Category Archives: AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

A CHAT WITH… BRYAN WEBB

Bryan Webb, an Assembly of God missionary, has been residing in Vanuatu for more than fifteen years. In his two books, ‘Hungry Devils’ and ‘The Sons of Cannibals’, he relates his experiences of living in a foreign land, giving readers a fascinating account of front line missions. Being a very kind man, he took the time and answered a few questions regarding his work and the South Pacific.

BRYAN WEBB

Pasifika Truthfully: You are a missionary so travelling to distant lands is an important part of your life. But how did you end up in Vanuatu?

Bryan Webb: Our journey into the Pacific started while I worked the night shift in a factory to pay my way through college. Many of my fellow workers were Pacific Islanders. Their descriptions of their islands were mesmerizing, and of course everyone invited me for a visit. My wife Renee and I developed a number of close friendships and took them up on their invitations. Once we had visited several Pacific island nations we felt sure the islands would always be our home. A number of factors convinced us to settle in Vanuatu: the people, the opportunities, but mostly friendships.

PT: What was your first impression of the archipelago? What surprised you most about the country and its people?

BW: Renee and I began our Pacific travels in Micronesia, where the islands are tiny, so when I first arrived in Vanuatu I was amazed at the large size of the islands. The thing I found fascinating about the people was the amazing diversity of language and culture. In Vanuatu, Christian and Kastom, stone age and space age exist side by side. My first day in Luganville I was window shopping at LCM, one of our Chinese stores. Distracted by the items displayed in the window, I bumped into an elderly gentleman as I turned to go. I was startled to discover he was wearing little more than a hunting knife.

PT: Was it difficult to adjust to a new culture?

BW: Cultural adjustment is always a challenge. However, we found adapting to Vanuatu to be relatively simple. Bislama, the national language, is easy to learn and most people are very eager to befriend you and teach you about their culture. I think diving in and truly immersing yourself in the culture is the key to a successful adjustment.

PT: You described the peculiarities of living in Vanuatu in your two books, which are just phenomenal. It seems that one of the hardest things you had to deal with was ‘reconciling’ your teachings with the traditional values of Ni-Vanuatu people.

BW: I believe Christ and his teachings are transcultural. The greatest challenge I face is stripping my cultural preconceptions away so that I can present Christ and his teachings in the Ni-Vanuatu cultural context. Often what seems like a contradiction between Ni-Vanuatu culture and Christianity is really a contradiction between Ni-Vanuatu and Western culture.

PT: Do you think those indigenous beliefs and traditions, which are a big part of Melanesian cultures, should be preserved?

BW: Yes and no. Culture is complex. No culture is static, and that is a good thing. All cultures are in a constant state of flux. Culture ultimately springs from environment, and cultures change as the environment changes or as people collectively come to understand and relate to their environment differently. Ni-Vanuatu as a whole live in a rapidly changing world, with those changes some aspects of culture will become outdated or irrelevant, others will prove to be critical to maintaining their identity in this changing world. In the end only Ni-Vanuatu are qualified to guide themselves through this process. I am, however, completely opposed to the idea of asking people to follow outdated and irrelevant traditions, so that tourists can gawk at people living in the equivalent of a cultural zoo.

PT: You’ve been living in Vanuatu for quite a while now. Have you adopted any of the customs or practices?

BW: No doubt I have become a third culture person. I will never be fully Ni-Vanuatu, but I will also never be fully American again. Vanuatu has placed an indelible stamp on my life. I find myself focused on people rather than tasks, and events rather than time. Most of the changes are subtle and really don’t stand out till I visit America again.

PT: And how, in your opinion, has the country changed since your arrival?

BW: Vanuatu is rapidly modernizing. Cell phones and Internet have transformed communications. Women are gaining a voice in the culture. Most of the changes I see are good. The negative would be an increase in drug abuse and pornography.

PT: You wrote two books. How many more interesting tales do you have? Is there a third volume on the horizon?

BW: Vanuatu is so fascinating there is an endless list of stories. My challenge is taking the time to write. I am currently working on a book with photographer Gaylon Wampler. Gaylon is an amazing artist with a camera. Together we hope to create a stunning photo essay of Vanuatu. This project will be very different than what I have written to date. My first two books are focused on my experiences and were decidedly religious. This book will be completely focused on the people, culture, and beauty of Vanuatu. We are doing this as a gift to the children of Vanuatu and 100% of the proceeds will go to providing education for underprivileged children. This book was inspired out of my experience in the story, ‘Warm and Well Fed’ in the book ‘The Sons of Cannibals’. We are aiming for a December 2015 release.

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A CHAT WITH… ANDREW RAYNER

Andrew Rayner is not your ordinary man, and his book, ‘Reach for Paradise’, is certainly not your ordinary publication. But, you wouldn’t expect anything less from someone who spent eight years sailing the blue waters, would you? If you want to know what Andrew had to say about his adventure, book, and – of course – Pasifika, just read the interview.

Pasifika Truthfully: People embark on a voyage for various reasons: they want to escape, forget about their problems, or simply see the world. Why did you decide to set sail?

Andrew Rayner: Most opportunity is luck, and venture’s often a combination of push and pull. In my case the children fledged, my wife gone and my business sold on one hand, and an insatiable travel lust for the Pacific on the other made circumstances that both enabled and stimulated me to get a boat and head for the horizon. Like many before me, the original intention was traduced as my intended three years afloat to be followed by a return to city work turned into five, seven and eight before the circumnavigation was completed.

PT: I do believe you can now say it was a life-changing experience.

AR: No question. Sailing gives quality time for thinking not often available on land. Clear starlit skies and a vast ocean lit from within by bioluminescence make a great page on which to reckon one’s view of things. And there’s an impression of more uncluttered society in the island communities that’s an aid to clarity of mind and appreciation of the precious aspects of human nature.

PT: What was the most and the least enjoyable part of the journey?

AR: Blue water sailors spend more time fixing the boat than sailing. Everything breaks sometime, most often when the nearest help is hundreds of miles away. ‘Boat maintenance in exotic places’ is a reasonable description of low latitude cruising. Another aphorism ‘The two best days of your life are the day you buy the boat, and the day you sell her’ has several grains of truth. Yet a boat is the only way to Pacific islands, bar a handful. Thus I’d say being faced with boat problems you can’t fix but have to fix is among the most testing.

