‘BLUE LATITUDES: BOLDLY GOING WHERE CAPTAIN COOK HAS GONE BEFORE’ BY TONY HORWITZ

‘Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before’ is Tony Horwitz’s travel memoir, which he penned inspired by his travels through the islands of the Pacific Ocean.

BLUE LATITUDES

Summary

Struck by the places Captain James Cook visited during his voyages and perfectly aware of the impact he had on the Blue Continent, Tony Horwitz gets an idea that it would be quite nice to follow in the great Englishman’s footsteps and see what has changed since the Age of Exploration.

Starting aboard a replica of Cook’s first ship, the Endeavour, he travels to the vast expanse of water dotted with tiny islands most people describe as ‘paradise’. He visits sensual French Polynesia, Tonga, savage Niue, and used-to-be-full-of-cannibals (at least that’s what people say) Hawaii. He flies to England, explores Australia, skips to New Zealand, and makes a trip to Alaska. In each of these places he learns what the natives think of the British captain, and how they perceive his accomplishments. With every island, beach, and lagoon Tony gets more and more interested not only in Cook’s travels but in the man himself. 

Review 

Isn’t it wonderful when you have a chance to grab a book that masterfully combines vastly different genres into a single, cohesive narrative? When you feel that one minute you’re reading a gripping travel piece and the next a fascinating biography of a man who changed the world a little bit? ‘Blue Latitudes’ is exactly this kind of book. Fusing elements of memoir, travelogue, biography, and history, Tony Horwitz invites readers on a delightful journey to even more delightful places anyone would like to see at least once in their life.

Yes, this title is first and foremost a well-presented coverage of the author’s voyages. As he relives Captain Cook’s expeditions, he visits the exotic Pacific islands, confronting the Englishman’s descriptions with present reality. He investigates how the Blue Continent has been transformed since Cook’s day. As he explores the effects of colonialism and globalization, he can’t help but notice the change in ancient customs and traditions, as well as a subtle yet visible shift toward certain Western values. Comparisons between 1700s Oceania and Oceania today are probably the most interesting to read. Tony Horwitz’s curiosity makes him delve into the nitty-gritty details. And that is truly fascinating. What’s Niue’s problem with red bananas? Is the island still inhabited by savages? Just how friendly are the Friendly Islanders? What really happened in Hawaii? He tries to rediscover the great Pacific anew. And you – as a reader – are more than welcomed to join him.

But of course this book is not only Mr Horwitz’s travel memoir; it’s also a gripping biography of one of the greatest explorers of all time. James Cook needs no introduction. Some people consider him a hero. For others he was just an invader; a villain of some sort. Whatever your opinion, one thing is indisputable: Captain Cook filled in many of the blank spots on the world map. He was a man of adventure; a bold navigator who didn’t know what the word ‘fear’ meant. The writer, whose fascination with Cook is obvious, paints a vivid portrait of the Yorkshireman’s life: from his early days in the Northern England to the epic voyages he undertook. I must say, it is unquestionably one of the most informative biographical accounts you’ll ever have a chance to read.

As you may (or may not, if you aren’t familiar with the author’s other works) expect from Tony Horwitz, the book is excellently written. It’s a delightful mix of Cook’s original journals and Mr Horwitz’s own observations. The past and the present are detailed in equal measure, so you are definitely not in danger of being stuck in the 18th or 21st century. Besides, it doesn’t really matter, because you will have fun. The author maintains an anecdotal manner, which makes the volume thoroughly entertaining. Although revealing and explanatory, it’s still just a light-hearted read.

All in all, ‘Blue Latitudes’ is a fabulous book, especially for those who’d like to learn more about the man that played a significant part in shaping the cultures of the Pacific. Grab it, and I assure you you will not be disappointed.

A CHAT WITH… TRISH NICHOLSON

Trish Nicholson is an extraordinary woman. She is a writer and the author of several books, an anthropologist, a photographer, a keen and experienced traveller. Her most recent publication, ‘Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals’, is just as extraordinary as the lady herself. If you want to know more about Trish’s time in Melanesia, just read the interview.

