I was paddling in the huge lagoon of Aitutaki,
which was green sea ringed by tiny islands and a reef that was like a
fortification made of coral and sea foam. An old man fishing from a dugout
canoe called out to me.
"Why are you paddling there, listing with those
I was listening to Chuck Berry.
"Because I am unhappy," I said.
"Where is your wife?" he yelled.
Then the wind took the rest of his talk away,
and it also separated our boats.
I had come to this lagoon in the
Cook group from the Marquesas for a reason. The Marquesas were the dispersal
point, from about 300 A.D. onward, for people who populated the three corners of
the Polynesian triangle. They sailed to the top of it, the Hawaiian Islands, to
the Cooks and beyond, to New Zealand; and to Easter Island. No one is certain
why the Marquesans embarked on these long and difficult voyages, some of them
over two thousand miles. The people were skilled in the arts of warfare,
gardening, navigation and boat-building. They had found every island of any size
in the eastern Pacific, bringing to it their arts, their gods, their chiefs,
their domestic animals and their favourite vegetables. They worked in stone,
they made tools, they wove ingenious baskets, but they did not make pots. they
civilized these islands with a peculiarly harmonious culture that combined a
reverence for flowers, a fondness for music and dancing, and a predilection for
Letting these old discoverers
determine my itinerary, I had decided to leave the Marquesas to paddle in the
Cook Islands. After that I planned to paddle around Easter Island, and finally
Hawaii. It was a short flight from Papeete to Rarotonga, the main island in the
Cook group. I arrived late at night in a cold drizzle and was watched by heavy
Maori-looking people with big fleshy faces, large and not very dexterous hands
and bulky bodies. they looked like unfinished statues and were handsome in he
same sculptural way, with broad open faces and big feet. Every adult, whether
manor woman, had a rugby player's physique.
"This is camping equipment?"
"It's a boat." I had checked "camping
equipment" on my arrival form.
"Is it clean or dirty?"
"You can go."
Two different New Zealanders, seeing
my boat bags and my gear, said sarcastically, "You travel light!" But the Cook
Islander heaving them off the baggage cart said, "My woman weighs more than
It was like landing at an airstrip
in the middle of Africa - one plane, three small buildings, few formalities,
only one person around, seeing to everything. It was easy to get information
because there was so little to know. It was nearly midnight. I asked the only
person there whether I could fly the next day to Aitutaki.
"The first flight's at eight
o'clock. I can put you on it."
The speaker was Mr Skew, a New
Zealander. He told me about the political system, which seemed simple enough.
Then he asked where I was staying. I saw the name of a hotel on the wall, and
said, "There." He drove me to the place ("And that's the Cook Islands Parliament
House," Mr Skew said, as we passed a very small wooden shed beyond the airport).
Viv, the dour New Zealand clerk at the hotel, at first pretended she wasn't glad
to see me, and then said, "We have plenty of rooms. Do you want a sea view?"
"I'm getting up at six." It was now twelve-thirty.
"You should get one of our cheap
rooms," Viv said. the room had a Soviet look, chipped paint, plastic chairs,
easily-tipped-over lamps and a blocked drain in the sink. And it was barely
furnished. I had last stayed in a room like this in Wellington, but this made
pretty Polynesia seem chilly and frugal. The Cooks were still informally linked
to New Zealand, but the smug and self-denying Calvinism of Kiwi-land was at odds
with everything Polynesian, and the Kiwis themselves looked rather out of place
here, so beaky and pale, with short pants and knobby knees.
"I'm from Aitutaki myself," a Cook Islander
said to me the next morning at the airport. He had a strong New Zealand
accent. His name was Michael Rere.
"There's supposed to be a great canoe-maker in
Aitutaki," I said.
"Probably my father."
"Is his name Rere?"
"Yes, but they call him 'Blackman," because
he's always out fishing. That makes him black."
Cook Islanders were standing in a
light rain, holding garlands and crowns of flowers, watching passengers
disembark from a flight that had just arrived from Auckland, watching lots of
bundled-up and brightly dressed people hurrying through puddles towards the
arrival building. Fat people greeting even fatter arrivals - happy families.
Inter-island planes began to arrive.
Besides the high volcanic island of Rarotonga, the most populous (10,000) and
developed, there are fourteen other islands in the Cook group, ranging from
coral atolls like Suwarrow (with six inhabitants) to Mangaia, which is nearly as
large as Raro. Small planes flew to most of these islands. Aitutaki had been
recommended to me as a friendly and pretty place, and so I decided to go there
with my collapsible boat.
A woman was yapping in Maori, and
among her unintelligible mutterings I caught the phrase, no place like home.
That same hour I was flying in
sunshine over the lagoon at Aitutaki, looking down at its wonderful
configuration of reefs and motus, and after lunch I was paddling there.
It was then the old man called out to me, "Where is your wife?"
I spent the night at a small seedy house by the
shore called Tom's. Camping was forbidden, because all the land was spoken
for and constantly being quarrelled over, subdivided and renegotiated. Mr and
Mrs Tom were islanders, they were out but their daughter had shown me
around. The walls of the house were plastered with religious pictures, and
copies of The Book of Mormon were lying about, bristling rather
ominously with bookmarks and dog-eared pages.
"You can cook here," Winnie said, showing me a
greasy stone. "You can put your food here." She opened a dusty cabinet. "You
can share this bathroom," and she shoved a plastic curtain aside, "with the
But what I felt most keenly was the absence of
beer. And even if I found some in town, how could I guzzle it in front of
this pious family of Mormons?
It was next to the lagoon, so I stayed while,
and I became friendly with the three fearfully solemn evangelists who could
usually be found conferring on the porch, their black ties dangling - a Cook
Islander, a Maori from Auckland, and Elder Lambert, from Salt Lake City.
"I'm from Massachusetts," I said on
first meeting them, and when they gave me blank looks I added, "which is not far
The big booby face of the islander
was in marked contrast to the consternation on the face of Elder Lambert.
"And you know who was born in
Sharon, Vermont," I said.
"Who was born there?" the Maori
After an uneasy pause, the cook
Islander laughed. "I doon know eet!"
Elder Lambert said, "Joseph Smith
was born in Sharon, Vermont."
