Monthly Archives: March 2012

Relaxation, Island Style

The Cook Islands, an independent nation in the South Pacific near French Polynesia, is a unique place–quite unlike any island where we have lived or worked. It is what tropical travel used to be like before the arrival of infinity pools, big dollar casinos, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses, and slickly

View From The Patio of Our Beach Bungalow in the Cook Islands.

packaged lounge shows. The place is so low key the largest hotel is only two stories high and most people, ourselves included, prefer to stay in modest bungalows or cottages situated on the oceanfront.

In the Cook Islands you drag yourself out of bed in the morning, put on a bathing suit and flip-flops, and walk (or motorbike) to one of the little mom-and-pop food shacks on the beach. You eat at picnic tables on the sand, enjoying fish brought in on boats just that morning, while sharing stories with others at the table, and those others are often locals as there are not a large number of tourists. The locals are of Polynesian descent. They are extremely proud of their heritage and culture and are trying to maintain it in the presence of powerful Western influences—rock music, cable TV, and the ubiquitous Internet.

For example, many women dress in sarongs, men still wear those flowery short-sleeve shirts you see for sale all over Hawaii, and they prefer to speak their traditional Polynesian language–Cook Island Maori—rather than English even though everyone is fluent in both. Boys and young men still climb palm trees to harvest coconuts and make them into food, baskets, and fishing nets, and they still fish on foot in the shallow, clear blue lagoons. The things we often associate with high-end tropical island resorts are mostly absent–no parasailing, no jet skis, no tennis courts, no golf, no swim-up bars–just lazing on the beach, sitting on the porch reading, going out to eat, and (there is a lot of this) enjoying beer and rum drinks in the evening.

We did a lot of snorkeling–good coral, lots of colorful tropical fish–and we did go to the Cook Island equivalent of a luau with dancing, singing, and fish barbecued over an open flame. We also did a lot of hiking since the center of the island is mountainous and filled with scenic jungle walks–it looks a bit like the site where they filmed the movie Jurassic Park.

The Cook Islands today are what Hawaii must have been like 50 or 60 years ago before the arrival of Sheraton, Hilton, and the Intercontinental. I do not doubt it will change dramatically in the coming years (as I am sure it already has) because of the dominance of Western culture and the financial lure of large-scale tourism. But, right now, the Cook Islands is certainly is one of the least stressful, most enjoyable, and most beautiful places we have ever been.

(Read more about our travels to the South Pacific in my travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide to Traveling Without Paying.)

A Tasmanian Toilet Tale

(Dear Readers.  Rather than take the six-week hiatus I had planned I have decided to share some experiences from my Pacific Rim odyssey.  While not related to the theme of this blog–working vacations–I hope you find them fun to read.  Enjoy.)
The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, capital of the Australian state of Tasmania, is an architectural gem–a glass and granite structure hanging over the Derwent River just a few miles from downtown. It has been called a “must-see” by Lonely Planet and is a top-rated attraction on Trip Advisor.  Based on this lofty praise, we just had to give it a go.
The collection is, to say the least, uber-experimental, and the museum’s goal is to  challenge and upend your comfortable notion of exactly what constitutes art.  I was okay with the tattooed pigs and the cement mixer made of stained glass, but I have to say I started to lose it when I entered a room containing the jewel of the show, an installation called Cloaca (Latin for sewer or toilet) by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye.
Cloaca is a giant Rube Goldberg contraption built to model the human digestive system. Museum staff shove junk food, such as burgers and fries, into the end of the machine that looks like a garbage disposal.  The food is chopped into small bits and is gravity fed into a washing machine-like component filled with stomach acid that spins and churns the pulp.  From there it travels through a set of curved PVC pipes containing digestive bacteria that break down the particles  even further. Finally, about one hour after “eating,” Cloaca exudes big piles of shit onto the floor through a round hole in its bottom–real, honest-to-god, lifelike brown turds that are for sale in the gift shop right next to rolls of toilet paper emblazoned  with the artist’s name on each sheet.
About now you may be scratching your head saying “Huh!”  But Delvoye has anticipated this and is ready for you. The show contains a 30-minute video entitled, appropriately enough, “Is This Shit Art?”   There is a serious analysis by Christie staff on why Cloaca’s shit is a smart artistic purchase and should increase in value–after all, unless the machine gets diarrhea there is only a limited amount of product.  The video also includes a group of New York/London art cognoscenti explaining to bewildered museum attendees, in lofty language, the visionary nature of Delvoye’s work.
Count me among the bewildered.