Rarotonga – Unplugged

Notice how the facial structure of the guitarists are amazingly similar?

The only thing similar between Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and us is the unplugged theme.

Kriti and I have decided to unplug from all electronic tethers the last 3 weeks of living here on Rarotonga.

This is our last blog from Rarotonga. We will leave the blog up for a while in case we want to add to it once we return to the US.

We want to thank all who have travelled with us during our adventure here in the South Pacific and additionally to those of you who have commented on the entries we have posted.

Kia Orana Everyone – A long, healthy, productive, and  rewarding life to all!!



Rarotonga – Good Sports


I like sports, but as an artist I’m naturally not inclined to follow the pack. I will not wear Ohio State’s scarlet and gray even in the summer. This limits me somewhat because as a color combo I have no objection to scarlet and gray.

Kriti and I watch Ohio State football and basketball games on television with no buckeye necklaces or bobble heads sitting on top of the TV.

Here on Rarotonga I have switched from OSU football and basketball (at least until I return to Columbus, Ohio USA) to New Zealand Rugby. I have travelled from scarlet and gray to all black, from Carmen Ohio to the “Ka Mate” Haka. The Haka is officially recognized as the New Zealand warrior chant.

The Game – I have noticed that the same rugby players play both offense and defense, rugby players are, player for player, in much better condition than American football players. In Rugby an equivalent to the American football touchdown is the scoring of a “Try” and after a team scores a Try they get the ball back.

I have also noticed that the team “brands” are both rather innocuous. Brutus Buckeye is a walking, silent, nut. The brand for the New Zealand All Blacks is a fern leaf.

Comparing the Ohio State alma mater song Carmen Ohio with the Haka has a bit of irony in that the present Haka is called “Ka Mate” and was introduced in 1905. Carmen Ohio was introduced in 1906. There are plenty of film clips on the internet of both Haka’s and Carmen Ohio being performed.

At this point the irony ends. Haka’s are performed throughout New Zealand for everything from sporting events to a farewell to sailing ships which are called vakas. A vaka, in this context, is an ancient Maori doubled hulled sailing ship, recreated and sailed all over Polynesia.

This week seven vaka ships left our Rarotongan port for a journey to Samoa then on to New Zealand. From the deck of one vaka I spotted the crew lined up and, although I could not hear them, I saw their feet stomping the ships deck as they sailed out of port. Wikipedia has called the Haka “the greatest ritual in world sport”.

But then somewhere in the back reaches of my mind I saw scarlet and gray uniforms and the men wearing them spelling out

O – H – I – O.

Rarotonga – Ruins


Once upon the Parthenon, on a hot July day in Athens, I heard a nine-year-old boy crying on the steps of ancient history.

I went to him and said, “Why are you crying on the steps of history?” he said, “I am tired, I am hot, and everything is broken”. The boy was my son, and he was right!

Ruins have a place – in history. A nine-year-old boy wants a place – swimming in the cool Mediterranean.

Here on Rarotonga the places and times of ruins span from the 13th century AD to 1990 AD.

Sacred pre Christian gathering places throughout Polynesia are called Marae (mar-eye). Nearly 800 years ago they were constructed of rocks set out in a circle. In the Cook Islands maraes were used as burial grounds, for investitures (appointing chiefs and sub chiefs) and as meeting places for a tribe.

Arai-Te-Tonga Marae

Most marae today on Rarotonga are reconstructed. Original marae were destroyed by missionaries in their quest to rid the island of pagan sites and rituals. Travelling around Rarotonga you can see original maraes but not many remain. One of the most important sites is Arai-Te-Tonga. Only a few of the original stones remain, but the site has been preserved.

Sheraton Resort – 2012

The latest ruin on Rarotonga is only 22 years old. On Rarotonga it is usually referred to as the Sheraton Resort debacle. Begun in 1990 it was to be Rarotonga’s premier resort but progress stopped due to a lack of funds. The grounds and buildings were 80% complete. The Sheraton chain never owned the buildings or grounds but signed a management contract with the government. The Sheraton has never been implicated in the web of intrigue that began with a 52 million dollar loan from an Italian bank. The entire behind-the-scenes happenings will never be known thanks to missing records but it may have involved the laundering of Mafia money. The debt rose to $120 million that won’t be repaid until 2025. Eventually part control of the complex was given to a Japanese investor who was arrested for fraud. Between 10 and 20 million dollars just ‘disappeared’. The name Hilton began surfacing in 2000 and again 2004, to no avail. Now, a target for graffiti, the complex sits amid over growth and a tropical environment that breaks down most contemporary building materials very quickly.