They were so transfixed by the
fanciful details of their absurd millenialism (Jesus's visit to the Mayans in
Guatemala, golden tablets buried in new York, the prophecies of the Angel Moroni,
God encouraging polygamy, and so forth) that they had lost sight of the simplest
facts, such as where the founder of their Church, their prophet, was born.
I urged them to read No Man Knows
My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, by Fawn Brodie, and they said I
should look into The Book of Mormon.
"I will," I said. "I want to read
about the Lost Tribes of Israel sailing into the Pacific."
This made Elder Lambert hitch his
chair forward and begin pointedly tapping the air with his finger.
"In the first chapter of Nephi, Lehi went east
from Jerusalem. His descendants are in the Pacific. And in the last chapter
of Alma -sixty-three- Hagoth and many others built ships and sailed into
'the Western Sea.' those are the very words. The Pacific, in other words.
They were Nephites."
"Sailed from where?"
"America. Central America." Tap-tap-tap went
his finger." "'A narrow neck of land.'"
"And they made it to Polynesia."
"Yes. The Polynesians are descendants of these
The Maori was beaming. His expression said:
"What about the Melanesians?"
"Sons of Ham."
"What about the Micronesians?"
Elder Lambert narrowed his eyes at me. He said,
After all this disputation I needed
air. I thought: You had to admire Joseph Smith for trying to come up with a
home-grown faith - it was the most Americanized religion. (Christopher Columbus
and the American Revolution made appearances in The Book of Mormon.) but
Mormonism was like junk food: it was American to the core and it looked all
right, but it was our version of food, and it wasn't until after you had
swallowed some that you felt strange.
I strolled into Aitutaki's town,
Arutanga. It was a very small town - hardly a town at all, more a village, and
its small size and its dullness kept it pure. It was the post office, two shops,
four churches, a muddy harbor, a school, some houses. the shops sold only canned
goods: fish, beans, corned beef, cookies, crackers - the South Pacific standbys.
Poo, the postmaster, was sitting on the post office steps. He told me he
disliked Rarotonga for being too busy and stressful.
"Are you busy?"
"Not really," he said.
Eleanor at Big Jay's Take-Away fried a
fishburger for me, a chunk of wahoo in a bun, and said she had lived her
whole life on the island, but that she was trying to make a go of this
"Are you busy?"
"Not really," she said.
It began to rain very hard, and walking back to
Tom's I had to take shelter under a big tree. A girl of about twenty, who
had been headed out of town on her motorbike, was doing the same thing. The
rain crashed through the branches and leaves.
"You mind this rain?"
"Not really," she said.
But it let up after an hour, and the
sun came out, and I went paddling again. On the beach, near Tom's, I met
enormous women Apii and Emma. they looked elderly, but they were exactly my own
age. they referred to me as a papa'a - a white man.
"What if I were black - what would you call
"Then you would be a papa'a kere kere."
"What if I were Chinese?"
"You would be tinito."
"What if I were from another island?"
"You would be manuiti - a stranger."
I asked them whether there were community
activities on the island. They said there were the churches and sometimes
there were festivals.
"We used to have a cinema in Aitutaki, but
videos are better," Emma said.
"Do you think that videos from America make the
young people violent?" I asked.
Emma said, "Maybe. but the young people in
Aitutaki are all right. the problem is with these Cook Island kids who come
home from the holidays. They live in New Zealand and they learn bad habits.
They are troublemakers. We call them 'street kids.' They give a bad example.
Cook Islanders go bad in New Zealand."
"I like watching videos," Apii said. "Most
people in Aitutaki have a video machine. We have had them for four years. Or
"I have seen some," I admitted. "What about
"We have," Emma said. "One called The Tigress -
something like that."
"Naked papa'as," I said. They laughed.
"Do young people watch them?"
"No. Only adults," Apii said. "men like them."
"Women find them silly," Emma said.
I asked, "Why do you think men like them?"
"They get ideas. They like to watch. And
sometimes" - Emma raised her large hands to her face and giggled behind them
- "sometimes they end up."
"What does that mean, 'end up'?"
"They end up doing what they are seeing," Apii
"Because the blue movies make them hungry,"
We were standing under some palm
trees. It began to rain again, but still they shifted themselves and said they
had to go. before they left, I gave them some chocolate.
"I would rather have nuts," Emma
said, and laughed.
The next day I got tired of the
Mormons and the tiny mildewed house, and I moved to a bungalow at a lodge
another mile up the road, but also on the lagoon. Not long after I moved in, I
switched on my short-wave radio and, searching for world news, I heard a
I am a little incredulous still,
that I am the representative of Her Majesty the Queen in New Zealand -
It was Dame Cath, whom I had met in
Fiji, who had made herself famous in New Zealand by calling one of her political
enemies "a fuckwit." She was back in Auckland, and still harping with false
modesty about carrying out the Queen's wishes.
- and that the daughter of poor
Scottish migrants should be standing here today, is testimony to -
I switched the thing off and
somewhere in the palms a cockatoo shrieked.
That day I paddled to the edge of
the reef, a place marked Nukuroa on my chart, where a father and son were
Toupe, the father, said, "I can only
live here in Aitutaki. It is small. Rarotonga is big. If you have a small place
you have few people. but in a big place you get Samoans, Tongans, and all
different people. I don't like that."
I pointed to one of the little
islands south of us. "Do you call that a motu?"
Then I pointed to Aitutaki, which was low and
green and glimmering in the sunshine. "Is that a motu?"
"No. that is enua."
Enua was land. Fenua in Tahitian.
Vanua in Fijian. An island was a little parcel in the sea. It was
something you could see the whole of in a glance. But land was something
else - it had a sense of home, it had size, it was divided, it contained
more than one family. I asked Toupe for a definition.
"Enua is not an island. It is a small land," he
said, and then he asked "Are you married?"
"That's a long story," I said.
"But where is your wife?"
"That's what I mean."
"Not with you?" He was very persistent.
"No," aI said.
"That is bad." He looked genuinely annoyed.
"You will go with girls from bars."
"Not a chance," I said. "I am too old."
"They like older men."
"I am not interested."
