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'Ai Mavehe’: The story of a Peace Corps Volunteer's two-week trip to Niue in December 2001
'Ai Mavehe’: The story of a Peace Corps Volunteer's two-week trip to Niue in December 2001
‘Ai Mavehe’ - Niue
Niue is a tiny Polynesian island nation in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. When you think of Niue you think remote. It’s out there by itself without neighbors for hundreds of miles. Niue is its own sovereign country that owns a unique language and culture. Its autonomy, however, is a bit artificial with substantial subsidies from New Zealand. Niueans enjoy a dual citizenship and can hold a New Zealand passport upon request. Unfortunately, when direct flights to Auckland were initiated there was a mass exodus of Islanders seeking money and opportunity. There are estimated to be 17,000 Niueans now living in New Zealand, while only 1,800 people actually reside in Niue. Of those, only 1,500 are actually Niueans. The others include Tongans, Vanuatuans, Cook Islander Maoris, Kiwis, Australians, Europeans, and Americans (only three of these).
While it is sad that so few people remain in such a beautiful and interesting place, those people who are left have a reason to be there. They tend to have great pride in their cultural heritage and love their little country. Besides, Niuean life is not too rough when 1,800 people get to enjoy $6 million New Zealand assistance each year. Though this substantial aid may make the scene somewhat synthetic, it appears that Niue has discovered a healthy balance of modernization while retaining its traditional culture. Everyone has a good education (through a New Zealand education system) and speaks English just as fluent as their own language. At the same time traditional dance performances are frequent and most every Niuean child either goes through a elaborate and festive hair cutting (boys) or ear piercing (girls) ceremony.
Niue has good infrastructure in place and the country is primed to welcome the tourism industry. The problem is that getting to Niue is very inconvenient. The only scheduled airline that flies to Niue is Royal Tongan Airlines (RTA). RTA is notorious for being inconsistent whether the planes leave early, before the scheduled time, or do not leave at all. In addition, RTA only flies from Tonga to Niue. So if a couple from the States wanted to visit faraway Niue they would have to get themselves to Tonga, and then wait up to several days before reaching their intended destination. There are so few people on these flights that RTA is having trouble justifying its service. Already half a dozen airlines have came and left. If RTA ceases operations, then what? Whatever happens, it is likely that Niue will remain a secret. A great big and wonderful secret, that I was fortunate to discover.
I first heard of Niue when three Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) from my training group were sent there nearly two years ago. They immediately sent over excellent reports. Several months later I experienced an uncanny coincidence. I was visiting the Tongan island group of Vava’u when I ran into a couple that I had previously met in Antigua, Guatemala nine months earlier. They were a quarter of the way into their eight-year yacht world tour. During a dinner they invited me for on their luxurious floating home, I asked them what the highlight of their trip has been so far. They looked at each other and then at me with content grins and talked of a little place called Niue. Though they had cruised along the coast of Europe, seen the Caribbean, land-traveled in Central America, and been to the Galapagos, Easter Island and Tahiti, they told me that Niue was their favorite.
From the onset of my service in Tonga I wanted to see as much as I could of the surrounding region. Up to this December I had been fortune to visit Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, and most of Tonga itself. The majority of PCVs find respite at home at some point, but I have been lucky enough to have had nine visitors to this hemisphere including all of my immediate family, so I have spent my vacation days exploring the South Pacific. I finally found an opportunity in two weeks at the end of December 2001 to visit my remaining goal, Niue.
Pahulu and Fangufangu, my adopted Tongan parents, took me to the airport. While the concept of traveling to a place for less than three months and not seeing any family is difficult to comprehend for many Tongans, Pahulu and Fangufangu didn’t question it much since this is not the first time I’ve done something like this and I usually come back with an appeasing load of candy to distribute.
Amazingly the four-propped RTA airplane left on time. I was not surprised, however, when we landed unscheduled in Vava’u. Without informing the passengers the plane was rerouted to this northerly Tongan island group because Princess Pilolevu needed a lift home. She is after all part of the family that puts the “Royal” in the name of the airline.
From Vava’u, Niue was only a couple hours away. The scenery outside the window can hardly be described more than just “lots of blue” so I focused on the book I was currently absorbed in, South by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated Antarctic expedition concerning slightly different weather conditions than I would experience in Niue.
Wendy was waiting for me at Niue's tiny International airport. Of the three volunteers from our original training group that continued onto Niue, Wendy is the only remaining Peace Corps Volunteer in Niue. Tate eventually returned to Tonga to seek a more optimal working situation and Theresa was medically separated from the Peace Corps because she got some very rare tropical parasite. When Wendy's finishes her service in a couple of months the Peace Corps will "graduate" the country of Niue as resources for “grass-roots” development is justified greater elsewhere in more dire third-world countries. As a fellow PCV, I feel really lucky that I had an opportunity to have an immediate inside connection with Niue before it was too late. Wendy and her friends made excellent guides and offered numerous invitations to social functions that regular travelers would probably miss. So while I was the only tourist in Niue at the (how many people get to admit that about an entire country), I was treated like a guest, if not a temporary resident.
