06 Nov False ‘short walks’, shoes and good food – the answer to COP23

One must be careful when dealing with different countries, cultures and languages. Because if we’re not careful, then differences can lead to SOME people thinking bad words and getting musu at others. This is particularly important at international conventions where countries are trying to find solutions to the all the mess caused by climate change and trying to agree on how to best work together on those solutions.

How did I learn this wise truth? Today was our first full day at COP23 and I learnt that Germans and Samoans have very different definitions for some things. Like for the words, “a short walk”. (I would say that I also learnt I am very unfit and lazy but I already knew that so it doesn’t count as a CoconutGirl #COP23 revelation.)

Our COP fellowship is being facilitated by the DW Akademie, Germany’s leading provider of international media training. Some brilliant Professors of Journalism are making sure we find our way. Today’s first task was for us all to get UN registered and get our badge IDs, before rushing to attend the opening of the Climate Planet exhibition.

‘Be ready early,’ DW said. ‘It’s a short walk to the Bula Zone at COP. We will meet you at the hotel and all walk together so we can show you the way.’

I was very grateful for DW’s kind offer. Because I have terrible navigation skills. (Because I need to sing MOANA’s ‘We know the Way’ 1000x more to somehow reawaken my inner island navigator.)

But  5 minutes into the walk I wasn’t feeling so grateful. I pride myself on being a fast walker. But I could not keep up with DW. Have you seen those speed walkers at the Olympics who walk 100mph in a painful hip-wriggling kinda way like every race step hurts? With sweat pouring down them and a look of total concentration on their faces?

Yeah, DW doesn’t walk like that. She glides down the street with the 100mph speed and endurance of an Olympic speed walker-sprinter, but with the easy grace of a supermodel on the catwalk, making every step seem effortless. No sweat. No heavy breathing. No flushed face. No pausing every so often to whinge  and complain loudly BLOODY HELL WHERE IS THIS BLOODY EFFING BULA ZONE BUILDING??  ( I’m not saying that anyone was actually saying such words today. It’s just an example of what was possible.) She was super fast, super fit, and burning up the cobblestone streets.

Now, the fact that DW is secretly an Ironman-walker disguised as a journalism Professor, would have been fine if we were all really going for a “short walk”. If it really were a ‘short walk’ then DW would have arrived at our destination in 1 minute and the rest of us sorry unfit losers would have showed up 5 minutes later. We would have happily given her the gold medal and then continued leisurely to registration.

But that’s not what happened. Because it WASN’T A SHORT WALK. It was a very long, very far, very windy walk that according to my calculations – was closer to 5km. Which is basically a half-marathon. (I’m Watergirl to an Ironman so I know this stuff.)

Our group was all struggling to keep up. I can’t speak for the others, but in Samoa, 5km is an endurance event. Not a lovely stroll. I don’t even walk 2km to Siaosi’s shop to buy the bread every day. I drive. Or get a cab. Or call my longsuffering husband to buy bread on his way home. If there’s no vehicle, then I don’t buy bread. I don’t walk everywhere when I need to go to work/school/shopping because Samoa has too many ferocious dogs who want to bite you. And not enough decent sidewalks for safe walking. I may also be a little bit lazy. (Which is not an international warcrime though. But lying to people about how far they have to walk SHOULD be a crime…)

So I was not happy about having to walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk some more. Especially not when I had just flown halfway around the world the day before, jetlag was dragging me down, and I was wearing winter boots that I only bust out of storage once every 5 years when I go to a country cold enough to need them. My feet hurt. My legs hurt. My body hurt. Not only that, I was getting more and more musu with every pained step, thinking about how mean our hosts were to expect us to walk this far on our first day!


My heart, mind and soul was very musu. And I was fast deciding that I hated Bonn, and COP23, and being a journalist, and cobblestone streets that hurt your feet even more than regular streets, and THIS WHOLE TRIP IS A DUMB IDEA AND I WANT TO GO HOME NOW. (Yes I know what you’re thinking and I agree. I would never make it as a journalist in a war zone where one has to experience real hardship. But this is my journal where I get to whinge-rant my troubles, so please bear with me.)

It’s safe to say that at that point, all hope was lost for effective dialogue, learning, and successful treaty negotiating at this Coconut Girl’s climate conference…I had decided that Germany hated me and wanted me to suffer – and I hated Germany.