Anyway, where were these girls?
where were the bars, for that matter? They were mentioned in Tahiti, too. I
never saw them. In Taiohae in Nuku Hiva one night a man said to me, All the boys
have gone to the bar to pick up girls. I did not see any bar in Taiohae that had
a woman in it. Fast women were muttered about in Fiji. What a shame - all the
prostitutes, people said. I looked and did not see a single one. Rarotonga was
reputed to be a hot place. You could have fooled me. It was jolly, but in a
hearty unambiguous way. Bar girls were mentioned in Nuku'alofa, in Tonga. there
were two bars, I looked, no one. I never saw anything vicious on the streets or
bars of Polynesia, and my only brush with the local libido was in the Trobriands,
where I had sometimes been woken with a drunken cry, Mister Paul, you want a
girl! but I usually assumed it was a clumsy attempt to rob me and always went
back to sleep.
Before I left Toupe I asked him
about sharks. Yes, he said, there were plenty of them in the lagoon. I showed
him the four-foot spear I kept beside the cockpit of my kayak.
"That will do nothing to the sharks
we have," he said. "They are bigger than your boat."
That gave me pause. My boat was
almost sixteen feet long. On the other hand, Aitutaki was famous for not having
any dogs on it. No one had an explanation for this, but I was glad in any case,
because Polynesian dogs were bad-tempered scavengers. It was as though they knew
that human beings were not to be trusted: and that the fate of all dogs was to
be cooked and eaten. I went back to my bungalow that day and found six ripe
mangoes on my table. Somehow the two fat ladies, Apii and Emma, had found out
where I was staying and had brought the fruit to me.
My intention was to paddle to the
motus. Because it was forbidden by custom for any stranger to stay overnight
on them, these involved round trips of anywhere from eight to twenty miles. but
I had to be prepared for emergencies. I might get stuck on a motu if
there was a storm. I bought food at the local shops - beans, sardines, raisins,
cucumbers, bread - and set off, launching into the shallow lagoon. there was no
local market. The meat in the shops was canned, and one store sold frozen new
Zealand lamb and mutton.
"What about chickens? don't you raise
An islander said, "We have wild chickens."
"Do you eat them?"
"Sometimes. But they are too tough."
I loved the expression wild
At low tide great bristling shelves
of coral were exposed in the lagoon, and fighting the wind I was sometimes blown
onto the spikes. then I had to get out and disengage my boat and tramp away,
pulling it carefully, before getting in. I always wore reef shoes in Aitutaki
for this reason. After a few days the rubber bottom of the boat was terribly
gouged, but I had no leaks.
The skipping fish seemed to be
stirred by low tide, too, and they sometimes surfaced in a silver sheet -
hundreds of sardine-sized fish - shimmering seventy-five across my bow, dancing
on their tails, and into the distance, a lovely sight. One day, making for a
little motu called Paau at the edge of the eastern edge of the reef, I
realized that I was low on drinking-water. If I happened to become stranded on
Papau I would have no water at all, and would have to rely on the coconuts I
might knock down (and that was never easy). Spotting a village called Tautu
marked on my chart, on the east side of Aitutaki, I paddled there and went
ashore. Two naked boys watched me drag my boat onto the sand.
"What is that?"
"That's my boat," I said.
They laughed. The kayak did not look like any
boat they had ever seen.
I walked up a path and over a jungly
hill and found some houses. there was no one home at any of them, though the
houses looked cared-for and the gardens well tended. On the veranda of one of
the empty houses, a washer was going - a wash-tub, which was open and agitating
clothes, this way and that, shlip-shlop, shlip-shlop, with a laboring
motor. It was a sound from my past, my mother's washer going most of the day, it
seemed - all that distance to hear that evocative noise and recover a memory of
early childhood. Farther along the road, I saw an islander. I said I needed some
water. He pointed to a house. A white man came out, followed by a small grubby
"What is it?" the man asked in what was perhaps
a New Zealand accent. He seemed tetchy.
"I wonder if you could give me some
Without a word, he took my bottle and went into
the house. then he was back, handing it to me, again in silence.
"I came by kayak," I said. "I saw this village
on the map. My boat is on the beach."
He simply stared at me, without any interest.
"Have you lived here long?" I asked.
"You must have seen some dramatic changes," I
He pressed his lips together, then said, "No
paved roads then."
Yet I had not seen any paved roads even now.
"this was all jungle," he said.
Wasn't it still jungle, except for the odd
"that kind of thing," he said.
I said, "Do the high prices bother you?"
This seemed to irritate him.
"It's all relative, isn't it? he said
"That it costs three dollars for a cucumber?"
"You learn to live with high prices," he said,
and now he was cross, though I could not explain why. "Just like you learn
to live with low prices. You go to Australia" - perhaps he was an
Australian? - "and the prices are low, and you learn to live with them. And
you come back and the prices are high and you learn to live with them.
I said, "I suppose if you have a garden you can
reduce some of your costs."
"A garden? he said, sneering in
incredulity. "Do you know how much time a garden takes? You could be at it all
day, weeding it, watering it. time - that's the rarest commodity here. time."
That was news. I would have thought
that time was plentiful on this little island - that the one commodity everyone
had in abundance was time.
The man had a rising tremor of mania
in his voice as he said, "yes wake up and you're off and there's never enough
time to do everything that needs to be done, and if it's not one thing it's
another. Time is scarce here" - and he leaned forward at me: he was barefoot, in
a dirty T-shirt, the grubby child nuzzling his legs. "I never have enough time!"
"I'd better be going," I said.
"And another thing," he said. "I'd rather pay
three dollars a pound for tomatoes than thirty dollars and all the time it
takes to grow them."
"Of course. Well, I'm off - headed out to that
island" - Papau, in the distance, was partially misted over.
"It's two miles, you know. Maybe more."
"I've just come six miles from Arutanga. I can
"And the wind's against you," he said.
"True. but it will be an easy paddle back, or
to that other island."
"Unless the wind shifts. Then it'll blow you
straight out to sea or into the reef."
Now I saw that he had a stubbly face, and
bitten nails, and spit in the corners of his mouth.
"I was under the impression this was the
prevailing wind - south-easterly."
"It shifts at times. Not usually at this of
year. But it shifts."
I had a sudden urge to push him over, but I
resisted, and turning to go I said, "At least it's not raining."
"It might rain," he said eagerly. "We need
rain. I hope it does rain." He grinned horribly at the blazing sky. "And
it's four miles to that island, Papau."
"Then I'd better get started," I said.
"The reef's at least three," he said. "I
was told there's an ancient marae on the island."
"There's said to be. I haven't been out there."
And he had lived here for eighteen years?
