Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The island to the North – the islands to the North East

The awkward relationship between Tasmania and the island to the North is not the only clumsy relationship between islands in this part of the world. The history of the ties between the island to the North and the islands of the Pacific is even more troubled. It’s a tale of disappointments and neglect, misunderstandings and myopia, of big and small stumbling into each other.

I had to keep reminding myself that the photos I took were not something I had picked up from a post card rack.

When I moved to Sydney from Melbourne over two decades ago, after a youth growing up in Tasmania, I was impressed because the house next door had a Tahitian lime tree in the yard. That was my sole connection to Tahiti. Then by a mixture of chance and choice, in September this year I found myself travelling to Tahiti and her islands, as greater Tahiti is described.

Getting ready to travel there by way of Auckland I checked some Australian equivalents for climate. Tahiti and Cairns were natural matches while Auckland introduced a chill into the air by matching a location slightly north of Melbourne.

This was all fine. I like Melbourne and in my previous and final job I travelled regularly to Cairns so knew what that felt like. The range of weather to be expected made packing more complex but not unduly so.

I was more interested in Auckland. In fact I was going to Tahiti because I liked the idea of going, for the first time, to New Zealand. New Zealand strikes me as like Tasmania - only more so.

I had travelled across the Pacific via Hawaii when I flew to Canada many years before but I had only once travelled into the Pacific. One year, just before Christmas with the cyclone season impending, a UNESCO meeting on the Convention for the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage was organised in Fiji. Fiji was not Paris so interest from our senior executive was low but it was felt Australia needed to be represented, so as I was responsible for Australia’s interest, from the perspective of arts and culture, in the Convention for the Protection of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, it was decided that I would go.

I hadn’t been back since then. I still remembered the endless blue of the sky and the ocean, with the occasional tiny island or atoll below, white sand surrounded by a ring of milky green water and then the endless Pacific rolling away forever.

The Pacific is a hotspot of cultural diversity, yet few Australians are aware of what’s on their doorstep and in their backyard. We’re much more focused on the bright lights of Europe and the United States – the Pacific is mainly a place to visit resorts.

I couldn’t really complain. This time I was checking out a resort as well.

Once I started to focus on the trip I looked for maps. Tahiti is right in the middle of the Pacific, almost half way between Australian and Latin America. In my atlas it kept turning up on the edges of maps of other places. It was hard to pin down. What was clear was that it was a lot further than my previous trip to Fiji. Beyond Tahiti there is only Pitcairn Island, where the Bounty mutineers holed up, and then Easter Island, on the edge of another continent.

French Polynesia is vast and tiny at the same time. According to its Wikipedia entry ‘It is composed of 118 geographically dispersed islands and atolls stretching over an expanse of more than 2,000 kilometres … in the South Pacific Ocean, yet its total land area is only 4,167 square kilometres.’

The region is striking because physically it goes both out and up. These tiny islands can often be barely above sea level, low atolls with some sand and vegetation managing to cling on. They can also be massive rearing mountains that rise out of the sea sharply and go straight up, covered in deep green vegetation.

The ancient Polynesians traversed these vast waters travelling across huge distances to reach the next tiny island. They were excellent navigators unintimidated by space. Now they only have to navigate the treacherous shoals of international politics and the relationship with their Pacific neighbours such as New Zealand and Australia.

Flying to Tahiti from Australia is an easy choice. The only airline that flies into Tahiti from Australia is Air Tahiti Nui and that starts as a code-shared Qantas flight to Auckland where you board the real thing. Air Tahiti Nui flies from Australia (welll, Auckland) three times a week, once a day. This means an early morning shuttle from Sydney.

Despite all the photos and brochures and maps I kept finding it hard to grasp that I was actually going to Tahiti or what it would be like when I was there.

Travelling to Tahiti is distinctive because you cross the International Dateline, so on this trip what was today was already yesterday. You travel into the future ahead of you but also into the past through a quirky rule of time. On the leg to Tahiti I had two Wednesdays in one week.

Arrival was late at night, never a good thing. Luckily it was warm. I had a bath on my first night, in the resort in Papeete – the first stage of Tahiti and its endless water.

Once transferred by the regular ferry to Moorea, neighbouring island of Tahiti and our main destination, I woke up early thinking I'd left a light on but it was the sun coming up over the breakers. I thought of the words from an old ad from my youth ‘mmmm, Tahiti would be nice.’

Moorea Island is the inspiration for Bali Hai in James A Mitchener’s Tales of the South Pacific, which was the source for the musical South Pacific. It’s only 11 miles from Tahiti over the Sea of the Moon.

I have a relaxation tape which features the sound of the ocean and I realised this was the sound I had woken up to. The morning slid softly along from there. I successfully used my high school French to get a jug of milk for tea. After that, anything was possible.

