I am crestfallen…

My trip to the volcano got canceled. I guess the roads on Tanna are flooded.

What also sucks is my ticket to the Solomons on Tuesday is for standby, so there is a chance I could be stuck here another week. If that turns out to be the case, I will certainly make the most of it and go to Tanna for several days.

Evri samting you wantem save long Bislama be yu fraet tumas blong askem*

First, I’d like to suggest the following to every college student who needs to satisfy a foreign language requirement to graduate but doesn’t really want to study a language….


I was totally able to understand a conversation a man who was helping me had with a coworker. Only a few words were beyond my comprehension. Zero experience in the language.

To anyone who says it isn’t a language: 1) it is on the money in Vanuatu “Reserve Bank Blong Vanuatu“, 2) Its the national motto of Vanuatu “Long God yumi stanap” (I believe it means “We stand up for God”), 3) It is spoken in different forms in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, 4) The national anthem is in Bislama, 5) there is a bible written in Bislama.

Vanuatu has about 120,000 people and 100 languages. You read that right. They have a language for every 1,200 people. Moreover, it was colonized jointly by the British and French, so both are spoken widely on the island.

This sounds like a recipe for disaster. Think of the problems of Canada on steroids. Yet, in the 27 years of independence that Vanuatu has had, it has been relatively peaceful. I think one reason has been Bislama.

One thing I’ve noticed in the Pacific is that most people are bilingual. There is a good reason for this. In the case of Samoa or Tonga, there is a unified language in the country, but they also speak English as their conduit to the outside world. The same is true much of French Polynesia, but some islands speak slightly different variations and they speak French instead of English.

This allows them to get most of the benefits of the outside world. In school they have ample text books, they can watch TV stations from New Zealand or Australia, American movies, etc.

In the case of Fiji, English also serves as sort of a neutral language. Half the population speaks Hindi and half speaks Fijian. English gets them the same links to the outside world as in Samoa or Tonga, but the added benefit of having a common language between the different groups.

In Vanuatu, Bislama serves as the neutral language and English/French serve as the outside languages. From what I understand, outside of the Capital, not many people speak both French and English, so they can’t really be used as a neutral language as it is in Fiji.

You can almost think of languages in this region (and other places for that matter. India, Nigeria and Singapore all use English as a neutral language between many different language groups) as serving different levels

  1. The language you speak at home and in your village.
  2. The language you speak between villages and around the country.
  3. The language you speak to communicate with the outside world.

In Fiji, number 2 and 3 are the same. In Samoa and Tonga, number 1 and 2 are the same. In Vanuatu, they are all different. (I’m sure on the remote islands, some skip number 3 entirely).

There are similar English pidgin languages in the Solomons and Papua New Guinea too.

Here are some of my favorite words/phrases I’ve come across in Bislama (dirty words first of course):

  • Bra: Basket blong titi
  • Sexual Intercourse: Hambag
  • Diving Mask: daevaglas
  • Everything Everywhere:Evri samting Evri samwea
  • Helicopter:Mixmaster blong Jesus Christ
  • Piano: black fala box we igat black teeth, hemi gat white teeth you faetem hard I singout
  • Saw: Pulem I kam, pushem I go, wood I fall down

*Everything you wanted to know about Bislama but were afraid to ask
I ripped this title off from a book I purchased.

Port Vila Quickie

I’m alive in Vanuatu. I’m working on my arrangements for this weekend. I’m hoping to spend two days on the island of Tanna.

Initial impressions:

  • Obviously much poorer than New Caledonia – around Tonga/Samoa levels of income it seems.
  • They have put much more effort into tourism than other countries I’ve seen in the Pacific.
  • French and English are both spoken. It is like Canada in that respect but more mixed. They speak a common language of Bislama, which I will write more about later. It’s fascinating.
  • I’m really excited to find some ‘hairs of Pele’ at the volcano. I’m a guy who spent 3 hours in the rain on this trip searching for reticulite in Hawaii.
  • I want to try and learn some Bislama.

Au revoir la Nouvelle-Calédonie

I’m sitting in the Noumea airport milking their free wireless internet for all it’s worth before my flight to Port Vila, Vanuatu.

In talking to people online, most have never heard of New Caledonia….or Vanuatu. They certainly don’t know where they are and know nothing about them. I really can’t blame anyone for not knowing where tiny countries in the Pacific are. I certainly didn’t know anything about them before I started doing research for my trip.

Because I didn’t know much about these places, I really didn’t have any sort of mental image of what it might be like. For example, I have a definite idea of what China will be like. Everyone is familiar with Chinese food, music, clothese, etc. Everyone knows Chinese people. So, right or wrong, you probably have some sort of mental image of what China will be like.

