Saturday, 15 February 2014

Luxury Link 3

Other days we made the other crossing, to Vaitape town, to play with the vahine and tāne bronze statues and big pretty mille franc bills, and baguettes, and vanilla, and in the pink and white church with the red spindled steeple, or the other small white one with the imposing red cross against the green mountains and dark clouds above. We rented a voiture, and drove around the island, past large local ladies, other resorts, a car splattered with colorful fiberglass ice cream scoops, a Va'a outrigger festival, and a blue scene, bluer than the flow of life in Gauguin’s D'où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? Robyn, in a blue pareu with a big blue umbrella against the two blues above the beach, hovered far beyond the blue idol of his masterpiece. The air was heavy with vanilla.
Our last night at the Lagon filled the rest of the air with noble gases, but none were inert. The full moon provided silver photons. Guitars and ukuleles and shark skin drums and torches and hips and pelvises filled the rest of our eyes and eyes with ʻōteʻa dances, the men gesturing sailing and warfare, the women enacting more natural themes, combing their hair, or becoming butterflies. Which brought Robyn and I full circle around the moon to Gauguin’s question. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? And why were there no butterflies in paradise?
The least inert and most ignoble gas supplied the answer. It came in a fine spray from the compressor nozzle attached to the mobile tank rolling past our garden bungalow. I had thought there had been too few geckos. Luxury is a state of mind.
“Pour les insects.” Said the driver. “Pour les ravageurs.” The pests.
The problem with living in the lap of luxury is that you never know when luxury is going to stand up.

   “The first day one is a guest, the second a burden, and the third a pest.”
                                                                                        Jean de la Bruyere

Friday, 14 February 2014

Luxury Link 2

“Pas de problem, Monsieur.” Said the agent behind the counter. “Prenez votre vol.” No problem for him. He wasn’t about to pay first born limb amputation exorbitantly expensive prices for his intoxicants. The gap our puddle jumper crossed was less than 150 miles, and more than the sum of its colors and history. We were greeted in chirpy French by the big smiling Tahitian woman, with our names on her handheld placard.
“Je m’appelle Gloria.” She said, floating two white tiare gardenia leis over our heads. “Suivez-moi.”
An oversized van swallowed the three of us, for the brief ride to an enormous launch idling at the jetty, glistening white fiberglass and brass in the Tahitian sun. We entered an enclave of teak and white leather, alchemically woven with stainless steel bar sinks and air conditioning vents. The inboards didn’t grumble; for this kind of money, their only option was to purr. We passed a motu with two isosceles palms, and then there was the canvas of the French tricolor against the enchanted emerald peaks of Mount Otemanu behind the overwater bungalows and palm-thatched roofs of the main resort. Our launch glided past the dormant torches on the wooden boardwalks. Everything went silent, except for the breeze through the coconut fronds.
“Bienvenue au paradis.” Said Gloria. And so it seemed to be. Robyn and I were first shown to the spa where, in Euros or CFA, we could enjoy an unsurpassable period of Parisien-Polynesian paradisiacal pampering, whenever the impulse impelled us. The adjacent shop didn’t appear to be offering any sales on its selection of black pearl jewelry and French luxury goods. As the invités spéciaux who had finagled an astounding discount package for one of the already cheaper ‘Garden rooms,’ our introduction to the resort amenities was shorter than it otherwise might have been.
“Bon vacance.” Said Gloria, and left us at our bungalow. It was an authentic Tahitian fare by night, with an authentic Tahitian palm roof above, authentic Tahitian geckos on the walls inside, and authentic Tahitian mud crabs, under the greenery outside. But the authenticity of the amenities collided with the colonial. There was a great king-sized white bed strewn and festooned with giant red hibiscus flowers and white gardenia garlands, Indonesian teak excess, Japanese slippers, and square-rigged nautical double sinks and mirrors in our ensuite. A copy of Gauguin’s ‘Arearea’ Joyfulness (I think it was a copy) hung over the white expanse of mattress, one authentic Tahitian woman raising her eyebrow at what must have gone on in our room, and the dog in the painting’s foreground trying to remain inconspicuous enough to stay off the authentic Tahitian menu.
The menu in the resort restaurant was an embarrassment of riches, but we never dared ordered a la carte. There was always an overly sumptuous buffet, groaning boards of four distinct cuisines- French, Polynesian, Japanese, and dessert. Mountains of food were perfectly prepared and presented at every meal, for all the guests who, for most of our stay, were only Robyn and I. Even on the equator, the sun gives one time to dress for dinner (if the toilet is not a very elaborate one) while it is setting, and after it has set. Even Robyn’s sweet tooth could hardly make a dent in the patisserie on parade.
Most of the days were spent at the large teardrop pool, under white puffy clouds and whiter umbrellas, and the tall green coconut palms surrounded by clear tri-color blue waters and views of the enchanted emerald peaks of Mt. Otemanu. A four-masted schooner, the Polynesia, almost 250 feet long, a ghost on our horizon, like the Caleuche or the Flying Dutchman, magically stalked our Tahitian idyll through every island. Originally built as the last windjammer of the Portuguese Grand Banks fishing fleet in 1938, she had been originally christened Argus, and left Tahiti forever, the same year we did. Her streamlined white hull and sixteen white sails, including three triangular jibs, floating against the mountains and palms, turned our romantic into ridiculously romantic, an iconic canvas memory of slowed motion. We swam laps to keep up with her, and moved our parasols and paperbacks ahead of the sun’s parabola. Rascals in Paradise. Sometimes, I would sneak off in the afternoon over the Japanese garden suspension bridge, to the stranded gazebo in the middle of a pond of lily pads, and wrestle with the only French keyboard that offered access to the outside world, before deciding that it wasn’t worth the crossing. Utility is when you have one telephone, luxury is when you have two, opulence is when you have three - and paradise is when you have none.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Luxury Link 1

