Review: Rainbownesia - A Kaleidoscopic Arc Across Odd Oceania
Flight UA 154 connects Guam to Hawaii. It’s a six stop drop that spans the North West Pacific, and if you ever find yourself on that flight I’d suggest doing everything in your power to get a window seat: arrive early, slip money under the counter, push minors aside, whatever it takes to plant yourself next to a porthole.
Staring spellbound into the wide blue yonder is a wonderful way to pass any trip, but on UA 154 your gaze must be focussed: head tilted downwards, eyes squinting, because the expanse of ocean isn’t quite as empty as you’d imagine. From 30,000 feet high, thin ribbons of land arise like constellations, and just like stars across the firmament, the isolated atolls and reefs below evoke wonder. They stimulate Big Questions, such as, I wonder what the surf's like down there?
For most people, the question remains unanswered, and they’re happy to keep it that way, but US author Michael Kew has a particular bent for this part of the world. For over twenty years his travels have zeroed in on Micronesia, Melanesia, and the western parts of Polynesia, a region he’s collectively called Rainbownesia. It’s the name of his latest book, sub-titled: A Kaleidoscopic Arc Across Odd Oceania.
And odd it is, especially in the age of modern travel: drive for a day across Europe and it’s possible to pass five countries, but in Rainbownesia the only way it’s possible to drive for a day is in circles. Even a day’s sail from anywhere will find the traveller surrounded by water. It’s a region defined by ocean, where dots of terra firma are divided by vast distances.
In Rainbownesia, Kew visits eight islands spead across the odd arc, deep diving into places few people have heard of. Kew is a surfer of course, so I assumed this was a surf travel book and I prepped my dossier with glee, yet though he chronicles many surf sessions, they’re each understated, the surf of dubious quality (or so he says), the narrative focusing on the people and the places.
As an aside, I read Rainbownesia while visiting a Melanesian island, which I figured was a suitable context, but what I would’ve given to have internet connection and access to Google Earth! To trace Kew’s journey across each atoll, lagoon, and finger of reef. Unlike this review, there are no pictures in the book, just unmarked greyscale images that begin each chapter. They’re unsatisfactory renderings of the picturesque places Kew visits.
All the islands in Rainbownesia are inhabited by people whose ancestry can be traced to South East Asia. When the first great migration came out of Taiwan, spreading east across the Pacific, they became brilliant navigators by necessity. In various ways those lonely travels underpin much of modern life: the Satawal elder reviving celestial navigation despite GPS; the spiritless Tuvaluan youth who know of the exciting modern world beyond their impenetrable moat; the French colonist who has the choice of going home when island life gets too lonely; even the head of Tokelau’s tourism bureau who thinks “tourists are from outer space”, so rare are they on his distant atoll.
Kew is less an anthropologist than a keen-eyed real-time observer; a writer who renders island life, sometimes idyllic, sometimes confronting, in vignettes of saturated hue. When he calls upon history it’s always to highlight the islanders' modern predicament: distant, isolated, almost forgotten by the modern world. And always there’s the weather, the oppressive squeeze of tropical humidity, the relentless tradewinds, and the wild exposure to storms, plus the kaleidoscopic coral beneath the waves, all described in florid - sometimes overly so - language that approximates the colours below.
Kew also touches upon politics, on Tinian he visits the airstrip the Enola Gay launched from, next stop Hiroshima, the island now a military ghost town, while nearby Saipan buckles under the strain of recently moneyed Chinese tourists, a portent for other places that rely on tourism dollars.
One of the first things I did when I returned from Melanesia was fire up my laptop and log onto Google Earth. I needed to revisit all the places Kew had travelled to, to stare through the porthole, this time armed with a bit more knowledge. As the viewfinder darted about the North West Pacific, multiple islands and atolls passed underneath, places Kew hadn’t written about but which no doubt support people with their own tales to tell. Some of them may even have good waves.
And it made me wonder.