Steve Hunsicker is the South Florida recruiter for the Peace Corps. Before taking on the job, he served as a volunteer in the Kingdom of Tonga. His experiences are described in a wonderful book called ‘Steve’s Adventure with the Peace Corps’. If you are interested in what Steve has to say about his memoir, the South Pacific country, and volunteering, read on!


Pasifika Truthfully: You quit your job to become a Peace Corps volunteer. Have you ever regretted that decision?

Steve Hunsicker: I have not regretted the decision. Becoming a Peace Corps volunteer changed my life in a very positive way. I had a wonderful 23-year career in TV News, but it was time for me to do something else. Peace Corps was the perfect move.

PT: You were assigned to serve in the Kingdom of Tonga. A South Pacific archipelago with pristine lagoons and sandy beaches – that’s the image people conjure up in their minds when asked about Polynesia. Had you had the same picture in your head before you went there?

SH: That image is largely true. Tonga is a beautiful country, especially Vava’u, which is the island where I lived. However, there is much more to Tonga that that. Each of the island groups is different. Tongatapu, where the capital is located, is flat while the area where I was is quite hilly. I don’t remember exactly what I was expecting when I first found out I was going to Tonga, but Vava’u is certainly more beautiful than I could have imagined.

PT: Tonga from travel brochures vs. the ‘real’ country. What’s the difference?

SH: Tonga is a developing country. At first appearance, they have many of the amenities you might expect, but those are really there for the tourists. Most Tongans are subsistence farmers and fishermen who live below the poverty level. However, they are a very happy people and genuinely         friendly. You will see people talking on cell phones but they may live without running water and electricity.

PT: What surprised you most after you stepped out of the plane?

SH: Without a doubt, how friendly everyone was. Walking around the first day, people stopped and said hello and asked: ‘Where are you going?’. I later learned that’s a very common expression in the Tongan language, but hearing it in English from so many people was very welcoming.

PT: Is there anything – and I’m sure there is – you learnt during your stay?

SH: Probably that ‘People are People’ no matter where they live, no matter their culture and no matter their financial situation. I made such wonderful friends in Tonga and there is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think of them.

PT: What can people learn from Tongans? What can we ‘take’ from their amazing culture?

SH: In Tonga, people take care of each other. They don’t have day care centers or retirement homes. If a family member has to work, another family member (or neighbor) will help.   They accept the responsibility to take care of children and of their elders. There is almost no homelessness in Tonga because everyone has a place to go.

PT: Now, focusing on your book. Why did you decide to write it?

SH: Peace Corps is a life-changing experience and I really wanted to document my experience. I challenged myself to write a blog post at least once a week for my entire 27 months in Tonga. I had spent the previous 23 years in a TV newsroom so I guess I also still had some of the journalist in me. When I first returned to the US, I decide to take those entries and expand them into a book.

PT: Your memoir is an extremely informative and entertaining read. I’m pretty sure, however, that there are quite a few stories or anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book. Could you share one of them?

SH: Tongans love to laugh and they like jokes. I became of the ‘victim’ of one of those jokes during my language training. Just like in every language, Tongan has slang. For example, the Tongan word for chicken is ‘moa’. It is commonly used to describe food, but it is also slang for your girlfriend or boyfriend. If a Tongan asks you if you have a ‘moa’, they aren’t asking if you have a chicken, but if you have a significant other. This was explained to us in our language classes.

During my language training, I was given a very simple assignment to interview someone in the Tongan language, to find out their name, where they were from and what they liked to do. We then had to present the results of our interview to not only our fellow volunteers, but also in front of the Tongans who work for Peace Corps.

I completed my interview and when it was my time to present, I stood up and said in Tongan ‘My friend’s name is Rose, she is from Nukualofa and she likes to husk coconuts’. As soon as I said this, the room erupted in laughter, I turned beet red, not knowing what I had just said.   However, it was quickly explained to me that ‘husking coconuts’ has nothing to do with ‘husking coconuts’ and instead refers to a sexual act. She was in the room and was the person laughing the hardest. She had set me up, but it was a good lesson because she wanted all of us to know the expression so that we didn’t use it in our conversations with our host family and neighbors. And everyone got a great laugh at my expense.

