Contemporary Cook Islanders are a thoroughly 21st-century people. The majority of the islanders live in one-storey bungalows or houses, rented, leased or built on family land. Most people are in regular employment or run their own businesses and earn a reasonable salary (though wages are much lower than in Australia and New Zealand - one of the main reasons for the steady population drain over the past 40 years). The vast majority of children attend school regularly and receive a decent standard of education, and the literacy rate is astonishingly high (somewhere around 99%). Most Cook Islanders are bilingual, with a fluent knowledge of English and Cook Islands Maori. All islanders have access to the national health system, either on the main island of Rarotonga or in New Zealand, or in small clinics on the outer islands.

The further you move away from Rarotonga, the more obvious traditional Cook Islands culture becomes. On many of the outer islands, especially Palmerston and the Northern Group islands, the outside world (and Rarotonga) still feels a long, long way away. You'll find many families there essentially living a subsistence lifestyle - growing and harvesting their own crops, fishing in traditional outrigger canoes, and practising traditional crafts such as basket-weaving and 'ei (traditional garland) making.

But whichever island you're on, family still exerts the most important influence on the way Cook Islanders live their daily lives. Every Cook Island Maori is part of a family clan, which is connected in some way to the ancient system of chiefs - a system that has survived for centuries in an unbroken line. Most people can relate their genealogy over several generations - often in truly bewildering detail - and it's more than just a matter of family pride. The traditional systems of land tenure and title inheritance rely entirely on family genealogy; and as Cook Islands families are generally huge - and the connections, crossovers and intermarriages between families can be astonishingly complicated -it pays to know exactly how you fit into the family tree. Extended families are an everyday feature of most Cook Islanders' lives; you'll often find children living with grandparents, or nieces and nephews with aunts and uncles, and long-term adoption between families is fairly commonplace.

"Another major influence on contemporary life is undoubtedly the church. Since the missionaries arrived in the mid-18th century, Cook Islanders have embraced Christianity with an enthusiasm rarely equalled anywhere else in the South Pacific. Many people regularly attend church on a Sunday, and often the odd prayer meeting or Bible reading during the week on top of that. You only have to pay a visit to a Sunday service to realise just how important it is to the islanders, who all turn out in their Sunday finery and often spend much of the day in hymn practice and Bible study. Even if you're not a believer, remember that you're a visitor in a devoutly Christian country - be modest and respectful in dress wherever possible, and make sure you keep beachwear firmly confined to the beach. Women should refer to pi73 for further tips on appropriate dress.

Friendliness, hospitality and respect for others are traits that are highly valued in Cook Islands culture. It's important to be courteous, especially towards old people and children - rudeness will definitely get you nowhere. A greeting and a smile before anything else will often smooth the way - but don't stress yourself too much about behaving correctly in the Cook Islands, especially on Rarotonga. Tiptoeing around them will only bring on howls of laughter and encourage them to have you on

The last concept that you'll have to get to grips with is 'Cook Islands time'. Perhaps it's the tropical climate, or the relaxed South Seas lifestyle, or the fact that you can circumnavigate the main island in less than an hour - but the Cook Islanders' attitude to time is rather different to the one you might be used to back home. If you're genuinely in a hurry (ie catching a plane) it can be extremely frustrating, but you'll get there faster if you learn to take it in your stride. So sit back, order another smoothie, and make sure you book your taxi half an hour earlier than you think you'll need it. Come to think of it, better make that an hour...

(Oliver Berry)

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