Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Niuatoputapu is a fascinating place - hard to describe in a few words. We are anchored in a somewhat protected bay off the 3rd village on the island - Falehar, I think it is called. There is a smaller village a km or 2 away and the main village of Hihifo is at the other end of the island, maybe 4 kms from here. A paved road runs between the villages, along which you may see an occasional car and truck (maybe one every 20 minutes or half an hour). Most people ride bikes or walk.

Each town is made up of small bungalows (most are small - 16 X 20 feet with two or three rooms), built or re-built after a major tsunami that swept down form Samoa in 2009. The Catholic church has built some houses and the World Bank is building others, including an entire village further inland and safe from tsunamis. Each house has a large plastic cistern, plumbed into the roof gutters and a separate outhouse with running water and a sink on the outside. Drinking water in our little town comes from a community well and is supposedly treated. I am not sure where sewage goes, but suspect it makes its way quickly into the sea. The town dump is a shallow hole in the sand near the wharf + numerous small dumps in the surrounding woods.

Hihifo is the metropolis with a couple of small stores, the customs and immigration, and a 'bank'. The bank is also a western union office, housed in a small prefab building on cinder blocks, with a low counter and two staff - no safes, wickets, or security. These buildings are located on the front lawn of the high school and share this field with a large graveyard, the graves of which are cheerfully decorated (with banners and plastic flowers) and consist of mounds of crushed coral. Hihifo also has a large cell-phone tower, powered by solar panels. Strangely, the health clinic is actually in our village at the other end of the island. The only other larger buildings are a couple of community halls and the churches - we have three in our village - about one for every 100 people.

There is no central electric power on the island and the internet has been down for 2 months or more. Power is provided at some buildings by solar panels and generators, but the place is pretty quiet and dark at night, so I suspect that gas is precious.

A supply ship arrives here every 2-4 weeks - one is due on Friday. Apparently the supply ship brings ice cream and because there are few fridges on the island, everyone greets the ship and has an ice cream feast. We plan to be on hand for this!

The villages are alive with animals - horses, pigs, dogs, hens, and roosters, along with their broods wander freely. Anyone with a garden surrounds it with barriers of old sheet roofing and barbed wire to keep out these wanderers. As you walk through a village, just about anywhere you turn you will see a sow with her piglets grazing on a lawn, or two or three horses on the verge at the roadside. In one yard we passed, a man was lying on the lawn, snoozing beside three equally relaxed dogs.

There are larger fenced plantations of taro, manioc, coconut palms, pandanus, and fruit trees in the hills and plains around the villages. At several houses, we have seen women preparing pandanus leaves to be woven into mats and a type of apron that is tied around the waste over a lava lava. In addition to agriculture, the main industry seems to be building. The world bank has set up a large construction site near our wharf and building materials are stored and prepared there before being transported to the new village site up the hill.

My first impression was that the animals that wander so freely appeared to have good lives, but perhaps this is an illusion. The horses are ridden occasionally (we have seen only one rider, using a heavy blanket for a saddle) but are also apparently used for food. Similarly, we have been told that the locals eat dog. No doubt the pigs and chickens share a similar fate. Our (admittedly brief) experience has been, though, that fish caught in the lagoon, coconuts, and taro are the main foods of the islanders. So perhaps the animals are reserved for special occasions.

The local people we have met so far include the immigration and customs officials, the nurses at the clinic, as well as a few families we have met while walking through the towns. The officials can speak good English, but most locals speak very little, even though English is taught in the schools. Still we are able to communicate at a superficial level and the people are very friendly.

I will stop now and write about some of our experiences here in another post.

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