The French seem to be good custodians of their islands. They import an infrastructure of communications, medical, education and police services, staff it with Frenchmen, fund it French francs, import French foodstuffs to feed the staff, and then pretty much leave the cultures alone.
Small and off the usual cruising routes, Wallis and Futuna are not often visited by cruisers, although Futuna has become a popular destination for boats in Fiji who need to extend their time there with a quick trip out to another country. Usually, those boats arrive, drop the anchor, clear in and out in one stop with the officials, and then weigh anchor and head back south.
On our way north, we had done our usual preliminary orientation by reading about Futuna in our Lonely Planet Guide, and it sure seemed a shame to sail all this way and not give it a look-see. So when we went ashore that first morning to go to customs, we decided among us to stay two days. We arrived with a little anxiety about customs because the last two boats to make the trip had arrived back in Savusavu without the proper clearance paper and been heavily fined. But everything seemed to us straightforward and clear, despite the language difference, and we left the office with our clearance already in hand.
The next stop is the gendarmerie, about a mile or so walk east down the coast road. Outside the gendarmerie, we ran into two men with a TV camera, and we wondered what was going on. It turned out we were what was going on! It seems that this is the first time there has ever been three sailboats in the harbor at one time, and it seems that in Futuna this is newsworthy. The reporter and cameraman --Nasalio Leleivai and Jean Francois Puakavase – wanted to do a feature on the sailors and what we do when visitnig Futuna.
And so began our day as TV stars. The gendarmes got into the spirit of the filming, serving us a round of demitasse cafés for us in their air-conditioned office. As we've noticed on other French islands, the French gendarmes do not subscribe to a uniform code, more often than not appearing in the briefest of shorts and T-shirts.
From the gendarmerie, we moved on to the money changer, the proprietor of a small store who sat behind a counter and happily changed "Mr. Bush's money" into Central Pacific francs. He had no use for either Kiwi or Fijian dollars, and he had less use for the TV camera. "Taboo," he said, shaking his head repeatedly. "Taboo."
By now we are all hot to trot to find something to eat. We had skipped breakfast saving ourselves for croissants and baguettes. Apparently, however, there are no "snacks" in Futuna, and the only restaurants are at two the hotels and absurdly expensive. So Nasalio and Jean Francois steered us to the supermarket, whose shelves were filled with such French treats as baguettes, small rounds of Brie and Camembert, and canned pate, and armed with this loot, we went back to the TV station to woof it down in Nasalio's office.
Once fed and watered, Jean Francois took us all on a tour of the island in the station's vehicle. About 33km all the way around, our tour took all of ninety minutes, especially as our guide had some pressure to get back for an interview with one of Futuna's two kings at the hospital.
Our first stop was a fine fale fono in our guide's own village. The fale fono in Futuna, like the ones we saw in Samoa, is where the men gather in the evening to drink kava and discuss community business. A beautiful oval structure in the Samoan style, this fale was built completely with traditional materials: an impressive latticework of beams secured with traditional sennit (much like the Fijian magimagi we saw at Nukubati) and topped by thick thatch with woven palm "blinds" lowerable for shade or protection from the wind. Inside were stacks of mats, several large tanoa (kava bowls) and the mortars used for pounding the roots. A bunch of kids were hanging out in the shade, waiting for the bus to carry them back to school for the afternoon session, and they were quick to speak with us in English. Apparently English is now a required subject in school, as per an edict from one of the kings.
Across the street is a magnificent church of cement painted to look like blocks. The church, with two side towers, an impressive wood carving of Mary and Jesus, huge wooden doors and stained glass windows was built in just five months after an earthquake brought down the original in 1993. (note, this info does not jibe with what is given in the Lonely Planet!)
From there we drove to an overlook of Alofi Island. Alofi is uninhabited but for one caretaker. It is essentially a retreat for Futunans who can go out for the day to maintain gardens or just play on the exquisite beach. There is a church there and some fales for general use, and it is a popular spot for visiting yachts to anchor when winds are out of the southeast.
On the north side of the island at Poi, the main sight to see is the multilayered tower of the Basilica of St. Pierre Chanel. Pierre Chanel was the first Catholic missionary to come to Futuna. Initially he and his colleagues were welcomed by the king, but as he gained converts the king began to feel his traditional power threatened, and sent a band of warriors to kill him. Chanel was the first missionary lost, and eventually became the patron saint of Oceania. The Basilica is huge and cool inside, lit by panes of colored glass. There must have been hundreds of pews, surely enough to seat the island's entire population! Off to the side is an unexpectedly modern chapel where the sacred Chanel relics are kept. This chapel, all angles of wood, is extraordinarily peaceful with the susurrations of the sea on the beach in the background. Oddly, in the center of the church grounds is the tomb of the man who had Chanel killed.
From there the pace of our tour picked up as Jean Francois hurried to get back for his interview. Our only other stop was to admire the lava rock formations on the northwest point.
Jean Francois dropped us back at the wharf in mid-afternoon. For two cruisers who usually nap half the day after a passage, the day's activity was quite the departure from the norm. Don and I both took the chance to crash for the three hours until five pm, when the crews of all three boats gathered aboard Apogee with Jean Francois and Nasalio as guests.
From our point of view, the evening was the traditional gathering of cruisers for hors d'oeuvres and sundowners. From their point of view, this was the official interview of the American, New Zealand and Australian crews. However since I was the only one among us to speak French, I was the primary intermediary. Now I must point out that I haven't spoken a lick of French since the Societies, and that my vast reservoir of school French (a reservoir that has stuck with me faithfully for thirty years) got badly contaminated by my efforts to learn Spanish. So, here I am after a night of night watches trying badly to make sense translating for everyone all day, and I must tell you that Nasalio, with his mellifluous Futunan accent was damn hard for me to understand.
And yet it went well, and the completed "reportage" aired on Tuesday night's news program which we were actually able to pick up on our multi-system TV (the absolute first time we have every used it!.) We all looked great, and Jean Francois had edited things nicely so that I did not come across as the village idiot. Some of us had already seen the footage at the station in the afternoon, and Jean Francois made us a DVD that actually plays on our anglo computer!
Two small things that really amuse me about all this. One is that while trying hard to speak coherent French, I actually end up looking French, with the pursed lips, the quizzical tilt of the head, and the hand gestures. The other amusing thing is that a fourth boat cruised in this afternoon. Perhaps they'll have to reshoot the whole story!
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Labels: Ile Futuna