A Pacific idyll where some go to escape, others to connect

by Christopher Johnson

Special To The Japan Times

A woman from western Japan, who calls herself “Amy,” couldn’t find paradise in Thailand, Cuba, Brazil or French Polynesia, so with the last of her $300 savings she bought a one-way ticket from Tahiti to Rarotonga. Then, claiming to be penniless, she walked from the airport to the police station and asked them to shelter her.

A jolly female officer, who had studied in Kyushu, gave Amy room on her floor, then sent her to stay with a doctor near the trailhead for Te Manga, the island’s volcanic peak known as “The Needle.” Then, still destitute and unable to afford the $4 bus fare, she hitchhiked around the island in sandals and a floral dress that accentuated her deep tan and Pacific beauty. When I met her on a sunny afternoon, she was carrying only an envelope containing her passport and a certificate from a “school of Thai massage” in Chiang Mai.

“I am the only Japanese tourist in the Cook Islands,” she boasted with an air of distinction equaling my own astonishment. She refuses to stay in even a $25-a-night dorm room — let alone a deluxe suite at $100 to $900 like most of the 100,000 annual tourists, mostly from Australia and New Zealand. Neither is she interested in Rarotonga’s turquoise lagoon, verdant jungles and dramatic peaks, which often draw comparisons between it and Bora Bora in the Society Islands of French Polynesia. “I am not here to be a tourist,” she proclaimed. “I am here to work and to live like a local person.”

“Can’t your friends or family send you some money?” I asked. “You are putting yourself in a vulnerable position like this.”

“Nobody will help me anymore,” she said. “No matter what happens, I am not going back to Japan.”

After buying food for her and taking her round the 32-km island ring road on the back of my small rented motorbike, I dropped her off at the police station. From there, in a flourish of South Pacific magic, uniformed officers took us out at around midnight for a “sightseeing cruise” in their brawny Japanese truck that they pulled over now and again to question some youth suspected of drink-driving or otherwise being up to no good. “I’m going to stay with the police. Thank you for helping me,” Amy declared before bidding goodbye in Thai, Spanish, Portuguese and Maori.

After that, I didn’t see her for several days, and my contacts among the island’s 200 Filipino contract laborers said they hadn’t seen her working anywhere — and besides, to do so legally she’d need a work permit or a job contract as all foreigners do.

So, after the police also said they had no idea where she was, I became concerned she may have become a target for thieves or kidnappers. That made me think of filing a missing persons report with Japanese authorities in Tokyo, as there is no consulate in Rarotonga. But then, as I was walking by the row of expensive restaurants on Muri Beach one day, I saw her with a wine glass in hand, drinking from an expensive-looking bottle of wine with a giant Maori guy made of muscles and tattoos. Restaurant staff later told me that he was “taking care of her at his place in the mountains.” After that, I didn’t see her again — or worry anymore.

While Amy might think she is far away from Japan as she tries to lose her national identity at the other end of the vast Pacific Ocean, reality is a bit different.

Japan, whether she likes it or not, most definitely does play a role in the Cook Islands. On Aitutaki atoll — 230 km and a world away from Rarotonga — I looked up from snorkeling in the lagoon and saw a Japanese film crew standing on a sandbar.

In a scene that bizarrely juxtaposed ancient and modern worlds of technology, they were using a camera on a remote-controlled mini-aircraft to make a documentary for a museum in Okinawa about the traditional oceangoing outrigger canoes known as vaka.

“Japan is a high-tech nation,” said a barefoot Maori boatman. “Expensive cameras.”

The Cook Islands government, and progressive managers of hotels such as my host at the Pacific Resort Aitutaki, are actively trying to attract Japanese, especially honeymooners, to the safety and comfort of this islands country.

Moreover, Japan is a key player in the Rarotonga leadership’s attempt to make the islands 100-percent reliant on green energy (mainly solar and wind) by 2020 — an ambitious paradigm shift for any nation.

