Merry Christmas from Oz

01st December 2010
Merry Christmas

Yes scarily it’s that time of year, and we’re sure that like us you’ll be wondering where the year has gone. Feels funny to be sending Christmas greetings from a sunny, hot Australia, somehow all the snow you’ve been having back home is ‘right’ for this time of year. Wonder what are the odds are for a white Christmas?
So here we are ‘down under’ in the land of kangaroos and wombats. The weather has actually been surprisingly wet due to La Niña, you may even have seen reports of flooding in New South Wales, but still at least it’s warm and as we’re still in T shirts and shorts we can’t really grumble. Although, as you can see some of the local resident, in a house we drove past, are far from impressed by the rain.

Visiting our friends Gary and Del it was incredible to sit on their veranda for breakfast, announce ‘I haven’t seen a kangaroo yet’ and right on cue several hopped across their lawn in much the way we’d see squirrels in the garden.
We’ve been enjoying glories of English sport with the autumn rugby international against Australia which we watched live in a crowded down town Brisbane pub in the middle of the night. The locals lost their vocals as the night wore on but as always, with rugby crowds, it was all very good humoured, even at 02.00am. Then, of course there is the cricket. We managed to get tickets for four of the days of the Brisbane Test and experienced the joys of the Barmy Army up close and personal.
Their repertoire of songs ranging from “God Save YOUR Queen … long to reign over YOU” to their own unique cover versions to the tunes of Yellow Submarine and Waltzing Matilda whose words we’d rather not repeat here! But seemed like HM enjoyed the performance. We hope to get tickets for the Sydney Test so will no doubt catch up with them then.
But this is jumping things a bit, as the last time many of you heard from us we were in Fiji. Our next stop was Vanuatu, somewhere else we have fallen in love with. Another example of a small independent developing state (SIDS) where the entire economy is dependent on donor aid, to the extent that Mike now refers to them as SUDS – small uneconomic developing states and you do wonder what their future will be. The capital Port Vila gave us a chance to catch up with friends Gabbie and Jonathan and the Blue Water Rally and a couple of fun evenings. Talking to many on the rally – which circumnavigates in much less time than it has taken us to get to Australia - they had found the pace and the speed they visited places very frustrating. In fact Gabbie and Jonathan are dropping out to spend more time in Australia and revisit some of French Polynesia at a more leisurely pace.
We had hoped to clear into Vanuatu on the southern island of Tanna, but weather prevented this, so we did the tourist thing and flew there for a couple of nights to visit Mount Yasurone of the world’s most active volcanoes that you are allowed to visit. It was an incredible experience, the ground literally shaking beneath our feet and the volcano rumbling and exploding every few minutes. None of this health and safety malarkey here, we were right up on the rim, no safety barriers, hard hats etc and it was very easy to see how you could easily have ended up as toast – something that happened to some Japanese tourists, not that long ago when they were hit by flying debris. As night fell the colours only got better as the reds and oranges of the molten magma and lava were highlighted against the black sky.
But our main reason for visiting Vanuatu (a country comprising umpteen islands) were the festivals held on the islands and for a month we became groupies, sailing from one island and its festival to the next. Each of the country’s islands, and sometimes each village, has its own distinct culture and language, so much so that they have had to evolve a common language - a Pidgin English called Bislama so they can speak to each other. We were tickled to hear that Prince Charles is referred to as ‘number one pikanini blong queen’. And the inflight magazine on our trip to Tanna said that the Bislama for things going wrong is “buggerup”, what civilisation we brought! But the festivals were extraordinary and we felt like we had wandered into a National Geographic article. They were well organised (if occasionally on island time) and clearly important to local villagers as much as to us, judging by the attendance. What became clear was that people only got to the festivals by boat; there isn’t the infrastructure that allows for people to fly in – yet. Just something else that added to the feeling we were seeing something very special that can only change in the years to come. For us one of the highlights has to be the festival on Ambryn with the finale on the last day of the Rom Dance. The costumes had been months in the preparation, by men only and were surrounded by various tabus. The explanation given to us was very sketchy as clearly there was only so much they were prepared to share, the rest being tabu, but that didn’t matter it was such a special event we felt very lucky to have witnessed it.