                                                 Luxury Link

  “Pain does not create a long-lasting memory, but the memory of luxury
   exerts itself for ever.”
                                                   Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania

The last white orchid dropped onto my office carpet. I was ready. Robyn had been all over the Southern Sea with me, but never here.
There had been many reasons. Tahiti was, above all else, expensive. I don’t mean costly; I mean first born limb amputation exorbitantly expensive.
Second, it was French. Robyn, as a true blue Kiwi, ever since the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbor, and her near starvation for calories and cordial communication on a Parisian tour, had considered all Gauls intolerably arrogant, hirsute, and ‘smelly.’
Third, Tahiti was a bit off the direct flight route from Vancouver Island, and required a diversion through Los Angeles, which, since the World Trade Center tragedy, had become apocalyptically paranoid.
But it was my intention to show her the other side and, during the global financial meltdown of 2008, Tahiti reappeared over our horizon with a random click on a website I would never have otherwise thought to visit.
I typed it into the search engine of Luxury Link. What appeared was astounding, and I began to tick off the boxes in my head. Bora Bora. Check. Right time. Check. Amazing reviews on travel websites. Check. Auction, with no minimum. Check. Enough time to bid strategically, but not too much to become discouraging. Check. Enter bid now. No. Wait.
Three days later, three minutes before the close of the auction, there had been fifteen lowball bids. Two minutes later there was at least one more. A minute after that, an email appeared in my inbox.
It began with ‘Congratulations,’ and ended with ‘Conditions.’ I read the conditions, and paid the amount shown. For less than a third of what would normally cost, in a contest with a tribe of other vacation vultures from around the world, I had won four days and nights of paradise at the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort & Spa, located on Motu Toopua, a small island in the middle of the Bora Bora Lagoon, and surrounded by clear tri-color blue waters and views of the enchanted emerald peaks of Mt. Otemanu.
It was still expensive, first born limb amputation exorbitantly expensive. But I thought I had it covered, until I told Robyn the good news.
“How much?” She asked, with what might have been misconstrued as incredulity, if you had watched the subsequent contractions. And then, she did what any other woman would have done, when faced with the reality of how much love her husband had brought to the table.
“Well.” She said. “I’ve never been to Tahiti.” And so it was.
There followed a car trip and a ferry and a bus and a sky train and two planes and, near the end of the ordeal, two old Tahitian garland heads playing the ukulele and guitar in Pape'ete’s Faa'a Airport. As we waited for the puddle jumper to Bora Bora, our two-liter bottle of Barcardi began to tumble like a shinbone in a space odyssey. Its touchdown turned every set of ears in the terminal, and their eyes formed a common pool of empathy with the one on the floor.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Fara Way 15