The other side of this coin that makes it all worthwhile is the endless variety and joy of islands, of passages, of the ocean and the submarine life, and most of all the wonderful people out there.

PT: Knowing what you know now, would you like to repeat your adventure?

AR: Yes, at least at the age I set sail I would go again. Anyone who has the chance to undertake such a journey is hugely privileged.

PT: Now, let’s concentrate on Pasifika. For you, paradise?

AR: Foregoing quibbles about definitions, yes.

PT: If you were to describe in a few words each of the Pacific countries you had a chance to visit, what would you say?

AR: An impossible task that might produce a result unfair to everywhere. People need different things from their travels, and when asked standard questions about best islands I try to gage what the questioner is looking for. Intrepid travelers I’d send to Vanuatu, divers to the few places operating in PNG or the Solomons. Those looking for beauty combined with comfort love Bora Bora, and for an excursion into anthropology Rapa Nui. Vava’u has charter sailboats available and a magnificent archipelago to explore, and Aitutaki produces the finest dancing in the ocean. The tamelife of the Galapagos is wondrous, while the rest of the oceanic Pacific Ring of Fire never disappoints rookie geologists. Fiji, Niue, the Micronesian islands, the Kula Ring islands of PNG, there’s almost nowhere I wouldn’t wish to return to. But most important is to have time with the people.

PT: Your book can certainly help people visualize all those places. I must say it is a magnificent publication. The pictures, illustrations, maps simply delight. Why did you choose to embellish the written word?

AR: I remember ‘Treasure Island’ among the books I read when pretty small. The images left, Blind Pugh bringing the Black Spot, the Island, the chest of treasure, were drawings. I’m sure my enjoyment and recollection depended considerably on these drawings. Non-fiction books can of course survive without illustration, most in fact very easily, but some seem to cry for help. I felt ‘RFP’ could not convey the relationship of islands without maps, and my pen isn’t adequate to describe all that I wished without the help of illustrations. I am most fortunate in having as my wife and travel companion a superb painter and mapmaker.

PT: ‘Reach for Paradise’ is so unusual that it’s difficult to categorize. In your opinion, is it a memoir, a travelogue, or maybe a travel guide?

AR: Aah, it’s those and more, with plenty of history, anthropology, literary reference, and even a naughty bit of my own verse thrown in. But none of that is the aim. ‘RFP’ is a celebration of Pacific islands, something I found despite diligent inquiry was lacking from contemporary bookshelves. The islands are magnificent and to varying degrees outside the modern world, not as colonial left-overs or some sort of a curiosity goggled at by boatloads of tourists but vibrant societies with rich culture and story. They deserve a reasoned overview through sympathetic eyes. Though ‘RFP’ may prove to be a travel companion where there was none like it before, I hope, too, it conveys the true spirit of the islands.

PT: I’m sure you have many more stories to tell. Do you plan to write a sequel?

AR: No, though tempting. I cut some 40% of the original manuscript to make ‘RFP’ manageable.

PT: Last question that I need to ask… Have you found your paradise? Is it Hawaii, where you now live?

AR: Location is as much a compromise as most things in life. We farm fruit in the most Hawaiian, thus Polynesian, part of Hawaii. It’s beautiful, remote and traditional. But 800 numbers, cable internet, and Costco a couple of hours away serve to make life easier. We are happy here.

A CHAT WITH… GWENDA CORNELL

Gwenda Cornell is an extraordinary woman. 35 years ago she packed her family and set out on a journey across the Pacific Ocean. She shares her adventures in an engaging memoir called ‘Pacific Odyssey’. If you want to know more not only about her book but also about her time spent in the Blue Continent, just read the interview.

GWENDA CORNELL

Pasifika Truthfully: Let’s start with the ending. You’d spent three years on a boat cruising the Pacific Ocean. Then you decided it was time to go back to England. Did you have a hard time getting used to leading a ‘normal life’?

Gwenda Cornell: In fact we had spent a total of six years roaming the oceans before we returned to England. Personally I had no problems getting back to shore life and enjoyed meeting up with family, old friends and luxuriating in a bath. Our children however had a much more difficult time, although they had looked forward to going to ‘proper’ school. They were regarded by other children as being a bit strange as they did not know the characters of popular TV programmes or which football team (soccer) to support. After many years my daughter Doina has written about all this in her memoir of growing up at sea called ‘Child of the Sea’. Her book also includes quite a lot about her experiences in the Pacific.

PT: Now let’s get back to the beginning. Why did you decide to set sail in the first place?

GC: My husband Jimmy had always wanted to go to sea since he was a child and he persuaded me that this was the best way to see the world. We had both always enjoyed travelling, but did not have much money, so he fitted out the boat himself and that way we could get to see a lot of extraordinary places that were not easy to reach in those days, when air travel was much more expensive than nowadays. Many of the places we visited did not even have airports.

PT: Didn’t you hesitate to take your children out of school for such a long period of time?

GC: At the time, I thought that the experiences they could have would be so much more than anything they could learn in the classroom. Also they were at a good age 5 & 7 when we left. I prepared for the voyage quite carefully, qualifying as a teacher and had the full support of the school in London that the children were attending. When we first set sail we only thought of staying away for 2 or 3 years, spending one year in the Pacific, but our life was so entrancing we ended up spending much longer. Also the children did enjoy going to school in a lot of places, six months in New Zealand, one month in the Gambier, a week in Aitutaki and one day in Pitcairn.

PT: Would you say that your adventure taught Ivan and Doina more than they’d have ever learnt while sitting in the classroom?

GC: Absolutely, there is no question of that. For a start we had no TV, so they read voraciously. We always made sure we had topical books, so they read Thor Heyerdahl on the way to Easter Island, ‘The Mutiny of the Bounty’ on the way to Pitcairn and so on. They learnt so much about other cultures by making friends with local children and also a lot about nature, from tropical islands to free diving on coral reefs.