TRISH NICHOLSON

Pasifika Tales: You spent quite a few years living and working in Papua New Guinea. Was it an adventure, a challenge, or a perfect mix of both?

Trish Nicholson: It was certainly a challenge, physically, emotionally and professionally, but I knew it would be and I believe one grows as a person by meeting challenges. I hadn’t gone seeking adventure, but looking back, my own curiosity and willingness to take risks to satisfy it meant that adventures simply happened.

PT: Why did you decide to ‘abandon’ your successful career in Europe and travel to a remote Pacific country?

TN: Working overseas is something I had wanted to do since childhood. Previous generations in my family had spent years in far-flung places in the world, so I suppose there was something of a tradition. As a schoolgirl, I wrote to the United Nations in New York to ask how to become an aid worker. Some kind person wrote back to me, saying I should become qualified in whatever I was good at, gain twenty years experience, and then apply for a job.  And that is pretty much what I did. At University I studied geography and social anthropology and was intensely interested in how others lived, and the different ways of meeting human needs in different cultures. Later, there came a point in my professional career in Europe when I felt something was missing, and I realized that if I didn’t take this step to go overseas soon, it might be too late. The job in Papua New Guinea was the most interesting one that came up at that time.

PT: Ok, so you arrived in PNG… What shocked you the most? 

TN: There were small shocks initially, like the heat and humidity which can, literally, take your breath away, especially as I was coming from the cold climate of Scotland. A fan in my house helped, but much of the time I was travelling to remote parts of West Sepik (Sandaun), so my body had to adapt. Once I got into the work, the sheer chaos of the local administration was a bit of a shock, and people in positions of power can benefit from chaos, so it took a while to show staff the benefits of better organisation. But the biggest shock was the extent of violence against women – a problem close to me because women who were my colleagues and friends were affected. It is difficult for a foreigner to know how to respond and I often discussed it with another friend, the local head of women’s welfare. The few books published about Papua New Guinea barely mention women, and they are accounts written by men who would have little chance to interact with women, so I made a point of including women’s stories in ‘Inside the Crocodile’.

PT: How did you cope with culture shock? 

TN: My background in social anthropology helped because I was already aware of many different beliefs and ways of living in other societies. I found, though, that it was hard to live in two cultures at the same time, so I immersed myself as far as possible in trying to understand the local cultures – ‘cultures’ in the plural, because even within Sandaun Province there are different ways of viewing the world. Other expats in the area were from a range of cultures and nationalities, too, so one had to be adaptable.  Times when I needed to relax and simply be ‘me’, I played my favourite classical music, and the chuckle of geckoes and screech of cicadas became part of the orchestra.

PT: Did you have troubles accepting certain cultural practices?

TN: The treatment of women I have already mentioned, and it was something I could not accept. But sometimes there was an amusing side to the gender issue. Traditionally, men eat first, but when we had a World Bank representative visiting on one occasion and a party was put on for him and all the provincial staff, the Premier decided to adopt the western custom of inviting women to serve themselves from the buffet first. The women loved this idea and all went to the table with big enamel bowls, taking the best pork pieces, the ones with lots of tasty fat on them, while the men watched in great agitation. That experiment in ‘western manners’ was never repeated! But the separation of men and women at functions was a feature of Aussie social life, too, and I found that restricting. Papua New Guinean colleagues accepted me at work as an ‘honorary male’ and recognized that I needed to talk to men about work, but I would get black looks from expat wives in Aussie gatherings if I crossed to the other side of the room to talk to the men.

Another practice that caused me frustration was the custom of talking all around a subject to avoid giving a straight answer or giving out information – tok bokis in Tok Pisin – which made a nightmare of management meetings. I could understand the reasons for it, though, and soon adopted the technique myself when necessary. One of the reasons for tok bokis is that political, work, and personal spheres – which are strictly separated in western bureaucracies – are intricately interwoven in Papua New Guinea, as a result, dealing with most public administration issues is like walking in a minefield.

