Touring Penrhyn    23 - 28 September 2004

We arrived at Penrhyn Island (also called Tongareva) on September 23. Penrhyn is part of the Cook Islands, more specifically the Northern group of the Cook Islands. The Southern group of the Cooks is about 4 or 5 hundred miles south. Many of the South Pacific countries consist of numerous islands spread out over huge distances. There are about 300 people on this island, split between two villages called Omoka and Te Tautua. Omoka is the capital and has the administrative stuff, including customs, so you have to go there first. Te Tautua is across the lagoon (which is about 7 miles wide) and has only about 80 people living in it. The width of the islands surrounding the central lagoon is only about 150 m, and they are not very high above sea level - only about 7 m at most. The islands vary in length from 100 m to several km. The lagoon in the middle is deep in some spots, 90 m, but there are many coral heads that grow right up to the surface.

The islanders are generally quite friendly but in Te Tautua village they are particularly welcoming to visitors. Only about 20 boats (yachties) come to Penrhyn each year, and not all of them make it across the lagoon, although it is a much calmer anchorage. It was very windy most of the time we were there so we enjoyed the more protected anchorage, especially on the day that the winds gusted to 55 knots! Fortunately, they didn't stay that high. We stuck our heads out to see what that felt like. The rain is like little needles into your face. Not nice. We hope we don't see that again.

There is a hospital here but no doctor. The nurse practitioner, Toru, we spoke with said that the population had been deemed too small for a doctor. Although she is a midwife, the women all get sent to Rarotonga to deliver their babies. The trips are paid for by the Cook Islands government. Toru said even when it is a low risk pregnancy, and the women are willing to stay, they get pressure from their families to go to Rarotonga. I'm sure the free trip is part of the appeal, but we also wondered if they didn't understand just what Toru was trained to do. I wonder this because before we met Toru, we spoke with the Mayor who was telling us about the women going to Rarotonga, and I commented that it sounded like the island could use a midwife. He agreed with me, and certainly didn't say they already had one.

It has been interesting meeting lots of people although conversation was sometimes difficult as we didn't know what to say or ask at times. Some people stop and tell you almost their life story. Others want you to visit but don't say very much. It seems the pace of conversation is often a bit slower here than at home anyway, which feels strange to us. There are long moments of quiet which I think the locals are comfortable with. It's hard to get an errand run because everywhere we go, someone waves us over and talks to us. We were invited to stay for tea very often and people said they wish we could stay longer. Many people were very kind. One family had us over for lunch after church on Sunday. The adult son was very interested in trading with us but the patriarch of the family, who is one of the local councillors, spoke of his philosophy that the cruisers are neighbours when they visit and one should love their neighbours. Thus, he said, he encourages the villagers to treat cruisers with love and kindness. It is customary for guests to eat first while the family waits. I had heard of this custom in Sri Lanka (thanks Monika) but it still felt weird. We were fed red snapper (cooked with the heads on, but the heads weren't eaten), some fried patties made with flour and coconut, a taro-root with coconut sauce, and rice. To drink we had fresh young coconuts. It was all pretty tasty. We brought some ginger cookies for dessert, and they seemed popular. The night before we had sampled fried breadfruit and that's pretty good too with lots of salt - not much flavour in the breadfruit, but frying always works!

