Where We Say We Are
The World Atlas is open at p 122. A green and white cup, keeping
in coffee, is in the middle of the Pacific ocean and half over Australia
which has continentally drifted to exactly where it is.
Put your index finger- and thumb-tips together: there the
Pacific. The water hemisphere, a teardrop. Its bright and
Around the centre — is Tahiti. To its west groups of tiny islands
gleam white in the sunlight. To its south and east there’s not
a single island or reef. Hawaii stands out — solitary to the north,
on a line between Mexico and Hong Kong — while Russia, Canada and Alaska,
with their staunch names, are almost out of sight up and over the horizon.
Asia is hazy, squatting solidly in the far west, and its fragments,
scattered like a handful of odd-shaped rocks across the top
of Australia, are hard to piece together and understand.
I’m down here in our thin island nation, remote and cold. Australia
bulges towards us in a big and comfortable way and Chile (which
is a chile!) curves around nicely in the far east and turns up its tail.
Antarctica , far below, is huge and solid like a giant panda in
hibernation, holding everything together, holding the water in,
holding the peopled world in strange and savage dreams.
It’s the end of the day. It’s the end of the summer.
It’s an eerie hour at the end of the century and the tide,
having turned, is coming in again. Five small boys,
with no shirts on, are determined to stop it and their
industry — with spades and bags and armfuls of sand —
it’s swift, it’s thrilling.
In autumn, the leaf-covered earth is a bed.
A fall towards death is a fall
into the hands of children.
I’m on the highest mountain on earth, Mauna Kea, in Hawaii.
It rises sheer from the seabed to 31,000 feet. Under the ocean
the curved plates of the earth are cracking and grinding apart.
Way down there, on the abyssal plain, around the hot vents,
well below ‘the dark realm’, is the third kingdom of living things:
Archaea, the ancient ones, who can live without light.
What if the only bird left in the Pacific
is a mynah bird,
that cry the only cry?
The British have left Hong Kong and I’m travelling at 10,700
metres (the same height as Mauna Kea and the same height
from which NATO will bomb a bridge in Belgrade), at 903 km
per hour towards Fiji. Right around there’s a fringe of orange
light against sky-high blue, and a dark cloud below us over
the Pacific. Two fishermen from Kiribati have recently been adrift
in it for 150 days in a four-metre open boat. For two weeks there was
no rain. They caught a shark, ate its flesh, and wore its skin to
prevent their shoulders getting blistered in the sun. They drifted
350 days to the Marshall Islands and one said: ‘After a while I
forgot everything. There was only me and God.’
We’re two hours by boat from a grass air strip on an island with
no roads. The children walk to the nearest school and spend the
week there. They walk home for the weekends in small groups
to their village, in single file, on the narrow coastal tracks.
Here, there are big, lying-down Dilo trees on the shore —
hoarding shells, seeds, corals, leaves, sticks and stones in their
caverns and cracks. We have our own hammock which I’m swaying
in. A yellow basin, filled each day with fresh water to wash the
sand off our feet, on the left end of the tiny deck. Two white plastic
chairs. Our own small house for a week. A whiskery old man with
two bright blue shutters and a blue mouth. There are hosts of hermit
crabs around here — every shape and size — scuttling everywhere.
Like them we are playing house.
Kate and Cecile are here from New York. Cecile is Filipino
and swims with sharks. Mijako is a Japanese woman who
lives in Sydney. Betty and Bob are a tall English couple
from Nelson, in their late sixties, who love snorkelling. Greg,
from Beacontown, Oregon, is mad on birds. The Danish
family is great. Spikey, the Kadavu musk parrot, is more
colourful than the New Yorkers. Red underbelly, green
head, blue and green tail feathers and he has a better idea
of how time lifts and levels and lulls around here. He’s now
on Betty’s shoulder and Bob is feeding him raisins.
We are trapped on a crowded bus — the Sunbeam Suva
express — from Tavua to Vaieleka on the northern side
of Viti Levu. Sugar cane plantations. Neatly cared-for Indian
schools with white painted stones lining the playgrounds.
We are here for the scenery and everyone else is here for The
Terminator . Blasting out from a big television set up the front.
The patient young Indian father across the aisle is holding two
vomiting toddlers, a girl of three and a boy of two, and the little girl,
who has a fever, is leaning her head out into the aisle from time
to time to see the screen. The calm Fijian man in the seat
beside them is leaving the bus at Vaieleka with vomit down
the side of his trousers and a big bag of flour from the market.
NZ TV. A captive audience, and Gary McCormick on the ads
selling tomato sauce.
How can an island stay
in a rising sea?
We are in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and if Bill’s not back by midday
I’ll have a bia. There’s an ad for the local beer here by the pool.