PT: And what did you learn?

GC: I learnt a tremendous amount about geography, nature and Pacific culture, plus an abiding respect for the Pacific peoples who have so much to teach us about how to live life fully and care for the less able members of our society.

PT: You described some of your experiences in ‘Pacific Odyssey’, which is an amazing book. How did that happen?

GC: I started while still in the Pacific by writing small pieces for the magazine Pacific Islands Monthly (I believe it no longer exists). When I returned to England, someone suggested that I expand these articles and turn them into a book. Fortunately, I had kept a detailed journal about our voyage so it was not difficult.

PT: I’m sure there are stories you didn’t include in your memoir. Would you care to share one of them?

GC: I have been trying to think of some instance, but could not come up with anything. The voyage I describe took place 35 years ago, so some of the memories are unfortunately fading a little.

PT: I understand. Let me ask you about the people you met. Do you keep in touch with any of the Islanders?

GC: Again 35 years ago communications were much different. There was no e-mail, Internet, Facebook, etc. We even made the first phone calls out of some places. Pacific Islanders were not very good at writing letters, especially where there was no post office on their island. But when we did meet up with some of them again, such as at the Pacific Festival of Arts, friendships were easily renewed. In the epilogue I wrote to the book after 30 years I do describe some of the people we encountered again.

However we have kept in touch with many of the people from different nationalities that we met on other sailing boats and the French Bouteleux family described in the book are still among our closest friends today.

PT: Would you say the voyage changed your life?

GC: Yes, it certainly did. We became much more involved with sailing and the cruising life. It also changed my view of the world and its various peoples and cultures.

PT: What advice would you give people who’d like to follow in your footsteps and set out on a journey?

GC: Just get out there and do it while you can. Some of these places may change or even disappear as a result of climate change. Make a plan and stick to it, be prepared to live a simpler life, less dependent on all that stuff you can have these days, that way it becomes more affordable.

A CHAT WITH… RICHARD SHEARS

Richard Shears is not only an award-winning journalist and photographer but also the author of more than 30 books. His highly engaging account of the rebellion that occurred on Espiritu Santo in 1980, ‘The Coconut War: Vanuatu and the Struggle for Independence’, is a must-read for everyone who is interested in the history of the Pacific Islands. Here’s what Richard had to say about Vanuatu’s past, his book and the Blue Continent.

RICHARD SHEARS

Pasifika Truthfully: Are you aware of the fact that you witnessed one of the most important events in the history of the Pacific Islands?

Richard Shears: The importance of that period, in the build up to the New Hebrides becoming independent, actually became clear to me as the months passed by after ‘Vanuatu’ came into existence. For me, initially, the Coconut War, which was a name I’d adopted, was a news story that had to be covered and I was not paying particular attention to the historical significance of what I was witnessing. Now, I look back thrilled at the knowledge that ‘I was there’!

PT: If you could describe the Coconut War in one sentence, what would it be?

RS: Bizarre, crazy, dangerous, desperate – in fact you can throw any adjective at it and it will fit, for the war had everything, particularly the unexpected.

PT: The war has often been called ‘unconventional’. What’s the strangest, most unusual thing you saw or experienced during your stay?

RS: The moment I stepped from a bush path on Santo and found myself in a clearing with not a soul in sight – and then from all sides men wearing loin clothes and carrying spears and bows and arrows stepping out silently from the bush to stare at me in amazement, just as I was staring in amazement at them. This was the headquarters of Jimmy Stevens at Fanafo and I’d been allowed in through a padlocked gate, before the ‘guards’ disappeared into the bush. Then, further down the track I came to the clearing where I found myself surrounded. Jimmy Stevens emerged from a hut and invited me in, where he sat on a radio and started calling up other villages, gathering support for his fight for independence for Espiritu Santo.

PT: And what’s your clearest memory from that time?

RS: So many clear memories… My second journey to Santo on board a cargo ship, travelling part of the way by canoe, sleeping with the mosquitoes in grass huts, hiding in a doorway in the main street of Luganville as shots were exchanged between police and Jimmy’s men, and, bizarrely, finding myself in a night club in Luganville, the only customer at 10 o’clock at night, until a strange little man came up to me and asked me to dance with him. That was when I decided it was time to leave – quickly.

PT: Ok, so let’s focus on the islands for a while. Imagine… It’s 1980. Vanuatu is called the New Hebrides. You’ve just arrived… What do you see?

RS: I see a curious place, where everything is mixed up. I was like a male version of Alice, arriving in Wonderland. The road signs were British, but the cars travelled on the right-hand side of the road as in Europe. The main street was a run-down place, yet it had a certain charm about it, mainly due to the French influence. I recall so well the old Rossi hotel, where diplomats gathered for lunch under whispering fans, or called in at Ma Barker’s restaurant for their famous coconut crab.

PT: You are an acclaimed journalist. You have covered stories all over the world. Why did you decide to write a book about Vanuatu and its struggle for independence?

RS: I didn’t set out to write a book, actually. I went to the New Hebrides as it was then to cover the tense stand-off between Jimmy Stevens and the central government for London’s ‘Daily Mail’ newspaper. But the story ran on and on and there was so much happening each day, particularly following the arrival of British and French troops who couldn’t stand the sight of each other, that I decided there was too much to write each day for a newspaper, so I started compiling the book, literally writing it each evening as the crisis continued to be played out. I knew at the time that the book would ‘work’ because it was such a crazy, but important, story.

PT: Why should people read your account?

RS: I think people who read the book will enjoy its ‘pace’ because I wrote it as events were progressing so that they were clear enough in my mind to give readers a true blow-by-blow, up-to-date record of all that was happening as they did actually happen. I tried to give the impression for the reader that they were actually there, experiencing it with me.

PT: Have you had a chance to come back to Vanuatu? If yes, how has the country changed?

RS: I’ve been back to Vanuatu several times since then, as, true to the bizarre nature of the event, I married a part ni-Vanuatu whom I met while covering the war. Isobelle and I are still together after 34 years, too! As for what has changed – well, I think Vanuatu has lost much of its culture. The town has been smartened up, but somehow for me it’s lost much of its old charm. However, there are still traces of those bizarre elements to be found in the outlying islands. For instance a few years ago I visited a tribe on Tanna who worship the Duke of Edinburgh and who hold a photograph of him with great reverence. My story had a big showing in the ‘Daily Mail’ because it was so, well, ‘different’.

