Daily Archives: May 18, 2019

‘HEADHUNTERS ON MY DOORSTEP: A TRUE TREASURE ISLAND GHOST STORY’ BY J. MAARTEN TROOST

‘Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story’ is a memoir penned by a well-known travel writer, J. Maarten Troost. It is his third book on the South Pacific.

HEADHUNTERS ON MY DOORSTEP

Summary

In order to recuperate from a fierce battle with alcoholism, Maarten decides to return to his beloved Oceania – a happy place where life is simpler and problems a little easier to solve. Fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s descriptions of the South Seas, he chooses to retrace the famous Scot’s route through the magnificent islands.

On board the Aranui III cargo ship, he arrives at his first destination. The Marquesas archipelago – the land of cannibals and extreme beauty – leaves Maarten in so much awe that he ends up getting a traditional (and a bit crooked) tattoo from a local (and not yet experienced in inking) teenager. With the imperfect turtle on his arm, he is ready to continue his journey.

He heads further south to Fakarava and then to very French Tahiti, before finally reaching the shores of his adopted home – Kiribati. After discovering that some things have changed and others have not, he leaves the Micronesian country and travels to Tusitala’s land – Samoa.

Review

Another book, another story – the author’s third on the Pacific Islands. But is this Troost at his best? I am not quite sure.

Unlike the author’s previous titles – ‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals’ and ‘Getting Stoned with Savages’ – this one is not about the Blue Continent. Well, not exactly, anyway. This is a memoir of a recovering alcoholic who tries (thankfully) to beat his addiction. This is his tale of dealing with and finally embracing those inner demons that sometimes make a person’s life unbearable. But if you expect it to be yet another let-me-tell-you-what-I’ve-been-through kind of a narrative, you will probably be surprised. Or not. This is J. Maarten Troost, after all – sharp, wickedly wry sense of humour is his trademark. So yes, he writes about battling that bad habit of drinking too much wine (beer, rum, vodka perhaps?), but he does it in the most light-hearted way possible. Quite honestly, his thoughts and reflections might give you an (illusory and obviously wrong) idea that alcoholism is a disease only slightly worse than a common cold.

Regaining sobriety theme makes up a sizable portion of the storyline. But where are the headhunters? Where are the ghosts? Did Troost manage to find a place for his much-loved Pacific Islands in this very personal memoir? He did. The countries may not be the main focus of his attention, but they do appear in the book. Following in Robert Louis Stevenson’s footsteps, the author concentrates on giving readers insights into the fascinating cultures he had a chance to encounter during his journey. As a tourist-writer – because this time J. Maarten Troost was just a visitor hopping from the isles of French Polynesia to Kiribati and Samoa – he contrasts the lifestyles of Pacific peoples with his own way of being. And taking into account that most of the places on his route were quite new to him, it’s easy to imagine the in-depth analyses he performs. Honestly, it can’t be described, it must be read.

Praising Troost’s writing style is pointless, really. We all know it’s phenomenal. The man is a master of irony, wit, and self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek humour. A genuinely funny guy you want to ‘hang out’ with. Rarely is he serious, often very flippant. He comments freely on what he observes. And sometimes you get an impression that his mouth – or hand in this case – works faster than his mind. But you don’t care; because when you read Troost, you laugh. You just laugh.

Now, although the author’s style has remained much the same, you can’t help but notice that it’s been slowly evolving. At first glance, ‘Headhunters on My Doorstep’ is a whimsical read. But somewhere beneath the surface there is a meaningful message that resonates emotionally with an audience. Yes, Troost has visibly matured. If you liked the old lad, you may be slightly disappointed with this particular title.

I have to admit, I’m a big Troost fan. I adore everything and anything he creates. And when he writes about Oceania – I am simply in love. Do you yearn to escape to the tropics? If yes, this is your book. Just remember… It has an addition of mind-altering substances.

A CHAT WITH… LEONARD FONG ROKA

Leonard Fong Roka – or ‘Captain Bougainville’ as he is often called – is a proud Bougainvillean, a writer, the author of five books, and a Papua New Guinea’s first Book of the Year Award recipient for his memoir, ‘Brokenville’. In this interview he shares his thoughts on his beloved homeland, the tragic Bougainville Crisis, and – of course – his (magnificent) works.

LEONARD FONG ROKA

Pasifika Tales: For those who are not familiar with Bougainville history, could you explain the Bougainville Conflict in a few sentences?

Leonard Fong Roka: For many the Bougainville Crisis was a 1988-1989 affair over unequal distribution of mining benefits from the Australian owned Panguna Mine in Panguna, but this is not true. The sources of conflict go back to the colonial era, when Bougainville was removed from its rightful place in the British Solomon Islands and placed under the German New Guinea. Bougainville is geographically and culturally a Solomon island. Colonization just [drew] a line between Solomon Islands; [the colonists] said: ‘Bougainvilleans, you are New Guineans’. What an insane act! Racially you can see the difference between Bougainvilleans and Papua New Guineans. That [was] the Bougainville problem that built up slowly over the years and culminated into the armed struggle in late 1988. I talk about all these in my other book, ‘Bougainville Manifesto’.

PT: You were only a child when the war erupted. What are your most vivid memories from that time?

LFR: The most vivid memories I have from that time should be in my recollection or the book, ‘Brokenville’. Killing of my father is one strong feeling that still exists [in] me. [I also remember] all those troubles my family faced, the many good and bad things, and life I went through. They are a scar in my life.

PT: Bougainville in the late 1980s / early 1990s was… If you could describe the place.

LFR: [I] should say that Bougainville in the late 1980s and the early 1990s was booming economically as papers, BCL, or the government then claimed. But to me, we – the indigenous people – were enslaved on our own land. Money from Panguna was not sealing our roads, was not building bridges over our rivers, was not financing our school fees, [so we could] attend schools and universities. We were exploited by PNG and BCL, but still they celebrated in the media that we were on top and the best economically. Liars they were.

