Cook Islands and Fiji: A Thirty Years' Retrospective of Living
about the Cook Islands and Fiji
Cyclone Martin devastated the tiny atoll of Manihiki in the early
hours of November 1st, 1997, few in North America knew what was
happening on the other side of the planet. Even as four survivors
were fighting for their lives by trying to sail to another island
with a sleeping bag as a sail with their home island behind them
devastated, the North American media concentrated on concerns
closer to home.
hit the country only a few years after I had lived there in 1991,
and because in those pre-internet days international news did
not travel like it does now, I didn't know what had happened for
nearly twenty years. Only when the internet was fully functional,
and I was thinking back on that most seminal time of my life,
did I think to search for the people that I had known. Foremost
on the list was Ana Katoa, the principal in the school in Tauhunu,
Manihiki, where I taught for a few months on a volunteer cross-cultural
placement through Canadian Crossroads International.
articles I found were already old by that time, and that's when
I realized that the island I had so blithely imagined to have
continued in the same vein as when I'd last seen it, had profoundly
changed. The belated news that Cyclone Martin had devastated Manihiki
and swept so many people to their deaths stirred up memories of
my time on the island that I thought were long buried.
After I found
the news article about the cyclone, I was late into the night
scouring the internet looking for other old news pages so I could
learn what had happened to the children I had taught-although
now they would be adults-and the people I cared about most. I
was twenty-five at the time and likely impressionable, but the
people of Manihiki had stayed with me all those years. I often
wondered how my students were doing and where they were now. I
learned that not a building was left standing except for the old
coral and lime church and that nineteen people had lost their
lives. I found the story about Ana and her husband Willie Katoa's
harrowing escape when they were washed out to sea. They had endured
largely due to her, her husband, and a neighbour's survival tactics.
They were swept into and then across the nine-kilometre lagoon
and into the ocean. During that time they lost their hold on their
own children, and that was a terrible loss to read about. I spent
hours trying to find out if the children I knew and loved were
still alive, but it wasn't an easy search.
from the disaster had finally reached Canadian shores, and too
late I realized what those people had meant to me. As we get older
and people pass in and out of our lives it is natural that we
should forget some of them, but there are also others who have
a deep hold on us. I wonder about close friends who disappeared
in other ways, but I also can't help but remember that tiny isolated
atoll and the people on it who so long ago opened their homes
to a strange foreigner who claimed to be a teacher, and taught
me much about their culture and way of living.
a few years after I initially heard about the disaster, I looked
again. I wondered how the people I knew over twenty years earlier
endured not just the cyclone and the aftermath and cleanup, but
the changes that and other events brought to their society. I
guessed that my teacher friend, Api Dan, had likely died, since
she was in her sixties then, but I looked for mention of her niece,
my student Peretira, whose brash sense of humour was a delight
if a disruption in the classroom.
at the time I had planned to keep a journal by writing letters
to my girlfriend, I should have known that such a record in her
unsteady hands would not last much longer than my trip. By the
time I approached her about photocopying what I'd sent, the careful
missives I wrote every day and posted once a week were gone. She
informed me that they'd gotten wet in her house and that she'd
pitched the lot. There was no record left, and I only had my unsteady
memories of that time to guide me. Disheartened, I finally dismissed
the notion of attempting to recover the story of my life on a
tiny coral atoll in the middle of the South Pacific.
year I realized, while talking to some of my friends about my
travels in those times, that I remembered much more than I thought.
With that in mind, I turned once again to the attempt to record
what I remembered before it all disappeared from the world like
the Manihiki that now only exists in the memories of those who
have lived at sea level in the South Pacific. Luckily, my retelling
the stories over the years had kept some of the information alive
in my memory. I even recalled some dialogue, since I have the
habit of quoting when telling such stories to friends.
a few travel journals before, and some of them detail trips months
long, such as How
to get to Bangkok, my journal of my travels to Thailand,
Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar in 2004-2005,
and the record of my next trip to Thailand: Going
Back to Bangkok, from 2011. I also wrote a record of my
road trips by RV in South America: South
America by RV: Chile, Peru, and Argentina from 2017, and
Brazil, and Argentina, from 2018. I kept a log book (Life
on the Water) of my trips with the wooden sailboat that
I'd built in 2005 and 2007, and a five hundred kilometre trip
by canoe down the Saint John River in New Brunswick, Canada in
2004. I spent a few summers building and then living in a cabin,
and recorded that venture in The
Wish to Live Deliberately: Building a Cabin and its Consequences.
On each of
those occasions I had kept a fairly careful diary so that I would
not lose track of those minor details which slip out of recollection
once the traveller returns. As well, I was careful to record my
reactions to the world around me. The best time to make note of
the story's emotional content is while the impressions are fresh
and before they become incorporated into the traveller's notion
of the world or glossed over with a new version.
my memories of living in the Cook Islands nearly thirty years
ago are still clear, my experiences there have become part of
my understanding of the world, and because of that, my memories
are suspect. Such recollections by their nature are necessarily
incomplete and modified by our notion of ourselves-although they
are also, paradoxically, more accurate-as the more recent perspective
helps to put them into a useful context.
this attempt to record my voyage to an island which has slipped
behind me now is as much an experiment in retrospective narration
as it is an attempt to capture the trip I took to the Cook Islands
and Fiji in the late spring of 1991.