A bit of a different travelogue entry. This is a piece I wrote this week for a travel writing competition. It’s about some spooky experiences I had while visiting the Cook Islands in December 2017.
On the blue face of the South Pacific there’s a beauty spot called Rarotonga. It’s uncrowded and the air is warm but, beneath the cheery discordance of ukulele, something spooky lurks. The island’s fecundity is undeniable – electric-green jungle dotted with shocks of orange, pink and red flowers – but just as unavoidable is the presence of death. Huge headstones line the road, and tombs bedecked with blue party lights emit a sterile glow.
It’s Sunday and I’m drinking a mojito, wondering what makes people comfortable living at close quarters with death. (Where I’m from, euphemisms barely conceal our embarrassment about life’s one great inevitability.) I figure that investigating the religious culture of the Cook Islands might yield answers, so I make enquiries and ride my scooter to Raro’s oldest church, established in 1852. A vestige of missionary presence, most locals have been raised on a syncretistic mix of ancient native religion and Protestantism.
I’m five minutes early. Hundreds of marble tombs skirt the whitewashed building. Even the sky has turned a hot white. Nothing, nobody, moves on the street. I’ve been here half an hour when, in a flash, everything bows to the thick rain. Sprinting, with my helmet under my arm, I take shelter in the church. The inside is less austere – painted peach, mauve, lemon, mint – and a small fan purrs in the pulpit. There are handbags in pews and Bibles flutter in the damp breeze, ownerless.
‘You don’t come here.’
Adrenaline spikes. The elderly Maori man wears sunglasses. His face is unreadable but I sense anger when he repeats, nostrils flared, ‘You don’t come here.’ Is my dress immodest? Should I be accompanied by a man? Was I meant to bring a Bible? None the wiser, I try to explain.
‘I would like to visit the church service. Is it happening today?’
Wordlessly, he signals with an outstretched arm that I should leave. I nod, not understanding, and I think I manage to hide my perplexity. Should I have pushed for an explanation? What just happened?
Moments after I flee the scene my scooter gives up the ghost. Rain! This isn’t the first time it’s brought the engine gremlins out of hiding. Something looms at the edge of my vision. That’s when I notice the strange ruins before me. A ring of desolate villas rises out of the tenacious shrubbery. Verandah bannisters hang off facades; furnishings are visible through broken windows: lampshades, beds and an armoire. I jump the mud canal and walk in. Behind a crumbled wall there’s a desk covered in sheets of paper. Pitched roofs and peeling paint, this place is complete enough to possess character – and derelict enough for it to have turned to complete menace.
In the thrum of thunder, I don’t hear the footsteps. For a moment, I think the figure advancing with a machete is the man from the church. In fact, he’s my age and the machete, he explains, is for slashing weeds around the site to preserve the quad-bike track that’s become popular with tourists. He tells me I am standing on Vaimaanga, a tribal battleground ruled by island spirits. Ancient clan grudges sprang to fresh, murderous mutiny early last century, culminating in a curse dooming any business venture undertaken on this land. It’s a claim that’s been tested by Italian businessmen who, in the 1980s, abandoned plans for a luxury resort due to allegations of mafia involvement. Recently, Chinese investors sought to recommence development, but locals are not confident the jinx will ever be overturned. ‘The spirits never forget.’
I tell him about the man in the church. ‘Did you take helmet inside?’
‘I was carrying it, yeah.’
He smiles. ‘Government wants to make a new rule that all person must wear helmet if drive scooter. But old people don’t want, say helmet stops prayers getting to God.’
He continues slashing weeds and I go back to the road to hitch a ride. It rains again. There’s water everywhere, steaming brown sheets shooting off sagging awnings. There’s sweat in the small of my back and a ferrous taste in my mouth. I leave my helmet on the ground and wait, still wondering about the Bibles and handbags…