Ron’s Guide to the Social Customs and Attitudes in the Cook Islands

Third time Cook Islands volunteer, Ron, has come up with some reflections about life in the Cook Islands. Here, we will share a few with you – some are tongue in cheek. So enjoy our programme through the lens of a Canadian volunteer who loves providing service in the Cook Islands. In the photo, Ron has just completed a wiring project in the computer lab at Titikaveka College. The kids and the school thank you, Ron!

Ron Berntson completes computer lab wiring

Ron completes computer lab wiring

Ron’s Guide to the Social Customs and Attitudes in the Cook Islands:

  1. The nod. When you connect eyes with someone as you walk by them or see them on a scooter, the polite thing to do is the “CI Nod”. It’s about a 1 inch movement of the head up and down, done only once. Do not smile – it’s viewed as pushy.
  2. The kiss. Facing each other, brush your right cheek against their right cheek and make a small kissing noise to the air (no kissing ears). Women kiss women. Women kiss men. Men don’t kiss men, but I’ve been tempted to try. It’s very confusing when the kiss is or is not expected. Be on the look out for the kiss move and don’t be hesitant or you’ll look like a newbie visitor.
  3. Flip flops are called jandals. They are almost universal foot wear for locals. Jandals are easiest to take off when you enter a house or school room. You’ll be sorry you brought your very expensive hiking sandals from REI, because taking them on and off is a pain.
  4. It takes about a week to get used to walking in jandals. It can take another two weeks to be able to run in jandals. If you are old, like me, the arthritis in your big toe will start to act up. North Americans have wimpy feet.
  5. Take em off, leave em on. You leave your jandals on in a store. You take your jandals off before entering most houses. Sometimes you’ll take them off going into a classroom, sometimes not.
  6. I always take my jandals off as a sign of respect for Cook Island custom. However, I’m told I’m pedantic.
  7. Only visitors ride bicycles. The only bicycles you can rent are gliders. You’ll look stupid, but the Cook Islanders won’t honk their horns or hurl terms of abuse.
  8. There is no tipping on the Cook Islands. Please, please, don’t screw this up. It’s a precious idea that someone would provide good service without a bribe.
  9. It’s called the Anti-clockwise bus, not the Counter-clockwise bus. You wouldn’t say counter social.
  10. A bus, especially when it’s a ways from Cooks Corner, arrives +/- 15 minutes of its scheduled time. Use this time to think about stuff, hopefully pleasant stuff and not annoyance at the bus driver. If you’re catching the bus from Cooks Corner, there is terrific frozen yoghurt at the back of the fudge shop. I’ve gone into spasms of pleasure eating their coconut flavoured yoghurt.
  11. Be excessively polite with all bus drivers. It helps a lot when it comes to them remembering where you want to stop.
  12. When should you say “kia orana”? Usually you’ll say it a lot in your beginning days and less so as time goes on. It’s kind of like “have a good day”.
  13. You can have fun learning how to pronounce CI Maori words correctly. You vocalize ever letter in the word – no obscure and frustrating spellings like English. “G” is said a little further back in the mouth, like the “g” in tongue. Roll your “r” You know you can do it. Imagine you’re Scottish. One of the best words to practice on is “Rarotonga”.
  14. Pretend that all pizza served on the island is good. It hurts local’s feelings if you say otherwise.
  15. Do not ask local women why so many women on CI are, shall we say, substantial. First of all, a lot of the men are also substantial. It’s mildly humorous to see substantial people on a motor scooter. More seriously, local women probably have better body acceptance than us North Americans.
  16. Lots of Cook Islands women wear a wreath of fresh flowers in their hair. This is incredibly attractive. The women also collect all the flowers and create the wreath themselves. This is probably why they hold their heads with so much pride..
  17. Cook Islanders love to complain about their government. The fact that the islands’ population is smaller than most suburbs in North America and hence makes providing all the services of a government difficult, doesn’t seem to matter. Nod your head in approval, make sympathetic grunts. The fact that the Cook Islands has probably the best governance in the South Pacific is irrelevant.
  18. Family is a really big deal for Cook Islanders, except when it comes to land tenure.
  19. If someone wants a parcel of the family’s land, they have to get approval from everyone else in the family. This can split up a family worse than probating Grandpa’s will.
  20. A lot of Rarotongans actually come from the outer islands. Never say anything disparaging about Aitutaki because people from that island can get irritated if you don’t think of it as other than the closest thing to paradise. Try to take the day trip to Aitutaki because it actually is the closest thing to paradise.
  21. If you meet someone from the Northern Group, say how much you’d like to visit if only it weren’t so expensive. The Northern Group islanders will like to hear you say it.
  22. I’ve heard that the islands in the Northern Group are some of the most isolated and beautiful places on earth. Some day, I’m going.
  23. Try to go to church at least once when you’re on the islands. The hymn singing is amazing. What’s best is to hear a familiar hymn tune sung in Maori – very cool. You might have such a spiritual experience that you’ll think about attending church in North America. Just remember that hymn singing in North America sucks.
  24. Older Cook Islanders love to complain that young people don’t like to work hard. Where have I heard that one before?
  25. There are over 50, 000 Cook Islanders who live someplace other than the islands – usually America, Australia or New Zealand. I’ve only met CIs who lived on and left New Zealand.
  26. When Cook Islanders complain about their country, they’re really saying, “We have ambitions to make our country prosperous in a way that acknowledges our history and culture.” As the Australians say, “Good on them.” I think they’ll get there.
  27. I was so excited that I was coming back to the Cook Islands for the third time, I was almost dancing as I approached the customs lady. I also wouldn’t shut up. She was not impressed. There is a place for obnoxious enthusiasm on the island, but I’m not sure where.
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