Themes of the South Pacific

It’s interesting to travel here, since your day is governed by the sunrise and the sunset, waking with the rest of the village according to the suns wishes, and your diet is limited to the market’s availability. For a while it’s an overabundance of fresh papaya and watermelon, then its pineapples and eggplants. Trying to find avocados when its cucumber and tomato season is tough, but I’ve been lucky twice. Your activities are controlled by the weather, since the rain makes you stop wherever you are and worry only about finding shelter, and the shining sun makes you hide under shade until the temperature drops below 38 degrees and you can once again bare to start walking. An umbrella is a very versatile item, since it works as protection against the rain and the sun, so it’s not weird to always have an open umbrella above your head. The tides govern when you can get in or out of the water safely, or when it’s good to snorkel, or when there’s actually sand on the beach to lay on, or waves past the break to surf on.

Weird things I’ve learned is to always keep my bag shut in my room at night. If not, you’ll find a couple cockroaches who’ve moved in and you won’t find them til a few days later, a little groggy from lack of oxygen and food, but still alive and creepily crawling further into your backpack when you try to chuck them out. Buses don’t often have windows on them, so it’s also important to keep your mouth shut whiles it’s driving… the bugs and bees do not taste good flying in at 50km per hour. Another important lesson is that you can never have too much bug spray, and you certainly can never be wearing too much bug spray, because those damned mosquitos will still get you, even if you think you’re in a mozzy-proof net. They’re like cockroaches, they just never die… or they multiply faster than you can kill them, I’m not sure. And they come with horrible threats of diseases I hadn’t even heard of – like chikungunya – or the regular malaria, dengue and yellow fevers you’re equally weary of. But, I do know that if mosquitos were to die a horrible painful death in the burning depths of hell forever, I would not feel bad, or sad, or any remorse, since their total extinction wouldn’t make me mourn one bit.

There are a few common themes in the South Pacific that stay even when you change islands or countries. Fire dancing and other types of traditional dance are always present, in their own local flare. Some are done in grass skirts, some in sarongs (whose names can change from pareos to lava-lavas), some are scary (like the Maori haka – google it if you’ve never seen an All Blacks rugby game), most are beautiful, some are danced to percussion and body slapping, and others to the sound of ukuleles and beautiful Polynesian songs. All the South Pacific countries have memorable graves, each burial practice done slightly differently, but they’re usually very present, in the front yards of peoples homes, along the side of the road, or in mass graveyards decorated with colourful plastic flowers. They range from mounds of sand with a simple tombstone, to full-on housed shelters where the relatives of the deceased like to play or rest.

Tattoos are important, and visible mostly on men, but women will also often have them on their upper leg or a band around an arm or ankle. Maori’s have them on their face, and Samoans get a solid tattoo from their knees up to their midwaist which takes 6 hours a day for 2 weeks to complete the traditional way. Apparently everything is tattooed except the genitals… that’s got to be painful.

The food has, for the most part, been consistently bad. They don’t use much spice or flavor except for fried oil, and the staple is canned tuna, corned beef, instant noodles and different forms of potatoey-starches. Ive never seen so many different types and flavours of instant noodles – everything from Korean Kimchi to Maggi noddles and Indonesian packages I couldn’t read. The food was refreshingly amazing in Fiji, and some fully-catered hotels in Samoa had yummy curries and rice, which was a welcomed change to noodles or starch.

Women, men and children all wear flowers in their hair, live ones, plastic ones, white ones, pink ones, and most a variation of a frangipani or hibiscus flower. It’s funny to see it on the men, since it doesn’t take anything away from their masculinity, even if its paired with a pink sarong or flowery skirt, since that’s just become a normal, manly sight for me in the pacific. Every island has a different name for cross-dressing men (my favourite is the very feminine word fa’afafine in Tahitian), the flamboyant gay guys who are not gay guys but women who take female roles and like men. They’re a source of pride for any family who never has a daughter, since they fulfill the daughterly void, and even though homosexuality is illegal in many countries and the church would never approve, they bypass this sin since they’re simply fully-functional women (stuck in men’s bodies… but that’s not their fault).

Kava, which is a cloudy-brownish narcotic drink made from a root plant, has also been a reoccurring theme. Every island has its own kava – a special recipe, different names or pronunciation, a special time or place to drink it, and various ways the kava ceremony should proceed. When I had it in Fiji, it was from a small wooden bowl that we all shared by passing around and drinking until the cup was empty. It would be refilled and repassed til we’d all had enough, or our tongues became to tickly to hold up to the bowl, and I didn’t feel drunk or drugged but a lot of people acted like they did.

