Archive for December 2018

Paradise Found

December 14, 2018

This is Brian, who took me in a tiny boat out to Paradise, although most people would call his island Aneityum, Vanuatu.

Our ship had dropped anchor near a place we call Mystery Island, which is uninhabited because, according to legend, it’s haunted.   

For some unknown reason I was the only person to sign up for Brian’s tour, so I got to have him, his family compound, and indeed his village, all to myself. I’ve never been to any place like it. If you want a lesson in the local patois just read this sign out loud. It says, approximately, “Please don’t make a short cut on the lawn, please and thank you.”

We were met by Susi, who I think was all dressed up for company, although possibly she looks this lovely every day. She had a long and specially twisty leaf for me to wear behind my left ear, because I’m not married. I kept it on all day, draped down to my collarbone, and got lots of smiles, and a few stares and giggles. It signifies welcome, and peace. Since these people were once cannibals, back in the day, I think it also means “wear this and no one will eat you,” but that might be a fanciful interpretation. That’s her doorbell on the post on the right, just rap the stick on the bamboo to announce yourself before entering.

I had a hard time figuring out exactly who Susi was, since Brian told me she was his Mom, and also that she was his Mom’s sister. Finally I determined that all of his mother’s sisters were his Mom, and all of his father’s brothers were his Dad. Because that’s how it is in his village of about 300 people, where everyone is family.

Our first visit was to the family kitchen. There’s no electricity in this village, but there is a tap outside with water they pipe directly from a river that flows down from the mountains. I felt that the kitchen might pose a challenge to my cooking skills, even though I’ve boasted that I can cook anywhere.

The sink looked especially difficult.

I learned that in Vanuatu the coconut is called “the tree of life,” because they use every part of it in their daily lives. Everything you see here is woven or made from various parts of the coconut, a broom, baskets, kids’ toys, sleeping and sitting mats, cups for serving kava. Even the green leaf has special significance. Normally you would offer it to guests with food on it, but if it’s placed, empty, in front of the door of your hut, it means that you are banished and need to move out of the village immediately.

These are three outhouses, the middle one built for guests like me. I didn’t venture in, but it was visibly fancier than the other two from the outside.

Here Susi’s husband (I think, it was never exactly clear to me) husks me a coconut in the traditional way, with a very sharp stick dug into the ground. He does this so that I may have a refreshing drink, so welcome on a hot equatorial day.

They also prepare me a little snack of freshly grated coconut, pineapple, and banana. All of which seemed incomparably sweet and delicious, in this magical environment.

Normally I escape as fast as I can from this kind of photo op, but before I knew what was happening they had adorned me with a garland and a headband and pulled me into this frame. It would have been horribly rude to protest, so I submitted, and although it’s not a flattering photo of me, I’m sure I’ll never have another even remotely like it.

Brian took me back to Mystery Island, where a big, travelling market had been set up for the passengers. There was no dock there, and his boat was really small, so I had to step right into the water to get in and out. It’s amazing how long it takes for salt water to dry out of  your shoes. And after my adventure a Vanuatu beer

and a local lunch of grilled tuna, plantain, cassava, salad, pineapple, and rice with green garlic seemed in order.

I had heard that there would be a kava ceremony, and really wanted to participate. When I got to the booth with the kava the guy told me that I was apparently the only passenger who wanted to try it. So he prepared it just for me. I think other passengers had been deterred by the ship’s guide’s description that it “tasted like dishwater.” Another passenger told me that he’d tried it once and it tasted “like bong water.”

I was interested in the effects, more than the taste, so I asked the guy to make some for me. He looked at the leaf draped over my ear and said “Oh, I see you have a ‘peace.’ I will be happy to prepare some for you.” He took fresh kava root, chopped it up,

and ground it up in a meat grinder. He soaked it in water, strained it, and served me a large coconut shell full of a muddy-looking drink. He told me that kava makes your lips and tongue numb, so it’s best to just chug it right down, to minimize that effect. I took a tiny sip, just to see what I was getting into, before really drinking it.

I didn’t think it tasted bad at all, kind of bitter, but I like bitter. Mostly herbal, and I like that too. So I gladly emptied the shell and waited for something to happen.

