Escape to the South Pacific
What would you do if you were sentenced to 30 days abroad? We can’t all be shipped off for a month, but whether you have 30 days off or just a few, these 30 true stories of other travelers will give you ideas of where to go, what to do, and what it’s like to be there.
- Discover the exquisite island that inspired Herman Melville with James C. Simmons
- Experience a kava ceremony and explore the Waiqa River on a bamboo raft with Bruce Northam in Fiji
- Visit the grave of Paul Gauguin on Hiva Oa with Lynn Ferrin
- Dance in a bark skirt under the tutelage of a renowned Tahitian master with Laura Florand
- Witness Apia’s astonishing weekly drag review with Tony Perrottet in Samoa
- Search for members of a not-so-ancient cult in Vanuatu with Joe Yogerst
- Scuba dive into the post-nuclear world of Bikini atoll with Anthony Sommer
- Watch women pummel each other in local games with Cleo Paskal In Nauru
- Enjoy extreme hospitality in Tonga with Jordan Rane
- Unravel the mystery of James Michener’s Bali Ha’i with Thurston Clarke…and much more
I watched the bearded, pot-bellied Frenchman in a black thong, so popular among the European set, amble across the white sand toward the surf. “The savage,” I thought, and wondered where his spear was. What is it about the South Pacific that turns Europeans and other Westerners inward toward a state of nature—myself included? Ever since Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others immortalized the simplicity of the native cultures of the region, Westerners have been coming to the South Pacific to become primitively whole. Perhaps it is the stress of living in the machine culture of Western civilization that makes all of us yearn for a simpler and more immediate life. Food, drink, the hospitality of islanders, an undercurrent of sensuality, and the hot sun all conspire to put one in a state of mind that could only be described as loose and open to change.
The Pacific, mother of all oceans, covers more than a third of the earth’s surface. It is estimated that there are some 30,000 islands scattered among the commonly designated regions of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Oceania is the term that covers the entire area geographically but nothing can really describe with adequacy the hold that the South Pacific has on the Western imagination. The literary torch ignited by Melville and Stevenson, carried on by Jack London, James Michener, and others attests to this eternal pull. James Michener’s imaginary paradise of Bali Ha’i, for example, in Tales of the South Pacific, might be thought of as a recasting of Shangri-La in an oceanic setting. Michener’s tale was so compelling that even though it was a fictional account, Bali Ha’i was claimed by many island groups as their own. Stevenson, in one of his last books, In the South Pacific, best captured these sentiments that the South Pacific evokes:
No part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor, and the task before me is to communicate to fireside travelers some sense of its seduction, and to describe the life, at sea and ashore, of many hundreds of thousands of persons, some of our own blood and language, all our contemporaries, and yet as remote in thought and habit as Rob Roy or Barbarossa, the Apostles or the Caesars.
Stevenson may have had little inkling that among these “thousands of persons” scattered across the South Pacific some 1,200 languages were once spoken, a full third of the world’s language repository. Unfortunately, many of these languages are no longer spoken or are in danger of dying out. The original Polynesian culture that spread 3,500 years ago throughout the so-called Polynesian Triangle that began, as some have claimed, in Samoa and spread to Hawai‘i in the north, Easter Island to the east, and New Zealand and the Solomons to the west, has been significantly affected for the past 250 years by Western civilization. There was, as poet Rupert Brooke noted, something magical about the original Polynesian culture that is a shadow of its former self, although it still lingers in places like Fiji, Yap, and Samoa:
You lie on a mat in the a cool Samoan hut, and look out on the white sand under high palms, and a gentle sea, and the black line of the reef a mile out, and moonlight over everything…and among it all are the loveliest people in the world, moving and dancing like gods and goddesses, very quietly and mysteriously, and utterly content. It is sheer beauty, so pure that it’s difficult to breathe it in.
Contrary to Brooke’s rapturous view, guidebook author and South Pacific expert David Stanley notes that: “the modern world is transforming the Pacific more and more. Outboards replace outriggers; Coca-Cola substitutes for coconuts and consumerism has caught on in the towns…. Television is still absent from many Pacific homes; instead attitudes are molded by the tens of thousands of VCRs that play pirated videotapes available at hundreds of corner stores. Villages are trapped by material desires…. The diet is changing as imported processed foods take the place of fiber-rich foods such as breadfruit, taro, and plantain.”
