Verfasst von: rbontour | September 17, 2010

Discovering Culture & Immersing In Local Traditions

Before we left Connecticut in August, we agreed that wherever we go we would want to get in touch with local people to learn more about their customs and mentality. Although you sometimes need to overcome your “inhibitions” first, it’s definitely worth it. No ‘Lonely Planet’ can teach you what the actual people of a country are like, unless you go and experience it for yourself.

Cook Islanders are very friendly and outgoing. Especially some kids seemed very talkative. No fear to talk to “strangers”. The people also seemed very eager to retain their heritage and certain traditions. They not only love to wear flowers in their hair or around their necks, they also love music, singing and dancing. In beautiful costumes made from natural fibres, they perform their “island dances” in tourist, but also local restaurants – it’s almost like a Sunday night family event were local people and tourists come together to admire the talented dancers.

Price-wise, we found the Southern Pacific island group pretty expensive and often wondered how the villagers generate money. Most things need to be imported and the more remote the places on our island hopping tour became, the more we paid for our groceries. Especially Atiu was horrendously priced. There was only one restaurant, in which we celebrated our “one-month-travel-anniversary” on September 10th (yaaayyy!) and 2 tiny grocery stores. Compared to what we know of in our Western culture, here there was no variety, no choice and you really just get the very basics… (and even then you have to check the expiration date carefully; on one day we spotted a Nestle chocolate bar with a 2001 expiration date!). We certainly got a little wake-up call as we realized how we live in abundance and how spoiled we are. People here are so much more limited, but still happy.

We only went out for dinner twice, so the good thing was that we learned to cook local food, such as ‘taro’ – a staple of cook islanders. As the lady who gave it to us put it: “This is our rice – try, try, it’s delicious… just boil long” (yes, sure, because just now we found out taro is toxic if you don’t boild it long enough… fortunately Brigitte overcooked the thing). Finally, besides all the self-catering, we found that the villagers in Atiu were especially warm-hearted, kind and very generous. Although most of them spoke only Maori and no English, they gave us taro roots, huge pieces of fish and bananas as presents. And they also invited us to celebrate with them in their ‘bush pub’…

Happy Hour At The Bush Beer School
Eagerly engaging in conversations with the local people, we were able to experience a Happy Hour in Atiu’s bush beer school, called “Tumunu”. We tasted locally produced home brew, while dancing and singing with friendly Atiuans.

When we got to the bush bar, we found approximately 15 to 20 locals (mostly men) sitting comfortably on benches while chanting some traditional Maori songs. The brew master sat in the middle. He was responsible for encouraging all others to drink more. On the picture he is the guy with the filthy white bucket (tumunu) in front of him – a bucket full of very strong home-brew beer. We were told the beer in Atiu contains around 25% alcohol (slightly more than Munich’s Oktoberfest beer!!).

In the beginning, we had to put aside some ‘disgust’ as the bar guy ladles the beer (with his not particularly clean hands) into a coconut-shell cup – he does this again and again. The cup is only a little bit bigger than a shot glass and it’s passed around to everyone. Of course, every drinker knocks it back at once, while the others happily clap and chant. After you drink the stuff in a single gulp you return it to the brew master, who fills it for the next person in line.

Well, after a while we no longer paid any attention to the hygienic conditions around us (we wonder why?)… what truly mattered was that we were able to spend time with those people, to sing with them and talk to them (although we may not have understood all of our conversations as some guys were either too drunk to talk proper English or people around us were singing so loud that you could hardly understand your own words). All in all, it was definitely a unique and very funny experience, which we don’t want to miss… despite the hammering headache in the morning.

What The Hell Is A Hair Cutting Ceremony?
On one day – while engaging in our favorite activity “scooter cruising” – we noticed a hustle and bustle of loud, laughing voices near the village’s public community room on Atiu. People were literally flocking towards an event we couldn’t identify, yet. Strangely, it was a weekday, only 1 o’clock in the afternoon and all the people we passed were dressed in their Sunday clothes, wearing their customary flower jewelry. We couldn’t help it, but joined in the fun. We were greeted enthusiastically by two happy flower women and they explained in a matter of course that this is the “hair cutting ceremony” of the month [we were all giggling inside, but obviously remained serious… what the hell is that?]. With no clue, we investigated further by asking and curiously looking around.

Although it was perhaps the strangest-sounding custom to us foreigners, hair cutting is a very common ritual on the Cook Islands (or the South Pacific region in general). It marks the puberty of selected and “special” boys. A family – or actually the father – openly demonstrates his pride and his deep love for his first-born son. As the ceremony involves substantial gift giving from others, but also a huge feast sponsored by the boy’s family, it needs a long preparation phase. The boy’s hair is not cut until the money for the big party is saved – and this can take a few years, as one lady told us. Supposedly, the faster the family raises the money for the feast, the shorter is the son’s hair and the younger he is in age. However, mostly it takes longer to raise the money, so the ceremony takes place when the boy is starting his puberty. Therefore, the tradition is also marking the boy’s age – it shows him that it’s time for him to grow up. Once his long hair is cut, he no longer can be afraid of punishment, whine around or crawl into “Mom’s lap”.

On the big ceremony day, the candidate is dressed in his best (and most likely only) suit. The boy, who was celebrated in Atiu, sat in the middle of the room and had 125 braids. Well, and as we learned, the number of braids symbolizes the number of guests who received the honor to cut and take one braid of his hair home. In return, the honorable “hair cutters” give a present to the boy – eventually one, that kicks off his life in adulthood. And as so many other events, ceremonies or parties around the world, the whole thing ends with a huge party, more than enough food and cool drinks.

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