Help arrives for Indonesian tsunami victims

After a 7.7-magnitude earthquake and 10-foot tsunami hit Indonesia Monday, killing at least 272 people, relief efforts have arrived to help the wounded, search for the hundreds still missing, and bury the dead. The first cargo plane loaded down with 16 tons of tents, medicine, food and clothes arrived today after weather relented long enough for search and rescue teams to arrive. Many villages near the coast were completely destroyed by the waves.

The Mentawai Islands are a popular destination for surfers, though their location in the Pacific Ring of Fire make them prone to seismic activity. Ten tourists arrived in Pedang today to tell their story after 24 hours lost in the Indian Ocean, including an American. According to the Associated Press, the anchored tourist boat was hit by a wall of water smashed them into a neighboring vessel, triggering a fire that quickly ripped through their cabin. “They hit us directly in the side of the boat, piercing a fuel tank,” said Daniel North, the American crew member. “Almost immediately, the captain gave the order to abandon ship and everyone got off the boat.” They clung to surfboards and then climbed the highest trees they could find to await rescue.

The tsunami hit the Mentawai Islands, about 149 miles south of Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra, along the same fault line as the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that killed 230,000. Less than a day after the tsunami, a volcano erupted 800 miles to the east, killing more than two dozen people and displacing thousands. No travel alert has been set yet by the US Department of State for Indonesia, though a June alert is in affect for Pacific typhoons until December 1.

[Photo source: Wikipedia Commons]

Round-the-world: Two half-days in Noumea

Coming and going between Australia and Lifou afforded us long layovers in Nouméa in both directions.

The driving force behind my interest in Nouméa is the Centre Culturel Tjibaou. The cultural center was named after Jean-Marie Tjibaou, a leader of the Kanak independence movement, assassinated in 1989. (Kanaks are Melanesian New Caledonians, and they form a plurality of the population in the territory.) The cultural center is the public heart of Kanak cultural life.

The cultural center is housed in a remarkable building above Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia. Designed by Renzo Piano, it is worth a visit for its architectural ambition alone, though its showcasing of Kanak culture is fascinating and of great interest. The building consists of several conical structures meant to resemble traditional Kanak houses, though in a form designed to look unfinished. During our visit to the center, a fantastic exhibition on the art of the Torres Strait Islands was on display. Though the art of the Torres Strait Islands has many art world fans, it is very different from Australian Aboriginal art’s better-known conventions.

In light of the ever-brewing sentiment in favor of full independence among many residents of New Caledonia, it is an especially fascinating place to take stock of the development of Kanak culture. New Caledonia will hold a referendum on independence sometime in 2014 at the earliest.

Cultural connections to the surrounding region of Melanesia are prioritized for many in New Caledonia over connections to France. During our visit, the Fourth Melanesian Arts Festival was held in New Caledonia. The festival featured cultural performances by people from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu in addition to New Caledonia. Near the airport in Lifou there is a big spray-painted banner welcoming “Melanesian brothers” to the festival and proclaiming 2014 as the year when Kanaky (the Kanak term for New Caledonia) will be free.

But in central Nouméa, the vibe is French. Blonde fiftysomething matrons sun themselves on the balconies of modern apartment buildings downtown, and many shops are chic and air-conditioned. The city resembles a medium-sized city in the south of France or in another French overseas territory. (It reminded me most of all of Guadeloupe’s Pointe-à-Pitre). In Noumea we ate an outstanding meal at a very French restaurant called La Chaumière (11 bis Rue du Dr. Guégan) : tiny ravioli, fat local shrimp sautéed in garlic, and a bavarois poire for dessert. It was delicious, and quite possibly the best meal we had in New Caledonia, though it felt somewhat imposed and out of place.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route round-the-world series here.