6 Things You Need To Know About Life In Niue

After 7 months of living in Niue, I can confidently and proudly call this island paradise my adopted home.

Creating a life here has been one of the most challenging, eye-opening and life-changing experiences my partner and I have ever faced, both together as a couple and as individuals.

There have been times when we’ve made mistakes and stumbled blindly through island life, but they have been few and far between.

The best advice I could give anyone who wants to come here? Be willing to observe, participate, listen and learn. And don’t try to change anything about this place; just love it for what it is.

To me, everyone here in Niue is a teacher: a giver of knowledge, a gateway to understanding.

From friends and family, students and strangers, I’ve discovered so much about life on this amazing little island that I felt compelled to share some of the most important lessons I've learnt about how to live happily in Niue:

1 / Learning the language is hard but worthwhile

Vagahau Niue is a beautiful Polynesian language that consists of distinctive and stressed long and short vowel sounds, no consonant blends, and contains only 16 letters from the traditional Anglo-Saxon alphabet.

 It also has some complicated rules.

For example, if a ‘t’ is followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’ in a word, it makes an ‘s’ sound. Therefore, the village of ‘Avatele’ is pronounced 'Ah-va-sel-e'. Confused? Yeah, me too.

The ‘g’ sound in words is actually pronounced like an ‘ng’ sound, like in the word ‘strong’. Niue's native coconut crab species is called the ‘uga’ but is actually pronounced ‘oo-nga’.

Also, there are no Niuean words that start with the letter ‘r’. I find this interesting.

Needless to say, learning this language is not just hard, but also confusing at times.

I mean, just saying hello – fakaalofa lahi atu – requires my brain to take several seconds to process where to place emphasis on the sounds [and where not to], leaving me looking somewhat perplexed whenever someone greets me. It’s a work in progress.

But for all the confusion and funny looks I receive, learning the basics of this language has made my time here in Niue that much richer.

I’m not content with speaking to people in English only; in fact, I think it is the height of rudeness to live in a foreign country and not make the effort to learn and speak the native language, as difficult and uncomfortable as it may be for you at times. You wouldn't move to Paris and not learn a little bit of French, would you?

I spend my days attentively listening to my friends, students and co-workers speak in Niuean - which let me tell you, they speak hard and fast - trying to follow along with the conversation, picking up words here and there and asking questions.

It is a testament to the patience of these people that they are always willing to explain meanings of words and to gently correct me when I mispronounce them. Or to laugh with delight when I do engage in a conversation using my limited Niuean vocabulary. Or when I [accidentally] say a curse word.

Here are some of my favourite words in my ever-expanding Niuean dictionary:

fakaaue lahi : thank you

i tupi tupi :no worries

fifine : girl

i fi : none/nothing

fakamolemole : please

monuina : luck/blessings

taane : boy

tau fanau :children/students

mitaki lahi : very good


2 / Learn to think outside the box

Most westerners are blessed with the ease of solving simple everyday problems.

Run out of milk? Go to the 7/11.

Have a craving for cheeseburgers at 1am? McDonalds is always open.

Bored on a Wednesday night? Go to the movies.

Need a new pair of pants for work tomorrow? Head to one of the hundreds of shops in your city and choose a pair from thousands of designs on offer.

But in a country where there are no fast food outlets, shopping centers, cinemas, nightclubs or convenience stores, and the post only arrives once a week via plane? Well, you need to learn to solve common problems in other ways. Or, you learn to simply go without.

Living in isolation out here requires you to be creative and to think outside the box. Every day I’m met with some kind of challenge and I’m forced to figure out a way to solve it with the limited means available to me. You'd be amazed at what you can come up with when you use your imagination and a little bit of ingenuity.

Living here has also made me realise just how little you need to be truly happy in your life. To move to Niue, my partner and I sold everything we owned [even our towels and cutlery] and we each arrived in this country with only a suitcase and a dive bag. Our home here is simple but comfortable. We traded in a whole bunch of materialistic crap in Australia for ocean views, tropical breezes and a hammock. In Niue, less really is more.

Don’t get me wrong, I still miss shopping - and when I go back to Australia for a visit you can bet I’ll be maxing out my credit card on some serious splurges – but for the meantime, I’m perfectly content with making shit work with what I’ve got.


3 / You gotta master the art of cracking a coconut

You know those big cartons of coconut water you buy at the supermarket for $10 or those fancy coconut chips you buy for $30 a kilo? Well, I now know firsthand how much work goes into making those suckers, and I can tell you, it ain’t easy.

First you gotta husk it, which is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Those are some bloody tough coconuts.

Then you have to pull off all the pulu [the grassy-like substance surrounding the actual coconut on the inside], which requires superhuman-like strength and patience.

Once you’ve cleaned off that baby, you strike it along the natural lines that run down the coconut with a traditional he [a thick wooden stick] and hope to God that you don’t break your hand in the process.

