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!

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.