Tag Archives: Culture

Making the Turn: East to Vanuatu

We have made the turn. After a whirlwind visit to the lovely city of Melbourne, we flew north Brisbane and, for the first time since leaving Boston, turned east. With this leg we were also headed into completely unknown territory. Tonga was an experience, to be sure, and much of French Polynesia was new to us, but (with the exception of Australia) it has all been Polynesian and reasonably familiar by comparison with the place we were now headed to on…

air vanuatu

Vanuatu is at the eastern edge of the western Pacific, west of Fiji and Tonga and therefore outside the Polynesian triangle. It has a fascinating, complex culture and is a favorite tourist destination for Australians, but the reason we were there is that it is also has one of the most important archaeological sites in the Pacific.

I have been lucky more than once on this trip and the Vanuatu leg is just another case in point. Matthew Spriggs and Stuart Bedford of ANU have been working a site at Teouma since 2004 which has yielded some of the most spectacular finds of Lapita pottery anywhere in the Pacific. They are now coming to the end of their work there and had expected to be finished by the time we reached nearby Port Vila. This was a great disappointment to me because I was really dying to see an archaeological dig, and particularly this archaeological dig, but there was just no way I could get us there in time. Then, quite unexpectedly, they had to suspend work for a week and that pushed their departure forward so that I could just make it out there before site was bulldozed over.

It was a tremendous experience. Unfortunately for Seven, he had to stay back and mind the children, and I didn’t take any photos because I wasn’t sure I should. But it was absolutely phenomenal. While I was standing there they pulled a 6-inch piece of pottery out of the ground that — I was reliably informed — was 3000 years old!

Lapita, just fyi, is the name given to the ocean-going culture that is thought to have moved rapidly out of island southeast Asia and into the western Pacific some 3000 to 5000 years ago eventually reaching Tonga and Samoa. As such, they are understood to be directly ancestral to the people who colonized Polynesia proper. Lapita sites are identified by a particular type of pottery with a range of decorative styles that correlates pretty directly with age, the most elaborate being the oldest.

Fortunately, Seven and I did get a chance to go together to the National Museum of Vanuatu the next day.

National Museum

There Stuart and a couple of the guys who work with him showed us a number of spectacular pots, both fragments and reconstructions, which were just being packed and shipped off to an exhibit in Paris — the first of its kind! Here is a picture Seven took of the example that is in the museum along with the accompanying text, which is also interesting for its several translations.

Lapita pot

lapita text

There are a vast number of languages spoken in Vanuatu (including a couple of Polynesian languages, one of which was spoken in a village near where we were staying, as we discovered on the bus ride out there). But the three official languages of the country are French, English, and Bislama, which is not that hard to decode when written but pretty darn hard to understand when spoken fast. Children apparently go to school in either French or English, but I could never figure out how people decide. Mostly people spoke English with us, even on the few occasions on which I spoke French to them :).

The people of Vanuatu are as varied as the linguistic scene suggests and I clearly have to do some more research to find out who they all are and what they speak and where they come from and all of that. But for now I’ll just leave you with a few random shots taken in and around Port Vila. Here are some musicians at the airport (this time it is a guitar):

musicians in the airport

And here are a couple of pictures from the market:

Port Vila Market

market port vila

A couple of street scenes:

port vila

truck  port vila

And a bunch of the workers going back to the mainland by boat:

boat Mele

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Filed under adventure, expedition, Family, Pacific Islands, South Pacific, travel, Vanuatu

Melbourne Revisited (but barely)

Seven and I really wanted to show the boys everything about Melbourne that we remembered from the old days. But there’s just something deeply flawed about this idea: kids never want to see the places that are meaningful to you. Why should they? They enjoy discovering places, but they don’t want to revisit places they’ve never been.

So, although we did insist on dragging them to the Vic Market, I don’t think they really appreciated it. They were sort of okay with the fruit and veg; they might have liked the deli section if they hadn’t already been a bit cranky; they hated the meat section; and they only discovered all the non-food stuff when I was so irritated with them that I refused to let them look around.

