The Polynesians occupy a huge triangle in the Pacific marked by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Most Polynesian islands are tiny (Tahiti and Fiji are the exceptions), and the inhabited area on each is even smaller. The people only live on the narrow periphery. No one lives in, or even goes into, the interior which is steeply rising volcanic rock, picturesque, but only from a distance. Up close, it is porous, crumbly rock inhabited by stinging and poisonous flora and fauna.
In the movie Cast Away, the island where the Tom Hanks character washes up, is an accurate model. Even he rarely ventured into the interior. Think, too, of the TV series Survivors. They always live on the beach, back near the brush, but never in the interior.
The typical Polynesian island has a dock opposite an opening in the surrounding coral reef that is naturally formed by fresh water flowing down the mountainside and out to sea. Coral cannot grow in water with a low salt content. An open, unpaved dirt area leads from the dock to adjoin the single road circumnavigating the island, hard up against the base of the central volcanic mountain. A few stores, a church and school are in this main area and nowhere else. If possible, the main road, the only road, will entirely circle the island. The people all live in the narrow band between the road and the sea.
The people look poor and trashy, but that is only their appearance. Their universal dress is shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, and flip-flops, typical of beach communities anywhere. Their area is trashy because until recently they wrapped their food in banana leaves that they threw on the ground when finished. Now, more items come wrapped in plastic that they still throw on the ground. They do not yet see plastic wrappers as an eyesore. Their attitude is if you, the tourist, do not like to see them, you pick them up.
And they are not poor. All have cable TV, and Internet access. Their outrigger canoes and kayaks are imported, of sleek gel-coated fiberglass, costing about $5,000 in Florida and maybe twice that for them.
Where do they get their money? They continue to benefit from the rivalries of the major world countries who simply want to maintain their presence in the vast area of the Pacific. Historically, it was the rivalry between France and Britain. Tahiti and its adjoining islands are French-speaking and dependent on France. France gives each resident $2,500 annually. “Need a bridge? A new school? Just ask and we’ll build it for you.”
Fiji is in the British sphere, closer to New Zealand and English-speaking. I expect they get the same benefits. Today, the rivalry is shifting to one between the US and China. China is eager to build anything they ask for. Hillary Clinton even made a recent trip to a Polynesian conference to warn them to beware of Chinese bearing gifts.
Many of the young Polynesians relocate to their own ethnic communities in countries all over the world for education and opportunities. They will then send money and goods back to their clan on the island. Older people will travel to these foreign communities for medical treatment. They stay in touch by Skype. Tonga is especially noted for this.
For the most part, the islanders prohibit foreigners from building hotels or restaurants. They have no desire to become our maids and waiters. They are friendly to we tourists who bring our own food and lodging and do not use up the island’s meager resources, but they have little interest in us. A few natives may condescend to set up a tent to sell souvenirs, but they sell whatever the tourist wants. A carved mask? A grass skirt? A coconut bra? These are not part of Polynesian culture, but if you think they are, they have plenty for sale.
So, who are the backward, unsophisticated ones in this world? Is it the Polynesians, living in paradise on someone else’s dime? I don’t think so.