Faces of Melanesia
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Warmth was on my mind as the plane lifted off the rain-soaked runway in Seattle, headed south on the first flight of my journey to the South Pacific. Even as I was anticipating the opportunity to have a glimpse into these rich Melanesian cultures, I was also relishing the thought that sun, sand, and snorkeling would be on the menu as we explored a string of tiny island nations from Fiji to Papua New Guinea. When you say that you're going to the South Pacific, people tend to burn just a little with envy.
When I finally arrived in Fiji two mornings later, having crossed the International Date Line on my flight, we were greeted by a cacophony of birds on the breezeway to the terminal, a lively Fijian band that helped wake the weary travelers, and a blazing sunrise that engulfed the entire sky. I was already getting warmer.
Before setting out for the day's activities, I met my shipmates and most of the expedition staff over lunch, and I loved the thought that our Expedition Leader set before the small group. He submitted that "Life is not a spectator sport... put down your popcorn, come down from the bleachers, and interact with the people we'll meet!" That, truly, is the essence of expedition-style travel, and I was excited to board our ship and embark on our journey.
Our home for the next two weeks would be the lovely Clipper Odyssey, a nicely appointed 110-passenger luxury expedition vessel. Well-equipped for navigating open ocean as well as narrow passages, she's one of those ships that is casually luxurious. The ship's staff treated us as if we were guests in a fine home, with warmth and without pretension. The expedition staff was excellent—energetic, knowledgeable, and accessible. The fact that over half of my shipmates were return guests on the Clipper Odyssey, and many of them had traveled extensively with this expedition company, was a great sign of things to come! We settled into our comfortable cabins, enjoyed the first of many fine meals aboard the ship, and set off to explore new places.
There were SO many amazing places to explore! After spending the day on a remote island in Fiji, snorkeling for the first time on our voyage, and being serenaded by the local choir in their Sunday best, it took us a day at sea to reach Vanuatu. If my residual Seattle chill hadn't worn off in Fiji, it certainly melted away on Ambrym Island, our first landing in Vanuatu. A keen group of birders crossed volcanically heated runoff in search of the elusive megapode, and we snorkeled the warm waters over a black sand seabed that was laced with coral and sprinkled with colorful fish. The mysterious Rom dance performed by the men of Ambrym and their fabulous wood carvings were our first taste of the intriguing culture we would encounter throughout Melanesia.
Rano Island, the next stop on our journey, was one of my very favorite spots. This tiny paradise receives very few visitors, yet they treated us not only to some traditional dances but also to a "living history" walking tour that gave us a glimpse into their way of life. Taking heed of our Expedition Leader's advice to connect with the local people, I enjoyed chatting with my group's 16-year-old guide and I started to find out more about what it's like to grow up in this corner of the world that seems like paradise.
Yet, it's difficult to play favorites when the experiences just seemed to get better and better. On Espiritu Santo Island in Vanuatu, I snorkeled over WWII relics at Million Dollar Point, and I danced in a downpour with the dramatic and winsome people of Nekar Village. On Tikopia Island, an outpost of Polynesian culture on the eastern edge of the Solomon Islands, we were practically mobbed by children. They waded out to meet us and scrambled into the Zodiacs as we carefully made our way to shore. When a precious little girl with ringlets in her hair took me by the hand and led me through her village, sharing smiles and giggles but few words that we could both understand, my heart melted. The children throughout Melanesia are absolutely adorable, and they always greeted us with laughter and playfulness.
Making our way through the Solomon Islands, I was profoundly moved as I learned more about the searing conflict that has torn through this region. We stood atop Bloody Ridge on Guadalcanal and sailed across Iron Bottom Sound, and we spent an idyllic morning snorkeling and beachcombing on Kennedy Island--an uninhabited jewel of an island, named after John F. Kennedy long after he and his crew swam across shark infested water and survived there after their boat (PT-109) was destroyed in WWII. I also learned more about the Solomon Islands' more recent political strife, or "troubles" as our local guide called them, and about the devastation wrought by a recent tsunami.
By the time we reached Papua New Guinea (PNG), my love for Melanesia was sealed. PNG is pinch-me-I'm-dreaming beautiful. Its landscape is dramatic and wild, and the snorkeling is a feast of color and texture--the best I've ever experienced. Yet again, it was the outrageously creative yet soft-spoken people who stole my heart. It was the end of the school year, so we were privileged to be guests for the closing celebrations in several places. I was heartened to see that they weren't dancing simply to entertain visitors...they started celebrating long before we arrived and continued even after the audience bid farewell. After being treated to some of the most extraordinary performances on the beach of Kitava Island and perusing the gorgeous handicrafts and artwork they had for sale, I was again accompanied by an entourage of giggling guides as we hiked up to their village. Once we reached their thatched huts and yam houses I just had to stand on the path and be mindful of the moment. I really was in Papua New Guinea.
Finally, after an unbelievable two weeks aboard the Clipper Odyssey, I felt like I was coming home deeply changed. I had basked in the vibrance and abundance of life in the reefs, soaked up the South Pacific sun, deepened my knowledge through the expedition staff's engaging lectures, spent time with some fascinating shipmates, and I was coming home with hundreds of treasured photos to share. Yet, it is the thought of setting my proverbial popcorn down, coming down from the bleachers, and connecting with the people I met that continues to put a smile on my face in the cold of winter, and it has ignited a passion to explore more corners of this spectacular part of our planet. With my time in Melanesia behind me, I find that it's the unexpected warmth of the lovely people I met that continues to glow in my memory.