23 December 2006

Rotuma

A Christmas card landed on our doormat this morning - all the way from Minneapolis, USA. It was from the first American I ever really knew - Richard. We met so long ago on the other side of the planet. He was in his mid twenties and I was nineteen. He was a Peace Corps volunteer teacher and I was sponsored by the UK's equivalent organisation - Voluntary Service Overseas.

When I signed up, I said I wanted to be located in the Caribbean - perhaps Jamaica, Trinidad or the Cayman Islands - not too far from "civilisation".

As it happens, V.S.O. sent me to the distant Pacific island of Rotuma. It was so remote - over three hundred miles north of the main Fiji Islands. By copra boat, it took three days to get there from Suva City and the boats were very infrequent - perhaps six a year. Rotuma appeared first as a smudge on the horizon - was it cloud or land? Then as the "Aoniu" chugged further northwards over the rolling Pacific blue, you could make out volcanic peaks and later the tropical greenery, white sands, coconut palms, Rotuman children playing.

Rotuma coutesy of Google Earth. A green jewel in a deep blue ocean.

The island was a world in itself. The rest of the planet seemed almost irrelevant. Though only ten miles long and two miles wide, it contained so much variety. There were remote beaches, tiny offshore islands, palm groves, beautiful pristine reefs where multicoloured fish hovered or darted, kitchen gardens in the mysterious "bush" where island men wandered daily with their lethal machetes. There were wild pigs and squawking seabirds and yellow bellied spiders as big as your fist and one starry night I watched a fisherman pull in an enormous sea turtle - illuminated by a benzene lantern, it looked like a true monster of the deep.

I recall much of my time there in vivid detail. While other years have utterly disappeared from my memory, that sojourn in Rotuma is etched on my mind like a Polynesian tattoo. The people were so resourceful and often so kind. They didn't have much but then again they didn't need much. They had a fertile island, plentiful seas, friendship, neighbours and of course the ubiquitous palm tree that served so many functions - providing trunks for canoes, leaves for thatching or weaving into intricate mats and fans, copra oil for export, refreshing milk from young coconuts and nutritious white meat for the pigs and chickens.

For me there were many highs and several lows. I had a lot of growing up to do in a short time. I couldn't phone home and the post took so long that it was hardly worth writing. With Richard I was teaching at the Malhaha High School - the only secondary school on the island. Most of the classes contained thirty to forty children and I had to learn about teaching "on the job". I taught English, History, Geography and sometimes Rugby. It was a steep learning curve.

Back at the house I shared with Richard in the village of Motusa, I loved to wander down to the white arc of Mofmanu beach and dive in the sultry Pacific waves at a point where there was a break in the reef. Usually, I was the only swimmer. One of the things that could sometimes get you down was our limited food options - fish and taro, corned beef and taro, breadfruit and taro, taro and taro. Feasts were better with whole pigs roasted on hot rocks, covered with banana leaves and sand for three or four hours and there were feasts every other weekend.

Sometimes, with old men from the village, I drank the narcotic "grog" made from the crushed roots of the yanquona plant. You didn't get drunk - just sort of zonked out - in a state of mind where nothing seemed important any more. The grog hut was a quiet place - no uproarious laughter just zonked out guys crosslegged in the shadows, listening to waves pounding on the edge of the reef.

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Richard - cropped from Rotuman school photo.

There's so much I could say about Rotuma. Richard was there much longer than me and almost stayed forever. He was the real "fa fisi" or white man. He got to know the Rotuman language quite fluently and I guess his family in Minnesota thought he would never come home. Since then, his work has taken him around the world and he married a lovely Korean lady called Yong Sun who gave him a son who is now a man - Adrian.

Richard always remembered what I once said about the island of Rotuma - "a funny kind of paradise". He knew what I meant. There's an airstrip there today and the Rotuman people are much more worldly-wise. It's possible to holiday there now but back in the seventies, Richard and I were at first the only white people there - two strangers thrown together so far from home. Incredibly, with the updated version of Google Earth, I can scan the island like a deity, finally uncovering part of the mystery of Rotuma's "bush".
Richard told me in his card that he sometimes peruses this blog. It's funny how you make connections with people. You find youself in a situation and then many years later you're still connected. To regular visitors to this blog and to Richard, Yong Sun and Adrian in Minneapolis, I say
Merry Christmas and all the best for 2007!!

Meon ROTUMA
Me (19) on the school field after Hurricane Bebe hit Rotuma. Photo taken by Richard.

13 comments:

  1. What a wonderful experience and even better that such a long-lasting friendship should have arisen from it. Mind you, I'm afraid one sight of those awful spiders would have had me running for home!

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  2. Flippin' 'eck YP, that is an experience and a half. Nice one, my man.

    And merry Christmas to you too!

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  3. What an experience that must have been! You find the longest lasting friendships in the strangest of places.

    Merry Christmas and all the best for 2007 to you and your wife.

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  4. Anonymous4:28 am

    What, has she frightened away some of your lovers?
    hydrocodone lortab

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  5. I second the experience stuff Pudding man and wish you a wonderful holiday season.

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  6. You went to Rotuma, I want to go to Patagonia. :-)
    Great memories YP, hope you had a wonderfull Christmass and wish you well with 2007.

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  7. Anonymous7:14 am

    I know exactly what you mean when talking about Rotuman - I am Rotuman but grew up in Fiji. I have spent many a starry night under the "Hefau" trees on the beach in Malhaha after a tiring "Fara".....and it was there that i decided i wanted to work abroad - here i am: A Rotuman in the US....lokking forward to just kicking sand this christmas back in Rotuma

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  8. I read your comments and experience with so much joy. My name is enasio morris from upu, motusa My parents are lui and keti from upu who lived near the catholic church. I was brought up in rotuma and lived there up to form 4 I am now a doctor in sydney australia and sometimes I do cheries those wounderful years . your experience has brought great memories about my childhood , teen yeers and as a student in rotuma high school. It is the contribution and sacrifice from people like you that enable us to communicate and appreciate more about life elsewhere and would like to thank you for your dedication.

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  9. Nina Campbell10:58 am

    Hi there
    It is so wonderful just reading your life experience on the island of Rotuma. What a small world, I grew up in Rotuma but now resides here in England,my family and I now lives in Stoke town,Stoke-on-Trent,Staffordshire.I find your story very fascinating and seeing the photo of R.H.S just makes feel really home sick. Rotuma has remained as a land of Paradise which is why Rotuma is so unique from the rest of the world!

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  10. Anonymous12:00 pm

    wow! great story and great memory. :) am rotuman. grew up in rotuma my entire school life. its trully a great place. anyway, its nice to see that people like you still have fond memories of my home land. :)

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  11. so great to read your post about Rotuma ... I visited in 2000 and reading your account brought back vivid and happy memories ...

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  12. My parents were teachers at Rotuma High School at the same time as Richard and Roger Mehus, and I presume you as well. My father's name is Kafoa Pene and he was the principal of the school, my mother Frances was the English teacher (and is English herself). A few years ago Richard sent me an entire CD of photos from their time in Rotuma, I think you are probably in some of them. Please drop me a line any time, if you would like to be in contact with my parents for some reminiscing! I am currently living in Dublin, doing a PhD at Trinity College. My email address is: sarah.pene@gmail.com.

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Mr Pudding welcomes all genuine comments - even those with which he disagrees. However, puerile or abusive comments from anonymous contributors will continue to be given the short shrift they deserve. Any spam comments that get through Google/Blogger defences will also be quickly deleted.