When my partner Jessi and I, our six-year old son and his two godfathers from San Francisco went to the Cook Islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki looking for beauty, snorkelling and a big dose of island culture, what we found certainly fulfilled those desires. We also discovered how GLBTI people are perceived and treated in the Cook Islands, not only as travellers but as residents too.
Everyone in our travelling party (except for our son, who was too young) had reservations about travelling to a country where male homosexuality is illegal and sodomy is punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.
So it was with trepidation and excitement that we landed at Raro’s little airport at night, rented a car and drove around the island to Muri Beach. We couldn’t see shit because our city light-trained-eyeballs weren’t working in the comparative darkness, but somehow we found our resort, The Pacific Rarotonga. Hungry and thirsty, we threw our luggage into our villa and stumbled down the darkened beach to Barefoot Bar and Restaurant.
Imagine our delight when our hostess turned out to be the lovely and gracious Bianca Ali, queen extraordinaire. She greeted us, took care of us and of course I pounced on her for an interview.
Bianca is from Fiji. She is of Fijian-Chinese-Indian extraction, has flawless skin, a gorgeous smile and the best manicure I have ever seen. Her voice is soft, breathy and refined.
“I have been on the island for ten years,” she said. “Compared to Fiji, which is Melanesian, the Polynesian islands (like the Cooks) are more accepting. The people here socialize a lot; they are entertainers. In the old days, the queens, the fairies, the lady-boys… they existed but it was all hush-hush. But now, the people of the Cook Islands are very accepting and open-minded. We go out in dresses, we don’t have a particular club; we go into all the clubs and are accepted.”
When asked if the islanders are as equally accepting of GLBTI tourists, Bianca said: “They are… we depend on the pink dollar. But if you portray anything in public, you will be frowned on. What’s supposed to happen behind closed doors must remain behind closed doors.”
When asked if she was single (yes) and would ever leave and seek bigger pastures, Bianca’s response was sobering.
“As much as I wish to seek bigger pastures and long for a relationship, I think the Cook Islands have been very kind to me. I lived in New Zealand for a year and I had to be somebody different… I wasn’t appreciated. I attended interviews and people asked me strange questions. But here the people have been kind, nature is here, the colours of the lagoon, the wind, the sun and the people all make the difference. I’m not leaving any time soon.”
She was right about everything. The next morning we awoke to white sands, a turquoise lagoon and blessed heat. We spent the day snorkelling, kayaking, lolling, reading, drinking out of coconuts and eating, all under the expert watch of Bianca.
As beautiful as Rarotonga is, the next day when we got on a very small aeroplane and flew to Aitutaki, we were all blown away.
My party was very well travelled. Amongst us, we have either lived in or travelled to over forty-five countries. In Aitutaki, we all agreed we had never been to any place like it.
Again, we stayed at the Pacific, a real knock-out of a resort with exceptional service. If you ever feel like splurging and treating yourself, this is the place to go.
After an evening marvelling at our wood-carved and thatched bungalows on pristine water’s edge, we got up the next morning and embarked on a Teking Lagoon Cruise. We explored the lagoon, snorkelled amongst tropical fish, giant clams and a moray eel, island hopped from one perfect white sand beach surrounded by crystal clear water to another. We even enjoyed a delicious BBQ fish lunch and got our passports stamped at One Foot Island, all under the sarcastic and garrulous leadership of Captain Teking.
We were walking on a sandbar surrounded by impossibly aqua water and tiny motus populated only by swaying coconut trees, prompting one of the god-daddies to say: “I’ve never been anywhere like this, it’s other-worldly.”
And it was. As flawed as the Cook Islands official policies may be (one of which is a minimum wage of only five dollars an hour, so tip!), we found the Cooks to be a welcoming, gracious and gorgeous destination. As the lovely Bianca Ali says: “When people come here and get to the end of the rainbow, they find Bianca!”
| Kacie Stetson