Nonetheless, one still sees in Fiji and Western Samoa examples of the “sheer beauty” that Brooke witnessed in Samoa. I had a taste of this in an unexpected way at the local airport in Savusavu, Fiji. I was approached by a crippled man selling necklaces. He was paralyzed from the waist down and walked slowly and courteously towards me, maintaining eye contact as he leaned heavily on his worn, aluminum walker. He entered my personal space with infinite care and self-awareness, and as things go in the South Pacific, he told me his story. Four years ago, he fell from a tree and broke his back, rendering his lower body useless. He had been, from all appearances, a once well-built man whom we might describe from the position of our own cultural perspective as being black. I could tell that his injury caused him much pain. His toes were bandaged and bleeding from being dragged along on the ground in sandals. Twice a day, taking both bus and taxicab, he would take the necklaces he purchased in town out to the local airport to sell to the tourists who arrived twice daily. He had a wife and three sons to support. There was no pleading with me, no whining or wheedling as he showed me his merchandise, just an infinite dignity in his manner.
I purchased two necklaces for my youngest children but the gift he gave me that day was far greater than any gift I have been given by mortal man. I encountered in him a remarkable faith in humanity under circumstances that would cause most of us despair. He was a god in disguise, and I tell you, if you see this man on your journeys give him what you can, for what he has to give you is beyond price.
The man selling necklaces was a Christian but it really didn’t matter what religion he was. He had what the old Polynesians called mana, or the power of the gods—perhaps akin to what we in the West call faith. The vast hospitality of Polynesian culture, likewise, has much to offer us, and what the West has to offer, in terms of technical expertise, is of clear value to the people of the South Pacific.
As tourism continues to develop, and new social structures evolve from the present clash of cultures, one can only hope that a bright future will emerge. Bear this in mind as you go about your journeys. Observe and tread lightly, but above all, be prepared for the South Pacific to beguile you and change you.
It was Robert Louis Stevenson, master of Vailima and craftsman of Treasure Island, who put the ultimate crown on all musings about the South Pacific when he wrote,
The schooner turned upon her heel, the anchor plunged. It was a small sound, a great event; my soul went down with these moorings whence no windlass may extract nor any diver fish it up; and I, and some part of my ship’s company, were from that hour the bond slaves of the isles…
Take this refreshment along with the Tahitian proverb that says, “the palm shall grow, the coral shall spread, but man shall cease.” Don’t depart this life without visiting the South Pacific.
Baie de Kuto
Ile des Pins
1. Light on a Moonless Night
Taveuni, Fiji (Melanesia)
2. Blue Water Dreams
Raiatea (French Polynesia)
3. A Marvelous Trance
Viti Levu, Fiji (Melanesia)
4. Vive le Surf
Moorea (French Polynesia)
JAMES C. SIMMONS
6. Looking for Bali Ha’i
Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu (Melanesia)
7. A Fale with a View
8. Freighter to the Fabled Isles
9. The Heart of the Dance
Tahiti (French Polynesia)
10. The Black and the White
11. Listening to Lullabies
KATHRYN J. ABAJIAN
12. Last Old Boys’ Club in the Pacific
13. Marked by the Marquesas
14. Petticoat Juncture
LINDA HAGEN MILLER
15. Mama Rose’s Coconut Bread
Ahe, Tuamotu (French Polynesia)
16. Yap Magic
17. Cross-Dressing in the Tropics
18. Paddling a Chain of Pearls
Huahine (French Polynesia)
19. Faces of the Past
Easter Island (Polynesia)
20. Heaven Is Not What You Think
J. MAARTEN TROOST
21. A Fish Drive in Woleai
22. In Search of the Last Legend
23. A Graveyard for Ships
Bikini, Marshall Islands (Micronesia)
24. Away from the Beach
Viti Levu, Fiji (Melanesia)
25. Saturday Night in Nauru
26. Runways to History
P. F. KLUGE
27. To the Tuamotu!
28. My Dad Is Your Dad
29. The Solomons’ Silent World
Solomon Islands (Melanesia)
30. One Day in a Life
TARA AUSTEN WEAVER
Taveuni, Fiji (Melanesia)
Sample Chapter: Light on a Moonless Night
by Laurie Gough
Where are you the happiest?
