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A CHAT WITH… STEVE HUNSICKER

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!

steve-hunsicker

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.

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A CHAT WITH… LYNN PULOU-ALAIMALO

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.

LYNN PULOU-ALAIMALO

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!

A CHAT WITH… TONY HORWITZ

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.

TONY HORWITZ

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.

A CHAT WITH… TRISH NICHOLSON

Trish Nicholson is an extraordinary woman. She is a writer and the author of several books, an anthropologist, a photographer, a keen and experienced traveller. Her most recent publication, ‘Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals’, is just as extraordinary as the lady herself. If you want to know more about Trish’s time in Melanesia, just read the interview.

TRISH NICHOLSON

Pasifika Truthfully: You spent quite a few years living and working in Papua New Guinea. Was it an adventure, a challenge, or a perfect mix of both?

Trish Nicholson: It was certainly a challenge, physically, emotionally and professionally, but I knew it would be and I believe one grows as a person by meeting challenges. I hadn’t gone seeking adventure, but looking back, my own curiosity and willingness to take risks to satisfy it meant that adventures simply happened.

PT: Why did you decide to ‘abandon’ your successful career in Europe and travel to a remote Pacific country?

TN: Working overseas is something I had wanted to do since childhood. Previous generations in my family had spent years in far-flung places in the world, so I suppose there was something of a tradition. As a schoolgirl, I wrote to the United Nations in New York to ask how to become an aid worker. Some kind person wrote back to me, saying I should become qualified in whatever I was good at, gain twenty years experience, and then apply for a job. And that is pretty much what I did. At University I studied geography and social anthropology and was intensely interested in how others lived, and the different ways of meeting human needs in different cultures. Later, there came a point in my professional career in Europe when I felt something was missing, and I realized that if I didn’t take this step to go overseas soon, it might be too late. The job in Papua New Guinea was the most interesting one that came up at that time.

PT: Ok, so you arrived in PNG… What shocked you the most?

TN: There were small shocks initially, like the heat and humidity which can, literally, take your breath away, especially as I was coming from the cold climate of Scotland. A fan in my house helped, but much of the time I was travelling to remote parts of West Sepik (Sandaun), so my body had to adapt. Once I got into the work, the sheer chaos of the local administration was a bit of a shock, and people in positions of power can benefit from chaos, so it took a while to show staff the benefits of better organisation. But the biggest shock was the extent of violence against women – a problem close to me because women who were my colleagues and friends were affected. It is difficult for a foreigner to know how to respond and I often discussed it with another friend, the local head of women’s welfare. The few books published about Papua New Guinea barely mention women, and they are accounts written by men who would have little chance to interact with women, so I made a point of including women’s stories in ‘Inside the Crocodile’.

PT: How did you cope with culture shock?

TN: My background in social anthropology helped because I was already aware of many different beliefs and ways of living in other societies. I found, though, that it was hard to live in two cultures at the same time, so I immersed myself as far as possible in trying to understand the local cultures – ‘cultures’ in the plural, because even within Sandaun Province there are different ways of viewing the world. Other expats in the area were from a range of cultures and nationalities, too, so one had to be adaptable. Times when I needed to relax and simply be ‘me’, I played my favourite classical music, and the chuckle of geckoes and screech of cicadas became part of the orchestra.

PT: Did you have troubles accepting certain cultural practices?

TN: The treatment of women I have already mentioned, and it was something I could not accept. But sometimes there was an amusing side to the gender issue. Traditionally, men eat first, but when we had a World Bank representative visiting on one occasion and a party was put on for him and all the provincial staff, the Premier decided to adopt the western custom of inviting women to serve themselves from the buffet first. The women loved this idea and all went to the table with big enamel bowls, taking the best pork pieces, the ones with lots of tasty fat on them, while the men watched in great agitation. That experiment in ‘western manners’ was never repeated! But the separation of men and women at functions was a feature of Aussie social life, too, and I found that restricting. Papua New Guinean colleagues accepted me at work as an ‘honorary male’ and recognized that I needed to talk to men about work, but I would get black looks from expat wives in Aussie gatherings if I crossed to the other side of the room to talk to the men.

Another practice that caused me frustration was the custom of talking all around a subject to avoid giving a straight answer or giving out information – tok bokis in Tok Pisin – which made a nightmare of management meetings. I could understand the reasons for it, though, and soon adopted the technique myself when necessary. One of the reasons for tok bokis is that political, work, and personal spheres – which are strictly separated in western bureaucracies – are intricately interwoven in Papua New Guinea, as a result, dealing with most public administration issues is like walking in a minefield.

PT: Now, you worked on a World Bank-funded development project. What exactly were you responsible for?

TN: The project included a number of different components – agriculture and fisheries, education, health, roads and buildings, and project management – which were all intended to work together to achieve development goals. Expats leading each component worked with a counterpart Papua New Guinean who would take over from them. My role was ‘institution building’: to provide advice and support for all the components to co-operate, and to assist local staff and management to gain the most benefit from the project. This involved helping to sort out the chaos of staff appointments, designing and presenting training courses, giving advice to managers, setting up a provincial Staff Development Unit and training national staff to run it after I had left. The job was complicated by the fact that the expat project coordinator held the purse strings, but my boss was the Departmental Secretary – the head of the provincial civil service. As you can imagine, managing relationships was the most important, and challenging, part of my job. My position was within the regular staff structure and I was ‘the boss’ only of the Staff Development Unit, so to achieve any progress elsewhere in the organisation, I had to influence and work through others. Though more difficult, in the long term I think this is far more effective than giving orders or being a consultant on the outside.