PT: The book is full of details regarding both the Peace Corps and volunteering in general. Did you want to create a guide of sorts for future volunteers?

SH: I’m not sure I necessarily set out to publish a guide for future volunteers. I really was trying to document my own service. Almost all of the information in the book about the application process is out of date. Last year, Peace Corps significantly over-hauled its application process and it takes less than an hour to complete the application. In addition, you can select the country where you serve, something I was not able to do. I did get really frustrated with the length of the application process at that time, so these are all very positive changes for people wanting to become a volunteer.

PT: What advice – if any – could you give to those people who’d like to become volunteers?

SH: Do it!  Not only will you make a difference in the lives of the people in the country where you volunteer, but it will change your own life.


‘Steve’s Adventure with the Peace Corps: Stories from the Kingdom of Tonga and the United States Peace Corps’ is a memoir written by Steve Hunsicker, a former Executive News Director who decided to give up his successful career in order to become a Peace Corps volunteer.



For some people even the most interesting job may not be enough to feel content and fulfilled in life. Steve has always dreamed of helping others and now, after spending 23 years in TV industry, he comes to the conclusion that it’s high time he finally realized his ambition. So he applies to the Peace Corps and soon after that is sent to the Kingdom of Tonga.

Responsible for business development, Steve helps the local communities exploit their economic potential. He is a tutor and a mentor, always ready to offer advice, give words of encouragement, and share his professional knowledge. As a reward he gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Tonga as very few visitors ever do.


I-was-a-volunteer-in-an-underdeveloped-country is such a common and popular theme in non-fiction literature that it should constitute a separate genre. All these personal accounts basically tell you the same story, so there will never be any surprises here. But the author’s writing style is a whole different thing. It can be excellent, mediocre, or plain bad, and it usually determines if the book is considered any good.

Steve Hunsicker’s memoir is what I like to call a ‘simple piece of literature’. It certainly isn’t a masterpiece, but it charms you right from the very first page. You instantly get drawn into Steve’s world and quickly realize that one chapter compels you to read another.

Written in a journal-like manner, the memoir starts in the US when the author finds out about his Peace Corps nomination. From that moment we accompany him as he prepares to fly out of the country, then arrives in Tonga, and finally carries out his volunteering duties. In describing his experiences he is honest, meticulous, and awesomely funny. He is like a buddy of yours, with whom you’re having a friendly chat over a cup of coffee. Or a glass of beer. Or – even better – a bowl of kava. You choose. And you genuinely want to pay careful attention to what he is saying, because his stories are truly fascinating.

Especially worthy of note are Steve’s comments on Tonga. As an astute observer who was willing to familiarize himself with a foreign culture, he gives readers colourful details of life in the Polynesian country. You really get to know the local customs, traditions, and practices – not the ancient ones, but those observed on a daily basis. The little snippets he shares are not only very informative but most of all fun to read. If you have never been to Tonga, it’s a great way to start your journey. See the islands, meet the people, and soak up the friendly atmosphere of the South Pacific.

The author writes about the Kingdom and his Peace Corps service with a fierce passion you simply cannot fail to notice. It is obvious that volunteering in this particular place affected not only his life but also him as a person. The initial culture shock gradually gave way to understanding, acceptance, and even appreciation of the culture so different from his own.

‘Steve’s Adventure with the Peace Corps’ is a terrific book. I’ll venture to say it is more revealing than most guidebooks ever written on Tonga. If you decide to read it, it will not be wasted time.


‘Sailing to Jessica’ by Kelly Watts

When reality doesn’t always meet your expectations, you need something that will set you free from your worries and bring back a smile on your face. For Kelly and Paul, a happily married couple dealing with fertility problems, that ‘something’ turns out to be a voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

As they sail from one island to another, they discover the beauty of life anew. Visiting fascinating places and immersing themselves in the exotic cultures of the South Seas, they finally start to look to the future with optimism and hope in their hearts.

‘Sailing to Jessica’ is a beautiful, uplifting story that will make you both laugh and cry. Being first and foremost a great adventure book, it will speak to all the sailing aficionados who can’t imagine their lives without a daily dose of thrill and excitement. Kelly Watts describes the good, the bad, and the ugly so I can guarantee that you will not be able to stop reading until you reach the last sentence.