How long will it take for the Sheraton Resort to take on the appearance of Rarotonga’s ancient marae?

Rarotonga – Tivaevae

Upon our arrival on Rarotonga the heat was overwhelming. The need for a bed sheet or worse, a blanket, was unthinkable. While the heat has moderated, we are not rummaging for a blanket just yet.

The idea of a quilt, tivaevae, seems functionally useless. However, as a result of the influx of missionaries to the Cook Islands, the activity, while not environmentally astute, became a major art form. It also became a center sense for women adding a major force for women’s communal growth. 

Tivaevae is the making of patchwork quilts by hand by several women together. The designs are stunning. They have great intrinsic value and become family heirlooms. They are often given as gifts of love and friendship.

There are two principal techniques: Piecework and appliqué.

Piecework – Tivaevae tataura – is made from tiny pieces of colored cloth sewn together on a backing. Tataura is made in several colors on a contrasting background. The pattern is created from separate pieces of fabric which may be richly embroidered either beforehand or onto the background fabric.

Appliqué – Tivaevae manu – usually involve two colors, the first for the pattern, the second for the background. Tivaevae manu are made in only two colors, the pattern is folded four or eight times, cut and stitched onto a contrasting base cloth.

Despite its European origin, patterns and techniques have evolved into styles which now belong quite distinctly to the Cook Islands. The tivaevae reflect the women’s surroundings and usually employ designs of flowers, leaves, birds, fish, insects and animals.

Tivaevae are usually made for family members but they may be given away outside the family. For example, tivaevae are often presented to visiting dignitaries and church ministers.

Tivaevae are traditionally given as a gift at the Pakotianga Rauru, a traditional ceremony for boys between 5 and 21. The boy’s hair, uncut since birth is plaited, tied with ribbons, and then cut at this ceremony.

On Rarotonga’s neighbor island, Aitutaki, it is traditional for a bride and groom to ride from village to village in the back of a pick-up truck gathering wedding gifts which many times includes a tivaevae.

Above – Aitutaki

Tivaevae are used as a source for other art forms such as this hooked rug adapted from Cook Islands Tivaevae from Mill River Rugs


Rarotonga – Maire Nui Botanical Gardens

Above – Parrot Flower – Brazil

In the year 2000 the Olympics were held in Australia. The Olympic torch made a ceremonial pass around the 20 mile circumference of Rarotonga. It was during our first visit to Rarotonga.

To watch the torch bearer we stood at the edge of the main road which is right in front of the Botanical Gardens on the southeast side of the island. As we walked back into what was then a new botanical venture, we saw a very scantly populated garden on a deep piece of  property one could view from front to back without obstruction. The variety of plants and their planting were paltry. Kriti and I thought – this place has a good chance of not lasting.

Today, 12 years later, the botanical gardens are now Maire Nui Cafe and Gardens. Maire in the Cook Islands Maori language means scented ferns while Nui means plentiful. Now the Gardens are magnificent with a wide variety of botanical wonders and a cafe that still serves a wonderful vanilla coconut tea. The tea’s blend is still held in secrecy by the garden’s cafe owner.

The garden contains many flowers from around the world including Africa, India, South East Asia, Northern Australia, Latin and South America and China. Kriti took photos of many examples within the garden, I have selected a few of autumn’s pick hits.


Torch Ginger – Indonesia

Miss Joaquim – Singapore

Crepe Myrtle Shrub – Himalayas

Gardenia – China

Bird of Paradise – South Africa

Passion Fruit Flower – Rarotonga

Hanging Heliconia – Peru


Rarotonga – Black Magic



“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

– Herman Melville


Atolls are flat, non-volcanic islands, barely above sea level or right at sea level. Remote atolls in the South Pacific are common. Stories abound of adventurous individuals who  risked everything, including their lives, just to live a life of solitude. Stories of those on atolls aware of an impending cyclone bound themselves to coconut palm trees several feet above the ground in hopes they were high enough to escape the highest waves. Surviving the onslaught only to starve to death because they had nothing to eat or fresh water to drink.