The reward? Some of the sweetest coconut you’ll ever taste in your life, so I guess the hard work is worth it. But I swear I’ll never take another store-bought coconut product for granted again.

4 / Patience is the key

I gotta confess: I’m not naturally the world’s most patient person.

I’m more of an I-want-it-now kinda human. So you can imagine how living on an island in the South Pacific that is geographically isolated from any major landmass has tested my patience.

But in Niue, patience is the name of the game.

Fresh fruit, vegetable and dairy supplies come via plane once a week [if we are lucky], with the rest of our supplies coming via boat once a month. If the shops sell out of something in the meantime? Well, that’s tough luck.

If I order something online or if someone has sent me some post, I have to wait up to three months for it to arrive. This absolutely kills me, but it’s like Christmas morning when it lands in my hot little hands.

My beautiful students are bi- or tri-lingual [with English being their second or even third language] and did not start learning the curriculum in English until Year 4, which makes teaching sometimes very difficult - especially with my thick Aussie accent and lack of Niuean language skills. It takes a lot of patience to explain concepts to kids when you have to factor in language and cultural differences. However, the effort and enthusiasm they put in to learning astounds me. They never give up.

Time is a very flexible concept here. If an event is supposed to start at 6pm, you can take that to mean that people will arrive somewhere between 6:30 and the next morning. Things get changed at the last minute; messages get lost; plans get chucked out.

No one rushes in Niue. Here, the notion of 'Island Time' isn't a cute, touristy gimmick; it's an actuality. And you better get used to it.

So instead of chucking a tantrum or hating on it, I’ve just learnt to go with it. I’ve learnt to take my time and to be more understanding. More compassionate. Easy going. Flexible. And I’ve definitely come to love that about this country.

5 / Being called a ‘palagi’ is not offensive

 Palagi [pah-lung-ee] is a Polynesian term for Caucasian foreigners [i.e. white folks] or anything that is not part of Polynesian culture. It is how the locals describe non-Niueans to each other and differentiate between people.

Example: When I first arrived on the island, the immigration official at the airport enquired about the purpose of my visit to Niue. When I explained that I was commencing a two-year teaching contract, he smiled and exclaimed with a laugh, “Oh, so you’re the new palagi teacher! We’ve been waiting for you!”

This still cracks me up.

Whilst some people would think it is racist to be labelled by the colour of one’s skin like this, I do not.

Niueans aren’t designed like that. They don’t use the term in a derogatory way or as a means to spread hate or intolerance. They don’t hurl abuse at or denigrate white people.

‘Palagi’ is simply a term used to describe someone who is not from around here. And given that I am a minority in Niue, I’m cool with that. Anyone who thinks that they may take offence to this should probably reconsider if Niue is the right place for them and leave the rest of us palagis out of it. 

6 / There’s no such thing as a ‘diet’

There are three things that I know to be true about Niueans:

  1. They are the kindest, warmest and most generous people on the planet
  2. They LOVE to throw a party and any excuse for a celebration is welcomed with enthusiasm
  3. They can eat like no other culture on earth.

In Niue - as I’ve come to learn and love - food is a means to sharing and connecting with the people you love and your community.

It’s a way to spread your wealth and to show others that you care for them. Meals are about generosity, friendship, and authenticity. Sharing food with Niueans is one of the most unpretentious representations of care, goodwill and spirit that I’ve ever encountered in all my travels.

And boy, can they cook! Nothing makes you feel more welcome and accepted than eating lovingly prepared umu food around the fire, laughing and drinking with your Niuean family. Just be aware of slipping peacefully into a food coma afterwards.

Of course, all this feasting can present a problem for self-conscious white girls like me who come from a society where beauty is commonly associated with being thin. After a few months of living and eating like this, I confessed to my closest Niuean girlfriends that I’d put on too much weight and that it was time for me to go on a diet.

They just looked at me like I’d just announced that I was a transvestite alien from another planet.

Apparently, there is no such thing as a ‘diet’ in Niue.

Sure, the people here exercise and work hard – life in Niue can be surprisingly strenuous – but they also don’t allow themselves to get caught up in the marketing and celebrity bullshit that mainland people do.

Out here, there are no billboards, no magazines, no advertising; no photoshopped or airbrushed images to body shame women into an eating depression. In Niue, no one gives a damn what people look like because to them, true beauty is all about happiness and generosity and living a wonderful life. It has nothing to do with the size of your hips.

In Niue, you work hard, play hard and eat hard. It’s that simple.

Now, every time I hear that voice whisper ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ inside my head, I smile and tell it to piss off. Kate Moss may be a supermodel, but she doesn’t know shit about how wonderful sharing a delicious meal with Niueans can be. I feel sorry for her.

How to get there:

Air New Zealand flies directly to Niue from Auckland twice a week during peak season [May-October] and once a week during the low/shoulder season [November - April]. Keep an eye out for regularly advertised sale airfares to Niue.

Photography by Shanny Matterson & Dan Fitzgerald

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