PT: Being a woman, did you face any challenges?

TN: All the time! I’ve already mentioned the male/female divide in expat social life. And there were few single women around, so every unattached male expat made passes and resented being rejected. But my job was already too demanding to have any energy left for personal relationships. At work, to be accepted as an ‘honorary male’ meant dressing in baggy outfits that could not be considered provocative by even the most arrogant male, behaving with equal amounts of confidence and respect, and generally being professional and distancing myself from being ‘female’. In this way, I was accepted and respected by Papua New Guinean colleagues both in the province and at government headquarters in Waigani. It was often expats who had problems with it. When I was very ill in Goroka Base hospital, the chief medic there was horrified that I was going back to continue working in Sandaun. “Papua New Guinea is no place for a woman,” he said. I didn’t remind him that half the population were women.

PT: You wrote in your book that you didn’t have a chance to come back to Papua New Guinea? Would you like to?

TN: When an experience in a particular place has been so intense, and in a way life changing, I’m not sure it is a good idea to go back. I wouldn’t have a role now, people I knew have moved on in their lives, I would simply be an observer looking in briefly and I don’t think that would achieve any purpose.

PT: Your memoir is an extremely interesting read with an abundance of fantastic stories and tales. Would you mind sharing some tidbits that didn’t make it into the book?

TN: All the best stories are already in the book. Any events that aren’t in it are those that require too much background explanation for them to be properly understood, for example, a trip I made to Wamena in West Papua – perhaps I will write about that another time.

PT: This last question is an important one for the fans of your work: will you write more books? If yes, is there anything you’re working on at the moment?

TN: Those who enjoy travel and adventure can read my ebook, ‘Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon’. I take the reader with me on a long trek through this Buddhist Kingdom hidden high in the Himalayas. We wander through pine forests, meet with yak herders in the high pastures, and clamber over 5000-metre passes close to the Tibetan border. After a mini-bus ride and scary near misses on hairpin bends overlooking a sheer drop, we visit ancient temples and I include lots of information about Bhutan’s culture and history.

And there is another book that I wrote to encourage others to write, so it explains how to plan, research, write, edit, choose a publishing option, and market a book, and many tips apply to writing fiction as well as non-fiction. The title is ‘Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the Complete Guide to Becoming an Author’, available as an ebook and in print (the paperback can be ordered online from The Book Depository which supplies anywhere in the world free of postage). I made the book international in focus – resources and suggestions can be applied wherever a reader lives – to help people in different countries and cultures to write their own stories. We need to hear these different voices speaking for themselves. That is why national literary competitions and prizes such as The Crocodile Prize in Papua New Guinea are so important, they give real encouragement to local writers.

What I am working on at the moment is also international in outlook, but it’s another kind of journey – a social history of stories and storytellers through time. I am more than three-quarters of the way through the manuscript, but it will take a little while yet to complete because it requires a great deal of research.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some of my experiences with your blog readers.

A CHAT WITH… ALAN BOREHAM, PETER JINKS, AND BOB ROSSITER

Those of you who have already read ‘Beer in the Bilges’ know that the authors of the book are not only experienced sailors but also very talented writers and all-around great guys always seeking new adventures in life. Alan Boreham, Peter Jinks, and Bob Rossiter – otherwise known as ‘The Professionals’ – were kind enough to answer a few questions about their memoir and, of course, sailing through the Blue Continent.

ALAN BOREHAM, PETER JINKS, BOB ROSSITER

Pasifika Truthfully: ‘Beer in the Bilges’ is an interesting title for a book. Could you explain it?

‘The Professionals’: Beer is an important part of the provisions for many offshore sailors, and they want to keep it as cool as possible. When they aren’t lucky enough to have refrigeration on board their yacht, they follow the tradition that the British Navy established hundreds of years ago – store the beer below the water line, which is the coolest place on the ship. The deepest and coolest part of the hull is called the ‘bilges’, and hence the general practice of keeping the ‘beer in the bilges’.

When we were working on the manuscript, it was Bob’s friend – the actor Hal Holbrook, one of the people featured in the early chapters – who observed that getting a couple of beers from the bilges was a common occurrence throughout the book. The credit for naming the book, therefore, goes to Bob and Hal. I don’t think we could have hit upon another title as emblematic as this. We will have a challenge to find as good a title for the second memoir.

PT: For those who haven’t read your book yet: how did you meet and how did you come together for your great adventure?

‘TP’: It was by chance, really, because it would be hard to find three more different guys than us. And harder still to imagine how we all came to be together in the tropical swelter of Pago Pago, American Samoa. You could say that the encounters in Honolulu that we describe in the book were a lot like the encounters of the ‘gentlemen of fortune’ – buccaneers – of the 17th century. Like pirates meeting in Jamaica’s old Port Royal, Honolulu is one of the places around the world that offshore sailors meet.

So it was no mistake that the owner of the elegant yacht Ron of Argyll came to Honolulu looking for Bob, to entice him to sail his yacht up to Hawaii from the South Pacific for him. Where else in the Pacific would he be likely to find him? And it was natural for Bob to go looking for crew around the Ala Wai marina on Oahu where, by the greatest of chances, Alan was trying to put some distance between himself and an American mob he had run into on Maui. Bob was happy to accept such an eager and capable recruit, and one with such good survival skills.