PT: The last question… Would you like to visit any other Pacific country (and perhaps write another book)?

RS: In fact, I’ve already been to most islands in the Pacific in the course of my work as a journalist. The most memorable and recent visit to a Pacific island was to the Marshalls where a Mexican fisherman ran around after drifting across the Pacific for a year. His story made international headlines. Other stories I’ve covered in the islands have been the coups in Fiji, the exodus of islanders from Ocean Island, a crazy Englishman living in Western Samoa, cyclones in Tonga, a so-called ‘Black Jesus’ in New Guinea, yet another crazy Englishman living on Mog Mog island (now there was a great dateline for my story) and… well, maybe that’s enough for now! I’ve catalogued quite a few of these in a book published two years ago called ‘It’s OK, I’m From the Daily Mail!’.

A CHAT WITH… MICHAEL BLAHUT

Michael Blahut is one of the authors of a fantastic book called ‘Bula Pops!: A Memoir of a Son’s Peace Corps Service in the Fiji Islands’. If you are curious what he had to say not only about his literary work but also about Fiji, just read the interview.

MICHAEL BLAHUT, MICHAEL BLAHUT III

Pasifika Truthfully: ‘Bula Pops!’ is quite an unusual book – you co-authored it with your son. How did that happen?

Michael Blahut: I collected his emails and letters from Fiji. After him serving a year there, I went to visit him along with his younger brother, Eli. We spent three weeks there and travelled to three islands. When I came back home, I started to consolidate his notes and formatted them into MS Word. After he returned from Fiji, I continued to work on the book. He was helping me for a month. When he went to California, we continued to refine the book via email.

PT: Why did you decide to write this memoir? Did you just want to share your son’s experience, or did you want to give people a glimpse of life in Fiji?

MB: There were a couple of reasons. First, we wanted to document the experience of living in Fiji because of the many unusual encounters my son had; plus I had experienced it myself first-hand, and I could relate to his situation. Imagine living in a Fijian village, at the top of a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and enjoying this every day. The view was priceless.

Second, it was his Peace Corps experience, which he will draw upon every day for knowledge and solutions. His stories were funny and realistic; he showed his emotions and feelings.

PT: As you’ve mentioned, you had a chance to visit that South Pacific country. What was your first impression?

MB: It is a third world country, and do not let people tell you differently. There are resorts there that shelter the outside villages and the way people live. Staying the first night in my son’s village was an eye opener. The dogs were fighting and lizards were running up my leg. I had to go outside to use the bathroom, which was also part shower stall. I thought: ‘What am I doing here?’ But that all changed as I adapted. The water was beautiful and warm.

PT: Did Fiji live up to your expectations?

MB: I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the end, it was a wonderful experience. Snorkeling in the ocean and experiencing Fiji time. The people were friendly and helpful. It also helped that my son had learned Fijian and he could converse with the natives.

PT: You were in Fiji for a short period of time. Your son lived there for over 2 years. What were his thoughts of the country, its people and their culture?

MB: He was able to work for the Chief of his province and learned how the Fijians controlled the land, and the Fijian-Indians could only lease it. My son worked closely with many people. Some of them weren’t too motivated to do things or make changes. No guns are allowed in Fiji, so there are no shootings or real bad crimes. The Fijian diet consists of a lot of carbohydrates, and many of the Fijians are big people. There is a conflict between the Indians, who take up 50% of the population, and the native Fijians, who rule. The Fijian food is bland, the Indian food has more spices. It is a country that continues to grow, but they are slow to react to changes.

PT: It’s hard not to become a different person after living abroad for such a long time. In your opinion, how did the sojourn change your son?

MB: He felt a stronger need to connect with people and help them in more ways. He is now attending medical school at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.

PT: Would either of you like to come back there one day?

MB: Yes, we talked about it. He still stays in touch with one Fijian there. We may come back when we find time in the future. This would definitely complete my son’s journey.

A CHAT WITH… JONATHAN GOURLAY

Jonathan Gourlay is the author of a fantastic travel-book-cum-memoir called ‘Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia’. Here you can read what he thinks not only about the country but also about his book.

JONATHAN GOURLAY

Pasifika Truthfully: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you end up in FSM?

Jonathan Gourlay: There are many places to start – causes distant and proximate – that led to ‘ending up’ on Pohnpei. (Is there such a thing as ‘beginning up’? Feels more like that.) The easiest answer is that I saw an ad for teachers at the College of Micronesia – FSM in a magazine when I was stacking the magazine rack at the now defunct Borders book store. It was the 1997 equivalent of a random click off a Twitter-feed. Anyway, I was a recent graduate with a Poetry master’s degree and no real plan for the future. I guess most foreigners who wind up living on Pohnpei for a length of time aren’t doing it as part of some greater scheme that leads to a lucrative career (or, if they are, they have made a miscalculation.) Though I suppose I was a little bit different from other ex-pats in that I didn’t have a clear agenda for being there. I mean, I wasn’t there to convert or help anyone. I understand that it is a bit problematic that I am proud of the fact that my reasons for being on Pohnpei are mysterious even to myself.

PT: How would you describe the country? What are its main characteristics?

JG: I have to stick to the island of Pohnpei, where I lived for eleven years. Though I was exposed to the other island cultures in the Federated States of Micronesia, it would be difficult to describe each one. So, how would I describe Pohnpei? I don’t know. I was paradoxically better equipped to answer that question after being there for two weeks. By the time you spend a decade on a place, every description seems a bit superficial. So… Let’s see… It’s an island…with a really cool fringing mangrove swamp…and a great psychotropic, super-kava drink called sakau…and somehow, when I think of it now, the colors seem more vibrant than regular colors and the tragedy and comedy more extreme and everything is both exciting and boring at once and the whole place is saturated with a kind of magic…except that, of course, it isn’t. It’s just another place you can go.

PT: And how would you describe your book?

