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I'm going to post what I have so far, even though it's not a weekend as I'm in Pago Pago and won't be hitting land again until Hawaii. I expect only one more catch-up post towards the end as a wrap-up - we'll see.

Anyway, here goes:

November 19 - Iles de Pin, New Caledonia:
This former French penal colony is small and beautiful. More than 2,000 deported prisoners were housed here in the 1870’s (many had not committed a crime at all and many others only minor infractions). New Caledonia is, like Australia and New Zealand a chunk of the original Gondwana supercontinent and has been isolated from the first or 85 million years and the second for 30 million years (unlike most Pacific islands which are recent coral and/or volcanic in origin). As such, its flora and fauna are diverse and unique.

This Melanesian island is typical of numerous South Pacific paradises with name on dots in the maps of Vanuatu, the Marshal Islands, the Solomon Islands, French Polynesia and, of course, New Caledonia. These coral atolls have pristine curves of palm tree lined powder sand beaches. The reefs are so close that it is easy to swim (or even wade) out and be able to see colorful fishes surround you in the crystal clear water. As New Caledonia is a French territory, French is the language most easily used (though when my poor French tears at their ears, most natives will switch to speaking English just to avoid hearing what passes for my attempts at speaking French). As the sun browns bodies unevenly if clothing is worn, many of the younger women sunbathers seem to try for a more even appearance (though I’m not sure why they bother after smearing themselves with SPF-60 sun block – not that the paradox particularly bothers me ?). The people living here, Kanak’s, are either ethnic French or Melanesian (who physically appear similar to Africans in many respects). Melanesians extend across many of the islands and into Papua and are distinctly different in appearance from Polynesians who extend from New Zealand through the Pacific islands of Samoa, Tahiti, etc. as far as Hawaii (and who have much lighter skin, straight black hair and frequently – at least in the case of the men – tend to be heavier).

Anyhow, I had my mask, snorkel and fins along when we went to the beach and this stop was a welcome respite from feeling obligated to do anything more than just veg out on the beach (would gladly have traded a few more days like this for the stops in Siberia). The hotels here run about $400 a night including a continental breakfast.

During the evening, late (after dinner and the show – an Aussie pianist - were distant memories), an Aussie trio of male singers (think Motown type – but White with Ozian accents) dropped into the piano bar and, once properly lubricated with booze, started singing enthusiastic impromptu solos into the night (let’s call it early morning).

November 20 - Noumea, New Caledonia:
Well, it’s Sunday and most of the town is shut. That said, the town market, super market and so on stay open until noon. In my quest for Wi-Fi, the contract I bought yesterday in Ile de Pin ($8 for 2 hours) which should have also worked here – didn’t. Between the crew members and (more destructively from a bandwidth perspective) i-Pads I couldn’t connect to a nearby café’s free hot spot. Ce la vie (and reason I decided to do my weekly post a bit prematurely from the beach yesterday. Last time we were here, we took a jet boat down a river and bought some coconut soap at a factory. This time the ship docked at a particularly drab location, almost everything was shut and the means of transport to the beaches was unreasonably expensive. We went to the rather large supermarket/department store (Casino was the name) and picked up some duty free French wine. Before getting back aboard the ship we went to the obligatory market where I assisted in a complex negotiation over a shell necklace involving both a discount and taking advantage of multiple currency conversions (accruing an additional 11% discount and bring the price to $25US ?). Wi-Fi was a no go here. The city has some interestingly named districts, such as “Motor Pool” which date back to when it was the US headquarters in the Pacific during World War II. The ship left and followed a course taking it through narrow channels between islands, coral reefs and other dangerous marine riffraff while flotillas of sail ships, para-skiers, wind surfboards made runs at the ship. The next few hours took this ship on a route that must have raised the hackles on the Captain’s head as it threaded its way between obstacles.

The next stop, a couple of days away is Suva (Viti Levu), Fiji. Fijian, and Hindustani (due to large groups of cheap Indian labor being introduced in the distant past by the British). English, Urdu and Mandarin are also widely spoken. Fiji is also primarily Melanesian and cannibalism was widely practiced into at least the 1920’s. I will be on the search for Veti wood cannibal forks. I think the smaller ones used for eyes and brains (and such) will be daintier than the larger ones used for larger hunks.

As the city is a bit of a dump and the diving here is among the best in the world, I’ve arranged for a two tank scuba dive while the wife plays with the cannibals.

The cruise is nearing its end with only stops in American Samoa and Hawaii (and lots of sea days) left after Fiji. After that, life in the real world will begin again.

November 22, 2011 – Suva, Fiji:
Yet another place where drivers sit in the right front seat of the car and cars are driven on the “wrong” side of the road. We live in a place where it is assumed that all people, except the confused British, drive on our side, yet it seems like the majority of the worlds potential drivers see things differently. Thank God Miramar uses the “English” measurement system so that we are in good company. It is also fortunate that, over the last few years, as AT&T absorbs Cingular, at least one of the major US cell phone carriers has joined the rest of the civilized (and otherwise) nations of the world in using the nearly universal GSM phone system (though we still lock it in the US). The world is far different than most in the US recognize.

The population here is a bit over half Melanesian indigenous people and a bit over 40% ethic Indian (as the British imported loads from India in the late 1800’s to work on the plantations one using indentured servants became illegal). This has caused quite a bit of social unrest as the Melanesian portion of the population resents this large group and numerous coupes have taken place over the past decade or two (there was a story told to me of a coup which was delayed from its scheduled Friday start to give time for the Saturday Army/Police rugby match because each team was going to be on opposite sides of the coup. It took place the following Monday as agreed). Currently the military runs the place. This racial stress has caused an outflow of Indians and a shift of relative racial proportions from the previous nearly even split. This means that schoolboys of both races wear sarongs and cars stop at crosswalks (and presumably hundreds of other minutia). Their dictatorial approach has had them thrown out of the British Commonwealth.

