Hanging with the Queen’s man in the Cooks
In Polynesia three things mean the world to people: faith, family and flowers. Actually make that four: add fun. In the Cook Islands these can be in a heady mix.
It’s Gospel Day, which in itself says everything about the country. It’s a public holiday to mark the arrival of Christianity on the islands and it seems the whole island of Rarotonga has gathered on a sports oval to share a feast and watch bands play.
Flowers are everywhere. The food is delicious. The atmosphere festive. The smell of tropical blossoms and spicy beef is a potent combination that soon goes to my head. On the spur of the moment, I decide to stroll over and say hello to the head of state. Tom Marsters is the former deputy prime minister of the Cook Islands and now Queen Elizabeth II’s representative.
He and his wife, the first lady, live across the road from the water on the south end of the island. Fifteen years ago, when I first visited Rarotonga, things were quieter and less ceremonial. Back then I rode a bike right up to the official residence and looked through the glass doors into the reception room. Thankfully no one appeared to be at home. On this return trip, the house has big gates and a sentry box.
Today the Queen’s Representative and his wife are wearing elaborate garlands made from sweet gardenias, denoting their elevated status. The first lady is wearing a matching headpiece that sits like a beautiful floral tiara. His Excellency insists I take a seat beside him in the honoured position under the official marquee. I’m a little embarrassed as I only want to pay my respects but I do as I’m told. He removes his garland and puts it over my head and around my neck. I’m surprised at how heavy it is. I’m more embarrassed now. Some village elder probably spent hours picking blooms and stringing them into a spectacular creation for the nation’s No 1 citizen, not for a tourist in shorts and Tshirt. The first lady leans over. “Don’t worry ... it’s in giving that we receive,” she tells me.
So here I am, decorated with flowers, sitting and taking in the official program of events. It’s a tough call: how long do I stay before I outdo my welcome but not appear rude? After about half an hour I bid farewell to my hosts and thank them for their hospitality.
I take my gardenias back to the holiday house where they infuse the air for days. The gardenias eventually start to wilt but I can’t bear to throw them in the bin. It seems sacrilegious. So I gather them up, walk to the shore and ceremoniously place the flowers on the water, like a wreath, and watch them bob up and down towards the breaking waves of the distant reef.