"Haven't had the time," he said, as though reading the query in my mind.
"There's never enough time." He looked extremely harassed. He clutched his
T-shirt. He said, "Now, I'm sorry, but you're just going to have to excuse
me. I haven't got all day for chatting. I've got masses of paperwork to get
through. that's what I was doing when you came. You interrupted me. You see?
time. Not enough."
"Thanks for the water."
"It's good water. From an artesian well. It's all
drinkable here," he said, as though I was on the point of accusing him of
It took me an hour, paddling into the wind, to get to
Papau. there were herons and egrets wading in its shallows. From a distance it
looked as though it had a white sand beach. close up it was broken coral and
bleached rock, and it was littered with rubbish and flotsam that had floated
from Aitutaki or had been chucked from ships. As I sat on a log, eating my
lunch, the whole beach got up and started walking sideways. Shells, big and
small, were bobbling all over the place. this was amazing, like a Disney
cartoon, where nature starts to frolic - singing trees, nodding flowers,
dancing shells. It was because I had been so still. the hermit crabs I had
startled earlier began to move, but I had never seen so many of them on the
move. I tramped around the island, looking for the ancient site, but saw
nothing. It was a deserted island, with dense jungle at its center, and the
remains of campfires at the edge. I had told myself that I had come here to
look at the marae but once on the island, faced with thorns and tall
grass and spiders, I could not be bothered to look, so I went for a swim
instead, and after that knocked down some foul-tasting coconuts.
It occurred tome that I might work my way down this
long chain of motus, starting here, and then going on to Tavaeraiti and
its sister motu Tavaerua. The fifth one along was in the far corner of
the lagoon, almost out of sight of land. I could get close to it tonight, hit
it tomorrow, and then head back. The idea of trespassing excited me, and there
was enough daylight for me to make it to the largest of the motus,
Tekopua, where I could hide. the wind helped me by beating against the beam of
my kayak and slipping me quickly past Akaiami and Muritapua, and by then
Aitutaki was almost lost on the horizon. It was a low island and at this time
of day no fishermen came out this far. My only problem might be a a fisherman
who had came to the same conclusions as me and decided to spend the night -
but there was none. I went ashore at the top end of Tekopua, and dragged my
boat off the beach. I had everything I needed: water, food, mosquito
repellent, and enough canvas to keep the rain off my sleeping-bag. Darkness
was sudden. No sooner had I finished eating then night descended. Thee were no
stars. No lights - not even any on the distant island. The palms rattled and
the surf broke on the far side of my motu. That sound of surf and
thrashing palms woke me throughout the night - there were no real silences on
Polynesian nights, at the very least it was wind or waves. but this sound was
noisier than city traffic.
I woke very wet, not from rain but from the residue
of heavy mist, and after breakfast began to worry about having camped, Now I
had used up most of my water and food. If I had a problem, I'd be stuck. The
last motu in the chain, Motukitiu, was only an hour away. I started
paddling for it before the sun was up, before the wind had begun to rise; and
after I had landed and had a quick drink I headed north across the widest part
of the lagoon, to catch the rising wind that would take me west to the safety
of Te Koutu Point. There were turtles on the way, and more dancing fish, and
spikes of slashing coral. I realized that I had not rested well in the night
when, after I had reached the shore of Aitutaki, I lay back and fell asleep.
It was not even noon. but after I woke I felt refreshed, and more than that,
felt that I had accomplished something in seeing each of the islets on this
entire side of the huge lagoon - the desert islands of Aitutaki. I swam at Te
Koutu - the whole part of Aitutaki was empty, except for screeching birds, and
then I headed back, with a tailwind to Aratanga.
Although I stayed a mile offshore, because of the
jagged coal, I could hear loud singing as I passed the beach below a village
that appeared on my chart as Reureu. I could just make out a group of men
under a wooden shelter that was next to a large three. I paddled nearer,
avoiding the coral, and was debating whether to go ashore when I heard
shouting. The men were waving me towards the beach. I parked my boat and
joined them. there were about fifteen men. Most were drunk and all were
singing. One man had a guitar, another a ukulele. "Please come," one man said.
He was wearing a T-shirt that said Rarotonga. "Have some kava." He
gestured to a cut-off metal drum that sat in the middle of the group of men.
One of the men worked a coconut shell around in it, slopping the brown opaque
"Is this yanggona?"
"No. 'This is Aitutaki kava. Made from malt, sugar
and yeast. this is beer, my friend."
"yes. Have some."
I was handed a black coconut shell brimming with it.
the taste was sweetish and alcoholic. I sipped. they urged me to gulp it all.
I did so and almost hurled.
"So you're out paddling that little boat?"
"yes. I was out to the motus," I said. And
then, to confirm that I had indeed trespassed, I asked, "But what if I wanted
to spend the night on one?"
"If no one sees you, what is the harm?" one of the
They all wore filthy T-shirts and were squatting on
"You come from?"
"America. but not in that boat."
The laughed. they were drunk enough to find this
hilarious. Then they began to tease one of the men, who appeared to be very
shy and possibly mentally disturbed.
"This is Antoine," the man in the Rarotonga T-shirt
said. "He comes from Mururoa, where the French test the bombs. He is
radioactive. That is why he is so strange."
Antoine lowered his head.
"Antoine speaks French."
I addressed Antoine in French, just saying hello. All
the men laughed. Antoine left the group and mounted his motorbike and then
rode away. I said, "Is this a bush-beer school?"
That was the Aitutaki term for a drinking-party, I
"yes. He is the teacher."
The man dipping the filthy coconut shell into the
metal drum smiled and went on dipping and slopping.
"But it is more like a ship," another man said. "he
is the captain. He is the first mate. He is the second mate. He is the
"It is a club." this man was standing against the
tree. "We call it Arepuka Club. this is a puka tree. And this is an
are." He meant the little wooden shelter.
"He is chairman."
The standing man smiled: the only man sober enough to
be able to stand up had to be chairman, I supposed.
"How long has this club been in existence?"
"You come to drink every day?"
"Excuse me. We have meeting every day."
"What do you do at your meetings?"
"We drink beer."
"And then ?"
"How long to you stay here each day?"
"Until we are drunk and cannot stand up."
All the men laughed hard as this unsmiling man
explained the workings of the club to me.
"And then we go home."
"What songs do you sing?"
"About the island."
