30 Days in the South Pacific - Introduction

I watched the bearded, pot-bellied Frenchman in a black thong, so popular among the European set, amble across the white sand toward the surf. “The savage,” I thought, and wondered where his spear was. What is it about the South Pacific that turns Europeans and other Westerners inward toward a state of nature—myself included? Ever since Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others immortalized the simplicity of the native cultures of the region, Westerners have been coming to the South Pacific to become primitively whole. Perhaps it is the stress of living in the machine culture of Western civilization that makes all of us yearn for a simpler and more immediate life. Food, drink, the hospitality of islanders, an undercurrent of sensuality, and the hot sun all conspire to put one in a state of mind that could only be described as loose and open to change.

The Pacific, mother of all oceans, covers more than a third of the earth’s surface. It is estimated that there are some 30,000 islands scattered among the commonly designated regions of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Oceania is the term that covers the entire area geographically but nothing can really describe with adequacy the hold that the South Pacific has on the Western imagination. The literary torch ignited by Melville and Stevenson, carried on by Jack London, James Michener, and others attests to this eternal pull. James Michener’s imaginary paradise of Bali Ha’i, for example, in Tales of the South Pacific, might be thought of as a recasting of Shangri-La in an oceanic setting. Michener’s tale was so compelling that even though it was a fictional account, Bali Ha’i was claimed by many island groups as their own. Stevenson, in one of his last books, In the South Pacific, best captured these sentiments that the South Pacific evokes:

No part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor, and the task before me is to communicate to fireside travelers some sense of its seduction, and to describe the life, at sea and ashore, of many hundreds of thousands of persons, some of our own blood and language, all our contemporaries, and yet as remote in thought and habit as Rob Roy or Barbarossa, the Apostles or the Caesars.

Stevenson may have had little inkling that among these “thousands of persons” scattered across the South Pacific some 1,200 languages were once spoken, a full third of the world’s language repository. Unfortunately, many of these languages are no longer spoken or are in danger of dying out. The original Polynesian culture that spread 3,500 years ago throughout the so-called Polynesian Triangle that began, as some have claimed, in Samoa and spread to Hawai‘i in the north, Easter Island to the east, and New Zealand and the Solomons to the west, has been significantly affected for the past 250 years by Western civilization. There was, as poet Rupert Brooke noted, something magical about the original Polynesian culture that is a shadow of its former self, although it still lingers in places like Fiji, Yap, and Samoa:

You lie on a mat in the a cool Samoan hut, and look out on the white sand under high palms, and a gentle sea, and the black line of the reef a mile out, and moonlight over everything...and among it all are the loveliest people in the world, moving and dancing like gods and goddesses, very quietly and mysteriously, and utterly content. It is sheer beauty, so pure that it’s difficult to breathe it in.

Contrary to Brooke’s rapturous view, guidebook author and South Pacific expert David Stanley notes that: “the modern world is transforming the Pacific more and more. Outboards replace outriggers; Coca-Cola substitutes for coconuts and consumerism has caught on in the towns…. Television is still absent from many Pacific homes; instead attitudes are molded by the tens of thousands of VCRs that play pirated videotapes available at hundreds of corner stores. Villages are trapped by material desires…. The diet is changing as imported processed foods take the place of fiber-rich foods such as breadfruit, taro, and plantain.”

Nonetheless, one still sees in Fiji and Western Samoa examples of the “sheer beauty” that Brooke witnessed in Samoa. I had a taste of this in an unexpected way at the local airport in Savusavu, Fiji. I was approached by a crippled man selling necklaces. He was paralyzed from the waist down and walked slowly and courteously towards me, maintaining eye contact as he leaned heavily on his worn, aluminum walker. He entered my personal space with infinite care and self-awareness, and as things go in the South Pacific, he told me his story. Four years ago, he fell from a tree and broke his back, rendering his lower body useless. He had been, from all appearances, a once well-built man whom we might describe from the position of our own cultural perspective as being black. I could tell that his injury caused him much pain. His toes were bandaged and bleeding from being dragged along on the ground in sandals. Twice a day, taking both bus and taxicab, he would take the necklaces he purchased in town out to the local airport to sell to the tourists who arrived twice daily. He had a wife and three sons to support. There was no pleading with me, no whining or wheedling as he showed me his merchandise, just an infinite dignity in his manner.

I purchased two necklaces for my youngest children but the gift he gave me that day was far greater than any gift I have been given by mortal man. I encountered in him a remarkable faith in humanity under circumstances that would cause most of us despair. He was a god in disguise, and I tell you, if you see this man on your journeys give him what you can, for what he has to give you is beyond price.

The man selling necklaces was a Christian but it really didn’t matter what religion he was. He had what the old Polynesians called mana, or the power of the gods—perhaps akin to what we in the West call faith. The vast hospitality of Polynesian culture, likewise, has much to offer us, and what the West has to offer, in terms of technical expertise, is of clear value to the people of the South Pacific.

As tourism continues to develop, and new social structures evolve from the present clash of cultures, one can only hope that a bright future will emerge. Bear this in mind as you go about your journeys. Observe and tread lightly, but above all, be prepared for the South Pacific to beguile you and change you.

It was Robert Louis Stevenson, master of Vailima and craftsman of Treasure Island, who put the ultimate crown on all musings about the South Pacific when he wrote,

The schooner turned upon her heel, the anchor plunged. It was a small sound, a great event; my soul went down with these moorings whence no windlass may extract nor any diver fish it up; and I, and some part of my ship’s company, were from that hour the bond slaves of the isles...

Take this refreshment along with the Tahitian proverb that says, “the palm shall grow, the coral shall spread, but man shall cease.” Don’t depart this life without visiting the South Pacific.

—Sean O’Reilly
Baie de Kuto
Ile des Pins

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