13. Cruising the Pacific Islands.

Then I took a sabbatical from  Endeavour Foundation Workshop to recharge my engines. It saw Joan and I go on a cruise to the South Pacific Islands of New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji on the passenger liner TSS Fairstar for a well-earned rest for me, and a second honeymoon for both of us. Cruising the Pacific Ocean from island to island on a passenger ocean liner was a most relaxing way to unwind from the sometimes stressful pressures of the mainland for also my daughter Regina, her husband Rodney and their son Luke. The island group of New Caledonia was the first on the itinerary that set the scene for the rest that accumulated to a most delightful, invigorating and educational experience. Although it had a strong French influence, the Melanesian population, the Kanaks, was who we had really gone to have the experience of and we weren’t disappointed. Its capital city of Noumea was our port of call, and it had the visual effect of opening out to the sea on our approach due to the numerous bays that curved its coastline, and the undulation of its metropolis was due to the hills and slopping valleys that it had been integrated into. Although it had all the facilities of a modern city and a steady stream of tourist, there wasn’t that hustle and bustle pace. What was noticeable though were they many other nationalities plus the French who had the monopoly of those facilities and enjoyed the well-off lifestyle, while the Kanaks lived in slum conditions. We weren’t there for the historical or political aspects of why, but it was as usual a sorry story of colonization with the French riding roughshod over them. What we found unusual about that but refreshing, was that although undergoing a segregated and stressful life, they stood out from the rest of the population because of their courteousness, warmth and natural good humour.

They also had a tendency to be rather shy on our approach of contact and had at times to be coaxed so as to pass that reservation, especially the children. They were actually a delight when finding out that we weren’t French, and we found them and their families either along the white-bayed beaches with its aqua waters and swaying palms, inland in their villages and on Île des Pins Island. In their own environment, their traditional case (thatched hut) that consisted of a rectangular living in one and a beehive shaped one for sleeping in, and the Grande Case (Big Hut), which was the widest and tallest with symbolic traditional architecture, that was not only the home of the chief for tribal gatherings and discussions, but also the most enduring visible artifacts of their culture. Other indications were in museums and authentic handcrafted tourist memorabilia that consisted of pottery, sculptures, soapstone carvings and bamboo engravings, with the most important artifact the ceremonial axe that was a symbol of a clan’s strength and power that had been generally used to decapitate enemies during a battle. There was also their traditional staple tucker (Australian = food) of fish that we partook of when stopping at a cosy hideaway beach restaurant when motoring around the island. However, on ordering grilled fish we were delightful surprised when asked by the Kanak proprietor if it would be an inconvenience for us to wait while he went down to the jetty, which lead off the restaurant, to catch the fish. What added to the charm of that was that we weren’t left to our own devices to twiddle our fingers or the usual chitchat and chewing on bread sticks and ordering drinks while waiting as at the chic city restaurants, and charged for it, for we were given a platter of assorted tropical fruit and a jug of iced fruit juice to while away the time. The trevally that almost covered the sizzling platter, which I took a photo of as evidence for our family, was not only filleted and grilled to perfection, but had a magnificent sauce of mangoes, and the fresh concoction salad that had avocado, pineapple, watermelon and soft coconut flesh was served in a coconut half with the sweet juice of it in it.

Their other traditional staple food of yam, taro and sweet potato was sprung as a surprise on us when attending Sunday morning mass. After the service we were invited and introduced to the bougna (a sharing meal) that had all the traditional fare in a combination of delicious chunks of green pawpaw, banana, yam, taro and sweet potato with pieces of chicken, lobster and crab that had been mixed in coconut cream, wrapped in banana leaves, tied tightly with palm fronds and baked on hot coals and stones, and it was a yummy and filling meal. Maybe it was because the multitude of restaurants and snacks (inexpensive cafes) in the city didn’t have that sort of charm and homely friendliness that we found amongst the Kanaks, which they had to compete for the appetites of tourist and locals alike, as also the other establishments. The only other place of business where there was common ground was at the daily market where all of the nationalities had stalls to sell the variety of their wares that was housed in a cluster of blue domed hexagonal buildings. The other buildings that were also of interest was the Catholic Cathédrale St Joseph that acted as a landmark because of it standing on a hill that overlooked the city, and the other was the ugly multi-chimney Doniambo Nickel Smelter north of the city centre where the nickel and cobalt extracted from the mining region was processed. Another bit of unique interest was the Petits Trains that were colourful miniature trains that took us pass most of the main sights at a slow pace, and a walk that we did up to a lookout hill to view the surrounds brought a surprise in the two cannons standing guard there that were leftovers from an Australian artillery unit that was stationed there during World War 2.

