April 24, 2012

Virgin Voyager: Part 2

[A quick disclaimer: The source here and throughout my blog for recounting of events and discussions is my own memory. While I’ve done my best to fact-check as much as possible, some details may be inaccurate. Additionally, the conversations to which I was privy were the temporary opinions of a few select individuals involved and are not intended to be representative of the opinions of the majority of the project’s players. Finally, I must point out that I was involved in this long-term project for only a few days, and as a visitor. It has been going on for at least 3 years.]

That night over drinks and curry with a few people involved in the documentary I was privy to some inside information and opinions about the project. It seemed that the party in charge was not entirely forthcoming and that despite good intentions, their methods were not entirely honorable. 

I had originally been informed that the purpose of the film was to document the cultural renaissance of the Polynesian people with regard to their ancient sailing traditions. The six boats were crafted primarily by hand following the traditional building methods, the navigation was to be done primarily by the stars, and the crews, with the exception of the highly-experienced skippers, would be made up of members of six different Polynesian nations: New Zealand, Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti. Once the crews had been trained, tested and selected, each ship was to sail out from their home harbor to meet up in Kiribati. From there the six ships would embark on an epic voyage sailing north across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, where they would be greeted by a traditional celebration in their honor. They would then return home together, repeating the fabled drifting voyage of their original ancestors. 

The film was to feature a Polynesian navigator, like Mau Piailug. Mau, recently deceased, was a master and teacher of traditional wayfinding methods for open-ocean sailing which rely on nature’s navigational clues such as the stars, winds, swells, and birds.

Sounds amazing, right? Yeah, I thought so, too. Until I heard some of the inside scoop. I was told the production was hiring Rawiri Paratene to star as the lead in a pseudo-documentary film about six Polynesian ships from six Polynesian nations with six different Polynesian crews sailing together to Hawaii to protest navy sonar use

Now, I’m all for a good protest against the use of sonar frequencies in the ocean that confuse the hell out of whales and other marine mammals creating panic, dramatically alter their behavior patterns resulting in internal bleeding from their brains and ears, and lead them to beach themselves, ultimately ending in the death of record numbers of one of the most beautiful sentient species on this earth. However, I was NOT thrilled about the idea of training various groups of indigenous people to embark on a cultural reawakening without informing them of your principal goal. As I saw it that evening, these crews were being used and exploited for a political protestation. 

Sure, they were getting the experience of a lifetime and sure, the project was helping to raise awareness of the cultural ancestry, origins and traditions of the indigenous populations of Polynesia. But they didn’t know that they were being used for a political statement. And they sure as hell didn’t know that the Hawaiian government was aware of this protest and was looking to block the convoy from entering its coastal waters. These people were facing potential detainment and arrest in a foreign country and were none the wiser.

That said neither I nor anyone else involved could yet comprehend the far-reaching effects of the project.


Fast forward to now: The initial struggles, frustrations, obstacles and complications of the project were eventually ironed out and the mission was transformed. People from around the world put their egos and cultural differences aside to collaborate on an extraordinary project that brought seven different Polynesian nations, and more, together to embark on an unprecedented educational and cultural reawakening. Their efforts centered on a remarkable voyage around our largest ocean, all in an attempt to raise awareness of how our lives have been, and remain today, tied to the sea and its health. 

In April 2011, seven crews sailed from Aotearoa to Hawaii, then on to the west coast of the United States and down to Mexico. They are currently in Galapagos for their final stop before returning home. Along the way, they have taken part in various traditional ceremonies as well as the Kava Bowl Ocean Summit, and their experiences and interactions with one another and the sea have been documented on film, to be released as a feature documentary in 2013, “Our Blue Canoe.” [Edit: this film is no longer available, but a new film will take its place in Autumn 2017: The Starchasers]

The stories that follow are a personal recounting of the adventures I had over just a few days with this project. I am tremendously grateful for my experiences and am proud to have met even a handful of the people involved. 

