Tag Archives: Tonga

‘NEW FLAGS FLYING: PACIFIC LEADERSHIP’ BY IAN JOHNSTONE, MICHAEL POWLES

‘New Flags Flying: Pacific Leadership’ is a book edited by Ian Johnstone and Michael Powles. It documents the political history of fourteen Pacific Island nations.

NEW FLAGS FLYING

Summary

After ruling the Pacific Islands for a hundred years, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA decide to grant independence to most of the states.

The change from being colonial subjects to self-governance turns out to be harder than anyone could have predicted. Local politicians try their best to lead their countries into this new chapter in history. 

Review 

Politics is not an easy subject to broach. It is often mundane and not very ‘accessible’ to an ordinary person not particularly interested in affairs of state and diplomacy. But this book deals with it in the most engaging way possible. Ian Johnstone and Michael Powles created a gripping read you, quite honestly, are not able to put down.

First and foremost, I have to praise the language, which is simple, uncomplicated, and easy to understand. The authors could have used fancy (and rather mystifying) political jargon and inundated us with professional terms and expressions, but then the book wouldn’t be intelligible to all people. It would be a title addressed exclusively to experts. I am glad that Ian Johnstone and Michael Powles chose a different path and decided to aim the volume at general audience who simply would like to familiarize themselves with the political history of the region.

‘New Flags Flying’ provides considerable insights into a time when Pacific Island states were undergoing colossal changes. Recounted by leaders who were a main force in shaping the events, the book is a scrupulously honest depiction of the countries’ journeys to independence or self-government. Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, Tofilau Eti Alesana, John Webb, Sir Tom Davis, Dr Ludwig Keke, HM King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Hon. Young Vivian, Sir Michael Somare, Hon. Solomon Mamalon, Sir Peter Kenilorea, Hon. Bikenibeu Paeniu, Sir Ieremia Tabai, Fr Walter Lini, Kessai Note, John Haglelgam, Sandra Sumang Pierantozzi, Hon. Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, and Dame Carol Kidu share their personal experiences of taking their people into a very uncertain, at least at that time, future. The stories they tell – very emotional and thought-provoking – disclose not only the hopes and ambitions they had but also the struggles they had to face. Because no other part of our globe is more vulnerable to challenges and difficulties than Oceania; just as no other part of our globe demonstrates more resilience and ability to cope than those little islands do.

The interviews are accompanied by comprehensive commentary, background information, chronological summaries of significant events, and old photographs, which make the book even more interesting to delve into.

Now, although the title will be a fascinating read for every person who loves the Pacific Islands, for the Islanders themselves it should be of extra special value, as it contains lessons they can and ought to draw from. Why not use the past to improve the present and shape the future? Pacific policymakers should have this book sitting on their desks.

‘New Flags Flying’ is a great piece of literature. I can only congratulate the editors on the job well done and tell you that their work is definitely worthy of your time and attention. I could not recommend it more!

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘REACH FOR PARADISE’ BY ANDREW RAYNER

‘Reach for Paradise’ is Andrew Rayner’s chronicle of his eight-year-long voyage through the islands of the Pacific Ocean.

REACH FOR PARADISE

Summary

Andrew has always dreamt of visiting the islands of the South Seas, so much celebrated for being a slice of paradise on earth. When the opportunity to fulfill that dream finally arises, he buys a boat and eagerly starts his great journey of discovery.

The Blue Continent makes an enormous impression on the Englishman. As he travels from bay to bay, he immerses himself in everything the region has to offer. From romantic Tahiti, to the islands where time begins, to the place in which money grows on trees – each and every corner exudes irresistible charm that Andrew finds impossible to resist. The breathtaking beauty that surrounds him, the fascinating cultures he encounters, and the wonderful people he meets make his adventure a truly unforgettable experience.

Review

I have never seen a more beautiful book. And by ‘beautiful’ I mean ‘aesthetically pleasing’. ‘Reach for Paradise’ simply delights. From the moment you lay eyes on the cover, you are completely mesmerized by the stunning design. Andrew Rayner’s words are embellished with photographs, exquisite colourful illustrations, and maps created by his wife, Robin, who herself is an enormously talented person. Her paintings – which you’d want to see framed and hanging on a wall in your house – wonderfully convey the magical allure of the islands, helping you imagine their tropical scenery. Each and every page of this publication is a celebration of art, literature, and – of course – the great Pacific.

Just as the book is beautiful, it is also difficult to categorize. You may now start wondering what genre it belongs to. I made an attempt to solve this mystery. With no success. It’s not entirely a travelogue, nor is it a personal memoir. It’s a mix of both, and more. The author’s reminiscences and anecdotes are combined with insightful, often anthropological observations that offer you a rare glimpse into the folkways of indigenous societies. It can be noticed that Andrew Rayner went to extraordinary lengths to keep his representation of the islands and their inhabitants accurate, faithful, and objective. He didn’t just travel through the Blue Continent, he studied it. He cared enough to explore its history and acquaint himself with the nuances of its cultures. Having analyzed numerous works devoted to the subjects, some of which make a guest appearance in the book, he wrote his account with a fullness of knowledge – dare I say – few men possess.

