Antagonizing wanderlust will lead you to strange impulses. I had never heard of The Cook Islands until I saw a deal for it online. I looked up the place and it seemed like complete nirvana – a world of surreal imagery I’ve only ever seen on postcards and desktop screensavers. The next thing I knew, my ticket was booked.
I feel like there’s this notion that wanderlust comes from a need to escape or run away. That’s not always the case. I’ve traveled alone before and ever since I couldn’t shake the desire to keep doing it. I was ready for a new thrust of adventure.
Ten hours later, I landed in Rarotonga, the most populous island in the Cook Islands. It is a small island of only 20 miles in circumference. I immediately took notice of the lush saw-tooth mountains and the emerald green jungle. Then, the stunning sapphire ocean. And all of this without any skyscrapers or overlapping freeways. I breathed a sigh of relief and inhaled the fresh salty air, liberated to think that for the next two weeks I wouldn’t see a single billboard or flashing marquee. “I’m thousands and thousands and thousands of miles away from everyone I know right now” was exhilarating rather than scary. When I got into my shuttle bus at the airport and started putting on my seat belt, the driver said “No, we don’t wear seat belts here. Not in paradise.” Fact is there’s no need for safety when the speed limit is 35 mph.
There are only two main roads – they circle the island. There are two buses you can catch; simply labeled “Clockwise” and “Anti-Clockwise” because those are the only directions you can travel. And since everything travels in a loop, you could never get lost. All roads lead to home.
The island is so small, everyone knows everyone. They still use the phone book. Crime is extremely low because it is so easy to track people down (and there’s really nowhere to escape, unless you’re a really good swimmer). The locals are so friendly and some of the most genuine people I’ve ever met.
I took a day trip out to Aitutaki, another island nearby and the biggest honeymoon spot of the country. Upon seeing the many shades of blue in the stupefying lagoon there, I could feel the weight of all my wonderment send butterflies through my chest. To be so overwhelmed by oceanic beauty – that was a high I never wanted to give up.
Returning back to Rarotonga, I explored all the beaches and met a new friend every day. A girl named Charlotte was a paddle board yoga instructor, and she took me out on a session. A moment I will never forget; while meditating on our boards, a large school of fish swarmed us and encircled us. The ocean had never felt more serene or surreal.
Aside from visiting the lagoons and stretches of white sand adorned with coconut trees, I went off the beaten path to explore the island inward. I met a wise man of the jungle – an herbalist named “Pa.” He had skinny blonde dreads and wore flowers around his neck. His waist and ankle were wrapped in grass fringe and he carried a machete. He was quite a character. He spoke of many things (mostly of the healing properties of the noni fruit), but he left me awestruck when he told me about a time when he encountered a great rock legend – one whom I have tattooed on my arm- David Bowie.
Turns out David Bowie came to Rarotonga in 1982 to film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” and wanted Pa to be in his film. “But they wanted me to shave my head so I said no, I do not alter myself,” he said. It has only been a couple weeks since Bowie died and to discover this was such a strange and surreal feeling. Pa told me that many locals on the island got to know Bowie very well. Out of all the islands in the world, Bowie came to this one, the very remote and very foreign Rarotonga island. It became apparent that my new mission was to find the other locals who befriended Bowie and discover their stories about him.
Pa introduced me to Lawrence, a man who photographed Bowie for the newspaper in 1982. Lawrence said he had a beer with Bowie and interviewed him. “I remember he wore these plastic sandals that Kiwis wear.” Lawrence chuckled. He told me how he remembers taking a lovely photo of Bowie driving. “It was kind of cool. He had a cigarette in his hand on the steering wheel.” I asked him if I could see the photo. He sighed and said he misplaced all his photographs and articles from that time.
I was endlessly fascinated and spoke with as many likely locals as I could. I learned facts here and there. Bowie had jam sessions at the hotel bar down the street. He played some shows at a venue called The Banana Court. He loved his anonymity on the island. Most folks couldn’t get too invested in pop culture as the island, to this day, has only one TV channel. I watched it, and it’s nearly just static.
I was lucky enough to be gifted by Pa a current issue of the Cook Islands News, which in light of his passing, discussed the sincere impact on his visit in words of great nostalgia. I read the newspaper article poolside while drinking a dirty chai and eating papaya, the nation’s main fruit. The spirit of Bowie seemed as if to linger all around in the balmy breeze of paradise. I was dazzled and with the serendipity of events. I wanted to hunt down a rare artifact. Lawrence didn’t have the old 1982 article or the photographs but maybe the offices of the Cook Islands News would. I missed the Anti-Clockwise bus into town so I took the Clockwise bus and marveled at the beauty on the long route. I walked into Cook Island News to soon learn they only carried archives starting from 1987. Fueled with curiosity, I didn’t want to give up. I wanted to read that old interview and see that photo of a younger Bowie driving with his cig.
I soon found the Cook Islands National Archive Museum. Here was my chance! I shifted through the papers of the 1980s with a woman who worked there named Paula. We searched for a while without much luck. I remember that was the worst day of my trip, because it was so hot and I acquired an infected sun blister on my lip and fresh mosquito bites on my walk to the museum. Soon the museum was closing and I had to leave. I asked Paula if I could come back tomorrow and rifle through more of the archives, but it was Friday and they were closed on the weekends. Despondent, but unwilling to give up, I left the phone number of my hotel in case anything came up.
I spent the rest of the day sun poisoned and found myself trekking up a mountainside to reach the local hospital. Though I was agitated that I had to walk a couple miles up a steep hill to seek medical attention, I couldn’t help but gawk at the beautiful view alongside me. Lush green ridges lined with elegantly tall coconut trees and the vast cerulean ocean perfectly in sight at such an elevation.
The next day, my phone rang. Paula was at my hotel and she had with her the sacred and sought after 1982 article on David Bowie! I was stunned. A busy mother of two young girls, on her day off, made the time to search the dusty archives for a mere American tourist. “No one else has come looking for this, even after his death,” she said. “You’re the only one who has this.” I was grateful and so humbled to be on an island with such lovely caring folks. I read the old sepia soaked article and Bowie seemed to agree with me, quoted saying “I myself have found the people casual and friendly, easy to talk to. They’ve been wonderful.”
This was my reality: sitting before a sunset on an island 7,000 miles from home, holding a piece of Bowie no one else in the world has. He felt, to me, more alive than ever.