We docked at 9AM and I ran to meet the group which had arranged the scuba trip. We were scheduled to be back by 2:30PM – plenty of time to board the ship for the 4:30 sailing. I figured I had a bit of insurance because, out of the nine divers, five were ship’s officers – including the ship’s doctor and the IT/Communication’s officer. Leaving my wife to fend for herself (with the possibility that she would have a lousy time and be waiting angrily for my return, we left the shipyard and were immediately accosted by over a dozen taxi drivers. It seems that the military dictatorship decided to double the taxi fares and now there are no riders as everyone takes the bus. Anyhow, the guy from the dive shop finally showed up. He was a pudgy middle aged Limey who plunged, with us in tow, into the city’s produce market – buying cut pineapples, watermelon and bananas. He then arraigned for a taxi/van to take us to the Yacht Club where his boat was docked, then jumped into his SUV and took off. Our van swiftly drove us through traffic with the aplomb of a dashing quarterback and brought us directly to – the bowling club. Well a bit of confusion ensued culminating with everyone agreeing that, despite so many similarities, the bowling club was not the yacht club. A change in venues took place and we were relocated to the yacht club (which was somewhat less impressive than even the bowling club). Our water chariot awaited in the form of a 23’ twin pontoon aluminum thing with two 75 horse power outboards - both of which were problematic and one took ten minutes with tools and an act of God to get going. The boat had no railings and the nine of us, the British dive-master and the mate, 20 air tanks and all of the rest of the stuff that goes with this endeavor (both SCUBA wise and boat wise) filled a double bench and storage area in the center of the boat. We all decided to wear wet suits (the one that fit me was a 3mm shortie) as the water was tepid, but not really warm. Because of the buoyancy of the suit (and admittedly gaining some weight on the cruise), I ended up needing 21 pounds (about 10Kg) of lead. I was not alone and while the equipment supplied to augment my fins, mask and snorkel were top quality and condition, the boat ran out of weights. So the dive-master takes a length of anchor chain and wraps it around his waist and jumps overboard. No niceties like choosing buddies or checking certification cards here. The dives went fine (did two tanks – very formal with a 3 minute decompression stop at 3 meters and an appropriate wait between tanks). Yeah – and the dive master swam like the ghost of Christmas past clad in chain. I picked up a piece of coral (something like long brain coral) as a souvenir and will have to figure out where to find some Clorox to clean it out so it doesn’t smell. On the way back, not too far from the dock, one of the motors on the boat craps out. He warns us that we should help fend off the yacht we are approaching as the second engine tends to crap out if going slowly. Well, it craps out, we fend off and neatly pull alongside the dock on zero engines.

The expected cab didn’t show up, so we hired one to take us back (one of the guys had changed some US bucks to Fijian dollars for some reason so we were able to pay without much trouble. I dropped off my gear, ascertained that my wife was not yet aboard and went into town to look for her (and yes, to buy some cannibal forks, a war club and a kava bowl. I was just getting into a serious bargaining session over some of the cylindrical forks when my wife swoops in like a screaming banshee yelling “don’t buy any forks”. OK - there are some things I don’t pick fights over and this seemed to be a good time to drop the fork I was holding like it had suddenly turned into an asp. Here I am feeling guilty of buying a cannibal fork so I could invite people to dinner and play Hannibal Lector and my wife hands me a bag of eight of them (one big carved, some small carved, some petit – presumably for eyeballs?). She also bought a couple of bars of coconut soap. I guess I can live without a war club (at least until Samoa?)

I came back to the ship and was able to hook to an internet connection from my veranda. I downloaded my email, took care of a couple of personal emails, answered a question on a previous post, but the ship pulled away from the dock and the connection was lost before I could help Donna’s request on Patagonia (I’ll get to that ASAP). Working on some connections in Bali for a future potential trip from the assistant maître d’. If I go there, I’ll have carving plans drawn up (and maybe some exotic materials). Tonight, after dinner, the entertainment crew threw a pajama party. I didn’t wear any, but the party was fun.

We are crossing the International Date Line so tomorrow becomes today (and I’m hoping today’s calories don’t count). In fact, because it meanders all over the place, if the captain wants to be technical we will be crossing it a number of times if we make a straight run from Fiji to Pago Pago to Hawaii.

November 23, 2011 – Pago Pago, American Samoa:
The name, by the way, is pronounced “Pango Pango” (missionary alphabet thing, so some letters are pronounced differently than in English). We’re back to using greenbacks and driving on the proper side of the road. American Samoa is part of a group of Polynesian islands also including Samoa (originally a German colony) and Tonga. American Samoa was a major American coaling station for our fleet (joining Sitka, Alaska and Honolulu, Hawaii). American Samoa became almost universally Christian and it was Samoan missionaries (rather than European ones) who convert most of the Pacific island’s inhabitants. After a military faceoff in 1898, the Germans and Americans agreed to split the islands between them (the British backed off in return for Germany giving up some African claims). German Samoa passed to New Zealand after World War I.

The Kava ceremony of Fiji is now the ‘ava (begins with a glottal stop) of Samoa. Since Samoans are not US citizens (they are classified as “American nationals”), a disproportionate number join the US military to gain citizenship. Tuna canneries made up a large part of the economy. Chicken of the Sea has moved out (Sunkist still remains, but is laying off workers) because the increase in the minimum wage put in place by Congress, while well intentioned, made them non-competitive. Samoans run big and a disproportionate number have become professional US football players and Japanese Sumo wrestlers.

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