PT: Now, you worked on a World Bank-funded development project. What exactly were you responsible for?

TN: The project included a number of different components – agriculture and fisheries, education, health, roads and buildings, and project management – which were all intended to work together to achieve development goals. Expats leading each component worked with a counterpart Papua New Guinean who would take over from them. My role was ‘institution building’: to provide advice and support for all the components to co-operate, and to assist local staff and management to gain the most benefit from the project. This involved helping to sort out the chaos of staff appointments, designing and presenting training courses, giving advice to managers, setting up a provincial Staff Development Unit and training national staff to run it after I had left. The job was complicated by the fact that the expat project coordinator held the purse strings, but my boss was the Departmental Secretary – the head of the provincial civil service. As you can imagine, managing relationships was the most important, and challenging, part of my job. My position was within the regular staff structure and I was ‘the boss’ only of the Staff Development Unit, so to achieve any progress elsewhere in the organisation, I had to influence and work through others. Though more difficult, in the long term I think this is far more effective than giving orders or being a consultant on the outside.

PT: Being a woman, did you face any challenges? 

TN: All the time! I’ve already mentioned the male/female divide in expat social life. And there were few single women around, so every unattached male expat made passes and resented being rejected. But my job was already too demanding to have any energy left for personal relationships. At work, to be accepted as an ‘honorary male’ meant dressing in baggy outfits that could not be considered provocative by even the most arrogant male, behaving with equal amounts of confidence and respect, and generally being professional and distancing myself from being ‘female’. In this way, I was accepted and respected by Papua New Guinean colleagues both in the province and at government headquarters in Waigani. It was often expats who had problems with it. When I was very ill in Goroka Base hospital, the chief medic there was horrified that I was going back to continue working in Sandaun. “Papua New Guinea is no place for a woman,” he said. I didn’t remind him that half the population were women.

PT: You wrote in your book that you didn’t have a chance to come back to Papua New Guinea? Would you like to? 

TN: When an experience in a particular place has been so intense, and in a way life changing, I’m not sure it is a good idea to go back. I wouldn’t have a role now, people I knew have moved on in their lives, I would simply be an observer looking in briefly and I don’t think that would achieve any purpose.

PT: Your memoir is an extremely interesting read with an abundance of fantastic stories and tales. Would you mind sharing some tidbits that didn’t make it into the book?

TN: All the best stories are already in the book. Any events that aren’t in it are those that require too much background explanation for them to be properly understood, for example, a trip I made to Wamena in West Papua – perhaps I will write about that another time.

PT: This last question is an important one for the fans of your work: will you write more books? If yes, is there anything you’re working on at the moment?

TN: Those who enjoy travel and adventure can read my ebook, ‘Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon’. I take the reader with me on a long trek through this Buddhist Kingdom hidden high in the Himalayas. We wander through pine forests, meet with yak herders in the high pastures, and clamber over 5000-metre passes close to the Tibetan border. After a mini-bus ride and scary near misses on hairpin bends overlooking a sheer drop, we visit ancient temples and I include lots of information about Bhutan’s culture and history.

And there is another book that I wrote to encourage others to write, so it explains how to plan, research, write, edit, choose a publishing option, and market a book, and many tips apply to writing fiction as well as non-fiction. The title is ‘Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the Complete Guide to Becoming an Author’, available as an ebook and in print (the paperback can be ordered online from The Book Depository which supplies anywhere in the world free of postage). I made the book international in focus – resources and suggestions can be applied wherever a reader lives – to help people in different countries and cultures to write their own stories. We need to hear these different voices speaking for themselves. That is why national literary competitions and prizes such as The Crocodile Prize in Papua New Guinea are so important, they give real encouragement to local writers.

What I am working on at the moment is also international in outlook, but it’s another kind of journey – a social history of stories and storytellers through time. I am more than three-quarters of the way through the manuscript, but it will take a little while yet to complete because it requires a great deal of research.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some of my experiences with your blog readers.

