November 2008

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Chickens on a hot tin roof

God it’s hot. Like 90 degrees. And probably 125 percent humidity. Or at least it feels that way. I’ve never had curly hair in my life. But I do today. Wet ringlets from the sweat that seems to ooze out of the top of my head.

But I shouldn’t complain. I don’t have it near as bad as the little 8- or 9-year-old boy sitting atop boxes and boxes of chickens on a truck parked beneath a coconut tree (I guess the driver of the truck doesn’t know about Niue’s Rule Six). Each box holds six whole chickens and there must be at least 40 boxes. I’m not sure if he’s sitting on the boxes to wave away the flies or to keep people from walking away with the chickens (on second thought, it can’t be to keep the flies off since there are too many of them and the kid seems totally oblivious to their presence).


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

Actually, it’s not the boxes of chickens sitting out in the fierce noon day sun (sans ice) that bothers me as much as the 50 or so dead pigs piled on a cart beside the chickens. Is it a good thing for dead porkers, blood caking their slit throats, to age in heat that would curdle a glass of milk in five minutes?


Sunbathing porkers

Sunbathing porkers

The chickens and pigs, along with bundles of taro and giant clumps of sweet finger bananas, are gifts for the villagers here to celebrate the hair-cutting ceremony for Marc Teliga. Traditionally, Niuean boys do not cut their hair until they become teenagers. Then there’s a big party, organized by all the sisters and mothers and aunties in the village, and everyone comes to watch some grandfatherly-figure chop off the boy’s locks. Just about everyone in the village is invited to the party and there’s punch and taro cooked five or six different ways (I like the taro casserole with rings of pineapple on top) and a couple of guys strumming guitars. As part of the deal, the guests bring envelopes stuffed with money and, depending on how much they give as well as their station in life on the island, they get to take home a pig (if they made a sizeable donation) or a chicken (not as much cash) or some bananas (if it was just a token amount).


Each ribbon-tied lock becomes a souvenir for hair-cutting ceremony

Each ribbon-tied lock becomes a souvenir for hair-cutting ceremony

According to Ida, it’s all part of the Niuean culture—a way to link families of the village together and also a way for the community to look after its own. So how much would I need to donate, I ask Ida, to take home a pig?

She shrugs. “Maybe one hundred dollars,” she says.

And for the bananas?

“Maybe twenty.”

So I slip a twenty in an envelope and give it to one of the family members. They smile, shake my hand with great enthusiasm, and then give me one of the warm chickens the boy has been sitting on all day.

“Oh, how absolutely lovely,” I say. And then Ida and I make our exit. When I drop her off back in Alofi, I hand her the sun-baked chicken.

“You don’t want it?” she says.

“Normally, yes,” I lie, “but tonight I’m going out to dinner with friends I’ve met at the Matavai. So you enjoy it.”

That night the Matavai has a barbecue on the deck. Barbecued ribs, roasted chicken, skewers of curried gizzards. For some reason a salad sounds really good to me. 

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A cyclone in the Garden of Eden

Despite being the most naturally beautiful island I’ve ever been on, there’s something achingly sad about Niue. You can’t help but sense it just driving around. There are all these recently abandoned houses. In every village. It’s like god sent a plague on the island one day and everyone just got up and left. Which in a way He did. 

Five years ago next month, a monstrous cyclone—Heta—hit  the island. Winds of over 180 mph peaked around 6 pm, bringing a storm surge 35 feet above sea level. The waves from the surge washed more than 200 yards inland, destroying everything in their path. There were less than 2,000 residents on the island the night Heta came ashore. A year later, there were maybe half that many still here. People just packed what little they had, boarded up the remains of their houses, and moved to New Zealand or another South Pacific island.

Shops and cafes closed; small businesses went belly up. Five years later, the detritus from the destruction is still visible everywhere you go, from the barren concrete pads where a little store once stood to the abandoned buildings that are slowly being swallowed up by the jungle.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing


Yesterday I drove around the island taking pictures of nothing but these abandoned buildings. I’d get out of my car and sit on the ruined porch of one house after another. Places where generations of Niueans were born, grew up, married, and died. Maybe it was just the wind but I’d swear I could hear the ghostly sounds of laughter, tears, and singing coming from these ruins.

