Tag Archives: Pacific Literature

‘SAILING WITH IMPUNITY’ BY MARY E. TRIMBLE

‘Sailing With Impunity’ is Mary E. Trimble’s memoir depicting the voyage through the islands of Polynesia that she set out on together with her husband, Bruce.

SAILING WITH IMPUNITY

Summary

Longing for a change and following the dream of an offshore sailing, Mary and Bruce make a decision to quit their jobs, sell their house, buy a boat, and spend some time cruising the Pacific Islands. After weeks of meticulous preparations, they are finally ready to leave the marina.

They make their first landfall in French Polynesia. The country surprises them with enchanting beauty, the sweetest scents of flowers, and…an extremely nice gendarme trying (unsuccessfully) to buy their gun. Together with other yachties, Mary and Bruce tour the islands, savouring every minute in this picture-perfect paradise.

When the blissful days in the Marquesas, Tahiti, and Bora Bora come to an end, the couple continue their adventure. They agree to moor in the Pago Pago harbour to wait out the hurricane season. The capital of American Samoa turns out to be a safe yet very dirty harbour, especially after the country gets clobbered by Cyclone Ofa.

Before heading home, Mary and Bruce sail to Tonga, which definitely lives up to its friendly reputation, and then to Hawaii. The last leg of their journey isn’t as smooth as they would expect it to be.

Review

The Blue Continent is a perfect destination for…for everyone, I think, but sailors in particular. They have favoured this part of the world for a very long time. Who can blame them? Those tiny islands scattered over the Pacific Ocean are delightfully reminiscent of paradise (at least on the surface), so cruising from one little slice of heaven to another is a dream come true. And when in paradise, it’s a sin not to share all those paradise-ish experiences. Hence the almost countless amount of different memoirs and travelogues – some good, some not so much – that you may choose from to ‘travel’ (or no, in case of the bad ones) to the South Seas without leaving the comfort of your home. Will you be able to ‘visit’ the islands while reading Mary E. Trimble’s book? Oh, absolutely!

‘Sailing With Impunity’ makes for a very engaging read, mostly due to the fact that the author managed to maintain the right balance between the descriptions of their life aboard the craft and the descriptions of the places they had a chance to see. Before you go on land with the Trimbles, you will encounter fierce winds and rough waters; you will know what it’s like to cook on a rocking boat while battling a bout of seasickness; you will have to come to terms with the idea of sleeping no more than 4 hours at one time (let me tell you, you can feel exhausted just reading about it). Mrs Trimble is very truthful in recounting her and her husband’s journey. She spares no details, so those of you who have thought that sailing is an easy activity might get disillusioned. It is fun, yes; but it’s definitely not child’s play.

If you ‘survive’ the voyage, you will be rewarded with some wonderful stories about the islands and their inhabitants. The author’s vivid and surprisingly objective portrayals of the visited countries show them as they really are – ravishing, romantic, but not sugar-coated; filthy, unpleasant, but not repulsive. The memoir doesn’t present a one-sided view of Polynesia – and it’s worth remembering that all the opinions clearly reflect the author’s personal feelings and judgements – but rather the actual state of things. There is no criticizing, no comparing, no saying that something is better or worse. Mary E. Trimble made sure to stay open-minded throughout the journey and, most importantly, throughout her book. Even if she wasn’t free from cultural bias, she hid it extremely well.

The story is told in a lovely manner. Every page is written with passion only keen travellers possess. Detailed yet not overdone descriptions seize the imagination, arousing an abundance of different emotions. One minute you are green with envy, the next happy and relieved that you’re safe in your abode. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

This concise book is a very impressive piece of travel literature. But it isn’t only an engaging memoir. It is a tale about chasing your dreams and believing that everything is possible, especially if you have someone you love and can rely on by your side.

A CHAT WITH… STEVE HUNSICKER

Steve Hunsicker is the South Florida recruiter for the Peace Corps. Before taking on the job, he served as a volunteer in the Kingdom of Tonga. His experiences are described in a wonderful book called ‘Steve’s Adventure with the Peace Corps’. If you are interested in what Steve has to say about his memoir, the South Pacific country, and volunteering, read on!

