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  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

Nothing Special: It's Just Mountains on One Side, Ocean on the Other!

New Caledonia

When we visited New Zealand for the first time, in 2016, we were planning a rare 3-day weekend and wanted to visit someplace special that was close to where I was working. A staff member where I worked asked me where we were going, and I told her we planned to visit the Coromandel Peninsula, which had been highly recommended by several people. She pursed her lips and said, "Oh no, don't go there. It's nothing special. Just mountains on one side, ocean on the other." We did go there, and thought it was beautiful. Here is a photo from that weekend:

We have laughed so many times since then about that expression - nothing special, just mountains on one side, ocean on the other! We realized it pretty much sums up most of New Zealand, one of the prettiest places we've ever visited.

The top photo was taken in New Caledonia, and, as you can see, it also consists of mountains on one side, ocean on the other. This feature is characteristic of most of the islands found in the Polynesian triangle - New Zealand to the south, Hawaii to the north, and Easter Island (Rapa Nui) to the east, and the Melanesian region. The geologic features of these islands were formed by volcanos, which feature importantly in many of these cultures. Even though indigenous people settled these islands long before recorded history, their cultures are remarkably similar. On this cruise, we've visited Hawaii & Samoa (Polynesian culture), and Fiji, New Caledonia, and Papua New Guinea (Melanesian culture). Below are photos from each of these places. You can see how much they have in common geographically speaking.

Notice the fluffy white clouds. The Māori word for New Zealand is Aotearoa, which means "land of the long white cloud." The islands pictured above - none of which is New Zealand - also feature long white clouds.

We enjoyed learning about the indigenous cultures of the lands we visited. These cultures have many similarities. Most of the mountains were created through volcanic activity, and volcano sites are often the center of folklore. Stories passed down through many generations are characterized by a deep connection between the people and the land. Mountains, large rocks, and big rivers play important roles in cultural identity. The islands are divided between mountainside going "to the sea" ("Moana) and away from the sea. One part of the island might be very rainy and lush, the other dry and more reliably sunny. People traditionally lived in villages, and community life is very important.

During this voyage, I've been reading a book by Christina Thompson called Sea People, which describes Polynesian culture. The first part is about Europeans' first encounters with people in these islands. The second section is a discussion of how the indigenous populations describe their own heritage. After a description of how Western anthropologists looked at the cultures, she turns to experiments in the 1970s to recreate Polynesian voyages to uncover origins. The last section looks to modern science, including DNA research. I'm really enjoying the book as we voyage here.

In Fiji, some of the villages have opened their arms to outsiders, but on their terms. Small tourist groups are brought into modern-day villages. Fijians are proud of their communal life and traditions, and share welcoming ceremonies, dances and kava in an authentic and personal way. Fijian mean wear skirts called sulu for business or ceremonies, and sarongs casually. Every male guide proudly described the sulu he was wearing. During the welcoming ceremony, villagers had people to help us with appropriate words of thanks in their language and the right customs at the right time. They ask that we take pictures and encourage others to visit to learn about their way of life and spend their money on traditional hand-made items. Fijians clearly value education, speak multiple languages, and are choosing aspects of traditional life along with modern.

In Apia, Somoa, in the center of the Polynesian triangle, we visit the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. The Somoan guides who work there are quiet, focused, and knowledgeable. They exude heart and passion for their work. They are proud that this great and famous author chose to live on their island with his family, and to write about this locale. They sing us Stevenson's poem that he asked to have engraved on his tomb, which lies on the mountain top, at his request, overlooking the ocean he so loved. They have all read Stevenson's works - first in Samoan in elementary school, later in English. They delight in the fireplaces he had built so his wife would feel more at home, which of course were never used in this tropical climate. They have turned the estate into a botanical garden featuring tropical plants. But it is in the encounters with them when the tour is ended that I notice how kind and attentive they are.

Back in town, people are gracious as well. When I don't see any island dress that fits me, the owner of the shop asks her son to walk us a few blocks to her niece's shop, where seamstresses sew alongside displays of lovely dresses in many sizes. The son is personable and friendly as he takes us to his cousin's shop; the niece helps me find the perfect dress. Low-key and not at all pressured, just very nice. The young men pictured below say exhuberantly, "Take our picture!" and when we do they say, "Share it with the world!"

In Nouméa, New Caledonia, we visit the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, home to an exploration of the indigenous Katak culture. Katak people make up 42% of the total population. One gets the impression of a people finding a strong voice, after long colonial domination. The Katak people negotiated with France to have a physical space representative of their culture and this center is stunning. Our guide, Georges, spoke from the heart about his people's beliefs, customs, and way of life. He described the culture of "sea people" and "mountain people" - cultures arising from mountains on one side and ocean on the other.

As you can see, the Centre, perfectly blends the natural environment with human-made structures, story with home, traditional with modern.

In Alotau, Papau New Guinea, we visit a much quieter, laid back town. It is Sunday, and most of the stores are closed. But there are beautiful views and a craft market where I buy some cloth to make a dress. Our taxi driver, Chester, is a genial and incredibly nice man.

But the story of these islands is also one fraught with conflict. Each of them tells a story of cross-cultural connection, to be sure, but also conquest and maltreatment. In Fiji, Samoa, New Caledonia, and Papua New Guinea, conquering nations imposed their languages and systems. In Fiji, workers were brought in by the British from India, and Indonesian workers were brought into other islands. Those communities helped shape modern life. Multiple religious traditions were imported by these different groups including a large influx of Christian missionaries from the West. Islanders seem to blend many of these traditions with each other and with their own traditions. Samoa achieved independence, but neighboring islands are still American territory (American Samoa). Fiji and Papua New Guinea are now republics and Commonwealth countries. In New Caledonia, independence referenda are held every few years but the dream of independence held by many of the Katak people has yet to be realized. All of these islands depend on tourism for their economies, and were happy to see the return of the cruise ships even though tourism also brings its own problems. Modern cruise ships are more attentive to telling cultural stories in their complexity, and much more friendly to the environment, but we are still a floating village of over a thousand people docking at various ports, and not a very diverse group of people if our ship is any indication.

On this trip, we have spent many days at sea. This ocean is vast. We sail for days without seeing any land at all, although sometimes there is a mirage of land on the horizon, not really there. Sometimes the waves rock our huge ship for days. It feels like a miracle that people landed on the shores of any of these islands, and even more miraculous that people from these islands navigated so well between the islands. While the islands have common threads to their cultures, each place has its own unique history, culture, and characteristics. These islands are now a blend of indigenous people, descendants of colonizers (Pakeha in Maori, Caledoches in New Caledonia), and other immigrants. So many of these modern residents from diverse backgrounds are working hard to achieve true cross-cultural society, one where indigenous cultures are honored, respected, and taught alongside other cultures and histories. We in the U.S. could learn a lot from them.

In many of the islands we have visited, people have a word that is impossible to translate into English. Sometimes translated as "hello", "goodbye", "peace", "good day", it actually means something we don't really have an equivalent for in our language. That word is Aloha in Hawaiian, Bula in Figi, Kia ora in Maori, Talofa in Samoa. Our Figian guide said of Bula - it is a word that means everything that is good and positive. You can say it morning, noon, or night, so long as you say it with good will and an open heart. Perhaps we need such a word. It might help us communicate with each other a little better.

We have learned that when we are traversing a land with mountains on one side and ocean on the other, we are visiting a very special place, indeed.


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