While Wendy may be the only PCV left on Niue, she is not lonely. She has a very healthy social life surrounded by great friends. At the airport, she immediately introduced me to her good friend, Des, who is her counterpart in the Fisheries Department. Des grew up in New Zealand, but moved to Niue five years ago to become better aquatinted with her ethnic heritage and improve her Niuean language skills. Des is very amicable and in my short time in Niue became a good friend to me as well.
The three of us drove to Avasele, the location of Wendy's domicile of the past two years. She lives in one half of what used to be a guesthouse. Theresa had lived in the other half of the duplex before she went back to the States, and that is where I checked in. While the setup, complete with two fans, a fridge, a microwave, a TV, a VCR, and plenty of furniture, is pretty plush for a Peace Corps Volunteer's abode, it is humbled by a cockroach infestation.
Wendy and I took a walking tour of her little village. There were many similarities to other Polynesian villages I have seen in Tonga and Samoa. People were outside manicuring their lawns and throwing us a big wave and a smile as we walk past. The most immediate difference I observed between Niue and other Polynesian lands was the general lack of people. We walked by numerous houses that are no longer occupied. All that remain are sad, ghostlike shells.
This evening Wendy and I went to the first Break-up Parties that we would attend within the duration of my visit. A “Break-up Party” is a concept that, as far as I know, is practiced only in New Zealand and its satellite countries. It celebrates the end of the year, essentially as a Holiday party, but instead of a Christmas theme, the focus is on eating and drinking. Every business, ministry, group, organization, or any entity whatsoever hosts a Break-up Party and most involve free food and alcohol. Not a bad tradition. Being honorary Peace Corps Volunteers, Wendy and I were invited to enjoy quite of few of these parties. Tonight at the Wash Away, the local/national Hash group congregated for their final gathering of 2001. Hash is a jogging group of mostly ex-pat palagis that get together every once in awhile and go to various parts of the island to go on runs. It was a fun evening, and as I hit the ground running here in Niue, I braced myself for two enjoyable weeks.
For the first week, Wendy would work during the day and I would lounge about Avasele completely in vacation-mode. I would read, sleep, watch movies, go swimming, cook, work on a 1000 piece puzzle, or go up the street to Avi’s 16 flavors New Zealand ice-cream store. In the evenings Wendy, Des, Wendy’s fun and beautiful neighbor, Mana, and I went to a few more Break-up Parties, a 21st birthday party, the dance-clubs (there are two), an “Island Night” fundraiser (for the Rugby team), and to the airport to meet an incoming charted Air New Zealand flight from Auckland (a huge event where basically the whole population of Niue shows up to welcome 200 fresh faces). During the Private Sector Break-up Party at the Golf and Sports Club I bumped into Sani Lakatangi, the proud and affable Prime Minister of Niue. During our chat he told me stories of hanging out with my Kolovai neighbor in Tonga, Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, Tong’s Prime Minister, and I complimented him on his country and told him I was enjoying it very much. In the process, I bagged me another head-of-state. I figure this is a healthy hobby to pursue.
When holiday vacation time began for Wendy and Des, we had the daytime to explore the island. Niue is nicknamed “The Rock” because it is one giant upraised coral structure (some say that largest in the world). It offers numerous caves, chasms, and other rock formations worthy of examination.
One destination was the Matapa Chasm. This is a beautiful swimming area known to be the place where the Niuean royal family (when they existed) would come to bath and relax. Occasionally, the water level would rise and fall slightly, but it was mostly calm as a series of boulders and limestone precipices would filter the tempestuous surf of the ocean. There are cliffs on either side that made for some good jumping. It was here at the Matapa Chasm that we ran into a group of eight Tongans living in Niue (there are some sixty total). This is the third country outside of Tonga that I’ve been able to speak Tongan to Tongans which I have encountered. They were pleasantly surprised as usual.
We did some snorkeling at the Lima Chasam. It was the greatest snorkeling I have ever experienced. It beat anything that I have seen in the Mediterranean (in the Grecian Islands), Hawaii, Baja California, Samoa, Tongatapu, Ha’apai, or Vava’u (my previous favorite). Everywhere I looked in the waters of Lima I was presented with a cornucopia of perfect coral structures with fantastic shapes and colors. The waters were teaming with the most amazing tropical fish you could imagine of manifold designs, shapes, patterns and brilliant colors. It’s no wonder that Wendy, who chose to devote here life to Marine Biology, is so content in Niue.