One of the things that was less pleasant (probably bothered me more than Bjarne) was the frequent questions about what items you had on the boat with the idea that maybe you wanted to trade them for something. The supply ship doesn't come very often so they are often short of things. I'm sure we were a disappointment to many because we weren't interested in trading a whole lot. One day when Bjarne was off doing some electrical work for the customs agent, someone showed me some necklaces carved from shells. I thought it wouldn't hurt to get one and it's good to contribute to the local economy. I couldn't get an answer about what they would like for them. They asked it I had this or that and they concluded that I should bring what I have to trade ashore so they could see it. The next day Bjarne and I brought an assortment of trading items (things that are hard to get there) and laid them out. There was necklace I picked out and Bjarne picked out two or three black pearls. We were surprised when they said that was good and they would take everything. We'd had no intention of trading everything we brought. We only wanted to give them some choice. Next time we just show a few things at a time. We dickered a bit and added another necklace and took away a couple of our items. Finally there was some agreement or so we thought. We scooped up the items we had taken back and they indicated that they thought we were leaving them as well. Well, we really had no idea what was reasonable for the pearls or what quality they were so it made our bargaining position harder. Also, damn Canadian upbringing, we were just too darn polite. Thus, we left feeling like we'd been snookered. Ah well, caveat emptor and the items weren't anything we couldn't live without. It bothered my socialist approach to life that two people got a lot of what we were willing to trade and then we weren't interested in trading with anyone else. Also, on the same day the customs agent was pressuring us to sell him our Dremel tool, and the agricultural guy really would have liked to buy a solar panal off us. It's a bit unnerving when the officials are pressuring you because you aren't sure just how far they might go with their power. However, eventually they took no for an answer and didn't give us any trouble.

As Barb said, the islanders have trouble getting many things. We have given them some razor blades, sewing needles, epoxy glue, canned meat, and toothpaste. [Bjarne also gave a fair amount of his time in electrical consultation.] In exchange they have offered us pearls and oyster shell carvings. Pearl farming is a pretty big part of the economy here; there is one large company that has many oyster strings in the lagoon, and then there are some individuals who have a few small strings. We talked last night to Ba, one of the company workers and he described some of the operation. It sounds pretty complicated, and the technicians who perform the seeding have to travel to another island to learn how to properly get the oysters to grow the pearls. Once a month the oysters are hauled out of the water to be cleaned, as barnacles can keep them from opening their shells wide and that apparently spoils the pearls. Ba said that the individual operations here are fairly amateur and don't produce the high quality pearls that are in demand in the orient

The Christian missionaries had a lot of influence in Penrhyn and most people are very devout and practice the same denomination. The fellow Bjarne mentioned who told us about the pearl farming was the only Jehovah's Witness on the island. I felt kind of sorry for him as it seemed like that might be a bit lonely, not to mention having poor odds of fulfilling that part of his religion about converting people. He had a pretty wry and even cynical sense of humour that came out in much the conversation with him, but he seemed amused and resigned about being the only JW on the island. On Sundays activities such as fishing and swimming are not permitted, nor are any business transactions. Most people go to church twice on Sunday. We went to one service. For the pagan of this pair, I went to hear the beautiful singing, participate in a community event, and observe one more aspect of this culture. Bjarne probably got something more out of it. The singing was full of amazing harmonies. I don't have the musical knowledge to describe it adequately but we both appreciated how enthusiastic the congregation was in their singing. I think it's called choral singing. Bjarne says it reminded him of the Greenlandic singing he has heard on tape. Women are required to wear hats in church and dresses so my Tilley hat was called into service. I clearly had the least ornate headdress. Many of the hats had flowers on them or bright colours woven into them. Men wear long pants and the older men wore jackets. The young men tended to wear clean jeans and nice brightly coloured shirts. Ray the pastor is a very personable, outgoing fellow, and is called the joking pastor. Most of the service was in Maori but he did a small section in English and spoke to us directly, welcoming us to the church and the village, and wishing us safe journeying.

When we were talking with the pastor, he showed us the church's marriage book, and we saw that a Viggo Rasmussen was married here in 1917 to a local girl. He settled here from Denmark and has many children and grandchildren here in Penrhyn. One of his grandsons was recently elected to the Cook Islands Parliament and another, named for his grandfather, was the Telecom official. It's kind of interested to see how one person can have so much impact on a little community. Those Danes do get around.

There are many Black-tipped reef sharks here in the lagoon. We had at least five small (50 cm) ones swimming around the boat one afternoon and often saw many swimming around the dinghy when we went ashore. The locals tell us that there used to be fewer sharks but since they stopped eating them the population has grown. The fishing here is usually good - Ray and his nephew Warren took us out about 8 pm in Warren's boat. The moon was full which is supposed to be a good time to fish for red snappers. We used hooks on the ends of short bamboo poles and just wiggled them in the water above the reef. Sometimes the hooks were baited with red snapper and sometimes they were unbaited. Ray was really good - he caught 12 fish in about 20 minutes, by casting with a pole that was 15-18 feet long (no bait) but Barb and I didn't catch any. We were impressed with the amount he caught but he said it was a poor showing. Oh well. They were going to take us out again the next night but the weather was a bit stormy.

