Monday, October 27, 2008

Southward through the western Pacific

Greetings from New Zealand, where our boat made four stops prior to our disembarkation in Auckland. We'll discuss NZ in the next blog and limit this one to our last three stops before then, at Vanuatu and two places in New Caledonia.

Vanuatu is one of the smaller and certainly less-well-known countries in the western Pacific. It's about 800 miles across, but well over 99% of that is water, interrupted by its 6 dozen mostly small islands. We stopped at the capital, Port Vila, and spent the day walking about. It looks somewhat like the cities we stopped at in the two Samoas and Fiji,
with an open air market downtown (with live chickens in a bag, if you want really fresh poultry for dinner), a small shopping area mixing small shops with internet cafes,
and modest homes running up the fairly steep hillsides. The government buildings were mostly recycled (and uninspiring) British and French government buildings dating back to the period of joint rule, officially called the Condominium but more popularly and accurately known as the Pandemonium. There were for several decades separate laws, courts and even prisons for the British and French, with one or the other favored for its prison cuisine or the laxity of its laws, for those whose lifestyle choices gave them reason to have to pick between the two.

One of Vanuatu's claims to fame is the number of indigenous languages, 113 still actively spoken, the most of any nation on a per capita basis. Consequently, a common second language was needed, and Bislama is it. It is a pidgin language using Polynesian grammar and mostly English words, but spelled the way they hear it.
The Economic Development Office is the "Dipatmen Mo Bisnes," and the sign shown here from the grounds of an elementary school troubled by people walking and driving through campus gives you some more of the flavor of Bislama. It was located, BTW, in the neighborhood of Nambawan, with nearby suburban areas named Nambatu and Nambatri. Just coincidentally, there were three radar stations in Port Vila during WW II, named #1, #2 and #3.

There is some tourism there, of course, and this quaint little island resort is right in the middle of the harbor of the capital city. And what would a tourist spot be without tourist goods? Since our rather large boat had to tie up at the cargo container port,
the merchants came out and set up stalls selling mostly clothing, wood carvings and jewelry, and we picked up a couple of necklaces here for our stepgrandkids in Austin.

The next stop was probably the most interesting of the trip, and the one that was the biggest mystery beforehand: Ile des Pins, an island in the south of New Caledonia. It did indeed have a number of Cook's Pines,
also known as Araucaria columnaris, which tree-hugger Jeff got up close and personal with.

The arrival of our boat and its 1350 passengers and 600 crew more than doubled the number of people on this island, which is roughly round and about 8 miles in diameter. It was much larger, however, than some of the little islands we passed en route, however! Since the harbor is fairly shallow, we tendered in,

and Jeff headed off with fellow passengers Linda and Alex to climb Pic n'Ga, the highest point.

The bougainvillea (large flowering plants shown) and lantana (in closeup) on the way up competed with the views from the top for photographic interest. It was actually surprising how very little you could see of the hand of man from the summit.

Looking past those pines to the far side of the island, we could not see a single building with our binoculars, and even on the more populated side near the boat there only a few buildings to be seen, plus one windmill for electric power generation.

Louise meanwhile enjoyed the tropical water next to Le Rocher, a very impressive rock indeed, and one which is tapu (taboo) for outsiders to step foot on. After descending from on high,
Jeff got as close as one is allowed. The nearby resort looked oh, so inviting, but we picked up a brochure later on and gasped at the price. Let's put it this way, a week there would cost more than our 29-day cruise!
Boy, idyllic is so pricey these days!

Next day we pulled into Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia and the largest city in between New Zealand and Hawaii, almost 100,000 in population. New Caledonia is the largest producer of nickel in the world, and Noumea is the main port, so it certainly has its industrial side.
But the city proper was remarkably European with a South Seas touch, as our two welcoming parties illustrate. It's still a French territory, and it had the Citroens and Renaults on the streets to prove it. We walked several miles through the city,
with the obligatory hike up the highest hill with a lookout,
the Roman Catholic cathedral,
and the aquarium the high points of our tour. L'Aquarium de Lagon (of the lagoon) had great tanks of tropical fish of the sort that would not exactly fit in your living room,

and we particularly admired this two-foot-long fish known as a Napoleon.

We actually figured out the bus and monetary systems enough to take a city bus back from there through the residential part of town, and it compared favorably with a fair number of American towns in modernity and attractiveness. Afterwards, we had a few French Polynesian Francs left to spend so Jeff wandered through the grand marche (that's French, the official language there, for supermarket) to spend them. He was amazed at how much it resembled an American one, even down to the shapes and sizes of the yogurt containers and spagetti sauce bottles -- well, approximate sizes, as they are metric, but oh so similar to what we know back home. The prices were also not much different than in the States, roughly similar for a half-dozen items he checked, never much more than 50% higher for a few items (a dozen quality eggs at $4, for example). Of course the wages in New Caledonia probably make a trip to the grand marche a bit more painful for the locals, but that's another story.

At last we put Grand Terre, the main island of New Caledonia (and one of the larger Pacific islands, by the way, at about half the size of Taiwan) at the rear of the boat, and headed south to New Zealand. We'll tell you more about that adventure in our next blog.

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