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.
(In the battle between nature and machine, chalk one up for nature)

The water is wonderful, and the coral is beautiful in places, but there is also lots of dead coral, with problems with run-off from the developed land, and an infestation of coral-eating starfish a while back that wiped out lots of the coral. Of the seven major lagoons around the island, only two are still really still thriving. But we saw plenty of beautiful fish, eels, an eagle ray, a shark, a lion fish, Moorish idols, a giant trevally, and many more. It was encouraging to see that diversity. I really enjoyed just floating in this magical world, sometimes surrounded by schools of dozens of colorful fish who were content to just float there within a few feet of you.

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.

(Piri telling the story about traditional fire making in the Cook Islands)

The last day here we met up with a Rarotongan named Piri, who has a great smile, an infectious laugh, and a good dose of showmanship. He used to do performances as a palm tree climber, but has gotten a little old for that. He showed us the traditional way of making fire and preparing a umu oven in the sand. Everything he used was gathered locally, and we had no utensils or tools other than a machete and a kitchen knife to prepare and eat the whole meal. The coconut, banana, and taro plants were used for food, plates, utensils, cooking containers, and flavoring. We all helped with weaving up plates from coconut leaves, gathering the special kindling and materials for starting the fire, and chanted with him as he rubbed a hibiscus wood stick in a groove in a log until a little spark started. The spark was then carefully set in a basket of kindling and then swung around until it burst into flame. The flame was then carried to the fire pit, the fire started, more logs laid on top, then a pile of stones.
(Laying rocks on the fire)

After the fire died down to hot coals and the stones were piping hot, we laid segments of banana tree stalk on to cool the fire, and then put on the food. Chicken, squid, kumara, taro, banana, breadfruit, potato, all wrapped in leaves, covered in more leaves, and then sand, and left to cook for 3 hours. Meanwhile we swam, heard stories, wandered the beach, talked about traditional cultures and simple lifestyles, and watched the sun sink into the sea. The meal was amazingly simple, and completely free of anything processed, manufactured, or imported. And there was no trash left at the end--just the left over leaves and food scraps which got thrown in the fire pit. It seemed an entirely fitting way to end a trip about environmental politics and biodiversity—on an island in the middle of the ocean learning how to live with what we have, and learning that we really don’t need that much to be happy (at least when you're living in a tropical paradise with a guy who knows how to live off the land). I hope we can carry some of that sensibility back to our lives back on a mainland that is so full of people who seem to always want more.
(Gathered on the beach for dinner around sunset)

It’s been an incredibly rich month all in all, and we’ll be processing and thinking about it all for a long time. I feel that I have gotten to know this planet better, have a fuller sense of what there is on this earth besides what I've seen in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. It is an amazing place, with so much to see and experience. I’ve gotten to know a great group of students and colleagues, and learned some more about teaching. This all-encompassing travel education, although hard work, seemed to be a kind of teaching that I’m drawn to. Might just have to take another trip one of these days.

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