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The Cook Islands and Fiji: A Thirty Years' Retrospective of Living in Manihiki

Writing about the Cook Islands and Fiji

When tropical 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.

The cyclone 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.

The news 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.

The wreckage 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.

Even now, 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.

Although 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.

Only this 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.

I've written 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 Uruguay, 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.

Although 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.

Therefore, 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.

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