I was pleased that this trip was not like an arduous European trip but, strangely, we ended up in Europe after all – in part, anyway. The food was a mixture of French and Tahitian but I was told that Chinese was popular. Many of the processed goods in the supermarkets were French and the baguettes were ubiquitous - unfortunately they were also not very good. Unquestionably it was le pays de fruit – fresh fruit was everywhere.

When I visited Paris and New York many decades ago it was a bit like being on a film set. It was the same in Tahiti. It's all artifice and marketing until you bang your head against the edges of the set. I had to keep reminding myself that the photos I took – which kept turning out like marketing brochures – were really photos I took, of places I had been and not something I had picked up from a post card rack.

On Moorea a half day tour of the island was really made memorable by our guide. He was a retired fire dancer who had married a Russian performer he had met on tour in China and they lived on Moorea with their son. When not having to speak English, he spoke Spanish, Tahitian, French and some Russian. In some ways he reminded me of the guides on the Bay of Fires walk in Northern Tasmania. Artists work as taxi drivers – or tour guides.

He took us to an ancient group of marae, sacred and ceremonial precincts surrounded by low stone walls and showed us a hedge planted beside the marae which used to be a source of tattoo ink. Now the ink, like that in his tattoos, came from China.

Plant once used for tattoo ink - now the ink, including those on the tatoos of our guide, comes from China.

The local economy seems to float on a mix of tourism, pineapples, coconuts and pearls. There are pearls of every colour, size, shape and price available everywhere. Buying pearls is remarkably similar to buying houses. There is a huge variation in price and it’s a range of factors, in may ways intangible, that make the difference. With pearls its shape, size and surface – how large, how round, how smooth or pitted.

Everything is relative, though. A local taxi driver said she would like to visit Australia but she was afraid of snakes. I told her I had probably seen four in sixty years in Australia. This is the problem with 'paradise'. There are no snakes in Polynesia which means that people there are not culturally inoculated to them. There are no snakes in paradise.

Generally, however, the fact there is no income tax and such a high consumption tax partially explains why Tahiti is so expensive. It’s also because so much has to be brought in. You are living off the land, it’s just that it’s land somewhere else in the world, mainly in France but in its other overseas territories as well, such as Martinique where the rhum agricole comes from.

For the first few days of the visit I was reading newspapers from the plane. Maybe if the news is old enough it can't hurt you – or didn't even really happen. At breakfast they had rolled sheets of paper with news highlights from each country. I thought ‘if it's news from Australia, it can't be good news’ so I didn't bother and concentrated on the fruit. Then there was the Internet and television. When I connected to wi-fi I was intrigued to see that the business network of the resort was called 'Mana', spirit in Polynesian.

The weather had been a bit patchy. Apart from the kayaks I hadn’t been too involved in the water activity. I think that humans successfully emerged from the oceans a long time ago and it’s best to stay as far away as possible. For a few days the weather was wet and windy with a heavy swell. At night it was like sleeping in a washing machine or a laundromat.

Late in my stay I learned two phrases in Tahitian (not Polynesian, there are three or so Polynesian languages of which Tahitian is just one). The first, ‘Mauruuru’, means ‘thank you’ and the second, which was harder to master is ‘Ia Ora Na’, which means ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ Everyone speaks French and many speak quite a bit of English but the language of choice of locals is Tahitian.

On the way back to Australia I thought 'Sydney is two hours slower than us and Tahiti is two hours faster.’ Then, suddenly I was in Sydney, loaded up with Tahitian vanilla and duty free liquor waiting to catch the train back to what passes for normal in this abnormal world.

Tahiti was fascinating and Auckland was an unexpected surprise. I knew it would be good and I’ve always wanted to go there but it really impressed me beyond what I expected. People often joke that going to New Zealand is like travelling back to the 1950s and I’m sure that’s true in some respects, but in other ways it’s like travelling to a country Australia might like to be sometime in the future. Tahiti just made me realise how badly Australia deals with both the Pacific and its own issues because it’s much better to grandstand somewhere else than to do the hard work in our own backyard.

Other articles in the series ‘The island to the North’

The island to the North – rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic
‘When Australia finally ceased to be a rabble of competing colonies and instead became a nation comprising a rabble of competing states and territories, it still seemed possible that New Zealand might join the new Federation. Both New Zealand and Tasmania have long been an afterthought for the island to the North. But lots of mountains, clean water, high quality untainted produce, dramatic landscapes and acres of ocean all mark Tasmania as suitable for New Zealandership. It’s a partnership waiting to happen. It’s clear that the future for Tasmania lies with New Zealand, the islands to the East rather than the island to the North. In a form of Federation in reverse, Tasmania should join its neighbouring islands to make New Zealand three islands instead of two – the North Island, the South Island and the West Island. New Tazealand forever’, The island to the North – rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

The island to the North – turning the map upside down
‘Our geography teacher would turn the map upside down to make the point that we were conditioned to see Asia above Australia, implying that gravity was a factor in human migration patterns and to illustrate the Australian fear of the Yellow Peril, ready to pour down from Asia and inundate the almost empty island to the South’, The island to the North – turning the map upside down.