I sat on a bench by the beach and thought about my day. I felt very relaxed, but I had been all day long. I thought about how everyone I had met seemed very calm too. I couldn’t tell if all that tranquility was due to the fact that kava is ubiquitous, or because of the stunning natural beauty, or because a village like the one I had visited can still exist in this modern world. Or something else.

When I went back to the ship I kept that long leaf draped over my ear all evening. My Indonesian dining stewards thought it was hilarious, but the Filipino folks on board recognized the leaf, although no one knew its name in English. It was fragrant when crushed, and I invited a lot of people to sniff it, just next to my hair.

So I don’t know whether it was the sleepy village, or the shell full of kava, or the fragrant leaf with its promise of peace, or all three, but I had an incredibly relaxed day, and a very sweet sleep. Maybe that’s the mystery of Mystery Island.


Of Lifou And Vanilla

December 5, 2018

Still in New Caledonia, we sailed to the island of Lifou. There I was determined to discover why vanilla has become so incredibly expensive. I got the best possible education by visiting the Vanilla House.

At the Vanilla House they have a demonstration garden, since the plantation itself is deep in the jungle. Here our guide explains to us how vanilla orchids are planted and cared for, and how the vanilla beans are harvested and processed.

In an amazing case of “what could Mother Nature possibly have been thinking???” each vanilla flower must be hand-pollinated in order to bear its fruit, which is the vanilla bean. There are no other pollinators here for this type of orchid, so humans do all the work. And an incredible amount of work is involved. Unimaginable, nearly.

Once mature, each green vanilla pod is hand-harvested. Then they are sorted by size, all by hand, and set in the sun to dry for two months.

Next they are shade-dried for an additional two to four months, before being sorted again by hand to ensure uniform size post-shrinkage.

The beans are then aged for six months or more, until they are the glossy black beans we are accustomed to seeing. Shockingly, after all that time and effort, the growers are only paid about $35 dollars per kilo for top quality beans. Since I normally pay exactly that amount for eight ounces of vanilla extract I had expected that they’d earn more.

The owner of the Vanilla House shows us a few animals they keep around the place, like this python,

and this coconut crab, which is really huge. The grounds are lovely,

showcasing fruits, shells, and coral from the island.

On the way back to the ship we see some traditional houses.

This one is the business of a beach-side hair-braider, and her decorations show off her braiding skills.

It’s yet another island of surreal beauty and contrasts. In the van on our tour I got to sit up front with the driver, who chattered away in French with me the entire way. She’s educated, a former teacher, and discusses French politics and the recent New Caledonian independence referendum with me. On the other hand, her husband is the chief of their tribe, and she tells me that they are in the middle of gathering their required 1000 fronds for the every five years’ re-thatching of the “great chief’s” house. 

When I tell her that requiring 1000 fronds sounds kind of feudal, she says “Oh yes, we are feudal here. But we are modern too. Everyone on Lifou has electricity and running water.” It’s a study in differences. And I’ll never complain about the price of vanilla again.

The France Of The South

December 3, 2018

I don’t know about you, but this isn’t exactly how I picture France. Possibly you’re thinking that I meant to write “the south of France” instead of “the France of the south.” But no, mais non, and pas du tout. The confusion is real, but it’s not due to a typing error.

If you walked into a grocery store and saw this

wouldn’t you think you were in France? Setting aside the fact that it’s awfully hot to be eating foie gras, and that the carbon footprint of shipping all that food to the South Pacific from mainland France is unconscionable, it’s pretty convincing. Well, that Pandoro might be a bit idiosyncratic, because it’s technically Italian, but it’s exactly what we used to buy in France at Christmas time. Actually, we bought all that stuff in our small town in France. And the whole store is entirely full of foods grown, canned, packaged, and processed in Europe.

The thing is, you are, and then again you kind of aren’t, in France here. People speak French, and are French citizens, hold French passports, but step outside the grocery store and you might find yourself here.

at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, on Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, or as it’s properly called, Nouvelle-Calédonie. It was my first experience of being in the non-European part of France, and it was quite a culture shock.