Of course, not everyone left. Some stayed, though how they managed to make a living afterwards is a mystery to me. Others started new lives in New Zealand or Samoa, eventually drifting back home when they just couldn’t stand being away any longer. Usually, they went back to the old family home, doing what they could to make it inhabitable again. But lots of their neighbors are still gone. And when you talk to those who’ve come back, like Ida Talagi, what you hear is how much they missed the Niuean way of life. And how they were willing to give up good careers in Auckland to come back to an island where making a dollar is not easy.

“But we’re not really business oriented,” Ida told me one evening while walking me around Alofi. “Money is kind of a new concept on Niue. Making it, spending it—that’s kind of foreign to us. For us, it’s all about the family. And our friends.”

To give me a better sense of what she was talking about, she invited me to join her tomorrow for a traditional hair-cutting ceremony in the village of Makefu. From the way she explained it, it sounds sort of like a bar mitzvah. But a Polynesian bar mitzvah. With lots of pork. I’m looking forward to it. 

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RULE NINE: Ugas have the right of way when crossing the road.

In order for this rule to make sense you have to know that an uga (pronounced unga) is an ugly, plum-colored, beady-eyed jungle beast also known as a coconut crab. Their main purpose on Niue seems to be in terrifying tourists by oh-so-slowly crossing the road in front of you while double-daring you to hurry them along. Which is why although there are no pedestrian crossing signs on the island (as well as no traffic lights) there are lots of “SLOW DOWN Uga Crossing” reminders.

Do you know why they are called coconut crabs? Because that’s what they like to eat. Now if you’ve ever messed with a raw coconut, you know that you generally need something like a sledge hammer to open one. But an uga can do it no problem with its beefly little claw (and I do mean beefy; they grow up to 8 pounds).


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

Think about it and you’ll realize why someone like me might be terrified to come across one of these nasty looking buggers (like this one I found crawling up a tree just outside my room) which are born in the sea but love to romp on cliffs and in the jungle looking for a delicious little coconut to snack on.

They say ugas love fingers, which they think resemble coconut meat already cracked and ready to be eaten. They also say that the only way to make an uga open his claw is to get a sharp stick and ram it in his bum. Fortunately, I’ve yet to have to test this theory.

And since we’re talking about coconuts (sort of), I have to tell you this: The name Niue translates as “Behold! The coconut!” I’m not even kidding. You could look it up. 

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Always read Rule Six

No doubt you’re wondering, Where exactly is Niue? If I told you that it was approximately 550 miles west of Rarotonga, would that help? I thought not. So let’s try this: Get out one of your many maps of the South Pacific and draw a line due east from Tonga and another line south from Samoa. Where they cross is Niue. Still, you probably won’t see anything on your map because Niue is only 104 square miles. In short, Niue is little more than a speck in the deep blue sea, an ocean pebble as it were.

In fact, the ring road that circumnavigates the island is only 30 miles long. You can drive completely around the island in about an hour. Yesterday afternoon I drove round the island twice. Just for the hell of it. There’s something slightly disconcerting about being able to go around an entire island is an hour. Particularly when you’re only driving slightly faster than most people can walk.

I picked up my rental car yesterday in Alofi, the only real town on the island. It took awhile because first I had to get a Niue Island drivers license. Sarah, who was running the rental office, walked me back to a little building in the back that also happens to be the office for the police. It costs NZ$10 to get a driver’s license. They don’t ask you any questions about the rules of the road or ask you to parallel park. Basically they just need the $10 to help pay for the police department. And in return you get this very cool full-color Niue Island driver’s license, which is probably the best souvenir on the island. (It’s interesting that while you need a Niue Island driver’s license to rent a car, you don’t need any insurance; in fact, they don’t have car insurance on Niue.)

After I got my driver’s license, Sarah gave me the keys to a little 2-door compact. She also gave me a slip of paper titled NIUE RULES.

RULE ONE: Always drive on the left hand side.

RULE TWO: Always signal at least 3 seconds before making a turn.

And so on. I didn’t read all the rules. Which was a mistake. Instead, I headed out of town and along the northwest coast to Avaiki where I’d heard there were some spectacular underwater caves. I pulled off the dirt road and parked my rental in the shade of a couple of coconut trees. When I got back from my hike down to the caves, there was a big honkin’ dent in the hood of my car from a fallen coconut. Shit.

That’s when I noticed RULE SIX on the rental sheet Sarah had given me: Never park your car under a coconut tree.

