A couple of days after Christmas, I decided to explore the Cook Islands’ National Museum and Library, located on a side street in Rarotonga’s main town of Avarua. As I veered off the touristy main road that looped the island, I met few vehicles and even fewer people: the only sound came from the open doors of the nearby National Auditorium, where a man and woman were rehearsing a Polynesian song to the audiotaped chords of a ukelele.
When I arrived at the museum, I noticed its holiday hours posted on the door – open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., December 28. Underneath, in hastily scrawled felt pen: “Closed 10 a.m.-noon today.” Never mind, I thought, I can go for lunch and come back later.
Just as I was turning to leave, a man came out the door. “Oh,” I said, “I didn’t think you were open,” and took a few steps towards the entrance.
The man pulled the door firmly behind him and checked to see that it was locked. “We’re closed for the entire holiday season.”
“Yes, but the sign says….”
He peered at it briefly and shrugged. “We’re closed for the entire holiday season.”
During our two weeks on Rarotonga, we often experienced Cook Islanders’ fluid relationship with time. Many local businesses had opted to close from well before Christmas until well after January 1, in spite of the influx of travellers with money to spend on souvenirs, restaurant meals, and tours. Not only that, but these closures were often unposted, or even subject to change. Our first week on Rarotonga, I wondered if the Saturday market would run on Boxing Day. “Of course it will,” one of the locals told me. “The market isn’t run by the government.” What I didn’t realize was that the market was only open until noon…or thereabouts. Some vendors were packing up by 11 a.m.”We need time to start cooking for Sunday,” one woman told me, as I hastily purchased a sarong.
The next week, I was surprised to see vendors set up at the market space on Thursday, New Year’s Eve day. “That’s because the market won’t be open this Saturday, since it’s the day after New Year’s,” a passerby told me. But on Saturday, the market was busy as usual, but only until noon…or thereabouts.
Even the two-bus, national public transportation system had a complex operating schedule, and we had to listen hard to the driver and compare notes afterwards to be sure we had the information straight. “Tonight, the anti-clockwise bus stops running at 4:30. The last clockwise bus leaves Cook’s Corner at 11 p.m. On Christmas Eve, no buses after 4 p.m. On Christmas Day, no buses run. Sunday, the clockwise bus runs between 10 a.m.and noon, and 2-4 in the afternoon. Monday, we get a day off. Back to normal on Tuesday.”
Although Rarotonga’s relationship with time could make a schedule-bound North American fume, we learned to flow along with the Islanders. After all, there were always good reasons for the closures. A business had enjoyed a particularly profitable year, so had decided to take some time off. Family was in town. There were feasts to eat and beaches to lounge on. In short, instead of letting time dictate to them, the Islanders were telling time how they wanted to spend it. And couldn’t we all use a little more of that kind of assertiveness in our lives?