In the meantime, Peter was enjoying the leisurely pace of the South Pacific while tending the Ron of Argyll for the owner in Tonga, and awaiting a new skipper and extra crew. Bob had crossed paths with Peter and the owner aboard the Ron of Argyll in Fiji, so Peter knew of Bob’s experience and reputation. He wasn’t surprised when he heard that Bob was going to be the new skipper, and he knew Bob well enough to know that he would choose another experienced hand.

Alan stayed in Honolulu to collect some of the equipment that was critical for the voyage and flew down to join Bob and Peter in American Samoa once they had relocated the yacht there.

When all three of us finally got together in Pago Pago, we quickly recognized that we each have knowledge and skills that complement one another very well, and that we all like to temper our hard work with a good amount of fun. Maybe most important, though, was that we found that we all share the trait that allows us to see possibilities, rather than the obstacles to achieving them. This alone was to save our skins in more than one of our adventures together.

PT: The good, the bad, and the ugly of your voyage?

‘TP’: There were plenty of good times – more than we could possibly mention here – but the best part without a doubt was meeting the people of the countries we visited, especially those in the more remote islands. We were fortunate to be able to share stories with them and to learn about their lives and cultures, as they did about ours. And while we all enjoyed the island life, with the wonderful fruits and the diving and fishing, sailing through these beautiful and storied waters was a real thrill.

The bad part about sailing to a new country has to be the bureaucracy. No matter where we went, and how nice the people were, there was the unavoidable paperwork and expenses that went along with entering or leaving a country. For many of us sailors, it is the overwhelming bureaucracy that drives us to seek the freedom of the seas.

The ugly part about sailing is the drama that sometimes comes with it. Make no mistake, sailing can be a dangerous business. While we don’t dwell on the bad times, all three of us have had our own brushes with death while at sea, culminating with a storm that threatened to break up the wooden yacht we were on before making it into port, leaving us only three miles from land – straight down.

PT: You sailed the Blue Continent, which means you visited different islands. However, you don’t write much about the countries or their cultures. Why?

‘TP’: From our reading, we found that there is a lot written on that. While we do talk about some of the customs of the wonderful people in the countries we visited, our objective in writing this book was to highlight the sailing experiences and the unusual characters we met along the way.

It is also an interesting fact that many sailors don’t go far from the port, because they don’t want to leave their yachts unattended. All three of us have explored the South Pacific countries more than most yachties and feel we have a better understanding of the countries and their people than many sailors.

PT: If you could share your impressions now… What could you reveal about the islands? Was there anything that surprised or amazed you?

‘TP’: Yes, we were always amazed at how happy people were, even those with just the basics of life. We traveled to the South Pacific from the 1960s to the 1980s, when things were a lot simpler, even in the developed world, but it always seemed to us that the people we met didn’t have a worry in the world. People from other countries could learn something from the attitude of these seemingly care-free islanders.

PT: As we can read in your book, sailing the Pacific can be an amazing and fun experience. But it’s also a great challenge. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to amateur sailors wanting to follow in your footstep?

‘TP’: You’re right, blue water sailing is not for the novice sailor. We would advise any sailor dreaming of going offshore to make sure they have a suitable vessel and the necessary experience. If they don’t have much experience, or they’re not confident in their abilities, they should take someone along who does. There’s a saying: ‘There are old sailors and bold sailors but no old, bold sailors’. We want all offshore sailors to make it back to a safe harbor.

PT: Getting back to your memoir… It’s quite unusual, as you chose to use the third-person narrative. Why did you do that?

‘TP’: When we were preparing to write the book, we found that the telling of stories from one’s past is usually done from the writer’s own perspective, in the first person, and less often from the perspective of an independent observer, in the third person. In writing these memoirs, we had to decide how best to describe our individual paths that led us to join forces in American Samoa, as well as our shared experiences, while at the same time portraying the remarkable people and events that we encountered along the way. Our choice of using the third person narrator gave us the liberty of collaborating on the description of these episodes in our lives so that we could write in a consistent voice, hopefully making the flow of the chapters easier for the reader to follow.

PT: What was the writing process like for you?

‘TP’: A lot of people have asked us what kind of process we used to write a book with three co-authors. We tell them that it’s just like sailing a yacht with three different characters like us – it all comes down to teamwork.

We know each other well enough to understand our individual strengths, so we just fell into a regular routine. As in offshore sailing where a well-drawn crew has complementary skills, like sail handling or navigation or cooking, we easily found our roles in writing ‘Beer in the Bilges’. We all contributed to the telling of the stories in the memoir, but we each had our specialties. Bob is the best story-teller among us. Peter had the best recollection of the people and places, as well as a few spicy anecdotes! And Alan had the skills to record and craft the vignettes we’ve presented in the book.

We got together every twelve to eighteen months, approaching this project like a job and working about eight hours a day, allowing adequate time afterward for mental stimulation and recreation. Alan worked at the keyboard while we chatted together about a chapter, then we all reviewed the raw product and offered our suggestions. We edited the draft together until we were happy with the final product and then moved on to the next one. We made tremendous progress on each trip.

To help us in writing these memoirs we went back to Marina del Rey in California, to Hawaii, Tahiti, and Samoa, to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, and to Australia and New Zealand. It helped enormously to go back to the ‘scene of the crime’ to sail the waters, talk with people, and generally soak in the atmosphere of these places again. Besides the clarity and focus that those trips provided, they were all part of another adventure. And for us, that is what life is all about.

PT: Do you plan to write more?

‘TP’: Yes. We are doing the final edits to a novel entitled ‘Two if by Sea’, which is based in part on some of the amazing people we met but couldn’t expose in ‘Beer in the Bilges’. All of these people were hiding from someone or something, so we chose to embody their most interesting characteristics or experiences in fictional characters.

