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Another side of paradise quenches her thirst

MANGAIA, Cook Islands -- Gripping a mass of tangled vines, I struggle to pull myself toward a sinkhole in the ceiling of the cave. Daylight blasts through the hole, illuminating the daggers of coral skeleton I'm trying to avoid getting wedged between. The back of my shorts snag, and rip. It's like climbing the rope in gym class, but here, you don't want to fall.

One at a time, my friends -- fellow college students studying abroad -- emerge from the cave cut-up, muscles in spasm, and sweating madly. Everyone blinks in the Polynesian sun. We immediately go for the coconuts, throwing them on the ground, smashing them against one another, all in a fruitless attempt to quench our thirst. Our cave guide, Maui, cracks and peels open several skins, and everyone chugs the cloying milk. Well, everyone except me. It's Yom Kippur, and for some masochistic reason, I'm fasting. It would turn out it was a good thing I didn't eat that day.

We came to the Cook Islands on a sort-of educational field trip from our study-abroad base of Auckland, New Zealand. Part of the southern Cook chain, the island of Mangaia is geologically the oldest in the Pacific, infrequently visited by tourists, and devoid of the idyllic white sand beaches we had anticipated. In fact, it's mostly covered in red dirt and completely surrounded by a shallow reef. We assumed the weeklong trip, arranged by our college, Boston University, would be spring break- esque: sunbathing with a smattering of introduction to Maori customs. Instead, we stayed with host families who spoke little English and we participated in activities that back home would require liability waivers, medical forms, and helmets. To the adventurous among us, Mangaia was a welcome leap from our comfort zones. That is, until we got sick.

The first night of my homestay, my host dad asked if I'd like to go fishing. He did so by repeating the word "fish" and gesturing a wave motion with his hand. At dusk, we walked in silence down to the harbor. Several children splashing in the water laughed at me. "A girl is going fishing!" they giggled.

My host dad handed me a snorkel, mask, and fins. "You fish," he said. I looked down. I was wearing jeans and a white tank top, having assumed that fishing required a boat. The group of fishermen looked at me with half-smiles of doubt, so I took the mask and spit into it, a trick I learned the first day of scuba class to keep the lenses from fogging up. Then I clumsily shimmied down a rock face and swam out toward the South Pacific.

Three "vakas," or outrigger canoes, followed the swimming group of 10 about 1,000 feet offshore. I estimated the depth at 50 feet, although I could see an ominous blue vastness where a wall must have dropped off considerably. The visibility was spectacular, and schools of mackerel swam below us. I was given a tree branch. Attached to one end was a piece of string and a hook, along with a chunk of coconut bait. One of the fishermen released a coconut mash, forming a milky cloud that the mackerel swarmed to. Hovering above the cloud, kicking upside down in an awkward attempt to fight buoyancy, we positioned our lines in the feeding frenzy. After several shots to the surface with no fish in tow and a coating of saltwater in my lungs, a mackerel finally latched onto my line. After that I easily hooked three more -- enough to feed my host family dinner.

Back on the surface, the men cheered. My host dad wore a goofy, open-mouthed smile. "My girl!" he said, making sure all the men knew I was his guest. By now, the sky was completely dark and I was bobbing in the gentle waves and shivering. Host dad and I practically jogged back through the red dirt to his house, teeth chattering and stomachs screaming for food. But when we arrived back, a teenage girl on a motorbike was waiting for me. "You are Jen? Come with me. Your friend Sasha needs you in the hospital."

I found Sasha in the fetal position on a bench on the hospital porch. A metal bowl was on the ground and moths the size of monarch butterflies swarmed around her head. A fair-skinned man in his mid-20s (who I decided was a missionary) leaned against the door frame. After checking that Sasha was conscious, I asked him why she wasn't in a hospital cot. "They're all full," he said. "Lots of dengue fever lately." Before I could react, Sasha suddenly awoke and nearly choked herself with vomit and retching. She moaned, then managed a small laugh.

Our group leader couldn't be found. I gave Sasha a diluted electrolyte drink and a Maori woman gave me a pack of unlabeled pills, which she said would aid hydration. Two hours later our leader came with a pickup and transported Sasha to a communal sleeping hall, where she and several other ill friends spent the night.

By morning a third of the group was missing. My levelheaded friend Kali was so dehydrated after being sick that she had begun hallucinating. "I woke up at one point and thought I had died. I told Taina [our Maori liaison] that I was seeing things. She laughed and told me I was silly."

Those of us who were healthy or recovering eyed breakfast suspiciously. Fruit was washed in contaminated water, meats were undercooked, and cheese had been sitting in the sun for hours. Over a handful of crackers, I told my friend Ben about the fishing experience, figuring he'd be impressed.

"I went coconut crab hunting last night," Ben said dryly. I asked about coconut crabs. "Largest terrestrial arthropod in the world," he said. "They crack open coconuts with their claws and are known to attack humans. And there we were, walking through the forest at midnight with crappy flashlights, tripping over dead coral, and hoping not to get our toes taken off by these things." Ben brought out his prize from a bag: a humongous, bluish crab resembling a giant tarantula on steroids. After its eight big legs were wrapped many times over in ultra-thick rubber bands, we posed with it for pictures.

We spent the morning weaving brooms and baskets, stringing orchids together for leis, and learning to shake our hips while stabilizing our upper bodies (a failure for most of us). By lunch, two more members of the group were sick. Matty, the ever-excitable photographer, sat on a mattress with his head between his hands. "I can't deny it anymore," he said. "It's coming."

The rest of the week was a series of misadventures. A hike to the island's inner volcanic region was foiled by dehydration and general exhaustion. Our exploration of a white-washed beach turned bloody when Sasha sliced her palm open on the reef. We weren't a bunch of lazy American kids -- just the opposite. But in Mangaia, we were unprepared, sick, and isolated in a way that made us feel a bit paranoid.

On the final night, with everyone more or less recovered, the villagers invited us to a kaikai feast where food is cooked in an "umu," or earth oven. Meats and vegetables were wrapped in banana tree leaves and lowered into the ground in a large metal cage, then covered in layers of palm fronds and left to cook by the heat of hot stones for several hours. Our host families draped us in tie-dyed sarongs, floral garlands, and bead strands. We all ate the smoked food, which included the surprise of free crabs that had crawled into the oven from underground.

Earlier that day, the women had been "fitted" for coconut bras. After dinner we were instructed to change into them as part of our costumes. Everyone from the village congregated at Babe's Bar (the only bar on the island) to watch us sing and dance. By this point, I felt like I had rocks in my throat and an oncoming fever. The fishing experience eventually led to bronchitis, but that night, I fended off the pain. We all shook our bodies wildly to fast percussion beats as the locals laughed and clapped. Young boys swung torches in blurry fire dances, and the tropical sound of ukuleles hung sweetly in the humid air.

Upon arriving on Mangaia, I thought that these people had it better than I did. One lazy, late afternoon, after dousing myself with fresh water in the backyard, I wrapped a gauzy, line-dried sarong around my body and tucked a gardenia behind my ear. While feeding piglets against the backdrop of giant palms and a turquoise ocean, this simple, uncomplicated life seemed ideal. I wore that sarong on the flight home. But when we landed in Auckland, I felt ridiculous and acutely self-aware. I immediately changed into jeans.

Jennifer Schwartz can be reached at jensch72@gmail.com.

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