Now, if you think that is all you’re going to find in ‘Reach for Paradise’, you couldn’t be more mistaken. The volume is a well-researched guide – a mine of useful, valuable information that may come in handy for those who plan to set sail for the South Seas. By no means is this a cruising manual with tips and advices regarding nautical excursions. Nonetheless, it is definitely worth keeping onboard…as a source of great inspiration. Vivid and comprehensive descriptions that reveal Oceania’s hidden marvels will give you a good enough reason to go there. You don’t intend to travel? Well, after reading this book you’ll feel the overwhelming temptation to embark on your very own voyage to the isles of paradise.

Andrew Rayner created a beauty that is a sheer joy to hold in hands. His stories – brilliantly written and thoroughly absorbing – stir the imagination, igniting your inner wanderlust. This is travel literature at its best and, without the slightest doubt, one of the finest publications regarding the Pacific Islands. If this blue corner of our globe holds a special place in your heart, do not hesitate to buy this title. It is a must-have!

‘SAVAGE ISLAND: AN ACCOUNT OF A SOJOURN IN NIUE AND TONGA’ BY BASIL THOMSON

‘Savage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niue and Tonga’ is a memoir penned by Basil Thomson, a British colonial civil servant, who was sent to the Pacific countries in 1900 as a special envoy representing the United Kingdom.

SAVAGE ISLAND

Summary

After the death of King Tuitoga, the chiefs and rulers of Niue kindly ask Queen Victoria to place their island under the protection of the Crown. When the British officials finally discover the value of this South Pacific territory, sir Basil Thomson is dispatched to sign a treaty of cession and hoist the Royal Union flag.

The Savage Island quickly charms the foreign visitor. In between performing his formal duties, he strolls the streets of Alofi and acquaints himself with the wonders of ‘The Rock’. With every passing day, as he gets to know the place, he is more and more mesmerized by the friendly inhabitants and their fascinating culture.

When his sojourn in Niue comes to an end, Mr Thomson is transferred to Tonga in order to convince king Tupou II to accept British protectorate. During this short visit he absorbs the Tongan way of life, learning quite a bit about the mentality of the native Islanders.

Review

Not every day you get a chance to lay your hands on a book about the colonial administration in the Pacific. Firstly, because few of the men engaged in the politics during that period felt the need to describe the details of international relations. Secondly, because even fewer of them had the ability and skills to actually do it. Basil Thomson’s account may not be the most compelling piece of literature ever written, but it is definitely worth your attention.

This short publication is a pleasant mixture of the author’s reminiscences, insightful observations, and amusing anecdotes. Despite the fact that Thomson concentrates predominantly on the political situation of the two states, his memoir is quite an entertaining read. The reason for this lies in his proficiency in combining the weighty subjects with light-hearted stories. In one chapter you learn about the complexities of the protectorate system, in another you discover what the Tongan ideals of beauty are. The meticulous delineations of island life and scenery provide you with an insider’s look into the famous Pasifika ways of being. It should be noted, however, that Basil Thomson had grown up in a society far different from the ones he visited in the Blue Continent. Therefore, his comments are often subjective and may exude a mildly unfavourable undertone.

Now, the greatest virtue of this account is unquestionably the historical background. It is the story of the times, which proves to be a valuable lesson on the Pacific Islands’ colonial past. The author concisely explains how some of the territories voluntarily asked for the protection of one of the mighty empires to avoid being taken over by another country, while other nations enjoyed their independence and were reluctant to succumb to official annexation by any Western power. As a government representative, knowledgeable about the state of affairs, Thomson was an expert in his field. With this book he offers readers a look behind the proverbial curtain of the politics and diplomacy in the ‘era of involvement’. Trust me, you do want to take that glimpse.

All in all, I must say that this is an interesting literary work. Not especially riveting, not particularly impressive but attractive enough to recommend it. It’s a well-written chronicle of the important events in the Pacific history, penned by a man genuinely fond of the islands. Plus, this is one of the very few books regarding Niue, and as such it deserves due recognition.

‘1969: A YEAR IN TONGA. BOOK 2: VOLUNTEER: SURVIVE OR THRIVE?’ BY ROGER COWELL

‘1969: A Year in Tonga. Book 2: Volunteer: Survive or Thrive?’ is Roger Cowell’s second book. It resumes the story of his adventures in the Kingdom of Tonga, where he once served as a volunteer.