I like to remember the night of my return to the remote Fijian island called Taveuni. Remembering it makes me smile. Warm winds dried off the saltwater slapped in my face during their earlier tantrum as I beached myself ashore after a thirty-six-hour boat ride on high South Pacific seas. My balance was as off as a tone-deaf minstrel after a night of medieval merriment. I didn’t care. I was back in Taveuni.
TAV-EE-UUN-EE. I loved the feel of the word in my mouth, full and rich and ripe like the island itself, about to burst with ancient lava and laughter and secrets from the past. It made me think of jumping from a place up high, like a rock, a tree, or a cliff, into someplace unfamiliar and alive. The mere speaking of the island’s name carried its own magic for me, was a way of entering and leaving the world. When spoken during the day, Taveuni was an expansive name for a place containing mirth and light and possibly mischief, but at night the name held its own dark sort of grace. And if whispered at night, or, even worse, whispered in just the right tone, the name caused shivers. Taveuni whispered. Think of it.
Eight months had fallen from the Earth since I’d left Taveuni. Eight months of exploring other places: New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia. It didn’t feel real, standing on that old Fiji dock again in the hot night, everything familiar in a dreamy kind of way. Even the taxi drivers came on like old friends. They sauntered towards us boat escapees looking as if they’d just heard the world’s best joke. Or seen it. Our faces had to be green. One man was puking his boiled-fish dinner into the sea while his wife patted his back. That’s true love. New visitors aren’t hassled here as in parts of the world where a traveler can be swarmed by a sea of faceless strangers speaking the few words of English they know to conjure up business: “Room, room, taxi, hotel cheap, Miss, Miss, good food, cheap, speak English, please Miss, come, cheap.”
Life’s gentler on Taveuni.
Like salty fermenting pickles crammed in a jar, six of us shared a taxi ride along Taveuni’s one road. The driver sang us a ditty. He was a happy man. As the taxi jerked its way along the bumpy road over hills and too fast around curves into the blackness of the night, I could imagine exactly where we were, what we’d see if it were daylight. Memories spilled over each other like ocean waves: of the two months I’d spent here, of the Fijians and their children I’d taught at the school, of the village that clings to the tropical mountainside, of the other travelers I’d met at the campground by the sea. I wondered if anyone would be awake at this hour. Would the quiet Fijian men and their children with immense eyes still be on the beach, circled around the kava bowl singing South Pacific harmonies? They’d be surprised to see me, of that I was sure.
I was surprised myself. Rarely do travelers return to such remote destinations even if they had the best of intentions when leaving them. I was seventeen when I visited the island of Madeira on a school-sponsored holiday and I vowed to return one day. Over ten years have passed, many of them spent traveling, and my list of secret spots on Earth to come back to is ever growing, with Madeira so far recessed that I don’t know when I’ll find my way back there.
But Taveuni called me back and I’d listened. I had daydreamed of this countless times over the past sweltering months, lost and bone-weary on noisy diesel-hazed streets, caught in crushes of human traffic in jammed Asian markets, or waiting for trains, buses, or cars with only a series of mangled straw hats between me and the unkind blaze of the equatorial sun. Ideas of returning to Taveuni—hidden so far and so secretly from the rest of the world that I often wondered if it really was of this world—had been growing steadily in my scorched mind.
I asked the taxi driver to stop half a mile or so before arriving where I thought, in the dark, Buvu Beach Campground lay. I wanted to walk the last part of the road as I imagined it. In my daydreams it had always been broad daylight, but I wasn’t fussy. The driver didn’t even question dumping me in the middle of nowhere at two o’clock in the morning. The other passengers eyed my tent skeptically. They were off to Taveuni’s resort. An elderly English woman warned me, oblivious to our native driver, “They were cannibals here, dear, right in this jungle. Whatever are you thinking?”
