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Report Fifteen from the Otter: Niue -- a Tiny, Coral Nation

Wednesday, October 20 --

Up early. The sky has low gray clouds and itís a mix of sun and spritz all day.

Inflate dinghy and rig the bridle that Misty has told me Iíll need when I go ashore.

At the pier there is a large pivoting crane that hauls dinghies out of the water. There is normally a surge by the pier and dinghies are lifted by their bridle and dropped onto a flat handcart, then wheeled out of the way on top of the pier.

Local fishermen and the diving boat operator bring their boats, some quite large, down to the dock on trailers and lift them into the water here. Itís the only place to launch on the entire island. There is no marina, no slips, no yachts of any kind. No year-round cruising boats on this 12-mile by 10-mile rock. The Niueans call it the "Rock of Polynesia."

The approaching hurricane season means soon all the cruising yachts will be gone from the 12 moorings in the bay and wonít return until April. A few weeks back the largest number of yachts at any time were in the roadstead, thirty-nine boats. The island was swamped with yachties. The Niueans still talk about it.

There is a group of children around the crane who help me lift my dinghy. I talk to two high school girls. They ask questions. I tell them about my watercolors. They tell me about Mark Cross (Mark pronounced with a decidedly Long Island accent, "Maahk"), an artist who lives on the island and sent a shipping container Ė one of the SeaLand trailer-truck type Ė filled with local art to an exhibition in Brisbane, Australia.

They tell me about other highlights of the island. They are open and very friendly. This is the friendliest island so far. I find that everyone waves, to each other and to strangers.

There is a steep slope from the wharf up to the main road and the Customs Office. The office is closed. The town of Alofi looks so small and sleepy I donít think it will be a problem for me to wander around before clearing in.

I find out itís a national holiday, part of a three-day celebration of 25 years of independence from New Zealand. The big events were over the last few days and today is a rest day.

The only place open is the Telecommunications center, where I place a call to Sandy and tell her Iíve arrived. I make my standard other two calls to Mom and Dad. Mom tells me that my stepfather had to go to his atlas to find Niue. He prides himself in his geographic knowledge, and heíd never heard of it.

The woman who takes my money behind the counter recognizes me as a new face on the island and asks if Iíve checked in with Customs. She also runs Niue Radio from here and remembers Otter from yesterday.

I tell her the Customs office is closed and she makes a round of calls trying to locate the Customs officer but fails. She then calls the hospital to see if the health inspector is there. (Iím told later that health papers are stamped at the customs/immigration office by the Customs officer. The health inspector only goes out to larger ships.)

The hospital attendant that takes the call doesnít quite know what to do since itís a holiday and most staff is off. So he sends Jo and Geetha, two intern doctors from New Zealand on six-week residency here, over to handle this. Ten minutes later they arrive from the hospital.

Jo is fair skinned with white blonde hair. Geetha is Indian with dark eyes and long black hair. And they want to inspect my boat.

Theyíve never done an inspection, but we go out to Otter in tiny Runcible Ė past Misty in Tamoure who gives me a look, and promises to tell Sandy. I tell her to take a picture or no one will believe her: me with two gorgeous women in their mid-twenties squeezed into little Runcible. Oh, and of course, theyíre "doctors."

I think they expected a much bigger yacht. They look below and less than 30 seconds later declare it clean and pest-free. We sit in the cockpit and talk for a while; they are not in a big hurry to return to the hospital, since thereís nothing to do there today and at least they are outside. Itís fun playing hooky and as we talk, they tell me about the dinner at Gabeís Restaurant on Wednesday nights.

They also tell me that since Niue has so few people and only a tiny tourist population, the few hotels and restaurants have their big dinner nights weekly on different nights so there are enough customers at each one. Wednesday night is Niuean Feast night at Gabe's. Friday is Fish and Chips Night at the Niue Hotel, and Saturday is barbeque night at the Matavai Hotel. All are fixed price buffets Ė all you can eat.

I make a reservation at Gabeís and at 6:00 p.m. I begin walking the 10 minutes south of town to the restaurant.

When I arrive, Gabe's place is hopping. There is a small French Navy ship in the harbor. Itís here as a goodwill gesture for the independence celebrations; New Zealand has not sent one. One large table is filled with young French sailors in their civvies. They are drinking a lot of wine and singing French songs and later, when the band kicks in, they are all up dancing to much applause.

A Niuean man at my table suggests that the French are looking for a new place to test their nuclear bombs and are checking Niue out.

The buffet contains more exotic food, vegetable, fish, and animal than Iíve ever seen and even small, tasting portions pile up into a mountain.

Most of the people in the crowd know each other, like a large family. The high school girls are there. Jo and Geetha are there. At my table are two young German schoolteachers who are spending a year travelling. There is a New Zealand man who married a Niuean woman. He runs a cut-rate tire business and imports propane gas.