A YEAR IN TONGA 2

Summary

After being given only ten days to acclimatise, Roger begins his work as a teacher in a small primary school in the village of Houma. As he tries to share his knowledge with the children, he realizes that it’s not as simple as it initially appeared. So Roger learns…to teach, to understand the surrounding world, and to be an adult in a foreign culture. Despite his ups and downs, despite misunderstandings and the times of terrible loneliness, he gradually stops being a complete stranger and starts to fit into the close-knit community. He socializes with fellow volunteers, makes new friends, and creates a strong bond with his host family.

Review

This book is quite different from its predecessor. The first volume is a pleasure to read. The beginning of Roger Cowell’s great adventure (this is what you can call a one-year-long sojourn in another country; especially if you are only 18 years old when it happens) fascinates and enthrals to such a degree that you simply don’t want to put the book down. And you think it gets even more interesting as the story unfolds. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

To begin with, this volume – which can most kindly be described as mediocre – resembles a traditional journal. It is constructed from the author’s original diary entries and arranged chronologically, so in theory you are given a chance to ‘experience’ life in Tonga day by day and month by month. This would be absolutely wonderful if the narratives weren’t so…dull, brief, and sparse on details. Many of the ‘chapters’ end before they even start. Cowell’s cursoriness results in the stories being extremely sketchy. They appear to be only partially finished and therefore feel incomplete and undeveloped. What is more, quite a few of them recount the same – or almost the same – events and occurrences, thus making the memoir seem very repetitive and monotonous.

As for the Kingdom of Tonga, it is not an overly prominent subject. There are only few decent descriptions and virtually no information concerning the country’s culture, customs, or traditions. Of course, one does not have to write an anthropological analysis of an island society, nevertheless it would be nice to be able to ‘discover’ such faraway land and get to know it from a foreigner’s point of view. However, I shall say that Roger Cowell was a young man at the time of his service, so his lack of observational skills can be fully justified.

On a brighter note, the book doesn’t fail to deliver what a good historical memoir should. It gives you a unique glimpse of the past, bringing back memories and unraveling the secrets of an almost ancient world. This amazing journey is an adventure in itself. And, let me tell you, this is a journey oh-so worth setting out on.

As I don’t want to lie, I won’t say I recommend this book wholeheartedly. True, it serves as a literary time machine, and as such it provides a lot of enjoyment. But overall, it is disappointing. At least in my opinion. You may think otherwise. And this is why I’ll leave the judgement to you.

‘1969: A YEAR IN TONGA. BOOK 1: BECOMING A VOLUNTEER’ BY ROGER COWELL

‘1969: A Year in Tonga. Book 1: Becoming a Volunteer’ is Roger Cowell’s first book dedicated to his one-year-long stay in the Kingdom of Tonga, where he served as a volunteer in the late 1960s.

A YEAR IN TONGA 1

Summary

Interested in other countries and cultures, 17-year-old Roger decides to apply for selection as a school-leaver teacher with New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad. After getting through the interviews and completing the required training, he is prepared to leave his home and spend a year in a foreign land.

Equipped with basic instructions, one bag, and a cricket bat, Roger finally sets out on his adventure. He lands in Tonga, where he is introduced to his host family, and immediately begins the great journey of discovery. He gets to know the many wonders of the kingdom and the way of life of its inhabitants. But most of all, he gets ready to teach.

Review

This is a good book, pure and simple. Roger Cowell definitely knows how to interest readers and grab their attention from the very first sentence. His memoir lets you travel back in time – in a split second you leave the digital world behind and find yourself in the late 1960s, where cell phones are non-existent, immediate deliveries unavailable, and instant communication not yet invented. He managed to revive the old days and, I must say, he did it amazingly well.

Of course, the book is not just a chronicle of the past. It is also the most interesting, the most informative account of one volunteer’s life, which should definitely be read by everyone who considers applying for the service. The author outlines the whole process: from filling in forms and questionnaires to attending interviews and courses to leaving New Zealand and reaching his final destination. You may think such delineations make the story mundane and dull. Well, they don’t. The chapters containing the descriptions are actually quite absorbing; almost as much as the ones documenting Cowell’s arrival and first days in Tonga.

The South Pacific kingdom… I wish I could say the country plays a central role in the story. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. The memoir does provide some insights into the daily life on the islands, but it is more a general overview than a thorough portrayal. The author focuses on his personal experiences, so if he mentions Tonga, it is always in relation to his engagements. Can this be considered a fault? Absolutely not. Roger Cowell was 18 years old at the time of his service; an innocent, young man with a naive eye, lacking in worldly wisdom. And yet, despite the circumstances, he tried to make discoveries and draw conclusions. His cursory observations give you a vague idea of what it means to live in a ‘tropical paradise’; especially if you come from a distant land. Cowell – like most visitors and travellers – had to deal with a certain set of feelings widely known as culture shock. He describes it at great length, helping readers understand this obscure phenomenon.

The book may not be exceptional in terms of literary expression, but it is a really good read. It’s an extremely enthralling, quite thought-provoking account that not only entertains but also teaches and inspires. I am sure you will enjoy it.