STEVE HUNSICKER

Pasifika Tales: You quit your job to become a Peace Corps volunteer. Have you ever regretted that decision? 

Steve Hunsicker: I have not regretted the decision. Becoming a Peace Corps volunteer changed my life in a very positive way. I had a wonderful 23-year career in TV News, but it was time for me to do something else. Peace Corps was the perfect move.

PT: You were assigned to serve in the Kingdom of Tonga. A South Pacific archipelago with pristine lagoons and sandy beaches – that’s the image people conjure up in their minds when asked about Polynesia. Had you had the same picture in your head before you went there? 

SH: That image is largely true. Tonga is a beautiful country, especially Vava’u, which is the island where I lived. However, there is much more to Tonga that that. Each of the island groups is different. Tongatapu, where the capital is located, is flat while the area where I was is quite hilly. I don’t remember exactly what I was expecting when I first found out I was going to Tonga, but Vava’u is certainly more beautiful than I could have imagined.

PT: Tonga from travel brochures vs. the ‘real’ country. What’s the difference?

SH: Tonga is a developing country. At first appearance, they have many of the amenities you might expect, but those are really there for the tourists. Most Tongans are subsistence farmers and fishermen who live below the poverty level. However, they are a very happy people and genuinely friendly. You will see people talking on cell phones but they may live without running water and electricity.

PT: What surprised you most after you stepped out of the plane?

SH: Without a doubt, how friendly everyone was. Walking around the first day, people stopped and said hello and asked: ‘Where are you going?’. I later learned that’s a very common expression in the Tongan language, but hearing it in English from so many people was very welcoming.

PT: Is there anything – and I’m sure there is – you learnt during your stay?

SH: Probably that ‘People are People’ no matter where they live, no matter their culture and no matter their financial situation. I made such wonderful friends in Tonga and there is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think of them.

PT: What can people learn from Tongans? What can we ‘take’ from their amazing culture?

SH: In Tonga, people take care of each other. They don’t have day care centers or retirement homes. If a family member has to work, another family member (or neighbor) will help.   They accept the responsibility to take care of children and of their elders. There is almost no homelessness in Tonga because everyone has a place to go.

PT: Now, focusing on your book. Why did you decide to write it?

SH: Peace Corps is a life-changing experience and I really wanted to document my experience. I challenged myself to write a blog post at least once a week for my entire 27 months in Tonga. I had spent the previous 23 years in a TV newsroom so I guess I also still had some of the journalist in me. When I first returned to the US, I decide to take those entries and expand them into a book.

PT: Your memoir is an extremely informative and entertaining read. I’m pretty sure, however, that there are quite a few stories or anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book. Could you share one of them?

SH: Tongans love to laugh and they like jokes. I became of the ‘victim’ of one of those jokes during my language training. Just like in every language, Tongan has slang. For example, the Tongan word for chicken is ‘moa’. It is commonly used to describe food, but it is also slang for your girlfriend or boyfriend. If a Tongan asks you if you have a ‘moa’, they aren’t asking if you have a chicken, but if you have a significant other. This was explained to us in our language classes.

During my language training, I was given a very simple assignment to interview someone in the Tongan language, to find out their name, where they were from and what they liked to do. We then had to present the results of our interview to not only our fellow volunteers, but also in front of the Tongans who work for Peace Corps.

I completed my interview and when it was my time to present, I stood up and said in Tongan ‘My friend’s name is Rose, she is from Nukualofa and she likes to husk coconuts’. As soon as I said this, the room erupted in laughter, I turned beet red, not knowing what I had just said.   However, it was quickly explained to me that ‘husking coconuts’ has nothing to do with ‘husking coconuts’ and instead refers to a sexual act. She was in the room and was the person laughing the hardest. She had set me up, but it was a good lesson because she wanted all of us to know the expression so that we didn’t use it in our conversations with our host family and neighbors. And everyone got a great laugh at my expense.