‘INSIDE THE CROCODILE: THE PAPUA NEW GUINEA JOURNALS’ BY TRISH NICHOLSON

‘Inside the Crocodile’ is an engaging travel memoir penned by Trish Nicholson. It recounts the five years she spent in Papua New Guinea working on a development project.

INSIDE THE CROCODILE

Summary

Willing to fulfil her lifelong dream, Trish decides to apply for an overseas job. When she is offered a post in faraway Papua New Guinea, she doesn’t think twice about going. Without hesitation, she leaves cold Scottish highlands and ventures into the great unknown.

The Land of the Unexpected welcomes her with unusual heat and humidity, few passable roads, a multitude of different cultures, and more than 800 indigenous languages. However, despite all the exacting obstacles, Trish gets straight down to work. Armed with an open mind and eagerness to immerse herself in the local lifestyles, she starts the process of ‘developing’ the Melanesian country.

Review

Sometimes a book fulfils all your expectations. Sometimes it even surpasses them. That’s when you know you’re dealing with a really good piece of literature. But once in a blue moon, after reaching the last sentence of the chosen title, you may be rendered completely speechless, because you’ve just been struck by the magnificence of the author’s craft. And you may be wondering, what delights more: style or substance? In the case of Trish Nicholson’s memoir, one is equally good as the other.

‘Inside the Crocodile’ is such an engaging book that it would be quite difficult not to marvel at its content. Being an anthropologist, Ms Nicholson demonstrates exceptional ability to appreciate different cultures. While describing her sojourn in Papua New Guinea, she brings gentle awareness and insatiable curiosity to everything she sees and experiences. And even though she does not approve of certain behaviours or practices, she is far from being judgemental towards the island’s inhabitants. Her attitude to presenting the story seems to say: ‘I describe, you draw your own conclusions’. Of course, this doesn’t mean readers can’t sense the author’s stance on particular subjects – they definitely can. However, it is all very subtle. Trish Nicholson deliberately remains neutral and doesn’t disclose her opinions or possible biases. Which is, by the way, a truly admirable approach more people should adopt, as cultural competence – part of which is being able to accept cultural differences – is an essential skill for living in increasingly diverse societies.

Now, the narrative of this memoir is not limited to cross-cultural musings only. As the author worked on a World Bank-funded development project, she had the chance to familiarize herself with the world of ‘foreign’ consultants, experts, advisers employed to share their knowledge with the local communities. The word ‘development’ – especially when used in relation to small Pacific Island states – may bring somewhat ambivalent feelings. Ms Nicholson’s first-hand account provides a better understanding of this sensitive topic, explaining the difficulties that come with being an ‘outsider’ trying to impact peaceful lives of indigenous people by changing, improving, modernizing (choose your preferred verb) their beloved land. Is this wrong? Is this good? The book doesn’t give an unequivocal answer, but rather a bunch of relevant information to help you form your very own opinion.

Substance is the point of every publication. But whether a title can be considered a really fine piece of literature depends largely on the style in which it is conveyed. Trish Nicholson is a poet. Her descriptive words let you wander with her through the forests, cross winding rivers, experience blistering heat, and  hear the cheerfully singing birds. You rejoice at her successes, you suffer when she fights nasty bouts of malaria, you get sad when she finally has to say goodbye to her friends. Simply put, you are taken on a free journey to Papua New Guinea. Isn’t this a reason enough to approach…a crocodile?

Quite honestly, this title needs no recommendation. It’s a quintessential travel memoir; a promise of adventure, tears of laughter, and laughter through tears. Add on top of this  thought-provoking, valuable insights into both local cultures and international development, and you have a winning piece. You will get hooked somewhere between the first twelve pages.  And…you will love it! I can assure you of that.