PT: In your opinion, how did the conflict change not only Bougainville but also the whole country? What impact did it have on the native Bougainvilleans?

LFR: Bougainville Crisis gave us – Bougainvilleans – the power to screen decisions and to deal with our ruler – the PNG state – as we feel [is] right. We showed the PNG people what a mine does to our lives, and today we hear their every Tom, Dick, and Harry is running all over the place asking for compensation for their land and so on.

I think that we – Bougainvilleans – will build a better country soon despite setbacks and continuous PNG’s political aggression on our ambitions. We are learners, and we will pursue our freedom.

PT: What was your motivation for writing ‘Brokenville’?

LFR: My motivation for writing ‘Brokenville’ [came from] my little nieces and nephews. They need something to know that Bougainville and me had gone through a hard time in history; that [it all] had happened because of this and that.

PT: What lesson, if any, would you like readers to draw from your book?

LFR: I think ‘Brokenville’ has a lot for readers. One big lesson is that no matter what, we have to pursue our rights to freedom. We – the people of Bougainville – [must] go on.

Bougainville needs to move forward and attain freedom from our rulers – the PNG government and its people – the New Guineans and Papuans – [whom] we call ‘redskins’ or Erereng in my language (Nasioi) or ivitu in my wife’s language in Buin.

PT: You are a very talented writer. Do you plan to write more?

LFR: Yep. I am working on two books now, which are my 6th and 7th. One is due in December 2015. It’s called ‘Valley of Tears’, and it explores how Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA) infiltrated our land and started the Panguna Mine to finance Australia’s buffer state, that is PNG.

‘BROKENVILLE’ BY LEONARD FONG ROKA

‘Brokenville’ is Leonard Fong Roka’s account of the ten-year-long civil war that broke out on the island of Bougainville in 1988. The memoir won 2014 Crocodile Prize for Book of the Year.

BROKENVILLE

Summary

Leonard leads a happy and peaceful life on Bougainville until it is suddenly interrupted by the rumours of fighting in the nearby mountains. Although he doesn’t know whether the stories are actually true, strange behaviour among adults and the first trucks loaded with police personnel that appear on the streets prove that something is not right.

As time goes by, the growing violence leaves Leonard with no illusions. It is war. It is them against us. But who exactly is ‘them’, and who exactly is ‘us’? For a boy with a ‘redskin’ father and a Bougainvillean mother, this is not the easiest question to answer. Especially when he is forced to spend his days hiding or moving from one village to another in order to survive.

Review

This is such a good book! Raw, honest, authentic, a little edgy, wonderfully enlightening. Leonard Fong Roka offers an invaluable, unique insight into one of the most violent conflicts that took place in Oceania after World War II. For those who proudly call themselves Pacific Islanders, this is a must-read. For curious Pasifika aficionados… Well, let’s be honest here, this title should be compulsory reading for everyone.

And why exactly is this book so worthy of your attention? Because it’s a real gem; for several different reasons.

First and foremost, ‘Brokenville’ is the finest example of a personal narrative. Although penned by an adult, it brings a child’s eye view to the tragic events. Leonard Fong Roka was merely nine years old when the war erupted. His homeland – Bougainville Island – was the epicentre of bloodshed. Everything he saw and endured, every vivid recollection from that time is a testimony to the past. Testimony which not only chronicles the history but also – or should I say more importantly – the early life of an extraordinary man. Despite the author’s effort to avoid writing about himself, he is one of the actors. You feel for him when his father is killed by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, you admire his strength and determination, you respect him. Leonard Fong Roka relates his own experiences, but you can easily sense that he represents hundreds of thousands of people affected by the conflict. You cannot help but be deeply moved by his words. Even though he rarely displays any emotions.

This emotional moderation may be the result of the author’s strong focus on facts and historical accuracy. If you want to know more about the Bougainville Civil War, this memoir is a mine of information. Rich in meticulous detail, it documents every stage of the crisis, presenting the invaluable point of view of the person who witnessed the battle, survived, and lived to tell the story. I don’t think one can imagine what life in a war-ravaged country really looks like, but this volume might just give you a slight idea. With its comprehensive descriptions of brutality, terror, fear, it is a history lesson like no other.

The substance of the book definitely delights, but the author’s writing style – equally good – may be something you will be genuinely surprised by. Leonard Fong Roka creates with passion. His prose is almost completely bereft of emotions, and yet it evokes strong feelings. It’s quite journalistic, rather simple, and very candid. He seems to know exactly which word should be used when. Whether he does it unwittingly or with full awareness, I am not sure. One thing is certain – there’s obviously method in his madness.

‘Brokenville’ is without a doubt worthy of all its hype. It is a fantastic book that explains a great deal about the Bougainville Conflict. But most of all, it’s a touching memoir of a truly incredible, talented man – a fighter who dares to dream and reach for the stars.

A CHAT WITH… RACHEL REEVES

Rachel Reeves is a journalist whose paternal heritage derives from the island of Atiu in the Cooks. In 2014, she was commissioned to write a book that would tell the story of Cyclone Martin. This is how ‘Mātini’ came into existence. If you want to know more about this wonderful title, just read the interview.

RACHEL REEVES

Pasifika Tales: ‘Mātini’ is not your ordinary non-fiction book. It tells a powerful and unbelievably tragic story. Why did you decide to write it?

Rachel Reeves: I was commissioned to write this book by Cook Islands News and the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust, whose board includes cyclone survivors who wanted their stories recorded for two reasons – for the sake of their offspring and for the betterment of disaster management in the Cook Islands and the greater Pacific Islands region.

PT: So you were chosen as the author. How did that happen?

RR: I have no idea! By the grace of The Big Man Upstairs. I owe the opportunity to John Woods, who was my editor when I worked as a reporter for Cook Islands News. When the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust approached him about what it would take to publish a book, he suggested me as a possible writer. He then trusted me to deliver on deadline even though I absolutely did not trust myself.