‘Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific’ by Mary E. Trimble

Fulfilling her husband’s lifelong dream, Mary agrees to set out on a journey from Seattle to the islands of the South Pacific. After finding the right boat and saying their farewells, the couple is ready to set sail to paradise.

Despite dealing with the unpredictable power of nature, they manage to enjoy their new life aboard Impunity. They get to know the alluring world of Polynesia, taking delight in meeting local inhabitants and experiencing their ways of being.

Summer is the time of year when most of us feel the urge to travel. It’s not always possible to leave everything behind and just get away, but a good book will definitely satisfy your needs. I promise you that Mary’s words will transport you to the tropical isles. You’ll be able to feel the hot air, smell the sweet scent of flowers, and hear the cheerful buzz of people’s voices.

‘Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before’ by Tony Horwitz

Following in James Cook’s footsteps? Why not! Two centuries after the great Englishman’s voyages, Tony Horwitz decides to embark on his own adventure, recreating Cook’s epic journeys through the Pacific Ocean.

Trying to fully grasp the Captain’s accomplishments, Tony happily explores the tiny islands. He spends time chatting to the natives, asking questions, and waiting for answers. He isn’t afraid to dig deep and, as a result, gets awarded with a riveting tale of the navigator’s life.

Not only will this masterfully written travelogue give you a lot of enjoyment, but it will also provide you with a great deal of information about history, Westernization, and most of all Captain James Cook. It is a compelling read that will let you discover the Blue Continent from the comfort of your home.

‘The Shark God: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific’ by Charles Montgomery

Ever since Charles came across his great-grandfather’s box as a 10-year-old boy, the pieces of paper that were tucked inside have been constantly in the back of his mind. Inspired by the unusual discovery, and especially by one intriguing description of the events that had taken place in Melanesia in the 19th century, he decides to visit the islands of the Pacific.

In Vanuatu and the Solomons, he searches for old myths and legends; for reality that blends with black magic. What he finds is a bewitching world of ancient rituals and traditions that completely engrosses his body, soul, and mind.

This book is as much about the author’s journey as it is about religion and different belief systems. It’s very thought-provoking but at the same time extremely entertaining. Charles Montgomery, being a talented writer he is, invites you to accompany him on a guided tour of Melanesia. Trust me, you don’t want to miss that chance.

‘The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific’ by Julia Whitty

The Blue Continent has always been heaven for deep-sea divers. While shooting for nature documentaries, Julia Whitty ventures underwater to discover the kingdom of the great Pacific Ocean.

In three different locations: Rangiroa atoll, Funafuti, and Mo’orea, she explores the mesmerizing world of sea creatures and coral reefs, occasionally going on land to acquaint herself with the local cultures and see how globalization has been changing the remote places.

If you like watching nature documentaries, you will absolutely love this book! The author’s incredibly vivid descriptions will let you picture every scene in your mind’s eye. It’s a pretty spectacular ‘visual’ experience that may surprise you quite a bit.


American Samoa. Where to go? What to see? What to do? Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo, an emerging author from the Pacific Islands, gives her recommendations (this week we change The 3s for The 4s).

Visit the Turtle and Shark site in Vaitogi

The story behind this site in the village of Vaitogi is about a mother Fonuea and her daughter, who swam from Upolu-Savaii (Western Samoa) to Tutuila (American Samoa) to seek survival. During the famine days in the village of Salega, they swam to American Samoa in forms of a turtle and shark, until they arrived at the beach of Vaitogi. They turned back into their human form and met Chief Letuli. The village welcomed them. Upon receiving food and clothing, Fonuea thanked Chief Letuli for the love shown towards her and her daughter. She also proclaimed with gratitude to the chief that they will live under the cliffs of the Vaitogi Beach, and if the villagers should ever want to see her and her daughter – they can sing the chant of Fonuea, and they will reveal themselves on the ocean’s surface. The legendary tale has long passed, but the proclamation between Chief Letuli and Fonuea is still alive and preserved by the village of Vaitogi today. The Turtle and Shark site in Vaitogi have become one of the most visited sites in the South Pacific by world tourists. Every time the villagers chants the melody of Fonuea, the turtle and shark reveal themselves to villagers and guests. Become familiar with the song so you can sing along when you visit Vaitogi, American Samoa.