13 May 1999- ‘We, the members of the Rotuma Hospital Board of
 Visitors, are thankful for all the help and donations we received. May
 God bless you all. My thanks also go to Doctor Winkler and Robyn,
 who visited the island from Nanaimo, Canada, in December 1998 and
 our relatives over there. Many thanks for your kind donation of the
 defibrillator. We look forward to receiving it soon.’
                                   Archived News, Rotuma Community Bulletin Board

Postscript: They did get our defibrillator. But unfortunately, they didn’t realize that the power had already been transformed to accommodate Rotuman electricity. Smoke rose from the far end of the beach. It was allegory.
And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it fire.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Fara Way 14

 “They came off in a fleet of canoes, rested on their paddles, and gave
  the war whoop at stated periods. They were all armed with clubs,
  and meant to attack us, but the magnitude and novelty of such an
  object as a man of war, struck them with a mixture of wonder and
                                           George Hamilton, Pandora’s surgeon, 1791

We spent the last magical days on Rotuma with Julie and the family on the whitest and most peaceful Motusa beach, and the nights in a Fara way kind of narcosis. Robyn had her own pandanus mat by now, and her perpetual motion fan continued to perform its double duty, keeping her cool, and the flies off her face and the watermelon.
“It’s a curse and a blessing.” Said Julie. She saw my puzzled look.
“The isolation.” She said. “But even when the plane breaks down, and the boat doesn’t come, when the shops run out of basics, we still have this, and our love. Fia’ama.” So What.
So what if they lived to eat, and the insects and heat were as thick as each other. They had more than most of us.
“That’s why the ones that came and stayed, stayed.” She said. And she was right.
Our final evening, Julie’s daughters danced for us, in elegant red and white layered dresses, and combed Robyn’s hair, and anointed her with coconut oil, and initiated us both with lei. And then Robyn danced for us as well, and very well. We ate my favorite palusami, and cucumber and crayfish, and steaming octopus with tahroro fermented coconut sauce, and pork, and a variety of stodgy fekei coconut desserts that Robyn adores.
The next morning, before the plane left, we hid along the soft sand roads of Rotuma, secretly hoping that no one would find us in time to take us to the airport. But nothing is secret on Rotuma. The land has eyes. The islanders, passing with light footfalls and low voices in the sand of the road, lingered to observe us, unseen...
We found ourselves on the tarmac, walking toward the Britten-Norman Islander that brung us, and Robyn dissolved into tears. And Julie dissolved into tears. And it wasn’t that long before the pilot sliced up back up into the huge cloud he had that he had found a week earlier, over six hundred kilometers north of the rest of Fiji, sideways, like he was cutting a grey soufflé. It wasn’t that many kilometers Fara way from Julie, when our plane almost stalled. For a moment, my heart stopped, with no defibrillator on board. And then, like some noctural protective ghost from below, it cranked over.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Fara Way 13

  ‘There were no great advantages to be gained from the war by the
   winning side. The villages of the vanquished might be sacked, but they
   were seldom burnt; their plantations might be overrun, but there was
   little willful destruction. All pigs were, of course, regarded as legitimate
   spoil. The vanquished would perhaps promise to pay to the conquerors
   so many baskets of provisions or so many mats and canoes, a promise
   which was always faithfully and speedily performed, even though they
   might accompany the last part of the payment with a fresh declaration
   of war. The victorious side obtained no territorial aggrandisement, as it
   was to the common interest of all to maintain the integrity of the land,
   and the victors might on some future occasion be themselves in the
   position of the vanquished... Some of the large and high fuag ri house
   foundations were built by labour from defeated districts, suggesting
   the possibility of labour as a form of tribute... Nominally first-fruits
   were claimed by the victors from the chief of the vanquished, or
   perhaps the victors might depose the conquered chiefs, and put
   nominees in their places... Such a course had, however, relatively little
   permanence... There was not such thing as indiscriminate slaughter or
   debauchery of the women after a fight.’