"is it a nice island?" I asked.
"It is like paradise," he said.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because we have everything we want - food, beer,
vegetables, fish -" Suddenly the man next tome snatched my hand and began
reading my palm.
"you are thirty-six years old," he said, squeezing my
hand. "I can see it here."
Another man said, "It is better here than New
"have you been there?" I asked.
"yes. It is too fast there. Too much busy."
"Some Cook Islanders come back to Aitutaki from New
Zealand and go to the latrine and say, 'It is dirty. There is no flush. Look
at all the cockroaches." But there is much water in New Zealand for flushing.
We have little water."
"After two or three weeks they stop complaining,"
"What do you think of New Zealand people?" a man
asked me, handing me another shell of beer.
"They are very careful people," I said. "They obey
the law. They eat carefully. They speak carefully. They spend money
"Because they have no money!" one man cried out, and
the others laughed. "They are poor."
"Are you rich?" I asked.
"Being poor doesn't mean you spend money carefully.
Poor people can often be very generous."
"And rich people very mean with money," a man said.
We discussed this and I became so engrossed in this
topic. I soon realized that I was drunk and that my head hurt. When I shut up
for a while they began to sing.
"What was that song about?" I asked when it was over.
"About Ru. Our ancestor. he found Aitutaki. With his
four wives and his brothers."
That legend was mentioned in my guidebook, how Ru had
voyaged from the island of Tupuaki, in what is now the Society Island, which
had become overcrowded. The first name of Aitutaki was Arorau Enua O Ru Ki
Te Moana, "Ru in search of land over the sea."
In spite of the missionaries, local legend was alive
and well. And the Cook group had been one of the first in the Pacific to be
converted by the passionate clergyman John Williams: he had left Aitutaki a
Polynesian convert, Papeiha, in 1821, and the Aitutaki Christian church,
oldest in the Cooks (1828), had a tablet in the churchyard, one side extolling
Williams, the other extolling Papeiha.
I said, "Where did Ru come from?"
"Maybe the Society Islands. Maybe Samoa."
"And before that?"
"Not Asia. I think Asia Minor. Where Adam and Eve
Ah, that was the link between Polynesian legend and
Christian traditions. Ru the voyager had sailed his canoe from the Holy Land.
I said, "What do you like best about living on an
"We are free," one said.
"We can do whatever we like," another said.
I said, "But what if other people come? Papa'a.
Or tinito. Or manuiri. Or Japanese?"
"We would kick them out."
"This is our island. We have everything."
They sounded fierce, but they were merely tipsy, and
they followed me staggering to my boat and urged me to come back the next day.
they promised to sing for me. I could not explain why, but in the waning light
of day, the sun going down beyond the lagoon, and paddling past one of the
prettiest - and friendliest - islands I had seen, I felt very lonely. I heard
that man saying Where is your wife? and the fact was that I no longer
had one. Soon I was paddling in night-blackened water, splashing like mad
toward the lights on shore.
Being alone was the oddest aspect of my traveling in
Oceania, because the island people of Oceania were never alone and could not
understand solitude. they always had families - wives, husbands, children,
girlfriends, boyfriend. To the average person on a reasonably sized island,
nearly everyone was a relative. Wasn't this extended family one of the
satisfactions of being an islander? Living on an island meant that you would
never be alone.
There was no concept of solitariness among the
Pacific islanders I travelled among that did not also imply misery or mental
decline. Book-reading as a recreation was not indulged in much on these
islands either - for that same reason, because you did it alone. Illiteracy
had nothing to do with it, and there were plenty of schools. they knew from
experience that a person who cut himself off, who was frequently seen alone -
reading books, away from the hut, walking on the beach, on his own - was sunk
in deep masu, and was contemplating either murder or suicide, probably
both. Now and then, people would mention that a place had a much higher
suicide rate than I could possibly imagine, and in truth I was usually rather
surprised to hear the figures. then they would describe the method - nearly
always taking a dive off the top of a palm tree. Marriage was seldom
stressful, because the rest of the family was usually so supportive - the
husband had his male friends, the wife had her female friends, the children
were raised by all these uncles and aunties. When a marriage was that complex
and seemingly casual, divorce was somewhat irrelevant. (And lots of people
stayed married by having absolutely nothing to do with each other - by rarely
being in contact.) This big family was circumscribed by the island, and so an
island family was like an entire nation.
I met divorced people now and then. In the Trobriands
a divorced woman was permanently eligible for marriage and was regarded with
horror by single men: "I might have to marry her," they said. The Presbyterian
stigma of divorce which had been imposed on the islands by severe missionaries
in the nineteenth century was harsher than tradition had ever been, and was
like the Mark of the Beast. Often a divorced person simply left the island -
he or she had disappointed too many people or made enemies. They were the
women who worked in hotels in the capital; they were the men who emigrated.
Generally, it was not easy to become divorced without seeming like a traitor.
All this made my position awkward: being solitary made me seem
enigmatic, paddling alone made me seem like a true palangi "sky-burster,"
reading and writing made me look like a crank, and my being wifeless was a
riddle. My condition was hard for anyone to relate to and impossible for me to
explain. And I seemed to be challenged a lot in the Cooks. Where's your wife?
Oh, God, let's not go into it. I could only approximate my feelings to them,
and it would be like explaining something like Westminster Abbey but using
only their references: "This very big are has a marae inside,
and petroglyphs on the walls -"
I sometimes felt like the only person in Oceania who
had wrecked his marriage, and I was reminded of that overwhelming sense of
remorse I had felt that dark night in New Zealand, when I looked through the
front window of the California Fried Chicken Family Restaurant on Papenui road
in Merivale and I saw a happy family and I burst into tears. My solution was
to keep paddling.
One evening, musing in this way, I was dragging my
boat up the beach and saw a man strolling among the palms. He was white,
probably a tourist, but something about his physique commanded my attention.
He was an unusual shape - he was tall, with a full belly, and narrow
shoulders, thin arms, rather spindly legs, and a large head; he was as unlike
an islander in his general shape as it was possible to be. He looked like an
English squire or ship's captain, who never missed a meal but seldom walked
anywhere; well fed but under-exercised. I turned my boat over and parked it
under a palm. the man had paused an was looking back at it. He was
gray-haired, with thick glasses, rather dainty hands that matched the
slenderness of his arms. He was alert, perhaps restless, but he had a ready
smile. for all I knew it was the simple good-will and fellow-feeling of one
papa'a for another, but it was a bit more penetrating than that, not just
an acknowledgement but a welcome.
