COOK ISLANDS

The Cook Islands: In the Lagoon of Aitutaki

           

I was paddling in the huge lagoon of Aitutaki, which was green sea ringed by tiny islands and a reef that was like a fortification made of coral and sea foam. An old man fishing from a dugout canoe called out to me.
"Why are you paddling there, listing with those earphones?"
I was listening to Chuck Berry.
"Because I am unhappy," I said.
"Where is your wife?" he yelled.
Then the wind took the rest of his talk away, and it also separated our boats.

I had come to this lagoon in the Cook group from the Marquesas for a reason. The Marquesas were the dispersal point, from about 300 A.D. onward, for people who populated the three corners of the Polynesian triangle. They sailed to the top of it, the Hawaiian Islands, to the Cooks and beyond, to New Zealand; and to Easter Island. No one is certain why the Marquesans embarked on these long and difficult voyages, some of them over two thousand miles. The people were skilled in the arts of warfare, gardening, navigation and boat-building. They had found every island of any size in the eastern Pacific, bringing to it their arts, their gods, their chiefs, their domestic animals and their favourite vegetables. They worked in stone, they made tools, they wove ingenious baskets, but they did not make pots. they civilized these islands with a peculiarly harmonious culture that combined a reverence for flowers, a fondness for music and dancing, and a predilection for cannibalism.

Letting these old discoverers determine my itinerary, I had decided to leave the Marquesas to paddle in the Cook Islands. After that I planned to paddle around Easter Island, and finally Hawaii. It was a short flight from Papeete to Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook group. I arrived late at night in a cold drizzle and was watched by heavy Maori-looking people with big fleshy faces, large and not very dexterous hands and bulky bodies. they looked like unfinished statues and were handsome in he same sculptural way, with broad open faces and big feet. Every adult, whether manor woman, had a rugby player's physique.

"This is camping equipment?"
"It's a boat." I had checked "camping equipment" on my arrival form.
"Is it clean or dirty?"
"Very clean."
"You can go."

Two different New Zealanders, seeing my boat bags and my gear, said sarcastically, "You travel light!" But the Cook Islander heaving them off the baggage cart said, "My woman weighs more than that."

It was like landing at an airstrip in the middle of Africa - one plane, three small buildings, few formalities, only one person around, seeing to everything. It was easy to get information because there was so little to know. It was nearly midnight. I asked the only person there whether I could fly the next day to Aitutaki.

"The first flight's at eight o'clock. I can put you on it."

The speaker was Mr Skew, a New Zealander. He told me about the political system, which seemed simple enough. Then he asked where I was staying. I saw the name of a hotel on the wall, and said, "There." He drove me to the place ("And that's the Cook Islands Parliament House," Mr Skew said, as we passed a very small wooden shed beyond the airport). Viv, the dour New Zealand clerk at the hotel, at first pretended she wasn't glad to see me, and then said, "We have plenty of rooms. Do you want a sea view?" "I'm getting up at six." It was now twelve-thirty.

"You should get one of our cheap rooms," Viv said. the room had a Soviet look, chipped paint, plastic chairs, easily-tipped-over lamps and a blocked drain in the sink. And it was barely furnished. I had last stayed in a room like this in Wellington, but this made pretty Polynesia seem chilly and frugal. The Cooks were still informally linked to New Zealand, but the smug and self-denying Calvinism of Kiwi-land was at odds with everything Polynesian, and the Kiwis themselves looked rather out of place here, so beaky and pale, with short pants and knobby knees.

"I'm from Aitutaki myself," a Cook Islander said to me the next morning at the airport. He had a strong New Zealand accent. His name was Michael Rere.
"There's supposed to be a great canoe-maker in Aitutaki," I said.
"Probably my father."
"Is his name Rere?"
"Yes, but they call him 'Blackman," because he's always out fishing. That makes him black."

Cook Islanders were standing in a light rain, holding garlands and crowns of flowers, watching passengers disembark from a flight that had just arrived from Auckland, watching lots of bundled-up and brightly dressed people hurrying through puddles towards the arrival building. Fat people greeting even fatter arrivals - happy families.

Inter-island planes began to arrive. Besides the high volcanic island of Rarotonga, the most populous (10,000) and developed, there are fourteen other islands in the Cook group, ranging from coral atolls like Suwarrow (with six inhabitants) to Mangaia, which is nearly as large as Raro. Small planes flew to most of these islands. Aitutaki had been recommended to me as a friendly and pretty place, and so I decided to go there with my collapsible boat.

A woman was yapping in Maori, and among her unintelligible mutterings I caught the phrase, no place like home.

That same hour I was flying in sunshine over the lagoon at Aitutaki, looking down at its wonderful configuration of reefs and motus, and after lunch I was paddling there. It was then the old man called out to me, "Where is your wife?"

I spent the night at a small seedy house by the shore called Tom's. Camping was forbidden, because all the land was spoken for and constantly being quarreled over, subdivided and renegotiated. Mr and Mrs Tom were islanders, they were out but their daughter had shown me around. The walls of the house were plastered with religious pictures, and copies of The Book of Mormon were lying about, bristling rather ominously with bookmarks and dog-eared pages.
"You can cook here," Winnie said, showing me a greasy stone. "You can put your food here." She opened a dusty cabinet. "You can share this bathroom," and she shoved a plastic curtain aside, "with the others."
But what I felt most keenly was the absence of beer. And even if I found some in town, how could I guzzle it in front of this pious family of Mormons?
It was next to the lagoon, so I stayed while, and I became friendly with the three fearfully solemn evangelists who could usually be found conferring on the porch, their black ties dangling - a Cook Islander, a Maori from Auckland, and Elder Lambert, from Salt Lake City.

"I'm from Massachusetts," I said on first meeting them, and when they gave me blank looks I added, "which is not far from Vermont."

The big booby face of the islander was in marked contrast to the consternation on the face of Elder Lambert.

"And you know who was born in Sharon, Vermont," I said.

"Who was born there?" the Maori asked.

After an uneasy pause, the cook Islander laughed. "I doon know eet!"

Elder Lambert said, "Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont."

