Kung Hei Fat Choy!

The weekend also ushered in Chinese New Year, it's now the year of the Fire Rooster.
NBC news has an amusing article, revealing a reading by an eminent Chinese astrologer, forecasting what this new year might hold for President Trump. It may be Chinese wishful thinking, but the astrologer suggests that Trump listen to his advisers as "The Year of the Rooster will be difficult for him. He might be forced to resign......", we can only hope! He also predicts "an unstable period for international relations", think he might be right there too.




It is now a week since the terrible rains in Tahiti. Things are slowly getting cleaned up, and the weather is better, but over 800 homes were destroyed and at least 4,000 people have been directly impacted. There are bridges and roads that have been severely damaged or destroyed.
The last of the schools should be re-opening on Monday. The French and local governments are making emergency funds available, but it is clearly a difficult time for many people, not least the farmers, huge areas of Tahiti's vegetable crops were destroyed, it will take several months to recover the losses. While poor building practices definitely played a role in exacerbating the flooding, as did the disturbingly common habit of diverting, damming or filling local riverbeds with rubbish, it was clearly an exceptional event. In Faa'a the rain gauges recorded a hundred year record with 130 l of water per m² falling within a three hour period, and 198l/m² over six hours......pretty incredible. We leave for Tahiti on Wednesday, for a "Salon du Tourisme" that is likely to be severely damped down after this natural disaster, here's hoping that it will be sunny, at least.



In early january we had a couple staying with us, retired French highschool teachers (English and Sports), now living in Corsica. More than twenty years ago, they had lived and worked on Rurutu for seven years. They were back to catch up with old friends and lots of students. Viriamu's sister Dorianne was one of these students, she's always keen for a gossip. Some of her classmates have left, gone to Tahiti or France, but many are still here. They themselves are now parents, teachers, working in the local store, some are even grandparents (yep, generations go fast here!).

It got me thinking about where I was twenty years ago - maybe it's middle age, or all these anniversaries (our wedding anniversary, my 40th looming, 10 years of motherhood, my parents golden coming up), I'm feeling deeply nostalgic these days. Maybe after the 'busyness' of parenthood I now have time to think about where I am, and how I got here (you can take the scientist out of science......).
In January 1997 I was 19, a second year undergraduate, studying Natural Sciences at Girton College, Cambridge. For all intents and purposes, a world away from here. It was just as equally a world away from my childhood in the South Wales valleys! I have vivid memories of the bitter winter months, winds whipping across the achingly flat fenlands, the short winter days, cycling up and down Huntingdon road to lectures, going into and out of town in the gloom.

It was a time of intense intellectual growth - I learnt so much and worked so hard.  I smile back at it, as I think of all the wonderful characters and brilliant scientists that taught the courses, it was a real privilege. Girton is also a college to be proud of, I was accepted into Girton, after being rejected by one of the larger colleges in town. But as a comprehensive girl from Wales, I was definitely lucky. I abhored the pomp and circumstance, so Girton, a bit of a rebel, as far as stuffy old Cambridge colleges go, was a good compromise. It opened its doors in 1869, one of the earliest women's colleges, though it was not granted full college status until 1948. In 1976 it became the first co-ed (mixed) Cambridge college; it continues to strive for equality, maintaining an even intake of male and female students, with various equal-access programs. Amusingly, I was considered to be a 'minority' student, with my Welsh-medium comprehensive background.

The college is situated three miles out of Cambridge, near the small village of Girton. The cycle ride, up one of the only 'hills' in Cambridge, is etched in my memory. I was living at the Grange, a grand name for a house divided into student rooms, situated in the college grounds, even further from town. I had a pet squirrel, who would come visit me at my groundfloor windowsill; he once, memorably, managed to get into my room, wrecking the place, shredding my pillow and mutilating a jar of Nutella.
Later that year I would audition for a role in a college production of Oscar Wilde's  The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, staged open air in the 'Mistress's Garden'. I got the part of the vacuous Gwendolen. I adore the play to this day.
I was also preparing to hike across the Negev desert to support an Oxfam project, over the Spring Break. Another experience that gave me a taste for adventure. That summer I would travel to Hawaii, and San Francisco. There would be no going back.


Tahiti's Floods

Yesterday, the day after more than 2.5 million people took to the streets to protest the inauguration of President Trump, the population of Tahiti woke up to widespread flooding. The night before some sixty liters of rain had fallen per square meter, following several weeks of wet weather. Papeete was underwater, the Sunday morning market was closed, hundreds of people were evacuated, mostly on the North and West coasts, many have lots everything  they owned. The French Polynesian High Commissioner and President have declared it a natural disaster.
photo: S.Gelima
The airport was closed for 24 hours, though it has been re-opened this morning. It's the worst flooding in living memory. Our hearts go out to friends and family in Tahiti.
Some six hundred kilometers south in Rurutu, we are grateful that the sun shone bright all weekend.


