Coconut Time in the South Seas

coconuts The international dateline generally follows 180 degrees longitude and creates a difference of 24 hours in time between the two sides. It swings east at Tuvalu to avoid slicing Fiji in two. This can be confusing, as Samoa, which chooses to observe the same day as neighboring Fiji, Tonga, and New Zealand, has the same clock time as American Samoa but is a day ahead! Everything in the Eastern Hemisphere west of the dateline is a day later, everything in the Western Hemisphere east of the line is a day earlier (or behind). Air travelers lose a day when they fly west across the dateline and gain it back when they return. Keep track of things by repeating to yourself, “If it’s Sunday in American Samoa, it’s Monday in Manila.”

The islanders operate on “coconut time”–the nut will fall when it is ripe. In the languid air of the South Seas punctuality takes on a new meaning. Appointments are approximate and the service relaxed. Even the seasons are fuzzy: sometimes wetter, sometimes drier, but almost always hot. Slow down to the island pace and get in step with where you are. You may not get as much done, but you’ll enjoy life more. Daylight hours in the tropics run 6 am to 6 pm with few seasonal variations.

Avoiding Sunburn

Sofitel Fiji Resort, Denarau Island, Fiji

Sofitel Fiji Resort, Denarau Island, Fiji

Though you may think a tan will make you look healthier and more attractive, it’s actually very damaging to the skin, which becomes dry, rigid, and prematurely old and wrinkled, especially on the face. Begin with short exposures to the sun, perhaps half an hour at a time, followed by an equal time in the shade. Drink plenty of liquids to keep your pores open and avoid the sun from 10 am to 3 pm, the most dangerous time. Clouds and beach umbrellas will not protect you fully. Wear a T-shirt while snorkeling to protect your back. Sunbathing is the main cause of cataracts to the eyes, so wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, and beware of reflected sunlight.

Use a sunscreen lotion containing PABA rather than oil, and don’t forget to apply it to your nose, lips, forehead, neck, hands, and feet. Sunscreens protect you from ultraviolet rays (a leading cause of cancer), while oils magnify the sun’s effect. A 15-factor sunscreen provides 93 percent protection (a more expensive 30-factor sunscreen is only slightly better at 97 percent protection). Apply the lotion before going to the beach to avoid being burned on the way, and reapply every couple of hours to replace sunscreen washed away by perspiration. Swimming also washes away your protection. After sunbathing take a tepid shower rather than a hot one, which would wash away your natural skin oils. Stay moist and use a vitamin E evening cream to preserve the youth of your skin. Calamine ointment soothes skin already burned, as does coconut oil. Pharmacists recommend Solarcaine to soothe burned skin. Rinsing off with a vinegar solution reduces peeling, and aspirin relieves some of the pain and irritation. Vitamin A and calcium counteract overdoses of vitamin D received from the sun. The fairer your skin, the more essential it is to take care.

As earth’s ozone layer is depleted due to the commercial use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other factors, the need to protect oneself from ultraviolet radiation is becoming more urgent as deaths from skin cancer are on the increase. Previously the cancers didn’t develop until age 50 or 60, but now much younger people are affected.

Garry Hawkins of London, England, sent me this comment: “Also worth pointing out: be careful with certain malaria prophylaxis (preventatives) and treatments with respect to exposure to sunshine (or UV light for that matter). Doxycycline is one of the more effective and one of the cheaper malaria prophylaxesavailable on the market. It is also an anti-biotic for other bodily fluid ailments. Unfortunately, in some individuals it has the unfortunate side effect of increasing ones light sensitivity – which can be er… a bit unfortunate in the tropics. Most of the South Pacific is malaria free, but medical advice should be sought before venturing into Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and certain parts of Vanuatu.”

Language in the South Pacific

South Pacific islanders at Lautoka, Fiji

South Pacific islanders at Lautoka, Fiji

Some 1,200 languages, a third of the world’s total, are spoken in the Pacific islands, though most have very few speakers. The Austronesian language family includes more than 900 distinct languages spoken in an area stretching from Madagascar to Easter Island. Of all the Oceanic languages, only the Papuan languages spoken in New Guinea and the Solomons do not belong to this group. In all some 720 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, 113 in Vanuatu, and 87 in the Solomon Islands (the 250 languages spoken by the Australian Aborigines are unrelated to these). Many islanders are trilingual, equally fluent in the national lingua franca (pidgin), a local tribal tongue (or two), and an international language (either English or French). English is the predominant language of business and government in all but the French colonies.

