Thea Pijpers


The Natives Were Not Friendly

*Seldwyla is just everywhere. There are parallels in the small community of Rarotonga, capital island of the Cook Islands, where I have lived for the past 15 years. I am a Swiss expatriate and I love it here, but it has not always been easy. About three years ago I was featured in the two Cook Islands newspapers. It was an extremely hard time for me. What occurred three years ago I still find difficult to accept. I would therefore like to tell my story as it happened, as doing so may help me erase the unhappy memories which have been bothering me ever since.

Europeans on the island are referred to by the Polynesian population as Papa’as, meaning people with lighter skin than themselves, and expatriates sometimes encounter certain difficulties. I can understand this to some extent, as in the colonial past when these islands were administered by New Zealand, the locals were not always treated fairly or with due respect. They were not allowed to speak their own language (Cook Islands Maori) in schools. Children had to learn English and most, now adults, speak it quite fluently. Today, things have changed and Maori is spoken and taught in schools. Since 1965 the Cooks have been independent with their own parliament, but with special ties to New Zealand which still supplies the bulk of overseas aid to these islands. Nevertheless, a hint of racism in reverse sometimes rises to the surface here, a residue of the resentment felt for the sometimes harsh treatment meted out by the old ‘Pooh-Bah’ colonial administration.

May 5th 2008, a Monday, was a special day for me. My old friend Gisela, from Locarno, Switzerland, who visits me every year for a two months’ stay, arrived on the island. We enjoy each other’s company, which adds a new dimension to my normal life here. We take pleasure in the simple things this island has to offer, like swimming in the lagoon, delighting in the ocean. We savour our conversations and are happy to just sit in the sun, which shines more often than not, and relax together.

On this Monday we decided to visit the Whatever Bar & Grill, listen to the string band and have a delicious meal. The best hamburgers on the island are served at the Whatever Bar, which is not typical of the island, being more in the Caribbean style, but it commands a wonderful view of the ocean and has a convivial atmosphere.

We arrived early, perhaps too early, about 6.30pm. Here in Rarotonga, dinner is usually served early, as night falls quickly. It is also our habit not to eat lunch in the heat of the day, but to have an early meal in the evening. Therefore, on this occasion we were quite hungry. We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and offered one glass to Max, the manager. Quite a lot of people asked us to sit with them, but we politely declined, knowing that we might drink too much if we accepted their invitations. The meal was fine and we enjoyed the two glasses of wine. At about 8.15pm we decided to go home. It was already dark.

*Seldwyla is a community created by famous Swiss author Gottfried Keller (1819-1890) in his book The People of Seldwyla, which dealt with the vagaries of human behaviour in that particular society.

I am not a good driver at night. The traffic lights here are sparse or non-existent in places. I had a cataract in my right eye, therefore I drove slowly and carefully. Furthermore, I have a sports car which sits very low on the road and all the oncoming vehicles’ lights tended to blind me. Nevertheless, despite these hazards, Gisela and I arrived home safe and sound.

Once home, I donned a pareu (local sarong) and T- shirt and flipped off my shoes . Everybody enters a Polynesian house without shoes. I went into my kitchen to prepare a dessert – the Whatever Bar doesn’t offer desserts . Gisela went to my beachfront area to prepare the table.

About half an hour later, back in the house, the situation changed dramatically. Two local police officers appeared at my front door, a male and a female. They said that they had been informed that I had been driving dangerously under the influence of alcohol. The policewoman even accused me of
being unsteady on my feet. I asked them for their names, but they refused to divulge them. They ordered me to go with them to the police station. At first I thought it was a joke, but I gradually became impatient with them and said, in good Italian, basta adesso!, which means ‘that’s enough!’ Both of them thought I had called them bastards. The policeman then brutally seized my arm and wrists and proceeded to drag me to the police truck. I tried to resist but could not match his strength. I was still barefooted and wearing a T- shirt and pareu.

On arrival at the police station I was taken into a room and photographed like a criminal. The officer then produced a breathalyser machine and ordered me to breathe into it. I refused, as more than an hour had passed since the arrival of the police at my house. Had I been stopped on my way home, I would of course have taken a breath test on the spot. But since all this time had elapsed I simply refused.

