While the Cook Islands in my memory remains a beautiful blissful country full of aqua blue waters, sandy beaches, and fresh floral hairpieces and of course, cocktails, there was one tour we did on the island of Aitutaki that I came home and raved about. Normally on trips like this, we get to experience a lot of things, but I’m not sure anything has ever moved me so deeply as the Aitutaki Punarei Cultural Tour.
We arrived to our accommodation to find a truck waiting for us, and after a short drive around Aitutaki, our leader and guide led us to an open field and asked us to pick a leader. It was explained that we would have to be welcomed by the tribal leader. Bemused, we went along with it and elected one of our fellow tour members to be our ‘tribal leader’.
As we drove up a hill towards the village (and the most spectacular view over the coastline I might add) we started to hear chanting and drum noises. We suddenly stopped our chatter and all together seemed to collectively know this tour would be different from the others. Our tribal leader walked up to the warrior and presented an offering, our mock initiation ceremony beginning. The warrior accepted this in peace and then, our guide instructed us to walk through, one after the other and ask permission to enter.
The Punarei Cultural Experience aims to do one key thing – bring to life the lost culture of the Cook Islands. The story goes that many years ago, a combination of disease and the arrival of missionaries led to the obliteration of 3000 years of Cook Islands’ history. The village is set up as Aitutaki once was. The huts are built based on historical stories and information, the plants representations of the original flora and fauna. All kick started by a local archaeologist Ngaa, the village is as close as possible to what life on the Cook Islands once was.
We wander the gardens and learn of the original Cook Islands history, the story that is not told on tourist brochures, or on glossy websites – but is filled with heartache and pain.
Completely immersed in the experience, together we sit at tables and weave the covers for our lunch out of leaves. We’re set to eat traditional Cook Islands fare from an Umukai (underground) oven. We place chicken, pork, fish and pumpkin onto hot black rocks and cover them with our woven covers as well as layers of sand, woven leaves and thick heavy blankets to slowly cook our food. Next we work to make plates for our lunch out of palm fronds.
While the oven is baking our lunch, we’re taken to a Marae, a Cook Islands cultural site. It was destroyed many years ago and through the work of the Purenai Culture tour community has been restored. We learn about the placement of the rocks – each one perfectly aligned with significance to the culture.
The Punarei Culture tour told us a story of pain and destruction, but also one of hope. The cultural team are not revered on the island for shedding light on a part of history that has been wiped out. The artist who carved a replica of the original Aitutaki tiki (their present day tiki is Tangiroa), remains anonymous so as to protect himself, the local schools do not teach of this culture, the greater communities shying away. The Punarei Cultural Experience team’s wish is to bring this experience to tourists so that somehow, someday, the original history of the Cook Islands becomes restored. As funds become available, development continues of this cultural site.
The tour itself is not a one sided silence either, it’s a conversation. We’re welcome to ask questions, to engage and learn, to ask the questions that would be taboo, difficult to answer. The conversation flows freely, our tour guide passionate about everything to do with this forgotten history and passionate about sharing the answers.
The team has been busily preparing the rest of lunch as we return to the village – we pull off layers and layers to reveal our steaming hot meat. There are bowls and bowls of freshly prepared tropical salads of breadfruit and taro greens which are served with tropical fruit, roasted bananas – all local produce and traditional fare along with our own Ukamai meat and vegetables. Our afternoon ends in deep conversation as we continue to peel back the layers of this somewhat dark tale.
For somewhere as picture perfect as the Cook Islands, the lessons learned on the Punarei Cultural Experience could cast a dim light, but what it taught me, is that the more I travel, the more I want to discover the truth behind the pictures. Tourism is such an odd beast, displaying at times, only what a country wants you to see. This tour brings to light the unspeakable and with that, casts its visitors as ambassadors and speakers of its very important message for the Cook Islands’ people.
The Polkas traveled to the Cook Islands courtesy of Expedia & Cook Islands Tourism. Meitaki for the amazing trip and long lasting memories. Check out my other reviews from our trip : Five Hot Spots In The Cook Islands For Your Wedding, Nautilus Resort, Cook Islands and Unique Sleeps: Aitutaki Escape, Cook Islands & The Cook Islands Bucket List.
Images by The Polkas