Laumei, faiaga, faasusu si au tama

Aumai le moega’afa- fa’i mai, fa’i mai

Se lauti o laulelei, e lavalava le laumei

Fonuea, Fonuea, laulau mai se manamea

Po o sa i luga nei

Sa Letuli i luga nei

A ua’ina, a la’ina

A solo e mata’ina

Lou galu tu’u la le i’a

Lalelei, lalelei,l alelei!

Visit the National Park of American Samoa

Colonization monuments, World War II artifacts, lands preserved and rare indigenous animals grant tourists an enjoyable quest when they visit American Samoa. One of the large sightseeing parks in American Samoa is in the village of Vatia. It takes a few minutes to drive past steep hills to get there, but you will not ever pass up another tour to Vatia once you discover the breathtaking view of the Polatai and Polauta mountains, lands and natural spring water flowing in from the mountains.

Hike Mount Alava

Hiking up Mount Alava is becoming a point of marathons and sightseeing for tourists and locals. Mount Alava is another mountain monumentally used by the territory for communication signals to reach each village in the territory. From Mount Alava, you can view the capital of Pago Pago, the central wharf of American Samoa in Fagatog unto the outskirt views of the Molioleava Point on the left and the Fatu ma Futi mountains on the right. The boomerang outlook from Mount Alava is best seen before sunrise.

Visit Tisa’s Barefoot Bar in Alega

Privately owned by the lovely Tisa, Tisa’s Barefoot Bar is another great place to relish the view of dolphins while enjoying a cocktail and seafood delight at the ravishing bar in Alega. There are numerous activities and events held at Tisa’s annually. There is a Tattoo or Tatau Festival hosted there every year, where local artists and tattooists can exhibit their talent in tattooing a Samoan traditional tattoo sogaimiti – for men, malu – for women, or any Samoan tattoo. This event also serves our locals and guests in a classic show to display or model their tattoos. Aside from the ongoing activities, there is more to enjoy besides scuba diving and surfing. There’s Rainforest Jungle Tours, Tisa’s Marine Reserve Tours, and Aunu’u Island Tours. The tour to Aunu’u Island is a must!


Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo is a) a thoroughly wonderful person (and I mean WONDERFUL!) and b) a very talented writer. She has recently published two books, one of which is a short non-fiction work about the village of Lauli’i in American Samoa. If you want to know why Molioleava holds a special place in the author’s heart, read the interview.


Pasifika Truthfully: You wrote a very interesting book – a short story, to be exact – about the village of Lauli’i, American Samoa. Why did you decide to do it?

Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo: Thank you. Yes, I did. When I explored publishing options, I garnered a feeling of exemplification. I wanted to write about something I knew rather than something I could have explosively created with imagination. So, I wrote about this crater. For years, I called Molioleava ‘the life of American Samoa’. Without it, there wouldn’t be any telephone services, cable networks, television services and communication among the local territory. But there was another thing that no one knew about Molioleava. Molioleava is also the burial grounds of my ancestors. In sacrificing their resting grounds, surrounding them are antennas serving the territory.

PT: What does the place mean to the islands? Why is it so important?

LPA: The Molioleava or Harbor Light in the village of Lauli’i, American Samoa is a huge point of infrastructure for the island of American Samoa. Because of the elevation of this crater, majority of the antennas and telecommunication lines are seated on the crater. Installed on this crater also is the harbor light that guides ships and boats into the inner wharf or port of the territory.

PT: There are quite a few ghost stories about Molioleava. Can you share some of them?

LPA: There’s quite many for visitors and guests. From the blonde hair lady who stands by the lone coconut tree in the mountain to an appearance of people waving from the harbor light when ships pass by at night. There’s a track of sand that leads far up the road to the harbor light before sunrise, that most elders used to call ‘a path for spirits’ (ala o’o.) As a true flesh and blood of this land, I can only imagine the stories that people convey. I also think that there are unordinary things beyond our control or those who had once occupied the lands still guarding lands and family. I only think of sudden neck hairs standing up as guardians just passing by when I’m in the area.

PT: Your family comes from the village of Lauli’i. Can you tell me something more about this place?