We are also working on a second memoir which will be a follow-up to ‘Beer in the Bilges’. The working title is ‘Just One More Round’, and it will certainly require more in-person collaboration like we did for the first book.

PT: And the last questions: have you had a chance to repeat your Pacific journey? If not, is it something you want to do in the future?

‘TP’: We all continued on with more sailing adventures after the events we describe in ‘Beer in the Bilges’, both together and individually, around the South Pacific and Hawaii. We hope that your readers will enjoy reading about those adventures as well.

A CHAT WITH… LEONARD FONG ROKA

Leonard Fong Roka – or ‘Captain Bougainville’ as he is often called – is a proud Bougainvillean, a writer, the author of five books, and a Papua New Guinea’s first Book of the Year Award recipient for his memoir, ‘Brokenville’. In this interview he shares his thoughts on his beloved homeland, the tragic Bougainville Crisis, and – of course – his (magnificent) works.

LEONARD FONG ROKA

Pasifika Truthfully: For those who are not familiar with Bougainville history, could you explain the Bougainville Conflict in a few sentences?

Leonard Fong Roka: For many the Bougainville Crisis was a 1988-1989 affair over unequal distribution of mining benefits from the Australian owned Panguna Mine in Panguna, but this is not true. The sources of conflict go back to the colonial era, when Bougainville was removed from its rightful place in the British Solomon Islands and placed under the German New Guinea. Bougainville is geographically and culturally a Solomon island. Colonization just [drew] a line between Solomon Islands; [the colonists] said: ‘Bougainvilleans, you are New Guineans’. What an insane act! Racially you can see the difference between Bougainvilleans and Papua New Guineans. That [was] the Bougainville problem that built up slowly over the years and culminated into the armed struggle in late 1988. I talk about all these in my other book, ‘Bougainville Manifesto’.

PT: You were only a child when the war erupted. What are your most vivid memories from that time?

LFR: The most vivid memories I have from that time should be in my recollection or the book, ‘Brokenville’. Killing of my father is one strong feeling that still exists [in] me. [I also remember] all those troubles my family faced, the many good and bad things, and life I went through. They are a scar in my life.

PT: Bougainville in the late 1980s / early 1990s was… If you could describe the place.

LFR: [I] should say that Bougainville in the late 1980s and the early 1990s was booming economically as papers, BCL, or the government then claimed. But to me, we – the indigenous people – were enslaved on our own land. Money from Panguna was not sealing our roads, was not building bridges over our rivers, was not financing our school fees, [so we could] attend schools and universities. We were exploited by PNG and BCL, but still they celebrated in the media that we were on top and the best economically. Liars they were.

PT: In your opinion, how did the conflict change not only Bougainville but also the whole country? What impact did it have on the native Bougainvilleans?

LFR: Bougainville Crisis gave us – Bougainvilleans – the power to screen decisions and to deal with our ruler – the PNG state – as we feel [is] right. We showed the PNG people what a mine does to our lives, and today we hear their every Tom, Dick, and Harry is running all over the place asking for compensation for their land and so on.

I think that we – Bougainvilleans – will build a better country soon despite setbacks and continuous PNG’s political aggression on our ambitions. We are learners, and we will pursue our freedom.

PT: What was your motivation for writing ‘Brokenville’?

LFR: My motivation for writing ‘Brokenville’ [came from] my little nieces and nephews. They need something to know that Bougainville and me had gone through a hard time in history; that [it all] had happened because of this and that.

PT: What lesson, if any, would you like readers to draw from your book?

LFR: I think ‘Brokenville’ has a lot for readers. One big lesson is that no matter what, we have to pursue our rights to freedom. We – the people of Bougainville – [must] go on.

Bougainville needs to move forward and attain freedom from our rulers – the PNG government and its people – the New Guineans and Papuans – [whom] we call ‘redskins’ or Erereng in my language (Nasioi) or ivitu in my wife’s language in Buin.

PT: You are a very talented writer. Do you plan to write more?

LFR: Yep. I am working on two books now, which are my 6th and 7th. One is due in December 2015. It’s called ‘Valley of Tears’, and it explores how Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA) infiltrated our land and started the Panguna Mine to finance Australia’s buffer state, that is PNG.

A CHAT WITH… RACHEL REEVES

Rachel Reeves is a journalist whose paternal heritage derives from the island of Atiu in the Cooks. In 2014, she was commissioned to write a book that would tell the story of Cyclone Martin. This is how ‘Mātini’ came into existence. If you want to know more about this wonderful title, just read the interview.

RACHEL REEVES

Pasifika Truthfully: ‘Mātini’ is not your ordinary non-fiction book. It tells a powerful and unbelievably tragic story. Why did you decide to write it?

Rachel Reeves: I was commissioned to write this book by Cook Islands News and the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust, whose board includes cyclone survivors who wanted their stories recorded for two reasons – for the sake of their offspring and for the betterment of disaster management in the Cook Islands and the greater Pacific Islands region.

PT: So you were chosen as the author. How did that happen?

RR: I have no idea! By the grace of The Big Man Upstairs. I owe the opportunity to John Woods, who was my editor when I worked as a reporter for Cook Islands News. When the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust approached him about what it would take to publish a book, he suggested me as a possible writer. He then trusted me to deliver on deadline even though I absolutely did not trust myself.

PT: Your paternal heritage derives from the Cook Islands. How personal is this book for you?