In the Motusa War, Communion and Christian prayers took the place of chants. Late into the previous night, Father Joseph Trouillet had baptised recently converted Catholics, sanctifying them for the expected battle. The new dress code for warriors required black dress suits, frock coats, and starched, stiffly-ironed shirts, collars and ties, although the basketware head-gear, bravely trimmed with feathers and red cloth, like an Indian head-dress put on backwards, was still considered de rigeur. Spears, clubs and stones had been replaced with firearms. The battle was fought on the isthmus, and the Wesleyans won, with a final score of 12 to 2. The Treaty of Hamelin was signed, and relative peace prevailed, save for the odd French warship, mediating and fomenting dissent. When the anti-Catholic Reverend Thomas Moore made landfall in 1877, the situation took a turn, and when Riamkau stole a pig and was shot in the back, he died a Catholic martyr. The war of 1878 lasted over two months, resulting in a letter to the Governor of Fiji, requesting cession to Great Britain. They got their wish.
“We call it Rotuma Day.” Said Sani. “It brought us peace.” And Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, and Assembly of God on Rotuma members, and an unreasonable number and variety of their churches, spread all across the island she drove us around.
Thankfully, also, it brought them cold beer, which is where we ended up late afternoon, at Rocky Point.
For our final destination, before returning to Julie and the rest of our family in Motusa, Sani took us to her home in Nao’tau, to meet her husband. He was a big solid middle-aged Polynesian, with receding grey wavy hair, a big square jaw, and a nose so wide and flat, it made you wonder how it could be an instrument of respiration. He wore his lava-lava like he had been born in it.
“Gagaj Maraf Solomone.” He said, introducing himself. Which is about all he said. He was a man of few words. But he didn’t appear to need many. We knew her was married to a very regal presence. We knew that he was a direct descendent of Maraf. We knew that he was also a chief, not a sau anymore, as the office had been terminated in the 1860’s, but a chief nonetheless. We didn’t know that he was a member of the Fijian parliament, or how he would slurp his soup at dinner. We asked him questions about traditional and changing Rotuman society, and he always took a very long time, before answering in as few words as were necessary, to answer the question without giving anything else away.
In the old days, when a chief died, and the day came for laying his halaf foundation stone, each of the five districts had to bring a healthy pretty young girl to the ceremony. At the appointed time, they were struck once on the head with a stout club, for their deaths were required to be instantaneous. If one cried out, she would have been carried away and another girl from the same district would be sacrificed in her place. They were buried, one at each of the four corners in the cemetery, and one right in the centre, their bodies resembling the five stars of the ‘atarou Southern Cross constellation, where the spirit of the kings would go.
I asked him what would happen, if someone committed a serious crime.
“It is rare in Rotuma.” He said.
I pushed him for a response.
“He would make restitution to the community.” He said.
I asked him what would happen if his restitution had been inadequate.
“He would go fishing.” He said. Southern Cross power.
A man like this one, I thought, would have had that kind of foundation stone.

“The main island far exceeds in populousness and fertility all that we  
  have seen in this sea...the evidently superior fertility of the island,
  and the seeming cheerful and friendly disposition of the natives,
  makes this, in our opinion, the most eligible place for ships coming
  from the eastward, wanting refreshments, to touch at; and with
  regard to missionary views...there can hardly be a place where they
  settle with greater advantage, as there is food in abundance; and the
  island, lying remote from others, can never be engaged in wars...”
                                          William Wilson, missionary ship Duff, 1797

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Fara Way 12

“The missionaries came forth to Christianize the savages.” Sani said. “But it wasn’t as if the savages weren’t dangerous enough already.” She told us of the Great Malhaha War of 1845, when two sau chiefs, Riamku and Sani’s husband’s ancestor Maraf, from the same village of Noa'tau, each installed different saus of their choosing in our village of Motusa. The conflict killed all the young men on both sides with many villages entirely depopulated. Maraf thought he finally had the strategic advantage, when he acquired a cannon from one of the whalers but, at the battle that followed, after a few shots the falconet failed, and Riamkau’s men rallied, killing Maraf and a hundred of his men. He was buried with the faulty gun serving as his headstone, and a great number of pigs were paid in indemnity.
“A year later the Catholic Marist missionaries arrived.” She said.” There were already few Wesleyan missionaries from Tonga, landed by John Williams in 1839.” Gradually, the southern and south-eastern part of the island, and Riamkau, became converted to Catholicism, and the rest of the island, Maraf’s heirs, to Wesleyan dogma. When William Fletcher established his mission in 1865, he noted that his flock had chosen to adopt a more western appearance