PT: Your paternal heritage derives from the Cook Islands. How personal is this book for you?

RR: Very. My grandma’s from Atiu, not Manihiki, but the Cook Islands are part of me. Writing this book was for me about telling a particular story, but it was also about highlighting the nuances that make the Cook Islands and the Cook Islands people so special.

PT: Was it difficult to hear all those first-hand accounts from people who had been lucky enough to survive Cyclone Martin?

RR: Yes. I got sick a lot. I felt a lot of sadness and fought a lot of tears. But whenever it was tough I thought about how much tougher it had been for the people I was interviewing.

PT: Whose story moved you most?

RR: I can’t answer that. I felt every story in my soul. Watching big island men cry over lost children was emotional, but so was talking to people who were overseas when the cyclone hit and couldn’t get through to Manihiki when they tried to ring their families.

PT: You had a chance to visit Manihiki, didn’t you? Does the 1997 tragedy still linger over the Island of Pearls?

RR: There are psychological reminders and there are also physical ones – memorial plaques, new emergency shelters, cracked foundations, vacant buildings. Locals say there’s a sense of emptiness now that wasn’t there before. Before the cyclone, Manihiki’s population was 668. Today it’s about 250. Cyclone Martin wasn’t the only reason for the population decline – there was also the decline of the contraction of the black pearl industry, and the larger national depopulation trend – but many people believe it bears the greatest responsibility.

PT: You don’t collect royalties from this book, which is very admirable. Who benefits?

RR: The Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust. The trustees are Manihiki people who care a lot about their island and their people. Two are cyclone survivors.

PT: It can’t be denied that you are an extremely talented writer. Do you plan to write more? Is there a new book on the horizon?

RR: I’m still coming to terms with all of this! Writing a book has always been my life goal, and honestly I’m still pinching myself. But now that this one’s finished, I’m dreaming about – and also dreading! – doing it all over again.

‘MĀTINI: THE STORY OF CYCLONE MARTIN’ BY RACHEL REEVES

‘Mātini: The story of Cyclone Martin’ is a chronicle of the tragic events that took place in the Cook Islands in 1997. It was written by Rachel Reeves, a young journalist from California whose paternal heritage derives from the island of Atiu.

MATINI

Summary

For the inhabitants of two small villages of Manihiki Atoll, November 1st has begun just like any other Saturday. It is the end of pearl harvesting season, so the farmers are quite busy with their usual chores. The sea is high, but people aren’t overly concerned. It is, after all, the time of year when storms are the norm. And Cyclone Martin is said to be nowhere nearby.

But then something changes. Coconut trees start to fall down. Fish are found lying on the ground – in places, where they aren’t supposed to be. There’s rubbish everywhere. Within hours, Manihiki is hit by the series of waves. The Islanders know that Mātini has officially arrived.

Review

Rachel Reeves was commissioned to write this book by Cook Islands News and the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust. She was given seven months. Only seven months to research and deliver a finished story. She managed to do just that. The result? A masterpiece, pure and simple.

‘Mātini’ is not a pleasant read – a chronicle of such tragic occurrences can never be considered enjoyable – and yet it’s impossible to put it down. Although written in a journalistic manner, there’s magic at work here. I must admit, in all honesty, that Rachel Reeves has a gorgeous way with words. Her cinematic approach makes every single scene unveil before your eyes. You don’t just imagine Manihiki during those dark days in November, you feel as if you were actually there. Everything is incredibly vivid, and you can’t help but be moved by this emotionally-charged narrative.

Especially that the story is told through the eyes of Cyclone Martin survivors. The author shares the accounts of people who experienced ‘waves tall as the coconut trees’; who experienced fear, helplessness, and unimaginable despair. The disaster changed the lives of all Manihikans. But for some of them, particularly those who lost their relatives, it was the most agonizing night ever. The Islanders’ exceptional courage, willingness to fight, refusal to give up must be admired. Not once do they express their resentment towards God or Mother Nature. Most of the atoll’s residents don’t blame the Cook Islands government either. They accept that natural calamities happen. They say it is the price of living in paradise. However, in the case of Cyclone Martin not everything can be explained so easily.

Apart from being a heart-rending record of one of the worst catastrophes in the Cook Islands’ history, the title is also an extremely valuable educational resource. It is a manual on what not to do that should probably be read by every aid agency worker and every government official that deals with disaster management. Although the author makes no accusations, she closely examines the performance of those responsible for dealing with emergencies. She documents mistakes that were made. And she raises questions: Could the cataclysm have been averted? What could have been done differently? Who should have been held accountable? What steps must be taken in order to prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future? The book doesn’t provide clear-cut answers, but it sparks ideas that will hopefully incite discussion.

‘Mātini’ can’t be praised enough. It is an exquisitely written, embellished with incredible photographs and beautiful illustrations piece of non-fiction literature. It gives hope. It enlightens. It makes you think. It reminds you to appreciate your blessings. It memorialises those who survived Cyclone Martin, and those who didn’t. It is a book of remembrance that should be treasured. Superb, absolutely superb!

Ms Reeves, chapeau bas!

A CHAT WITH… WILL LUTWICK

Not every Peace Corps volunteer is lucky enough to be sent to the quintessential tropical paradise. Will Lutwick, the author of ‘Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji’, was given exactly such an opportunity. In 1968 he arrived in the South Pacific not knowing at the time that his service would impact his whole life. In what way? And what was Fiji really like in the 1970s? To find out, just read the interview.

WILL LUTWICK

Pasifika Tales: If you were to name one thing that reminds you of Fiji, what would it be?

Will Lutwick: Palm-tree lined tropical paradise on the surface. Intrigue beneath it.

PT: Quite honestly… Would you say that Fiji changed your life?

