Hang­ing with the Queen’s man in the Cooks

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - DO­MINIC DUNNE

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.

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