South Pacific! (Not the musical, the cruising adventure!)

Through a bit of luck, we had the chance to travel through the South Pacific for Christmas on a cruise ship.  It was T’s first ever cruise and it has easily been 20 years since I went on one to the Bahamas with two sorority sisters.  So at 4am one morning, we staggered to the taxi waiting to take us to the airport, got a crazy-early flight to Sydney, Australia, and got on a floating city (otherwise known as the Rhapsody of the Seas) later that afternoon.  We cruised to an area of the South Pacific known as Melanesia and visited islands in New Caledonia and Vanuatu.  My French (a necessity in New Caledonia) was rusty to non-existent, and I wound up saying “Ah, oui!” a lot.  It seemed to work.  Je comprend un peu, however, so I had entire conversations with people in which I nodded a lot, said “oui” a lot, and occasionally said, “Non.”

One phrase I knew well, however, was”C’est combien?” (How much?).  It was always on the tip of my tongue.  Much to T’s distress.

We went snorkeling in Vanuatu, had a bit of a car adventure in Noumea, New Caledonia, got frustrated in Lifou (also New Caledonia), and enjoyed swimming in the sea and laying on the soft, shell beach of Mystery Island.  But by far, our favorite place was Isle des Pins (Isle of Pines) and we’re pretty sure we want to go back.  Here are some pictures from our trip.  Enjoy!

Leaving Sydney harbour and floating past the Sydney Opera House.

The Jean-Marie Tijbaou Cultural Center, Noumea, New Caledonia.

Our first stop was the capital city of New Caledonia, Noumea.  New Caledonia is under French rule, but the Kanaks are the indigenous people of New Caledonia.  The Tijbaou center is a celebration of Kanak culture and an homage to the leader of the Kanak independence movement.

A replica of a grand case (big/important house--primarily ceremonial and one per tribe)

Beautiful Anse Vata (still in Noumea) where we had lunch on the beach. French baguette, cheese, apples, and juice.

Saying "Au revoir!" to New Caledonia. For a day, at least.

Our next stop was Port Vila in Vanuatu.  I should mention that it rained for a good portion of our trip (though it IS rainy season!), so when we could snap pics in the sunshine, we did.  Vanuatu was all about snorkeling and eating super-fresh pineapple and berries from the market.

snorkeling in Vanuatu. Honestly, it was like swimming in a tropical aquarium!

Yummy fruit and veg from the market in Port Vila.

In front of the market in Port Vila. In addition to fruit and veggies, there were gorgeous flowers, exotic fruit drinks, dancing, singing, and lots of fun.

What does that say? No sitting on the wall.

The next day, we went to Mystery Island, part of Vanuatu.  It’s very small and just a great place to swim in the sea and laze about in the sun.  Which is exactly what we did.

Enjoying the beach and marveling at the crystal clear water.

Local boys, playing in a field, just off of a small cove on Mystery Island.

That's 200 Vatus, or about $4.00 NZ. Still, it's a long way to go for a cup of coffee!

After Port Vila and Mystery Island, we headed to Lifou, another island in New Caledonia.  This one was more frustrating.  We landed in an area that wasn’t near any major areas, and there was very little information (and a lot of misinformation) about how to get anywhere.  In the end, we paid for a 45 minute tour that we thought was taking us to We (pronounced way), but in the end, no one seemed to know the way to We.  (I couldn’t help myself, sorry).  No matter, we walked to the top of a cliff and got amazing views and got some great pictures too.

Coming in to Lifou.

The view from the top of the cliff. Definitely worth the climb!

Leaving Lifou--I was ready for another swim!

Our final stop on the trip was Isle des Pins (Isle of Pines), New Caledonia.  The people were warm and kind and greeted us with flowers as we came off the tender boat.  The island is pristine and mostly undeveloped (i.e., there was a complete lack of tacky tourist stops.  Hooray!).  We had hoped to go out on a Pirogue, which is an outrigger boat and something that Isle of Pines is best known for.  Alas, the weather did not want to cooperate, so we rented a car instead and explored the island by foot and by car.

Perfect snorkeling water.

Column pines, what the island is known for. They look like jagged teeth from far away. This was near Baie d'Oro. We took a nice bush walk across to a natural swimming hole, but it was too cold and rainy to take a dip.

Part of a pirogue, waiting patiently in the bay.

Like being home. Our walk back to the tender port--I could have walked this tree-lined drive for days.

A final glimpse of one of the many gorgeous bays at Isle of Pines.

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The Reason for the Season: George the Goat

I love Christmas.  I do.  It is, in fact, the most wonderful time of the year.  At least, it’s the most wonderful time of the year when you’re sitting on your couch, listening to Christmas carols while gazing fondly at your Christmas tree.

The reality is, though, you have about ten minutes to do that.  Usually on Christmas night.  After the pandemonium.  And when you’re lying prostrate in a Christmas cake stupor.