JG: The book is called ‘Nowhere Slow’ and it consists of 15 essays, some short, some long. I hope that the book is a ‘deep culture’ kind of book. That is, from the perspective someone who lived within the family and clan structure of the island, who spoke the language pretty well, and who grew gigantic yams on the side of a hill overlooking an ocean bay that was sometimes so blue that it was really some other color than blue. So, the book isn’t a travel narrative. There’s death and sex and marriage and sakau and babies and a guy who actually bit his own finger off, but no hotel recommendations.

PT: Do you think you created an actual portrayal of the islands and their inhabitants?

JG: The book is, I hope, as true to my experience as possible and therefore as clear-eyed a picture of Pohnpeian culture as a mildly-intelligent guy can get in eleven years of living there. Considering the question of ‘actual’ brings us awfully close to a kind of ontological quicksand where the nature of truth is suspect (as it should be) and the right of one observer (me) to portray the truth of a culture is equally suspect (as it also should be). The best I can say is that the book portrays my true experience of the culture.

Certain experiences on Pohnpei may be more likely to happen to me than to someone else. For instance, I love swearing and dirty words and sexual puns. It’s the spice of life! So a lot of my experience in sakau markets on Pohnpei consists of swearing, dirty words and sexual puns. Does that mean that it is ‘true’ that Pohnpeians are particularly enamored of dirty jokes? No. (Though, in my opinion, yes.) All we can realistically say is that juvenile minds tend to congregate together and laugh, whatever the culture.

PT: What’s your favourite memory of that place?

JG: The first thing that comes to mind is my friend Maryallen punching me in the shoulder. She did this often, in a friendly yet firm way. Generally as a response to some idiotic life-choice I had made or one of the aforementioned dirty jokes. Maybe I just miss Maryallen. (By the way, I call her Fingerlynn in the book which is another dirty joke that she would hit me for if she were not 5000 miles away.)

So, Maryallen punching me and probably the birth of my daughter are my favorite memories.

PT: Did you learn anything during your stay in Micronesia?

JG: I’m tempted just to say ‘no’ and leave it at that. But that would be disingenuous and you’re so nice to be asking questions of me. Also, I wrote a short article called ‘What I learned on the island of Pohnpei’ when we launched the book, so I guess I should refer you there.

I suppose the reason I have some reticence about this question is that there is a kind of trope out there that island cultures are super mysterious and maybe more ‘in tune’ with nature or something and therefore have something to ‘teach us’. But this idea seems kind of noble-savage-y and maybe paternalistic. That’s not to say that one doesn’t learn something very valuable from trying to understand other cultures – quite the opposite! I guess I advocate approaching these other cultures as humans from earth rather than some mysterious or more ‘primitive’ creature. Not that you meant the question in this way, of course. So I’ll shut up now.

PT: Would you like to come back there one day?

JG: Yes. When Maryallen is too old to punch very hard.

PT: The Western World vs. Pohnpei – what’s the difference?

JG: Well, it’s all just the world, right? And basically people are living their lives and it’s a great experience to be able to share this life with other people and meet new people and sometimes kiss them or slap them or share a joke or have a conversation.

That’s another dodge. Sorry. I have to warm up to try to answer this question. Accept the following with a grain of salt or a whiskey flask of sea cucumber:

  • Western societies have families. Pohnpeians have penenei – that’s between 50 – 5000 people with whom you have a familial relation.
  • Western societies have funerals. Pohnpeians have 10-day-long parties.
  • Westerners explain actions with psychology. On Pohnpei, shit just happens.
  • Westerners barely remember Juice Newton’s hit ‘Queen of Hearts.’ On Pohnpei, groups of young men line dance to it for talent shows.
  • Westerners make little orange fries out of yams. On Pohnpei, yams are the size of compact cars.
  • Westerners show up at an agreed upon time. Pohnpeians show up when they are supposed to show up.

That’s all I can think of! I’d also love to plug a recent article I wrote that goes some way to addressing this question. The article considers what a Western sailor thought about Pohnpei in the 19th century and compares this to my own similar experience there. The article is called ‘One Small Store’.

A CHAT WITH… GRAEME LAY

Graeme Lay is the author of several books set in the South Pacific. Along with ‘The Miss Tutti Frutti Contest’, these include the young adult novel trilogy, ‘Leaving One Foot Island’, ‘Return to One Foot Island’ and ‘The Pearl of One Foot Island’; the non-fiction works ‘The Cook Islands’ and ‘Passages – Journeys in Polynesia’, and the adult novel ‘Temptation Island’. His recent historical novels: ‘The Secret Life of James Cook’ (2013) and ‘James Cook’s New World’ (2014) also feature largely South Pacific settings. Here you can read what he had to say about his beloved Pasifika.

GRAEME LAY

Pasifika Truthfully: When did you first fall in love with the Pacific Islands?

Graeme Lay: Probably from the moment I first set foot on one. That was New Caledonia, which is not a particularly beautiful island in itself. But the mixture of people – Melanesian, Asian and European – was captivating. I loved the cultural intermingling, too. Racial intermarriage has produced people of distinctive beauty. I had always been keen on French culture, so to see it transplanted to the South Pacific was fascinating. I’ve subsequently seen and relished the same cultural and racial mixture in French Polynesia. Samoa too has a great blend of Polynesian, Palagi and Chinese people.

While researching a book I wrote about the Cook Islands, I went to several islands in that group, which was a great experience. Mauke, for instance, is not visited by many tourists, but is a lovely ‘outer island’. Rarotonga is another favourite island of mine since I first saw it, in 1983. I now have many friends there too, which makes visiting it even more pleasurable.

PT: And where would you like to go? Is there an island you have never been to?

GL: There are lots of islands I still haven’t been to, although I’ve visited a good many. I’d like to see Easter Island – the easternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle. I haven’t yet seen the Hawaiian Islands, but I’m going there in August and greatly looking forward to seeing them. Raivavae, in the Austral Islands, is another island I’ve heard and read lots about. I’d like to go there one day. And also ‘Ua Pou, in the Marquesas.

PT: Do you think you could live in one of the Pacific countries; call it your home?