You probably have no mental image for what New Caledonia is like. I certainly didn’t before I got here. I just sort of assumed it would be like Papeete, Tahiti I guess. Both are French territories in the Pacific so I just assumed they could be similar. For that reason, I only scheduled to stay here for 3 days.

Boy was I wrong.

Noumea is the nicest city in the Pacific (New Zealand and Hawaii aside). It really could be a city transported from the south of France. The majority of the city seems to be French, with a Kanak minority (where as the rest of the Island has a Kanak plurality). The cars are French, there are cheap baguettes, French TV….everything.

There are several marinas in town and they were all loaded with sailboats. I saw a few in other pacific islands, but nothing like in Noumea. There were easily several times more sailboats here than I saw in the rest of the Pacific combined (again, excluding New Zealand).

I’m really surprised this isn’t on more lists of places to visit. Even though its one of the closer islands in the pacific to Australia, the number of Australian tourists seems low. Its mostly French and Japanese.

I think not spending more time here will be one of my regrets for the Pacific…

Anyway, I’m off to Vanuatu in a few hours and I’m really looking forward to this part of the trip. Visiting the volcano should be one of the highlights so far. I don’t know how net access in Vanuatu will be, so you might not get any updates for a few days.

High Dynamic Range

Over the course of my trip I’ve been playing around with a photographic technique called High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography. Basically, it involves merging different images of scenes that have very dark and very bright elements into one photos. Today I went into Noumea to play around with it and see if I could take any interesting photos. I really haven’t had success in doing HDR up until recently. I took my first good HDR image in Tonga.

I was able to step inside St. John’s Catholic church in Noumea. I haven’t had much opportunity to take photos inside buildings here in the pacific. There isn’t much in the way of historical buildings. I used this as an opportunity to test if I could do HDR inside.

This first photo is taken in the foyer of the building. The inside of the room was very dark with bright light streaming through the stained glass onto the baptism font inside. The color of the gate really jumps out as does the stained glass.

This is the inside of the church. Thankfully, the men in the pew didn’t move while I took the photos (seven in all). I think one was asleep.

Here is another one of the inside of the church, but without the direct exposure of the stained glass windows. I think this one is a bit better. The color in the stained glass isn’t as powerful.

The final image was taken out doors. You’ll notice that it looks very different than the rest. The sun was behind the clouds at the time I took the photo. This surreal look is something I really don’t care for. Unlike the indoor photos, this isn’t even close to what it really looked like when I took the photo.

I really wish I had my shutter release when I was in Easter Island could I could have done a few of these. They would have been amazing and would have worked well with the cloudy skies I had.

I don’t expect to get too carried away with HDR, but it is a nice thing to be able to have available.

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

Almost every night I get to tell the same story: the story of my trip. Most people I meet on my travels are just visiting somewhere for a weekend. Sometimes I’ll pull out my laptop and show them the Google Earth map and walk them through the places I’ve been and the places I’m going.

People who are traveling for extended periods are usually just stopping in the Pacific on their way to somewhere else, usually the US or Australia/New Zealand. Few people visit more than one Pacific country. (Although I’ve met several Aussies and Kiwis who have been to several countries over the course of their lives)

I was asked by a woman last week, “Aren’t all the islands pretty much the same? Once you’ve seen one haven’t you seen them all?”

It’s a fair question I guess. Without having been there, I suppose most islands would seem the same. Certainly, in Polynesia at least, many things are similar. The languages are similar, the foods, what few they have, are similar, and the music and dancing are similar.

But they are different, sometimes dramatically so. The best example of this is a difference between Tonga and Samoa.

Tonga and Samoa have histories that are intertwined. Tonga was originally settled by Polynesians from Samoa. (In fact, all Polynesians can trace their roots back to Samoa). Prior to the arrival of Europeans Samoa was ruled by Tonga. Samoa and Tonga are both regional powers in Rugby. Both have populations similar in size. Both have large expatriate populations. And of course, they are close together.

Yet, Tonga and Samoa are very different.

For starters, Tonga was never colonized and Samoa was colonized by the Germans, New Zealand, and in part by the United States.

In Samoa they drive on the right and in Tonga they drive on the left.

Last September, the King of Tonga died and in May, the King of Samoa died. The King of Tonga was buried in the royal graveyard in the middle of the capital. No one can get within about 200 yards of the grave. The King of Samoa is buried off the road just north out from town near the parliament building, and the grave is accessible by everyone. Many people have left flowers at the site, but it isn’t a giant edifice like the Tonga royal graveyard is.

While in Tonga, I saw soldiers all over the place. Soldiers around the royal palace. Soldiers near the new king’s palace. Soldiers in the downtown. Solders out to keep peace during a high school rugby match. On the tour of the island, I was struck at how often our guide would mention stories or customs in villages that surrounded warriors. I also saw lots of police on the island. That is a lot of uniforms for a country of about 100,000.

