the further adventures of

Mike Pirnat

a leaf on the wind

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Hawaii Part Seven

This morning we arrive at Fanning Island, an atoll about 200 miles north of the equator. The skies are alternately cloudy and clear, but the hot sun beats down on us either way.

We go ashore by tender, which means that we jam ourselves into the aquatic equivalent of a clown car, and bounce along the waves into the lagoon, while the sound system cranks out bad disco remixes of songs like John Denver's, "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Liz grimaces as everyone else begins to sing along.

Natives greet us at the dock with song and music, and their voices are beautiful, though I feel a little weird about the whole arrangement. We have the obligatory group picture taken with our respective parents. Spread out before us are a marketplace of local goods, two beautiful beaches, a volleyball pit, table tennis, the beginnings of the barbeque, and a field with a flagpole. The flagpole is for the really bad criminals, the ones who ride their bicycles after dark without a light on. Every week when the Star comes to visit, an NCL employee has to convince the local tribal authorities to release the prisoners from the flagpole, so that our delicate tourist eyes are not disturbed by the practice.

The heat and humidity are pretty oppressive, so we buy a couple bottles of water and start wandering around. Liz tries out a hammock, which has the good graces to set her down on the ground gently before one tie slips and the whole thing collapses. Liz dusts herself off, and we decide to go for a stroll around the island.

The stroll quickly turns into a jungle adventure, as we wind our way along what is sometimes a path and sometimes sharp rocks, grasses, mud, sleeping pigs, or puddles of water. We fall in with a family from Louisiana, and chat with them while we navigate around various impediments. This means that we have very quickly left the safe, touristy, party zone, and are now walking somewhat uncomfortably through what amounts to the front and back yards of the islanders. The flies decide that we are interesting and might taste good. As Liz observes, we are in the bad part of Epcot.

The native culture, we have been told, is somewhat like the way the world was 300 or 400 years ago. It's starting to change very rapidly now that NCL is bringing a shipload of visitors every Wednesday, and the natives are at a unique and somewhat unsettling point of transition. We see a malnourished puppy tied to a tree. Small pigs, also tied at the ankle. Rusty bicycles, which the native people ride and abandon at their leisure. A crushed can of Fanta orange soda by the side of the path. Families in hovels that are little more than a thatch roof. A little boy, naked, crying. A laundry line, laden with drying T-shirts. A girl, smiling, swings on a hammock. A small child says, "Hi" and asks my name, then holds out his hand, eager for my American cash. The weight and filth of my privileged, wealthy life hit me hard.

Meanwhile, the palm trees sway gently, and the sun continues its relentless assault, and time passes slowly, in much the way it always, to this point, has.

Eventually we circle back to the main area that NCL has developed. The party at the beach seems to be in full, obnoxious swing. We do our best to ignore it. We spend a few minutes at the less crowded beach. We buy a couple of small trinkets at the marketplace, including a hand-carved outrigger labeled with "Republic of Kiribati - Fanning - 01 January 2003."

At this point, we have pretty much seen the island, and have no desire to join in the grotesque ballet of tourist excess at the beach, so we board a tender and return to the ship for lunch. After lunch, we discover that we made the right choice at the right time -- it is now raining, and raining a LOT. We wonder where our respective parents are, and how wet they are getting.

We navigate back to our room and watch yesterday's lecture on Fanning Island, which is rebroadcast on the shipboard TV. We pick up some interesting facts and tidbits:

  • The locals have no concept of ownership, something that strikes our Western minds as pretty alien.
  • The sunken, rusted out tugboat in the lagoon has quite an history: it served during the attack on Pearl Harbor, dragging crippled US ships into shallower waters, thereby keeping the channel open. It was later sold to the University of Hawaii, which used it to send researchers to Fanning Island. It was later given to one of the islanders, who forgot about it, and left it to sink in the lagoon.
  • The visits by the Star are pumping over $11,000 a week into the local economy. Tourism is booming.
  • The rise in tourism is actually sparking a renaissance in local culture. Before NCL started their weekly runs to Fanning, the most ambitious locals planned to leave as soon as possible and seek their fortune out in the world. Now that tourism is booming, the young people are returning to their roots, reviving their culture to share it with outsiders. All in exchange for money, of course.
  • The islanders have been introduced, at long last, to movies, though they are somewhat unclear on the concept. Their first movie was a DVD of Superman, a chap that they are all convinced is real and lives in New York. They later watched Gladiator, followed by L.A. Confidential, and got very confused about how Russell Crowe could look so good for his age, having obviously been around for close to 2000 years.

When the Star finally departs in the mid-afternoon, we are quiet and contemplative. About the islanders. About their simple way of life, and the changes they are experiencing. We wonder what tradeoffs they will make, what choices they will make, as they come crashing into the twenty-first century. What will become of this simple people as they come under the spell of the almighty American dollar? Will they turn the tourism to their advantage? Will they gradually improve their housing and medical care? Will their health be affected by the new foods and ways of life they are exposed to? When will they begin to desire electricity? Gasoline? What social problems will they encounter? Crime? Pollution? Will they continue to eke out a simple though somewhat backward existence in the rocks and grasses, or will they succeed, through begging, charming, and selling, in turning their tranquil island home into a little mirror of everywhere else?

Possibly the most disturbing thing to consider is this: we are the ones asking these questions. The locals aren't overly concerned. They are eager to join us in our modern ways.

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