RR: Very. My grandma’s from Atiu, not Manihiki, but the Cook Islands are part of me. Writing this book was for me about telling a particular story, but it was also about highlighting the nuances that make the Cook Islands and the Cook Islands people so special.

PT: Was it difficult to hear all those first-hand accounts from people who had been lucky enough to survive Cyclone Martin?

RR: Yes. I got sick a lot. I felt a lot of sadness and fought a lot of tears. But whenever it was tough I thought about how much tougher it had been for the people I was interviewing.

PT: Whose story moved you most?

RR: I can’t answer that. I felt every story in my soul. Watching big island men cry over lost children was emotional, but so was talking to people who were overseas when the cyclone hit and couldn’t get through to Manihiki when they tried to ring their families.

PT: You had a chance to visit Manihiki, didn’t you? Does the 1997 tragedy still linger over the Island of Pearls?

RR: There are psychological reminders and there are also physical ones – memorial plaques, new emergency shelters, cracked foundations, vacant buildings. Locals say there’s a sense of emptiness now that wasn’t there before. Before the cyclone, Manihiki’s population was 668. Today it’s about 250. Cyclone Martin wasn’t the only reason for the population decline – there was also the decline of the contraction of the black pearl industry, and the larger national depopulation trend – but many people believe it bears the greatest responsibility.

PT: You don’t collect royalties from this book, which is very admirable. Who benefits?

RR: The Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust. The trustees are Manihiki people who care a lot about their island and their people. Two are cyclone survivors.

PT: It can’t be denied that you are an extremely talented writer. Do you plan to write more? Is there a new book on the horizon?

RR: I’m still coming to terms with all of this! Writing a book has always been my life goal, and honestly I’m still pinching myself. But now that this one’s finished, I’m dreaming about – and also dreading! – doing it all over again.

A CHAT WITH… WILL LUTWICK

Not every Peace Corps volunteer is lucky enough to be sent to the quintessential tropical paradise. Will Lutwick, the author of ‘Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji’, was given exactly such an opportunity. In 1968 he arrived in the South Pacific not knowing at the time that his service would impact his whole life. In what way? And what was Fiji really like in the 1970s? To find out, just read the interview.

WILL LUTWICK

Pasifika Truthfully: If you were to name one thing that reminds you of Fiji, what would it be?

Will Lutwick: Palm-tree lined tropical paradise on the surface. Intrigue beneath it.

PT: Quite honestly… Would you say that Fiji changed your life?

WL: Yes. It did. I had to do a lot of growing up fast there. I was 22 when I arrived. Regarding the work, I had the degrees, but not enough business experience to initially be of much help working at a wholesale food cooperative and later marketing passion fruit. The challenge was less about traditional business issues and more about working with multiple cultures – native Fijian and emigrant Indian. Also there were hidden agendas amongst the players about what to do with me. It was the stuff they don’t teach you in business school that were the obstacles, but confronting them was where I learned the most.

On the social front, I found myself challenging an old-world culture with new age openness. The result was a disruption within that culture and particularly within Rani’s family. My Indian girlfriend and eventual wife had to leave Fiji with me. So coming home to the US, with a new wife who had just gone through hell was the biggest life change of all.

PT: Your book sheds some light on Fiji’s society. Actually, it is a real eye-opener. How difficult was it for you – a young man from the Western world – to understand the culture of Indo-Fijians?

WL: Although that period (1969-70) was a time of great openness in western society, those changes were only beginning to happen. My generation (early baby boomer) actually grew up in mostly secluded and clannish environments. I was raised in a totally racially segregated society in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. I write in ‘Dodging Machetes’ how I joined the burgeoning civil rights movement when it confronted my local Jim Crow culture which had been the remnant of slavery for a century. So we all had roots in more closed ethnic societies and were not unfamiliar with a culture where there were only certain people you were supposed to get romantically involved with.

I tried not to take the Indo-Fijian social reaction to me personally. I was dealing with an ethos of thousands of years of arranged marriages, religious, ethnic, and caste restrictions, and an understandable resentment towards how the British Colonial system had treated its subjects. Even though I was not British, I was considered European. Most of the Indians (or their ancestors) in Fiji had arrived there over the prior century via involuntary servitude, brought to Fiji as virtual slaves for five years to work the sugar plantations. At that point they were free to go home, so many chose to stay in the islands as life back in India was no picnic at the beach either.

PT: What did you learn during your stay?

WL: I learnt that what you value may be worth fighting for, but the road will be long, hard, and winding. Stay the course. And be nice to others on your way. Everyone has their own agenda and yours is not the only one that matters.

PT: ‘Dodging Machetes’ is a very personal and honest memoir. Did you have any doubts about writing it?

WL: I didn’t decide to write it until a few years before publication date, so by then some of the people it might offend had passed on. I was particularly concerned about how it would affect Rani (not her real name) who is still alive. Most of the violence happened to her and within her family and I wanted to be respectful of their privacy. She was cooperative with me when I wrote the book. She was very generous in her support of the book even though she would have preferred not to have our story out there for certain family members to perhaps find.

So yes, I did have strong doubts about pursuing publication throughout the writing and editing processes, because of the potential impact on many individuals besides myself. But I eventually felt the benefits outweighed the risks and went through with publication. I did try to protect people’s identities and so changed most character names and some identifying characteristics.

PT: What was Rani’s (let’s stick to that name) – your Fijian love and ex-wife – reaction when she first learnt about your plans to pen a memoir?

WL: She did not like the idea at first. But later she saw the value that her story might mean to others.