WL: Yes. It did. I had to do a lot of growing up fast there. I was 22 when I arrived. Regarding the work, I had the degrees, but not enough business experience to initially be of much help working at a wholesale food cooperative and later marketing passion fruit. The challenge was less about traditional business issues and more about working with multiple cultures – native Fijian and emigrant Indian. Also there were hidden agendas amongst the players about what to do with me. It was the stuff they don’t teach you in business school that were the obstacles, but confronting them was where I learned the most.

On the social front, I found myself challenging an old-world culture with new age openness. The result was a disruption within that culture and particularly within Rani’s family. My Indian girlfriend and eventual wife had to leave Fiji with me. So coming home to the US, with a new wife who had just gone through hell was the biggest life change of all.

PT: Your book sheds some light on Fiji’s society. Actually, it is a real eye-opener. How difficult was it for you – a young man from the Western world – to understand the culture of Indo-Fijians?

WL: Although that period (1969-70) was a time of great openness in western society, those changes were only beginning to happen. My generation (early baby boomer) actually grew up in mostly secluded and clannish environments. I was raised in a totally racially segregated society in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. I write in ‘Dodging Machetes’ how I joined the burgeoning civil rights movement when it confronted my local Jim Crow culture which had been the remnant of slavery for a century. So we all had roots in more closed ethnic societies and were not unfamiliar with a culture where there were only certain people you were supposed to get romantically involved with.

I tried not to take the Indo-Fijian social reaction to me personally. I was dealing with an ethos of thousands of years of arranged marriages, religious, ethnic, and caste restrictions, and an understandable resentment towards how the British Colonial system had treated its subjects. Even though I was not British, I was considered European. Most of the Indians (or their ancestors) in Fiji had arrived there over the prior century via involuntary servitude, brought to Fiji as virtual slaves for five years to work the sugar plantations. At that point they were free to go home, so many chose to stay in the islands as life back in India was no picnic at the beach either.

PT: What did you learn during your stay?

WL: I learnt that what you value may be worth fighting for, but the road will be long, hard, and winding. Stay the course. And be nice to others on your way. Everyone has their own agenda and yours is not the only one that matters.

PT: ‘Dodging Machetes’ is a very personal and honest memoir. Did you have any doubts about writing it?

WL: I didn’t decide to write it until a few years before publication date, so by then some of the people it might offend had passed on. I was particularly concerned about how it would affect Rani (not her real name) who is still alive. Most of the violence happened to her and within her family and I wanted to be respectful of their privacy. She was cooperative with me when I wrote the book. She was very generous in her support of the book even though she would have preferred not to have our story out there for certain family members to perhaps find.

So yes, I did have strong doubts about pursuing publication throughout the writing and editing processes, because of the potential impact on many individuals besides myself. But I eventually felt the benefits outweighed the risks and went through with publication. I did try to protect people’s identities and so changed most character names and some identifying characteristics.

PT: What was Rani’s (let’s stick to that name) – your Fijian love and ex-wife – reaction when she first learnt about your plans to pen a memoir?

WL: She did not like the idea at first. But later she saw the value that her story might mean to others.

PT: The book ends with you and Rani moving to the US. Do you mind sharing what happened afterwards?

WL: In the Epilogue we have moved to the United States and decided to start our new life together in San Francisco. I thought this was a good cut-off point for a memoir: figuratively riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after.

Of course life is not that complete or simple. Rani had difficulties adjusting not only to living in the United States, but even more in healing from the severe emotional wounds suffered during our courtship. I think she went through a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. On the surface she adapted fine. She got a job as a secretary at a local university. She enjoyed our social life with others, and we had good times together. But we split apart after five years and legally divorced in another five years.

Each of us remarried within another five years and thirty years after that point, both of those marriages are still flourishing.

Even at the darkest moments, I never regretted carrying my relationship with Rani forward to the next level, even when it ended. We did what was right for us and made it a little easier for those who came later. I learned after writing the book that Indian-European marriages in Fiji became somewhat ordinary within a couple of decades after we paved the way. That’s not why I married her, but I’m proud to hear of that side effect.

PT: You’ve mentioned that Rani had difficulties adjusting to living in the US. How did she cope with cross-cultural transition?

WL: On the surface it went well. People in the States were generally open and curious about her – Asian Indians were surprisingly rare in the US then. When she would say she was Indian, the typical response was, ‘Which tribe?’. San Francisco in the 1970s was a very open society and we thrived in such an environment where we did not feel we were under the microscope any more. Rani was fluent in English. She got a steady job way more quickly than I did.

But she had never been off her island previously. So being amongst many people, freeways, gigantic buildings – it was all somewhat overpowering at first, but she adapted over time. The real difficulty was in the wounds left by the family trauma. And she was living in a society, totally cut off from other Indians, a strong reversal of what she had lived in all her life.

PT: Let’s get back to Fiji. What is one thing people don’t know about the country?

WL: Both native Fijians and Indo-Fijians practice firewalking. They have both inherited it from their different cultures. The tourists see only the Fijian version done by the natives in colorful ceremonies.

PT: Have you had a chance to come back there? If not, would you like to?

WL: I never went back to Fiji. Although I would have liked to do so earlier, a trip to Fiji never quite rose to the top of my list. I am aware of what changes have happened there in recent decades and the world is so much smaller now. Isolated tropical islands are not so isolated any more. For now, I am happy to remember Fiji frozen in 1970, when I said goodbye.

PT: Do you have any recommendations on what to see in Fiji?

WL: I’ve been away for 45 years and it was never a tourist destination for me, so I don’t think any response I might give you can do that question justice. So many others who have visited there later can do a much better job than I can. I do hope tourists can visit a native village to get a sense of what that communal life was like. Like everywhere, you’ll find more of the authentic nature of the country the farther you get off the beaten path. As small as Fiji is, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

‘DODGING MACHETES: HOW I SURVIVED FORBIDDEN LOVE, BAD BEHAVIOR, AND THE PEACE CORPS IN FIJI’ BY WILL LUTWICK

‘Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji’ is Will Lutwick’s memoir that recounts his life-changing adventure in Melanesia.

