The 15 tiny specks of land that make up the Cook Islands Nation are scattered across an area of South Pacific ocean the size of Western Canada. With a total land area of 91 square miles, not much bigger than Saltspring, the islands are home to about 24,000 Polynesian people whose ancestors arrived in dugout canoes at some unrecorded time in the distant past.
From my Air Rarotonga plane, cruising at 13,000 feet, I can see to the horizon and there is nothing out there but ocean. Our Saab 340 turboprop, guided by a modern navigation system, takes about 40 minutes to fly from the island of Rarotonga to Aitutaki. For the early Polynesian people, travelling under sail in double-hulled dugout canoes, guided by the stars, the direction of the waves, and the flight patterns of birds, the same trip would have taken at least a week.
From the air, Aitutaki atoll is outlined by a line of white surf breaking against the coral reef that separates dark blue water of the open Pacific from shallow, pale turquoise water inside the lagoon. The triangular-shaped lagoon, 20 km across at its widest point, contains three volcanic islands and 12 coral islets or motus. We touched down on the main island and were taken by van across a narrow bridge to the Pacific Pearl Resort on the tiny islet of Akitua. Arriving too early to occupy our room we settled for a complimentary drink at Ru's Bar.
According to legend Ru, for whom the bar is named, set out in search of new land but instead of loading his double hulled canoe with the customary warriors he took instead 20 beautiful young maidens. Many days later they discovered Aitutaki. Ru turned his back to the sea and settled down knowing that others would follow and challenge him for this bountiful island. During his lifetime 18 other canoes did indeed arrive. But rather than fight, Ru offered the headman of each canoe a maiden in marriage, thus assuring the peace and security of a family tie. Ru himself sired many children who, along with those from the other 18 canoes, are believed to be the ancestors of Aitutaki's present Polynesian residents.
By the time Betty and I finished our "island smoothies" it had started to rain so we joined two other couples for Chloe's workshop on Polynesian Culture. The multi-talented Chloe may well be descended from one of Ru's legendary maidens. Certainly any maiden with her beauty and personality would have no trouble melting the heart of the most warlike chief.
Chloe is the daughter of a prominent Aitutaki family. She has her own dance troupe and has travelled overseas having recently returned from Mexico where she was instructing dance teachers from Mexico, California, Argentina, and Canada. For the next hour Chloe and three of her troupe guided us through everything from husking coconuts, and tying pareu, to beating out rhythms on "pate" (slit log drums). Switching back and forth from entertainer to teacher she helped us make utter fools of ourselves the women tried swinging their hips while we men clapped our knees together in a pathetic parody of the strident male dance. Chloe's instructions "just pretend you're crushing ice in your crotch." But on top of all the fun and silliness Chloe actually taught us a lot about her island and the culture of her people.