The island to the North – disappearing worlds
'Islands are easily overlooked – Tasmania is an island that periodically disappears off maps, sometimes there, sometimes not, at the edge of consciousness, at the end of space.' The island to the North – disappearing worlds

The island to the North – a nearby foreign country
‘Sitting by a roaring fire in a wintry pub in Tarraleah I found Tasmanians liked to call Australia "the island to the North". We are neighbours but sometimes I wonder if I am behind enemy lines’, The island to the North – a nearby foreign country.

See also

Adjusting to reality #1 – peaks, troughs and snouts
‘It seems government allows just enough time to forget what it has done before it begins to repeat it. It would be easy to go along with popular prejudice and believe that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. Unfortunately both are efficient and also hopeless in their own way. At least we get to vote about the broad outline of what the public sector does – and laugh at it. With the private sector, all we get is to laugh at it. Or cry’, Adjusting to reality #1 – peaks, troughs and snouts.

Adjusting to reality #2 – modern times, modern crimes 
‘Modern times, modern crimes. The current dysfunctional world of Australian politics is beyond comprehension. It makes you wonder and probably drives you to drink. Unfortunately, unlike the far too many mediocre politicians, we’re not being chauffeur-driven there. It's beyond a joke, so a good way to talk about it is through the language of jokes. It's a world of short attention spans, media grabs and talking points, so I'm responding in kind’, Adjusting to Reality #2 – modern times, modern crimes.

Internet memes – swirling around the virtual universe
‘Internet memes seem to appear and disappear on the web, digital visitors swirling around the virtual universe. Where they come from or who created them is hard to tell. There are no secrets or possessions on the Internet. Seeing some of these memes got me thinking. I thought perhaps I could produce my own memes and have some fun. Perhaps it’s the new future for the arts – social media postcards – but with humour and creativity’, Internet memes – swirling around the virtual universe.

Bring back the Romans
‘Our political system is having a lot of problems and lately I’ve been thinking that we could do a lot worse than bring back the Romans. Since they were around no-one has managed to do a good job of empire. The Americans had their moment but they seem to be making a real mess of it nowadays. Politically the Senate wouldn’t be much different. The Emperor Caligula made his horse a Senator and we’ve done better than that. So, no change there. No, on reflection it would be a good move. I think we should bring it on and the sooner the better. Now all we need to do is find some Romans and get the ball rolling’, Bring back the Romans.

Wide brown landing
‘Some days you realise suddenly that Canberra was deliberately located in the mountains. Perhaps it was fear of Russian invasion - imperial rather than communist. Perhaps it was to avoid overlap with the two warring imperial powers of the time - NSW and Victoria. Whatever the reason, Canberra sits well up on the top of Australia, on the long road up to the Snowy Mountains, where Australia finally reaches its peak. I've made two unsuccessful attempts to see the National Arboretum, finding the gates locked and no way in. Yesterday on a cold Canberra day I finally found the it open, thanks to Canberra's annual festival of flowers, Floriade. I'd finally made a successful landing at the Arboretum. I was very impressed’, Wide brown landing.

Ignoring the neighbours - why our backyard matters
'My trip to Tahiti last year reminded me of the large issues swirling around the Pacific and of how uneven the relationship between Australia and the region has been. It threw up lots of issues about how local cultures adapt to the globalised economy. Producing artwork and performances for the tourist market is problematical. Yet it's also the fate of Australian culture generally. Is it swimming against the tide for all of us?' Ignoring the neighbours - why our backyard matters

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber 
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Crossing four states
‘To get to Adelaide we crossed the borders of four states (okay, one was a territory). After a while when you step out into the 39 degree Celsius heat you become grateful that cars nowadays have air conditioning. You comment happily that at least we aren't in Adelaide yet, where it's not 39 but 42 - everything is relative’, Crossing four states.

Hiding from the heat
‘In Mildura, like refugees from a bombing raid, we seek shelter from the heat in the wine cellars of the Grand Hotel. I had always admired Stefano de Pieri and the way he championed regional Australia and local produce so I wanted to eat in his restaurant, which as it turned out was below the Grand Hotel in Mildura where we stayed’, Hiding from the heat.

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