The wind is gusting over Artillery Point and setting all the anchored yachts a jiggle. There are a lot of us, over two hundred, and we crowd every bay and bit of sheltered shoreline in this big harbour. We are all here for the Festival of the Arts which features dancers, musicians, and writers from all across the Pacific. For us it will be a reprise of all the islands we have visited plus a glimpse at many we slipped past.
One little yacht anchored near the breakwater looks familiar. It is the little boat I last saw about to leave Bora Bora with a young French couple on board. It looks like they made it despite my misgivings about their preparedness. Only later do we learn that the man has died at sea, not on his own yacht, but later, while delivering a yacht from New Zealand. His body was later recovered from the sea. The news, picked up so casually, still gives us a shiver: going overboard and being left behind as the boat keeps sailing on, is everyone`s nightmare. I am developing a sense of fate: the Gods will take you when they wish and they have a sardonic sense of humor. First they let this poorly equipped cockleshell survive against the odds to reach it`s goal, then end his life when he began to thing of himself as favoured by the gods.
Noemea seems like a Mediterranean city with its slopes neatly covered in white and colourful houses, but New Caledonia has a sad past as a penal colony: that lovely cathedral on the hill top was built by convicts. There is another sadness here we notice right away: the local Melanesian population (Kanaks) look down or away or through us as we pass by. We represent for them the dominant population that keeps them under control. Just a few years before, a rebellion was put down fiercely by French Special Forces. New Caledonia has valuable nickel mines and while the locals are needed to work in the mines and the refining plant they must not think of ownership for themselves. There has been a big influx of French citizens from other places so that the indigenous peoples will never be in a majority position. This is a tourist destination as well, so the big waterfront resorts increase the feeling of bright tinsel hung across dark shadows.
We go to see the beginning ceremonies and the opening of the Festival Village where big local Kanak men in grass skirts dance in a threatening way before the French administration officials. Down on the beach a couple from Hawaii dance the sexiest hula I have ever seen! At other times we see dancers from various islands including New Zealand, Easter Island and Wallis and Fortuna. Most of the performances are group singing and dancing sometimes accompanied by graceful hand gestures.
The group from Wallis and Fortuna is terrific, and I am particularly attracted to one girl in the middle. The group is telling a traditional story of a night fishing party on a coral reef. The men gesture with their spears and the women move their arms in evocative fluid motions as they sing in beautiful harmonies. The girl smiles shyly out at the large crowd on the library lawn which is situated in the middle of town. This is most likely her first journey away from her isolated island home and yet she remains immersed still in the midst of her companions and her culture. This Festival takes place only once every four years in a different location each time and provides an affirmation of the linked cultures of the Pacific Islanders.
As we prepare to leave on our last voyage across the Coral Sea to Australia we feel a pang of regret to be leaving these island cultures behind. There is something very beguiling about them. It has been thus since the first European explorers arrived; a sense that this was Eden. Certainly as we have seen, after they arrived it became less so and every new hotel built in an "unspoiled" place immediately spoils it. That girl though, singing and signing her story so beautifully: I feel she is telling our story too and describing all the mountain peaks, lagoons, starry nights and swaying palms that have attempted to whisper us their secret. Here is a translator with a long cultural history among these islands to transmit their message in a musical language closer to our own human understanding.