They were so transfixed by the fanciful details of their absurd millenialism (Jesus's visit to the Mayans in Guatemala, golden tablets buried in new York, the prophecies of the Angel Moroni, God encouraging polygamy, and so forth) that they had lost sight of the simplest facts, such as where the founder of their Church, their prophet, was born.

I urged them to read No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, by Fawn Brodie, and they said I should look into The Book of Mormon.

"I will," I said. "I want to read about the Lost Tribes of Israel sailing into the Pacific."

This made Elder Lambert hitch his chair forward and begin pointedly tapping the air with his finger.

"In the first chapter of Nephi, Lehi went east from Jerusalem. His descendants are in the Pacific. And in the last chapter of Alma -sixty-three- Hagoth and many others built ships and sailed into 'the Western Sea.' those are the very words. The Pacific, in other words. They were Nephites."
"Sailed from where?"
"America. Central America." Tap-tap-tap went his finger." "'A narrow neck of land.'"
"And they made it to Polynesia."
"Yes. The Polynesians are descendants of these people."
The Maori was beaming. His expression said: Take that!
"What about the Melanesians?"
"Sons of Ham."
"What about the Micronesians?"
Elder Lambert narrowed his eyes at me. He said, "Corrupt defilers."

After all this disputation I needed air. I thought: You had to admire Joseph Smith for trying to come up with a home-grown faith - it was the most Americanized religion. (Christopher Columbus and the American Revolution made appearances in The Book of Mormon.) but Mormonism was like junk food: it was American to the core and it looked all right, but it was our version of food, and it wasn't until after you had swallowed some that you felt strange. 

I strolled into Aitutaki's town, Arutanga. It was a very small town - hardly a town at all, more a village, and its small size and its dullness kept it pure. It was the post office, two shops, four churches, a muddy harbor, a school, some houses. the shops sold only canned goods: fish, beans, corned beef, cookies, crackers - the South Pacific standbys.  Poo, the postmaster, was sitting on the post office steps. He told me he disliked Rarotonga for being too busy and stressful.

"Are you busy?"
"Not really," he said.
 
Eleanor at Big Jay's Take-Away fried a fishburger for me, a chunk of wahoo in a bun, and said she had lived her whole life on the island, but that she was trying to make a go of this business.
 
"Are you busy?"
"Not really," she said.
It began to rain very hard, and walking back to Tom's I had to take shelter under a big tree. A girl of about twenty, who had been headed out of town on her motorbike, was doing the same thing. The rain crashed through the branches and leaves.
"You mind this rain?"
"Not really," she said.

But it let up after an hour, and the sun came out, and I went paddling again. On the beach, near Tom's, I met enormous women Apii and Emma. they looked elderly, but they were exactly my own age. they referred to me as a papa'a - a white man.

"What if I were black - what would you call me?"
"Then you would be a papa'a kere kere."
"What if I were Chinese?"
"You would be tinito."
"What if I were from another island?"
"You would be manuiti - a stranger."
I asked them whether there were community activities on the island. They said there were the churches and sometimes there were festivals.
"We used to have a cinema in Aitutaki, but videos are better," Emma said.
"Do you think that videos from America make the young people violent?" I asked.
Emma said, "Maybe. but the young people in Aitutaki are all right. the problem is with these Cook Island kids who come home from the holidays. They live in New Zealand and they learn bad habits. They are troublemakers. We call them 'street kids.' They give a bad example. Cook Islanders go bad in New Zealand."
 
"I like watching videos," Apii said. "Most people in Aitutaki have a video machine. We have had them for four years. Or maybe three."
"I have seen some," I admitted. "What about you?"
"We have," Emma said. "One called The Tigress - something like that."
"Naked papa'as," I said. They laughed. "Do young people watch them?"
"No. Only adults," Apii said. "men like them."
"Women find them silly," Emma said.
I asked, "Why do you think men like them?"
"They get ideas. They like to watch. And sometimes" - Emma raised her large hands to her face and giggled behind them - "sometimes they end up."
"What does that mean, 'end up'?"
"They end up doing what they are seeing," Apii said.
"Because the blue movies make them hungry," Emma added.

We were standing under some palm trees. It began to rain again, but still they shifted themselves and said they had to go. before they left, I gave them some chocolate. 

"I would rather have nuts," Emma said, and laughed.

The next day I got tired of the Mormons and the tiny mildewed house, and I moved to a bungalow at a lodge another mile up the road, but also on the lagoon. Not long after I moved in, I switched on my short-wave radio and, searching for world news, I heard a familiar voice.

I am a little incredulous still, that I am the representative of Her Majesty the Queen in New Zealand -

It was Dame Cath, whom I had met in Fiji, who had made herself famous in New Zealand by calling one of her political enemies "a fuckwit." She was back in Auckland, and still harping with false modesty about carrying out the Queen's wishes.

- and that the daughter of poor Scottish migrants should be standing here today, is testimony to -

I switched the thing off and somewhere in the palms a cockatoo shrieked.

That day I paddled to the edge of the reef, a place marked Nukuroa on my chart, where a father and son were fishing.

Toupe, the father, said, "I can only live here in Aitutaki. It is small. Rarotonga is big. If you have a small place you have few people. but in a big place you get Samoans, Tongans, and all different people. I don't like that."

I pointed to one of the little islands south of us. "Do you call that a motu?"

"Yes."
Then I pointed to Aitutaki, which was low and green and glimmering in the sunshine. "Is that a motu?"
"No. that is enua."
Enua was land. Fenua in Tahitian. Vanua in Fijian. An island was a little parcel in the sea. It was something you could see the whole of in a glance. But land was something else - it had a sense of home, it had size, it was divided, it contained more than one family. I asked Toupe for a definition.
"Enua is not an island. It is a small land," he said, and then he asked "Are you married?"
"That's a long story," I said.
"But where is your wife?"
"That's what I mean."
"Not with you?" He was very persistent.
"No," aI said.
"That is bad." He looked genuinely annoyed. "You will go with girls from bars."
"Not a chance," I said. "I am too old."
"They like older men."
"I am not interested."

