Reflections on the realities of a trip to paradise

March 18, 2012
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My wife and I recently took a vacation trip to the South Pacific. We visited Tahiti, Fiji and the Cook Island of Rarotonga. As a tourist, it was like spending time in a postcard: crystal clear water, bats with a 5-foot wingspan, sharks, birds of incredible color, and the nicest, friendliest people I have ever met.

Like almost everywhere in the world, there are two realities. The tourists are in heaven; the local population is trying to pay their bills, raise their kids and save for retirement. If you think our life is challenging, you should try theirs.

Tourism is to Tahiti what auto manufacturing is to Michigan. So, you think Michigan’s government is dysfunctional? Tahiti has a representative government that is so corrupt, people just accept the situation as normal. If you are unhappy with Michigan’s fractious politics, at least it can be changed. We haven’t given up yet.

Tahiti is a series of islands. Papeete, the biggest city, is like Detroit on a tropical island. The other islands are the big attraction, so ferry service is a critical part of the infrastructure. We left for the island Moorea from a rather drab, inefficient mooring at a nondescript pier. Next to that pier is an impressive modern facility that is not being used. The man responsible for running the current facility explained that the new facility is three years behind schedule and so far over budget that no one knows when it will open.

Fiji is another interesting situation. The military took over when it appeared that the Indian population was about to win a majority in the parliament even though they are only 40 percent of the population. The majority of the population is native Fijan, but they do not participate in politics with the same vigor as the minority population.

I asked about drug use because I did not see any anti-drug posters. The cab driver explained that with a military government, you do not want to be caught bringing in drugs. Due process is only a concept here. If the government does not want drugs, it can do what it needs to do to prevent them. The problem is, that applies to everything.

I asked about small business opportunities in Fiji. This was really interesting. The foundations of small business are education, availability of capital and culture. Fiji has a problem with all three.

The people we talked to all accepted the basic premise that education was critical. We were only there for four days, so I may not have this exactly correct. Parents have a major cost if they want their child to have a good education. The kids we saw going to school were dressed in uniforms. Public education is mandatory from age 5 to 14. I did not have time to delve deeper into the parents concerns. My wife wanted to enjoy the beaches and markets. Bummer. Anyway, apparently a quality education is at a premium.

In the United States, we have been blessed with a public education system that gives every child the opportunity for a quality education. The key word is opportunity. The state of public education has eroded. You can blame the unions, parents or government. I don’t know enough to know who is at fault, but people in other parts of the world make major sacrifices for their kids’ basic education.

We are used to an income level that allows people to save for future opportunities. A shuttle driver told me he works 12 hours a day, six days a week. He must be making a killing on the overtime, right? Wrong. Fiji doesn’t have our labor laws. Employers can make their employees work as long as they want. With the limited time we had, I only had a sense that Fiji’s financial world was not particularly friendly to small business. If a 72-hour week only meets basic needs and borrowing is difficult, how does anyone get started?

One of the constant statements when we became frustrated about service was to remember we were on “Fiji time,” meaning it will get done eventually, and eventually is good enough. Culture is destiny. As a hyper Type A, I looked at these people with both envy and wonderment. They live in one of the most esthetically attractive places in the world. Maybe that’s enough.

I asked a waiter if he envied the tourists. He said, “No, next week you will be back in the cold and pressure of your world. I will still be here.” Good point.

I don’t think I could function in their culture, and I doubt if they would like mine. Success, whatever that means, is such a driving force in our culture. In their culture, the enjoyment of the day is the thing of value. I get two weeks in paradise. They live there.

Education, capital and culture. Are we losing the foundation of our economy? If we are, there are places in the world where we can see what our future holds. Poverty in paradise sucks — but not as bad as poverty in Michigan in the middle of a long winter.

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