"You look familiar," I said.
"David Lange," he said. "I used to be prime minister
of New Zealand."
"How about a beer?"
Now you are not alone, I told myself.
I had admired David Lange from a distance for helping
to make New Zealand anti-nuclear. Here was one of the poorer industrial
nations, needing world markets for its butter and lamb and wool, risking the
economic retribution of America and Europe by lecturing them on the dangers of
nuclear dependency, and going further and not allowing warships carrying
nuclear material into New Zealand's harbors. It is usually expensive and
lonely to be principled, this seemed like political suicide. but Lange stuck
it out and won friends, and more than that he became an example for many world
leaders. there were some exceptions. It was well known that the prime minister
of Australia hated Lange for taking a stand, but then bob Hawke - as Lange
himself might have put it - had uranium on his breath. And there was Lange's
separation. It had been the current topic when I was in New Zealand - his
estranged wife yelling her grievances, his mother denouncing him, and the
combined snipers in the Kiwi press doing their best to destroy him. I had felt
for him. His turmoil had come at the time of my own separation. I had
identified with him, and in a quiet way felt he was an alter ego. We were
almost exactly the same age. I read items with headlines like "David
Deceived Me," Says Lange's Wife and I would cringe for him and for myself.
Yet what a funny old world it was. Here we were under
the trees of Aitutaki, by the lagoon, in the failing light of day, the former
prime minister and the former writer - which was how I felt - two clapped-out
renegades taking refuge on a remote island.
I told him my name.
"Really? The writer?" and he named some of my books.
"Are yo9u writing something here?"
"No, just paddling."
But he of all people had to understand how a writer's
denial was not very different from a politician's denial.
"I'm glad to hear it," he said, though he didn't seem
convinced. "I'd love to write something about Aitutaki. I've been coming here
for years. I've thought of writing some kind of book - like one of yours,
about this place. Aitutaki is full of wonderful characters."
While we were seated having a beer, he said suddenly
- his manner of speaking was rapid, he had restless impatient intelligence -
"You write about trains," and gulped his beer, and said, "Ultimate railway
story. I was travelling from Delhi to Bombay in 1967. I was a student. In
those days it took thirty-seven hours, but they had a wonderful dining car,
with heavy silver and cloth napkins and waiters running to and fro. I had beef
curry. The meat tasted strange, but of course it had been heavily
spiced. I was violently ill afterwards, and I spent days in bed. I have never
been so ill with food poisoning. And I wasn't the only one. Most of the people
who had the beef curry on that train ended up in the hospital."
He chuckled at the memory and then went on. "About a
month later I read that one of the waiters on the Delhi to Bombay run had been
arrested for supplying dismembered human corpses to the dining car, claiming
they were fresh beef. They were hardly recognizable, of course, after they had
been turned into curry."
The nature of a politician is to talk, the nature of
a writer, to listen. so here we were on this lovely island, the public man and
the private man, with plenty of time to practice our peculiar skills. Lange
talked often and well, and was affable. He greeted strangers, he had a good
word for everyone, he introduced me around the island. If a small group
congregated he took charge, and to simplify matters he would launch into a
long humorous monologue as a substitute for a halting conversation. He had a
parliamentarian's talent for avoiding all interruptions - rain, falling
coconuts, loud music, pestering strangers, awkward questions; and he had the
successful politician's gift for being able to repeat himself without being
boring. I could vouch for Lange's ability to tell the same complex story
(involving accents, mimicry, historical detail and mounting suspense) three
times in as many days with the same gusto. I had gotten a sunburn on my jaunt
down the chain of motus. I needed to stay under a tree for a while, and
so the next three days I spent on and off with David Lange, who knew Aitutaki
well, and we discussed (he talked, I listened) the Rainbow Warrior
affair, the future of New Zealand, ditto of Australia, Ronald Reagan's
senility, Saddam Hussein's paranoia, Margaret Thatcher, the Queen, Yoko Ono,
Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, Rajiv Gandhi, Chandra Shekar, the characteristics
of various Pacific islanders - Tongans, Samoans, the Cooks, the
characteristics of various Christian religions.
The most unsatisfying international gatherings Lange
had ever attended, he said, were commonwealth heads of government meetings. It
was not just Margaret Thatcher nannying everyone and swinging her handbag, or
bob Hawke of Australia being personally abusive. It was the utter waste of
time. The Bahamas meeting of 1985 was notable for its host, the prime minister
of the Bahamas, "a remarkable character who came unscratched through an
inquiry as to why in the past year he had put in his bank account an amount of
eighteen times greater than the total of his salary." At a similar meeting in
Vancouver, Lange discovered that the Botswana delegation had made $1,300 worth
of phone calls and charged them to his total bill. the Ugandans at that same
conference, "took advantage of their leader's absence at a retreat to invite a
fair number of Vancouver's prostitutes to their hotel. They refused to pay and
had the police evict the women. those were the greatest excitements of the
I liked his frankness, and I found him funny. Lange
was on familiar terms with the entire world and with its events. He had spent
his working life making the acquaintance of powerful people. Whom had I met? I
fished around and mentioned my trip to Fiji. Lange brightened. "Rabuka's a
bully, and Kamisese Mara the prime minister is a stooge of the military
"I want to ask you about Dame Cath Tizard, your
governor-general," I said.
"She won't be doing much governor-generalling," Lange
said, talking a mile a minute and never ceasing to smile. "She'll be in court
most of the next year in a libel suit - she called someone an incompetent, and
she's being sued for fourteen million dollars."
I began to explain my impression of her extraordinary
table manners, but Lange rumbled on, still smiling.
"her ex-husband's quite a character - caused an
amazing fuss in Japan after the emperor died and various world leaders were
sending their condolences. He said the Emperor of Japan should have been cut
into little pieces after the war."
Any conversational lull was my cue for asking a
question, and he always gave me a straight answer, and this included questions
about the break-up of his marriage and his relationship with his
speech-writer, Miss Pope, and his mother's sticking her oar into the whole
"Your mother apparently denounced you."
"Yes!" He was smiling. "She went on television! You
should have heard her!"
"Was it one episode that ended your marriage or -?"