Not the least of which was caused by learning that even though I could see pastis, my favorite hot weather drink and one I was hoping to be able to imbibe on my ship’s balcony,  I couldn’t buy any. The entire alcohol section was closed. That’s because it’s not legal to sell alcohol after noon on weekend days, or on Wednesday afternoons, for some unfathomable reason.

And that, my friends, is how I knew that I was really and truly not in the France to which I have become happily accustomed.

Way Down Under

December 1, 2018

I didn’t get a lot done in Sydney. It’s really not a two-day visit place, so when you go, I suggest that you try to manege a couple of weeks there. And if you’re planning to get there by ship, pick a big one (although I never thought I’d say that).

Because we’re a relatively small ship

and could fit under the famously so-called “hanger” bridge, we paid a penalty for our lack of stature by having to dock way out in the boonies, far from town, whereas the big guys tie up right in the middle of it all. That increased considerably the hassle factor of getting around town. 

The first morning I went on a walking tour of the “Rocks” district, which is the site of the original settlements. This is the view from the highest natural point in Sydney, which is not particularly high, but is nonetheless pleasingly panoramic.

The green dome on the right is the weather observatory. The yellow ball near the center has a cool history. Although the original ball itself was very recently replaced, a yellow ball in that spot has told the time since 1858. At 1:00 every day the yellow ball, known as the Time Ball, is dropped so that all ships, or indeed anyone when can see the ball, can synchronize their time-telling devices.

Australia is a young country and Sydney is a young town, dating back only to 1788. Its development is commemorated by this mural.

Sydney takes its history seriously, and the entire Rocks district is the object of historical preservation.

One of the coolest things we saw was how an entire youth hostel had been built from the second floor up, leaving the whole ground floor open as a sort of living museum of early archaeology.

Some of the original old houses have been preserved, 

while others can be viewed from inside the foundations.

I don’t want you to think that I’m obsessed with toilets, but after some of the ones I saw in China, this one looks pretty nice.

I was also interested in a different sort of excavation, that of opals. As we traveled through Australia I was really hoping to find an opal to bring home, not a certain thing, since they are shockingly expensive, even here.

Although I fell in love with these beauties, which cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, I did eventually find a modest one to wear, thus ending my quest.

Eating in Sydney was funny. This guy didn’t hesitate so settle on my table looking for crumbs at one meal,

and at another a tardy busboy had to clear up after the depredations of these gulls.

And weirdly, I had a bowl of laksa here that was even better than what I had in Singapore. There’s a lot of Asian influence in the Sydney food scene.

I ended up walking all over downtown Sydney, and a couple of interesting things I noted in passing: the fluidity of time,

the beauty of street art and appreciation of birds,

and the sensibleness of the rental bikes coming equipped with helmets.

Of course their was a darker side. On the morning when there happened to be a month’s worth of rainfall deluging the city in a few-hour period, causing flooding in the streets and a general disappearance of taxis, I had an appointment at the American Consulate. Let me tell you, if you are planning a visit there, arrive at least half an hour early. The security there was even more intimidating than when I went to the embassy in Beijing.

You have to take a dedicated elevator to a floor that’s somewhere between a reception area and a holding cell. You are divested of your belt, watch, phone, and camera – I was even required to remove the battery from my camera before abandoning it. You are told to wait, and in what seat to wait. Then you are escorted to another floor, in a dedicated elevator, by a guard. On the return, you descend from that high floor so fast that your ears pop. One paragraph to describe, 30 minutes to execute it all. You can be sure that you are safe in that little part of Sydney.

However, some of us who had procured tickets months ago did have the privilege of attending a concert here, in the concert hall of the fabulous Opera House. Alas, we were a little too early for the opera season, but we did get to hear Daniel Barenboim conduct the Berlin Staatskapelle. One of the world’s best conductors, one of the world’s best orchestras, one of the world’s most beautiful music venues. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Eroïca – two familiar classics that, while not edgy or challenging, received their due with this virtuoso performance. We were thrilled to be there.

And now it’s time to head north, beginning the long voyage homeward. First stop, New Caledonia, la Nouvelle-Calédonie. I’m looking forward to being back in France.