Anyway, where were these girls? where were the bars, for that matter? They were mentioned in Tahiti, too. I never saw them. In Taiohae in Nuku Hiva one night a man said to me, All the boys have gone to the bar to pick up girls. I did not see any bar in Taiohae that had a woman in it. Fast women were muttered about in Fiji. What a shame - all the prostitutes, people said. I looked and did not see a single one. Rarotonga was reputed to be a hot place. You could have fooled me. It was jolly, but in a hearty unambiguous way. Bar girls were mentioned in Nuku'alofa, in Tonga. there were two bars, I looked, no one. I never saw anything vicious on the streets or bars of Polynesia, and my only brush with the local libido was in the Trobriands, where I had sometimes been woken with a drunken cry, Mister Paul, you want a girl! but I usually assumed it was a clumsy attempt to rob me and always went back to sleep.

Before I left Toupe I asked him about sharks. Yes, he said, there were plenty of them in the lagoon. I showed him the four-foot spear I kept beside the cockpit of my kayak.

"That will do nothing to the sharks we have," he said. "They are bigger than your boat."

That gave me pause. My boat was almost sixteen feet long. On the other hand, Aitutaki was famous for not having any dogs on it. No one had an explanation for this, but I was glad in any case, because Polynesian dogs were bad-tempered scavengers. It was as though they knew that human beings were not to be trusted: and that the fate of all dogs was to be cooked and eaten. I went back to my bungalow that day and found six ripe mangoes on my table. Somehow the two fat ladies, Apii and Emma, had found out where I was staying and had brought the fruit to me.

My intention was to paddle to the motus. Because it was forbidden by custom for any stranger to stay overnight on them, these involved round trips of anywhere from eight to twenty miles. but I had to be prepared for emergencies. I might get stuck on a motu if there was a storm. I bought food at the local shops - beans, sardines, raisins, cucumbers, bread - and set off, launching into the shallow lagoon. there was no local market. The meat in the shops was canned, and one store sold frozen new Zealand lamb and mutton.

"What about chickens? don't you raise chickens?"
An islander said, "We have wild chickens."
"Do you eat them?"
"Sometimes. But they are too tough."

I loved the expression wild chickens.

At low tide great bristling shelves of coral were exposed in the lagoon, and fighting the wind I was sometimes blown onto the spikes. then I had to get out and disengage my boat and tramp away, pulling it carefully, before getting in. I always wore reef shoes in Aitutaki for this reason. After a few days the rubber bottom of the boat was terribly gouged, but I had no leaks.

The skipping fish seemed to be stirred by low tide, too, and they sometimes surfaced in a silver sheet - hundreds of sardine-sized fish - shimmering seventy-five across my bow, dancing on their tails, and into the distance, a lovely sight. One day, making for a little motu called Paau at the edge of the eastern edge of the reef, I realized that I was low on drinking-water. If I happened to become stranded on Papau I would have no water at all, and would have to rely on the coconuts I might knock down (and that was never easy). Spotting a village called Tautu marked on my chart, on the east side of Aitutaki, I paddled there and went ashore. Two naked boys watched me drag my boat onto the sand.

"What is that?"
"That's my boat," I said.
They laughed. The kayak did not look like any boat they had ever seen.

I walked up a path and over a jungly hill and found some houses. there was no one home at any of them, though the houses looked cared-for and the gardens well tended. On the veranda of one of the empty houses, a washer was going - a wash-tub, which was open and agitating clothes, this way and that, shlip-shlop, shlip-shlop, with a laboring motor. It was a sound from my past, my mother's washer going most of the day, it seemed - all that distance to hear that evocative noise and recover a memory of early childhood. Farther along the road, I saw an islander. I said I needed some water. He pointed to a house. A white man came out, followed by a small grubby child.

"What is it?" the man asked in what was perhaps a New Zealand accent. He seemed tetchy.
"I wonder if you could give me some drinking-water, please."
Without a word, he took my bottle and went into the house. then he was back, handing it to me, again in silence.
"I came by kayak," I said. "I saw this village on the map. My boat is on the beach."
He simply stared at me, without any interest.
"Have you lived here long?" I asked.
"Eighteen years."
"You must have seen some dramatic changes," I said.
He pressed his lips together, then said, "No paved roads then."
Yet I had not seen any paved roads even now.
"this was all jungle," he said.
Wasn't it still jungle, except for the odd little bungalow?
"that kind of thing," he said.
I said, "Do the high prices bother you?"
This seemed to irritate him.
"It's all relative, isn't it? he said defiantly.
"That it costs three dollars for a cucumber?"
"You learn to live with high prices," he said, and now he was cross, though I could not explain why. "Just like you learn to live with low prices. You go to Australia" - perhaps he was an Australian? - "and the prices are low, and you learn to live with them. And you come back and the prices are high and you learn to live with them.
I said, "I suppose if you have a garden you can reduce some of your costs."

"A garden? he said, sneering in incredulity. "Do you know how much time a garden takes? You could be at it all day, weeding it, watering it. time - that's the rarest commodity here. time."

That was news. I would have thought that time was plentiful on this little island - that the one commodity everyone had in abundance was time.

The man had a rising tremor of mania in his voice as he said, "yes wake up and you're off and there's never enough time to do everything that needs to be done, and if it's not one thing it's another. Time is scarce here" - and he leaned forward at me: he was barefoot, in a dirty T-shirt, the grubby child nuzzling his legs. "I never have enough time!"

"I'd better be going," I said.
"And another thing," he said. "I'd rather pay three dollars a pound for tomatoes than thirty dollars and all the time it takes to grow them."
"Of course. Well, I'm off - headed out to that island" - Papau, in the distance, was partially misted over.
"It's two miles, you know. Maybe more."
"I've just come six miles from Arutanga. I can manage."
"And the wind's against you," he said.
"True. but it will be an easy paddle back, or to that other island."
"Unless the wind shifts. Then it'll blow you straight out to sea or into the reef."
Now I saw that he had a stubbly face, and bitten nails, and spit in the corners of his mouth.
"I was under the impression this was the prevailing wind - south-easterly."
"It shifts at times. Not usually at this of year. But it shifts."
I had a sudden urge to push him over, but I resisted, and turning to go I said, "At least it's not raining."
"It might rain," he said eagerly. "We need rain. I hope it does rain." He grinned horribly at the blazing sky. "And it's four miles to that island, Papau."
"Then I'd better get started," I said.
"The reef's at least three," he said.  "I was told there's an ancient marae on the island."
"There's said to be. I haven't been out there."
And he had lived here for eighteen years? "Haven't had the time," he said, as though reading the query in my mind. "There's never enough time." He looked extremely harassed. He clutched his T-shirt. He said, "Now, I'm sorry, but you're just going to have to excuse me. I haven't got all day for chatting. I've got masses of paperwork to get through. that's what I was doing when you came. You interrupted me. You see? time. Not enough."
"Thanks for the water."
"It's good water. From an artesian well. It's all drinkable here," he said, as though I was on the point of accusing him of poisoning me.
 
