Traditional Culture on Ambrym

Vanuatu slit drums in the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, France

Vanuatu slit drums in the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, France

The Ambrym islanders of Vanuatu produce high-quality woodcarvings and tree fern figures in large quantities. As in most of northern Vanuatu, a powerful system of traditional copyright applies, and only those with the traditional rights to make certain types of objects are allowed to do so.

Vanuatu’s most famous handicrafts come from North Ambrym, especially the tall slit drums called tamtams in Bislama. Craftsmen slot and hollow two-meter breadfruit logs, then carve faces on them, and these are used as signal drums. Also characteristic are the black tree ferns carved for the mhehe graded rituals, and bamboo flutes up to a meter long with burnt-in geometric designs. Painted masks with hair of bleached banana fiber are worn in rites to increase the yield of yams. Masks worn by participants in Rom dances during the Ole ceremony in July and August represent certain spiritual aspects of power associated with yams.

Storytellers on Ambrym use intricate sand drawings to illustrate their tales. Up to 180 stylized patterns that the artist draws without removing his finger from the sand can convey a variety of messages. Ambrym sorcerers are famous throughout Vanuatu for their magic, often associated with the destructive power of the island’s volcanoes.

Headhunters on My Doorstep

Headhunters on My Doorstep J. Maarten Troost, bestselling author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages, has produced a new title, Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story. If you are a recovering alcoholic and Robert Louis Stevenson fan like Troost, continents give you trouble. As he says, “bad things happen to me on large land masses.” Which is why he ends up island hopping in the South Pacific after a stint in rehab. In this new memoir, Troost chronicles his journey through obscure and hard-to-get-to islands following in the wake of Robert Louis Stevenson’s final journey through the South Seas. En route he rediscovers the joys of nature and the beauty of life.

From literary and pop culture references to famous artists and alcoholics through the ages, Troost regales his readers with hilarious tales of what it is like to recover from addiction while adventuring across the seas. Headhunters on My Doorstep will captivate travel-writing aficionados, Robert Louis Stevenson fans, and anyone who has ever lost their way. Read about some of Troost’s favorite funny island names (including Fakarava), discover some new ways to explore the South Pacific, learn about the distinct histories and cultures of the islands, and revisit the life and travels of the legendary Robert Louis Stevenson. Headhunters on My Doorstep, to be released by Gotham Books on August 20, 2013, is easily the South Pacific travel book of the year.

Coconut Time in the South Seas

coconuts The international dateline generally follows 180 degrees longitude and creates a difference of 24 hours in time between the two sides. It swings east at Tuvalu to avoid slicing Fiji in two. This can be confusing, as Samoa, which chooses to observe the same day as neighboring Fiji, Tonga, and New Zealand, has the same clock time as American Samoa but is a day ahead! Everything in the Eastern Hemisphere west of the dateline is a day later, everything in the Western Hemisphere east of the line is a day earlier (or behind). Air travelers lose a day when they fly west across the dateline and gain it back when they return. Keep track of things by repeating to yourself, “If it’s Sunday in American Samoa, it’s Monday in Manila.”

The islanders operate on “coconut time”–the nut will fall when it is ripe. In the languid air of the South Seas punctuality takes on a new meaning. Appointments are approximate and the service relaxed. Even the seasons are fuzzy: sometimes wetter, sometimes drier, but almost always hot. Slow down to the island pace and get in step with where you are. You may not get as much done, but you’ll enjoy life more. Daylight hours in the tropics run 6 am to 6 pm with few seasonal variations.

Avoiding Sunburn

Sofitel Fiji Resort, Denarau Island, Fiji

Sofitel Fiji Resort, Denarau Island, Fiji

Though you may think a tan will make you look healthier and more attractive, it’s actually very damaging to the skin, which becomes dry, rigid, and prematurely old and wrinkled, especially on the face. Begin with short exposures to the sun, perhaps half an hour at a time, followed by an equal time in the shade. Drink plenty of liquids to keep your pores open and avoid the sun from 10 am to 3 pm, the most dangerous time. Clouds and beach umbrellas will not protect you fully. Wear a T-shirt while snorkeling to protect your back. Sunbathing is the main cause of cataracts to the eyes, so wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, and beware of reflected sunlight.