But then later at dinner, everyone had a good chat over good German food. My wounded feet and soul were soothed  (food can have that magical effect on me sometimes), enough so that I listened when DW told us how she walks everywhere, everyday. She owns a bicycle, not a car. (Reducing her carbon footprint.) So for her, the walk from our hotel was indeed ‘a short’ one. She wasn’t telling big fat lies to deliberately make us suffer. She was surprised when we told her how hell-ish it was for us. She apologised and we shared with her how little walking we actually do, and for those of us living in small places like Samoa – our concept of what’s ‘far’ and ‘close’ are actually quite different from Germany’s. We laughed about it, ate more good food, talked about life in the islands VS life in Germany, and ate some more. The DW team were very patient with our whingey ranting and treated us to a delicious meal and fabulous conversation.

I hobbled away from dinner with peace in my heart and much less #COP23SUCKS in my soul. Why? Because I understood better where our hosts were coming from, and they understood us a bit better.

Then as I was walking back to the hotel with the group, I noticed one of the Pacific  journalists had changed her shoes. DW had given her a pair of sturdy boots to wear while she was here because she of course doesn’t need boots in her hot-hot Pacific country and so she doesn’t own any. Our helpful hosts had provided her with a solution that included thick socks. But, as she confided in me, she was struggling because “I’m not used to wearing closed shoes. They’re so painful and constricting and I prefer my jandals.” By the afternoon, she had adapted the support offered and devised her own solution for the wintry German streets – she was wearing her jandals with the woollen socks and was much more comfortable and happier.

So what do shoes and ‘short walks’ have to do with #COP23? They’re why I think having a Pasifika island country like Fiji chairing COP23 is so vital.

Pres Bainimarama at the opening of the Climate Planet - A giant walk-in globe w/a 360° screen at Rheinaue park in Bonn.

Pres Bainimarama at the opening of the Climate Planet – A giant walk-in globe w/a 360° screen at Rheinaue park in Bonn.

This is the first time that a COP will be run by a small-island nation, one that like Samoa (and so many other Small Island Developing States SIDS) has experienced firsthand the extreme storms and sea-level rise that climate change is bringing. It means that unlike previous COPs where Pasifika was always the little voice trying to shout into the Category 5 cyclone that is the Big Rich ‘Developed’ Greatest Polluter Nations – one of us will now be chairing the conversation, and hopefully, ensuring that our SIDS perspectives and struggles are centre stage. Will this mean that we will all understand each other a bit better and be willing to work together a little more?

Maybe. I hope so.

I like how Fiji has changed the hell COP talks process from the boring-nobody-really-cares-or-listens-or-actually-understands-and-agrees “facilitative dialogue” to Talanoa instead. They are emphasising the use of storytelling and talking as a way to make good decisions, similar to what happens in our Village Councils in Samoa. As a storyteller, I’m a believer in the concept and it will be interesting to see if Talanoa works on the global level.

COP23 officially opens tomorrow. I don’t know much about how all the negotiations work, but what I do know is that whether its about shoes, short walks vs long walks, or climate change – we are happier and more likely to work together when:

a. We don’t think people are lying to us.

b. We don’t doubt whether people truly care about us (ie we don’t suspect they are making us walk MILES AND MILES AND MILES JUST BECAUSE THEY WANT US TO SUFFER)

c. We have a key role in creating the solutions for our own problems. Solutions that are tailored to our unique cultures and specific national needs.

d. We make the time and effort to sit down and Talanoa, earnestly seeking to understand the other.

e. We eat good food together. Because as every Samoan knows, good food makes everything better.

Sending out best wishes to all the COP23 delegates as you embark on the conference that could determine whether our islands are still above water in a few years. And some advice from a Coconut Girl in Bonn – wear shoes you’re comfortable in, don’t walk from your hotel to the Bula Zone (unless you’re a Olympic athlete like our Professors), and when negotiations stall at any point?  Get some good food and eat a meal together.

10 journalists from the Pacific were awarded fellowships to attend COP23 in Bonn, Germany. This is my #blogJournal of the experience. All views expressed here are my own and not those of my government, funding provider, or village/church/3Friends/ longsuffering husband/or my 5 dogs and 1 cat.


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