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Retracing family footsteps

Friday September 05, 2014 Written by Published in Weekend
Retracing family footsteps

Sandra Bueti and husband Vince recently travelled to the Cook Islands to retrace the footsteps of her father, Neil Cooper, who had visited the South Pacific roughly 70 years ealier. The adventurous Cooper documented his travels with what is now a treasure trove of photos.

From the freezing cold to the Cook Islands, Sandra Bueti recently travelled to the South Pacific with her husband in what was much more than a vacation, it was an emotional trip into the past.
Roughly seven decades after Neil Cooper found himself in the Tropics, far from his hometown of Winnipeg in Central Canada, Sandra – a teacher with 35 years of experience visited the Cook Islands with her husband Vince to learn about this adventurous episode in her father’s life.
Neil’s chapter in the South Pacific begins in April 1934, when he hopped on a freighter in North America and travelled to Tahiti, where he beach combed for a while.
Scoring a job with AB Donald – the predecessor to the Cook Islands Trading Company - was what landed Cooper in the Cooks; taking him first Rarotonga, and onward to nearly every inhabited island including; Manuae, Atiu, Aitutaki, Mauke, Rakahanga, Manihiki, and Penrhyn.
Neil would trade with the locals for copra, and in return he would offer goods from AB Donald.
“He went to all of those islands, working at the store, drying copra,” said Sandra.
Often sailing on the high seas, she said he became good friends wtih Andy Thomson – the legendary sailor of the South Pacific – and when not engaged in commerce, her father would could be found drawing and painting.
“He was a fantastic artist,” she said.
Once World War II broke out, Neil travelled to Wellington, where he enlisted and was trained as a bomber.
From the South Pacific, he was sent to multiple theatres of the war and flew over Germany, Egypt, and Italy. With his military skills in demand, Neil travelled back to his native Canada to train other pilots.
In 1946, one year after the ending of hostilities, he returned to the Cook Islands briefly, and it is then that his South Pacific travels came to an end.
Looking at a page of his personal archives, which include a list of all the countries he had travelled, it is noted that he arrived back in Winnipeg in July 1946 to resume a typical Canadian life.
“He was sad,” said Sandra. “He said, ‘Now I’m going to have to work like an ordinary Joe’.”
Back in Canada, Neil worked as a display artist for the Eaton’s department store, enticing shoppers with fancy front-of-store designs using his artistic skills.
In 1952, Sandra was born.
“He always told me stories about how beautiful it was. About the different types of fish ... how to eat coconuts,” said Sandra, who also calls Winnipeg her home. “He spoke the language, which he had learned, and he taught me the hula.”
“I remember him cooking bananas, which was very odd in Canada.”
With vivid images deep in his memory, Neil returned to the Cook Islands with Sandra’s mother in the mid 1970’s.
“He wanted to show my mom where he lived.”
As Neil did many years ago, Vince and Sandra set off from frigid Winnipeg  last May for the South Pacific, where they retraced her father’s footsteps.
“It was amazing to see how it’s changed,” she said, comparing what’s in the photos to what she saw. “Aitutaki is like what Bora Bora was 30 years ago.”
Included in their voyage was a side trip to Auckland, where they visited a museum to retrace Neil’s military roots.
Throughout their visit, the Canadian couple said they made connections between Neil and locals using the extensive photographs he left behind.
“There are moments when it hits me and makes me cry,” said Sandra. “Hearing the women sing in the churches, seeing the blue of the ocean ... it’s awe inspiring.”
“I think about what it would be like if he was still alive and could walk with us.”

1 comment

  • Comment Link Ian Unuia Hinton Thursday, 09 October 2014 12:08 posted by Ian Unuia Hinton

    What a fantastic journey it would have been.

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