GL: I suspect not. I’m very much a New Zealander – a fifth generation one – so this is my permanent home. An extended visit to say, Rarotonga or Tahiti, would be lovely, but I could never call them ‘Home’. Some of the appeal of those islands may wear thin if I stayed for an overly long period, I suspect. ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’, as the saying goes.

PT: Let’s focus on your book for a while. ‘The Miss Tutti Frutti Contest’… It’s an interesting title. I assume you didn’t choose it to immortalize the famous fa’afafine pageant. Is this how you perceive the islands? As a delicious mix of fascinating cultures?

GL: Most certainly. We gave the book that title because it’s different and catchy, and the contest itself was unforgettable. The fa’afafine phenomenon had always fascinated me, right throughout Polynesia. Each island group has an equivalent of Samoa’s fa’afafine, and to observe them and meet them is very interesting indeed. When I was working in Apia, one of my colleagues was a fa’afafine, and he was great company. It was Makisi who put me on to the Miss Tutti Frutti Contest.

PT: The book consists of fifteen different stories, but I’m sure you have many more to tell. Do you plan to write a sequel?

GL: I would very much like to. I’ve been to several other islands since I wrote that book, and always I’ve discovered great stories while there. Mangareva in the Gambier Islands and Pitcairn Island were particularly inspiring. Some of the more remote islands of Tonga, too, I found fascinating. There is always much to be inspired by in the islands of Pasifika!

PT: In your opinion, what is the biggest myth about Pasifika?

GL: The fact that people invariably apply the word ‘Paradise’ to the islands. There is no such place as ‘Paradise’ in the sense of a total Utopia. The belief that the islands of Pasifika are Utopian is false. The people there have such serious economic, political and social problems that the word ‘Paradise’ is a misnomer. The islands are alluring yes, beautiful yes. But ‘Paradise’? Definitely not. That’s just a tourism brand, and a misleading one. That’s why New Zealand has such huge Pasifika populations.

PT: If you were to choose the most beautiful island, what would it be?

GL: My favourite island in French Polynesia is Huahine, which is exquisitely beautiful and not over-commercialised. It also has a fascinating history, both Polynesian and European. Some of the finest archeological sites in the whole Pacific are found on Huahine. Captain James Cook knew the island well, and anchored his ships in the lagoon in front of the island’s only town, Fare, several times. I could never tire of sitting on Fare’s waterfront in the evening, sipping a Hinano lager and watching the sun go down over Raiatea, Huahine’s neighbouring island.

A CHAT WITH… KATHY GIUFFRE

Kathy Giuffre is a professor of sociology at Colorado College and an author of a compelling memoir, ‘An Afternoon in Summer’. Here’s what this lovely lady had to say not only about her book but also about the place she once called home.

KATHY GIUFFRE

Pasifika Truthfully: You and your sons spent one year in the Cook Islands. How exactly did you end up there?

Kathy Giuffre: I have always had an interest in Polynesian culture, especially in the arts, and had travelled some in the South Pacific – although never to the Cooks. I’m a college professor and I had a sabbatical year coming up during which I had the opportunity to be paid for a year to go somewhere and do research. I specifically chose the Cook Islands because I had heard and read about the vibrant art world that exists there. I was interested in trying to understand why this community had such an exceptional outpouring of creativity. So I was really on the island as a researcher, but when you live on an island with fewer than 10,000 people for a whole year (especially if you have kids with you and you are living in a house with a local resident) it is impossible not to become part of the community.

PT: What is your biggest memory of that place?

KG: There are so many – but one thing I remember very vividly is sitting in a chair in the workroom of our house one night, talking on the telephone long distance to my friend in Switzerland and holding the receiver of the phone out so that he could hear the incredible sound of the enormous tropical storm that was pounding down on our roof. I loved the wildness of the storms – especially when everyone was snug and safe inside the house.

PT: . Your life changed quite a bit during that ‘Pasifika year’. How do you recall that time?

KG: I think I really came into my own during that year – even though I was 39 years old when I arrived. I still try to treat the world in the ‘Polynesian Way’ even though I am now back in the United States. I try not to lose sight of how to live a life that is concerned with generosity, kindness, and human relationships rather than thinking about ‘getting ahead’ or getting material objects.

PT: What did you like most about the islands?

KG: The people I met are people whom I love and whose friendship I treasure. I really feel that I was taken in and taken care of at a time that was pretty difficult for me as a single mother with two small children and when I was really not at my best emotionally.

PT: And what did you like least?

KG: Spiders! Enormous hairy spiders!

PT: What were your sons’ impressions of that ‘tropical paradise’?

KG: It was an enormously happy year for my children, which is interesting because we lived all together in one small room of the house and they had basically not a single toy. No TV, no computer or computer games, none of the stuff that we think kids need to be happy and entertained. They spent their time climbing trees, playing in the garden or on the beach, using their imaginations – it was great for them. When we came back to the US we got rid of our TV and have never regretted it – life is better without all the possessions that I once would have thought we needed to be happy.

PT: Did you learn anything from the Islanders?

KG: Absolutely – I learned, most importantly, how to embrace the ‘Pacific Way’ of life. I still try every day to be a little more Polynesian, to take things at a slower pace, for instance, and to think about being generous as a really important value.

PT: What, or who, inspired you to pen down your memories and write a book?

KG: Every now and then, I would send a group email to my friends back in the United States. And a couple of my friends thought the emails were really funny and could be turned into a book. Those and my journal were the basis for the finished book. But really the reason that I wrote it was that my children were so young when we went that I was worried that they might forget what this year in paradise had been like, how wonderful our life was then. So I wrote the book for them, as truthfully as I could, so that they would always have something to help them remember.

PT: Have you had a chance to come back to the Cook Islands? If not, would you like to? Maybe you could write a sequel.

KG: Yes, we all went back about five years ago to see Emily again and so I could show my husband all the places that he had heard so much about and to have him meet all the people I had loved so much. We were only there for a couple of weeks, though – not enough time to do more than basically say hello to everyone – not enough time for a sequel, for sure!