It took me an hour, paddling into the wind, to get to Papau. there were herons and egrets wading in its shallows. From a distance it looked as though it had a white sand beach. close up it was broken coral and bleached rock, and it was littered with rubbish and flotsam that had floated from Aitutaki or had been chucked from ships. As I sat on a log, eating my lunch, the whole beach got up and started walking sideways. Shells, big and small, were bobbling all over the place. this was amazing, like a Disney cartoon, where nature starts to frolic - singing trees, nodding flowers, dancing shells. It was because I had been so still. the hermit crabs I had startled earlier began to move, but I had never seen so many of them on the move. I tramped around the island, looking for the ancient site, but saw nothing. It was a deserted island, with dense jungle at its center, and the remains of campfires at the edge. I had told myself that I had come here to look at the marae but once on the island, faced with thorns and tall grass and spiders, I could not be bothered to look, so I went for a swim instead, and after that knocked down some foul-tasting coconuts. 
 
It occurred tome that I might work my way down this long chain of motus, starting here, and then going on to Tavaeraiti and its sister motu Tavaerua. The fifth one along was in the far corner of the lagoon, almost out of sight of land. I could get close to it tonight, hit it tomorrow, and then head back. The idea of trespassing excited me, and there was enough daylight for me to make it to the largest of the motus, Tekopua, where I could hide. the wind helped me by beating against the beam of my kayak and slipping me quickly past Akaiami and Muritapua, and by then Aitutaki was almost lost on the horizon. It was a low island and at this time of day no fishermen came out this far. My only problem might be a a fisherman who had came to the same conclusions as me and decided to spend the night - but there was none. I went ashore at the top end of Tekopua, and dragged my boat off the beach. I had everything I needed: water, food, mosquito repellent, and enough canvas to keep the rain off my sleeping-bag. Darkness was sudden. No sooner had I finished eating then night descended. Thee were no stars. No lights - not even any on the distant island. The palms rattled and the surf broke on the far side of my motu. That sound of surf and thrashing palms woke me throughout the night - there were no real silences on Polynesian nights, at the very least it was wind or waves. but this sound was noisier than city traffic.
 
I woke very wet, not from rain but from the residue of heavy mist, and after breakfast began to worry about hqaving camped, Now I had used up most of my water and food. If I had a problem, I'd be stuck. The last motu in the chain, Motukitiu, was only an hour away. I started paddling for it before the sun was up, before the wind had begun to rise; and after I had landed and had a quick drink I headed north across the widest part of the lagoon, to catch the rising wind that would take me west to the safety of Te Koutu Point. There were turtles on the way, and more dancing fish, and spikes of slashing coral. I realized that I had not rested well in the night when, after I had reached the shore of Aitutaki, I lay back and fell asleep. It was not even noon. but after I woke I felt refreshed, and more than that, felt that I had accomplished something in seeing each of the islets on this entire side of the huge lagoon - the desert islands of Aitutaki. I swam at Te Koutu - the whole part of Aitutaki was empty, except for screeching birds, and then I headed back, with a tailwind to Aratanga.
 
Although I stayed a mile offshore, because of the jagged coal, I could hear loud singing as I passed the beach below a village that appeared on my chart as Reureu. I could just make out a group of men under a wooden shelter that was next to a large three. I paddled nearer, avoiding the coral, and was debating whether to go ashore when I heard shouting. The men were waving me towards the beach. I parked my boat and joined them. there were about fifteen men. Most were drunk and all were singing. One man had a guitar, another a ukulele. "Please come," one man said. He was wearing a T-shirt that said Rarotonga. "Have some kava." He gestured to a cut-off metal drum that sat in the middle of the group of men. One of the men worked a coconut shell around in it, slopping the brown opaque liquid.
"Is this yanggona?"
"No. 'This is Aitutaki kava. Made from malt, sugar and yeast. this is beer, my friend."
"Bush beer."
"yes. Have some."
I was handed a black coconut shell brimming with it. the taste was sweetish and alcoholic. I sipped. they urged me to gulp it all. I did so and almost hurled.
"So you're out paddling that little boat?"
"yes. I was out to the motus," I said. And then, to confirm that I had indeed trespassed, I asked, "But what if I wanted to spend the night on one?"
"If no one sees you, what is the harm?" one of the men said.
They all wore filthy T-shirts and were squatting on logs.
"You come from?"
"America. but not in that boat."
The laughed. they were drunk enough to find this hilarious. Then they began to tease one of the men, who appeared to be very shy and possibly mentally disturbed. 
 
"This is Antoine," the man in the Rarotonga T-shirt said. "He comes from Mururoa, where the French test the bombs. He is radioactive. That is why he is so strange."
Antoine lowered his head.
"Antoine speaks French."
I addressed Antoine in French, just saying hello. All the men laughed. Antoine left the group and mounted his motorbike and then rode away. I said, "Is this a bush-beer school?"
That was the Aitutaki term for a drinking-party, I had read.
"yes. He is the teacher."
The man dipping the filthy coconut shell into the metal drum smiled and went on dipping and slopping.
"But it is more like a ship," another man said. "he is the captain. He is the first mate. He is the second mate. He is the engineer -"
"It is a club." this man was standing against the tree. "We call it Arepuka Club. this is a puka tree. And this is an are." He meant the little wooden shelter.
"He is chairman."
 
