19 April 2007

Paradise Lost and Found

Here on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, the “Paradise” word just comes naturally. The climate is tropical, with just enough light sprinkles to keep the lush plants green, and just enough hot sun to keep the tan dark. The level of tourists is low enough, and the pace of life slow enough, that the locals are happy to spend time chatting in a friendly and familiar way. The tourists too are congenial and friendly, gathering at random for lagoon cruises, “Island Night” drum and dance performances, or beachside fires.

I began in a beach hut at, you guessed it, Paradise Cove. Now I’m well set up in another little “garden cottage” down the endless white-sand beach, at Matriki’s, still a coconut’s throw from the mesmerizing aqua-and-turqoise lagoon. With nine days here, I have time on my hands to walk, bike, swim, snorkel, write, compose, read. Oddly enough, the last few things that have come my way to read here have presented me with quite the opposite picture to the paradise outside my window.

When I checked in here, my host, Riki, suggested a book in the travelers’ collection she keeps in a dresser drawer on the porch. Left to Tell is a harrowing account by Immaculee Ilibagiza of her survival of the Rwandan massacres of the nineties, by hiding for months with seven women in a closet-sized bathroom in a pastor’s house. With the soothing background of distant surf crashing past the silent lagoon, I was compelled to immerse myself in that other reality of madness and butchery, for two days and nights.

Of course I had heard about the situation in Rwanda by scattered reports, from afar, when they were happening - or more likely, after the fact. To begin with, I wasn’t plugged into the news back then, as I was immersed in another sort of paradise in backwoods British Columbia. And anyway the news coverage at the time was limited, as the West by and large turned a blind eye to the usual rumors of “bad stuff happening somewhere in Africa ... again.”

Once reading a firsthand account of such atrocities, though, they hit home. The people become more than just numbers (a million murdered). Considered “cockroaches” by their killers, and nameless “casualties” by the Western governments and media, the victims and survivors become intimately real and human in the narrative. The tragedy, word by word, becomes a part of who I am, a larger concept and feeling of shared humanity. Maybe it’s not really a matter of contrast to this ultra-peaceful scene I inhabit here - but more a matter of the peacefulness here being so full as to invite and include and gently absorb the reality of violence and hatred. Immaculee’s transformative forgiveness was possible in just such a way, as her confinement forced her into deep and peaceful communion with her God, full and deep enough to accept even the murder of her family and tribe.

Dragon of the Mangroves is another gruesome tale I was given to read while here, by a Japanese author who sent me the book as a .pdf file. Yasuyuki Kasai has researched and written with accurate detail the account of an evacuation by Japanese soldiers of a coastal area of Burma near the end of World War II. As if the constant threat of approaching British military forces was not enough of a nightmare for the weary stragglers of the Empire of the Sun, they had finally to escape to freedom across a crocodile-infested river.

Once again my land of pleasant living had to expand substantially to include visions of man-eating crocodiles, and to recognize the intimate humanity of the soldiers I was raised to think of as “the enemy.” The initial challenge to one’s preconceptions becomes an opportunity to embrace a reversed worldview, where in the new text “the enemy” is the Allies. This reversal is achieved by the clear and dispassionate writing of the Japanese writer in English, and also by the dramatic plot hinging on the more primal figure of the reptile as ancient enemy of humans, whatever nationality or empire they might belong to.

As if these two large doses of death and destruction were not enough to complement the otherwise overbearing sweetness of Aitutaki, I picked up a second book from the dresser drawer, John Grisham’s recent nonfiction title The Innocent Man. Again it’s an account of a murder, or more accurately, a murder trial representing a gross miscarriage of justice in Oklahoma. The spark of interest for me began with the victim of this legalistic crime, Ron Williamson, who was drafted as a major league baseball player before his life started winding downhill.

What Grisham’s book shares with the other two, in this idyllic setting, is that it too serves to overturn standard misconceptions and cultural blindness. Who are the good guys and the bad guys? Who are “they” and who are “we”? As the “we” expands to include the “they,” paradise becomes not lost but found.

As a final anecdote in this tale of tales, I recall the story I overheard the guide telling after lunch on the lagoon cruise, on Honeymoon Island. In the old days in the Cook Islands, tribal warfare was common. On one of these islands a warring group was intent on taking over. The plan was to kill all of the men, leaving only the women and children alive. It was at that point that the Christian missionaries arrived, convincing the warriors that we were one family as humans and should kill one another no longer.

On hearing this, my preconceived bias against the Christian missionaries lost its hold on me. I forgave them, even for leading the charge of civilization which has transformed the former South Pacific paradises into touristic marketing packages and nuclear testing grounds, full of congregations dutifully carrying out devotions from medieval Europe.

Maybe it was all worth it - the genocide, the war, the years lost in prison, the giving up of an old way of life - for the grace of forgiveness; for the widening sympathy of our humanity; for the liberation from bias and prejudice.

Paradise here has invited me to look beyond the marketing gimmick, the sunset postcard. The horizon is so empty that I begin to see dragons and demons as I look over the edge. These are not the kind that lurk there waiting for my arrival, however. The longer I peer at them, the more they begin to seem familiar. Are they a fleet of arriving war canoes, missionaries, kayak-paddling tourists? I’m not sure. Anyway, I will prepare coconut and papaya for them, and a fire on the beach ...

Cook Islands Photo Album