PT: If someone offered you a chance to move to Pasifika, would you agree? Do you think you could actually live there? Or was it only a one-time adventure?

KG: I talk with my husband all the time about moving back – especially when it is bitterly cold and snowing here in Colorado. But if we do go back, I think we would not go back to Rarotonga – we would head elsewhere, probably. Not because Rarotonga is not wonderful, but because the year that I spent there was so magical to me, so perfect, so much exactly what I needed that nothing could ever live up to its memory. Better to keep that memory intact and head out for new adventures someplace we have never been.

A CHAT WITH… PETER RUDIAK-GOULD

Peter Rudiak-Gould is a writer, an anthropologist and a climate change consultant. His book, ‘Surviving Paradise: One Year On A Disappearing Island’, is a fantastic memoir of his first visit to the Marshall Islands. Here’s what he had to say about the country and the Blue Continent.

PETER RUDIAK-GOULD

Pasifika Truthfully: Quick question. Ujae – Heaven on Earth or Hell?

Peter Rudiak-Gould: For the people who live there, it’s more like heaven, I’d say. Not that life is always easy there, not that people always get along, but I think that most ri-Ujae (people of Ujae) love the place and are able to live full and meaningful lives there. They live a minute’s walk from their friends, they have land and a house with no mortgage to pay off, they can let their kids go and play without worrying about getting lost or kidnapped, and although life gets tougher when the money runs out, they can do pretty well with local resources, at least for a little while. Some of the best modern technologies – basic Western medicine, medical evacuation if needed, communication radio, bicycles, solar panels, etc. – are there, with few of the bad ones. There is still no television reception on Ujae.

For me – it’s a little bit of both! But as I explore in my book, there were fundamental differences between me and Ujae, sort of like a rocky romantic relationship with deep attraction by equally deep incompatibility. Heaven and Hell aren’t places, they’re relationships.

PT: What are your memories of the Marshall Islands?

P. R.-G.: Too many to recount! But what they all have in common – nearly all of them anyway – is the feel of warm, humid air. If I close my eyes and imagine that feeling, it brings me back to being there much more than thinking of what the country looks like. The air, atmosphere, or weather is the basic medium of every experience we have. That’s why climate change will alter our realities so much.

PT: And what did you learn during your stay?

P. R.-G.: How to fish with a spear. How to speak Marshallese (not all that useful outside of the Marshall Islands!). How to play the guitar. How to take a shower with just one small bucket full of water. I learned how incredibly dark night can be, and how incredibly bright day can be.

PT: Why did you decide to write a book about your adventures in the Pacific region?

P. R.-G.: I always wanted to write a travel book. It’s a genre that really attracts me. The best travel books combine the best of memoir writing and essay writing – a compelling narrative that also provides a lot of fascinating information about a culture and a place, and interesting perspectives on life. Travel books also captivate me because they are about the gap between expectations and reality, what we thought we’d get and what we actually got. So they are about confronting difference and reality in all of its unexpectedness, which is not just fun and stimulating but can also be humiliating and painful.

PT: How has Ujae changed since your first visit?

P. R.-G.: I definitely noticed a difference between the first time I was there (2003-4) and the second time (2007). There were more electric lights, powered by solar panels. There were a few more gadgets than before. It seemed to me that there was more coastal erosion than before, but it’s possible I was just looking harder for it the second time because I had gotten much more interested in climate change. Locals said that they had observed erosion. I remember a particular coconut tree that had stuck out into the lagoon in a conspicuous way. It was very distinctive. It was alive and standing in 2004, collapsed and dead in 2007. Of course that doesn’t prove anything, but it did make the threat of climate change feel much more real for me.

PT: Do you think the atoll, and the rest of the country, is in danger of being swallowed up by the ocean one day? What are your views on climate change?

P. R.-G.: Chances are that it’ll be a while yet until the Marshall Islands are totally submerged by the ocean. But there’s a real possibility that the country will be uninhabitable (even though not totally submerged) within the lifetimes of children living in the Marshall Islands today. It’s impossible to know for sure because there are so many unknowns. Will climate legislation succeed? Will green energy take over the market? How fast will the oceans rise? How will the island ecosystem respond? How will the people respond? This creates uncertainty, and in uncertainty there is hope. I believe that it is much too early for Marshallese people to give up on the idea of inhabiting their country far into the future. But the possibility of eventual exile must be taken seriously, even so.

PT: Is there anything we can do to stop climate change?

P. R.-G.: It’s impossible to completely stop climate change, unfortunately. It’s already occurring, and more of more of the weird weather events we’re having now being scientifically attributed to climate change. Also, there is certain latency period in the climate system, meaning that greenhouse gases we’re already emitted will cause further climate change even if we stopped emitting any greenhouse gases immediately. There’s change locked into the system.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s still to be determined whether climate change is moderate, severe, or catastrophic. It’s definitely good to bike or walk rather than drive when possible, eat less meat, only boil as much water as you really need for that cup of tea, take the train instead of a plane, etc. But I think that greater change comes about not from these individual choices, but from banding together to push for larger change. I’m not talking about something grandiose like all people becoming hunter-gatherers. I’m talking about medium-sized change like making bike lanes more available in a particular city, starting a petition to pressure your representative into supporting a clean energy bill, etc. Medium-sized change, not huge change which is unrealistic or tiny change which isn’t significant. I firmly believe in making it easier for people to do the right thing. In Copenhagen, for instance, all kinds of people bike to work, not because they care so much about the environment, but it’s been set up in a way that makes biking very safe, easy, and economical. Make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing.

PT: What can we, Westerners, learn from the Pacific Island countries and people?

P. R.-G.: I recently read a book called ‘Bowling Alone’ that shows a huge amount of evidence that in the US (and, I would guess, other Western countries) people’s interconnectedness to each other, trust in each other, generosity, etc. has plummeted in the last 30 or 40 years. That probably won’t surprise anyone, but the sheer amount of evidence really impressed me and made me realize what a huge problem this is, not just for having a functioning democracy but also for individual health and happiness. I think that Pacific Islanders, or at least the ones I knew in the Marshall Islands, are keenly aware of how important this ‘social capital’ is to all aspects of life. They talk about it all the time, and about how worried they are that it will erode in the future. I think that many Pacific Island communities have held onto their social capital more than most Western communities. This requires some sacrifices – for instance, in the Marshall Islands people have kept their traditional land ownership system in which land cannot be bought or sold or owned individually, and this is definitely an obstacle to economic development in the country. But, I think it is probably worth it for the social capital that it helps to safeguard.