On Christmas Eve, the three of us ventured into the perilous and unforgettable Vaikona Caves. Joe was our guide. He and his wife (Kiwis) own the Coral Garden Resort (currently unoccupied). The Vaikona adventure was extraordinary with some breathtaking scenery and in some places required audacious, hair-raising maneuvers. We descended through one cavern that entailed scrambling over some large boulders and in one place using a preset rope. We then encountered a large open swimming hole that seemed right out of an Indiana Jones movie with verdant vines clinging from 30-foot walls spilling into the water. With the aid of snorkel masks and waterproof flashlights, our next move involved diving beneath the surface and through an underwater entrance that lead to a dark and imposing cave. It reminded me of Mariner’s cave in Vava’u, but Vaikona involved still, semi-fresh water without the effects of the swelling sea. We continued on through a series of caverns. A couple we entered by foot, and others by swimming. One had a ceiling so near the surface of the water that we were swimming in it caused our snorkels to scrape the rock. It was a strange sensation to have hardly any air above us but to be peering down through the water to what appeared to be an endless abyss. We made another harrowing dive through a submerged opening and finally reached the last cavern, but the excitement was not over. We had to do some protection-free rock-climbing before we could reach the surface again. Fortunately, there was little psychological obstacle because the bottom was eclipsed by darkness. But I knew what was there because we had just climbed up from it. If we were to slip on the place that offered hardly any holds we would have fallen some thirty feet through a narrow rock fissure surely hitting our heads on the way just to land in water that was endlessly deep. Chances of rescue: minimal. I could not imagine a group being taken through such a place without protection in any country that allows the pursuit of libel damage should there be an accident. By and by, we escaped the Vaikona caves and successfully pulled ourselves out of the earth’s interior. We thanked Joe profusely for taking us on such a thrilling adventure and somehow managing to get us all back in one piece.
With considerable less adrenaline expenditure but of equal value, there was Misa’s Nature Tour. Misa is a local man in his fifties who actually grew up in the bush with Niuean elders. He lived off the land without the luxuries of the civilized world, and that was the theme of his three-hour bush walk. Misa is about as native and traditional as you can get these days. Tramping over sharp limestone barefoot, he told us about all the different uses for each tree, bush, and animal we encountered. He showed us how to trap birds and unga (Niue’s famous coconut crab), how to make shelter, and how to start a fire. After watching him make smoke after only a couple of strokes using the right kind of wood I asked him if he had seen Cast Away. Misa said yes and that he had wished he could have been there to give Tom Hanks a few tips. The tour was very interesting and entertaining. Misa loves his country and is doing all he can to preserve its culture and traditional ways.
My most distinct memory of last year’s Christmas in Tonga was listening to 70s music on the radio (since no one came to work on the radio station that day, they just looped some random recording). This Christmas in Niue, however, was one for the books. On Christmas Eve Wendy and I went to a candlelit evening with a Nativity enactment and gift exchange in Avasele. I braced myself for a multi-houred service as I would in Tonga, but it turned out to be a very well organized and succinct event. Some words were said about baby Jesus, there were some Christmas Carols (in English), and there was a gift exchange among the children and youth. It was festive, meaningful, and very enjoyable. Back at Wendy’s we watched It’s a Wonderful Life and drank Baileys on ice.
On Christmas morning Wendy and I had a big breakfast and had a little gift exchange between the two of us. Sure enough, Santa even comes to distant Niue. Later in the day I was greatly surprised to discover that both Mana and Des had also gotten me gifts (beautiful local made place-mats from Des and a fun Aloha shirt from Mana).
After an hour long Church service, Wendy and I were invited to eat an umu (underground oven) feast with the local Minister, Matangi, and his family. I tried the unga, or coconut crab, (yum) and roasted peka, or fruit bat (not-so yum). We had an extended meal. Long after we finished eating, our conversation continued. Matangi, like just about everyone else in Niue, had been to New Zealand for some time. We were able to have an effective communication concerning a myriad of interesting topics, something that I am unable to do in my Tongan village of Kolovai for a number of reasons, including culture and language barriers.
Christmas evening, the real festivities began. It was Christmas and the people of Niue were in the mood to celebrate. I certainly did not want to impede in any way. In fact, I was willing to assist in whatever way I was called upon. Des, Mana, and a few others came over to get things started at Wendy’s. We then went to a couple of other parties before finally ending up at the Niue Hotel for a dance. The night ended when the next day began, and I don’t mean in term of time, but in terms of sunlight.
There is more to tell that solidified my holiday in Niue as a great and unforgettable experience, but I have shared enough for now. Maybe you can probe me for further information next time you see me and I will consider disclosing further details. Needless to say, I recommend it to anyone who can get there. But, be forewarned, once you are there it is very difficult to leave, and even if you do manage to extricate yourself from the relaxing yet exciting, the friendly yet solitary environment of Niue, you’ll always have a desire to return. That’s why it is common for people to exchange the phrase “Ai Mavehe” upon departing. It means “No Goodbyes.”
Paul W. Neville