PT: The book is full of details regarding both the Peace Corps and volunteering in general. Did you want to create a guide of sorts for future volunteers?

SH: I’m not sure I necessarily set out to publish a guide for future volunteers. I really was trying to document my own service. Almost all of the information in the book about the application process is out of date. Last year, Peace Corps significantly over-hauled its application process and it takes less than an hour to complete the application. In addition, you can select the country where you serve, something I was not able to do. I did get really frustrated with the length of the application process at that time, so these are all very positive changes for people wanting to become a volunteer.

PT: What advice – if any – could you give to those people who’d like to become volunteers?

SH: Do it!  Not only will you make a difference in the lives of the people in the country where you volunteer, but it will change your own life.

‘STEVE’S ADVENTURE WITH THE PEACE CORPS: STORIES FROM THE KINGDOM OF TONGA AND THE UNITED STATES PEACE CORPS’ BY STEVE HUNSICKER

‘Steve’s Adventure with the Peace Corps: Stories from the Kingdom of Tonga and the United States Peace Corps’ is a memoir written by Steve Hunsicker, a former Executive News Director who decided to give up his successful career in order to become a Peace Corps volunteer.

STEVE'S ADVENTURE WITH THE PEACE CORPS

Summary 

For some people even the most interesting job may not be enough to feel content and fulfilled in life. Steve has always dreamed of helping others and now, after spending 23 years in TV industry, he comes to the conclusion that it’s high time he finally realized his ambition. So he applies to the Peace Corps and soon after that is sent to the Kingdom of Tonga.

Responsible for business development, Steve helps the local communities exploit their economic potential. He is a tutor and a mentor, always ready to offer advice, give words of encouragement, and share his professional knowledge. As a reward he gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Tonga as very few visitors ever do. 

Review

I-was-a-volunteer-in-an-underdeveloped-country is such a common and popular theme in non-fiction literature that it should constitute a separate genre. All these personal accounts basically tell you the same story, so there will never be any surprises here. But the author’s writing style is a whole different thing. It can be excellent, mediocre, or plain bad, and it usually determines if the book is considered any good.

Steve Hunsicker’s memoir is what I like to call a ‘simple piece of literature’. It certainly isn’t a masterpiece, but it charms you right from the very first page. You instantly get drawn into Steve’s world and quickly realize that one chapter compels you to read another.

Written in a journal-like manner, the memoir starts in the US when the author finds out about his Peace Corps nomination. From that moment we accompany him as he prepares to fly out of the country, then arrives in Tonga, and finally carries out his volunteering duties. In describing his experiences he is honest, meticulous, and awesomely funny. He is like a buddy of yours, with whom you’re having a friendly chat over a cup of coffee. Or a glass of beer. Or – even better – a bowl of kava. You choose. And you genuinely want to pay careful attention to what he is saying, because his stories are truly fascinating.

Especially worthy of note are Steve’s comments on Tonga. As an astute observer who was willing to familiarize himself with a foreign culture, he gives readers colourful details of life in the Polynesian country. You really get to know the local customs, traditions, and practices – not the ancient ones, but those observed on a daily basis. The little snippets he shares are not only very informative but most of all fun to read. If you have never been to Tonga, it’s a great way to start your journey. See the islands, meet the people, and soak up the friendly atmosphere of the South Pacific.

The author writes about the Kingdom and his Peace Corps service with a fierce passion you simply cannot fail to notice. It is obvious that volunteering in this particular place affected not only his life but also him as a person. The initial culture shock gradually gave way to understanding, acceptance, and even appreciation of the culture so different from his own.

‘Steve’s Adventure with the Peace Corps’ is a terrific book. I’ll venture to say it is more revealing than most guidebooks ever written on Tonga. If you decide to read it, it will not be wasted time.

A CHAT WITH… LYNN PULOU-ALAIMALO

Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo is a) a thoroughly wonderful person (and I mean WONDERFUL!) and b) a very talented writer. She has recently published two books, one of which is a short non-fiction work about the village of Lauli’i in American Samoa. If you want to know why Molioleava holds a special place in the author’s heart, read the interview.