LPA: The harbor light, or Molioleava, is a general name for the crater or the mountain. In Samoan, the word moli means light, ava is the deep-sea. To my family, this crater has its own name and meaning. This land is called Namumeaavaga, a Samoan word meaning ‘the fragrance’ or odor of the deceased. This land was the very first area our ancestors first settled from the island of Manu’a to have their ava (kava) upon arrival. The two sons of the King of Manu’a (Tuimanu’a), Sua and Vaifanua, sailed out and found the village of Lauli’i. When they settled by the crater, they bid farewell from one another. Vaifanua went to Vatia, my ancestor Sua stayed in Lauli’i. This mountain was the focal point where Tuimanu’a could see his sons from Ta’u, Manu’a. It is also an area very dusky at night, almost like a hindrance to ships when they sail in. Another remarkable history behind this mountain are the colonization days when the United States Naval artifacts and artilleries were placed by the Breaker’s Point and on the obverse end of crater. Those monuments are still sitting there today and managed by the National Park. Starkist, one of the biggest manufactory in the territory hosts many licensed fishing vessels annually. Some Korean ships that encountered hardships with the crater sunk and are still seated on the outskirts of the Molioleava.

PT: Is this your favourite place on the Planet Earth?

LPA: Molioleava would be my most favorite place on Earth. As many people say, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ Molioleava or Namumeaavaga surrounds my humble abode in Lauli’i.

PT: What does American Samoa mean to you?

LPA: It is my home and a respective title I epitomize everywhere I go. I have roots in both Samoan archipelagos, but American Samoa is where I was born and raised. I always think of the territory as a remote dot on the map, with power to its lands and its own facilitated Constitution. My homeland is like a gem carted in my journeys and milestones. While not many people know where American Samoa is, the only way they’ll be able to remember American Samoa is through the NFL players Marcus Mariota, Domata Peko, Joey Iosefa and many more. Another way the world would easily remember American Samoa is by its beauty of turquoise beaches, lush mountains, annual cruise ships, and tourism – the cannibalism memorial in Aoloau, the outrigger and long boat races, the Tale of the Turtle and Shark, the inner wharf that guarded US Navy ships in during the Tripartite Convention, preservation of the Samoan culture, the rides to Aunu’u Island, quiet Sundays, the family oriented people and a homeland with a huge quota of American Samoans serving in the United States military. Essentially, American Samoa is my home.

PT: Do you feel more American or Samoan?

LPA: I always feel that I could blend in with any ethnicity and feel happy with an open mind than share a faction of where I represent. However, I feel that there is more of me in both. For instance, while English is still my second language, I use both English and Samoan to communicate and translate anything to better understand it. I practice my Samoan culture everywhere I go. I excuse myself when I walk by people. I fathom the word, Faafetai – meaning thank you. There is respect rendered for anyone. And no matter where I venture out to, I never forget where I am from. On the American side, I am a proud veteran of the United States Army. I served this country and went to wars and protected the freedom of not only this country, but also my homeland of American Samoa. If there is one thing I’m most proud of in my life, it would be this sacrifice for world peace, freedom for mankind facing genocide, and the love for people. With my Samoan culture manifested in all that I do, I find the best in both worlds as a citizen of good faith.

PT: Do you plan to visit the islands anytime soon?

LPA: I just returned a few months ago. Since I left home in 2000, I’ve always traveled back to visit family. It’s so hard to board the plane after weeks of eating German buns and round pancakes in Fagatogo. Everything moves rapidly in the world. Like in Bulgaria, you’ll never find someone walking as if they’re walking in a park. In Heidelberg, every one counts down to Oktoberfest like it’s nothing. And then there’s old sweet Wisconsin, where time just flies right over the marshes of cranberry country. When that Hawaiian Airline lands in Pago Pago International Airport, everything goes on pause. Vacation hashtag goes up!


‘Molioleava’ is the story of Lauli’i, a village in American Samoa, as told by the author, Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo.



To most unitiated people the hill that stands guard over the inner wharf of American Samoa may just be a source of light that guides ships safely to the harbour. But to Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo, Molioleava is the life and heart of the country.

This beautiful part of the village of Lauli’i is the abode of her ancestors – their burial grounds. It’s a place where the present interlaces with the past; a place that requires remembrance and respect.