The standing man smiled: the only man sober enough to be able to stand up had to be chairman, I supposed.
"How long has this club been in existence?"
"Three years."
"You come to drink every day?"
"Excuse me. We have meeting every day."
"What do you do at your meetings?"
"We drink beer."
"And then ?"
"e sing."
"How long to you stay here each day?"
"Until we are drunk and cannot stand up."
All the men laughed hard as this unsmiling man explained the workings of the club to me.
"And then we go home."
"What songs do you sing?"
"About the island."
"is it a nice island?" I asked.
"It is like paradise," he said.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because we have everything we want - food, beer, vegetables, fish -" Suddenly the man next tome snatched my hand and began reading my palm.
"you are thirty-six years old," he said, squeezing my hand. "I can see it here."
Another man said, "It is better here than New Zealand."
"have you been there?" I asked.
"yes. It is too fast there. Too much busy."
"Some Cook Islanders come back to Aitutaki from New Zealand and go to the latrine and say, 'It is dirty. There is no flush. Look at all the cockroaches." But there is much water in New Zealand for flushing. We have little water."
"After two or three weeks they stop complaining," someone said.
"What do you think of New Zealand people?" a man asked me, handing me another shell of beer.
"They are very careful people," I said. "They obey the law. They eat carefully. They speak carefully. They spend money carefully."
"Because they have no money!" one man cried out, and the others laughed. "They are poor."
"Are you rich?" I asked.
"No."
"Being poor doesn't mean you spend money carefully. Poor people can often be very generous."
"And rich people very mean with money," a man said.
 
We discussed this and I became so engrossed in this topic. I soon realized that I was drunk and that my head hurt. When I shut up for a while they began to sing.
"What was that song about?" I asked when it was over.
"About Ru. Our ancestor. he found Aitutaki. With his four wives and his brothers."
That legend was mentioned in my guidebook, how Ru had voyaged from the island of Tupuaki, in what is now the Society Island, which had become overcrowded. The first name of Aitutaki was Arorau Enua O Ru Ki Te Moana, "Ru in search of land over the sea."
In spite of the missionaries, local legend was alive and well. And the Cook group had been one of the first in the Pacific to be converted by the passionate clergyman John Williams: he had left Aitutaki a Polynesian convert, Papeiha, in 1821, and the Aitutaki Christian church, oldest in the Cooks (1828), had a tablet in the churchyard, one side extolling Williams, the other extolling Papeiha.
I said, "Where did Ru come from?"
"Maybe the Society Islands. Maybe Samoa."
"And before that?"
"Not Asia. I think Asia Minor. Where Adam and Eve came from."
Ah, that was the link between Polynesian legend and Christian traditions. Ru the voyager had sailed his canoe from the Holy Land.
I said, "What do you like best about living on an island?"
"We are free," one said.
"We can do whatever we like," another said.
I said, "But what if other people come? Papa'a. Or tinito.  Or manuiri. Or Japanese?"
"We would kick them out."
"This is our island. We have everything."
 
They sounded fierce, but they were merely tipsy, and they followed me staggering to my boat and urged me to come back the next day. they promised to sing for me. I could not explain why, but in the waning light of day, the sun going down beyond the lagoon, and paddling past one of the prettiest - and friendliest - islands I had seen, I felt very lonely. I heard that man saying Where is your wife? and the fact was that I no longer had one. Soon I was paddling in night-blackened water, splashing like mad toward the lights on shore.
 
Being alone was the oddest aspect of my traveling in Oceania, because the island people of Oceania were never alone and could not understand solitude. they always had families - wives, husbands, children, girlfriends, boyfriend. To the average person on a reasonably sized island, nearly everyone was a relative. Wasn't this extended family one of the satisfactions of being an islander? Living on an island meant that you would never be alone.
 
There was no concept of solitariness among the Pacific islanders I travelled among that did not also imply misery or mental decline. Book-reading as a recreation was not indulged in much on these islands either - for that same reason, because you did it alone. Illiteracy had nothing to do with it, and there were plenty of schools. they knew from experience that a person who cut himself off, who was frequently seen alone - reading books, away from the hut, walking on the beach, on his own - was sunk in deep masu, and was contemplating either murder or suicide, probably both. Now and then, people would mention that a place had a much higher suicide rate than I could possibly imagine, and in truth I was usually rather surprised to hear the figures. then they would describe the method - nearly always taking a dive off the top of a palm tree. Marriage was seldom stressful, because the rest of the family was usually so supportive - the husband had his male friends, the wife had her female friends, the children were raised by all these uncles and aunties. When a marriage was that complex and seemingly casual, divorce was somewhat irrelevant. (And lots of people stayed married by having absolutely nothing to do with each other - by rarely being in contact.) This big family was circumscribed by the island, and so an island family was like an entire nation.
 
I met divorced people now and then. In the Trobriands a divorced woman was permanently eligible for marriage and was regarded with horror by single men: "I might have to marry her," they said. The Presbyterian stigma of divorce which had been imposed on the islands by severe missionaries in the nineteenth century was harsher than tradition had ever been, and was like the Mark of the Beast. Often a divorced person simply left the island - he or she had disappointed too many people or made enemies. They were the women who worked in hotels in the capital; they were the men who emigrated. Generally, it was not easy to become divorced without seeming like a traitor. All this made my position  awkward: being solitary made me seem enigmatic, paddling alone made me seem like a true palangi "sky-burster," reading and writing made me look like a crank, and my being wifeless was a riddle. My condition was hard for anyone to relate to and impossible for me to explain. And I seemed to be challenged a lot in the Cooks. Where's your wife? Oh, God, let's not go into it. I could only approximate my feelings to them, and it would be like explaining something like Westminster Abbey but using only their references: "This very big are has a marae inside, and petroglyphs on the walls -"
 
I sometimes felt like the only person in Oceania who had wrecked his marriage, and I was reminded of that overwhelming sense of remorse I had felt that dark night in New Zealand, when I looked through the front window of the California Fried Chicken Family Restaurant on Papenui road in Merivale and I saw a happy family and I burst into tears. My solution was to keep paddling.
 