Pidgin developed in Fiji and Queensland during the labor trade of the late 19th century. Because many separate local languages might be spoken on a single Melanesian island, often in villages only a few kilometers apart, the need for a common language arose when it became possible for people to travel beyond tribal boundaries. The three Pacific pidgins are Tok Pisin (P.N.G.), Pijin (Solomon Islands), and Bislama (Vanuatu). Solomons’ Pidgin is the more Anglicized; the other two are surprisingly similar. Today pidgin is viewed as a pillar of a new Melanesian regional identity, although it’s not spoken in Fiji or New Caledonia.

Pacific Pidgin, although less sophisticated than West African or China Coast Pidgin, is quite ingenious within its scope. Its vocabulary is limited, however, and pronouns, adverbs, and prepositions are lacking, but it has a bona fide Melanesian syntax. A very roundabout speech method is used to express things: “mine” and “yours” are blong mifela and blong yufela, and “we” becomes yumi tufela. Frenchman is man wewi (oui-oui), meri is woman, while bulamakau (bull and cow) means beef or cattle. Pidgin’s internal logic is delightful.

Polynesian Temples and Gods

Marae Fare Miro, Maeva, Huahine, French Polynesia

Marae Fare Miro, Maeva, Huahine

The Eastern Polynesians (French Polynesia and Hawaii) were enthusiastic temple builders, evidenced today by widespread ruins. Known by the Polynesian names marae or me’ae, these platform and courtyard structures of coral and basalt blocks often had low surrounding walls and internal arrangements of upright wooden slabs. Once temples for religious cults, they were used for seating the gods and for presenting fruits and other foods to them at ritual feasts. Sometimes, but rarely, human sacrifices took place on the marae. Religion in Western Polynesia (Tonga and Samoa) was very low-key, with few priests or cult images. No temples have been found in Tonga and very few in Samoa.

The gods of Eastern Polynesia were represented in human form. There was an undercurrent of ancestor worship, but this was nowhere as strong as in Melanesia. The ancestors were more important as a source of descent for social ranking, and genealogies were carefully preserved. Surviving elements of the old religion are the still-widespread belief in spirits (aitu), the continuing use of traditional medicine, and the influence of myth. More than 150 years after conversion by early missionaries, most Polynesians maintain their early Christian piety and fervid devotion.

South Pacific Trade

chipped pine being processed for export at Lautoka, Fiji

chipped pine being processed for export at Lautoka, Fiji

Australia and New Zealand have huge trade surpluses with the Pacific islands and the trade deficits make these nations the main beneficiaries of the island economies. A shipping company, the Pacific Forum Line, was set up in 1977 by the Pacific Islands Forum to facilitate trade with Australia and New Zealand, but in practice, the Line’s large container ships run full northbound and empty southbound. In 2012 the Government of Samoa purchased the PFL to ensure the continuation of reliable and affordable shipping services. Investment and tourism help to offset the trade imbalances somewhat, but these also foster dependence.

The main products exported by the South Pacific countries are sugar (Fiji), seafood (American Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, and Solomon Islands), clothing and footwear (Fiji), minerals (Fiji, New Caledonia, and Solomon Islands), timber (Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu), and black pearls (the Cook Islands and French Polynesia). Japan purchases timber and fish from Solomon Islands and nickel ore from New Caledonia.

Agricultural products such as bananas, cacao, coconut oil, coffee, copra, palm oil, pineapples, sugar, taro, tea, and vanilla are subject to price fluctuations over which local governments have no control, plus low demand and strong competition from other developing country producers. Most of these commodities are processed and marketed outside the islands by transnationals. Even worse, efforts to increase the output of commodities reduces subsistence food production, leading to imports of processed food. Bodies such as the World Bank push for cash cropping and expanded trade in food, usually at the expense of self-sufficiency. New Zealand meat exporters routinely ship low-quality “Pacific cuts” of fatty, frozen mutton flaps unsalable on world markets to countries like Tonga and Samoa. American companies dump junk foods such as “turkey tails” in the islands, and tinned mystery meats arrive from afar. Processed foods saturated with sugar and fat are popular in the islands due to their convenience and low cost; imported rice is less expensive than taro. Diet-related diseases such as diabetes are the hidden cost.

The new order of colonialism in the Pacific is known as “globalization.” The World Bank and other international banks aggressively market “project loans” designed to facilitate the production of goods for sale on world markets. The initial beneficiaries of these projects are the contractors, while the ability of transnational corporations to exploit the region’s natural resources is enhanced. Subsistence food production is reduced and the recipient state is left with a debt burden it can only service through exports. Free trade forces Pacific countries to compete with low-wage producers in Asia and Latin America where human rights and the environment are often of scant concern.