There is also a Niuean man who lives in Auckland but has come back to the island for a few months to settle some land claims. He tells me that most property in Niue is still owned by Niuean families. But since over 15,000 Niueans are in New Zealand and the 1,800 person population of Niue continues to dwindle, some family land has been squatted by distant family members.

In order to retain ancestral claims, people have to return and hire surveyors and document their property. He will return to New Zealand when this is done. Even though heís been away for years, he still seems to know everyone.

Itís clearly a close community. By afternoon the word was already out on this small island of 1,800 people that I was the guy that Jo and Geetha inspected. They had told me that everyone knew their every move. They were right Ė a lot of people nudged me about it at Gabeís.

Behind me are the only other boat couple, Jeff and Raine from Gryphon.

The evening is lively, but by the time the French sailors decide to take the bandís mike and sing along through the loud speakers, I decide itís time to go.

Itís raining. I have a wet ride back to Otter.

Thursday, October 21 --

This morning I rent a scooter at Alofi rentals and spend the day driving around the island. The day is alternately very bright and sunny turning gray with short rain showers. Iíve brought my raincoat.

Impressions: Run down, lots of abandoned houses. I see no one, no people at all. No children. A single girl on a bicycle. Faded paint. Roadside graves, one with upturned fishing boots on sticks. Some tended, many concrete boxes, wearing down. Some decorated with bright plastic flowers in plastic bottles. The dead more apparent than the living.

The reefs come up to the edges of the coral cliffs, all beaches are tiny pockets of tan, yellow coarse sand between high walls. All access to beaches is down steep stairs cut into the rock. I see two women on the reef, with plastic buckets gathering crayfish.

The very occasional car. Half way around the island the road becomes packed dirt and gravel. I pass small villages populated by chickens. The villages have a central grass area and a church.

Near the churches are small roofs on four poles covering a large suspended wooden log with a groove in it. These are beaten to assemble the village for services and meetings.

In Liku, a village on the far side of the island, is a ghost community an entire area of 12 or 15 houses and school that has been abandoned. On the way out of the village I see one old woman weaving palm fronds on her front porch. Her eyes look but donít seem to see me.

Past Liku is a sign saying "sculpture." I drive off the road into a clearing in the jungley area and there at the back of this remote island are contemporary, found-art constructions -- delightful, playful, totemic wooden apparitions that feel connected to the ancient past and avante garde art at the same time.

Driving through long areas of scrub brush that reminds me of Marthaís Vineyard. A long stretch of new road starting and ending nowhere.

In one village is a bright powder-blue house in the sun with a deep mahogany feathered rooster on the front lawn Ė its comb bright red and green edge to the feathers. White snow flowers in the front yard garden.

Closing the circle toward Alofi is the town dump Ė afire with acrid smoke crossing the road. Pass the K-Mart, a small grocery/hardware store with a handmade sign. It says "Welcome to K-Mart, Russell L. Kors, Ltd." Itís closed, the small dirt parking lot empty.

Past the small one-story Niue Hospital. A sign at its entrance, a half sheet of plywood on sticks, is a hand-painted proclamation: "Niue is AIDS FreeÖso keep it that wayÖokay!"

Some of the small villages have plaques near the drums. On the plaques are the names of men who died fighting with New Zealand troops during the First World War. Echoes of thunder lifetimes and a half world away.

Friday, October 22 --

Theta Volantis slipped its mooring and left silently in the dark.

Before dawn I hear two fishermen speaking nearby.

Ashore I have a scone and tea at a small shop in the commercial center. Read the local newspaper and make watercolors of the bright grave flowers next to the Ekalesia. A woman named Noeline stops to talk. She does watercolors, too, and has designed this past yearís Niuean Christmas stamps.

She came from New Zealand over 30 years ago Ė she and her husband spent many hard years gathering food from the bush while they raised their children. Later at the Philatelic Bureau I buy some of her stamps. They are decorative, beautifully done floral arrangements.

Geetha and Jo walk by. Sit still and the whole island will pass by. Geetha and I talk, she seems to be an adept and offers to hypnotize me on Saturday.

By the hospital is a small beach where, from above, I attempt to watercolor. There are pools of glass-clear water under rock overhangs. Neon-blue fish swim in the pools. Drops of water from the rock overhang make perfect circles that widen into each other in the pool. The colors are so clear I canít start to imitate them on paper.

Earlier I asked who did the sculptures. Iím told Mark Cross, and that he has some paintings at the Matavai Hotel. I drive out there to see. His painting is totally different than I was led to expect from the rough sculpture. It is photo-realistic in brilliant color. One large double canvas on the entry wall is 6 feet high by 14 feet wide and has a Polynesian girl in each panel looking at the other.

Behind them are the dark coral cliffs and the endless blue horizon and the closer reefs. A perfect reflection of what Iíve seen Ė in the landscape and the people Ė and a lonely, haunting quality. Iím told later that Mark lost his 17-year-old daughter to cancer. These paintings are of her.