The atoll of Manihiki - several motu's (tiny islets) on the outside rim and a very large lagoon in the middle

Risks and Rewards

‘Pinctada margaritifera’ or Black Lipped Mother of Pearl produce a unique shell. In the 1950’s the atoll of Manihiki, here in the Cook Islands, 1200 km north of Rarotonga, began harvesting this shell and shipped them all over the world to be used as the raw material for buttons. In the 1980’s enterprising residents of Manihiki hired technicians from Japan to implant shells to begin an attempt to harvest black pearls. The black pearls of Manihiki have survived the threat of cyclones and viral diseases and have become the second largest income producer in the Cook Islands.

Outside and inside the black lipped mother of pearl shell

The Measure of Quality  

Black Pearls are not really black.. Black pearls real colors range from shades of blue and silver through to deep greens and aubergine. They are graded for quality and value using: size, roundness – how close they come to a perfect sphere with little or no blemishes or defects – luster – an excellent luster will have exceptional shine, mirror like with sharp reflections.

The matching of multiple pearls, usually between 10 and 30, in a bracelet or necklace can take up to 10,000 pearls in order to match size, color and luster with very limited imperfections. This process can be very risky. Pearl retailers who hold pearls to get matches tie up large amounts of inventory just to secure those matches.

The pearls in this photo are not to scale but give a sense of color and quality in a collection of high end black pearls



Now, the highest quality Cook Islands pearls are being sold under a new brand, Avaiki. The brand guarantees buyers of the genuineness of the pearl, its Cook Islands origins and the sustain ability of farming practices in the lagoon where it originates.


“Whatever fortune brings, don’t be afraid of doing things.”

– Herman Melville

Rarotonga – Tatatau


“The word Tatatau is made up of two words – ta, to strike or tap and tatau which means the results of the tapping.”1

In their new book Patterns of the Past Therese Mangos and John Utanga offer a fascinating review of the history and revival of Cook Islands Tattoo expression. As I read and looked at the images in this book I realized an obvious, and just as important, a subtle connection between Polynesians and Native Americans.

Obviously, both cultures used tattoos to identify themselves through a type of heraldry. A village, tribe or family adopted symbols or patterns that identified themselves to others.

Subtly, both cultures were subject to colonial domination, but from opposite ends of a religious rationale.

Native Americans were thought of as savages by the colonists and were systematically removed from their land. As a consequence their culture, established over thousands of years, was destroyed. All of this was accomplished by people who themselves professed to be seeking religious freedom.

1. Makea, King of Rarotonga, a watercolour ca. 1830s the digital collection of the Australian National Library

Polynesians were discovered by white men and seen immediately as savages. Eventually missionaries set about outlawing what they considered pagan practices including Tatatau. The process the missionaries used was ostensibly to free the Polynesians to see Christianity as the only spiritual path that should be taken. The settling by missionaries of Polynesia brought about, as it did through the colonists with Native Americans, the cleansing of what the missionaries saw as unacceptable behavior. Of course, Polynesians had been master sailors of the Pacific for hundreds of years before their discovery by western culture. Only recently has it been proven that Polynesians set foot on what is now South America hundreds of years before any western explorers discovered the Americas.

Rarotongan beach shell. Nature provides patterns that naturally find their way into human expression.

Today, hopefully new visions of multiple cultural directions will emerge to over take the myopic practices of the past and usher in an enlightenment of cultural diversity.

On a personal note: We met Therese Mangos during a social gathering at the Ruatonga Meeting house here in Rarotonga to introduce her book. I asked her sign a copy of her book to Kriti. When Therese found out Kriti was Greek she told us her grandfather was a Greek sailor who jumped ship in New Zealand where he met Therese’s paternal grandmother. What are the odds?

1. Therese Mangos - Ruatonga Meeting House, Rarotonga

1. Patterns of the Past – Therese Mangos and John Utanga