PT: The book ends with you and Rani moving to the US. Do you mind sharing what happened afterwards?

WL: In the Epilogue we have moved to the United States and decided to start our new life together in San Francisco. I thought this was a good cut-off point for a memoir: figuratively riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after.

Of course life is not that complete or simple. Rani had difficulties adjusting not only to living in the United States, but even more in healing from the severe emotional wounds suffered during our courtship. I think she went through a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. On the surface she adapted fine. She got a job as a secretary at a local university. She enjoyed our social life with others, and we had good times together. But we split apart after five years and legally divorced in another five years.

Each of us remarried within another five years and thirty years after that point, both of those marriages are still flourishing.

Even at the darkest moments, I never regretted carrying my relationship with Rani forward to the next level, even when it ended. We did what was right for us and made it a little easier for those who came later. I learned after writing the book that Indian-European marriages in Fiji became somewhat ordinary within a couple of decades after we paved the way. That’s not why I married her, but I’m proud to hear of that side effect.

PT: You’ve mentioned that Rani had difficulties adjusting to living in the US. How did she cope with cross-cultural transition?

WL: On the surface it went well. People in the States were generally open and curious about her – Asian Indians were surprisingly rare in the US then. When she would say she was Indian, the typical response was, ‘Which tribe?’. San Francisco in the 1970s was a very open society and we thrived in such an environment where we did not feel we were under the microscope any more. Rani was fluent in English. She got a steady job way more quickly than I did.

But she had never been off her island previously. So being amongst many people, freeways, gigantic buildings – it was all somewhat overpowering at first, but she adapted over time. The real difficulty was in the wounds left by the family trauma. And she was living in a society, totally cut off from other Indians, a strong reversal of what she had lived in all her life.

PT: Let’s get back to Fiji. What is one thing people don’t know about the country?

WL: Both native Fijians and Indo-Fijians practice firewalking. They have both inherited it from their different cultures. The tourists see only the Fijian version done by the natives in colorful ceremonies.

PT: Have you had a chance to come back there? If not, would you like to?

WL: I never went back to Fiji. Although I would have liked to do so earlier, a trip to Fiji never quite rose to the top of my list. I am aware of what changes have happened there in recent decades and the world is so much smaller now. Isolated tropical islands are not so isolated any more. For now, I am happy to remember Fiji frozen in 1970, when I said goodbye.

PT: Do you have any recommendations on what to see in Fiji?

WL: I’ve been away for 45 years and it was never a tourist destination for me, so I don’t think any response I might give you can do that question justice. So many others who have visited there later can do a much better job than I can. I do hope tourists can visit a native village to get a sense of what that communal life was like. Like everywhere, you’ll find more of the authentic nature of the country the farther you get off the beaten path. As small as Fiji is, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

A CHAT WITH… BRYAN VILA AND CYNTHIA MORRIS

Bryan Vila spent six years working as a police chief in Micronesia. His experiences and adventures are vividly described in the book he co-authored with his lovely wife, Cynthia Morris. Bryan and Cyn were kind enough to answer a few questions regarding the Pacific Islands, ‘Micronesian Blues’, and their plans for the future.

BRYAN VILA CYNTHIA MORRIS

Pasifika Truthfully: Training police officers in Micronesia sounds like a dream job for a former LA street cop. Did it turn out to be your dream job?

Bryan Vila: Living and working in Micronesia did turn out to be my dream job, but not at all in the way I’d been expecting.

After Vietnam, and then nine years working some of the toughest beats in L.A., it’s easy to become cynical. You see so much brutality, so many awful things that people do to each other, and you start to feel like nothing you do can make things better – so why try? But I’ve always been an optimist, so I was determined not to let cynicism win.

Micronesia certainly wasn’t paradise – it had its problems, just like anyplace else on the planet. But I regained my connection to humanity in Micronesia. Unlike the anonymity of urban policing, I got to know people, become a part of their communities, and finally feel like I was making a difference.

Living and working in Micronesia gave me back my optimism and my belief that even one person can bring about change. The lessons I learned about community policing there have stayed with me and influenced nearly every aspect of my work – first as a federal law enforcement officer and then as a professor for the past 25 years – since I left Micronesia.

PT: What had you been expecting before you boarded the plane?

BV: Ha! I remember having this ridiculous notion that my then-wife and I would be able to travel from island to island together by sailboat as I did my job. Of course, as soon as I got there and realized how enormously far apart the islands are, that dream was dead in the water (bad pun intended).

More generally, I initially viewed the job as a ‘paid vacation in paradise’. This idea got shot down on my second day in Micronesia, when a group of Chuukese police officers I was supposed to be helping to train almost killed me.

Other than that, I don’t recall having many expectations at all – just the excitement of a new adventure, which I’ve always loved. It was 1978. There wasn’t any Internet back then, and very little information about Micronesia was available at the library, so I couldn’t just look things up. That didn’t bother me at all – sometimes the very best adventures are the ones where you have no idea what to expect.

I went to Micronesia with an open mind, and a desire to learn. I think that’s the most important thing anyone can do when experiencing a new culture – or cultures, in my case.

PT: Ok, let’s get back to the day you arrived in Micronesia. Your initial thought?

BV: Hmm. I took the Island Hopper, which was an Air Micronesia Boeing 727 with reinforced landing gear. And when you took the Island Hopper, you didn’t just ‘arrive in Micronesia’. You stopped at island after island – Johnston, Majuro, Kwajalein, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Tinian – until you reached your final destination, which in my case was Saipan. Most of the runways were paved with crushed coral back then, so the landings were rough. We’d often land so hard the oxygen masks would fall down and the overhead storage bins would pop open.

