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A TROPICAL CHRISTMAS WITH MUSICAL PASSION
by Hans Tammemagi
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

Escaping from the traditional Canadian Christmas with family, my wife, Ally, and I stepped off the plane into the hot tropical climate of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. We were deep in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a classic circular atoll dominated by a verdant mountain in the middle and surrounded by a glorious coral reef.


(photo #1)

We breathed in the fresh air and gasped at the colour and greenery all around. Insects buzzed and birds chirped and cawed. We had landed in paradise, and thoughts of our families quickly vanished.

From our ocean-side villa we enjoyed long walks along the palm-tree-lined beach, and spent many hours floating in the warm waters inside the reef, amazed at the colours, shapes and variety of fish. It was like swimming in a top-end aquarium. We quickly found the island life-style was laid back, friendly and relaxed. We explored the circular road around the island on a scooter, discovering paw paw and banana plantations, a local brewery, churches and a waterfall.


(photos #2 and 3)

Christmas day began like most other days: hot, humid and sunny. Instead of snorkelling, Ally and I donned our best tropical clothes, hopped onto the scooter and rode along a road lined by brilliant orange flamboyant trees to a simple, white-washed church to attend Christmas service.

Joining throngs of Polynesians in colourful shirts and dresses with many of the ladies wearing straw bonnets, we walked through a cemetery, where large, above-ground, concrete tombs lay like white-washed bunkers between the road and church.


(photo #4)

At the entrance to Arorangi Cook Island Christian Church, broad smiles and handshakes welcomed us and we were led to a bench in the packed hall. The church's interior was simple and unpretentious, with white concrete-block walls, blue trim and a high ceiling. Sunlight poured in through tall windows, reminding us that we were far removed from a cold Canadian Christmas.

The pastor welcomed the congregation and gave a short oration in the local Polynesian language, Cook Island Maori.

Suddenly, several families sitting next to us stood up and burst into a boisterous song. From grandparents to young children, all were dressed in distinctive orange and black clothing. They bounced and swayed, their voices reverberating from the walls. The refrain consisted of about eight lines of Polynesian that were repeated over and over again with incredible vigour. They sang and sang and sang.

Finally, the singers' energy flagged, and another troupe, dressed primarily in turquoise and seated in another part of the church, jumped up and began to sing even louder and more vigorously. They did their utmost to outdo the first group.

When they tired, another group took over, striving to be the loudest yet. Then a fourth group sang. Allyson and I bopped along, totally captivated by these energetic performances.

Suddenly this astonishing Yuletide musical mayhem stopped. There was dead silence, and every head turned toward us as the pastor said, "Now it is time for the tourists to sing."

I was shocked and embarrassed, since I am not musically inclined and cannot carry a tune. About 10 of us the others visitors from New Zealand, who were as surprised and self-conscious as we were nervously gathered together. After a panicky discussion, we started to croak out Silent Night. Compared to the earlier singing, our effort was feeble and uninspired.

After a few bars, however, the entire congregation joined in, and soon the carol pulsated throughout the church. We were elated. Instead of being outsiders, we now felt a part of the service.

Then each of the groups, who had sung so vigorously as part of the congregation, took turns going to the front and performing like a choir. The other worshippers enthusiastically joined in on the choruses and the entire church was a mass of swaying, singing people. We tourists even stumbled along.


(photo #5)

Later, we learned these groups actually are choirs representing different parishes. Polynesians love music and almost everyone belongs to a choir, with much friendly rivalry between them. Two and a half hours of this musical enthusiasm passed quickly, and the service ended with a prayer. We walked silently past the white tombs back to our scooter, our hearts swelling with Christmas spirit. Far in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we had discovered a passionate, music-loving congregation that warmly embraced strangers into their midst. It was a Christmas service we will cherish forever.

_____________________________

IF YOU GO:

The 15 Cook Islands in the southern hemisphere form an independent nation with a British-style parliamentary government. Rarotonga is the main island and has an international airport. The country is closely associated with New Zealand, including using New Zealand currency ($1 NZ = $0.87 CDN). The population is about 11,000.

Tourism info: http://www.cookislands.travel

PHOTOS: Credit: Hans Tammemagi

1. Mountain forming centre of atoll

2. Typical road with flamboyant trees

3. Beach at dusk

4. Arorangi Cook Island Christian Church

5. A choir sings at the front

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