October 18 – 24
It’s difficult to describe how bad of an experience we had at Sonja’s. New words should be created to properly allow us to explain how awful she made us feel every single day, and how bad of a person she was to us.
We arrived in Aitutaki on a warm evening, aboard a 20-seater propeller plane, which scared the living hell out of me, to meet Sonja at the airport. After retrieving our backpacks, we headed to our new home. She lives alone, since her husband passed away in 2009, in a house a hundred feet away from the beach. Her café stands outside her house, covered by a large tree, around which tables and benches have been set up. So on one side of the café is the house, and on the other is her garden. There we found everything from peppers and tomatoes to special island produce. The house is quite simple, with a guest room, Sonja’s room, a kitchen and two bathrooms. Every door and window is covered in mosquito coils, which is a good thing as the Cook Islands are a hub for those $%£&.
Now the first thing that struck us was that when lying down on our bed, our heads were about 15 centimeters away from Sonja’s, and the only thing separating it wasn’t even a wall, it was a mosquito coil. So goodbye privacy as soon as we entered our room. Water had to be boiled and put into bottles every day because tap water isn’t drinkable anywhere on the island and bottled water is very expensive. Shower was 2 minutes maximum, cold water, turn on, turn off, wash, turn on, rinse, turn off, get out. The lack of privacy and the more “rough” lifestyle didn’t really bother us that much though, as for example in regards to the privacy, we could have easily dealt with it if the person close to us was someone even mildly respectful or likeable. But unfortunately we were about to realise, the first evening, that the person we met at the airport was someone else entirely.
Every time she spoke to us, it was to belittle us. From her wonderful comments about us asking with our heads and not our “being”, to coming from the “perfect world” and not knowing what life is really like, things got really exasperating, really fast. Imagine being with someone almost 24/7 who makes you feel bad for coming from Europe (Even though she did too) and having had a city life. She would tell us the food we eat at home is “full of steroids” and “utter crap”. Told me then that I didn’t know anything about food when I told her that I thought her tomatoes tasted the same as the ones in Belgium. Looked at us with contempt in her gaze and actively looked for every occasion possible to make us feel terrible. And the thing is, you can’t reply back, because if you do, she’ll counterattack with full force. It felt like living with a reptile, slithering about the house, hissing at you, knowing full well you don’t dare to hiss back, but still waiting for you to have enough of it and just break. She would constantly say my name wrong no matter how many times I told her it wasn’t “Shander”, and would ask us basic questions about us, which we’d already told her before. It’s not like she’s forgetful though, oh no, she remembers what she wants to remember. Every day when we finished work, we would take a walk and simply vent. For hours we would vent about how much of a (sorry~) bitch she is. How bad she made us feel about every little thing. And coming back was even worse, knowing that whatever got us into a good mood beforehand would just be cancelled out because as soon as we stepped into Sonja’s driveway, the hateful barking would start again.
The work on the other hand was fine. One day I dug a hole to fill it with leaves and food scraps to make compost, another I went with her, armed with a bush knife, to take down bananas on a plantation. The sun was hot, sometimes the thermometer showed around 35 to 40 degrees and we’d still work in the garden. But none of that bothered us. We were fine. However, in her mind, we were going to pass out exhausted on the first day because according to her, we had never done hard work. And guess what Sonja, after working for hours under a blazing sun that no Islander would work in, without a hat, with little to no water, I was still able to go biking right after. You try working 8 hours a day in the stuffy archives room of a pharma company with no human contact doing the same task over and over again you bitter old fart. Farm work isn’t the only sort of “hard work” there is out there.
Anyways, sorry, I guess this is also me just venting. I need it. We need it.
So onto the island next.
We thought Rarotonga was pretty deserted, boy did we get a surprise when going into “town” in Aitutaki. The island stretches far and wide and accommodates a little less than 2000 people. A fifth of Raro. So hitchhiking was on one hand harder because there were almost no cars on the road, but easier because people know that and therefore stopped more often. Their main town is just 4 or 5 buildings closer together than most, with a Y-shaped road at the middle. Most of those buildings are empty churches, empty food places, and maybe one or two shops to buy random items. Prices are ridiculous, which is a given because of how far away it is, but the people are just as nice as Rarotongans. Since it’s closer to the equator though, Aitutaki is much warmer and boasts much more extreme weather. For example, in 2010, a cyclone went by Raro, didn’t do much damage, only to come around and hit Aitutaki with full force. The entire island was flattened, roofing irons were sent flying around at such speeds that coconut trees would be cut down in one fell swoop by what can only be called Mother Nature’s sword. Thankfully no one was killed, but many lost their homes and therefore security.