Use a sunscreen lotion containing PABA rather than oil, and don’t forget to apply it to your nose, lips, forehead, neck, hands, and feet. Sunscreens protect you from ultraviolet rays (a leading cause of cancer), while oils magnify the sun’s effect. A 15-factor sunscreen provides 93 percent protection (a more expensive 30-factor sunscreen is only slightly better at 97 percent protection). Apply the lotion before going to the beach to avoid being burned on the way, and reapply every couple of hours to replace sunscreen washed away by perspiration. Swimming also washes away your protection. After sunbathing take a tepid shower rather than a hot one, which would wash away your natural skin oils. Stay moist and use a vitamin E evening cream to preserve the youth of your skin. Calamine ointment soothes skin already burned, as does coconut oil. Pharmacists recommend Solarcaine to soothe burned skin. Rinsing off with a vinegar solution reduces peeling, and aspirin relieves some of the pain and irritation. Vitamin A and calcium counteract overdoses of vitamin D received from the sun. The fairer your skin, the more essential it is to take care.

As earth’s ozone layer is depleted due to the commercial use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other factors, the need to protect oneself from ultraviolet radiation is becoming more urgent as deaths from skin cancer are on the increase. Previously the cancers didn’t develop until age 50 or 60, but now much younger people are affected.

Garry Hawkins of London, England, sent me this comment: “Also worth pointing out: be careful with certain malaria prophylaxis (preventatives) and treatments with respect to exposure to sunshine (or UV light for that matter). Doxycycline is one of the more effective and one of the cheaper malaria prophylaxesavailable on the market. It is also an anti-biotic for other bodily fluid ailments. Unfortunately, in some individuals it has the unfortunate side effect of increasing ones light sensitivity – which can be er… a bit unfortunate in the tropics. Most of the South Pacific is malaria free, but medical advice should be sought before venturing into Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and certain parts of Vanuatu.”

Language in the South Pacific

South Pacific islanders at Lautoka, Fiji

South Pacific islanders at Lautoka, Fiji

Some 1,200 languages, a third of the world’s total, are spoken in the Pacific islands, though most have very few speakers. The Austronesian language family includes more than 900 distinct languages spoken in an area stretching from Madagascar to Easter Island. Of all the Oceanic languages, only the Papuan languages spoken in New Guinea and the Solomons do not belong to this group. In all some 720 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, 113 in Vanuatu, and 87 in the Solomon Islands (the 250 languages spoken by the Australian Aborigines are unrelated to these). Many islanders are trilingual, equally fluent in the national lingua franca (pidgin), a local tribal tongue (or two), and an international language (either English or French). English is the predominant language of business and government in all but the French colonies.

Pidgin developed in Fiji and Queensland during the labor trade of the late 19th century. Because many separate local languages might be spoken on a single Melanesian island, often in villages only a few kilometers apart, the need for a common language arose when it became possible for people to travel beyond tribal boundaries. The three Pacific pidgins are Tok Pisin (P.N.G.), Pijin (Solomon Islands), and Bislama (Vanuatu). Solomons’ Pidgin is the more Anglicized; the other two are surprisingly similar. Today pidgin is viewed as a pillar of a new Melanesian regional identity, although it’s not spoken in Fiji or New Caledonia.

Pacific Pidgin, although less sophisticated than West African or China Coast Pidgin, is quite ingenious within its scope. Its vocabulary is limited, however, and pronouns, adverbs, and prepositions are lacking, but it has a bona fide Melanesian syntax. A very roundabout speech method is used to express things: “mine” and “yours” are blong mifela and blong yufela, and “we” becomes yumi tufela. Frenchman is man wewi (oui-oui), meri is woman, while bulamakau (bull and cow) means beef or cattle. Pidgin’s internal logic is delightful.

Polynesian Temples and Gods

Marae Fare Miro, Maeva, Huahine, French Polynesia

Marae Fare Miro, Maeva, Huahine

The Eastern Polynesians (French Polynesia and Hawaii) were enthusiastic temple builders, evidenced today by widespread ruins. Known by the Polynesian names marae or me’ae, these platform and courtyard structures of coral and basalt blocks often had low surrounding walls and internal arrangements of upright wooden slabs. Once temples for religious cults, they were used for seating the gods and for presenting fruits and other foods to them at ritual feasts. Sometimes, but rarely, human sacrifices took place on the marae. Religion in Western Polynesia (Tonga and Samoa) was very low-key, with few priests or cult images. No temples have been found in Tonga and very few in Samoa.