It was all a bit surreal, especially because I’d been traveling so long by the time I got there that I was loopy with jet lag. On most of the islands, we’d have about an hour on the ground so I’d get out to stretch and take a look around. It was the middle of the night most of the time we were flying, but there were still people waiting to greet their loved ones with leis and mar mars everywhere we landed. I can remember watching them all curiously, listening as they spoke in languages I couldn’t begin to understand, and relishing the edge of a new adventure.

When I finally got to Saipan, I was surprised by the combination of incredibly beautiful natural scenery and the stark contrast of dilapidated man-made structures, most of them made of concrete or rusting metal. It looked pretty disreputable at first to an outsider, but after you’ve lived in the tropics for a while, you learn that there are three main colors there: blue, green, and rust.

I was also fascinated by the World War II relics – old tanks and fighter planes and bunkers and landing craft – scattered all over the island, since my dad had fought and almost died on Saipan during World War II.

But mostly, I remember that I really wanted a shower and a nap, and was relieved to get to the house where I’d be staying for the next couple of weeks. I didn’t even mind that the water that trickled out of the showerhead was red with rust…

PT: How difficult was it to adapt to so many different cultures?

BV: (Chuckles.) Well, I soon learned to apologize in nine different languages, if that gives you any idea. You can’t help but screw up when you’re trying to figure out 12 different cultures all at once.

But I loved that about Micronesia. I mean, imagine how boring Europe would be if all the countries were alike. The different cultures and languages are what make each island unique. Learning those languages, and participating in the culture, is what allows you to connect with people and become an ‘insider’. And insiders, not outsiders, make the most difference in any community.

So I learned the languages – or at least enough to get by. And I participated in the cultures. When the Pohnpeians drank sakau, I drank sakau. When the Yapese chewed betel nut, I chewed betel nut. I held hands with my burly cops on Kosrae, because that was the custom there, and I shook hands with as hard a grip as I could muster on Chuuk.

One of my most appalling early screw-ups was on Yap. I was doing firearms training for the police officers there and thought I’d lighten the mood with a well-timed fart. I had seen people laugh themselves sick over a fart on Pohnpei, so I thought everyone would laugh and it would relieve a little tension all around. But I was completely wrong. On Yap, farting was considered seriously rude.

Another time on Pohnpei, I was invited to one of my local co-worker’s homes for dinner. When it came time to eat, they served me a whole boiled chicken on a plate, along with a huge chunk of yam. Then everyone watched and nodded and smiled as I ate. I was thinking that it would be rude not to finish it all, and I did my best but I just couldn’t do it. When I finally handed what little was left on the palm-leaf plate back to my host, she passed it on to the next person to eat. I was mortified when I realized that I had just eaten most of a dinner that had been meant for the entire family!

PT: Speaking of cultures. Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Palau, The Marshall Islands, Guam. Different islands, different folkways. How would you describe each of these places in a few sentences?

BV: It’s hard to sum up the differences in a few sentences, but I’ll try.

Let’s see. On Yap, people were quiet and reserved. They spoke softly and tended to jump at loud noises. Yapese villagers valued their peace so much that right after the dirt roads were graded each month, they’d go out and dig big potholes so people would have to drive more slowly. Yap was one of the most traditional of all the islands, so many men on Yap still wore the traditional loincloth, called a ‘thu’, and many women went topless.

On Palau, people tended to be extremely forthright. I would often join in on heated political debates at a beachside bar called ‘The Cave’ at night. For the most part, they were all in good fun – Palauans love a good argument. Stateside clothes were more the norm on Palau. I think many Americans would feel most at home on Palau, because the culture is more familiar than on the other islands.

On Chuuk, people greeted each other with crushing handshakes and the men tended to be tough and hard-drinking, despite the fact that the women had recently voted in prohibition when I was there (they scheduled the vote on payday Friday, when the men were drunk). Chuuk was also home to Xavier High School, where most of Micronesia’s new leaders had been educated by Father Fran Hezel. He was a wonderful force for thoughtful change in Micronesia.

On Pohnpei, the people were warm and welcoming. One thing that set Pohnpei apart from the other islands was sakau, a kava-like drink that plays an important role in Pohnpeian culture. Sakau ceremonies are used to honor people, for negotiations, to settle disputes, and other reasons. You can try sakau at a sakau bar or at the local cultural center, but I don’t think you’ll really understand the significance of it until you’ve participated in a local ceremony. In fact, Cyn and I chose to end the Kindle version of ‘Micronesian Blues’ with an informal local sakau ceremony on a remote hillside, because we felt it so strongly captured the feel and beauty and communal nature of Micronesian life.

In the Marshalls, people tended to avoid conflict. It’s important to be peaceful when you live on a low, flat, crowded atoll with people you’ll know all your life. But that doesn’t mean they’re meek; they’ve done a good job standing up for themselves for the past 40 years or so. They’re determined and stalwart.

Of course, when most people think of Guam and Saipan they probably think of World War II, since those islands played such a strategic role in the Pacific theater. There were still World War II relics all over Saipan back when I was there – and probably still are. The indigenous people of Guam and Saipan – the Chamorros – welcomed progress, but they also worked hard to preserve their unique blend of cultural heritages. Since the time of Magellan in the 16th century, they’ve absorbed different aspects of Spanish, Japanese, and U.S. culture. But they’re still very much their own people. I lived on Saipan for six years and loved it, although I spent about three weeks of every month ‘wheels up’, traveling all over the region.