One evening, musing in this way, I was dragging my boat up the beach and saw a man strolling among the palms. He was white, probably a tourist, but something about his physique commanded my attention. He was an unusual shape - he was tall, with a full belly, and narrow shoulders, thin arms, rather spindly legs, and a large head; he was as unlike an islander in his general shape as it was possible to be. He looked like an English squire or ship's captain, who never missed a meal but seldom walked anywhere; well fed but under-exercised. I turned my boat over and parked it under a palm. the man had paused an was looking back at it. He was gray-haired, with thick glasses, rather dainty hands that matched the slenderness of his arms. He was alert, perhaps restless, but he had a ready smile. for all I knew it was the simple good-will and fellow-feeling of one papa'a for another, but it was a bit more penetrating than that, not just an acknowledgement but a welcome.
"You look familiar," I said.
"David Lange," he said. "I used to be prime minister of New Zealand."
"How about a beer?"
"Lovely."
Now you are not alone, I told myself.
I had admired David Lange from a distance for helping to make New Zealand anti-nuclear. Here was one of the poorer industrial nations, needing world markets for its butter and lamb and wool, risking the economic retribution of America and Europe by lecturing them on the dangers of nuclear dependency, and going further and not allowing warships carrying nuclear material into New Zealand's harbors. It is usually expensive and lonely to be principled, this seemed like political suicide. but Lange stuck it out and won friends, and more than that he became an example for many world leaders. there were some exceptions. It was well known that the prime minister of Australia hated Lange for taking a stand, but then bob Hawke - as Lange himself might have put it - had uranium on his breath. And there was Lange's separation. It had been the current topic when I was in New Zealand - his estranged wife yelling her grievances, his mother denouncing him, and the combined snipers in the Kiwi press doing their best to destroy him. I had felt for him. His turmoil had come at the time of my own separation. I had identified with him, and in a quiet way felt he was an alter ego. We were almost exactly the same age. I read items with headlines like "David Deceived Me," Says Lange's Wife and I would cringe for him and for myself.
 
Yet what a funny old world it was. Here we were under the trees of Aitutaki, by the lagoon, in the failing light of day, the former prime minister and the former writer - which was how I felt - two clapped-out renegades taking refuge on a remote island.
I told him my name.
"Really? The writer?" and he named some of my books. "Are yo9u writing something here?"
"No, just paddling."
But he of all people had to understand how a writer's denial was not very different from a politician's denial.
"I'm glad to hear it," he said, though he didn't seem convinced. "I'd love to write something about Aitutaki. I've been coming here for years. I've thought of writing some kind of book - like one of yours, about this place. Aitutaki is full of wonderful characters."
While we were seated having a beer, he said suddenly - his manner of speaking was rapid, he had restless impatient intelligence - "You write about trains," and gulped his beer, and said, "Ultimate railway story. I was travelling from Delhi to Bombay in 1967. I was a student. In those days it took thirty-seven hours, but they had a wonderful dining car, with heavy silver and cloth napkins and waiters running to and fro. I had beef curry. The meat tasted strange, but of course it had  been heavily spiced. I was violently ill afterwards, and I spent days in bed. I have never been so ill with food poisoning. And I wasn't the only one. Most of the people who had the beef curry on that train ended up in the hospital."
He chuckled at the memory and then went on. "About a month later I read that one of the waiters on the Delhi to Bombay run had been arrested for supplying dismembered human corpses to the dining car, claiming they were fresh beef. They were hardly recognizable, of course, after they had been turned into curry."
 
The nature of a politician is to talk, the nature of a writer, to listen. so here we were on this lovely island, the public man and the private man, with plenty of time to practice our peculiar skills. Lange talked often and well, and was affable. He greeted strangers, he had a good word for everyone, he introduced me around the island. If a small group congregated he took charge, and to simplify matters he would launch into a long humorous monologue as a substitute for a halting conversation. He had a parliamentarian's talent for avoiding all interruptions - rain, falling coconuts, loud music, pestering strangers, awkward questions; and he had the successful politician's gift for being able to repeat himself without being boring. I could vouch for Lange's ability to tell the same complex story (involving accents, mimicry, historical detail and mounting suspense) three times in as many days with the same gusto. I had gotten a sunburn on my jaunt down the chain of motus. I needed to stay under a tree for a while, and so the next three days I spent on and off with David Lange, who knew Aitutaki well, and we discussed (he talked, I listened) the Rainbow Warrior affair, the future of New Zealand, ditto of Australia, Ronald Reagan's senility, Saddam Hussein's paranoia, Margaret Thatcher, the Queen, Yoko Ono, Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, Rajiv Gandhi, Chandra Shekar, the characteristics of various Pacific islanders - Tongans, Samoans, the Cooks, the characteristics of various Christian religions. 
 
The most unsatisfying international gatherings Lange had ever attended, he said, were commonwealth heads of government meetings. It was not just Margaret Thatcher nannying everyone and swinging her handbag, or bob Hawke of Australia being personally abusive. It was the utter waste of time. The Bahamas meeting of 1985 was notable for its host, the prime minister of the Bahamas, "a remarkable character who came unscratched through an inquiry as to why in the past year he had put in his bank account an amount of eighteen times greater than the total of his salary." At a similar meeting in Vancouver, Lange discovered that the Botswana delegation had made $1,300 worth of phone calls and charged them to his total bill. the Ugandans at that same conference, "took advantage of their leader's absence at a retreat to invite a fair number of Vancouver's prostitutes to their hotel. They refused to pay and had the police evict the women. those were the greatest excitements of the conference."
 
I liked his frankness, and I found him funny. Lange was on familiar terms with the entire world and with its events. He had spent his working life making the acquaintance of powerful people. Whom had I met? I fished around and mentioned my trip to Fiji. Lange brightened. "Rabuka's a bully, and Kamisese Mara the prime minister is a stooge of the military government."
"I want to ask you about Dame Cath Tizard, your governor-general," I said.
"She won't be doing much governor-generalling," Lange said, talking a mile a minute and never ceasing to smile. "She'll be in court most of the next year in a libel suit - she called someone an incompetent, and she's being sued for fourteen million dollars."
I began to explain my impression of her extraordinary table manners, but Lange rumbled on, still smiling.
"her ex-husband's quite a character - caused an amazing fuss in Japan after the emperor died and various world leaders were sending their condolences. He said the Emperor of Japan should have been cut into little pieces after the war."
Any conversational lull was my cue for asking a question, and he always gave me a straight answer, and this included questions about the break-up of his marriage and his relationship with his speech-writer, Miss Pope, and his mother's sticking her oar into the whole affair.
"Your mother apparently denounced you."
"Yes!" He was smiling. "She went on television! You should have heard her!"
"Was it one episode that ended your marriage or -?"
"We had been drifting apart," he said. "It happens so subtly you hardly notice. Then one day you look up and your marriage is over."
"But there's a woman in your life now?"
"Oh, yes. Margaret. Lovely person - you must meet her."
"What did your children say about the divorce?"
"Older child's in India, studying. that's my son. May daughter said, 'I suppose I'll have to get used to being spoiled, the way children of divorced parents always are." She doesn't miss much."
 