PT: What did the visit to Marshall Islands change in your life?

P. R.-G.: It taught me that no simple story about indigenous people, ‘traditional’ people, and so forth is ever correct. For instance, colonialists have often told the story of native peoples as being savages that needed to be civilized, missionaries have told the story of native peoples as heathens who must be saved, romantics have told the story of native peoples as infinitely wise and noble, etc. None of these stories is right because indigenous people are people, full of all of the complexities of humans everywhere. Once my preconceptions were challenged by actually living with the people, it’s hard to take seriously any simple stereotype, whether positive or negative, about a culture.

PT: Do you think Pasifika is a special place in the world?

P. R.-G.: I do. It’s the most extensive group of islands in the world. Paul Theroux called it a constellation, which I think is a great description. The people who settled it were the greatest sailors in history. They found almost every tiny bit of land in an area that is larger than all of the continents put together. They almost certainly made it to South America and back. They found Hawaii, the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, and probably sailed back and forth from there to the rest of Polynesia for several centuries.

A CHAT WITH… KELLY WATTS

She is a strong woman. She is a wife. She is a loving mother of two beautiful children. She’s also a sailor, a writer, and a source of inspiration for so many people. Kelly Watts, the author of ‘Sailing to Jessica’, took the time and answered a few questions about her book and, of course, Pasifika.

KELLY WATTS

Pasifika Truthfully: What made you decide to write ‘Sailing to Jessica’? Did you want to immortalize the memories of your journey?

Kelly Watts: I think most of us have dreamed of doing something radically different in our lives, whether it is sailing around the world, living in a foreign country or switching careers. And yet something holds us back. I wrote our story, in part, to encourage others to take a chance, to follow their dream. And I wanted to share our incredible journey that took Paul and I not only halfway around the world, but also on a personal journey from landlubbers to sailors, and from infertility to being parents.

PT: Did you expect so much interest in your book?

KW: I really didn’t know what to expect. I think the biggest joy is receiving emails from my readers. Some have set sail because of our story, others have quit their corporate job to start new careers and others are considering adoption. What a thrill!

PT: Your voyage must have been an extraordinary experience for you and your husband. Knowing what you know now – the good, the bad and the ugly – would you do it over again?

KW: One look at my beautiful children and the answer is ‘Absolutely!’ Even if we hadn’t miraculously adopted our daughter (and subsequently our son), I would still do it over again.  Paul and I learned so much about each other and ourselves on our trip that our priorities – and our view on life – have changed. As C.S. Lewis once said, ‘A man who has been in another world does not come back unchanged. One can’t put the difference in words.’

PT: I do believe Pacific Islands hold a special place in your heart. What are your impressions of the region?

KW: We loved the Pacific. While we marveled at the beautiful palm-studded islands, the crystal turquoise water and abundant fish, we liked the Pacific Islanders even more. We were welcomed by friendly, smiling people everywhere we went.  And they made the biggest impression on us.

PT: And if you were to choose the most amazing place in the Blue Continent, what would it be and why?

KW: I can’t pick one. We loved watching the girls dance in Hiva Oa (Marquesas), playing with the kids and visiting the black pearl farms in Katiu (Tuamotus), riding our bikes around Bora Bora (Society Islands), learning how to make fishing lures with John in Suwarrow (Cook Islands), participating in the Independence Day celebrations in Nukufetau (Tuvalu), meeting our daughter in Tarawa (Kiribati) and our son in Majuro (Marshall Islands).

PT: May I ask about your daughter’s adoption? Was it something you had planned?

KW: We had already decided to adopt when we finished sailing around the world and we had already made some inquiries into the process before we left New Zealand. But Jessica was unexpected – as miracles are.

PT: Was the adoption process difficult? How do you recall that time?

KW: At the time, Tarawa followed an older version of the British adoption laws and their legal system was well-organized and well run.  That part of the process was smooth.  Getting a visa for Jessica from the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services proved to be more difficult but we finally(!!) succeeded.

PT: Why did you decide to adopt a second child from the Pacific Islands?

KW: When we decided to adopt our second child, we just thought that it made sense to have two Pacific Islanders. But as the children are growing, and now asking questions about their adoption and their birth families, I am glad that they are Pacific Islanders. The Pacific Islanders have a beautiful view of adoption: adoption is like marriage: a lifetime bond that links the birth family to the adoptive family though the child. Knowing that this is their concept of adoption, and respecting it, we had taken the time to get to know Jess’ birth family in Tarawa. Then we had gotten to know Nick’s birth family in Majuro when we had adopted him. Thanks to their cultural view on adoption, we are now better able to answer our children’s questions and to help them understand themselves.

PT: Do you embrace Pacific cultures at home? 

KW: We try… But just last week the kids told me they didn’t want to play ukulele anymore; they’d rather play soccer!

PT: Do you often go back to Pasifika?

KW: We have been back a couple of times to see the kids’ birth families and for vacation… sigh, sigh… I’ m ready to go again…

PT: Let’s get back to your book. Any plans to write a sequel? I’m sure your readers, myself included, would be absolutely delighted.

KW: I am excited about an article I wrote for Cruising World magazine; it is slated to appear in their June or July 2014 issue. The article discusses our sailing trip around the Whitsunday Islands in Australia. This was the first time we’ve been sailing with the children and our first time on a catamaran – a magical week! And I am nearly done with my first children’s book, aimed for 2 – 5th graders, about two children who set sail with a Magic Map and the help of their dolphin friend, Chuff, while being chased by a wicked pirate. The book, the first in a series, aims to offer children an exciting fictitious story accompanied by educational ‘chart kits’ which explore the wonders in our world, from the places mentioned in the story to the biographies of famous explorers to related historical and geological events. In short, as a mom, it’s something I’d like my kids to read.