To learn more, visit Pacific Voyagers and the Okeanos Foundation.

To be continued…

March 08, 2012

International Women's Day

Today I salute all of the women in my life and beyond who have challenged the world around them to make it more peaceful, loving, compassionate, understanding, and open to the power and protection of the phenomenal feminine.

February 16, 2012

Virgin Voyager, Part I

Lying in a rope net just above the water, watching the sun sink toward the horizon and dipping my fingers into the cold Pacific, I indulged in a moment of peace and contentment.

I was aboard a waka hourua (or vaka, depending on where you are), a traditional Polynesian ocean-going sailing vessel. A dear friend of mine had been working on a documentary in the South Pacific involving six of these ships and managed to set up my travel companions and me with a day on the waka in Auckland learning to sail. 

We joined a group of Maori teens who had been brought on board as part of a program to revive cultural traditions among the Maori population in New Zealand. We were taught the names of the sails, terms like “port”, “starboard”, “aft” and “fore”, how to raise and lower the sails properly, how to maneuver the hoe, and the basics of wind propulsion. The teens seemed to be soaking up this information, passing pop quizzes with ease and enthusiasm, while I drifted in and out of listening. I was too busy soaking up the sun and the sea, and chatting with the skipper. 

Hooki at the hoe
We spent the day tacking lazily back and forth across the Rangitoto Channel and anchored near a beach for a bit of lunch and a swim. My friends and I joined the kids in gleeful leaps off the front of the boat, struggling afterward to pull ourselves aboard in the midst of hearty laughter.

As we deboarded the waka that evening the teens and their leaders lined up for the traditional Maori greeting, the hongi. My friends and I moved down the receiving line pressing our noses and foreheads against those of our sailing companions. I had no clue what I was supposed to do and actually blew my nose onto the first face I encountered. He politely ignored it and I continued down the line.

I left the waka feeling so lucky to have had this unique experience with such a unique group of people. Little did I know that I should have been paying attention to the instructors as I would need those sailing skills in just a few short days.

To be continued…

February 13, 2012

My New Norm

Driving to work this morning, I pulled up to a junction in the road as a huge tractor toting an equally huge trailer whizzed by. It didn’t even faze me, the fact of which suddenly occurred to me as strange. When did this become my norm? 

I’ve been here almost two years and it’s no big thing now to drive the narrowest roads I’ve ever been down, see a badger waddle across the pavement in front of me, or have to reverse to a wider bit of road in order to pass a car coming the opposite direction. It is completely normal for me to walk down the middle of a lane enjoying the seasonal scents wafting from the walls of hedgerows, eating my weight in wild blackberries as I wander. It is entirely normal for me to experience the fairy tale qualities of the back roads here in Cornwall – seeing the colorful wildflowers reaching out from the hedges, and watching butterflies and bees float and hum around me – as if some sort of wood nymph is going to leap from the hedges and say hello in a chummy Cornish accent.

I see the sea every day. I watch the waves lap over the rocky beach and crash against the cliffs. I see cows grazing the bright green fields of the rolling hills and watch newborn lambs jump and leap in sheer joy of life. 

In just two short years, this back road, country life – hours away from the sights and sounds of the bustling and buzzing city – has become my norm.

January 09, 2012

Asia for Beginners

I flew to Singapore without a clue as to what I would encounter. I’d done no research into the culture, food, or anything else that would educate me about the country and had done little preparation other than to buy the plane ticket. Unusual for me, but a good friend of mine who had lived and done business in the country for years was meeting me at the airport. I suppose I figured I’d leave it all up to him and take a break from planning and worrying. 

While I languished in the extreme temperature and humidity, Rob whisked me into a taxi to his friends’ house for introductions and then down the street to a hawker center for some nourishment.