"We had been drifting apart," he said. "It happens so
subtly you hardly notice. Then one day you look up and your marriage is over."
"But there's a woman in your life now?"
"Oh, yes. Margaret. Lovely person - you must meet
"What did your children say about the divorce?"
"Older child's in India, studying. that's my son. May
daughter said, 'I suppose I'll have to get used to being spoiled, the way
children of divorced parents always are." She doesn't miss much."
"Did you ever get sad afterwards, thinking of the
happy days of your marriage?"
"We had rather a turbulent marriage. Didn't you?"
"No. It was pretty quiet most of the time." I said.
"I often find myself looking back and feeling awful."
"You've got to look ahead," he said, sounding
"Do you think you'll ever go back to your wife?"
"It's much too late for that," he said. "She's not
doing too badly. She's just published a book of poems."
"What about you?"
"Here I am at the age of forty-eight and I don't have
a bed or a chair. My wife got the lot."
He laughed out loud - not a mirthful laugh, but not a
bitter one either. I was inexpressibly grateful to him for not evading my
questions. He was not whining or blaming or trying to turn the clock back. I
wanted to be as resolute as that, and in a way I wanted to stop paddling and
reacquaint myself with the sort of contentment I had known in my early life -
loving and being loved.
This divorce conversation produced the only silence
that occurred between Lange and me.
And then he was back on world leaders, Oliver Tambo
of the African National Congress: "When I met him he tried to justify 'necklacing.'"
"As prime minister of Britain, Harold Wilson was a
tricky man," he said, "but what's the future of the Labour Party of Britain?
Bryan Gould? He's a New Zealander. He was my room-mate at college. How could
he lead the Labour Party -= he's not even British!"
"He had just finished a book, Nuclear Free - the New
Zealand Way, about his anti-nuclear policy in the Pacific and he was full of
stories about sinister French lots.
"The French are swine," he said. "The night before
the Arbitrator in the Rainbow Warrior affair delivered his verdict to the
tribunal his house was broken into. Only one item was missing. the word
processor which contained his files of the proceedings had been stolen, and a
carving knife was left in its place."
In his book he wrote, The testing at Mururoa still
continues. Nothing in French history suggests that it will stop until
countries morepowerful even than France put a stop to it. I can
only look forward to the day when they will want to.
We talked into the night. The nights were starry on
Aitutaki. It was an ideal island; it had one of the largest and most beautiful
lagoons I had seen in Oceania. Its people were friendly and gentle, its food
was plentiful; it had no telephones, no cars, no dogs.
More than once, after a peroration or an anecdote,
Lange leaned over and said, "Are you sure you're not writing about theisland?"
Towards the end of that week, I bumped into Lange on
the beach again, and he said, "The Queen's Representative is leaving the day
after tomorrow. There's a sort of do for him in town. Want to come along as my
guest? Might be fun, even if you're not writing about this place."
"What is a Queen's Representative?"
"In this case an anachronism named Sir Tangaroa
I spent the next day spear-fishing, using my mask and
snorkel, and dragging my boat behind me. My idea was that I would make my way
along the reef, and when I got sick of fishing I could paddle the remaining
distance to the only motu I had not visited, Maina ("Little Girl").
There was the hulk of a ship near it that had been wrecked on the reef in the
1930s with a cargo of Model-T Fords. Beyond the twists of plump black
sea-slugs and tiny darting fish were the lovely parrot fish. I swam between
the bulging lumps of coral, pursuing fish. After you have seen the lovely
colors of live fish, and how gray they look when they're dead on a slab, how
can you eat them? a vegetarian had once said to me. Soon I lost all interest
in spearing fish and just snorkeled, and then - remembering there were sharks
around this reef - I got back into my boat, and put on my Walkman and paddled.
On this lovely morning in the lagoon of Aitutaki I was listening to Carmina
Burana. It was one of those days - I passed many in Oceania - when I
forgot all my cares, all my failures, all my anxieties about writing. I was
exactly where I wanted to be, doing what I liked most. I was far enough
offshore so that the island looked distant and mysterious and palmy, and I
moved easily through the greeny-blue lagoon, and I could hear the surf
pounding on the reef between the movement of music.
The wind strengthened and I paddled on and saw more
wrecked ships. they were strange monuments to the danger of this reef, and
seemed fearsome and skeletal. They had a look of frozen violence - so large
and rusted black. the oddest aspect of that was that there was no sense of
anything happening on shore. It seemed so absurd that a captain should even
steer his ship to Aitutaki, much less risk his whole enterprise on the reef.
the island seemed to slumber dreaming its green dreams in its green shade.
there was no industry, no traffic, no smoke even. It was the simplest quietest
society I had seen. I seldom saw anyone cooking or gardening, or doing
anything energetic except fishing. the island was almost motionless in the
still hot mornings, and only at night after the drumming and dancing started
did it come alive. the people were alert and could be talkative. It did not
surprise me that life proceeded at the slowest possible pace, but rather that
it proceeded at all. Something about Cook Islanders (there were only 20,000 of
them altogether) made them seem special. Even with all the patronage from New
Zealand, and their passionate interest in videos, the people remained
themselves. They were not greedy. They were not lazy. They were hospitable,
generous and friendly. They were not violent, and they often tried to be
funny, with little success.
One day early in my visit I had spared a parrot fish.
I showed it to a man on shore, when I was beaching my boat.
"What do you think of that?"
"It is a fish," he said, deadpan.
"A good fat fish?"
"A normal fish," he said.
"But it's a good one, don't you think? A big one.
good to eat."
"A normal parrot fish," he said, refusing to smile.
"A normal parrot fish."
Meanwhile I was still paddling to Maina. I had asked
David Lange about the distinctiveness of the Cooks, and his explanation was
that they had retained their character because they were still owned by the
islanders. Not one acre had been sold to a foreigner. The land was sometimes
leased, but it had not left their hands. this was also the basis of an anxiety
- that the Japanese would come and somehow wrest the land away from them,
trick them somehow. they hated and feared the Japanese, and I saw no Japanese
tourists in the Cooks. "We don't want them!" a man in Aitutaki told me. "We
will send them away!"
The wind was roaring in my headphones, blowing waves
across my deck and slewing me sideways. I paddled on, feeling happy in this
vast green lagoon, among turtles and glimmering coral, and at last reached
Maina. Isolated and empty and hardly ever visited, in a distant corner of the
lagoon, it was one of the most beautiful islands I walked upon in Oceania.
