This place has found its way into our hearts. We were very lucky to connect with the Australian couple when we arrived. They told us about the Cultural Bureau tour, which we probably would not have come upon on our own. The tour was wonderful. Our guide was born here, but has lived in other parts of the world, so she had an interesting perspective. The fact that she also spoke good English was a big plus. We bombarded her with an endless stream of questions, while we were taking in the sights.
Ancient peoples apparently lived on this island as far back as 2,000 BC, maybe earlier. Around 1700 the island was ‘colonized’ by Tongans, who brought nobles and set up a hierarchical society. They built forts, one of which we visited. Around 1830 Christian missionaries arrived. The first batch tried to impose their own ways of doing things; they were killed. But the next batch was more open to the existing culture, and they were accepted. After several years the local king converted, and then of course everyone did. The Catholic Church provided schools, which added to their acceptance. The number of churches here is incredible. Every community has one, and there are lots of communities (not clear to an outsider where one stops and the next begins). Plus there is a large cathedral. The structures are elaborate and beautiful. (Photos to follow when Internet allows.)
The United States stationed forces here during World War II. They built a fuel depot that is still used today. Many of those troops perished at Guadalcanal. After the war, Jeeps and other equipment were pushed over a cliff into the deep volcanic lake, which we visited. The crater is remarkable because of its shape — nearly a perfect circle, with sheer cliffs all the way around.
Wallis and Futuna became a protectorate of France in 1961, with a referendum vote 94% in favor. Our guide remembers life before then, with essentially no infrastructure. There was a boarding school at the south end of the island; people got there mostly on horseback. She was sent there at age five, because her mother was sick and needed care in New Caledonia. Our guide said she felt like she had been sent to the end of the earth.
The population now is about 9,000. France has provided roads and electricity and schools and a hospital. Students can complete high school here. If they go on to university, they usually go to New Caledonia or to France. Parents are scared to have their children leave the island, as they have heard about the many bad things that happen “out there.” Sometimes parents go with the child. Others get Internet (at relatively hefty expense) so they can stay in touch via Skype. The Internet is very slow here, so it’s hard to imagine using Skype! The post office offers 10 minutes of free wifi per day, which we found was just enough to check email; forget doing anything else. Residents are hoping they will get an undersea cable laid to the island to greatly boost bandwidth, but it doesn’t sound like this is coming anytime soon.
The French connection seems to be welcomed here. My sense back in the Marquesas was that there was disdain for the French “colonists,” and we felt that it was important to fly the Polynesian courtesy flag, and say hello in Marquesan. Here the French courtesy flag seems appropriate (which is a good thing because each of the three districts has its own flag, which of course we don’t have, and flying the wrong one would probably get us into trouble). People seem happy here to have the French support, and French citizenship, and they appreciate our feeble attempts to speak a little French.
Everywhere there are small “plantations.” Land is owned by families — plots are all small; no big agribusiness. Taro and cassava are major crops. Unfortunately we haven’t made it to the produce market, which is open every day in town, but only from 5am to 6am! The time works for everyone going to/from the morning church service. We’re told that the singing in the church is something wonderful to behold, but we haven’t made it to a service. Sunday morning the service isn’t until 7am, which is still too much of a stretch for me, though Bob might try to do it tomorrow morning before we leave. Going to church is further complicated by the need to wear long pants, while there is no dinghy dock to allow getting ashore dry.
The caretaker at the Tongan fort brought us green coconuts. The tops were sliced off so we could drink the juice, which was the sweetest I had ever tasted. And hold on to that sliced-off top piece, because when he cuts the coconut open for you it can be used like a spoon to scoop out the soft meat. I’ve never been a coconut lover, but these were really good! Our guide mentioned about the troubles of the world, “When Wallisians hear about people going hungry in other parts of the world, we think, ‘If only we had a way to share our coconuts with them…'”
I asked if the Cultural Bureau had specific projects in the works, and she explained that the big projects are trying to train her staff, and to get the politicians to understand that the 15 year Development Plan needs to include a cultural component. Development needs to be sustainable, not only in terms of natural resources, but also of the culture and the quality of life that they enjoy here. She says sometimes new staff come from France and they think they know what is needed here, instead of listening and learning about the culture. These people are focused on climbing their own career ladder. I said she must have “seen it all” and know how to deal with such people. She laughed and said, “You never know — your own neighbor may surprise you!”
Talking with Bill and Bob later that evening, we realized we have a nagging question that we neglected to ask: Do Wallisians want more yachts to come here? Or is the average of about one per week all they care to see!? I think more would come if they knew what was here. But we’re not sure if we should tell them!
One last reason that Wallis has become special to us is that our coming here was completely outside the purview of the BPO. Not a big deal, but it was the first time that we were entirely on our own to choose the anchorage, negotiate the formalities, and learn about the place, without information provided to us by Jimmy or a local BPO support rep. A little taste of world cruising outside of the rally structure.
We cleared out with the gendarme today, in preparation for leaving tomorrow. He asked our next destination, and we told him Tuvalu. He chuckled and said something to the effect of, “Tuvalu – soon to be underwater!” This is the first time I can recall anyone referring to sea level rise without our bringing up the topic.