The manager of the hotel knows Mark and when I express an interest in meeting him, the manager calls him on the phone. Yes it will be okay to come by in a while. He lives back out in Liku. This time I take the paved Cross Island road that runs directly from Alofi to Liku. The road runs through the islandís primeval forest, which for long stretches covers the road so completely that shafts of slanting sunlight barely penetrate.

When I get to the village Iíve been told to "Ask anyone for Markís house." A girl and her mother on the street direct me.

Mark and his wife Ahi and their high school age daughter live in a modest house set back from the road. Mark has white curly hair and a very round cherubic face and is different than Iíd expected. Somehow Iíd seen a tall narrow dark stern figure with a distant air. Mark is its antithesis.

His studio reminds me of my friend Peterís in Newport. A bit run down, full of miscellaneous debris, in the center of which is a small landscape of Niue on an easel, glowing, colorful, perfectly ordered.

We talk of art. His shows in Auckland. His New Zealand/Irish roots. He tells me of other Niuean artists. He gives me two books by John Pule, The Shark that Ate the Sun, is one. Mark helped him with it.

John grew up in a poor section of Auckland. His parents were part of a wave that left Niue to find work. His book tells of the history of Niue and the life of Niueans trying to hold onto their culture and heritage in their new home.

Mark and I talk until well after dark. The ride home is long and cold (Iíve brought no jacket) and eerie in the long forest stretches. Not one car passes me on the way back to Alofi.

Saturday, October 23 --

Cool sleeping, needed two blankets. Water in the anchorage is clear. I can see patterns on the bottom, 80 feet below me. Divers come here because it has some of the clearest water in the world. Today is another holiday, nobodyís quite sure what, though.

Geetha and Joís house is two rows into the bush behind Customs. No one picnicking, no one in their yards. Geetha sits me in a large green chair and I tell her letís work on my creativity block, which I feel at times.

She has me mentally descend twenty steps, going deeper into myself. She seems very old. She asks me to visualize any conflicts that prevent creativity.

I see the kitchen table when I was a child Ė covered with construction paper and paste and crayons all needing to be cleared for dinner and Dadís arrival home from work. The house needed to be in order.

Iíve felt that creative urges are only allowed and can be followed when a certain level of order is established. Order in the form of financial and physical security, and all chores done. Creativity is seen as a leisure-time activity rather than life-forming and central.

It is quiet for a long time and I see the palm trees waving in the wind, through the picture window across the room. They are amazingly beautiful and free to dance as they wish in the afternoon sunlight beyond the peaceful floaty place Iíve found in this soft green chair.

Geetha walks me back up the steps. She predicts a happy creative time Ė surrounded by family when I return home. Sheís guided me well.

Customs is open for only two hours this afternoon. But the government-run liquor store next to Customs is open and the manager there will issue all exit papers. There is a line of yacht skippers who are all leaving Sunday or Monday. Everything is closed Sundays and Monday is yet another holiday. This one being Peniamina day in celebration of the founder of Christianity on Niue in 1846.

When Cook approached the island in 1774 he was greeted by warriors with red painted teeth shaking their spears. He named it Savage Island. The Niuean next to me at Gabeís feast had been at pains to explain this as a misinterpreted gesture by Cook and how unfortunate it was theyíd been tagged Savage Island.

This evening is the barbeque at the Matavai Hotel. Chris on Morvin has arranged for a van to pick up a group of yachties. A crowd of 15 yachties and 15 locals surrounds the hotel bar.

Then the buffet is spread and the barbeque grills lit. Over dinner the talk is again about the upcoming rugby match between England and South Africa. Morvin and Boozewater have gotten rooms at the hotel so they can watch the games, which donít come on cable locally until 2:00 a.m.

At our table are sailors from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and me, the lone American. Chris on Morvin, from England, says how nice it is to have so many "colonials" at the table.

Boozewater from New Zealand tells of how much money is still pumped into the fragile Niuean economy by New Zealand and how the island would collapse without it. Some Niueans at the table next to us overhear the conversation. I wonder how they feel about it.

In the anchorage, there is a bright, full moon tonight rising behind clouds floating over the dark island with starpoints in the soft wind, all like an illustration in a childrenís book.

Sunday, October 24 --

I wake from dreams of Mark Cross landscapes, haunting, lonely. The loneliness of those left behind.

At the church service, the singing is the best part. I sit toward the back and sketch. A young restless boy whoís been roaming the aisles sits next to me. I give him paper and pen and heís quiet for 15 minutes, drawing.

Later, as Iím making out postcards, Chris comes by. Heís really depressed. England lost to South Africa. Theyíre out of it now.

Itís a rainy afternoon. I call Sandy to let her know Iím leaving in the morning. We have a nice, but too short, talk.

I prepare the boat to leave.

 

 

End of Report Fifteen

 

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