Rarotonga or Bust

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.

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.


It sounded okay, but just okay. There was nothing we could think of that would add a real spark to our lives. Then Carla said, offhandedly, “We’re writers. We can work anywhere. We should just drop out of this rat race and move to Rarotonga.” We’d talked about it before — moving to some faraway fantasyland — but never seriously. We’d visited Rarotonga nearly 10 years ago and had become enchanted with the island. Granted, we’d only stayed for a week, but our memories conjured up romantic images of a lush paradise without a single traffic light, and with loads of white sandy beaches, ripe fruit trees lining the roads, and a vast turquoise sea studded with candy-colored fish, that most certainly promised a stress-free existence.

Maybe it was Carla’s pregnancy-induced hormones or the first throes of Mark’s midlife crisis, but the idea of moving to an island in the South Seas didn’t sound as preposterous as it would have at some other time. “Maybe we should do it,” Mark said, gulping down the dregs at the bottom of his double espresso. “I could really go for a change.”

We’d done the same kind of thing twice before — once we went to London for six months, fresh out of college in 1984, and another time to Japan for five months in 1987. The memories from those extended working trips had always burned more brightly and deeply than our recollections of the following years living and working in San Francisco and Los Angeles as magazine editors and writers. We wanted to experience that fresh, wonderful strangeness brought on by living in a different country for several months. But we wondered if we could do it again, 15 years later, this time with two young children. And could we do it for at least a year?

We had to find out.

One friend told us we were fooling ourselves. “You guys are taking this Polynesian Pop thing too far,” he said. “It’s one thing to make your house look like the Enchanted Tiki Room. It’s another to move to a volcano that gets 10 inches of rain a month. Besides, you’re having a baby in March. You have no idea how hard it’s going to be to take care of two little kids. You’re going to forget all about this idea when you have that second baby.”

Another friend of ours wrinkled her nose when we told her about our plan. “Oh, that sounds crazy!” she said, batting her hand at an invisible fly. “You guys aren’t that adventurous. There’s not enough to do on a small island, anyway.” She seemed almost mad that we were contemplating it.

Other people loved the idea and were rooting for us. “We’re going to live vicariously through you guys,” said one frazzled couple who, like us, were spending their days working like hamsters on a wheel so that their kids could go to private schools and take everything from ballet to horseback-riding lessons. We told them we were looking forward to spending our days sitting under a tree, plinking a ukulele and writing ‰ in our journals while Sarina dug in the sand and Jane slept blissfully in an infant hammock.

We would rent a cheap bungalow, we decided. We would pull the plug on everything. We started making a list of all we had to do to extricate ourselves: Sell our house. Sell our car. Find homes for Sarina’s pet bird, rabbit and frogs. Pack up all of our furnishings and store them in a warehouse. Buy airline tickets. Cancel our Internet service, cell phone, DWP, gas, telephone, security, newspaper and other services. Find out about schools and pediatric medical care on Rarotonga. Research homeschooling options for Sarina. Make arrangements for someone to handle our bills and banking. Get a birth certificate, Social Security card and passport for the baby. Buy plug adapters so we could use our laptop and battery rechargers. Find a furnished apartment in L.A. to stay in after we sold the house and were waiting for Sarina to finish kindergarten. We’d wake up in the middle of the night with a new to-do item on our minds, scribbling it on the inside cover of a paperback with a crayon.

For the next three months we thought about little else. Our move seemed so romantic, so adventurous, and it was a great conversation piece. More accustomed to interviewing than being interviewed, we now found ourselves at the shining center of every gathering we went to. Our tropical spiel became more and more flamboyant. “I plan to wear a parea and spear fish for supper,” Mark caught himself saying. Without missing a beat, Carla added, “And once we learn the ropes, we’re going to live on a deserted island, at least for a few weeks.” Our simple plan was turning into a wild and daring fantasy that even we had never imagined ourselves doing before.


Two days before we were about to leave, however, the reality hit that we were actually about to abandon the comforts of America to not only live on an island but to compete with the adventures of Swiss Family Robinson. Mark’s stomach clenched whenever he thought of it. On top of questioning whether we could really live up to our boasts, practical considerations began to overwhelm us: Are we throwing our writing careers away? Will we blow our small savings? Will we be able to find a place on the island to rent? Will we be able to get Sarina enrolled in a school? Are we going to go stir-crazy on a rock-sized island?

In the middle of one of our last suppers in the urbanized world, Mark looked up from his Carney’s chiliburger and asked, “Why are we going to Rarotonga?”

Carla shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”

We began to wonder why we hadn’t listened to our doubting friends back in January. But we couldn’t back out now. We’d told every business associate, every friend we’d ever made, as well as the whole world, via our blog,, about our excellent adventure. We had no choice.

On Saturday, June 21, we loaded 13 pieces of luggage — including eight suitcases, one backpack, a stroller, portable crib, diaper bag and infant car seat — into a taxi van, hopped into a second taxi and caravaned to LAX, where we boarded the 10:15 p.m. flight to Rarotonga, via Tahiti.

Twelve hours later, we touched down at the Rarotonga airport, which is just a simple airstrip across the road from the ocean and a small one-story building with a blue-and-white wooden sign that reads, “Welcome to the Cook Islands.” We were welcomed by a small group of men wearing floral batik shirts who strummed ukuleles near the immigration inspection line. As we found out later, we had just missed a four-day rainstorm, and now the blue sky went on forever, patched with just a few white fluffy clouds.

It only took about five minutes to wipe out any preconceived fantasies we had about island life. The shuttle that picked us up drove past a long stretch of petrol tanks, refineries and warehouses. We didn’t remember any of this from our first visit. Of course, they’ve always been here, but our idealized notion of Rarotonga had replaced our actual memories. Now that we’d come back, in a van that reeked of diesel exhaust, passing little houses on the side of the road with missing windows, rotting roofs, and torn curtains in lieu of doors, the previous six months of romanticizing flew from our heads, to be replaced by dread: What the fuck had we gotten ourselves into?

Our first impulse was to turn around and get the hell out of here. Our tickets are open-ended, which means we can leave anytime we feel like it. But we couldn’t do that — we had too many people counting on us to fulfill their fantasies. And worse, if we turned back now, the scoffers would never let us forget our folly. The humiliation would be excruciating.

The van dropped us off at the tiny bungalow we would temporarily stay in while we looked for a house. Mark dragged the luggage in, and it immediately started to rain. The sky was dark gray. The baby began to cry. A sleep-deprived, whiny Sarina asked over and over again if we could go to the wind-whipped beach.

Thirty minutes later the rain stopped and the sun popped through the clouds. Myna birds warbled and whistled, and roosters outside our window crowed. The baby was full of milk and sleeping soundly. We packed some water, apples, rice cakes and towels into a bag, and the four of us went to the beach. It was a beautiful day, and we had a whole year ahead of us.

Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair will be filing dispatches throughout their family’s year in the South Pacific.

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