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Where Polynesian Breezes Blow

EXISTING in the tranquil reaches of the South Pacific, between Asia and the equator, three tiny dots go unnoticed on most maps under the caption of Tokelau. For ages they eluded our eyes, yet here it was at last, the place we'd been seeking ... the fabled isles of untouched Polynesia! Ten years we'd dreamed of visiting ``untouched Polynesia,'' having sought it in Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa. It was a timeless land where natives still paddled lagoons in hand-hewn outriggers, where food and drink were gathered from nature's grocery store, and where wahines with flowing black hair still swam to meet ships ... a land so forgotten it hadn't been written about in National Geographic!

Further research revealed Tokelau to consist of three separate atolls lying some 300 miles north of Western Samoa, and only from the famed Western Samoan port of Apia could it be reached. This is no accident. For years the Tokelauns had bickered over which of their islands should be the capital, but after a three-way split they chose a whole different country. The Tokelaun Office of Affairs is located in Apia today.

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Because more Tokelauns live in Samoa than Tokelau, they regularly charter a ship to return to their families about once a month. There are few voyages like it. ``Cruise'' might be construed a slight exaggeration and the term ``outside cabin'' takes on whole new meaning, but to travel deck passage on a copra freighter between singing natives, baskets of fruits, and caged pigs is an experience not to be missed.

Little islands are made to be seen from the deck of a boat, to be appreciated after a sojourn at sea. One sees them in their proper perspective; expectation is given sufficient time to develop into satisfying reality. To arrive on an island by other means is to be disillusioned. It's to forego the sights, the sounds, and the smells. It's to miss watching an island, like a green mirage, grow from between the blue neverlands of heaven and earth; to miss hearing the low rumble of surf on a faraway reef; to miss catching the first toasty scent of oily sweet copra, like baked macaroons on the sea breeze.

Tourism has not yet arrived in Tokelau. No hotels mar the white coral sands, no planes shatter the peace. In fact, no incentives for travel exist except to see a true South Seas atoll in the time-honored way. Admittedly, a night rain can put a damper on things, but even the hardships of a journey have their charms.

Days at sea pass by like dreams. They're life reduced to simplest terms and we take pleasure in the simplest things ... the sight of the ship's wake as thousands of bubbles fizz to the surface. The enchantment of warm sun and clear skies takes all, as bodies sway with the rhythm of slapping swells on the bow.

The atoll at Atafu rises to view, the home for one-third of the ship. From the sea it appears as a string of peridot beads, roughly ascribing a circle. An ivory barrier of coral connects each bead, adorning the aquamarine neck of the lagoon.

We're still an hour away and we find it impossible to contain our excitement for this destination back into time. Pacing along the rails we spot another Papalangi (European) who peers anxiously over the side. He catches our nods and says, ``It's good to come home.'' He continues his discourse, ``You know, they have electricity and VCR's there now. Best thing I did was leave mine back in New Zealand.'' We have a sinking feeling. ``Untouched'' may demand a new definition.

A half mile away the ship stops for the reef, and someone shouts out, ``The boats are coming!'' We strain our eyes for the outriggers where sunlight glints off the horizon. The canoes we had hoped for turn out to be aluminum launches with Mercury outboard motors. As they near, we can see four Tokelauns, looking about as untouched as we are. All but one wears a T-shirt. The one closest reads, ``J.C. Penney,'' the next spells out ``Hawaii,'' and a third ``Green Bay Packers.'' The lone bare-chested man wears a Walkman and seems oblivious to the world.

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The launch takes us through the shallow reef channel and for the first time we clearly see our ``untouched'' isle. About half the island homes are thatch and the others are built of gray cinder blocks. A crushed coral sidewalk winds through the village hedged in on both sides with street lamps. It's amazing that these islands are so far away from modern society that not even the contrail of a high-flying jet can be seen ... and yet, they're still so much a part.

That evening the ship sails again, this time for Nukunonu, stopping at the atoll of Fakaofo. The smallest but most crowded of the three, Fakaofo looks as if the village came first then a little bit of island was stuffed underneath.

As the sun rose on Nukunonu that morning we could tell we'd like it best. Palm leaves seemed greener with fruit more abundant, and thatched walls outnumbered brick. Nukunonu is the ``unofficial'' administrative center (as long as no one admits it), and for five days the ship docked offshore as the island hosted to a party.

It is during festivities that the old culture breaks through the new. Native men don their best lava-lavas, and fern and grass skirts grace the women. Word spreads that a dance would begin; women bedeck themselves with fragrant plumeria blossoms while young men grease tanned muscles with coconut oil.

The best dancers from each atoll challenge the others to a hip-swinging duel. First one group unleashes a frenzy of movements like swaying palm fronds, then the next group one-ups the score.

While the dancing takes place, chefs stoke an underground umu, permeating the air with the fragrance of pork and baked breadfruit ... a feast shared with all.

Each morning the women catch up on the news, sitting in open-sided fales weaving new fans and mats. Men carve wooden fish hooks and display their skill with spear guns and nets, or show off by husking coconuts with their teeth.

The last afternoon there are no sad faces. Tears of goodbye are reserved till the moment they sailed, their attitude being ``we haven't left till we're gone.''

As anchor is raised we look about at the natives in denims and sunglasses, and grasp for the first time that ``untouched Polynesia'' is an isotope, not an element. Tradition is a spark that has not grown cold, an ember still able to be fanned to a flame in reunion. Suddenly realizing this, we know that we've found what we have sought all along ... and what's more, have unknowingly found long before.

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