One day when we were anchored at Omoka, a hoard (over 20) of school kids descended on the boat. They came either by swimming or hanging onto various floating things. We were in the midst of cleaning out a locker which we had just discovered had a bunch of old pop floating in it. It turns out a few cans got holes in them. The carton had a nice crop of mold growing on it. Thus, there were pop cans lying around the cabin when these kids arrived. I quickly covered up most of them but left a 2 litre bottle of coke out. Once that was spotted, (we kept the kids out of the cabin but they were looking in) I was pestered quite a bit for some pop. I didn't feel like we had enough to share with all of the kids so I said no. They were very persistent and actually quite bossy, saying "You give me some coke" and "go get it". One eventually tried pleading "plllleeesssse" and then the logical reasoning approach "you have plenty". I certainly didn't want to encourage that pesky behaviour (and doom the next cruisers) so I stuck to my guns. They also asked to use our swim goggles ("glasses"). We had a couple of spare ones so we let them play with those. Later when they noticed we had more one seemed kind of indignant that we had not let them use all of the goggles. The kids were very curious about things on the boat and asked lots of questions. They also touched a lot and needed some attention to keep them from getting into the wrong things. One started pulling the start cord on the dinghy outboard. Bjarne managed to lure a number of them off the boat by jumping in the water and playing around. After about 20 or 30 minutes they headed back to shore. They weren't actually done their classes yet, so a teacher told me later, but they had just taken off. They had been having a BBQ lunch at school to celebrate finishing a section of work on Peace. It was pretty interesting and even fun, although we did feel a bit overwhelmed. After they left we kicked ourselves for not getting some photos.

There are lots of scooters and motorcycles in Omoka. It's not uncommon to see people driving around for entertainment with a little kid on the back. Of course no one wears helmets but there isn't really a lot of traffic and they don't seem to be going very fast. I wondered about the head injury rate but didn't think to ask Toru when we had the chance. People tended to drive what seemed like very walkable distances to us. This was especially interesting since gas (or petrol as it is called here) is sometimes in short supply.

We encountered some money problems while here. Normally, there is a person on this island who can change U.S. money for New Zealand money but he was not here. For some reason the bank couldn't do anything for us, either. Travelers cheques and credit cards were not accepted and we didn't have enough NZ cash to pay the customs fees. We couldn't even buy stamps. I had wanted to get money exchanged before we left Canada but in the rush of leaving we didn't bother, figuring we'd be OK with U.S. money and travelers cheques. We finally had to call my (Barb's) Dad collect and get him to take some money out of our bank account and wire it down here by Western Union. We had some fun imagining my Dad describing us at one of his Rotary Club meetings:

Yeah, my 39 year old daughter is traveling around with some unemployed bum. They have no fixed address and I only hear from them maybe once a month if I'm lucky. Last week they called me collect to ask for money! [Thanks, Dad!]

The lazy Western Union sods in Rarotonga took their sweet time delivering the money even though it arrived there on the same day we called Dad. The local agent had to call and harass them on Monday and we finally got it late that afternoon, which delayed our departure until the next morning. Ah well, we had a restful evening and a last good sleep before heading out on passage on the morning of September 28th.

The local baker helped us out by lending us some New Zealand dollars in the meanwhile so we could buy some stamps. I was very touched by this offer. He was a very friendly fellow (named Alex) who operates the only ham radio on the island. He was in touch with the caretakers on Suwarrow, our next stop (which is a marine park about 400 miles southwest and also part of the Cook Islands). He asked us to deliver 10 kilos sugar to them since they were all out. We were happy to help in such an easy way, although with Bjarne on board that was like asking the fox to guard the hen house.