The gods of Eastern Polynesia were represented in human form. There was an undercurrent of ancestor worship, but this was nowhere as strong as in Melanesia. The ancestors were more important as a source of descent for social ranking, and genealogies were carefully preserved. Surviving elements of the old religion are the still-widespread belief in spirits (aitu), the continuing use of traditional medicine, and the influence of myth. More than 150 years after conversion by early missionaries, most Polynesians maintain their early Christian piety and fervid devotion.

South Pacific Trade

chipped pine being processed for export at Lautoka, Fiji

chipped pine being processed for export at Lautoka, Fiji

Australia and New Zealand have huge trade surpluses with the Pacific islands and the trade deficits make these nations the main beneficiaries of the island economies. A shipping company, the Pacific Forum Line, was set up in 1977 by the Pacific Islands Forum to facilitate trade with Australia and New Zealand, but in practice, the Line’s large container ships run full northbound and empty southbound. In 2012 the Government of Samoa purchased the PFL to ensure the continuation of reliable and affordable shipping services. Investment and tourism help to offset the trade imbalances somewhat, but these also foster dependence.

The main products exported by the South Pacific countries are sugar (Fiji), seafood (American Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, and Solomon Islands), clothing and footwear (Fiji), minerals (Fiji, New Caledonia, and Solomon Islands), timber (Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu), and black pearls (the Cook Islands and French Polynesia). Japan purchases timber and fish from Solomon Islands and nickel ore from New Caledonia.

Agricultural products such as bananas, cacao, coconut oil, coffee, copra, palm oil, pineapples, sugar, taro, tea, and vanilla are subject to price fluctuations over which local governments have no control, plus low demand and strong competition from other developing country producers. Most of these commodities are processed and marketed outside the islands by transnationals. Even worse, efforts to increase the output of commodities reduces subsistence food production, leading to imports of processed food. Bodies such as the World Bank push for cash cropping and expanded trade in food, usually at the expense of self-sufficiency. New Zealand meat exporters routinely ship low-quality “Pacific cuts” of fatty, frozen mutton flaps unsalable on world markets to countries like Tonga and Samoa. American companies dump junk foods such as “turkey tails” in the islands, and tinned mystery meats arrive from afar. Processed foods saturated with sugar and fat are popular in the islands due to their convenience and low cost; imported rice is less expensive than taro. Diet-related diseases such as diabetes are the hidden cost.

The new order of colonialism in the Pacific is known as “globalization.” The World Bank and other international banks aggressively market “project loans” designed to facilitate the production of goods for sale on world markets. The initial beneficiaries of these projects are the contractors, while the ability of transnational corporations to exploit the region’s natural resources is enhanced. Subsistence food production is reduced and the recipient state is left with a debt burden it can only service through exports. Free trade forces Pacific countries to compete with low-wage producers in Asia and Latin America where human rights and the environment are often of scant concern.

Should commodity exports fail, the International Monetary Fund steps in with emergency loans to make sure the foreign banks don’t lose their money. Local governments are forced to accept “structural adjustment programs” dictated from Washington, and the well-paid Western bankers mandate that social spending be cut. Another favorite trick is to persuade governments to shift the tax burden from rich to poor by replacing income and company taxes with a value-added tax. Customs duties are removed and tottering administrations are forced to clearcut their rainforests or sell their soil to meet financial obligations. This kind of chicanery has caused untold misery in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, usually with the connivance of corrupt local officials.

A much fairer arrangement is the 20-year Cotonou Agreement (signed in 2000), previously known as the Lome Convention, which provides for the preferential entry into the EU at fixed prices of set quotas of agricultural commodities from 78 African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries. Many experts believe that trade subsidies of this kind are the most effective way of delivering aid to developing countries without the intervention of state bureaucracies. This type of arrangement is crucial to countries that rely on a single export for much of their foreign exchange. The United States has lobbied vigorously against subsidized trading agreements of this kind in favor of “free trade” to allow American corporations based in Latin America to export tropical commodities produced cheaply through the use of semislave labor to Europe.