Cook Islands government sources say Japan has committed $4 million to the project through the PEC (Pacific Environment Community) fund, and Japanese firms are expected to bid for the right to supply hardware such as solar panels to remote northern atolls blessed with plenty of sunshine.

“It’s important we practice what we preach, including addressing the harmful effects on our environment; it’s important we get on and do it, do something about it,” Prime Minister Henry Puna announced last year.

Ana Tiraa, the national director of climate change, says her country wants to set a shining example for others — including Japan. “Small islands are good laboratories for these programs. If a small country like the Cook Islands can do it, then you can do it,” she said in an interview with The Japan Times. “We want to spread the idea through tourists who come here.”

She said there’s urgency for change in the Cook Islands, which depends on expensive flights and slow or risky deliveries of diesel fuel by ship. “We call ourselves a small island state, but we’re actually a large ocean state. The ocean is 99.9 percent of our country. Everybody talks about land-locked nations, but we’re sea-locked. We have to create self-reliance and resilience for small islands and developing states in the face of climate change.”

Roger de Bray, who was appointed as the national energy commissioner in August 2012, said the leadership expects to have solar power, with storage, up and running by year’s end in four of the remote northern island groups, which can be three-hour, $1,000 flights from Rarotonga.

As a long-serving former chief of Top Energy, a utility in the North Island of New Zealand, De Bray knows it’s a big task to go from 3 percent usage of renewables on Rarotonga to 100 percent in seven years. But he points to new installations: a “thumping good” photovoltaic unit atop a supermarket; 25 kilowatts of panels on an education building and 10 kW of solar-power generation on the prime minister’s office roof.

“What we’re doing is pretty ambitious; it ain’t going to be dead easy,” he admitted. “We have to maintain grid supply and quality, and it takes a lot of managing. It’s not quite the instant cure for diesel generation — and storage is a big cost,” he said in a thick Kiwi accent.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds. But it’s a good thing to be doing, and good for the Cook Islands to promote it. When we look at it today, we think it’s a hugely expensive and difficult exercise. But technology will move in our favor; it will change as we go forward,” De Bray insisted with optimism.

He said the nation’s leadership is committed to the transformation, partly because of the high cost of imported diesel — which makes it about triple the price in New Zealand — but also because, “we want to stabilize the price of energy. We need to do that in order to stop the outflow of currency. The worldwide price of diesel is likely to only go one way.”

De Bray said the government has a list of about 25 Japanese suppliers to go through, thanks to an arrangement with PEC fund managers in Fiji. “It’s a great opportunity for Japanese companies. The PEC is meant to stimulate activity in the Japanese economy.”

He’ll also need cooperation from the state-owned utility TAU, which currently doesn’t have a renewable-energy division.

“We have to change that,” De Bray said. “We need to get to the point where the utility will invest in renewable energy in order for it to become a contributor to their business,” he explained.

“I believe it’s the best-run and most profitable utility in the Pacific. It’s a good solid foundation, and you don’t want to destroy the foundation because you are building some fancy building on top with arches and crowns on the roof. You’ve got to keep the base intact. Reliability of power supply is critical on an island dependent on tourism for 85 percent of its gross domestic product.”

He said the private sector, largely comprising hotels and households, is already leading the way, with solar-powered heaters atop roofs now providing hot water for showers and other domestic purposes — and cutting users’ power bills in the process.

Speaking of Japan, De Bray also said that Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s experience with the ongoing meltdowns at its Fukushima No.1 nuclear plant is “the worst nightmare” of any utility manager — and one that shows the importance of good leadership.

“It comes down to quality of directors and management. It doesn’t matter if the state or the private sector is owning the thing. If you have the right people, you’ll do the right things,” he pointed out in a distant word for any wise listeners in Japan.

Meanwhile Amy is hopefully still living happily “like a local person” with her Maori hunk — and troubling herself not unduly with issues of national identity or reactor crises far, far away.