the couch when you drop them).
But as you’re flying to Rarotonga, the big island in the Cooks, you realize you are in the middle of f-ing nowhere. It’s a good 2,000 miles from New Zeland, or roughly the distance from New York to Albuquerque. The whole island is 20 miles around – you can bike it in about 2 ½ hours, including a beer break – and spiked with soaring, jungle-shrouded mountains, a la Jurassic Park. You half expect velociraptors to greet you at the airport. Instead, you get a sweet old man in a straw hat who plays the ukulele and sings for every arriving flight.
It’s that kind of place. It’s basically a small town (15,000 population) surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean. Which would drive me to anti-psychotics in about a month. But the first thing I noticed on Rarotonga is that these were the happiest, most chill collection of people I think I’ve ever met.
I can say that because I went Christmas shopping there. I live in a pretty chill town, but even Austinites get a typical American case of the crazies during the Christmas shopping season. They’re still polite in the mosh pits at the stores, but you can see the glint in people’s eyes, that cornered animal look that comes when they feel that someone’s gonna beat them to the last Ice Skating Elsa Doll west of the Mississippi.
Not on Rarotonga. After the wedding party got settled into our sweet beachfront resort and we all ate and drank ourselves catatonic for a few days, I decided it would be a good idea to get my Christmas shopping done. On Christmas Eve. So I hopped the local bus (they have two routes, “clockwise” and “counterclockwise.” Impossible to get lost there) to town and dove into the whirling Polynesian shopping throng.
The shops on Rarotonga were hopping on Christmas Eve. Jammed parking lots, lines at the counters, shoppers squeezing past each other to fondle hand-painted sarongs and black pearl earrings – the whole holiday scene, island-style. They even had decorations with Santa and the sleigh and reindeer — in a place that saw its last snow during the last ice age. It was cheery in a contextually jarring sort of way.
The thing is, nothing felt rushed or chaotic or stressful. The islanders were all smiling, relaxed… busy as hell, but completely unflustered by any of it. A woman at the cash register offered to help me pick out sarongs (and leave her post when people were lining up). “Aren’t you slammed?” I asked. “Nah, it’s fine, it’ll all get done,” she said. Nobody glared or rolled their eyes or anything. This is a special place.
It’s worth noting that this was my first Christmas away from my family. In my life. That was strange by itself, but even stranger was spending the holiday in the muggy, drizzly near-silence of a small tropical island that had shut down for the day. Peaceful, but disorienting. I was thinking about my family back in Texas: dad feeding logs into the fire, my niece and nephew tearing into what was surely an obscenely large stack of gifts. I felt very, very far away all of a sudden (which it was: 5,500 miles to be precise).
I went for a short bike ride. Ate at the resort restaurant for the 14th time. Read my book (aptly, it was Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself). Waited for the hours to pass until the wedding the following day.
The wedding was storybook pretty and surf casual. I’ve never walked barefoot through sand at a wedding, but I consider it my karmic payback for all those toe-pinching tux shoes I wore in I don’t know how many weddings. Eric and Sarah got married on a little island just across the lagoon from the resort. We all packed into a glass-bottomed boat for the 3 ½ minute voyage through three-foot-deep water, hopped out, waited for the bride’s flotilla to arrive (bearing Sarah and her sarong-wrapped bridesmaids). The whole thing took maybe 15 minutes, then the ukulele serenade began, we all piled back into the boats and proceeded to eat and drink ourselves buggy again while Paul, our local friend/ambassador, tried to teach a group of drunken Americans how to dance like a Cook Islander.
And that’s how the week ended, with a lot of knees and elbows and feet twisting and thrusting in unfamiliar positions while a deejay played typical American wedding fare (yes, including “You better shape up” from the Grease soundtrack) and we downed Matutu lagers and the sun set over the lagoon way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
I think I was hung over all the way to Los Angeles.