Before that, though—if you’re like me—you’re freaking out.  You’re trying to find thoughtful gifts that are *just* right for the people who you want to give them to.  You may even be attempting arts and crafts projects that are made to look “Oh So Simple!” in the glossy magazine spread, but which in your clumsy, left-handed fingers, looks like art therapy on anger day.

Okay.  Maybe I’m talking about myself.  Okay, yes.  I am talking about myself.

I have experienced a greater-than-average amount of holiday anxiety this year, all of which can be put down to the goat.

Let me explain.

I would like to believe that I am a good gift-giver.  I don’t think I am, though.  That is not to say that my gifts are not thoughtful—they are.  They just don’t always … work.  I fear that I will be the aunt who gives her unfortunate nephew a fuzzy bunny suit one year.  You know, because he’s into bunnies, it’s cold, and it’s adorable.  This was never brought home to me more so than when having to find a gift for T’s oldest brother as part of the family Christmas draw.  What do you give a guy you don’t know and who lives far, far away?

Apparently, you give him a goat.

I really dig the Oxfam Christmas gift project.  Instead of just making donations to causes in your friends’ names and sending them a little note saying you’ve done so, you buy them goats.  Or water.  Or domestic violence prevention.  Or soap.  You make the donation to Oxfam, and they give you a cheeky little card to give the person in whose name you made the donation.  I admit it.  I was taken with the goat.  Wouldn’t you be?  Look at that face!  It’s the face of George, the goat.  George, the life-giving goat that goes to Papua New Guinea and gives a family nourishment, the chance of baby goats, and a way out of extreme poverty.

I wrote out a funny card that included a reference to goat poo.

I was very pleased with George.

Until someone mentioned that giving someone a goat like this (who had not asked for one) is little bit like foisting your idea of charity on them.  It was an off-hand comment, not meant to be anything more than, well, an off-hand comment.

Did I absorb it as an off-hand comment? No.  Of course not.  Instead, I went into a silent anxiety spiral.

“Oh God.  OH GOD!” I thought to myself.  “I’ve given the poor man a goat!  A GOAT!  Who wants a goat?!?!”

How do you fix giving someone a goat?

You give him woolly slipper socks.  Apparently.  But solely for the purpose of then being able to say (to yourself, of course):

“OH GOD!  I’ve given him a goat AND socks!  A goat and SOCKS??? What was I thinking??”

I mentioned this to a few friends and these people—people who didn’t even know who I was talking about—immediately came up with at least five good present options. Five.  None of which involved goats or socks.

I shot each of them a scornful glance full of reproach.  Where were they when I was buying the goat??

I sorted it in the end (reluctantly relying on one of the five suggestions) (and yes, the goat is still part of the equation), but I had some serious feelings of gift-anxiety for a while.

Now, before people start hopping up and down that this is exactly what’s wrong with Christmas, I have gift-anxiety in every possible situation.  From the “should I?” to the “shouldn’t I?” to the “This?” or the “That?”  It’s not limited to Christmas. It’s birthdays, weddings, house warmings, going away luncheons, anniversaries–the list is endless.  And it’s not about expense, either.  Some of the best gifts I ever found were ridiculously cheap, but they seemed perfect.  For me, it’s about finding something that says, “Hey.  I know you.  I pay attention to you. You mean something to me.” Maybe that’s the real issue–the not knowing.  I suspect my narcissistic level of self-imposed anxiety has more to do with wishing I knew T’s brother better.  It really doesn’t have anything to do with the goat.

When I really think about it, people are usually just happy to be remembered.  They’re happy that you’ve made an effort, no matter what that effort is.  The simple act of giving shows them that you care. And perhaps, George the Goat really is the best gift of all.  Maybe he really is the reason for the season.

Live long, George.  Live long.

Looking mighty fine, George. Mighty fine, indeed. (courtesy of the oxfam website)

The Beautiful and the Wretched

T and I travelled to the Bay of Islands this past weekend to celebrate his birthday early (unbelievably, our birthdays are only a day a part, and I have this thing about birthdays being both individual and individually special).  I had never been and he had only been there once or twice.

The top of the North Island. We started in Whangarei, drove to Pahia, Russell, Opua, and Kerikeri, and across to Kaihohe and Hokianga

The Bay of Islands is considered a wee gem, even by New Zealand standards.  Sometimes, it feels like you’re visually overstimulated living here.  You can’t appreciate the pretty because there’s no “ugly”, there’s no wretchedness.

This trip was beautiful.  And it was ugly.  And at the end of it, I came away enriched in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.  There are four reasons for this—some light-hearted, some just gorgeous, and others troubling and unsettling.  But first, let’s start with the fun.

Reason number  1:  The toilets

We flew into Whangarei and then drove to Paihia, stopping in Kawakawa for a break at the famous Hundertwasser Toilets.  Frederic Hundertwasser was a Viennese architect with a very, erm, interesting aesthetic.  He bought a second home on the coast near Kawakawa.  When the local council announced in 1998 that they wanted to refurbish the 40 year old toilets, he volunteered a design in his idiosyncratic style.  Given the whimsical approach New Zealand takes to many public spaces, it’s not surprising that Hundertwasser’s plan was adopted, grass roof and all. The design also includes a living Macropiper excelsus tree, after which the town is named (The Maori word for the tree is Kawakawa). This was the only building he designed in the southern hemisphere, and it now is probably the most photographed public toilet in the world.  It’s also, the weirdest.  Here are a few of my pictures of it:

The inside of the toilet area

From the outside

Reason number 2: Stunning landscapes.