DODGING MACHETES

Summary

At the tender age of 22, Will decides to join the Peace Corps and soon after that is sent to the quintessential tropical paradise called Fiji.

Will’s volunteer life in bustling Suva is nothing but ordinary until he meets his beautiful co-worker, Rani. The Indian woman turns out to be quite a rebellious young lady who isn’t afraid to take risks. Mesmerized by her allure, Will finds himself incapable of leaving her alone. After a few ‘friend dates’, they both agree to take their relationship to the next level. The only problem is that dating is taboo in Fiji’s Hindu community, much less dating someone of a different race.

Review

It is absolutely impossible to read this book and not cry tears of laughter. Will Lutwick’s story – however cheesy it initially appears – is the most incredible, the most bizarre, and the most hilarious tale you’ll probably ever hold in your hands. And, just to assure you, it describes real people and events, not imaginary ones.

At first glance, the memoir seems to be your conventional romance set in the lush landscapes of the Fiji islands: a boy arrives in a foreign country, meets the girl of his dreams, they fall head over heels in love with each other and then – against all odds – live happily ever after till death do them part (or an alternative version: they decide they can’t be together because of the vast distance that separates their homelands). Well, that would be too simple. In Will Lutwick’s book, the story goes more like this: a boy arrives in a foreign country, is struck by the exotic beauty of his lovely colleague, gets warned not to even attempt to hit on her, ignores the warnings, begins a relationship with the aforementioned colleague, learns what ‘cultural differences’ really mean, tries not to get killed by the girl’s highly traditional Hindu family and the whole Indo-Fijian community, comes up with a clever plan to save their love (and lives, for that matter), proudly succeeds. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Although the author’s experiences are indeed very intriguing, it’s what he learnt from them that makes the book so amazingly engaging.

There aren’t many non-academic publications that cover multiculturalism in Fiji. This title is a rare breed. Will Lutwick had an unparalleled opportunity to get to know the folkways of both native Fijians and emigrant Indians, which he subtly contrasts with each other, pointing out the similarities and differences between the two cultures. Of course, his main focus leans heavily towards the Hindu community – their conservative mindsets and ways of being. With disarming honesty, he writes about his (forbidden) love affair with Rani and the serious consequences it brought. He sheds light on deep-seated taboos, the concept of arranged marriages, caste system, and women’s rights (or rather, the lack thereof). He outlines dos and don’ts; he explains the strict ‘rules of engagement’. And he does it in the most compelling way possible. As a reader, you are not bored even for a split second.

Yes, the book is a real page-turner, which is largely the result of the author’s pleasant writing style – clear, concise, very straightforward, surprisingly dialogue-centred. Despite being considered a travel memoir, the title is not filled with a plethora of vivid, picture-like descriptions. You may not be able to imagine every corner of the Fijian archipelago, but you will most certainly learn quite a bit about its inhabitants and their fascinating cultures.

I could not recommend ‘Dodging Machetes’ more. This masterful blend of real-life account and novel-like storytelling is light-hearted, amusing, and wonderfully unravelling. Travel literature… It just doesn’t get any better than this.

‘SOLOMONI – TIMES AND TALES FROM SOLOMON ISLANDS’ BY ROGER WEBBER

‘Solomoni: Times and Tales from Solomon Islands’ is Roger Webber’s memoir that focuses on his sojourn in the Pacific country, where he worked as a doctor for over 10 years.

SOLOMONI

Summary

Having spent his childhood in exotic Zanzibar, Roger knows exactly that helping people in developing nations is his true calling in life. So after graduating from medical school, he leaves England and together with his young family travels to Solomon Islands.

The Melanesian country proves to be a truly extraordinary place. Visiting even the smallest of villages, Roger provides medical assistance to those in need. He braves taboo mountains and flooded rivers to deliver babies, treat leprosy, and care for mentally ill Islanders. At the same time, he immerses himself in everything the archipelago has to offer: unspoiled beauty, distinctive cultures with age-old customs and traditions, rich history that still lingers in the air. These days of untroubled serenity come to an end when Roger experiences his own tragedy – the sudden death of his wife, Bridget.

Review

Hardly ever are travel memoirs considered ‘serious’ literature. They are meant to be humorous, light-hearted, and easy to enjoy. Roger Webber’s book is nothing like that. It is not amusing. It won’t make you laugh. It may, however, make you cry. Yes, it will definitely stir your emotions. And it will make you think. But most of all, it will show you the Solomon archipelago like you haven’t seen it before.

The abundance of information regarding not only Solomon Islands but also the region as a whole is truly astonishing. On over 290 pages, the author demonstrates his extensive inside knowledge of the Melanesian country and its surrounding areas. And he doesn’t limit himself to well-known facts that the majority of people, especially those interested in Pasifika, are probably already familiar with. He takes one step further and unravels the hidden secrets, letting readers explore an entirely new world. He expounds on the islands’ history, describes the settlement patterns, and delineates the cultural and linguistic links between different Pacific and Asian races. His findings and observations could not be any more fascinating. Every chapter makes you understand this particular part of the Blue Continent slightly better. You read and you learn. You read and you discover. You read and you feel the urge to dig deeper. This is exactly the effect a good piece of travel writing should have on you, don’t you agree?

Now, as I have already mentioned, the book is not only very informative but also full of emotions. Somewhere in between those revealing insights regarding the Pacific Islands, the author’s personal story can be found. It is not overly prominent and yet it tugs at your heartstrings. The chapter dedicated to the tragic air crash that took away Roger’s beloved wife Bridget and left him bringing up their miracle daughters – two of only three survivors – is quite painful to get through. Even though it is written in a rather matter-of-fact manner, you can’t help but be deeply moved.