A CHAT WITH… ALAN BOREHAM, PETER JINKS, AND BOB ROSSITER

Those of you who have already read ‘Beer in the Bilges’ know that the authors of the book are not only experienced sailors but also very talented writers and all-around great guys always seeking new adventures in life. Alan Boreham, Peter Jinks, and Bob Rossiter – otherwise known as ‘The Professionals’ – were kind enough to answer a few questions about their memoir and, of course, sailing through the Blue Continent.

ALAN BOREHAM, PETER JINKS, BOB ROSSITER

Pasifika Tales: ‘Beer in the Bilges’ is an interesting title for a book. Could you explain it?

‘The Professionals’: Beer is an important part of the provisions for many offshore sailors, and they want to keep it as cool as possible. When they aren’t lucky enough to have refrigeration on board their yacht, they follow the tradition that the British Navy established hundreds of years ago – store the beer below the water line, which is the coolest place on the ship. The deepest and coolest part of the hull is called the ‘bilges’, and hence the general practice of keeping the ‘beer in the bilges’.

When we were working on the manuscript, it was Bob’s friend – the actor Hal Holbrook, one of the people featured in the early chapters – who observed that getting a couple of beers from the bilges was a common occurrence throughout the book. The credit for naming the book, therefore, goes to Bob and Hal. I don’t think we could have hit upon another title as emblematic as this. We will have a challenge to find as good a title for the second memoir.

PT: For those who haven’t read your book yet: how did you meet and how did you come together for your great adventure?

‘TP’: It was by chance, really, because it would be hard to find three more different guys than us. And harder still to imagine how we all came to be together in the tropical swelter of Pago Pago, American Samoa. You could say that the encounters in Honolulu that we describe in the book were a lot like the encounters of the ‘gentlemen of fortune’ – buccaneers – of the 17th century. Like pirates meeting in Jamaica’s old Port Royal, Honolulu is one of the places around the world that offshore sailors meet.

So it was no mistake that the owner of the elegant yacht Ron of Argyll came to Honolulu looking for Bob, to entice him to sail his yacht up to Hawaii from the South Pacific for him. Where else in the Pacific would he be likely to find him? And it was natural for Bob to go looking for crew around the Ala Wai marina on Oahu where, by the greatest of chances, Alan was trying to put some distance between himself and an American mob he had run into on Maui. Bob was happy to accept such an eager and capable recruit, and one with such good survival skills.

In the meantime, Peter was enjoying the leisurely pace of the South Pacific while tending the Ron of Argyll for the owner in Tonga, and awaiting a new skipper and extra crew. Bob had crossed paths with Peter and the owner aboard the Ron of Argyll in Fiji, so Peter knew of Bob’s experience and reputation. He wasn’t surprised when he heard that Bob was going to be the new skipper, and he knew Bob well enough to know that he would choose another experienced hand.

Alan stayed in Honolulu to collect some of the equipment that was critical for the voyage and flew down to join Bob and Peter in American Samoa once they had relocated the yacht there.

When all three of us finally got together in Pago Pago, we quickly recognized that we each have knowledge and skills that complement one another very well, and that we all like to temper our hard work with a good amount of fun. Maybe most important, though, was that we found that we all share the trait that allows us to see possibilities, rather than the obstacles to achieving them. This alone was to save our skins in more than one of our adventures together.

PT: The good, the bad, and the ugly of your voyage?

‘TP’: There were plenty of good times – more than we could possibly mention here – but the best part without a doubt was meeting the people of the countries we visited, especially those in the more remote islands. We were fortunate to be able to share stories with them and to learn about their lives and cultures, as they did about ours. And while we all enjoyed the island life, with the wonderful fruits and the diving and fishing, sailing through these beautiful and storied waters was a real thrill.

The bad part about sailing to a new country has to be the bureaucracy. No matter where we went, and how nice the people were, there was the unavoidable paperwork and expenses that went along with entering or leaving a country. For many of us sailors, it is the overwhelming bureaucracy that drives us to seek the freedom of the seas.

The ugly part about sailing is the drama that sometimes comes with it. Make no mistake, sailing can be a dangerous business. While we don’t dwell on the bad times, all three of us have had our own brushes with death while at sea, culminating with a storm that threatened to break up the wooden yacht we were on before making it into port, leaving us only three miles from land – straight down.