"Did you ever get sad afterwards, thinking of the happy days of your marriage?"
"We had rather a turbulent marriage. Didn't you?"
"No. It was pretty quiet most of the time." I said. "I often find myself looking back and feeling awful."
"You've got to look ahead," he said, sounding decisive.
"Do you think you'll ever go back to your wife?"
"It's much too late for that," he said. "She's not doing too badly. She's just published a book of poems."
"What about you?"
"Here I am at the age of forty-eight and I don't have a bed or a chair. My wife got the lot."
He laughed out loud - not a mirthful laugh, but not a bitter one either. I was inexpressibly grateful to him for not evading my questions. He was not whining or blaming or trying to turn the clock back. I wanted to be as resolute as that, and in a way I wanted to stop paddling and reacquaint myself with the sort of contentment I had known in my early life - loving and being loved.
This divorce conversation produced the only silence that occurred between Lange and me.
 
And then he was back on world leaders, Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress: "When I met him he tried to justify 'necklacing.'"
"As prime minister of Britain, Harold Wilson was a tricky man," he said, "but what's the future of the Labour Party of Britain? Bryan Gould? He's a New Zealander. He was my room-mate at college. How could he lead the Labour Party -= he's not even British!"
"He had just finished a book, Nuclear Free - the New Zealand Way, about his anti-nuclear policy in the Pacific and he was full of stories about sinister French lots.
"The French are swine," he said. "The night before the Arbitrator in the Rainbow Warrior affair delivered his verdict to the tribunal his house was broken into. Only one item was missing. the word processor which contained his files of the proceedings had been stolen, and a carving knife was left in its place."
In his book he wrote, The testing at Mururoa still continues. Nothing in French history suggests that it will stop until countries more powerful even than France put a stop to it. I can only look forward to the day when they will want to.
We talked into the night. The nights were starry on Aitutaki. It was an ideal island; it had one of the largest and most beautiful lagoons I had seen in Oceania. Its people were friendly and gentle, its food was plentiful; it had no telephones, no cars, no dogs.
 
More than once, after a peroration or an anecdote, Lange leaned over and said, "Are you sure you're not writing about theisland?"
Towards the end of that week, I bumped into Lange on the beach again, and he said, "The Queen's Representative is leaving the day after tomorrow. There's a sort of do for him in town. Want to come along as my guest? Might be fun, even if you're not writing about this place."
"What is a Queen's Representative?"
"In this case an anachronism named Sir Tangaroa Tangaroa."
 
I spent the next day spear-fishing, using my mask and snorkel, and dragging my boat behind me. My idea was that I would make my way along the reef, and when I got sick of fishing I could paddle the remaining distance to the only motu I had not visited, Maina ("Little Girl"). There was the hulk of a ship near it that had been wrecked on the reef in the 1930s with a cargo of Model-T Fords. Beyond the twists of plump black sea-slugs and tiny darting fish were the lovely parrot fish. I swam between the bulging lumps of coral, pursuing fish. After you have seen the lovely colors of live fish, and how gray they look when they're dead on a slab, how can you eat them? a vegetarian had once said to me. Soon I lost all interest in spearing fish and just snorkeled, and then - remembering there were sharks around this reef - I got back into my boat, and put on my Walkman and paddled. On this lovely morning in the lagoon of Aitutaki I was listening to Carmina Burana. It was one of those days - I passed many in Oceania - when I forgot all my cares, all my failures, all my anxieties about writing. I was exactly where I wanted to be, doing what I liked most. I was far enough offshore so that the island looked distant and mysterious and palmy, and I moved easily through the greeny-blue lagoon, and I could hear the surf pounding on the reef between the movement of music.
 
The wind strengthened and I paddled on and saw more wrecked ships. they were strange monuments to the danger of this reef, and seemed fearsome and skeletal. They had a look of frozen violence - so large and rusted black. the oddest aspect of that was that there was no sense of anything happening on shore. It seemed so absurd that a captain should even steer his ship to Aitutaki, much less risk his whole enterprise on the reef. the island seemed to slumber dreaming its green dreams in its green shade. there was no industry, no traffic, no smoke even. It was the simplest quietest society I had seen. I seldom saw anyone cooking or gardening, or doing anything energetic except fishing. the island was almost motionless in the still hot mornings, and only at night after the drumming and dancing started did it come alive. the people were alert and could be talkative. It did not surprise me that life proceeded at the slowest possible pace, but rather that it proceeded at all. Something about Cook Islanders (there were only 20,000 of them altogether) made them seem special. Even with all the patronage from New Zealand, and their passionate interest in videos, the people remained themselves. They were not greedy. They were not lazy. They were hospitable, generous and friendly. They were not violent, and they often tried to be funny, with little success.
 
One day early in my visit I had spared a parrot fish. I showed it to a man on shore, when I was beaching my boat.
"What do you think of that?"
"It is a fish," he said, deadpan.
"A good fat fish?"
"A normal fish," he said.
"But it's a good one, don't you think? A big one. good to eat."
"A normal parrot fish," he said, refusing to smile. "A normal parrot fish."
Meanwhile I was still paddling to Maina. I had asked David Lange about the distinctiveness of the Cooks, and his explanation was that they had retained their character because they were still owned by the islanders. Not one acre had been sold to a foreigner. The land was sometimes leased, but it had not left their hands. this was also the basis of an anxiety - that the Japanese would come and somehow wrest the land away from them, trick them somehow. they hated and feared the Japanese, and I saw no Japanese tourists in the Cooks. "We don't want them!" a man in Aitutaki told me. "We will send them away!"
The wind was roaring in my headphones, blowing waves across my deck and slewing me sideways. I paddled on, feeling happy in this vast green lagoon, among turtles and glimmering coral, and at last reached Maina. Isolated and empty and hardly ever visited, in a distant corner of the lagoon, it was one of the most beautiful islands I walked upon in Oceania.
 