Hardly ever do we think about that, but every book – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction – must possess certain elements. It needs, for example, a main character – an individual around whom a story revolves. It also requires a setting, that is a location where the aforementioned character experiences his or her adventures. But what if the main character and the setting are one and the same thing?

It happens; sometimes a place indeed is the protagonist and the absolute focal point of the book. But in ‘Molioleava’, the described location is even more than that. This is the reason why this short publication is quite an oddity; a rare bird that appears in the sky to amaze people. It may be just a few pages long, but it is a substantial volume that provides readers with a great deal of information regarding one of the most important and – as it turns out – fascinating sites in American Samoa.

Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo relates the story in a somewhat journalistic manner. Very quickly you get an impression of reading a newspaper article, in which the author reports bare facts, adorning them occasionally with a little more personal tales. The text skips nimbly from one subject to another, painting a very thorough picture in your head. Everything, from the geography of the place to its history and mythology to the significance for the island’s infrastructure, is comprehensively covered. You feel well versed when you finish the last sentence. And you certainly feel intrigued to get to know Molioleava even better, for this work really sparks interest. As befits a fine writer, Ms. Alaimalo pulls readers into a unique world and then leaves them wanting more.

Now, despite the abundance of information, the book is one of those that you may think end before they really start. It is a very slim volume, a ‘quick read’ in the purest form. It seems that Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo is a lady of few words, because the brevity of her story is quite surprising, especially when juxtaposed with the amount of knowledge it presents. Well, don’t let the length fool you – it may be a slim volume, but it is extremely pithy. The author hit the right note – the book is complete without being mundane. And boredom, let’s be honest here, would not be so difficult to achieve taking into account the very specific subject matter.

The substance definitely satisfies, but the style is equally good. Unnecessary descriptions have been left out, and yet the place is depicted so vividly you have no troubles conjuring it up in your imagination. The harbour light and the crown of antennas appear right before your eyes, and you can sense a subtle aura of mystery. Skillfully written in clear and concise language, this story is a real pleasure to read.

Books like this are not being published every day, which is reason enough to reach for this title. It’s arresting and enlightening. It’s simply unique.


‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific’ is Paul Theroux’s memoir-cum-travelogue that documents his journey across the Blue Continent.



What does a man do when faced with a failing marriage and the possibility of having skin cancer? He starts his fight. He’s determined to win the battles. Or he gives up and does nothing. Or – just like Paul – he runs away; as far from his home as he can. Is there a better destination that the alluring islands of the Pacific? Absolutely not.

Beginning in Australia and New Zealand, he gets his first taste of Oceania. The mysterious Blue Continent and an overwhelming need to be alone in the wilderness makes him grab his collapsible kayak and venture into the great unknown. Trying to immerse himself in the indigenous cultures of the region, he travels from Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Archipelago, from Vanuatu to Fiji, from the islands of south Polynesia to heavenly Hawaii. Each of these places lets him escape his bitter reality, until – finally – he rediscovers the flavor of life anew.


Have you ever had a love/hate relationship with a book? I have. And this is THE book.

Yes, I absolutely love it. This is one of the best titles in the travel genre, hands down. It’s funny, engaging, and it shows rather than tells. But it also annoys me beyond words. Literally, it makes me utterly mad. As it is quite rude to commence with the downsides, let’s start with the positives, shall we?

It cannot be denied that Paul Theroux possesses the literary genius. His prodigious talent with words captivates readers, compelling them to devour page after page until they swiftly reach the end of his more or less irritating yet extremely intriguing story. And even though he states at the end of the last chapter that he is not a travel writer, this personal account proves otherwise – it is the very epitome of the ‘been there, wrote the book’ genre; and a terrific one at that!

It is impossible to miss his flowing prose that is thoroughly appealing, impeccable language, or the authentically funny (at least more often than not) sense of humour. The author doesn’t bother readers with detailed and vivid descriptions of the places he travels to. Instead, he devotes his attention to people – mainly native inhabitants – and their ways of being. He absorbs everything that surrounds him – from the atmosphere of the so-called paradise to the idiosyncrasies of the cultures he encounters. He explores, he observes, he draws his own conclusions. He is not afraid to ask even the most personal questions, and the more honest the answer the more happy he seems to be. Because the islands clearly cheer him up. What started as a great escape, turned out to be a great and often amusing adventure. Which, by the way, should surprise absolutely no one – when in paradise, you can’t help but beam with sheer happiness. Even if that paradise sometimes uncovers its darker side.