Speaking of Mr Webber’s style, I must honestly say it is not something that deserves the highest praise. Don’t get me wrong, the memoir is decently written, but it certainly won’t leave you in awe. To put it simply, you’ll find more value in the book’s substance than its style.

All things considered, ‘Solomoni’ is a great read. It does not disappoint. Unique photographs beautifully illustrate the author’s words, showing you the real Solomon Islands.

A CHAT WITH… BRYAN VILA AND CYNTHIA MORRIS

Bryan Vila spent six years working as a police chief in Micronesia. His experiences and adventures are vividly described in the book he co-authored with his lovely wife, Cynthia Morris. Bryan and Cyn were kind enough to answer a few questions regarding the Pacific Islands, ‘Micronesian Blues’, and their plans for the future.

BRYAN VILA CYNTHIA MORRIS

Pasifika Tales: Training police officers in Micronesia sounds like a dream job for a former LA street cop. Did it turn out to be your dream job?

Bryan Vila: Living and working in Micronesia did turn out to be my dream job, but not at all in the way I’d been expecting.

After Vietnam, and then nine years working some of the toughest beats in L.A., it’s easy to become cynical. You see so much brutality, so many awful things that people do to each other, and you start to feel like nothing you do can make things better – so why try? But I’ve always been an optimist, so I was determined not to let cynicism win.

Micronesia certainly wasn’t paradise – it had its problems, just like anyplace else on the planet. But I regained my connection to humanity in Micronesia. Unlike the anonymity of urban policing, I got to know people, become a part of their communities, and finally feel like I was making a difference.

Living and working in Micronesia gave me back my optimism and my belief that even one person can bring about change. The lessons I learned about community policing there have stayed with me and influenced nearly every aspect of my work – first as a federal law enforcement officer and then as a professor for the past 25 years – since I left Micronesia.

PT: What had you been expecting before you boarded the plane?

BV: Ha! I remember having this ridiculous notion that my then-wife and I would be able to travel from island to island together by sailboat as I did my job. Of course, as soon as I got there and realized how enormously far apart the islands are, that dream was dead in the water (bad pun intended).

More generally, I initially viewed the job as a ‘paid vacation in paradise’. This idea got shot down on my second day in Micronesia, when a group of Chuukese police officers I was supposed to be helping to train almost killed me.

Other than that, I don’t recall having many expectations at all – just the excitement of a new adventure, which I’ve always loved. It was 1978. There wasn’t any Internet back then, and very little information about Micronesia was available at the library, so I couldn’t just look things up. That didn’t bother me at all – sometimes the very best adventures are the ones where you have no idea what to expect.

I went to Micronesia with an open mind, and a desire to learn. I think that’s the most important thing anyone can do when experiencing a new culture – or cultures, in my case.

PT: Ok, let’s get back to the day you arrived in Micronesia. Your initial thought?

BV: Hmm. I took the Island Hopper, which was an Air Micronesia Boeing 727 with reinforced landing gear. And when you took the Island Hopper, you didn’t just ‘arrive in Micronesia’. You stopped at island after island – Johnston, Majuro, Kwajalein, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Tinian – until you reached your final destination, which in my case was Saipan. Most of the runways were paved with crushed coral back then, so the landings were rough. We’d often land so hard the oxygen masks would fall down and the overhead storage bins would pop open.

It was all a bit surreal, especially because I’d been traveling so long by the time I got there that I was loopy with jet lag. On most of the islands, we’d have about an hour on the ground so I’d get out to stretch and take a look around. It was the middle of the night most of the time we were flying, but there were still people waiting to greet their loved ones with leis and mar mars everywhere we landed. I can remember watching them all curiously, listening as they spoke in languages I couldn’t begin to understand, and relishing the edge of a new adventure.

When I finally got to Saipan, I was surprised by the combination of incredibly beautiful natural scenery and the stark contrast of dilapidated man-made structures, most of them made of concrete or rusting metal. It looked pretty disreputable at first to an outsider, but after you’ve lived in the tropics for a while, you learn that there are three main colors there: blue, green, and rust.

I was also fascinated by the World War II relics – old tanks and fighter planes and bunkers and landing craft – scattered all over the island, since my dad had fought and almost died on Saipan during World War II.

But mostly, I remember that I really wanted a shower and a nap, and was relieved to get to the house where I’d be staying for the next couple of weeks. I didn’t even mind that the water that trickled out of the showerhead was red with rust…

PT: How difficult was it to adapt to so many different cultures?

BV: (Chuckles.)  Well, I soon learned to apologize in nine different languages, if that gives you any idea. You can’t help but screw up when you’re trying to figure out 12 different cultures all at once.

But I loved that about Micronesia. I mean, imagine how boring Europe would be if all the countries were alike. The different cultures and languages are what make each island unique. Learning those languages, and participating in the culture, is what allows you to connect with people and become an ‘insider’. And insiders, not outsiders, make the most difference in any community.

So I learned the languages – or at least enough to get by. And I participated in the cultures.  When the Pohnpeians drank sakau, I drank sakau. When the Yapese chewed betel nut, I chewed betel nut. I held hands with my burly cops on Kosrae, because that was the custom there, and I shook hands with as hard a grip as I could muster on Chuuk.

One of my most appalling early screw-ups was on Yap. I was doing firearms training for the police officers there and thought I’d lighten the mood with a well-timed fart. I had seen people laugh themselves sick over a fart on Pohnpei, so I thought everyone would laugh and it would relieve a little tension all around. But I was completely wrong. On Yap, farting was considered seriously rude.

Another time on Pohnpei, I was invited to one of my local co-worker’s homes for dinner.  When it came time to eat, they served me a whole boiled chicken on a plate, along with a huge chunk of yam. Then everyone watched and nodded and smiled as I ate. I was thinking that it would be rude not to finish it all, and I did my best but I just couldn’t do it. When I finally handed what little was left on the palm-leaf plate back to my host, she passed it on to the next person to eat. I was mortified when I realized that I had just eaten most of a dinner that had been meant for the entire family!

