Friday, June 4 2001 03:48 13 Sivan 5761
Not Too Many Cooks
(June 4) - A young Israeli couple enjoy life on an unspoiled group of islands in the Pacific Ocean.
There are many people out there who at one point or another have thought about "throwing in the towel" and moving to some remote island in the Pacific so that they could spend the rest of their lives under a coconut tree, sipping margueritas.
It's not a bad idea, especially considering the stress of everyday life in Israel these days, but how many people do you know who have followed through on such a whimsical fantasy? Of course, there are the hordes of Israelis traveling the world over, from Katmandu to Phuket, from Goa to Rio de Janeiro. But, they are usually your run-of-the-mill, post-army backpackers who travel for a year or two before heading back home.
There is one couple, though, that doesn't fall within this category and has gone a bit further than most of us would ever have dared to dream.
Israella Korlender, 28, originally from Nahariya, and her husband Eyal, 36, from Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, sold everything they owned, including their house, said good-bye to friends and family, and found their way to the remotest of remote places - the Cook Islands.
The quasi-independent Pacific nation-state (Cook Islanders chose self-government in free association with New Zealand in 1965) is made up of 15 islands and atolls scattered over some 2 million sq. km. of the southwest Pacific Ocean. They are located pretty much in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn. Samoa, Tonga and French Polynesia (Tahiti) count among their closest neighbors, yet they are still separated by hundreds and thousands of kilometers of ocean.
These little land dots which appear among a sea of blue in atlases are a four-hour plane ride to the northeast of Auckland, New Zealand.
With this in mind, the first question that comes to mind is how does one actually end up in a place like the Cook Islands? And why?
"This is a good question," Israella Korlender says from her garden on Rarotonga, the main island where she and her husband run a lodge. "I really don't have an answer." But, of course, she provides one.
"A few years ago I saw a program on Israel television about Micronesia and thought it would be nice to go on vacation somewhere different," Israella says.
"So, I bought a map of the Pacific Islands and started to look - Micronesia, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia - and then I saw places I had heard of, like Tahiti and Samoa. But I stopped when I came across the Cook Islands. I don't know why, but I bought the Lonely Planet book on the Cooks, read about them and then decided I wanted to go to Rarotonga."
"It was more or less out of the blue," Eyal adds. In true kibbutz style, he is wearing an Israeli-made Gali sports shirt and sandals, sipping a cup of coffee.
The Korlenders arrived as tourists, planning to stay for only a few weeks. But, one thing led to another and before they knew it, they were investing in the Cook Islands and thinking about the long-term.
"It started out of curiosity and then got more serious," says Eyal. "One day, we walked into the Cook Islands Investment Board and began to ask questions about starting a business.
"Everyone said buying property here would be a good investment," he adds.
Three years later, the Korlenders are still in Rarotonga and are now the owners of the Cook Islands Lodge. It's a hard business to get into, but so far they seem content with working seven days a week and shuttling back and forth from the airport twice a day, usually in the wee early-morning hours, to pick up guests and to advertise their budget accommodations.
"I didn't think it was going to be so hard," Eyal says. "But I like the fact that we meet different kinds of people."
Given the continued political unrest in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, the Cook Islands are fast becoming a preferred travel destination of the Asia-Pacific region.
With their sandy white beaches, clear lagoons and low-lying coral atolls, the islands are certainly a tourist's paradise. And the statistics are there to prove it.
According to the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, approximately 72,900 tourists visited the islands in 2000, a record high, compared with 55,600 visitors the previous year. Rather impressive figures considering the country's overall population is under 14,000, with more than half that number living on the main island of Rarotonga.
Captain James Cook, after whom the islands were named, explored much of the island group in 1773 and 1777, but never sighted Rarotonga.
Rather, that honor fell to the mutineers of the infamous HMS Bounty, which touched upon the island in 1789. The Cooks remained in British hands until 1900 when they were annexed to New Zealand. For decades they were used as a base for traders and whalers.
They also became a popular site for missionaries, who successfully converted the indigenous Polynesians to Christianity. Today, the tiny islands are home to Protestants, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and various other independent groups like the Baha'i.
When it's not religion, it's tourism that sets the tone for life on the islands, along with other economic activities, such as agriculture, pearl farming and offshore financial services.