LYNN PULOU-ALAIMALO

Pasifika Tales: You wrote a very interesting book – a short story, to be exact – about the village of Lauli’i, American Samoa. Why did you decide to do it? 

Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo: Thank you. Yes, I did. When I explored publishing options, I garnered a feeling of exemplification. I wanted to write about something I knew rather than something I could have explosively created with imagination. So, I wrote about this crater. For years, I called Molioleava ‘the life of American Samoa’. Without it, there wouldn’t be any telephone services, cable networks, television services and communication among the local territory. But there was another thing that no one knew about Molioleava. Molioleava is also the burial grounds of my ancestors. In sacrificing their resting grounds, surrounding them are antennas serving the territory.

PT: What does the place mean to the islands? Why is it so important? 

LPA: The Molioleava or Harbor Light in the village of Lauli’i, American Samoa is a huge point of infrastructure for the island of American Samoa. Because of the elevation of this crater, majority of the antennas and telecommunication lines are seated on the crater. Installed on this crater also is the harbor light that guides ships and boats into the inner wharf or port of the territory.

PT: There are quite a few ghost stories about Molioleava. Can you share some of them?

LPA: There’s quite many for visitors and guests. From the blonde hair lady who stands by the lone coconut tree in the mountain to an appearance of people waving from the harbor light when ships pass by at night. There’s a track of sand that leads far up the road to the harbor light before sunrise, that most elders used to call ‘a path for spirits’ (ala o’o.) As a true flesh and blood of this land, I can only imagine the stories that people convey. I also think that there are unordinary things beyond our control or those who had once occupied the lands still guarding lands and family. I only think of sudden neck hairs standing up as guardians just passing by when I’m in the area.

PT: Your family comes from the village of Lauli’i. Can you tell me something more about this place?

LPA: The harbor light, or Molioleava, is a general name for the crater or the mountain. In Samoan, the word moli means light, ava is the deep-sea. To my family, this crater has its own name and meaning. This land is called Namumeaavaga, a Samoan word meaning ‘the fragrance’ or odor of the deceased. This land was the very first area our ancestors first settled from the island of Manu’a to have their ava (kava) upon arrival. The two sons of the King of Manu’a (Tuimanu’a), Sua and Vaifanua, sailed out and found the village of Lauli’i. When they settled by the crater, they bid farewell from one another. Vaifanua went to Vatia, my ancestor Sua stayed in Lauli’i. This mountain was the focal point where Tuimanu’a could see his sons from Ta’u, Manu’a. It is also an area very dusky at night, almost like a hindrance to ships when they sail in. Another remarkable history behind this mountain are the colonization days when the United States Naval artifacts and artilleries were placed by the Breaker’s Point and on the obverse end of crater. Those monuments are still sitting there today and managed by the National Park. Starkist, one of the biggest manufactory in the territory hosts many licensed fishing vessels annually. Some Korean ships that encountered hardships with the crater sunk and are still seated on the outskirts of the Molioleava.

PT: Is this your favourite place on the Planet Earth?

LPA: Molioleava would be my most favorite place on Earth. As many people say, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ Molioleava or Namumeaavaga surrounds my humble abode in Lauli’i.

PT: What does American Samoa mean to you? 

LPA: It is my home and a respective title I epitomize everywhere I go. I have roots in both Samoan archipelagos, but American Samoa is where I was born and raised. I always think of the territory as a remote dot on the map, with power to its lands and its own facilitated Constitution. My homeland is like a gem carted in my journeys and milestones. While not many people know where American Samoa is, the only way they’ll be able to remember American Samoa is through the NFL players Marcus Mariota, Domata Peko, Joey Iosefa and many more. Another way the world would easily remember American Samoa is by its beauty of turquoise beaches, lush mountains, annual cruise ships, and tourism – the cannibalism memorial in Aoloau, the outrigger and long boat races, the Tale of the Turtle and Shark, the inner wharf that guarded US Navy ships in during the Tripartite Convention, preservation of the Samoan culture, the rides to Aunu’u Island, quiet Sundays, the family oriented people and a homeland with a huge quota of American Samoans serving in the United States military. Essentially, American Samoa is my home.

