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Rarotonga or Bust 

How We Packed Up the Kids and moved to Paradise— Or So We Thought

Thursday, Jul 24 2003
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Illustration by Mark Frauenfelder

The house next door to ours has ropes tied across its rusting tin roof that lead to stakes in the ground. Hurricane season won’t be here for another four months or so, but judging from the green algae growing on those ropes, they’ve weathered at least two seasons already. From our living-room window we can see a skinny black pig, one leg tied to a palm tree, gnawing the meat out of some cracked coconut shells. A couple of yards from the pig, a wild dog frantically digs in the dirt, his legs grotesquely short compared to the length of his torso. Sweet-smelling smoke from a pile of smoldering palm fronds drifts through our louvered windows, while a pickup truck carrying two young children in the back kicks up gravel as it races past our house. It drives across our neighbor’s grassy front lawn, nearly tossing the kids overboard as it suddenly brakes underneath the house’s anchoring ropes.

The four of us — including our 5-year-old and 3-month-old daughters — are now 10 days into our new life on the island of Rarotonga, a 26-square-mile speck of green mountains and white sand poking out of the Pacific Ocean in the approximate middle of nowhere. Sometimes, when we observe our 5-year-old, Sarina, chasing roosters around the yard and playing with her pet hermit crabs, we don’t need to remind ourselves why we sold our cute little house in Studio City and pulled up our roots in Los Angeles. Other times, such as when we’re scratching our mosquito-ravaged ankles or getting chased down a dirt road by one of the packs of wild dogs that roam the island, it’s not so easy.

The short answer is that we came to Rarotonga, a tropical island one-fifth the size of Kauai, to escape our overscheduled Los Angeles existence. And in some ways, the island has already delivered on its promise: Memories of L.A.’s bumper-to-bumper traffic, acrylic nails, DSL, and prepackaged diversions for kids are beginning to lose their edge. It’s hard to believe that two weeks ago we were ordering delivery from our favorite Indian restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, sitting through Lizzie McGuire with Sarina and her friends, and downloading OS X updates onto our iBooks using Starbucks’ Wi-Fi connection. That all seems like another lifetime ago, and yet our year in the South Pacific has just begun. What we’ll do after that depends on what happens in the next 12 months. Could we live here forever? It’s too early to tell.

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Here in Rarotonga, which is part of the Cook Islands and almost 2,000 miles from any continent, life moves at its own pace — the 9,500 locals call it “Raro time.” Waiting for the bill in a restaurant can take over half an hour. Waiting for a plumber or locksmith can take up to three months. When we tell our new landlord that we’d like to move into her house, she slowly gets up from the garden she’s tending to and asks us what day it is. Then she asks which month.

Rarotonga’s climate is like Hawaii’s, only seasonally opposite, since it’s south of the equator. Its culture, however, is not polished and modern like Hawaii’s, but still very much old Polynesian. Everywhere you look, wooden statues of the naked, extremely well-endowed god of fertility, Tangaroa, stare back at you (much to Sarina’s delight). He’s even found on their flower-shaped one-dollar coins.

Rarotongan dancing, which features rapid hip gyrations and erotic moves, is considered to be the best in the South Pacific, and was described as “positively obscene” by a 19th-century missionary who had grown accustomed to the more languid Hawaiian hula. Hungry locals sometimes step into the crystal lagoon to pluck a fat gray sea cucumber from the sandy bottom, squeeze out its spaghettilike guts for a snack and toss the remains back into the surf. (The sea slug soon grows back its edible innards.)

We decided to move to Rarotonga on New Year’s Day. We’d hired a babysitter for the afternoon and went to Aroma Café in Studio City to engage in our yearly tradition of setting goals for the year ahead. While we sat at a small iron table on the brick patio drinking strong coffee and eating egg-salad sandwiches, we recorded our goals on a pad of paper. But the ideas just weren’t flowing, at least not any new ones. We both felt like we were in a rut, and with a new baby due in a few months, we knew that rut was sure to become deeper. How could this year possibly be any different from the year before, or the year before that? Mark would continue to pitch article ideas to magazines and send his illustration portfolio around, trying to pick up assignments in this depressed freelance market. Carla would try to squeeze in as much writing as possible while being a full-time mom to Sarina and the new baby. Last year, we had each written a book that was bought by a publisher, and if we were lucky, we each might get another book contract this year.

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