Should commodity exports fail, the International Monetary Fund steps in with emergency loans to make sure the foreign banks don’t lose their money. Local governments are forced to accept “structural adjustment programs” dictated from Washington, and the well-paid Western bankers mandate that social spending be cut. Another favorite trick is to persuade governments to shift the tax burden from rich to poor by replacing income and company taxes with a value-added tax. Customs duties are removed and tottering administrations are forced to clearcut their rainforests or sell their soil to meet financial obligations. This kind of chicanery has caused untold misery in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, usually with the connivance of corrupt local officials.

A much fairer arrangement is the 20-year Cotonou Agreement (signed in 2000), previously known as the Lome Convention, which provides for the preferential entry into the EU at fixed prices of set quotas of agricultural commodities from 78 African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries. Many experts believe that trade subsidies of this kind are the most effective way of delivering aid to developing countries without the intervention of state bureaucracies. This type of arrangement is crucial to countries that rely on a single export for much of their foreign exchange. The United States has lobbied vigorously against subsidized trading agreements of this kind in favor of “free trade” to allow American corporations based in Latin America to export tropical commodities produced cheaply through the use of semislave labor to Europe.

The South Pacific Aid Game

Rarotonga courthouse built with Chinese aid.

Rarotonga courthouse built with Chinese aid.

South Pacific countries like Tonga, Samoa, and the Cook Islands have classic “MIRAB” economies, based on migration, remittances, aid, and bureaucracy. An overwhelming proportion of aid money is given by metropolitan powers to their colonies, past or present. France spends a billion dollars a year maintaining its three Pacific colonies, although much of the money returns to France to pay for French imports or services. Australia and New Zealand provide smaller amounts of aid to various Pacific islands. Most of U.S. aid is spent in American Samoa and the U.S.-related entities in Micronesia.

Other European countries such as Britain and Germany channel most of their aid through the European Union, which supplies soft loans, import quotas and subsidies, and technical assistance. Japan is one of the largest providers of bilateral aid to the independent countries. The Asian Development Bank, World Bank, and United Nations agencies are also significant players in the aid game.

Although the South Pacific absorbs the highest rate of per capita aid in the world, much of the money is wasted on doing things for people instead of helping them do things for themselves. Aid that empowers people by increasing their capacity to identify, understand, and resolve problems is the exception, while prestige projects like huge airports, sophisticated communications networks, and fancy government buildings, which foster dependence on outsiders, are the rule. Direct budgetary aid to countries like Papua New Guinea is often siphoned off by corrupt politicians.

Japanese aid is intended primarily to ensure easy access for its fishing fleet and to support Japanese business activities in the islands. Virtually all Japanese aid is “tied,” with most of the benefit going to Japanese companies. In contrast, Australia and New Zealand are to be commended for taking the trouble to develop low-profile micro projects to assist individual communities.

Aid spent in the capitals prompts unproductive migrations to the towns. There’s a growing imbalance between the cost of government in relation to locally generated revenues. Salaries for officials, consultants, and various other roving “experts” eat up much aid. The only Pacific country with a high per capita income that is not highly dependent on aid is Fiji.

How to Be a Good Traveler

Fiji handicrafts Foreign travel is an exceptional experience enjoyed by a privileged few. Too often, tourists try to transfer their lifestyles to tropical islands, thereby missing out on what is unique to the region. Travel can be a learning experience if approached openly and with a positive attitude, so read up on the local culture before you arrive and become aware of the social and environmental problems of the area. A wise traveler soon graduates from hearing and seeing to listening and observing. It’s not for nothing that we have two eyes and ears but only one mouth.

The path is primed with packaged pleasures, but pierce the bubble of tourism and you’ll encounter something far from the schedules and organized efficiency: a time to learn how other people live. Walk gently, for human qualities are as fragile and subject to abuse as the brilliant reefs. The South Pacific islanders are by nature soft-spoken and reserved. Often they won’t show open disapproval if their social codes are broken, but don’t underestimate them: They understand far more than you think. Consider that you’re only one of thousands of visitors to their country, so don’t expect to be treated better than anyone else. Respect is one of the most important things in island life and humility is also greatly appreciated.

Don’t try for a bargain if it means someone will be exploited. What enriches you may violate others. Don’t promise things you can’t or won’t deliver. Keep your time values to yourself; the Pacific islanders lead an unstressful lifestyle and assume that you are there to share it.

This is no tourist’s paradise, though, and local residents are not exhibits or paid performers. They have just as many problems as you, and if you see them as real people you’re less likely to be viewed as a stereotypical tourist. You may have come to escape civilization, but keep in mind that you’re just a guest.

Most important of all, try to see things their way. Take an interest in local customs, values, languages, challenges, and successes. If things work differently than they do back home, give thanks–that’s why you’ve come. Reflect on what you’ve experienced and you’ll return home with a better understanding of how much we all have in common, outwardly different as we may seem. Do that and your trip won’t have been wasted.