Things are changing already, mobile phone coverage spreading rapidly with resultant music down loads and hip hop type rhythms booming out of teenagers’ earpieces. TV via satellite is starting to creep in and we noticed a few lads with zigzag type patterns shaved into their hair. And one of Vanuatus most famous festivals, land diving which was a precursor to bungee jumpy, has been extended over three months so that rather than simply celebrate the harvest they can now accommodate cruise ships! It all felt very much like a culture on the cusp of change, something recognised more widely if the number of anthropologists we met is anything to go by. The festivals are part of their kastom or culture which was ‘rediscovered’ by people at the point of their independence 30 years ago. ‘It is what makes us Ni-Van’ to quote the literature. It’s a system which like any other has pros and cons. The village chiefs still hold power within a community and, for example if you want to leave an island to go to Port Vila for work; you need his permission to do so. This authority allows the chiefly system to sort out problems within a village – minor disputes, thefts etc. However for more serious crimes involving violence the police are involved. One person we made friends with, Chief Graham on Vanua Lava explained how the chiefly system works alongside the police, the nearest constable a 3 hours hike over a mountain. Graham and a woman in his village are helping tackle domestic violence, an endemic problem within the culture. When he becomes aware of a problem he has a quiet word with the offender over a cup of kava (yes that intoxicating root drink is here as well). If that doesn’t work then the local paramount chief and police join in giving him a final official warning and we were told this usually stopped the problem. If not then the guy would end up in the criminal system.
But kastom is not all wonderful and in some villages we could see it holding back progress, mainly due to the way it was being followed. One chief in another village told us how he didn’t let his children spend more than 3 years at school, to learn the basics, as he could teach them about kastom, which in his view was all they needed to know to survive. What he couldn’t accept was how he was narrowing their horizons, so desperate was he to preserve the traditions of his ancestors. This was despite his daughters asking him if they could go to school as they wanted to learn English properly. It was heart breaking. It did leave us wondering how as a country they could ever truly move forward into the 21st century. How do you marry the positives of the ‘old’, the best of the system of chiefs, the respect for older people, villagers working together and supporting one another etc with the ‘new’ and a desire to develop, to grow the economy and improve basic healthcare and education without depending on hand outs from rich nations? Australia for instance pays for all the primary education in Vanuatu.
But we also have a conundrum. We are welcomed into people’s villages and home and so it feels right to reciprocate and welcome them aboard Sea Rover, which we have done on many occasions. However, I was struck by Mamu, a young girl who had been our guide, explaining the dances and their significance at one festival. When we dinghy-ed her out to our boat, after looking around she announced she didn’t want to go home. It was a joke but there was an edge to it. Had we played our part in sowing the seeds of discontent, showing her a life she couldn’t have, a life she will see more of as satellite dishes are beginning to appear in some, once remote, villages? Inviting people into our home still feels ‘right’ and certainly many seemed to appreciate the interaction with the boats anchored off shore.

All of which is, as you’ll imagine, quite a contrast to Australia, not least as I can now go to a supermarket rather than bartering old clothes for fresh produce (no shops on the islands so money has little value but goods they can’t get hold of – T shirts, tools etc are eagerly sought in return for mountains of fresh produce). Wonder how this will change as I doubt you can barter a banana for your mobile phone top up.
It was lovely seeing so many of you when we were back in the UK in October, but as ever frustrating as well, with snatched short conversations rather than longer ones, but still wonderful to see you all. We will try and think of something that allows for more chat when we are back in the UK in July 2011.

But for now we are looking forward to Christmas with our friend Rosie joining us in Sydney, catching up with cruising friends – could be quite a party in Sydney, and sending you our love and best wishes for a wonderful Christmas and a New Year that brings you all you could wish for.

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