Blessed to be a witness

Thursday, 22nd September

The odd epiphany

Lest anyone think I am blasé about the great privilege I have in being able to travel far and wide, let me tell you that, though occasionally the trials of day to day travel do irritate me, I do also have the odd epiphany about where I am and how lucky I am. Yesterday it went thus:

"Bloody hell, I'm on an outrigger off a Pacific island, chasing a humback whale."

Before that happened, however, in order to rent one of the island's ubiquitous motos, I had to take my motorcycle test. It's the law in Rarotonga that you can't drive without the appropriate qualification, so everyone has to get down to the police station - the national headquarters - either to get their home license converted, or to take a test if the license doesn't cover that class of vehicle. It's a money-making scam, I am sure: you pay $10 (New Zealand dollars, or Cook Islands - they're the same currency, though the Cook Islands coins have a much more interesting shape - the $2 coin is triangular) to get the license, and an extra $5.65 to take the motorcycle test. And you have to provide your own bike for the test, which you have to ride to the cop shop, unlicensed, so clearly they're not too worried about it all.

Unfortunately for the police, they did themselves out of the $5.65 by misreading my ancient and almost destroyed paper British driving license, and so issued me with a full motorcycle license over the counter. They took my picture and I returned twenty minutes later to pick up my official laminated license. I hope, for financial reasons rather than those of safety, that I can convert this into a full British license when I get back. I have my doubts, though: the test, which I later observed, comprised riding once around the block and, providing you didn't crash or fall off, you passed, so I suspect the license might not be recognised internationally.

Our hostel proved to be a very cosy and friendly place. There was an unspoken assumption between the half-dozen or so residents, almost all of whom are either British or Irish, that we'd hang out together. It was like a big, extended, happy family. Some of the guys from the hostel had approached me the day before to see if I'd like to come deep-sea fishing. (Note they didn't approach M - sexism at work? Perhaps, though she wasn't interested, so they were correct in their assumptions.) I agreed, and pictured a nice big speedboat with a cabin and bar on board, and a cheerful Polynesian crewman mixing drinks. When we arrived at the lagoon, there indeed was what I had pictured, moored next to a small open-top outrigger. Alas, it was the latter that the bluff Kiwi skipper hauled to shore, and we got on board and headed out to where the surf was pounding at the edge of the reef.

The boat bucked high as the skipper pointed at a very small passage in which the waves weren't breaking, and then we were out in the swell. The canoe was very like a Thai longtail in design, but the outrigger part of it really did provide a great deal of stability, something our buddies in Phi Phi could do with getting, given the precarious nature of their vessels. I suspect that, without the outrigger, Polynesian settlement of the entire Pacific would have been impossible.

The skipper baited up five lines with flying fish, and we began trolling. There doesn't appear to be much skill in actually catching the fish: you just sit there until a line starts going. Reeling them in is rather more skillful. However, this was entirely academic to us: we went round the entire island and didn't catch a damn thing. One reel went once, and when we pulled the bait in we found half of it had been eaten.

Towards the end of our sunny circumnavigation, during which we observed the green hills of the island from all sides, I suddenly saw a spout of water vapour in the distance. As I looked away, one of the other guys suddenly shouted "oh my God, a whale!" It was a humpback, and it had leaped out of the water in the horizon. We continued towards it for a while, and when I looked away it leaped again, but by this time, four hours since we'd departed, we had reached the entrance to the lagoon again and so made our way back through the gap in the surf and parked up, proudly displaying our catch (see picture). We did, however, tell everyone that we'd hooked a huge marlin, but were so moved by the creature's grace that we put it back - fishermen's tales and all that.

That night, after celebratory drinks, I was awoken with an intense burning pain on the back of my neck. I put my hand to the source of the agony, and something crawled onto my hand and started running around on it. I lurched into the bathroom and turned the light on and there was one of those hideous stinging centipedes that you get around the Asia-Pacific region. I first encountered one of these horrible things in 1992 on my first ever visit to Lamma Island. I saw one about ten centimetres long crawling down a path, and bent down to examine it. A complete stranger, a Chinese guy, came out of nowhere and all-but rugby tackled me to the ground away from it. "Very bad very bad, you hurt!" he said. When I recovered my composure I realised he'd done me a massive favour, as the little bastard reared its back end up and waved two conical stingers at me. This one in Raratonga was sharing my bed with me. I shook it into the toilet and flushed it down with disgust, then rubbed antihistamine on the sting. Gross.

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