PT: Speaking of cultures. Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Palau, The Marshall Islands, Guam. Different islands, different folkways. How would you describe each of these places in a few sentences?

BV: It’s hard to sum up the differences in a few sentences, but I’ll try.

Let’s see. On Yap, people were quiet and reserved. They spoke softly and tended to jump at loud noises. Yapese villagers valued their peace so much that right after the dirt roads were graded each month, they’d go out and dig big potholes so people would have to drive more slowly. Yap was one of the most traditional of all the islands, so many men on Yap still wore the traditional loincloth, called a ‘thu’, and many women went topless.

On Palau, people tended to be extremely forthright. I would often join in on heated political debates at a beachside bar called ‘The Cave’ at night. For the most part, they were all in good fun – Palauans love a good argument. Stateside clothes were more the norm on Palau. I think many Americans would feel most at home on Palau, because the culture is more familiar than on the other islands.

On Chuuk, people greeted each other with crushing handshakes and the men tended to be tough and hard-drinking, despite the fact that the women had recently voted in prohibition when I was there (they scheduled the vote on payday Friday, when the men were drunk).  Chuuk was also home to Xavier High School, where most of Micronesia’s new leaders had been educated by Father Fran Hezel. He was a wonderful force for thoughtful change in Micronesia.

On Pohnpei, the people were warm and welcoming. One thing that set Pohnpei apart from the other islands was sakau, a kava-like drink that plays an important role in Pohnpeian culture. Sakau ceremonies are used to honor people, for negotiations, to settle disputes, and other reasons. You can try sakau at a sakau bar or at the local cultural center, but I don’t think you’ll really understand the significance of it until you’ve participated in a local ceremony. In fact, Cyn and I chose to end the Kindle version of ‘Micronesian Blues’ with an informal local sakau ceremony on a remote hillside, because we felt it so strongly captured the feel and beauty and communal nature of Micronesian life.

In the Marshalls, people tended to avoid conflict. It’s important to be peaceful when you live on a low, flat, crowded atoll with people you’ll know all your life. But that doesn’t mean they’re meek; they’ve done a good job standing up for themselves for the past 40 years or so. They’re determined and stalwart.

Of course, when most people think of Guam and Saipan they probably think of World War II, since those islands played such a strategic role in the Pacific theater. There were still World War II relics all over Saipan back when I was there – and probably still are. The indigenous people of Guam and Saipan – the  Chamorros – welcomed progress, but they also worked hard to preserve their unique blend of cultural heritages. Since the time of Magellan in the 16th century, they’ve absorbed different aspects of Spanish, Japanese, and U.S. culture. But they’re still very much their own people. I lived on Saipan for six years and loved it, although I spent about three weeks of every month ‘wheels up’, traveling all over the region.

Kosrae was the most communal, and most religious, of all the islands. Religion pervaded life there – I couldn’t even swim in the lagoon on a Sunday, because it was against custom. People would come over to my house to sit with me – even if we couldn’t communicate more than a few words to each other – just to keep me from being lonely. When I first got there, it was difficult to get used to, but I soon found myself enjoying being part of such a close-knit community. I especially loved participating in the communal singing – or maybe I should say ‘trying to sing’. Kosraeans have lovely, lilting, high-pitched voices, and I have this deep baritone voice, so it was always pretty funny when I joined in. I’d try to copy their tone, and end up sounding like a cross between Julia Child and Tiny Tim!

PT: Where did you feel most ‘at home’?

BV: That’s easy. Kosrae. It’s funny that I ended up feeling that way, because at first I had found the strong religious presence and all the togetherness on Kosrae to be a little overwhelming.

But as I learned the language and the culture, the very togetherness I had initially found so alien and uncomfortable turned into a real sense of belonging.

We had a strong sense of community on Saipan – but it was mostly among the expatriates who worked there. We were sort of a community within a community. On Kosrae, I had begun to feel like part of the extended island family, and I enjoyed that.

I could’ve stayed – the Kosraeans had offered me land to stay there, which was very unusual as a foreigner. And there have been many times when I wish I had stayed on in Kosrae and lived in peaceful, uncomplicated tranquility. But my wife at the time was eager to get back to her job and her friends on Saipan, and I had a job to get back to, too. So we went back to Saipan on schedule. But I still think of Kosrae often and miss it.

PT: Now, the islands of the Pacific are often portrayed as paradise. But, as we all know, even paradise is not crime free. What did you have to deal with?

BV: More than I ever expected, that’s for sure. People are people, wherever you go, and sometimes people behave badly – very badly.

My first day on Kosrae, for example, I was confronted with a rape that had just taken place. Two young Kosraean men had raped two American Peace Corps women, and the Americans were understandably furious. To make matters worse, it turned out that one of the suspects was the younger brother of the deputy police chief, so the cops had been too embarrassed to do anything about it yet. I explained to them that we had to treat everyone the same, and I think it helped to have an outsider come in and make that call. We went and arrested both young men, who were tried and convicted under Kosrae’s new rape laws, which were based on the California and Oregon penal codes.

A while later on Pohnpei, a group of prisoners broke out of the local jail, shot the jailer in the back, stole the police jeeps and weapons, and then went to the local radio station, which they mistook for the island communication station, and shot and killed the DJ. I was on Saipan when it happened, and put together a ‘posse’ to go out and take care of things. But by the time we were able to get there, the Pohnpei police had the situation pretty much under control. All but one of the suspects was in custody, and one had been shot and killed when he opened fire on the Pohnpeian cops.