   ‘The contrast between the skins and garments, stained with turmeric
    and the clean shirts and dresses, was too marked to be overlooked.
    The young men of the district appeared in a sort of uniform, clean
    white shirts, and clean cloth wrapped about them in place of trousers.
    The idea was their own: the effect was good... As I reached the houses
    of the heathen part of the village, the difference was very marked.
    Everything was dirty, Turmeric was on all sides... (It was hard) to tell
    a Papist from a professed heathen by his outward gait and  
    demeanour. There is the same unkempt head of long hair, the same
    daubing with turmeric; indeed, the same wild, and unpolished, and
    unwholesome appearance.’

Tumeric was the talcum powder of the traditional, of tolerance. But tolerance wasn’t on tap in the pulpits of the mission churches at the end of the 1860s.
The Wesleyans were complaining about the heretical Papist ‘scarlet whores’ impeding their civilizing progress, and ruining the commodity accounting balance sheet of converts per unit cost. They were making the world more like Britain, measurable as much in housing and clothing as in baptisms.
The Catholics, for their part, were preaching the narrative of martyrdom, in the values of ‘faith, baptism, confession, and communion,’ while living among their flock in ‘poverty, celibacy, and obedience.’
But differences between the two agendas were only foreground and background; what for one group was underlined, for the other was subtext, and for all their vows of poverty, the Catholics were definitely playing the money game.

    ‘At Rotumah I was struck by the ingenious method the Roman
     Catholic priests have adopted for paying the natives for their labour.
     They, the priests, are all poor men, having as a rule barely sufficient
     means to support themselves except in a native fashion, and
     consequently they have no money to expend in wages. They have
     therefore adopted a system of fines, which when enforced are usually
     found to exceed in amount the sum due for service. Absence from
     church is fined; smoking on Sunday, or even walking out, is against
     the law. Women are fined for not wearing bonnets when attending
     mass, kava drinking ensures a heavy penalty, and fishing on holy
     days is strictly forbidden. The chief source of revenue comes from
     absence from church, as service goes on two or three times a day,  
     and most probably just when the poor people are fishing or
     cultivating the ground.’
                                         Boddam-Whetham, JW, Pearls of the Pacific, 1876

Other influences stoked the fires and brimstones. European traders provided guns and ammunition, French ship captains drew up treaties and made threats, British colonial officials in Fiji hovered just beyond the horizon, and Rotuman chiefs became anxious to exercise their vested interests, kinship alliances and grievances.
“But when push finally came to shove,” Said Sani, “it was the Rotumans who did the fighting.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“The Motusa War of 1871.” She said.
“You mean our village?” I asked.
“The very same.” She said. “It was a strange mix of Rotuman custom and missionary innovation.”
Wars were conducted in a ceremonial, if not celebratory fashion, in a one-day encounter only, like a sporting event. Chiefs sent challenges announcing a particular time and place for combat. The day before the scheduled conflict, each side held a feast, featuring ki chants and war dances. Battles were conducted on flat stretches of beach, to preclude ambushes. Prior to engagement, each side danced menacingly and tauntingly, sang verses proclaiming their ferocity, and then chanted to solicit the support of their gods. Warriors dressed in their best clothing, to make any unanticipated funerary preparations easier. They tied up their hair in topknots and wore milomilo conical or suru crescent-shaped basket hats, decorated with tapa and feathers. Round their necks they wore charms, and their bodies were smeared with coconut oil mixed with turmeric. The main weapons were spears, clubs and stones, thrown both at distant and close quarters. The goal was to kill the leading chief of the other team. When this had been accomplished, the supporters of that chief would withdraw, and the fighting would end.