PT: Do you feel more American or Samoan?

LPA: I always feel that I could blend in with any ethnicity and feel happy with an open mind than share a faction of where I represent. However, I feel that there is more of me in both. For instance, while English is still my second language, I use both English and Samoan to communicate and translate anything to better understand it. I practice my Samoan culture everywhere I go. I excuse myself when I walk by people. I fathom the word, Faafetai – meaning thank you. There is respect rendered for anyone. And no matter where I venture out to, I never forget where I am from. On the American side, I am a proud veteran of the United States Army. I served this country and went to wars and protected the freedom of not only this country, but also my homeland of American Samoa. If there is one thing I’m most proud of in my life, it would be this sacrifice for world peace, freedom for mankind facing genocide, and the love for people. With my Samoan culture manifested in all that I do, I find the best in both worlds as a citizen of good faith.

PT: Do you plan to visit the islands anytime soon?

LPA: I just returned a few months ago. Since I left home in 2000, I’ve always traveled back to visit family. It’s so hard to board the plane after weeks of eating German buns and round pancakes in Fagatogo. Everything moves rapidly in the world. Like in Bulgaria, you’ll never find someone walking as if they’re walking in a park. In Heidelberg, every one counts down to Oktoberfest like it’s nothing. And then there’s old sweet Wisconsin, where time just flies right over the marshes of cranberry country. When that Hawaiian Airline lands in Pago Pago International Airport, everything goes on pause. Vacation hashtag goes up!

‘MOLIOLEAVA’ BY LYNN PULOU-ALAIMALO

‘Molioleava’ is the story of Lauli’i, a village in American Samoa, as told by the author, Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo.

MOLIOLEAVA

Summary

To most unitiated people the hill that stands guard over the inner wharf of American Samoa may just be a source of light that guides ships safely to the harbour. But to Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo, Molioleava is the life and heart of the country.

This beautiful part of the village of Lauli’i is the abode of her ancestors – their burial grounds. It’s a place where the present interlaces with the past; a place that requires remembrance and respect.

Review

Hardly ever do we think about that, but every book – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction – must possess certain elements. It needs, for example, a main character – an individual around whom a story revolves. It also requires a setting, that is a location where the aforementioned character experiences his or her adventures. But what if the main character and the setting are one and the same thing?

It happens; sometimes a place indeed is the protagonist and the absolute focal point of the book. But in ‘Molioleava’, the described location is even more than that. This is the reason why this short publication is quite an oddity; a rare bird that appears in the sky to amaze people. It may be just a few pages long, but it is a substantial volume that provides readers with a great deal of information regarding one of the most important and – as it turns out – fascinating sites in American Samoa.

Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo relates the story in a somewhat journalistic manner. Very quickly you get an impression of reading a newspaper article, in which the author reports bare facts, adorning them occasionally with a little more personal tales. The text skips nimbly from one subject to another, painting a very thorough picture in your head. Everything, from the geography of the place to its history and mythology to the significance for the island’s infrastructure, is comprehensively covered. You feel well versed when you finish the last sentence. And you certainly feel intrigued to get to know Molioleava even better, for this work really sparks interest. As befits a fine writer, Ms. Alaimalo pulls readers into a unique world and then leaves them wanting more.

Now, despite the abundance of information, the book is one of those that you may think end before they really start. It is a very slim volume, a ‘quick read’ in the purest form. It seems that Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo is a lady of few words, because the brevity of her story is quite surprising, especially when juxtaposed with the amount of knowledge it presents. Well, don’t let the length fool you – it may be a slim volume, but it is extremely pithy. The author hit the right note – the book is complete without being mundane. And boredom, let’s be honest here, would not be so difficult to achieve taking into account the very specific subject matter.