The policeman again ordered me to follow him and when I asked him where he was going to take me, he said, ‘To prison.’ I thought I was hearing things; this was surely a mistake. But no, it was a reality. This was the prison that an Australian journalist once described as being the equivalent of the infamous ‘Black Hole of Calcutta.’ It was an apt description – I have no other name for it. I was thrust into this cell; behind me the key turned in the lock three times. Inside was a cot with a cushion, a sheet, but nothing else – not even the bucket we see in movies or we read about in detective stories. The light had been turned off. I was confined to darkness. There were iron bars. I didn’t know why I was; I only knew I was absolutely helpless and unable to do anything about it. I thought: this is not me, this must be someone else! This has not happened to me! But it was me. And it was hell!

During the night a cat came into my cell through the iron bars. She was pregnant, and she warmed me, which gave me a little comfort. But I was desperate and unable to sleep. At about 7.30am, after Nancy the warden had summoned the warden from the men’s quarters to help her get the rusty lock to turn, the door opened. I was allowed to go to the bathroom – if it could be called that! Inside was a toilet without a cover, a cold shower consisting of a tube in the wall. The whole room was open so that the inmates could be observed by the wardens. Nancy asked if I would like a cup of coffee and I thanked her for her kindness.

I had no change of clothing or shoes so was still in my pareu and barefooted. I asked if they could provide a toothbrush, but this request introduced an element of theatre into the proceedings. I was told that ‘this is not a hotel’. In the adjoining cell was a 32 year woman who was in prison for murdering her partner. She had been in for eight years so far. She screamed that I shouldn’t dare use her toothbrush. How could I have done such a thing!? Never in my life would I use a second-hand brush or one borrowed from somebody else. Completely absurd! Later, she apologised and tried to console me, hoping I would soon be off to face the court at 9 o’clock .

Gisela told me later what happened to her.

She was taken to the police station, ushered into another room and handed a report which she was asked to sign. Once again she asked for the names of the two arresting police officers but her request was declined. She was asked why she didn’t drive home from the Whatever Bar, since she was not intoxicated. She said we both had two glasses of wine but as she didn’t have a Cook Islands driver’s licence, which is obligatory here, she could not drive. (Every tourist arriving on this island must acquire a local licence if they wish to hire a car or scooter.)

When she arrived back home she went into action mode. She called a mutual friend and they tried to reach me by phone. But this was not allowed. They were not even permitted to make a phone call from the police station as the latter was apparently too busy to allow this request – or so they were told. Nobody told me anything. I had no rights whatsoever.

Much later, at about 10.30am, I had not heard anything, but my friends brought me basic items like a comb, creams, lipstick, shoes and a dress. Finally, I could change and try to resemble a normal human being once more, which was rather difficult under the circumstances.

At around 11.30am a police officer drove me to the courthouse. I had to confront a judge! I stood before him like a victim waiting for an execution. I had no right to speak. He suggested that I hire a lawyer. I could not reply, but was ordered to hand over my Swiss passport to the court officials. I was forbidden to enter a restaurant for a meal where liquor was served. I was even forbidden to enter any shop which sold alcohol. My ‘case’, which it had now become, was scheduled for the following week.

I was very angry and sad at the same time. I approached the Cook Islands News and told the editor the whole story. The next day, of course, there were headlines in the paper declaring that: ‘Woman of 72 jailed’!... It was a real nightmare.

Although I was convinced in my own mind that I did not need one, I hired a lawyer. He wanted an immediate deposit. Thereafter, his rate was to be $200 an hour!

In the meantime two witnesses appeared and stated that I was driving very dangerously. Now, it should be known that the roads of Rarotonga are liberally dotted with potholes. Furthermore, street
lights are sparse and emit poor illumination. The white middle line is frequently missing or if existent, is not white at all due to a lack of painting maintenance. Therefore one automatically tends to drive near the middle of the road to avoid the potholes which are mostly on the edges. But the two witnesses produced pictures of power poles which they photographed the day after the arrest.

I tried to contact the Swiss Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, but the Ambassador merely advised me to hire a lawyer because he was not familiar with laws of the Cook Islands.

At my next appearance in court the room was full of people, spectators who were all on my side. My lawyer asked if I had rallied all these people to come along to the hearing, but I denied having asked anybody. I had no idea that I had so many supporters. It was incredible. Even the local people came to my home with vegetables and fruit. This was very heart-warming and touching.

After about an hour of waiting, it was my turn to face the bench. But the hearing was postponed due to a conflict of interest, since the presiding justice of the peace was a personal friend of mine. But at least my passport was returned to me. The following week the same procedure took place. After about a two hour delay my lawyer informed me it was my turn. What a relief! But wait, you have to believe it – the court had mislaid my papers!

