Today in Penrhyn the people will be rejoicing; not just because the first general election in five years was held yesterday and they voted a new parliamentary representative for the island and tipped the balance of power from the Democrats to the Cook Island Party, but because this morning it is raining. There is a water shortage on the atoll; the school has been closed for some time and the water tanks are all but empty. Water collection off of roofs is there only source of clean, drinkable water so at least the little bit of rain this morning will elevate some of the hardships felt here.  Our first week on Penrhyn has been astounding, in every sense of the word. 

We had a nice passage from Raiatea; in five days we covered 600NM and almost stayed exactly on our rhum line, a first!  We arrived at the pass around noon so we had lots of light to navigate the coral heads dotting the lagoon between the pass and the anchorage. We were surprised that there are two other sail boats here, and two more have sailed in since, one of which we helped when they ran aground on the reef. We thought we were the stragglers of the season. By three o’clock we were checked in, inspected and decontaminated (the “Health Inspector”, a young blood shot eyed man, came onboard with a can of official “Pre-Flight Insecticide” which we sprits lightly up forward, bugs be warned!).

 It took a couple of days to get to shore as we had to patch the floor of our dingy and let the glue dry but that didn’t stop us meeting some more people from the village.  Keen to welcome us the Tongareva (the Polynesian name for the atoll, Penrhyn is derived from the “Lady Penrhyn”, a ship that was wreaked on the reef) and see what we had to trade for we had some drop-ins at the boat.  The fact that we could readily communicate in English made the exchanges quite pleasant and we slowly learned more about the atoll.  Our guide books are a few years old so we had no idea that the weekly flights to Rarotonga, 700 miles to the South and the capital of the Cook Islands, had been cancelled and plane tickets for a charter flight are $1700NZ one way.  The government supply ship that services the northern islands was wreaked on a reef last year and has also not been replaced, so there is no longer any regular means of getting supplies to Tongareva.  The people here are low on even the most basic of supplies; no powdered milk for the children, no soap to wash, no toilet paper.  Had we had known we could have brought more, but with limited food stuffs onboard and another four or five weeks before we get back to French Polynesia we cannot afford to offer supplies to everyone. And so the talk of the island was the Monday arrival of a small supply vessel from Hawaii, the first in months, hopefully bringing not only supplies that were previously ordered but surplus to sell as well.

However, in spite of this we were welcomed with warm smiles and the best hospitality we have yet encountered.  The local Minister of the Cook Islands Christen Church came out to invite us to the Sunday service. We felt it best not to offend the offer and dressed in the required long pants, collared shirts, knee length skirt and best church hat to attend.  The service was somber but dotted with fantastic singing by the congregation who must believe that although God is listening he is very far away, so you better sing loud….really loud.  Afterwards we attended the end of year awards ceremony of the Girl Guides and Boys Brigade where certificates were handed out before everyone was treated to hot tea, Milo, jam sandwiched, donuts and scones. It was certainly more that you could eat a typical church luncheon.  

On Monday and Tuesday mornings when we headed to the dock with the rest of the town to see what the “Kwai” had brought for supplies, what did they think these people would need/want, and what kind of chaos would ensue (of course camera in hand).  We met more islanders, everyone ready for a chat and extending an invitation to drop by their house anytime, it is the only just over there (pointing in a vague direction), just ask. We were high jacked by the local Cook Island Party Candidate and taken to his house for hot coffee, biscuits and peanut butter. He showed us his meticulously tended garden, the soil is very bad here, and insisted on giving us a papaya and a couple of lobster that he had caught.  They may have little but they are always willing to share.  Surprisingly the majority of people have traveled to NZ or Australia, mostly to visit family who have left the islands (the population of Omolka has gone from 700 to 200 in a matter of years), but many people have returned to Penrhyn for the quiet lifestyle, despite the remoteness. 

The only problem we have encountered is money, or rather the lack there of. There is not enough NZ dollars on the island, which is not to say that people are poor but that there is not a lot of physical cash here. When the ship is here the people buy goods and by the end of the day the bank is empty, that is until the ship deposits the days sales back into the bank. The next day the cycle begins again.  No cash leaves the island.  The bank also does not change USD to NZ anymore as there is no regular way to get it off the island and changed back into NZ.  Thankfully we don’t need money for day to day, there is nothing on the shelves at the store, and we were able to convince the Capitan of the Kwai to change a little US for us.  But we do need to pay habour fees and departure taxes when we leave, so the search continues.

Today is a Market Day, a fund raiser for a disability charity, followed by a String Band Competition tonight so we are looking forward to taking in some local music and enjoying some more local hospitality.

So that’s been our week in Penrhyn. We found the local school teacher, an import from Australia, who has let us use his laptop for emailing (the school has broadband and 10 computers!), so we will try and check it next week and let you know when we decide to leave.  Hope all is well back home!

Love,
H&S

 Our month here in Penrhyn has been nice and relaxing. We moved to the windward side of the atoll after the first week of being tossed around by the building fetch when the wind strengthen and have spent the last few weeks tucked behind a palm fringed little village in fairly calm waters with, surprisingly, another boat, Canadians to boot! Steve took the dingy back to the main village of Omoka this morning, 7miles across the lagoon, to check out so that we didn't have to worry about spending sleepless nights in a rough anchorage before we head out on Sunday. As there are only 50 people that live on this side things so have been pretty quiet and we've been able to get to a few boat projects that have long been lingering on our To Do List.

Still no supplies available we are down to our last bit of produce; three carrots, dozen onions, a handful of garlic and a squash I bought in Raiatea last minute (thank goodness!). Steve was given a hand of bananas by the immigration officer this morning and a green papaya was passed our way but other than that we have had no fresh fruit or veg for almost five weeks, and I think we've done pretty well. We have enough of dry stores and canned goods that we would be fine for another couple months, (although we might be suffering the first signs of scurvy towards the end) but are really looking forward to some leafy greens by the end of next week when we arrive back in Raiatea. Steve has been a fabulous provider, to us and our neighbours, catching lovely big white fleshed fish in the pass just a stones throw from the boat. To conserve cooking gas we have been making fires and cooking on the beach a couple times a week as well; perfecting our coconut husking skills as we wait for the raging fire to diminish into a prefect bed of coals to cook our fish or bake our bread on. The various stages and used of coconut is astounding; from drinking water, to a usable starch, to a sweet treat, to fuel for the fire, and I am sure I have just starched the surface.

Today is a grey overcast morning with a few showers but the people here are going into month three without substantial rainfall, their only means of fresh water, so the schools remain closed and the water tanks near empty. We have heard that a supply ship has been sent out of Samoa with diesel for the town's generators, their only source of electricity, and gasoline for peoples outboards, their source of transportation and sustenance as most people rely on fishing and gathering marine animals for food. It is also bring basic supplies of flour, sugar, rice, frozen lamb and chicken, crackers and, of all things, ice cream. It should arrive before Christmas. They have also convinced a Cook Island marine patrol boat that is making its end of the year rounds out of Rarotonga to bring some milk powder and other essentials for the kids.

However, despite all of this, we have been shown the most warmth and hospitality that we have encountered yet. Everyone is eager to invite you in for tea and biscuits, include in the community activities and share with you whatever they have. Last week we attended the 60th birthday feast of man in the village here and were astounded by the amount of food created and conjured from the local landscape; the tables were literally overflowing! They whole village prepared for a week, it was lovely to be included. We were sent home from the kia kia (feast) with as much as we could carry off the table that we hadn't have time to devour, some of which would make a Green Peace member blush!

Love,
H&S