Raivavae's ceremonial paddles

Rurutu is not the kind of place you get to by accident. Our guests often have a specific reason for visiting. It is one of the perks of the job, I might not get to travel as much as my restless feet would really like to, but I do get to meet other travelers, and share their stories and quests. This week there was a Canadian visitor, a collector of Oceanian art, his motivation for visiting was a 19th century carved paddle that he had acquired at auction. I’m not sure he found what he was looking for, the distant past (pre-missionaries, i.e. early 19th century) is hopelessly obscured by the dramatic changes experienced in the Austral Islands and Polynesia more generally. Introduced European disease killed at least nine out of every ten people living in the Australs between the 1820s and 1840s, Christianization did the rest. In Rurutu, missionary accounts suggest that there may have been as many as 6,000 inhabitants prior to European contact, at the height of the epidemics some 200 survived! Woodcarving simply died out, Rurutu 'forgot' the fine art, once much admired by early European observers. Those remaining were more concerned with survival, besides, ancient customs were frowned upon by the Protestant missionaries. 
We are left with just the tip of an iceberg, odd fragments from a lost culture - Raivavae's ceremonial paddles are an example. The first paddle was received by the Peabody Museum in 1812. In total there are somewhere near a thousand in collections worldwide. They were probably collected between 1812 and 1842 and seem to have been the specialty of woodcarvers in Raivavae. What is interesting is that a large number of them were procured outside of Raivavae, other items such as fly whisks and drums were also procured in Tahiti. Suggesting an important trade of Austral Islands carvings.
Why these exquisite objects were originally produced is unclear, though the repeated motifs of men and women suggest a link with ancestry and/or fertility. The paddles have been long-studied by Rhys Richards, a New Zealander, who also passed through our guesthouse several years ago now, whilst writing his book Austral Islands: Art, History and Art History published in 2012. We were and are still more focused on A'a here, who has a whole dedicated chapter, but it motivated me to read in more detail. Later paddles were carved specifically as trade objects, but the detailed workmanship and presence of paddles prior to regular trade leave no doubt that they were originally valued cultural objects, but whether for use in dance or religious ceremony, we may never know.
The pictures shown here are of a paddle up for auction in California recently. It's a fabulous piece that sold for US$17,500, a fair bit more than the sailors who traded for it must have paid (often exchanging such objects for metal objects, clothing or fabric). 


More Polynesian gods

Other Tahitian gods included Ta’aroa and Tane, but also Ro’o, Tu, Hiro and ‘Oro.
Ta’aroa, Tangaroa in Maori mythology, was god of the oceans. Son of the Sky father and Earth mother, brother of Tane. He was driven to the ocean, which became his realm, by another brother, Tawhirimatea, god of storms. He was the creator of all sea life, some of his children came to land, Tane's realm. Tangaroa never forgave Tane for adopting his grandchildren. Thus, Maoris make offerings to Tangaroa before taking to the sea, or fishing, to appease his anger with them, Tane’s adopted children.
Ta'aroa by Bobby Holcomb
In the Society Islands, particularly Raiatea, Ta’aroa was elevated to the god of creation.  He existed before all else, inside his egg, alone in the nothingness. With a shake of his body he cracked the egg, he used the broken shell to form the rocks and sand. He then proceeded to create the rest of the earth, crying the oceans and rivers. He called forth craftsmen to sculpt the gods, Tane was the first, but more followed. Tane in turn put the sun, the moon and the stars in the sky. Ta’aroa then created man.

‘Oro was the son of Ta’aroa, he was worshipped by a powerful cult, centered on the marae Taputapuatea in Raiatea. It was the dominant cult in Tahiti, when the first European explorers set foot on the island.
He was a god of war, and legend has it that he lived on Mt.Pahia in Bora bora with his sisters (a place I visited and even camped, as a student collecting weevils!). 'Oro descended to earth on a rainbow, seeking a human wife.
His natural manifestation could be a green-red bird or light yellow thrush, much like the two native birds found in Rimatara!

In Hawaiian mythology Lono also descended to earth on a rainbow seeking a wife, (though this is seemingly coincidence, as his Tahitian counter-part is Ro’o). Captain Cook may have been mistaken for Lono by Hawaiians, a mistake that later proved fatal for him!
Intriguingly, because ancient Polynesians worshipped their ancestors, current day families still claim to trace their genealogies back to the gods. The more powerful your ancestor, the more powerful you were. Carved wooden or stone representations of ancestors, tiki, stood on marae (traditional sacred sites) and acted as a link between the world of gods and men. Only priests and chiefs were allowed to approach them, others could be put to death for such a sacrilege. Our old friend and family tiki A'a (here depicted by the London Missionary Society, demurely wearing a loin cloth) is such a god representation, maybe even of Ta'aroa. John Williams who gives us the first written trace, initially called him by the name A'a, but later used the name  "Ta'aroa te upoo vahu". Lets not forget that we live on marae Tararoa, just a small mis-prononciation away.