Bia blong yumi hemi nambawan. I didn’t
get nambawan for ages but Bill did straight away.
I’m sitting here in the round house
trying to calm down and understand why here
at Port Resolution, one of the most beautiful places
I have ever been, I suddenly feel so sad.
It’s so good the Americans have gone.
Jim, the Professor of ants, constantly enthusiastic,
constantly needing attention, Steve and Bob, getting
their footage, tripod three feet from the edge of the crater,
chasing a hot lava rock which is now (cooled down)
in Steve’s luggage. All outperforming each other,
telling their feats, making their points. Needing to
grasp everything. To take and get and grab and show.
The local people seem poised, easy, quiet.
Elsewhere, sewage and heavy metals are billowing out into
the gulf, and the bay, and the channel, and the lagoon. Let’s hear it
for multilateral negotiation, the Convention on Ocean Dumping,
the Law of the Sea. Let’s hear the ocean pounding into the
caverns at Punakaiki. Let’s call each other by our first names:
drift-net, ozone-hole, oil-slick, DDT.
We are at Ronnie’s nakamal with Nettie, Nena and Anita.
Listen to their neat names like three pieces of fresh bread
in a club sandwich. Tasty fillings changing day to day.
The kava is khaki-coloured and thick in a glass bowl and
you have to be quick to drink it down and spit by the hibiscus.
The reward is to go and sit at a wooden table in the half dark
and let the kava cruise around doing its spruce work which,
as Nena says, is to let you down a cog or two you didn’t know
you had to slide and engage into. It’s the Friday night thing,
but a quicker and slower version at the same time. Ni-Vanuatu
civil servants letting lelebet loose from CRP (the Comprehensive
Reform Programme), Bill and I, visitors, and really keen to talk to
Nettie, Nena, and Anita who work at USP where the kids
from Central Primary are rehearsing Song of the Rainforest.
They’re ‘singing their hearts out’ to save the jungle in Brazil
while their government is lifting the ban on selling round logs
and why has the Malaysian ambassador slipped into town?
I’ve come for everything. The white frangipani, the infected
mosquito bite, the smell of local basil in the lei. I’ve come
for the kakerori. For Jill’s dislocated middle finger, and this
gorgeous tropical breeze. For the ant on the top of the page,
the clatter in the kitchen, the way surf leaps on the reef. I’ve
come for the goddess, Taua, who punishes, with a tumour
in the armpit, men who attack women in a brawl. I’ve come
for the drums, and the drumming, and the drumming of the
drums. I’ve come for the pig asleep in a ditch. For the two mynah
birds standing on its back. I’ve come for the red flipppers and
the yellow flippers. The lagoon darkening under cloud and a
couple swishing sand from matching towels. I’ve come for
the three words Tapu Tapu Tapu above the altar in Arutunga
and the flowers right round the wooden church, in Anchor milk
tins, on a ledge.
Most of all I’ve come for the man in the outrigger canoe, on the
utterly turquoise lagoon. He is coming in, in his purple tie-dyed
shirt, leaves and flowers around the brim of his hat. He is slashing
open a coconut on the seat of his canoe with a machete, and
drinking the milk. He is threading small fish, still flipping, onto
a string. He has an octopus too. He is singing. He is slashing
open another coconut with the knife, and with its tip, slipping
out the white flesh. With a smaller knife, he is slicing through a
green lemon, and he is scaling a small fish. He is squeezing
lemon over the fish and eating the fish with coconut from one third
of the shell, which is his bowl. Everything he does is unhurried and
adept. Strapping the small knife to his right calf, threading the
string of fish onto his spear and slashing open another coconut.
Lifting the canoe up the steep beach. Wringing out his socks.
Sloshing water out of the hull with his paddle. Everything he
does is unhurried and adept.
Am I romanticising this man? Is he simply hungry?
If ever a people are praising God it is now, one third of the way
through the service at the Cook Island Christian Church in Avarua.
The great chant is rising and falling, and rising again as if we live
in a millenium of glory. Tim is sitting next to the Prime Minister
who is wearing a big gold watch. The women in the front pews
are wearing a variety of white dresses — laced, scalloped,
embroidered — and a variety of white hats, one carrying two birds
clearly in flight. Up in the gallery a teenage girl is wearing
a black T-shirt with WICKED in red letters on the front. Several
christenings have been attended to. Communion with coconut
milk instead of wine. A long sermon in English about food
and sacrifice which Bill and I don’t understand. Upstairs, a little girl
is pushing through into the front of the gallery and is now standing
looking up, calmly, over a long time, without conclusion
into the face of the pakeha boy beside her.
From Oh there you are tui! (VUP, 2001)
© Dinah Hawken