During our free time, after trying to ride the dust-riddled bikes Sonja gave us (one of which didn’t have breaks and the other kept derailing), we made our way to the beaches. They were like these soft and pearly white covers, finely tuned to stand in-between the lagoon and the greens. Day and night, crabs would skip around to find who-knows-what, going from thumb-sized hermit crabs to coconut crabs, which can grow to be as large as a car tire. With that in mind we kept away from the beach at night.
One night we got to join in on an “Island Night” at a resort with a fire show and island music while sipping fruit smoothies. And the following night, which was even more memorable, took us by mistake to the “Crusher Bar”, where we thought we’d find a crowd and a television to watch New Zealand kick Australia’s arse at rugby. Instead we met Ricky, the owner of the bar, a DJ, and an American couple on their honeymoon. That’s it. No one else. So at first we thought “Eeeeh, ok maybe not this bar, they don’t have a TV either.” But we gave it a chance, had a drink and started talking to the owner and the couple. Quickly, more drinks were ordered, we bonded with the couple (the husband was in the American army for over a decade, toured in Iraq and Afghanistan so that was a lot of fun hearing about it, he had a quiet time there though), and Ricky put on a show with a guitar given to him by Keith Richards when he toured with them in the UK as a roadie and opening act on rare occasions. The atmosphere was relaxed, very open, full of laughter and I even got to play a bit of the legendary Rolling Stones guitar! In the end, we stayed until closing time, said our goodbyes and Ricky drove us home safely.
So about 5 days went by, and we just had enough of Sonja. Priya called Odette, made sure that when we got back to Rarotonga we would have a place in their home, and we took it upon ourselves to talk to Sonja. Obviously, we weren’t going to sit her down and tell her we hated her. Because by doing that or even by storming off, we would be opening ourselves up to a Sonja-with-a-grudge, which could mean trouble in Rarotonga since she knows our hosts there so well. So instead we told her about how the heat was much harder to bear than on Rarotonga, that we missed the other island a lot, that we missed the comfort we were used to in Raro and that Aitutaki just isn’t a place we’d want to stay in for several weeks. Her response obviously was that we had couple issues because she was sure of herself that I wanted to stay and learn and that Priya had convinced me of leaving. In the words of the new leader of the free-world, WRONG. So that night, after dinner and some truly heartfelt goodbyes, we left to spend two nights in a cheap room somewhere in town. We even booked a cruise to see the whole lagoon and snorkel on the last day we were there (Unfortunately it was cancelled due to rain L ). One of the highlights however of our journey was meeting the most wonderful Cook Island couple ever when hitchhiking. The husband worked as the airport manager and the wife managed some beach huts near town. The first time we went with them, we told them of our worries and how bad we felt just by staying at Sonja’s. And the second time they happened to find us, we told them our flights were booked for two days later because we just had to get out. Unfortunately, the husband and wife had been preparing a gift for us, because they didn’t want us to leave the island with such bad memories. They were prepared to give us a full week in one of their beach huts for free (A week would usually go for 500 euros), but the only vacancy they had was two weeks away, and paying for a hotel room for two weeks in Aitutaki was something we simply couldn’t afford. We thanked them immensely but were forced to decline. However, their generosity didn’t stop there! They came to pick us up the next night to take us to a really nice restaurant on the coast, their treat too. Fresh fish, a beautiful sunset, we couldn’t refuse, and we had a truly wonderful time. Can’t thank them enough for making our last night in Aitutaki so memorable.
Taking the plane back to Rarotonga was a trip full of mixed emotions. On one hand we were heartbroken to have had such a terrible experience, to have missed out on snorkelling and diving, to have landed on (not even kidding, every islander we met was fantastic) the only mean person on the island, to have spent so much money and precious time for what will really have been a ruined opportunity. On the other we couldn’t wait to be back in Raro, to see our hosts again and to get back in the groove of the island we fell in love with. It’s really a shame. Aitutaki has such wonders, in its people and its sights, to offer travellers, and we had such a negative trip that ruined our image of the island. Of course, if we ever do get to go back to Aitutaki, we plan on making the trip worth it. And so with all this in mind, wrestling with tears and bittersweet feelings, we landed in Rarotonga once again.
~ Skander and Priya