In Samoa, they have no military. None. I saw a few police directing traffic. That’s it. The Samoans seemed like a much more peaceful people than the Tongans. The recent riots don’t take away from that perception. Nor does the historical fact that Samoa was conquered by the Tongans before the arrival of the Europeans.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Samoan village life is very structured around the village. Tongan villages seem more like small towns and not as highly centralized as Samoan villages.

I suppose if you just went to these islands to sit on the beach you wouldn’t catch a lot of this stuff. This is why I’m traveling.


I finally got the chance to visit a McDonald’s in Fiji. I had to look closely, but what I noticed was definitely a reflection of what makes up modern Fiji.

The first thing to notice was that there were six different value meals available. Big Mac, double cheeseburger, chicken sandwich, fish sandwich, chicken nuggets, and regular old pieces of chicken. Why is this worth mentioning? Because 2/3 of the menu wasn’t beef and 1/2 of the menu was chicken.

If you looked at the full menu, every item that had beef in it had a small (beef) label next to the item. Why the issue with beef? If you spend any time in Fiji you’d see it right away.

About half of the population in Fiji are Indian, and hence, you got a lot of Hindus.

The population distribution in Fiji isn’t just reflected in the menu at McDonald’s. It has in one way or another, been responsible for much of the political turmoil which Fiji has experienced in the last fifteen years, how its political and economic structure is based, and of course its history.

For starters look at a map of the pacific. Most of the island countries would be impossible to find if their names were printed on the map. Fiji, however, is easy to see. It is by far the largest country in the region, which means it has the potential for the greatest amount of agriculture.

Fiji is also unique in that it was asked to be colonized by the British. (That isn’t an imperial fable to make the British look good either. They asked because they saw it as a way to end conflict on the islands and they knew they’d be colonized by someone, so they picked British.) The British used Fiji to grow sugar cane. They also needed workers for the sugar cane fields.

The largest British colony at that time was India, so India became the source of most of the laborers for the sugar cane fields in India. (The same thing happened in Guyana in South America. Guyana remains the only county in the Western Hemisphere where the largest religion is Hindu.) Indian workers came to Fiji to earn money never left.

Fast forward to independence in the 1960s. Most of the important events which have occured since independence have had something to do with the Indian population in some way or another.

Land ownership in Fiji is heavily tilted to favor native Fijians. There are also set aside positions in the parliament for ethnic groups. Because of the landownership rules, Indians end up owning many of the stores and businesses in Fiji, similar to how Jews and Chinese often wound up business owners in places where they lived.

In 1988, there was a coup in Fiji which was due largely to increasing role of Indians in Fiji in the government. Since then there have been several other coups, the most recent being in December 2006.

The end result of all the instability is that enough Indians have left Fiji to give native Fijians a majority again.

So….there is a heck of a lot behind having chicken on the menu.

Moving on up to a delux apartment in the sky

When I started my trip I had originally planed on staying at a decent hotel once every one or two weeks. Nothing super fancy, but just nice.

So far, I really haevn’t done that at all. My luxuries have been in the form of single rooms at the hostel.

Well, I decided to go for broke here in Noumea. I’m staying at the Meridien. Three days of luxury before living with mosquitoes in off beat islands.

Before you go to a place, you only can read about it in guidebooks or on the web. It isn’t a substitute for being there. I really had no idea what to expect in New Caledonia. The only thing I ever recall reading about it was riots they had years ago against the French (and that will be part of a very long post I’m going to make soon).

Let me just say New Caledonia is really much more than I expected. The island is beautiful and I can see why Noumea is called “Paris on the Pacific”. This could easily be in the south of France.

It isn’t just a nice city “for the Pacific”, it’s just a plain nice city.

I can see why the French are so reluctant to give it up.

I’m off to take photos of Noumea. Being eight hours behind (16 hours ahead) of everyone you know is really becoming difficult.

Oh, on the advice of one the readers of this site, I’m going to postpone going to Papua New Guinea until I’m in Indonesia or Australia. The flights to PNG from the Solomons are too much of a pain in the ass, where as from Australia they are reliable and frequent.

Je suis en Nouvelle-Calédonie

First, the airport here has free wireless internet. Even if it wasn’t a nice airport (which it is) that alone would make it the best airport in the Pacific.

Once again, the French are the biggest sticklers at Immigration check in.

I’m off to find a place to stay (yeah, I don’t have that yet. I just sort of trust that here in the French summer is not the peak of the tourist season)

My plan for the next few days is to explore the environs of the city and try to eat some descent French food. No big trips into the heart of the island are planned…but you never know.

I once again have to deal with the dreaded Pacific Franc (XPF).