“That you shouldn’t knock eating people until you try it yourself.”
O.K., I said that after the taxi roared off and left me standing in the mud. I set off with my backpack through the darkness, hoping I wouldn’t veer off the dirt road into the bush. I suppose it was possible that ghosts of cannibals might still be hanging around, suspended in the confusion of trees. Or perhaps underneath the tender ground lay mute bones of half-eaten men carved up for special occasions. If I stepped in the wrong place, the bones would crumble into powder and release terrible secrets. So I looked up instead, into the soft center of the universe. The sky is ancient and the ghosts there don’t remember cannibals. The storm had passed back out to sea and a great white sweep of Pacific stars poured down. I tried to find the Southern Cross but couldn’t see it. As usual. Instead I spotted Orion directly over me and its familiarity reassured me that I was doing the right thing to return here. It’s a consistent constellation.
No light of the moon floated down into the world that night. Into an awkward blackness I walked for what seemed like hours, gradually losing confidence that I knew where I was. Not only disoriented, I was dizzy. Landsickness. I wavered back and forth along the dirt road, giddy and excited. I could see no lights shining anywhere, as at the time Taveuni (only twenty-five miles long and six miles wide) had no electricity except for the occasional house with a generator. Most people used oil lamps, all that was needed by islanders who lived naturally with the sun, sea, and land.
I finally came to a hill so I knew I’d passed Buvu Beach just behind me. Exhilaration lifted my load of clothes, books, and gifts as I found my way back to the campground’s entrance. I walked barefoot—the only way to walk on a muddy road. The earth is softer in Taveuni than in other places, and darker. It’s how the earth must have been millions of years ago, in the world’s warm beginnings. My hands remembered their way up a giant tree marking the pathway leading into the wooded beach. I’d arrived.
Heaven owns real estate on Buvu Beach. An extended Fijian family owns it also. They live up a hill across the road. The campground is shaded by towering and twisted trees which drop down leaves large enough to hide overfed cats. Coconut palms, mango trees, ferns, and bamboo shoots jump up everywhere to join the lush green picnic of it all. But it’s the flower blossoms that lure people inside. The smells they emit refuse to be shunned. Scent-drenched, the blossoms fill your nostrils, swarm the cracks of your memory until you’re inhaling more than flowers. You’re inhaling echoes of how the world once was. Three or four little bamboo huts, known in Fiji as bures, lie hidden among the voluptuous vegetation. A few tents are always edged away somewhere, too. I like to believe that travelers are blown this way by ancient sea winds. We fall inside the soft air and sleep to the pounding waves of the ocean’s heart which beats in time to our own. Only the occasional annoying rooster or thud of a wayward coconut interrupts one’s sleep.
Pitch black. The hand extended in front of my face was invisible. This was the kind of utter darkness that falls only in remote places, inconceivable to city dwellers. Nothing but an eight-month-old memory of the place could get me over the preposterous tree roots erupting out of the sand. They were like mutant flora. Last time here I’d broken a toe, twice, on one of these roots. The Fijians made such a big deal about it and laughed at me so much that if I did it again I’d be forced to hop back out to the boat unseen. There’s only so much jocularity about my feet I’ll tolerate.
I walked in slow motion toward the grass-roofed hut and heard it creaking in the wind. The little hut always reminded me of Gilligan’s island, being so makeshift, crafted out of whatever grew on the beach. The hut was our refuge, our hangout, our sheltering haven. Here campers and Fijians would cook, talk, and laugh for hours into the night. It had a sand floor and no walls, a stove and cupboards, a few benches, and a little table that mangoes, coconuts, and pineapples always lay on. We called the little hut our kitchen. Sometimes when the moon was full, the tide was high enough that the sea would slip right up and wet our kitchen floor. We didn’t mind.