If, when coming alongside on a ship in a seaport, and that ship was welcomed by a Ni-Vanuatu military brass band playing on the quay dressed in all their splendor of brass buttons on red tunics with a white pointed scalloped pareu (sarong type skirt), and a multicolored open market on the waterfront faced you when going ashore, you knew that Port Vila on Efate Island, which was the capital of Vanuatu, was going to be a fun experience. We had so much fun with the locals that we found it difficult when it was time to leave, especially again because of the children with their thick black frizzy hair, the cheekiest of smiles and childish laughter that made your heart well up in fondness. The males and females were of that happy disposition too, and they also had a lay-back carefree attitude that well suited the island. It all seemed to stem from their village life, which after receiving their permission as was with most Pacific islands, that when gratefully and respectively strolling around it was seen in their unhurried subsistence farming, gathering, and fishing and hunting. Even their surrounding forests that were a major resource to them was approached in the same manner when seeing them making use of it for building materials, boat building, artifacts and medicines. It was almost like stepping back in time when the aboriginal peoples of the word were becoming civilized in their capacity to sort out who was going to do what to survive. For in the villages we not only saw how it must have been then due to the simplistic life style that still existed but also because we were told by their chief that it had always been that way. While the men did the cash cropping, hunting, fishing, building, the carving of artifacts and discussing village council matters while consuming kava, the woman spent the same amount of time in the family garden, cooking, looking after the children, which always had five to six in the family, tending to the pigs that were the husband’s assets for his social standing and weaving.

What was at first thought of as a sign of modesty when seeing the women in the long neck to ankle loose fitting dresses that they wore, which was reminiscent to me of the mode of dress of my South African ancestors and the African American slave women, proved to be a contradiction when attending a few of their traditional ceremonies. In their participation of the dances that because of depicting ancestors or legendary figure, there was the wearing of elaborate masks or headdresses. The women wore grass skirts or small mats around their hips as did the men, or they would at times either wear nambas (penis wrappers) or mal mal (penis sheaths). The reason though for the women wearing those ‘Mother Hubbard’ dresses at other times, which was of colourful floral patterns decorated with lace and ribbons, was because those ‘mission gowns’ was forced onto their ancestors by missionaries who were faced by sexually exciting naked curvaceous females that must have been distracting to say the least, and the tradition continued. What had also continued was Port Vila as a tourist destination with an inundation of visiting cruise passenger ships that had seen the improvement of living conditions of locals through tourism activities that involved their culture. Melanesian village feast nights, kava bars, handicrafts in Polynesian villages, and mats, bags and hats weaved from pandanus leaves in Pago villages were only part of that.

Traveling to the surrounding islands was a further extended feast of their ancient culture, and on the way there, islanders would be seen paddling in their canoes between them either for visiting or with their wares for trading. Those islands had not only inviting white beaches, although some were black due to the volcanic origins of the island with some still semi active, but they also offered traditional ceremonies where kastom (custom and ancient ancestral legacies rules) dancing was performed in wraparound skirts made of tapa (bark cloth) and their bodies painted in black, yellow and white colours. Also, another where the face was coloured a deep red with black and red stripes inserted on top of that for a huge three-day ceremony of about 2 000 with interpret dancing of their daily life by the females and then the males, which eventuated in the males having sex with any of the female dancers who were willing too. That was followed on the last day by the ceremonial clubbing of about 100 pigs for the feast that followed with massive quantities of lap lap (similar to bougna) and the drinking of kava. Other unusual experiences was meeting their witch doctors, pig hunting or in the presence but at a safe distance from an active volcano that darkened the sky with clouds of ash laden smoke, and at night glowing boulders that shot up and then down into the crater as the earth around us trembled.

