Monday, June 15, 2009
Life in the South Pacific
We spent the last five days on Rarotonga, the biggest of the fifteen Cook islands. But it is all of 5 miles across at its widest, and is out in the middle of a very large ocean. It is a classic Pacific Island, with volcanic peaks and lots of coconut palms and surrounded by coral reefs. Walking on the beach you get a clear sense that it is a little island in the middle of a very large ocean, with nothing else around it but salt water. You feel the sense of insularity very palpably there. The boundaries of terrestrial life are clearly marked, and it makes you aware of the limits of your existence. New Zealand is an island nation, but this place is really an island. Life is simple and slow, as far as we can tell. No one has to go fast because there is never far to go.
In a country of 14,000 residents and 70,000 tourists, the locals generally delight in playing upon the ignorance of the visitors— telling people things that may or may not be true, but which the newcomers generally believe, not having much basis for disputing the claims (big storm coming! you need a submarine to go see the sea turtles! drink the water! don't drink the water! good snorkeling just down the road! a woman died from stepping on a stone fish last week! and so on). It is easy to live here—plenty to eat just growing on the trees and swimming in the water, but not much money. Tourism and black pearls bring in some income, but most people seem to have very little in terms of material possessions. Houses are very simple, most people just ride motor scooters, people burn their trash in their yards and dogs and pigs roam most everywhere; there are lots of strange fruit trees—mangoes, star fruit, bread fruit, banana, other things that I don’t recognize at all. Taro and cassava and hibiscus, and bougainvillia. There are also lots and lots of churches, with a mix Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, and the “Bible Believers Church of the End Times” (just down the road from the island's gaol). The population has shrunk in the last twenty years, with most Cook Islanders now living in New Zealand and Australia.
There’s been lots of swimming and bicycling around the island, with the students going off to do their own things, including a few more getting tattoos. We met with some staff at the Cook Islands Parliament, and also with some biologists doing research on the biodiversity on the island and reef, learning more about the ecological issues here and the political dynamics of a quasi-independent island state. They are looking at doing some deep sea mining (of manganese nodules), but it seems fraught with lots of uncertainties and hopefully won't happen. They seem resigned to the fact of climate change, seeing it as something to which they will just have to adapt. I admire their stoicism, but also hope that the rest of the world can get its act together and minimize how much we’re changing the climate.