Polynesian Myths

Whilst working on my translations, I’ve become interested in Polynesian mythology. I hadn’t previously, though a little bit does rub off, simply from being here so long. I had already heard some plant myths - Polynesians believe that humans gave rise to plants.
One of my favorites is the breadfruit legend, in a time of famine in Raiatea, a husband and father, desperate to help his starving family turns himself into a tree, his head the fruit, his body and arms the trunk and branches, his hands the leaves. His wife and children, distraught to discover this ultimate sacrifice, gather the fruits to eat. 
The breadfruit
legend, by Sarahina
There are also a family of gods, some found across Polynesia, though their significance and importance vary. Their legends evoke images every bit as powerful as those found in Greek or Roman mythology.

You may have heard of Maui, the demi-god who fished up islands and ensnared the sun (if only thanks to the recent Disney movie Moana, Vaiana in the French version), using rope made from his sister’s hair and a magical fishhook. Here is a striking painting of Maui catching the sun, the work of a famous local artist-musician Bobby Holcomb.

AirTahiti have been showcasing a legend, telling how the islands formed; once magical fish, hauled up from the depths by Maui, Hina and others.
This striking painting, by Vashee, a young artist from Tubuai, elegantly distills this story into image.


Welcoming in 2017!

Ia ora na i te matahiti api or Happy New Year!
January has been filled with the usual festivities, the Tere and Tomora'a 'are, my mother-in-law also welcomed a visiting member of the Parau family, from the Cooks. Aunty Silifu is slowly drawing all the threads of her huge family together, from across the Pacific.

The kids are back in school, the weather's still oppressively hot. I've got a  couple of new translation projects in the pipeline. Issue 93 of the Air Tahiti Magazine is out (here's the online version), with a fabulous article about Rurutu, the images are stunning, and Viriamu makes the opening page of it, a bit of local flavor!!!!
I'm also proud to say that, finally, after a decade of stalling, a big chunk of my PhD work is being published. Thanks in a large part to the perseverance and support of my supervisors George and Rosie, from UC Berkeley. It's almost twenty years now since I started my Pacific adventure, thanks to their generosity, willingly accepting a young undergrad into their lab and home in Hawaii. I certainly wouldn't be here without them!


Lazy December......I wish!

Early December was hot and sultry, real Christmas weather, finding us lazy and craving the beach, even before the school holidays began. But, being lazy was not on the cards, particularly as Viriamu disappeared to Tahiti and Moorea for a few weeks, leaving me to juggle the guesthouse, the kids and my translating deadline for Air Tahiti magazine! It was hectic, but I'm still standing, so it can't have been that bad.
Here are a few pics from the school fete - got to love our Polynesian Father Christmas!

Amai was relegated to the back row, too unpredictable to be at the front. Heimana was right at the front and petrified (as usual!) singing about Rudolph.
.....and Mato, she was the queen of poise......no idea where she got such grace and beauty from (not me anyway!).
 In the end it was worth all the juggling, I definitely appreciated a short break and time-off the rock!
A decade on, our land in Moorea's still there, and with a bit of effort Viriamu cleared the several meter high acacia brush that had sprouted up! The old 'house' is also still there, albeit much the worse for the neglect! Some nice men with diggers helped build the holding wall, and we can maybe do something with it in a few years time. Me and the kids, we showed up to plant a few new coconut palms, and enjoy a few days holiday, before heading back to Tahiti and ultimately Rurutu.

Moorea is way too mosquito-infested for me, the Christmas hols under the season's heavy rain was too much, I did appreciate a Christmas meal of oysters and breadfruit with a bottle of bubbly eaten behind the mosquito netting. The kids opted for rice and lentils - they were fed up of pizza and, steak  and chips at that point - topped off with a super sickly mass-produced Christmas log, their treat!). We didn't even try to do turkey this time, apparently I'm the only one who really cares, and frankly this year it was just too hot to bother.

The kids also enjoyed going to the cinema (Disney's Moana was showing in town), the playground, pony club for Mato, shopping (the bank account sprang a leak!) and a little less being dragged around sight-seeing. I wanted to visit exhibition called 'tiki' currently at the Musée des Iles.                                                        

Here we are at the Belvedere in Moorea, just like we were over ten years earlier, Mato us and the grandparents, just before our wedding! 
Gosh I am suddenly feeling all nostalgic!