In between these impediments to the pursuit of justice there was much paperwork being done, lots of emails, phone calls and faxes being exchanged. My lawyer’s invoice kept increasing. For each fax I had to pay $10; for every new piece of information, $20. Another lawyer, a friend of mine, was collaborating with my official lawyer. Another from New Zealand also wanted to help resolve my problem which was becoming a cause celebre. He came to my house to convince me that there was no case to answer. Another court session was postponed. Disruptions to the hearings seemed to go on ad infinitum. I consulted a doctor who prescribed sleeping pills. I could not understand what was happening to me.

Eventually the commissioner of police called me in for a discussion. A conversation took place and apologies were offered in the presence of my lawyer and my other lawyer friend. The commissioner three times said he was sorry for the treatment I had received at the hands of his two officers, the trauma I had suffered during the prison experience, and the anxiety I’d been going through due to the constant aborting of the court hearings. However, he said that he was obligated to stand behind his staff. He then asked if my driving at night was as good as in the daytime. I had to be honest and admit that night driving was not as good as it could be, due to a cataract in my right eye. After this discussion the trio suggested we might reach a win-win solution if I pleaded guilty to careless, rather than dangerous, driving. But I felt that this was just not true.

I heard no more for some considerable time. Of course, I could sue the police, but considering the glacial pace that attends these matters the issue could carry on for years. Furthermore, I would be under surveillance all this time. But I love this island and I want to live here in peace, so I let the matter drop. The whole business had cost me $4,000 – for what? For nothing!

Two months had passed when I received a phone call from my lawyer friend. He advised that the commissioner wanted to offer me some monetary compensation and wondered if I would be happy with $1,000. I wasn’t sure that I understood rightly; I was confused and of course I accepted. My friend told me not to spend the money before I received it as this could take some time. However, surprise, surprise, the next day I discovered a cheque in the mail for $1,000!...

I just wonder now if justice has been done. And I keep on wondering...


1 2 3 4

Soon after my arrival in the Cook Islands, about 15 years ago, I decided to buy a car. At the time this was easier said than done as cars were scarce and only a limited number of makes and models were available. This has changed; today there is an excessive supply of vehicles. Many families now own two cars. But at the time the choice was restricted. For me, there was only one suitable vehicle available for me to buy. This was a Daihatsu Charade which had belonged to a government department. It was actually quite a cute white car. The number plate read 1 2 3 4, which I thought was rather original and funny.

I used to park my car on the left hand side of my house where there was then a grassy area alongside which is a little stream that flows into the lagoon. There were not many plants around my new house initially, and much work needed to be done to create a garden. I spent every day planting trees and flowering shrubs. It is not an easy task trying to establish vegetation when you are living on the beach with a salty prevailing breeze blowing off the shore. I introduced palm trees, pandanas, hibiscus etc. It was a lot of work, but really a labour of love which gave me great satisfaction. Every day I carefully observed the progress of these plants. Even on my sandy soil the shrubbery seemed to be flourishing.

As everything for me was new territory on “my” island, I did not worry too much about high tides and stormy weather. Of course I’d been told of the enormous power of nature, but I couldn’t actually imagine it in my mind. Well, the bad weather arrived, the heavens were angry and it rained steadily for three days and nights. I checked outside every hour. I was very anxious. The ground was saturated but seemed stable, until about 9am on the third morning when almost imperceptibly slowly, the ground under my car seemed to come alive and began sinking centimetre by centimetre into the stream which by now was a raging torrent. Naturally I too was experiencing that awful sinking feeling... It was quite spectacular. People from nearby arrived with ropes hoping to stop my car from becoming submerged, but their efforts were unsuccessful. My cute car kept sinking until it followed the boiling stream into the lagoon. For some time the numbers 1 2 3 4 were still visible. Eventually, a very clever man organized a crane and my car was hauled back on to high ground. But I was desolate. No more a cute car. The radio was gone and much more. I saw the radio floating away. The gods were not with me that day. The whole story could have been quite funny if it hadn’t been so serious, and you might have enjoyed a laugh if the car didn’t belong to you.

At the time of this drama, the Cook Islands Television crew were filming the event. Thereafter, the situation was highlighted by the fact that every time there was a disaster being aired on television, my clip with the number plate 1 2 3 4 would appear...

It was not humorous at the time, but when I look back it amuses me now.

All rights belong to its author. It was published on by demand of Thea Pijpers.
Published on on 10/11/2011.


The author

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