„Kia Orana in paradise“, the suntanned guy with his big smile is saluting the bus. The sweet idleness is passing by. There is not a lot. A few huts, a few shops and a massive container ship, that waits behind the reef until the small boats from the locals pick up their monthly shipping of gigantic shampoo bottles, cornflakes packages and further necessities for their daily life.
This empty piece of land is Aitutaki, is an atoll, that belongs to the Cook Island in the South Pacific. The smiling guy in the bus is Aki. A true Cook islander, that calls himself the best guide, the best dancer and the best entertainer. One thing he definitely knows best is to make the people in the bus smile.
Thick clouds cover the sky, which is normally clear and sunny. That is where Aki’s paradise is hiding. The bus manoeuvres itself over the bumpy road. About seven years ago, Aitutaki has been hit by a heavy hurricane, which destroyed the majority of all houses on the island. Until today, the local population is busy rebuilding their island, their huts, their school and even their hospital. However and despite the hard work, there is one thing that the local Cook Islanders do not lack of: endless joy of life, that gets to every visitor through the thick windows of the bus straight into the corners of their mouths – where it stays throughout the entire trip to Aitutaki. And this will be, no doubt, unforgettable according to Aki.
Aki jumps out of the bus. His shoes stay in the vehicle. Did he ever actually wear them? “We arrived”, he calls through the open windows of the bus and points to the sea that is basically located a couple of steps from the tourist crowd. They follow, sticking to their wide smile, up until they reach their new mode of transportation: a traditional vaka, that will take them through the water surrounding Aitutaki. A vaka is a type of raft, that will float through the silent sea within the next couple of hours. Floating, nothing more.
Movement is scarce in this part of the world. The reef, which is circling the atoll naturally, protects Aitutaki from any sort of roughness. Neither waves nor currents have a chance to actually reach the island. “Don’t go beyond the reef’, shouts the father towards his daughter in the Disney movie Moana. A sentence that might easily be recalled when sitting on such a traditional vaka, watching the waves crash behind the reef. Only vague is the imaginwation of what might lie behind the reef.
“The Great Fleet” heads from Aitutaki to New Zealand
Solely Aki’s ancestors know this. Back in the days, between the 13th and 14th century, the first Polynesians made their way towards the rough sea, searching for a new home. Starting in Fiji, Tonga, the Society and Cook Islands, seven vakas started their search for a new place to be – and found New Zealand. The first settlers, that were indeed Aki’s ancestors, were part of the “Great Fleet” coming from Polynesia.
Aki does not like adventures. He loves everything that he is used to. Everything that he has been doing for years already: taking tourists out for a little cruise through his home, while playing the ukulele. With a smile in his face, that is fixed by now.
Fixed is also the time, in which the vaka has been floating through the sea until now. It is surrounded by turquoise-coloured water, shining bright in all possible nuances of blue. Sometimes very lightly, sometimes a little darker. But never too dark, to not see the ground anymore.
The sky bursts open and the last thick clouds, that blocked the sun’s way until now, disappear at the end of the horizon. Aitutaki is blooming, the air is getting warmer and the sound of Aki’s ukulele fits even more to the entire atmosphere. Smoothly, the vaka is cruising through the lagoon – almost as if it was moving to the rhythm of the music. Every now and then small waves behind the vaka bring a little movement to the water’s surface, letting quiet swooshes appear. That is enough action for Aki. The small waves create reflections at the ground of the sea, while the sun’s warmth is pushing some sweat pearls through the pores of the nose. They might as well be tears of joy.
Aitutaki Cook Islands – where the blue of the sky finds the perfect transition to the ocean
Until now, not a single bit of the visitors’ smiles has disappeared. No wonder, Aitutaki splurges. Fairytale palm trees, colourful fish swarms, that circle their usual rounds and the blue of the sky that finds the perfect transition to the colour of the ocean. Aki gazes into the distance. With the ukulele in his hand, he is standing in the very front of the vaka. Just like his ancestors, that went out into the sea and found New Zealand. A perfect story for those people that have a heart, that big, it has enough space for everyone coming to the Cook Islands. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is a façade here. Even though the colour of the sea does look simply unreal.
By now, the vaka found its wharf. It’s time to snorkel. Aki is the first one jumping into the water. With a backflip, he lands right in his living room. That is how he calls this – his living room. Safe and sound and as if he has done this one million times already. Known. Practised. Exercised. While others get into their cars that will take them to work, he simply jumps into the water. Office found. The tourists follow him. They scream, they shout, they talk. The shy tourist group has changed into a little family – and their vaka their home. Just like small underwater lemmings, dozens of neon pink and neon yellow snorkels manoeuvre themselves through the calm sea. All of them wear tight goggles with thick magnifiers. Suddenly, the corals and their bright colours appear even closer than usually, the fish bigger than before. The ground of the sea is within one’s reach. Metre by metre they move forward. Doubts and thoughts? No room and left far away – at the mainland, where it is stalled. The neon group is surrounded by fish, as big as a lower arm, that “only want to play”, according to Aki. He welcomes all of them, as he knows them personally. He even plays with them, as if they were his pets.
Snorkels and goggles land back at the vaka, which moves further through the lagoon. Quickly, Aki’s happy ukulele sounds fill the quiet air. Longing glimpses surround the horizon. Hands stripe the warm sea. Aitutaki vanishes slowly, while perfectly crooked palm trees appear. One Foot Island is the name of the little paradise that is evolving. The water is even clearer, the sand even whiter.
Nobody lives on this island, there are no buildings here – it’s simply the pearl-white and long sandy beaches, that made this piece of paradise popular. And the smallest postal office of the world – that attracts a couple of tourists day by day. Each of them receives a large print of a naked foot in their passports when getting to the lady in the postal office.
While his guests get out their passports and head to the office, Aki is sitting by the sea. Numerous times he has been to One Foot Island. That often, he could fill several passports with the stamp. He is not interested in that. He glimpses over the sea, while the sun has reached its highest peak of the day. Aki smiles. He smiles at this place, that he can call his home, at the queue in front of the postal office that is getting longer and longer and at the vaka, that will take him out to his living room again tomorrow. Back to his home, his paradise.