The substance definitely satisfies, but the style is equally good. Unnecessary descriptions have been left out, and yet the place is depicted so vividly you have no troubles conjuring it up in your imagination. The harbour light and the crown of antennas appear right before your eyes, and you can sense a subtle aura of mystery. Skillfully written in clear and concise language, this story is a real pleasure to read.

Books like this are not being published every day, which is reason enough to reach for this title. It’s arresting and enlightening. It’s simply unique.

‘THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA: PADDLING THE PACIFIC’ BY PAUL THEROUX

‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific’ is Paul Theroux’s memoir-cum-travelogue that documents his journey across the Blue Continent.

THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA

Summary

What does a man do when faced with a failing marriage and the possibility of having skin cancer? He starts his fight. He’s determined to win the battles. Or he gives up and does nothing. Or – just like Paul – he runs away; as far from his home as he can. Is there a better destination that the alluring islands of the Pacific? Absolutely not.

Beginning in Australia and New Zealand, he gets his first taste of Oceania. The mysterious Blue Continent and an overwhelming need to be alone in the wilderness makes him grab his collapsible kayak and venture into the great unknown. Trying to immerse himself in the indigenous cultures of the region, he travels from Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Archipelago, from Vanuatu to Fiji, from the islands of south Polynesia to heavenly Hawaii. Each of these places lets him escape his bitter reality, until – finally – he rediscovers the flavor of life anew.

Review

Have you ever had a love/hate relationship with a book? I have. And this is THE book.

Yes, I absolutely love it. This is one of the best titles in the travel genre, hands down. It’s funny, engaging, and it shows rather than tells. But it also annoys me beyond words. Literally, it makes me utterly mad. As it is quite rude to commence with the downsides, let’s start with the positives, shall we?

It cannot be denied that Paul Theroux possesses the literary genius. His prodigious talent with words captivates readers, compelling them to devour page after page until they swiftly reach the end of his more or less irritating yet extremely intriguing story. And even though he states at the end of the last chapter that he is not a travel writer, this personal account proves otherwise – it is the very epitome of the ‘been there, wrote the book’ genre; and a terrific one at that!

It is impossible to miss his flowing prose that is thoroughly appealing, impeccable language, or the authentically funny (at least more often than not) sense of humour. The author doesn’t bother readers with detailed and vivid descriptions of the places he travels to. Instead, he devotes his attention to people – mainly native inhabitants – and their ways of being. He absorbs everything that surrounds him – from the atmosphere of the so-called paradise to the idiosyncrasies of the cultures he encounters. He explores, he observes, he draws his own conclusions. He is not afraid to ask even the most personal questions, and the more honest the answer the more happy he seems to be. Because the islands clearly cheer him up. What started as a great escape, turned out to be a great and often amusing adventure. Which, by the way, should surprise absolutely no one – when in paradise, you can’t help but beam with sheer happiness. Even if that paradise sometimes uncovers its darker side.

Yes, let’s be frank here, no corner of this globe can be given the label of ‘a wonderland’. But if there is one place on our planet Earth that can be regarded as the slice of heaven, this is Oceania. With its kind, smiling, welcoming people it is the closest thing to paradise you’ll be able to find. And yet Paul Theroux failed to notice that. Throughout the book he proudly displays his sardonic attitude, throwing around disgustingly subjective comments about the locals that are genuinely hard to read at times. He writes, for example, that the prettiest women he saw in the Pacific were in Tonga; only to add in the very same sentence that they were also ‘the ugliest, hairy things with bad skin’. Additionally, you may learn that the people of Tanna were (I consciously retain the past form; after all, we don’t know if this viewpoint still holds true for Mr Theroux today) ‘small, scowling knob-headed blacks with short legs and big dusty feet’. Samoans – on the other hand – are lovingly described as ‘rather gloatingly rude’. It seems that only the inhabitants of the Cooks deserved some compliments. In Theroux’s eyes they weren’t ‘greedy or lazy’; actually, they were ‘hospitable, generous, and friendly’. I can understand having your own opinions. But I can’t understand being a xenophobe.