On the way, to the feast for the Queen's
Representative, David Lange shoed me some new trucks parked in the Ministry of
"They can't use them. They've been here for months.
but they're using that dangerous old banger" - he indicat4d a jalopy, dumping
logs -"you'll never guess why."
"Someone put a curse on them?"
"Close. they haven't been dedicated. They need a
proper ceremony. It might be months befor4 they manage that."
It was a God-fearing archipelago. Mormons, Jehovah's
Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Catholics, and the local outfit, cook
Island Christian Church, the CICC. The plaque to the martyr John Williams
(eaten by Big Nambas in Erromanga in Vanuatu) should have been a tip-off, but
there were churches everywhere, and crosses, mottoes, Bible quotes,
grave-markers and monuments. the history of the cook Islands was the history
of missionaries - that, and a small trade in fish and coconuts. but mostly it
was people's souls that were sought after, and some of the earliest
photographs of cook Islanders showed the men in long pants and women in Mother
Hubbards, the modest all-embracing muumuu. the Mormons didn't drink, the
Jehovah's Witnesses didn't smoke or vote, the Seventh-day Adventists didn't
dance, the CICC didn't fish on the sabbath. Still life went on its passive
Polynesian way and somehow people managed still to dance, to drink, to smoke
and sing and fish and make love. there was a local woman who had a reputation
for simply appearing on the beach, offering herself, welcoming any and all
fishermen, who made love to her. As for the dancers, they cleared their
consciences by saying a prayer before every dance - then they drummed and
twitched their bums and shook their tits, and afterwards they said another
There were prayers in the garden of the small
tin-roofed bungalow that was the residence of the Administrative Officer of Aitutaki. Just a simple hut with a pretty garden. About thirty men and women
joined in the prayer, and they all wore colorful shirts and dresses - there
was no clothes snobbery at all in the cook Islands. You wore a T-shirt and
shorts, a bathing-suit, a lava-lava, and that was it. No socks, no shoes, no
ties, no dress coded at all. Another day in Fatland - fat men, fat women. the
fattest was the Queen's Representative, an older man - perhaps seventy - in a
very tight Hawaiian shirt, a button missing where his belly bulged. This was
Sir Tangaroa Tangaroa, QR. In spite of his titles he was a simple soul. but I
had heard this word tangaroa before, in connection with Polynesian
"What does 'tangaroa' mean?" I asked the mayor.
The mayor was the brother of the prime minister. It's
all nepotism here, Lange had told me.
"His name is the name of god."
"God in Heaven?"
"No. One of our old gods."
The mayor's own name was Henry and he looked a bit
"God of the sea? I think god of the sea."
This man Henry was very vague altogether. There was a
big marae in the south of the island. I asked him where it was. He
said, "Somewhere in the jungle. You will never find it."
Aitutaki was less than two kilometers wide at its
widest point, and it was less than six kilometers long. Somewhere in the
jungle had no meaning when dealing with a place this small, unless one was an
islander and considered this island an entire world.
"Can't you tell me how to get there?"
"No. It is not easy. someone will have to take you."
That was another thing about islanders: they were
almost incapable of giving clear directions, because they had never needed to
encapsulate directions by giving the location of a particular place. An island
was a place where everyone knew where everything was, and if you didn't you
had no business there.
I said, "But this is not a very big island."
"The marae is in the jungle."
"Even so, there's not much jungle. do you ever go
I am so busy."
but this were merely an expression: no one was busy
I then approached the Queen's Representative.
"Have you spoken to Her Majesty?"
"yes. For hours," he said, and blinked at me. "For
His English was very limited - in fact this was the
whole of our conversation, for he soon lapsed happily into Maori - but he
insisted that he had had long talks with Queen Elizabeth.
Lange had heard me quizzing the man. He said, "if you
get the Queen alone he's very good - very funny. Loves New Zealand."
He said that he had spent some time with her alone
when he'd been awarded the title CH, Companion of Honour, which was more
coveted than a knighthood.
After the prayer in the garden the food was uncovered
- and men and women stood near it, fanning away the flies, while we filled our
plates with octopus in coconut milk, sweet potato, pig meat, marinated raw
fish (with skin and bones), banana fritters, fruit salad.
Lemonade was served, and then there was dancing -
young men and women in grass skirts. The drummers sweated and smiled and
people wandered into the garden from the dirt road to watch, gathering at the
hedge or sitting on the grass. children who had been playing on the grass
since before the party began - they had no connection with the party - went on
playing. It was all amiable. There were no ruction here.
The Queen's Representative smoothed his shirt-front -
it was now splashed with food - and accepted his gifts, a woven mat and a
piece of nicely stitched cloth. He spoke briefly but in a formal chiefly way,
in his own language, Maori. He was from the little island of Penrhyn, an
almost inaccessible atoll in the far north of the Cook group. He had spent six
years making the rounds from island to island. Now he was on his final round,
collecting gifts. A new QR would soon be sworn in - someone's relative.
Leaving the party, Lange turned to me and asked
again, "Are you sure you're not writing about Aitutaki? And he smiled, but
instead of waiting for an answer he began to describe for me his recent
experiences in Baghdad.
When I left Aitutaki it was Lange who saw me to the
plane and we agreed to meet again. I went to Rarotonga, a pretty island
entirely ringed by bungalows and small hotels. You couldn't paddle without
paddling in someone's front yard. but there I had a sense of the murmurs of
island life. A New Zealand couple from Aitutaki recognized me on the road in
Rarotonga and told me about the woman who wandered the beach and was such a
rapacious fornicator with the Aitutaki fishermen. When I tried to verify this
story with an Australian he told me that the gossiping New Zealand couple had
been heard quarrelling loudly and abusively in their bungalow.
"He's the world's authority on giant clams," someone
said of the "You could get killed for fooling with fishermen," someone else
The gossips were gossiped about, and everyone had a
"Never guess who's in Aitutaki," another Australian
said to me in a bar in Avarua, Rarotonga. "David Lange. someone saw him get on
the lane. He split up with his wife. He's out of office. He's fucked-up and
far from home." I said, "I have the feeling he's going to be fine."
An extract of
the text from THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA by Paul Theroux, published in
London by Hamish Hamilton, 1992.
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