Yes, let’s be frank here, no corner of this globe can be given the label of ‘a wonderland’. But if there is one place on our planet Earth that can be regarded as the slice of heaven, this is Oceania. With its kind, smiling, welcoming people it is the closest thing to paradise you’ll be able to find. And yet Paul Theroux failed to notice that. Throughout the book he proudly displays his sardonic attitude, throwing around disgustingly subjective comments about the locals that are genuinely hard to read at times. He writes, for example, that the prettiest women he saw in the Pacific were in Tonga; only to add in the very same sentence that they were also ‘the ugliest, hairy things with bad skin’. Additionally, you may learn that the people of Tanna were (I consciously retain the past form; after all, we don’t know if this viewpoint still holds true for Mr Theroux today) ‘small, scowling knob-headed blacks with short legs and big dusty feet’. Samoans – on the other hand – are lovingly described as ‘rather gloatingly rude’. It seems that only the inhabitants of the Cooks deserved some compliments. In Theroux’s eyes they weren’t ‘greedy or lazy’; actually, they were ‘hospitable, generous, and friendly’. I can understand having your own opinions. But I can’t understand being a xenophobe.

Is this book worthy of your time and attention? Absolutely. It is an outstanding piece of travel literature. It is entertaining and…well…very informative. It lets you discover that one may be a terrific writer, but a not so terrific person.


‘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.’

Paul Theroux, ‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling The Pacific’

‘Tahiti has its drawbacks – it is expensive, traffic-choked, noisy, corrupt, and Frenchified – but it is impossible to belittle its natural physical beauty, and in spite of the car exhausts there is nearly always in the air the fragrant aroma – the noanoa – of flowers, the tiare especially, a tiny white gardenia that is Tahiti’s national blossom.’

Paul Theroux, ‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling The Pacific’

‘These Tongans were elegant – it was something in their posture, in their features, many actually looked noble – a prince here, a princess there.’

Paul Theroux, ‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling The Pacific’

‘Paddling out to the island of Aunu’u I thought again of the pamphlet that had been given to me, with the rules that all visitors were urged to observe.

– When in a Samoan house, do not talk while standing.

– Do not stretch your legs out when seated.

– Do not carry an umbrella past a house.

– Do not drive through a village when chiefs are gathering.

– Do not eat while walking through a village (it seemed to me that Samoans ate no other way, and usually were munching a very large jelly donut).

– Samoans are deeply religious – pray and sing with them.

– Do not wear flowers in church.

– When drinking kava, hold the cup in front of you and say “manuia” (“when drinking Coke” would have been more opposite, since that seemed firmly part of the culture).

– Bikinis and shorts are not considered appropriate attire in Samoan villages or town areas.

– Ask permission before snapping photos or picking flowers.

– Be extra quiet on Sundays.

Paul Theroux, ‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling The Pacific’

‘At the very frontier of the Black Islands lies Fiji, the edge of Melanesia – so close that some of its tinier islands, Rotuma and the Lau group, for example, overlap Polynesia. In these transitional straddling dots of land, the people are regarded as Polynesian. There is a strong Tongan influence in the Lau culture. They make and sail canoes in the Lau group. They wear crunchy mats around the waist, Tongan-style. They paddle. They fish. They dance. They recall their great sea ventures. In a village on the Lau island of Lakeba they hold an annual ceremony in which sharks are summoned – a “shark-caller” up to his or her neck in the lagoon is circled by a school of sharks, attracted by the person’s chanting.’

Paul Theroux, ‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling The Pacific’


Pacific Islands. Where to go? What to see? What to do? Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of several bestselling books, one of which is ‘Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before’, gives his recommendations (this week we change The 3s for The 2s – just this week!)

Travel some part of the islands by sail rather than on a cruise or motorboat

I did so in Tahiti, which suffers from over-development and pollution. From the water, however, much of it is still magnificent. Sailing through the reef at Huahine and entering Bora Bora’s lagoon at night were two of the more memorable experiences of my travels. They also gave me a profound appreciation of Cook and his men, who navigated these and many other treacherous waters without maps or modern equipment.