On the way, to the feast for the Queen's Representative, David Lange shoed me some new trucks parked in the Ministry of Works depot.
"They can't use them. They've been here for months. but they're using that dangerous old banger" - he indicat4d a jalopy, dumping logs -"you'll never guess why."
"Someone put a curse on them?"
"Close. they haven't been dedicated. They need a proper ceremony. It might be months befor4 they manage that."
It was a God-fearing archipelago. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Catholics, and the local outfit, cook Island Christian Church, the CICC. The plaque to the martyr John Williams (eaten by Big Nambas in Erromanga in Vanuatu) should have been a tip-off, but there were churches everywhere, and crosses, mottoes, Bible quotes, grave-markers and monuments. the history of the cook Islands was the history of missionaries - that, and a small trade in fish and coconuts. but mostly it was people's souls that were sought after, and some of the earliest photographs of cook Islanders showed the men in long pants and women in Mother Hubbards, the modest all-embracing muumuu. the Mormons didn't drink, the Jehovah's Witnesses didn't smoke or vote, the Seventh-day Adventists didn't dance, the CICC didn't fish on the sabbath. Still life went on its passive Polynesian way and somehow people managed still to dance, to drink, to smoke and sing and fish and make love. there was a local woman who had a reputation for simply appearing on the beach, offering herself, welcoming any and all fishermen, who made love to her. As for the dancers, they cleared their consciences by saying a prayer before every dance - then they drummed and twitched their bums and shook their tits, and afterwards they said another prayer.
 
There were prayers in the garden of the small tin-roofed bungalow that was the residence of the Administrative Officer of Aitutaki. Just a simple hut with a pretty garden. About thirty men and women joined in the prayer, and they all wore colorful shirts and dresses - there was no clothes snobbery at all in the cook Islands. You wore a T-shirt and shorts, a bathing-suit, a lava-lava, and that was it. No socks, no shoes, no ties, no dress coded at all. Another day in Fatland - fat men, fat women. the fattest was the Queen's Representative, an older man - perhaps seventy - in a very tight Hawaiian shirt, a button missing where his belly bulged. This was Sir Tangaroa Tangaroa, QR. In spite of his titles he was a simple soul. but I had heard this word tangaroa before, in connection with Polynesian cosmology. 
"What does 'tangaroa' mean?" I asked the mayor.
The mayor was the brother of the prime minister. It's all nepotism here, Lange had told me.
"His name is the name of god."
"God in Heaven?"
"No. One of our old gods."
"Which one?"
The mayor's own name was Henry and he looked a bit flummoxed.
"God of the sea? I think god of the sea."
This man Henry was very vague altogether. There was a big marae in the south of the island. I asked him where it was. He said, "Somewhere in the jungle. You will never find it."
Aitutaki was less than two kilometers wide at its widest point, and it was less than six kilometers long. Somewhere in the jungle had no meaning when dealing with a place this small, unless one was an islander and considered this island an entire world.
"Can't you tell me how to get there?"
"No. It is not easy. someone will have to take you."
 
That was another thing about islanders: they were almost incapable of giving clear directions, because they had never needed to encapsulate directions by giving the location of a particular place. An island was a place where everyone knew where everything was, and if you didn't you had no business there.
I said, "But this is not a very big island."
"The marae is in the jungle."
"Even so, there's not much jungle. do you ever go there?"
I am so busy."
but this were merely an expression: no one was busy in Aitutaki.
I then approached the Queen's Representative.
"Have you spoken to Her Majesty?"
"yes. For hours," he said, and blinked at me. "For many hours."
His English was very limited - in fact this was the whole of our conversation, for he soon lapsed happily into Maori - but he insisted that he had had long talks with Queen Elizabeth.
Lange had heard me quizzing the man. He said, "if you get the Queen alone he's very good - very funny. Loves New Zealand."
He said that he had spent some time with her alone when he'd been awarded the title CH, Companion of Honour, which was more coveted than a knighthood.
 
After the prayer in the garden the food was uncovered - and men and women stood near it, fanning away the flies, while we filled our plates with octopus in coconut milk, sweet potato, pig meat, marinated raw fish (with skin and bones), banana fritters, fruit salad.
Lemonade was served, and then there was dancing - young men and women in grass skirts. The drummers sweated and smiled and people wandered into the garden from the dirt road to watch, gathering at the hedge or sitting on the grass. children who had been playing on the grass since before the party began - they had no connection with the party - went on playing. It was all amiable. There were no ruction here.
The Queen's Representative smoothed his shirt-front - it was now splashed with food - and accepted his gifts, a woven mat and a piece of nicely stitched cloth. He spoke briefly but in a formal chiefly way, in his own language, Maori. He was from the little island of Penrhyn, an almost inaccessible atoll in the far north of the Cook group. He had spent six years making the rounds from island to island. Now he was on his final round, collecting gifts. A new QR would soon be sworn in - someone's relative.
 
Leaving the party, Lange turned to me and asked again, "Are you sure you're not writing about Aitutaki? And he smiled, but instead of waiting for an answer he began to describe for me his recent experiences in Baghdad.
When I left Aitutaki it was Lange who saw me to the plane and we agreed to meet again. I went to Rarotonga, a pretty island entirely ringed by bungalows and small hotels. You couldn't paddle without paddling in someone's front yard. but there I had a sense of the murmurs of island life. A New Zealand couple from Aitutaki recognized me on the road in Rarotonga and told me about the woman who wandered the beach and was such a rapacious fornicator with the Aitutaki fishermen. When I tried to verify this story with an Australian he told me that the gossiping New Zealand couple had been heard quarrelling loudly and abusively in their bungalow.
"He's the world's authority on giant clams," someone said of the "You could get killed for fooling with fishermen," someone else said.
The gossips were gossiped about, and everyone had a story.
"Never guess who's in Aitutaki," another Australian said to me in a bar in Avarua, Rarotonga. "David Lange. someone saw him get on the lane. He split up with his wife. He's out of office. He's fucked-up and far from home." I said, "I have the feeling he's going to be fine."
 

An extract of the text from THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA by Paul Theroux, published in London by Hamish Hamilton, 1992. 

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