This is simply photo porn.  Enjoy!

Looking from Flagstaff Hill, Russell

The shoreline in Russell

A small boat in the Opua harbour

A gorgeous old church near Paihia

Rainbow Falls

Looking down at the Stone Store in Kerikeri--the oldest stone building in New Zealand.

Reason number 3: Standing up for what’s right.

This was an unexpected experience and one—on reflection—I’m grateful for.

We took the ferry over to Russell from Paihia—all of a 5 minute trip.  Russell is a lovely, resortish sort of place full of boutiques, cafes, and old buildings with historical markers.  It is also the first capital of New Zealand and the sight where European settlers arrived, including Anglican missionaries who witnessed to the local Maori population.  It reminded me a bit of a seaside Savannah.

You could really feel the history in some of the places.  As I sat in one, alone and deep in thought, a woman came in with cleaning supplies.  She was on the building’s cultural board and it was her weekend to tidy up.  We struck up a conversation.  She was from the UK originally, but had lived in New Zealand for about  thirty years.  We talked about Savannah and the South.  She mentioned that the evening before she had attended a Thanksgiving dinner with some people from New Orleans.

What I’m leading up to starts with what she said next.

“They said that there was still so much racism there,” she said.

Not sure where she was going with this, I replied, “I think it’s fair to say that racism exists everywhere.”

“Well not here.  There’s no racism here.”

I think my raised eyebrows gave away my surprise.

She explained.  “It’s not about racism with the Maoris.  It’s about role models.  They aren’t very good role models for their children, are they?”

“Excuse me?”

She leaned in a way that I can only describe as conspiratorial.  And it angered me.  “They’re all on the benefit.  All they’re doing is teaching their kids to be lazy and live on the benefit.”

At this point, I had a choice.  I could smile benignly and change the subject, thus letting it go, or I could say something.

I said something.

“I don’t think that’s really accurate,” I began.  “And, regardless, it’s not about role models.  It’s about ending a cycle of oppression and racism.  That takes a long time– it’s endemic  *and* systemic.  You can’t just change that overnight.  And to say that racism doesn’t exist here is just… well, I’m sorry, but it’s just wrong.”

She waved her hands in the air.  “Oppression?  Racism?  I think that’s debatable.”

“There’s nothing debatable about laws that basically stripped Maori of their property or that laws that prohibited Maori children from speaking their own language in public,” I said, genuinely angry at this point.  “ I don’t know what you call it, but that sounds like oppression and racism to me.”

Before she could reply, we were interrupted by a jovial older man who came in to join her in her cleaning.  She turned away and I returned to some quiet contemplation.  I think God was probably looking out for us both in that moment.

I was seething inside, though.  The conversation had really bothered me, for obvious reasons.  But what really angered me was that she somehow thought I might be sympathetic to what she was saying.  Was it because I was an immigrant, like her?  Was it because I was a white girl from the South?  Was I being overly sensitive to the issue because I *am* from the South and race relations are always present somewhere in the periphery.   I don’t know.  At this point, I don’t care, but I was honestly astounded that she believed that these were “truths” and thus safe to share with a total stranger.

It rattled me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

In fact, it still rattles me.

In contemplation, I am glad of two things.  First, I am glad I said something.  For lots of reasons I won’t go into here, people don’t always have the luxury of being able to say something.  I know some would disagree with me on that point.

Second, it’s the first time I’ve encountered such direct statements about race in New Zealand, and honestly one of the few times I have encountered it in my life.  That shows me that while there is obviously still a lot of work to be done, there’s a lot that has already been done.  I can live with that.  For now.

Reason number 4: Seeing where it all started

Tying everything together was our visit to the Waitangi Treaty grounds on our last day.  Waitangi is typically translated as weeping waters.  Though, some believe it can also translate into falling tears.

The Waitangi Treaty grounds is the site where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the Crown and the Maori.  It is the birthplace of modern New Zealand.  It’s where it all started for most of us.  It’s where it changed for many others.

I thought about the Revolutionary War and the birth of America.  I thought about the riots and the skirmishes and the wars going on all over the world over so many of the things that I experienced in the microcosm of our weekend away.  Once again, I realised that the same struggles exist almost everywhere to one degree or another.  That people are fighting, have fought, and will fight for many of the same things.

As I stood looking out over a gorgeous bay under the shade of century old trees, the Tui birds danced and sang on their branches.  Anyone I know here will tell you that I have a thing about the Tui birds.  I looked up and I smiled.   And I thought to myself, “This is New Zealand,” this is the world,  both the beautiful and the wretched.

Looking out over the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Inside the Waitangi Wharenui