Immerse yourself in all things Maori

Many parts of Polynesia were so ravaged by Western contact that their traditional cultures almost vanished. The Maori did better than most, fighting extremely hard and maintaining their language and traditions, which are a large and vital part of New Zealand society. In my experience, Maori are also eager to share their culture and educate visitors. The beautiful east coast of New Zealand’s north island attracts fewer tourists than other parts of the country and it’s a fine place to see a Maori haka, visit a marae, and learn to hongi.


Tony Horwitz needs no introduction. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the author of seven books, and – most importantly – an all-round nice person. His fantastic travelogue, ‘Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before’, is a must-read for every Pasifika aficionado. Do you want to learn more about Tony’s journey across the Blue Continent? You can do so from this interview.


Pasifika Truthfully: What was first – the idea to write a book about retracing Captain Cook’s voyages or a desire to set sail?

Tony Horwitz: If you mean ‘set sail’ in the sense of embark on a global adventure, then that was my prime impetus and Cook’s travels provided a historical path to follow. However, I’m a woeful sailor and was much happier every time I could explore on land rather than by sea.

PT: Why did you choose Captain James Cook? Was it because of all the incredible places he travelled to?

TH: Initially, I was struck by the places he went and wanted to see them for myself. But as the journey went on, I became fascinated by Cook the man, so what started as a travel adventure grew into a biography as well.

PT: It is not a secret that for Pacific Islanders James Cook was no hero. What do people in the Blue Continent think of the famous British navigator?

TH: Is Blue Continent shorthand for the Pacific? It depends where you are. Cook has admirers in Australia and New Zealand but not many elsewhere in the Pacific. He’s generally seen as an advance man of empire and colonization and all the ills that ultimately resulted.

PT: Do you agree with their opinions? Do you view Cook as a villain or a hero?

TH: It’s undeniable that Cook’s voyages opened the door to colonization, disease, the dispossession of native peoples and other damage to their cultures. But Cook didn’t intend this harm. He was a product of the Enlightenment, on a scientific mission of discovery and, for the most part, expressed sympathy and respect for those he encountered. I don’t think he should be lumped with conquistadors and other Europeans who set out to conquer, kill, convert, and enslave.

PT: You visited various Pacific Island countries after you had read about them in Cook’s journals. To what extent did your impressions coincide with those of Cook?

TH: Obviously, the Pacific has changed tremendously since Cook’s voyages in the late 1700s. After colonization and other transformations came mass tourism, and sadly we’ve loved some parts of Polynesia’s fragile environment to death. But off the beaten track, there were many places where I felt the views and landscapes were very close to what Cook described. I also caught glimpses of the traditional cultures and characteristics Cook wrote about, such as the warrior heart of Maori society, the sensuality of Tahitians, and the deeply non-Western and non-materialistic nature of Aboriginal peoples in Australia.

PT: How much was your journey a journey of self-discovery? What did you learn?

TH: To be honest, I find self-discovery an overrated aspect of travel adventures. I’m more interested in discovering others. But I did learn many things, particularly during my time as a sailor aboard a museum-quality replica of Cook’s first ship, the Endeavour. I realized just how soft we are compared to sailors and explorers in the 18th century; few of us could endure a month of the physical and mental strains they put up with for years at a time. I also realized I can’t tie knots to save my life, and that its best not to look down when you’re near the top of a hundred-foot mast.

PT: ‘Blue Latitudes’ is an interesting book. It’s part travelogue and part James Cook’s biography. Was that your intention from the beginning?

TH: My original intent was to write a historically themed travelogue. But as I read and traveled more deeply, I really wanted to understand this extraordinary man who rose from lowly origins to the upper reaches of the British Navy and kept hurling himself off the edge of the known world. So the biographical component grew to roughly half of the book’s content.

PT: I do consider ‘Blue Latitudes’ a terrific piece of travel literature and one of the best books regarding the Pacific Islands. If you could give one reason why people should read it, what would it be?

TH: The book, I hope, allows readers to grasp what true adventure means. Sailing off the map, and having first contact with remote societies untouched by the West, is an experience we simply can’t have today outside of science fiction. I also hope readers will laugh at my own misadventures in Cook’s wake. I really wanted the book to be as entertaining as my travels were for me.