According to general wisdom, if you hand a typical Cook Islands man a microphone, you’d better get comfortable – you’re going to be there for awhile.
Jim Marurai is not a typical Cook Islands man. Which is too bad, because as prime minister – as the country’s highest-ranked elected official – he should be voicing his opinion on everything that crosses his desk.
Instead, Mr. Marurai is a quiet man, a man of few words. A man who likes to keep his views private and his cards close to his vest.
In other words, he is a bitch of an interview.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand the unique opportunity, especially for a foreigner, of quizzing a head of state. It is, in the context of the Cook Islands, equivalent to interviewing Barack Obama or John Key or whichever uppity Easterner is currently lording it over Canada. The fact that I am sitting across from the leader of the country without being surrounded by a heavily-armed security detail with itchy trigger fingers – nor I have been subjected to a full body-cavity search before entering the room – speaks volumes about this country’s relaxed atmosphere.
In fact, the only thing not speaking volumes is the prime minister himself.
No lie, there have been times when I’ve been tempted to lean over, tap him on the forehead with my tape recorder and say, “Is this thing on?” And by “thing,” I don’t mean my machine.
Maybe it’s my Canadian accent. Maybe I talk too fast. Maybe I don’t understand the rules of discretion in this country and so tend to go for the throat with my queries. Whatever the reason, I have on more than one occasion asked a question only to have PM Marurai simply stare off at something in the distance over my shoulder.
Leaving me wondering if he’s suddenly been struck deaf or is simply ignoring me. Or does not, after all, understand English.
The other journalists in the room, accustomed to being reverential, chuckle later about the PM’s reaction. This while I’m attempting to write a story based on about 14 words worth of quotes.
There are other stories to work on here, and so I’ve decided to boycott any more of the PM’s press conferences, leaving that particular torture to the radio and TV people.
And then I’m sent to a ceremony involving the swearing-in of another Cabinet minister. I catch a ride with a TV reporter/camera operator named Alex. As I understand it, I’m just tagging along to take photos. I didn’t even bring my notebook because I’m not doing interviews.
Alex, however, has other ideas. A bit on the shy side, he hands me the mic and says to ask questions of the new minister. What? Oh, OK. The thought occurs that, just maybe, I should have paid more attention to the political machinations behind this latest appointment. I instinctively fall back on my journalistic training: When in doubt, fake it.
And then Alex is pointing his camera at the PM and indicating I should ask him for some comments as well.
I somehow resist the urge to tap the mic on the man’s chest to emphasize my queries and, with nothing to lose, start asking some of the tough questions about the current political situation. The questions the man on the street want answers to, but only the foreigner has the nerve to ask.
The next day, people stop me to say they enjoyed the way I grilled the prime minister. The way he was practically backing away from the camera under my barrage. I feel bad – it was never my intention to embarrass the man. And yet . . .
And yet it felt so good.
Oh, yeah, there’s another part to this story. After the interviews, Alex set me up in front of the property and had me do the lead-in, the whole “This is me reporting for CITV from . . .” thing.
It was my first time on camera. I nailed it in two takes.
I smiled all the way back to the station, the adrenaline still punching its way through my guts.
I liked it.
Note: The following conversations are reproduced nearly verbatim. I said “nearly.”
Charles: Bob, I hear you came across some European ladies suntanning topless on the beach.
Bob: That’s right.
Charles: What did you do?
Bob: I walked right up to them and explained that, in the Cook Islands, it is considered rude and insulting to the locals to go topless.
Charles: How long did it take you to explain that?
Bob: About an hour.
Charles: Bob, I hear a woman followed you home from the shop.
Bob: That’s right.
Charles: How old was she?
Charles: What happened?
Bob: She took off all her clothes and got into my bed.
Charles: So what did you do?
Bob: I took off all my clothes and got into bed with her.
Bob, it should be noted, is 93 years old.