Is this book worthy of your time and attention? Absolutely. It is an outstanding piece of travel literature. It is entertaining and…well…very informative. It lets you discover that one may be a terrific writer, but a not so terrific person.

A CHAT WITH… TONY HORWITZ

Tony Horwitz needs no introduction. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the author of seven books, and – most importantly – an all-round nice person. His fantastic travelogue, ‘Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before’, is a must-read for every Pasifika aficionado. Do you want to learn more about Tony’s journey across the Blue Continent? You can do so from this interview.

TONY HORWITZ

Pasifika Tales: What was first – the idea to write a book about retracing Captain Cook’s voyages or a desire to set sail? 

Tony Horwitz: If you mean ‘set sail’ in the sense of embark on a global adventure, then that was my prime impetus and Cook’s travels provided a historical path to follow. However, I’m a woeful sailor and was much happier every time I could explore on land rather than by sea.

PT: Why did you choose Captain James Cook? Was it because of all the incredible places he travelled to?

TH: Initially, I was struck by the places he went and wanted to see them for myself. But as the journey went on, I became fascinated by Cook the man, so what started as a travel adventure grew into a biography as well.

PT: It is not a secret that for Pacific Islanders James Cook was no hero. What do people in the Blue Continent think of the famous British navigator?

TH: Is Blue Continent shorthand for the Pacific? It depends where you are. Cook has admirers in Australia and New Zealand but not many elsewhere in the Pacific. He’s generally seen as an advance man of empire and colonization and all the ills that ultimately resulted.

PT: Do you agree with their opinions? Do you view Cook as a villain or a hero? 

TH: It’s undeniable that Cook’s voyages opened the door to colonization, disease, the dispossession of native peoples and other damage to their cultures. But Cook didn’t intend this harm. He was a product of the Enlightenment, on a scientific mission of discovery and, for the most part, expressed sympathy and respect for those he encountered. I don’t think he should be lumped with conquistadors and other Europeans who set out to conquer, kill, convert, and enslave.

PT: You visited various Pacific Island countries after you had read about them in Cook’s journals. To what extent did your impressions coincide with those of Cook? 

TH: Obviously, the Pacific has changed tremendously since Cook’s voyages in the late 1700s. After colonization and other transformations came mass tourism, and sadly we’ve loved some parts of Polynesia’s fragile environment to death. But off the beaten track, there were many places where I felt the views and landscapes were very close to what Cook described. I also caught glimpses of the traditional cultures and characteristics Cook wrote about, such as the warrior heart of Maori society, the sensuality of Tahitians, and the deeply non-Western and non-materialistic nature of Aboriginal peoples in Australia.

PT: How much was your journey a journey of self-discovery? What did you learn? 

TH: To be honest, I find self-discovery an overrated aspect of travel adventures. I’m more interested in discovering others. But I did learn many things, particularly during my time as a sailor aboard a museum-quality replica of Cook’s first ship, the Endeavour. I realized just how soft we are compared to sailors and explorers in the 18th century; few of us could endure a month of the physical and mental strains they put up with for years at a time. I also realized I can’t tie knots to save my life, and that its best not to look down when you’re near the top of a hundred-foot mast.

PT: ‘Blue Latitudes’ is an interesting book. It’s part travelogue and part James Cook’s biography. Was that your intention from the beginning?

TH: My original intent was to write a historically themed travelogue. But as I read and traveled more deeply, I really wanted to understand this extraordinary man who rose from lowly origins to the upper reaches of the British Navy and kept hurling himself off the edge of the known world. So the biographical component grew to roughly half of the book’s content.

PT: I do consider ‘Blue Latitudes’ a terrific piece of travel literature and one of the best books regarding the Pacific Islands. If you could give one reason why people should read it, what would it be?

TH: The book, I hope, allows readers to grasp what true adventure means. Sailing off the map, and having first contact with remote societies untouched by the West, is an experience we simply can’t have today outside of science fiction. I also hope readers will laugh at my own misadventures in Cook’s wake. I really wanted the book to be as entertaining as my travels were for me.

‘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.