Beside the kitchen, we would gather on the beach at the end of each day and watch the sun setting over the Pacific. It would spread over us like a mauve shadow. When it grew dark we would sit around a fire, drinking the Fijian elixir of life, kava, out of coconut bowls. Kava isn’t alcoholic, but it’s something. It slows down time. The Fijian men would sit with us and sing and play their guitars. After a while we’d all be singing. Then we’d tell stories. We’d tell travel stories mainly, since we were all travelers of some sort. The Fijians would tell stories, too, stories of their lives growing up on Taveuni. Storytelling is important in television-free places like Taveuni. It’s important anywhere. I remembered all the stories told around those campfires. And now I stood in the kitchen again, remembering these things as if I’d never left.
But I had left. I left because I couldn’t stop moving. I couldn’t stop searching for the perfect place. That’s the thing about travelers. We always have to see what’s over the next hill. But someone once wrote that to leave is to die a little. So I came back to the place I left. And immediately I found my heart beating alive inside this strange island’s quiet grace, stirred to see into the life of things here. I stood still and listened as moist night air invaded my hair like seaweed. What I heard was a kind of song coming out of the sea, like a drum banging in the waves, but singing too. All that time over in Asia, I’d only remembered the adventures I’d had here—the hiking, the snorkeling, the music, the family, the kids in the school. But now I understood it was the waves that had pulled me back. They’d been here all along like a steady pulse, patiently keeping time for the world. Waves like this never stop rolling inside a person, just beneath one’s awareness. The sea has a way of slipping us back to our beginnings, soothing a rusty place inside us, to remind us of something. Like a secret trance, a forgotten calling.
I stood in water as warm as my blood and exhaled a tremendous unconditional breath like the wind itself. The sea washed something out of me, freed me in its imperceptible way of what lay smoldering within: eight months of traveling alone on a road full of startling faces and unfamiliar tongues. I’d been traipsing through too many days and nights of dog-ridden streets and climbing over shaky mountaintops, not always liking what I found on the other side. But traveling is a journey to the center of the soul, a crazy Irishman once shouted at me. One forges through dark mountains and unnamed streets until there’s nothing left to see but chiseled pieces of light.
As I walked along the shoreline I thought about how nature overwhelms everything with the sea’s pastel painted fish and purple coral, the island’s extravagant trees of sweet unrecognizable fruit growing amidst waterfalls and volcanic mountains, rugged and wet. It would be difficult not to be delirious in such a place, a place where nature overpowers people, where people give themselves over to the land and sea. Little bits of phosphorescence, colored dots of fluorescent green, washed up at my feet. Laughter came in on the waves. I was home, as close to home as a traveler can get, and I felt like staying for good.
Laurie Gough has written for Salon.com, the Los Angeles Times, Globe and Mail, Canadian Geographic, and for several anthologies, including Wanderlust: Real Life Tales of Adventure and Romance, AWOL: Tales for the Travel Inspired Mind, and has been included in many Travelers’ Tales books. “Light on a Moonless Night” was excerpted from Kite Strings of the Southern Cross, which was the silver medal winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Travel Book of the Year Award and was short-listed for the Thomas Cook Award. Her new travel book, Kiss the Sunset Pig, will be published soon. She lives in Canada.
Sean O’Reilly is director of special sales and editor-at-large for Travelers’ Tales. He is a former seminarian, stockbroker, and prison instructor who lives in Virginia with his wife Brenda and their six children. He’s had a lifelong interest in philosophy, theology, and travel, and recently published the groundbreaking book on men’s behavior, How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self
(www.dickmanagement.com). His most recent travels took him through China, Thailand, India, the South Pacific, and Malaysia.
James O’Reilly, president and publisher of Travelers’ Tales, was born in England and raised in San Francisco. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1975 and wrote mystery serials before becoming a travel writer in the early 1980s. He’s visited more than forty countries, along the way meditating with monks in Tibet, participating in West African voodoo rituals, living in the French Alps, and hanging out the laundry with nuns in Florence. He travels extensively with his wife, Wenda, and their three daughters. They live in Palo Alto, California, where they also publish art games and books for children at Birdcage Press (www.birdcagepress.com).
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the Arctic to equatorial rain forests, the Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries and on WorldTravelWatch.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on more than eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.