-- Ahhh, the hawker center. A glorious outdoor circus of Asian food, open 24 hours a day, featuring the exotic culinary delights from countries across the continent, with smiling, yet pushy vendors all tempting you with sights and smells unfamiliar, but altogether exciting. It’s like a shopping mall food court on steroids. --

I found myself sitting at a table in the middle of Newton Food Centre at about 1:00 in the morning eating an assortment of Asian dishes chosen for me, profusely sweating from the climate and food, and smiling from ear to ear. How wonderful to be in such an exotic place, having to worry about nothing nor plan for any potential mishaps, and to be enjoying such a fantastic feast! 

But the excitement wore off as I quickly realized Singapore was no more exotic than New York City. Walking along the busiest street in Singapore, I could have been in downtown any-major-city-in-the-States. I strolled through huge shopping malls full of glamorous Western shops: Gucci, Prada, and the like. I saw countless McDonald’s restaurants, 7-Elevens, and Gap stores. In five days, we’d toured the island on a motorcycle, visited the National Botanical Gardens, faced the sheer overstimulation of Chinese New Year, watched wild monkeys mate in the middle of a road, done a bit of shopping and clubbing, visited Little India, and partied with ex-pats. Despite these wild and wonderful experiences, I felt as though I was back at home in the States: it was too easy; too familiar. I couldn’t help but feel I was just dipping my toes in. I came to understand why Singapore is often termed “Asia for Beginners.” 

But there was something tugging at me even harder. Walking the streets, driving the roads, watching the people – I couldn’t help but feel as though something was missing. This is a major international city home to over 5 million people. Where was all the litter, the gum remnants on the sidewalk, the homeless, the honking traffic and shouting, irate public? At the risk of offending: where was the chaotic Asia I was expecting? Everything around me was clean and orderly. It was Asia run by the Swiss. It was comfortable, but in a creepy kind of way. I couldn’t help but feel something was being hidden; something fraudulent or unjust. Singapore seemed to me a neat and tidy little package wrapped up in orchids and luxury. What was really inside this Emerald City? What was hidden behind the curtain?

A brief bit of post-trip research through the all-knowing Internet resource known as Wikipedia reveals that Singapore is “the world's fourth-leading financial centre, the world's second-biggest casino gambling market, and the world's third-largest oil refining centre”; it is “home to more US dollar millionaire households per capita than any other country”; and it is considered “the easiest place in the world to do business”.

Apparently the Singaporean government’s popular image is that of “a strong, experienced and highly qualified government, backed by a skilled Civil Service and an education system with an emphasis on achievement and meritocracy…” However, “it is perceived by some voters, opposition critics and international observers as being authoritarian and too restrictive on individual freedom”.

Singapore’s judicial system is strict and harsh. Trial by jury was abolished in 1970 and penalties include “caning for rape, rioting, vandalism, and some immigration offences,” as well as “a mandatory death penalty for murder, and for certain drug-trafficking and firearms offences.” Amnesty International has claimed that Singapore has “possibly the highest execution rate in the world relative to its population,” though in contrast, a 2008 survey claimed that “international business executives believed Singapore…had the best judicial system in Asia”.

Wikipedia goes on to explain that the Singaporean government provides financial assistance and cheap housing to its poorer citizens, though the country does not have a minimum wage, “believing that it will lower its competitiveness”. While Singapore’s poverty level is low in comparison to other Southeast Asian countries, the country “has one of the highest income inequality [indicators] among developed countries” with the world’s highest percentage of millionaire households (15.5 percent of all households own at least one million US dollars). 

After five days of touring, I came to this conclusion: while Singapore is a magnificent amalgamation of Asian cultures, and the food outstanding, the tiny country is like touring Asia via cruise ship. You sample the culture and food at each port, taking photos and buying all manner of kitsch souvenirs. But at the end of the day you return to the comfort and luxury of the ship. 

Still, I highly recommend visiting Singapore if: a) you’re in the area; b) you want to dip your toes in before taking the full plunge into Asia; and/or c) you love Asian food.