We had thought about driving the Great Ocean Road, or maybe heading out to the Dandenongs, or even just going to St Kilda, but no, they opted to stay in the flat in Fitzroy watching videos and eating takeout. As we say — whatever. This was where they developed their flashflight photography fetish:

dani with wings

dani

But, lest you think for a moment that this was a kid thing, here is their father throwing a couple of lightning bolts…

Seven

It turned out that their exhaustion (which is what I think this was) actually liberated us to do the thing I really wanted to do in Melbourne, which was to catch up with a whole lot of people I hadn’t seen in years — and even then I only saw about half the people I’d like to have seen. So, I spent most of my time sitting in restaurants talking, which is a very Melbourne thing to do (especially in winter, which is what it is now). We did in passing catch a glimpse of some of the parts of Melbourne that have changed, like this curious-looking thing, which, however eccentric, is still an improvement over the Gas & Fuel building that was there when we left.

federation square

Here is another quite characteristic shot that suggests how “smart” a city it is. I thought it seemed smarter than ever — more and more clothing stores, more and more restaurants, more and more money apparently. (Australia, btw, seems not to have experienced the recession into which we and everyone else in the world were plunged.)

melbourne

So, you may imagine how glad I was that I had carried my black jeans and my cowboy boots all the way across the South Pacific and thus did not have to appear in track pants and sneakers on the streets of Carlton and the CBD.

There were also, of course, many things that hadn’t changed. Although we did not bother to revisit any of the (many) houses we once lived in, Seven did pop down to the old Dart headquarters. And I was amused to find this photo among the ones that he took.

bikes

I couldn’t quite decide if this was a little skip down memory lane — back to his many years as a Melbourne bicycle messenger — or a hint of what he’d like to be doing. Seven did bring his tennis racquets along on this trip (they’ve gotten about as much use as my cowboy boots), but the bike was out of the question…though I think he seriously considered it….

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Filed under adventure, Australia, Family, South Pacific, travel

It’s All Relative

Compared with the Marquesas, and even sleepy Ra’iatea,  Mo’orea feels positively metropolitan. Our first attempt to go to the beach took us through a hotel compound of bungalows and paved paths, a restaurant by the water, a place to rent kayaks, a dive center, etc. Dani (who has certainly been spoiled by his first taste of a Pacific Island beach in the Marquesas) had an almost violent reaction to the level of development. You may judge for yourselves, however, just how bad it was (that’s the four of us in the center):

Les Tipaniers

Maybe 20 people on the beach, 5 in the water, and another 10 sitting at the restaurant or wandering around – not exactly Wingaersheek on a July weekend…

There was, however, quite a lot of activity in the water. The wind was high and there were some astonishingly acrobatic kite-surfers flying around the lagoon and leaping over the dock, which was amazing. Dani, Matiu, and Abraham took a couple of kayaks and set off down the lagoon.

boys in kayaks

They were headed downwind and it occurred to me that they might have some difficulty returning. Indeed, in almost no time we lost sight of them. So Seven jumped into a kayak and set off in pursuit. About an hour later they reappeared, trudging through the lagoon, dragging their kayaks behind them.

This question of access to the beaches is interesting. We have been told twice by locals that you can just go into the big hotels and go to their beaches, but the larger hotels are obviously trying to stop people from doing this because they’re gated. We made an experiment along these lines the other day and were instantly stopped by the guard who asked Seven where he was going. I then got out on my side of the car (I don’t think the guard could see me; I was in the back seat on the opposite side) and spoke to him in French:

Was there a beach?

It was not public; there was a public beach down the road.

Was there a restaurant at the hotel?

Yes.

Then we would go to the other beach and come back to the restaurant later.

It’s funny about these encounters, I never know exactly how much they are genuinely charged and how much I am bringing to them in the way of expectation. But I certainly did get an adrenalin surge, or, to put it another way, it didn’t feel very friendly. From there we made our way to the public beach which was full of picnicking Tahitians (a little bit more of the Wingaersheek feel). That has its own challenge in a way. As Abraham noted, our local cred is better when we have Seven with us. (Matiu, who is the brownest of our children, is rapidly darkening in this sun and will pass for local pretty soon).

Finally, a nice shot of fish from off the dock somewhere…

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Filed under adventure, expedition, Oceania, Pacific Islands, Polynesia, Society Islands, South Pacific, Tahiti, travel