PT: You sailed the Blue Continent, which means you visited different islands. However, you don’t write much about the countries or their cultures. Why?

‘TP’: From our reading, we found that there is a lot written on that. While we do talk about some of the customs of the wonderful people in the countries we visited, our objective in writing this book was to highlight the sailing experiences and the unusual characters we met along the way.

It is also an interesting fact that many sailors don’t go far from the port, because they don’t want to leave their yachts unattended. All three of us have explored the South Pacific countries more than most yachties and feel we have a better understanding of the countries and their people than many sailors.

PT: If you could share your impressions now… What could you reveal about the islands? Was there anything that surprised or amazed you?

‘TP’: Yes, we were always amazed at how happy people were, even those with just the basics of life. We traveled to the South Pacific from the 1960s to the 1980s, when things were a lot simpler, even in the developed world, but it always seemed to us that the people we met didn’t have a worry in the world. People from other countries could learn something from the attitude of these seemingly care-free islanders.

PT: As we can read in your book, sailing the Pacific can be an amazing and fun experience. But it’s also a great challenge. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to amateur sailors wanting to follow in your footstep?

‘TP’: You’re right, blue water sailing is not for the novice sailor. We would advise any sailor dreaming of going offshore to make sure they have a suitable vessel and the necessary experience. If they don’t have much experience, or they’re not confident in their abilities, they should take someone along who does. There’s a saying: ‘There are old sailors and bold sailors but no old, bold sailors’. We want all offshore sailors to make it back to a safe harbor.

PT: Getting back to your memoir… It’s quite unusual, as you chose to use the third-person narrative. Why did you do that?

‘TP’: When we were preparing to write the book, we found that the telling of stories from one’s past is usually done from the writer’s own perspective, in the first person, and less often from the perspective of an independent observer, in the third person. In writing these memoirs, we had to decide how best to describe our individual paths that led us to join forces in American Samoa, as well as our shared experiences, while at the same time portraying the remarkable people and events that we encountered along the way. Our choice of using the third person narrator gave us the liberty of collaborating on the description of these episodes in our lives so that we could write in a consistent voice, hopefully making the flow of the chapters easier for the reader to follow.

PT: What was the writing process like for you?

‘TP’: A lot of people have asked us what kind of process we used to write a book with three co-authors. We tell them that it’s just like sailing a yacht with three different characters like us – it all comes down to teamwork.

We know each other well enough to understand our individual strengths, so we just fell into a regular routine. As in offshore sailing where a well-drawn crew has complementary skills, like sail handling or navigation or cooking, we easily found our roles in writing ‘Beer in the Bilges’. We all contributed to the telling of the stories in the memoir, but we each had our specialties. Bob is the best story-teller among us. Peter had the best recollection of the people and places, as well as a few spicy anecdotes! And Alan had the skills to record and craft the vignettes we’ve presented in the book.

We got together every twelve to eighteen months, approaching this project like a job and working about eight hours a day, allowing adequate time afterward for mental stimulation and recreation. Alan worked at the keyboard while we chatted together about a chapter, then we all reviewed the raw product and offered our suggestions. We edited the draft together until we were happy with the final product and then moved on to the next one. We made tremendous progress on each trip.

To help us in writing these memoirs we went back to Marina del Rey in California, to Hawaii, Tahiti, and Samoa, to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, and to Australia and New Zealand. It helped enormously to go back to the ‘scene of the crime’ to sail the waters, talk with people, and generally soak in the atmosphere of these places again. Besides the clarity and focus that those trips provided, they were all part of another adventure. And for us, that is what life is all about.

PT: Do you plan to write more?

‘TP’: Yes. We are doing the final edits to a novel entitled ‘Two if by Sea’, which is based in part on some of the amazing people we met but couldn’t expose in ‘Beer in the Bilges’. All of these people were hiding from someone or something, so we chose to embody their most interesting characteristics or experiences in fictional characters.