Although the Fiji archipelago had over 300 islands with one third of them inhabited, we were only interested in Viti Levu (Great Fiji), which had as its capital Suva that was the capital of Fiji. We had met islanders of the Pacific on the Australian mainland, and their telling of its beauty explained why they were the beautiful people they were. It wasn’t to do with the splendor of their tropical surroundings and resorts but with their basic carefree lifestyle and friendliness. Where else when visiting any village would you be welcomed with a traditional kava (a mild narcotic infusion prepared from a pepper plant) ceremony. ‘Having a grog’ was not only used for welcoming but also for bonding with visitors, and although the muddy watery concoction looked and tasted like it when drunk from a bilo (half a coconut shell), it first made my lips go numb before intoxication and drowsiness set in. And it didn’t seem like anything was going to assist that prolonged induced state from subduing because of not feeling cheerful and full of life, even though before the drinking of it there was plenty of traditional Bula! (Cheers! or Life!). The Fijians too had a happy disposition, with a polite and courteous manner that saw them first ask your permission before doing anything so as not to offend, and they expected that same courtesy to be bestowed on them when sight-seeing in what they considered their private domain. Because of also being a multicultural society of Fijians, Indians, Chinese and Europeans, it was common to see Christian churches, temples of the Sikhs and Hare Krishna’s, mosques of the Muslims and pagodas of the Hindus and Buddhist in close proximity just as their restaurants and cafes were that catered in their traditional dishes. What we were grateful for though was that we weren’t in the era of Fijian cannibalism because we would have neither known what kind of meat we were consuming or we ourselves might have been on the menu. Getting around in the city was easy because we were able to walk it to all places of interest, and everything outside that perimeter we reached by bus or minibus. The geographical features of the central mountain range that graded to rugged ranges and steep sloping hills towards the lowland coastal hilly areas, with about eight rivers that zigzagged its way down from the mountain to water-service the island surrounds was a pleasure to our eyes when traveling around it. So too were the outlying islands reached by ferry that took us to sight and observe amazing rituals, ancient large religious Fijian bure kalou (temples), archaeological sites of ancient rock paintings and cannibalism temples, caves and pools inhabited by sacred red prawns that were not harmed or eaten due to legend and because of having that colour without having been cooked, and Hindu fire-walking that was incredible seeing how one could feel the heat emitting from the hot coals.

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Joan and I making like Pacific Islanders with the ship in the background at anchor.

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Gina sampling the fruits of the Islanders labour.

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An Island restaurant where we had fish tucker caught straight from outside it,

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Gina checking out a bush toilet that were scattered around the islands.

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And then there were the smiling happy children where ever we went.

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Port Vila’s Welcoming Band with Gina smack-bang amongst them.

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Gina playing an Island bamboo xylophone with a thong…can’t take that girl anywhere.

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Ceremonial Island dancers wearing nambas (penis wrappers).

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Ceremonial Island dancers wearing mal mal (penis sheaths).

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2 thoughts on “13. Cruising the Pacific Islands.

  1. Leo Chetty says:

    Hi Mr. Lorenzo.
    I stumbled across your blog by mistake and I have been keenly reading for the past few days. A life well lived I must say!
    I am from South Africa, recently moved to Cape Town and even though your stories about South Africa are from yesteryear, I can relate. I’m sure you have returned to SA to visit friends and family post ’94 freedom.

    I have one humble request, Could you please blog your thoughts on the “New South Africa” and of your visits here since leaving. I’m dying to know your thoughts and interactions with people on this and your impressions of how the country and city of CT has changed as you remember it.

    Many thanks
    Leo C

  2. cool photos Harold 🙂

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