Kosrae was the most communal, and most religious, of all the islands. Religion pervaded life there – I couldn’t even swim in the lagoon on a Sunday, because it was against custom. People would come over to my house to sit with me – even if we couldn’t communicate more than a few words to each other – just to keep me from being lonely. When I first got there, it was difficult to get used to, but I soon found myself enjoying being part of such a close-knit community. I especially loved participating in the communal singing – or maybe I should say ‘trying to sing’. Kosraeans have lovely, lilting, high-pitched voices, and I have this deep baritone voice, so it was always pretty funny when I joined in. I’d try to copy their tone, and end up sounding like a cross between Julia Child and Tiny Tim!

PT: Where did you feel most ‘at home’?

BV: That’s easy. Kosrae. It’s funny that I ended up feeling that way, because at first I had found the strong religious presence and all the togetherness on Kosrae to be a little overwhelming.

But as I learned the language and the culture, the very togetherness I had initially found so alien and uncomfortable turned into a real sense of belonging.

We had a strong sense of community on Saipan – but it was mostly among the expatriates who worked there. We were sort of a community within a community. On Kosrae, I had begun to feel like part of the extended island family, and I enjoyed that.

I could’ve stayed – the Kosraeans had offered me land to stay there, which was very unusual as a foreigner. And there have been many times when I wish I had stayed on in Kosrae and lived in peaceful, uncomplicated tranquility. But my wife at the time was eager to get back to her job and her friends on Saipan, and I had a job to get back to, too. So we went back to Saipan on schedule. But I still think of Kosrae often and miss it.

PT: Now, the islands of the Pacific are often portrayed as paradise. But, as we all know, even paradise is not crime free. What did you have to deal with?

BV: More than I ever expected, that’s for sure. People are people, wherever you go, and sometimes people behave badly – very badly.

My first day on Kosrae, for example, I was confronted with a rape that had just taken place. Two young Kosraean men had raped two American Peace Corps women, and the Americans were understandably furious. To make matters worse, it turned out that one of the suspects was the younger brother of the deputy police chief, so the cops had been too embarrassed to do anything about it yet. I explained to them that we had to treat everyone the same, and I think it helped to have an outsider come in and make that call. We went and arrested both young men, who were tried and convicted under Kosrae’s new rape laws, which were based on the California and Oregon penal codes.

A while later on Pohnpei, a group of prisoners broke out of the local jail, shot the jailer in the back, stole the police jeeps and weapons, and then went to the local radio station, which they mistook for the island communication station, and shot and killed the DJ. I was on Saipan when it happened, and put together a ‘posse’ to go out and take care of things. But by the time we were able to get there, the Pohnpei police had the situation pretty much under control. All but one of the suspects was in custody, and one had been shot and killed when he opened fire on the Pohnpeian cops.

Another time, one of the magistrates on a small outer island of Chuuk and his family ran amok. They had been terrorizing the people on their island for a long time – raping and torturing and such – and eventually killed a 14-year-old boy in broad daylight in front of many witnesses. Everyone on the island was too afraid of them to do anything about it, so we went in and arrested them all. I have to admit I was pretty scared of them too, based on the stories we’d heard, but it turned out they weren’t nearly as fierce or as well-organized as everyone thought. It felt really good to be able to put those guys behind bars and restore peace to the island.

PT: Quite a few stories appear in your book, ‘Micronesian Blues’. When did you come up with this idea: ‘Oh I want to write about my experiences in the Blue Continent’?

BV: I’ll let Cyn, who actually wrote the majority of the book, answer that question…

Cynthia Morris: I remember the exact moment when the idea hit me. Bryan and I were friends at the University of California, Irvine, back when he was a new professor and I worked as a science writer there. One afternoon over coffee he said, ‘One of these days I’ll have to tell you about my experiences training cops in Micronesia’.

As a writer, I was completely intrigued, but we were both too busy to talk about it any further for a long time after that. In fact, I don’t think the subject came up for another two or three years, after we were married.

We would go for long walks along the beach near our house with a tape recorder on, and Bryan would share his stories from Micronesia with me. Pretty soon, I had boxes and boxes of tapes about his experiences in Micronesia to go along with the boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings, photos, and other memorabilia he had saved from his time there.

It was still several years after that until I finally was able to transcribe all the notes from our talks and start to put the story together. By the time I was finished, I knew I had something really special on my hands, because ‘Micronesian Blues’ is more than just a collection of funny tales from a remote part of the world. Bryan gained a great deal of cross-cultural knowledge and understanding during his six years in Micronesia, and his willingness to participate in local culture wherever he went serves as a great blueprint for people living and working in foreign lands. And, at the risk of embarrassing Bryan, I’d say that ‘Micronesian Blues’ is also a touching, beautiful story of a man who became whole again in a faraway land.

PT: I must say that your book is thoroughly engaging, highly amusing, immensely entertaining, and very thought-provoking. But it is definitely too short! Do you have any plans to write a sequel? If yes, when can we expect it to be released?

CM: Thank you! Bryan’s experiences really are pretty amazing, aren’t they? And this is just a small portion of his life story…

We actually do have plans to tell more of his story, and quite soon. We can’t say any more about it just yet, but a very exciting project is in the works.

PT: Will Bryan Vila ever come back to Micronesia?

BV: Absolutely! I’m looking forward to visiting again, hopefully sometime soon. I still have several good friends who live in Micronesia, and we keep in touch when we can. It would be good to see them again, and to see how much Micronesia has changed in the years since I was last there.

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.