After five months in the South Pacific, it’s all starting to feel very familiar, and most things are comfortable except the heat and mosquitos. I actually met someone in Samoa whose name (in Samoan) was South Pacific Ocean, and first I laughed, but then I thought about it and realized that the meaning behind it is a beautiful thing to be named after. If it didn’t have such a terrible ring to it in English, I’d probably consider naming a child after the South Pacific too.

Ever heard of Niue?

There are a couple of islands in the South Pacific that I knew I wouldn’t get to. Some of them are nearly impossible to reach, either because of location, geography, or just lack of travelers. They’re usually the islands you’ve never heard of, and survive off their colonial dependents. One of these is a country called Wallis & Futuna, a French territory that you can only fly in or out of through Noumea or Nadi a couple times a week. Another is Pitcairn Island, a British overseas territory in the South Pacific lost somewhere between Tahiti and Easter Island.

"the rock"

“the rock”

I never thought I’ make it to Niue, “the rock” island near Tonga and Samoa. It’s technically a self-governing state, but relies heavily on New Zealand for support and subsidies, and the only way in or out is a very expensive seat on the once or twice weekly flight from Auckland (at 3 hours flying time, it’s hardly the closest port but that’s really the only flight!). Its essentially big coral island, raised out of the sea and perched ontop of an extinct volcano. Top soil isn’t so bountiful, and it was strange to see graves scattered all around the roadside and front-lawns. It was eerily fitting with all the deserted houses, devastated by Cyclone Heta in 2004 and other big storms before then.

a common sight in Niue, houses half blown away

a common sight in Niue, houses half blown away

Niue’s 1500 Niueans live on an island that’s 64km around, but only have a couple beaches and no mountains (the highest point is 65m above sea level). Their official work week is only from Monday-Thursday, so its the first country I’ve ever been to with a 3-day weekend and that ain’t bad. The only thing I could complain about were the nasty looking yellow hornets that were always flying around everywhere… but they never got me so it’s all good. All around the islands’ cliff edge is pretty blue water, living coral and an abundance of fish and sea life. I went snorkeling with some spear-fishers, and after seeing a turtle, barracudas, parrot fish and dozens of striped sea snakes, they shot a parrot fish and a coronation trout that we had for dinner.

I stayed at Niue Backpackers, which is the upstairs apartment of the Niue Yacht Club. It only has 4 rooms, but I was the only guest, so for $25 a night, I had rented my own sea-view penthouse. I also adopted my own pets: Lucy the dog who followed me to the beach for protection, and Misty the cat who I gave milk to but stopped being my friend after she shit in the shower and I kicked her out of the penthouse for a night. One morning I woke up with a crab in my bed. I had the sensation that something was tickling down my back, but assumed it was my hair. Then when I rolled over, I felt a tickle run down the back of my leg, and when I threw the blanket off expecting the worst, I first saw a massive grey spider. But, with further inspection, it was only a small silver crab, looking lost and exposed from what he was hoping could have been a safe cave to hideout in.

photo 4

the local beach and snorkel lagoon

The only radio station in Niue gave an interesting, unique blend of songs. The sound of gospel songs was replaced by offensive rap and old school hiphop, followed by poppy Christmas songs that were replaced by Polyensian hula-dance songs. Then the cycle would repeat itself, pulling my emotions along with it, not sure if I should be feeling reverent, gangster, festive or drink a pina colada.

The phone numbers are only 4 digits long, so I could easily reach the hostel owner Brian by dialing 4567. But he was always downstairs, so it was easier just to walk down and talk to him. He took me on an island tour, driving all the way around and stopping at a few caves and chasms and perhaps the only real beach. There was one sand patch down the sea-track path beside the hostel, but it was only exposed at low tide, which I managed to time perfectly for two days of beachside reading. I finished Dan Browns Inferno and learned a lot about Dante and Florence, and hung out with an old American hippy named Charles who loved to talk about the theory of ecotourism.

Niue's sculpture garden, made of rubbish

Niue’s sculpture garden, made of rubbish

There’s another island I’m not sure I’ll make it to, called Tuvalu. Its just a series of 3 tiny sand atolls between Samoa and Kiribati, and theres no piece of land big enough to make an air strip. The whole country is a less than 10 square miles, and probably shrinking with the rising sea levels. Since its surrounded by a coral lagoon, cruise ships cant come there either, so the crowded population of 10,000 people only get served by a twice-monthly cargo ship that sails from Samoa. Im going to Samoa next, so I’ll be the first lined up for a ticket on that cargo ship. I’ll hang my hammock on deck for the 5 day return trip, and hope the cyclone season won’t make the sea too rough.