We are also working on a second memoir which will be a follow-up to ‘Beer in the Bilges’. The working title is ‘Just One More Round’, and it will certainly require more in-person collaboration like we did for the first book.

PT: And the last questions: have you had a chance to repeat your Pacific journey? If not, is it something you want to do in the future?

‘TP’: We all continued on with more sailing adventures after the events we describe in ‘Beer in the Bilges’, both together and individually, around the South Pacific and Hawaii. We hope that your readers will enjoy reading about those adventures as well.

‘BEER IN THE BILGES: SAILING ADVENTURES IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC’ BY ALAN BOREHAM, PETER JINKS, BOB ROSSITER

‘Beer in the Bilges: Sailing Adventures in the South Pacific’ is a memoir that chronicles Alan Boreham’s, Peter Jinks’s, and Bob Rossiter’s various voyages through the Blue Continent.

BEER IN THE BILGES

Summary

For three experienced sailors Andrew Clubb’s proposal is a no-brainer. After all, who wouldn’t want to sail an elegant yacht from the South Pacific to Hawaii? The men, having already travelled across the Blue Continent, are certain they can accomplish the task. However, it soon turns out that bringing Ron of Argyll to the Aloha state is no mean feat. No amount of preparation and knowledge can truly prepare a person for such adventure. Because the Pacific Ocean is an unpredictable beast. Unpredictable but always fascinating and bewitching. Especially if there’s some beer in the bilges.

Review

This is not a book about Pasifika. This is a book about sailing in Pasifika. High seas, gale-force winds, water gushing into the deck… This is the kind of content ‘The Professionals’ offer their readers. Have you been dreaming of cruising the South Pacific? If yes, you’ve just bought a ticket.

One of the most interesting features of this memoir is its unusual construction. The book is wisely split up into four major parts. The first three highlight the authors’ individual voyages: Bob’s journey from California to New Zealand, Peter’s Sydney-to-Suva yacht race as well as his little odyssey around the Polynesian islands, and Alan’s sailing trip on a Vancouver-Hawaii route. The last part concentrates on the famous Ron of Argyll delivery – a formidable undertaking the three seamen were eager to carry out.

Bringing together four separate stories was indeed a terrific idea, as it gives readers the feeling of being immersed in four separate books! Each tale is like a breath of fresh air – something new, exciting, unexpected, unpredictable. There’s literally no time to get bored. And although the leisurely pace in which the tales are written may indicate differently, plenty of thrills await you on every single page. This is a real adventure. Unless you are (mentally) prepared, don’t even bother getting on board – better just leave the book on the shelf.

Now, the memoir is penned by three gentlemen. Co-authoring usually means that one book is written in slightly (or sometimes very!) different styles and manners. Where there are multiple authors, there are multiple voices. And even the most subtle change of tone may easily spoil your reading enjoyment. But do not be afraid, because the stories in ‘Beer in the Bilges’ could not be told in a more consistent voice! A third-person narrative – almost never used in personal memoirs – allowed the authors to share their individual experiences without disturbing the flow and ‘rhythm’ of the chapters. They are singing…writing…in perfect unison! Add on top of this their great sense of humour, a bit of drama, and vivid descriptions that engage all of your senses and you have the best sea tale you can get!

In the ‘sea adventure’ category this book is definitely in the top 10. However, let’s don’t forget that the gentlemen sailed the South Pacific – one of the most intriguing corners of our globe consisting of beautiful islands, smiling people and their vibrant cultures. Unfortunately, you won’t read much about that. Pasifika is virtually non-existent in Boreham, Jinks, and Rossiter’s memoir. The authors are focused exclusively on the sailing part. This is highly regrettable as it’s always fascinating to be able to ‘see’ delightful places through somebody else’s eyes.

All in all, ‘Beer in the Bilges’ is a great read. Excellently written, absorbing, thoroughly entertaining. This is your ultimate sailing book. For people interested in cruising adventures, it will be just perfect!

‘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!