Another time, one of the magistrates on a small outer island of Chuuk and his family ran amok. They had been terrorizing the people on their island for a long time – raping and torturing and such – and eventually killed a 14-year-old boy in broad daylight in front of many witnesses. Everyone on the island was too afraid of them to do anything about it, so we went in and arrested them all. I have to admit I was pretty scared of them too, based on the stories we’d heard, but it turned out they weren’t nearly as fierce or as well-organized as everyone thought. It felt really good to be able to put those guys behind bars and restore peace to the island.

PT: Quite a few stories appear in your book, ‘Micronesian Blues’. When did you come up with this idea: ‘Oh I want to write about my experiences in the Blue Continent’?

BV: I’ll let Cyn, who actually wrote the majority of the book, answer that question…

Cynthia Morris: I remember the exact moment when the idea hit me. Bryan and I were friends at the University of California, Irvine, back when he was a new professor and I worked as a science writer there. One afternoon over coffee he said, ‘One of these days I’ll have to tell you about my experiences training cops in Micronesia’.

As a writer, I was completely intrigued, but we were both too busy to talk about it any further for a long time after that. In fact, I don’t think the subject came up for another two or three years, after we were married.

We would go for long walks along the beach near our house with a tape recorder on, and Bryan would share his stories from Micronesia with me. Pretty soon, I had boxes and boxes of tapes about his experiences in Micronesia to go along with the boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings, photos, and other memorabilia he had saved from his time there.

It was still several years after that until I finally was able to transcribe all the notes from our talks and start to put the story together. By the time I was finished, I knew I had something really special on my hands, because ‘Micronesian Blues’ is more than just a collection of funny tales from a remote part of the world. Bryan gained a great deal of cross-cultural knowledge and understanding during his six years in Micronesia, and his willingness to participate in local culture wherever he went serves as a great blueprint for people living and working in foreign lands. And, at the risk of embarrassing Bryan, I’d say that ‘Micronesian Blues’ is also a touching, beautiful story of a man who became whole again in a faraway land.

PT: I must say that your book is thoroughly engaging, highly amusing, immensely entertaining, and very thought-provoking. But it is definitely too short! Do you have any plans to write a sequel? If yes, when can we expect it to be released?

CM: Thank you! Bryan’s experiences really are pretty amazing, aren’t they? And this is just a small portion of his life story…

We actually do have plans to tell more of his story, and quite soon. We can’t say any more about it just yet, but a very exciting project is in the works.

PT: Will Bryan Vila ever come back to Micronesia?

BV: Absolutely! I’m looking forward to visiting again, hopefully sometime soon. I still have several good friends who live in Micronesia, and we keep in touch when we can. It would be good to see them again, and to see how much Micronesia has changed in the years since I was last there.

‘MICRONESIAN BLUES’ BY BRYAN VILA, CYNTHIA MORRIS

‘Micronesian Blues’ is a travelogue-cum-memoir co-authored by Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris. It chronicles Vila’s sojourn in Micronesia, where he worked as a police chief and trainer from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

MICRONESIAN BLUES

Summary

Having been a street cop for nine years, Bryan feels he needs a little change. So when he hears about a job opening for a law enforcement specialist in Saipan, he just cannot say ‘No’. Training police officers in a tropical paradise… How hard can it be? Well, quite hard, it turns out.

With six different governments, twelve different cultures, and nine different languages Micronesia proves to be a great challenge. But Bryan takes his assignment seriously. Travelling from Yap to the Marshalls, from Kosrae to Palau, he keeps busy teaching the Islanders and absorbing their fascinating way of life. And even the occasional riots or prison escapes can’t ruin his contentment. Because in Micronesia one always finds a reason to smile.

Review

I will start by stating that this is one of the best travel books you’ll ever read. Which is somewhat surprising, because on the surface it looks like just another memoir that describes someone’s experiences in a distant land. In other words, nothing special. But, as the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover (by the way, the cover of ‘Micronesian Blues’ is absolutely gorgeous!). In this case, that is so true.

The travelogue is co-authored by Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris. Well, as a matter of fact, it’s Bryan Vila’s story written by Cynthia Morris. Oh, what a perfect match they are! A match undoubtedly made in heaven. Let me explain why.

As you may imagine, it is never easy to recount another person’s adventures. Achieving someone else’s voice, sharing their point of view, and conveying their message is an incredibly difficult task. And yet Cynthia succeeded. She managed to show Bryan’s personality so well that you quickly forget he’s not the one who actually narrates the story. Everything – from the lively writing style she adopted to fantastic humour to vivid but not overwhelming descriptions – lets you believe you read a book penned by a man who’s been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale. Something like this is impossible to achieve, unless you are a very talented writer. Cynthia Morris definitely is. If it wasn’t for her, ‘Micronesian Blues’ could be just a title in a pile of other titles.

Of course, the book would have never come into existence if Bryan hadn’t decided to take a job somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His adventures and experiences are obviously what make the memoir so immensely interesting. Right from the beginning, he amuses readers with personal anecdotes and little snippets of his daily life in paradise. And he does so with a hefty dose of self-deprecation. You can’t help but appreciate his honesty when he relates his cultural mishaps and misunderstandings that not only make you laugh (hysterically) but most importantly let you understand the complexity of Micronesian cultures.

Speaking of which, I’m not quite sure who’s responsible for cultural context in the book, but the abundance of information regarding local customs, habits, traditions, and beliefs is just phenomenal. You get to know the region as a whole, and then you get to know individual islands. The authors wonderfully delineate the differences between the countries (FSM, the Marshall Islands, Guam, Palau, CNMI) and states (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae), unravelling the peculiarities of each culture. You will be surprised how diverse this lovely part of our globe is. But you can be sure that with a little help from Bryan and Cynthia you will understand it so much better.

Do I recommend ‘Micronesian Blues’? Wholeheartedly! It is a brilliant piece of travel literature that entertains, enlightens, and educates. You will learn a lot. You will laugh. You will enjoy every single second spent with this book in your hands. And then, after reaching the last sentence, you will want to read it again.