"O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself
a king of infinite space,
were it not that I have bad dreams."
- Hamlet Act II scene ii
23 December 2006
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.
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!!
Me (19) on the school field after Hurricane Bebe hit Rotuma. Photo taken by Richard.