For most people, the Cook Islands are a perfect stopover between New Zealand and Los Angeles. For others, it's a popular honeymoon spot.
"It was a great experience - the beaches, the people, the food, the atmosphere, everything," says Yael Haigar, an Israeli working at the Consulate in Sydney, talking about her honeymoon in the Cooks with her husband, Sasha. "We definitely plan on going back."
Despite their growing reputation, the islands are not always first choice for the post-wedding vacation.
"I didn't pick the Cook Islands myself," says Eli Bloch, an Israeli broker based in New York, about his recent honeymoon there. "We wanted to go to Tahiti, but the whole island was booked solid."
The majority of the Korlenders' guests so far have been from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. Only a few Israelis have made their way to their lodge, including a cameraman from Channel 2 and the Cultural Attachˇ to Australia. Other Israelis, of course, have visited the island on vacation, but only one for work.
Israel's Ambassador to New Zealand, Lydia Choukron, was in the Cook Islands last August to meet with the Cooks' prime minister and foreign minister, and attend their Constitution Day celebrations. Although New Zealand is technically responsible for the Cook Islands' foreign and defense affairs, it doesn't oppose the island state's having low-level diplomatic relations with other countries. That's why the Cook Islands have consulates in several countries, like Australia, Norway, the US and New Zealand, but not embassies. Similarly, there are several countries with some diplomatic representation in Rarotonga, including French, German and New Zealand consulates. Although the Israeli Embassy is not officially accredited to the Cooks, diplomats continue to visit the country from time to time to promote bilateral relations.
In addition to the Cook Islands, the Israeli Embassy is New Zealand is responsible for Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
The embassy in Australia takes care of the rest of the Pacific, including Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Papua New Guinea.
Israel takes its relations with Oceania seriously, sending many people each year to Israel to participate in a number of professional training courses in the fields of public health, environmental management, agriculture, and community and educational development.
According to the Israeli Embassy in Canberra, Australia, some 50 people each year are sent to Israel as part of the Foreign Ministry's international cooperation program, known by its Hebrew acronym, Mashav. This program is considered a key aspect in strengthening bilateral relations and cooperation in the Pacific, as well as in other parts of the world, and often pays off when seeking support in the international arena.
Take Micronesia, for example, a country that has long participated in Mashav activities. Since establishing relations with Israel in 1987, it has been one of Israel's most reliable supporters at the United Nations. To further confirm its support, Micronesian President Leo A. Falcam stopped in Israel on his way back from the UN Millennium Summit last September to meet with President Moshe Katsav, former prime minister Ehud Barak and MKs.
"I have assurances from the president that Micronesia will continue to support Israel," Ambassador to Australia Gabby Levy said recently upon returning from an official trip to the Pacific.
Unfortunately, not all the Pacific countries have been expressing their support in the same way.
On a separate trip to Papua New Guinea last month to host a reception for Israel's Independence Day, Levy met with the country's prime minister, foreign minister and other senior government officials, to discuss this issue of support.
"I expressed my disappointment with the way that Papua New Guinea has been voting at the United Nations in recent years," the ambassador said. "Their record was more favorable to Israel five or six years ago, but recently they have been voting with the Non-Aligned Movement against Israel on all the UN resolutions concerning the Middle East," he added.
Established in 1961, the Non-Aligned Movement has become the main forum representing the interests of the developing world. Today, there are 113 members from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Together, they form an influential bloc in the international arena, given that there is a total of 189 member states in the UN.
Although close links with New Zealand have prevented the Cook Islands from having representation in the UN, islanders derive a number of benefits from their free association, including New Zealand citizenship and the right to go and come at will from both New Zealand and Australia.
The same goes for foreigners like Israella and Eyal Korlender, who after five years are entitled to permanent-resident status in the Cook Islands, and thus, to the same benefits.
According to the Cook Islands Minister for Immigration, the Korlenders are the only Israelis, or Jews for that matter, to have settled on the island.
"I'm here because it's a safe and quiet country, and the people are nice and friendly," says Israella.
"I could see myself here for another 20, 30, 40 years. But, you never know where life will take you."
©Copyright 2001, Jerusalem Post