Oh well. At least my insurance rates on the island won’t be going up.  

Notice from Matavai management

There’s something decidedly Twilight Zone-ish about going to Niue. For one thing there’s only one commercial flight a week in and out of the island. For another, to get there you fly out of Auckland, New Zealand, at 10pm Friday night and, after a four-hour flight, arrive in Niue 20 hours earlier than when you left (which is to say at 2am Friday morning). Try and figure that one out.

Despite arriving in the middle of the night, half the island is hanging around the airport, which is really nothing more than a small wooden building with a corrugated roof. It seems that if Niueans aren’t here to pick a relative up, they’re there to send one off (the Air New Zealand flight doesn’t even cut their engines; in a scene straight out of Casa Blanca, they dump their passengers as quick as they can, load the plane up, and high-tail it out of there 40 minutes later). It also seems that a fair amount of islanders go to the airport on Friday night the way people in other cultures go to clubs or the cinema—as a form of entertainment. When I arrived, there were all these families and young kids running around, picnicking on fried chicken and throwing the Frisbee around with the dog, even though it was 2 in the morning.

A van picked me up and drove the 10 or 15 minutes to the only real hotel on the island, the Matavai Resort. At 2:30 in the morning, there wasn’t a single light on anywhere in the hotel. Instead, a very prim and proper Niuean, named Heme, was standing rod-straight behind the front desk, oddly illuminated by the yellow light of a half-dozen or so hurricane lamps. Heme, who spoke with an Indian accent, wore a frangipani flower behind his right ear.


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

“As you see, we have no electricity,” he said, smiling broadly, as if he’d just performed a successful magic trick for me. Then he handed me the following note, which he’d obviously carefully handwritten himself:

“Notice from the official Matavai management: The spare part hence needed to repair the burned-up generator has to be flown from the U.S. to N.Z. Getting it to Niue posses another set of problems particularly if the weekly flight out of Auckland just happens to be full, as it always is.

“The predicted result is that we are likely to continue to experience disruptions to the power for the coming week or month. That’s the bad news; the good news is that, with many thanks to the council government, we now know well in advance when the power will be cut and will provide you that information on a prompt basis so as to plan your stay accordingly. Thank you for your understanding!”

“Did the spare part come in on my flight?” I asked Heme. He smiled and shook his head.

“I see.”

“Maybe next week,” he said, cheerfully. I asked him how long they’d been waiting for the part and he said two or three months. Maybe longer.

It seems that the entire island is powered by two diesel generators. Or was until one of them mysteriously caught fire a few months ago. Now the only source of electricity is the surviving generator. So the island is divided into quarters and every section gets electricity for approximately six hours a day, determined by some sort of rotating basis that, as best I could figure, somewhat resembles the spin of a roulette wheel.

“Can you tell me when the power at Matavai will be back on?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I’m sure I have no idea,” he said. “Maybe at six. Maybe at noon. Yesterday we got no power at all.”

And with that, he handed me a hurricane lamp and told me my room was out through the garden and up the stairs and to be careful that I didn’t step on a sea snake or an uga.

I was too tired to ask what an uga was or why there might be sea snakes hanging around my bungalow. By now it was three in the morning and was a brisk 80 degrees with at least 80 percent humidity. My polo shirt was drenched and sticking to my skin. The idea of making my way upstairs in the dark to a black, airless room (there was, of course, also no air-conditioning)—one possibly already inhabited by sea snakes or ugas—seemed like a foul idea. Instead, I dragged my luggage through the garden, aware of the high-pitched hum of mosquitos, cicadas, and a host of other unseen insects, to a bruised oval, only slightly illuminated by moonlight, that I took to be the pool. I striped down to my boxers and eased myself over the edge. The water was only slightly cooler than the night air but nonetheless felt refreshing.

And so I spent the next several hours. Floating in a dark pool in the inky, hot night, watching the nighttime drama of small silhouetted animals—geckos? snakes? ugas?—chase each other up palm trees or into the dense vegetation, waiting for the sun to come up. When the first orange glow crept up out of the ocean, I got out of the pool, grabbed my luggage, and found my way to my room where I came across several geckos but no sea snakes. I slept like the dead until awakened by the startling rattle of my ancient air-conditioner coming to life. It was just noon. Evidently the power was back on. At least for a few hours.

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