Published in Now! Jakarta, February 2009

The English arrive at Port Resolution, Tanna, Vanuatu (1830).

Vanuatu - Florida

I have always wanted to visit Vanuatu — the former New Hebrides in the South Pacific near Fiji — because it sounds like Indonesia: 400 languages, many diverse islands, lots of great art and culture.
So last month I got the new Garuda flight to Sydney — at last a lie flat seat! — and connected smoothly onto Air Vanuatu’s early morning flight to Port Vila, the island nation’s capital.
On the flight I had a few first impressions of Vanuatu: one was a beefy airhostess arm coming across me when I was half asleep before take off and which slammed me upright with one press of my seat recliner button. Another impression was that of huge slabs of paté served for breakfast; and the other was when a rather exotic if messy New Age floral batik table cloth with “Pilioko” written large across it was slammed down on my fold-out table.

•    •    •

Miss Vanuatu Earth-lover Mz. Eloise Viart at Devil’s Point, Port Villa

The Idyllic village green at Pango, Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Pango villager with slab of roasted beef.

Vanuatu Island beauty in traditional costume at the Fragrant Garden Museum, Devil’s Point, Vanuatu.

Port Vila airport is small and well organized and the township clean and modern — there are views to the stunning harbours and bays and beaches everywhere.
I was instantly impressed by the giant trees which line the roads — mangos and banyan trees for the most part — and the general loveliness of the village gardens.
Many resorts looked “Balinaise” — “Port Vila Bay is like Sanur without the “sewerage”, the inflight magazine had announced — but the villages are spacious, with hedges of well tended Hibisci and rows of meat freezers serving as boundaries.
I asked the driver to stop at one particularly pretty beach-side village, called Pango where a ceremony was in progress. I found a group of island women on exquisitely patterned pandanus mats dividing up giant ‘island-dress’ mu-mus (island women are all traditionally built) all in the Jackson Pollock batik that had so startled me on the plane!

Shrine to Nicolai Michoutouchkine at his home near Pango.

The Pango village was perfection: well ventilated living quarters, coral courts, pandanus groves settled by friendly, healthy dogs, and big beefy men walking around with giant chunks of barbequed red meat on pokers. As idyllic a South Pacific  setting as one could imagine.
Further down the Pango road, we turned into Pacific Art Cultural Centre and discovered my old Tahitian artist friend who I soon realized was the self same Alio Pilioko co-inventor of the Vanuatu batik and tie-dye and hand painted textiles tie — the island’s only truly ‘local’ contemporary art.
Pilioko’s partner of 54 years, Russian artist Nicolai Michoutouchkine  had died in July, and the house was still in the mourning: shrines of Pacific Rim  totems dedicated to the Black Madonna and Miss Kitty had sprung up in every corner.
Pilioko explained that the vast pacific art collection he and Michou had brought to Bali in 2002 is still at the Museum Pasifika in Nusa Dua Bali.
The next day I went to Devil’s Point to the ‘Fragrant Garden’ outdoor museum with its collection of Vanuatu village architecture, and artefacts.
The guides were in traditional costumes (the same dyed mats but finer) which I was told are still worn in the remaining traditional villages in the northern Torres and Banks islands.

•    •    •

Yoga hags demonstrating outside Starbucks, Ubud.

Back in Bali an amazing cross-cultural coincidence occurred: driving to Ubud for the Writers’ Festival I find the road blocked by a band of yoga hags from the spiritual tourism compound all in Pilioko ‘rainbow batiks’ and brandishing “Close Starbucks” placards!!

•    •    •

Next I travelled to Manatee Road, Belize to be a judge in the Conch Queen Competition (more tie-dye and psychedic skid marks!) before finally settling for a few days in Naples, Florida where four of my Balinese commandoes are completing the Asian Garden section of the Naples Botanical Gardens.
I need to plant out the Candi Sukuh ruin-scape and fluff up the herbaceous borders. I had chosen as the theme for the garden design “Ancient Asia” — being the stone strewn village squares of eastern  Indonesian villages; the Hindu-Javanese candi ruinscapes and the ‘floating villages’ of Northern Thailand along the banks of the Mekong. It has turned out rather well.

Belize artist’s depiction of a traditional Mayan dance.

Belize, the former British Honduras was famed in days of yore for its pirates.

The Balinese are wearing their black hernia belts like boxing awards and all the crackers in the garden’s work force are in love with them. The shrine for the Balinese garden has ended up in Panama — its black thatched roof considered a security threat — but otherwise, it’s been smooth sailing (see photos above).
One night in Naples my born-again fruit fly friend, Ellen, a fellow of the association of  landscape architects — and my colleague at the Naples Botanical Garden project — had invited me to meet her ‘flamboyant’ friend Peter Franks who “had a collection of Balinese antiques” and “had all my books”. My valve slammed shut because I have found, over a brief career — as something of an expert on Balinese antiques — that on the occasions when I have been dragged, screaming, to see peoples’ Balinese collections/gardens that I am often under-whelmed. This time it was different: octogenarian Franks, a failed Hollywood matinee idol, retired stockbroker and fan of trashy wild west novelettes had a sumptuous 6 acre estate in “Wilderness”, a gated community built by his father along with a magnificent country club. “Wilderness” is simply the most beautifully designed gated community in Florida and quite possibly the entire tropical world, not known for the refinement of its gated communities. The interior of Frank’s house, a rambling affair panelled in its entirety with Bald Oak (like a Swedish billionaires sauna) was primarily a homage to extreme souvenir collecting — with quite a few treasures and  fluffy toys thrown in for good measure. From the moment he met us at the “King and I” front doors we were pressed into a guided tour with Franks playing bubbly but Bolshie cheer leader cum William Randolph Hearst. In his own bedroom he had a stand of 50 or so cowboy belts (???) and three vintage Linda Garland bamboo sofas which somehow looked right amongst the forests of carved banana trees and wooden orchids gathering dust.
I swear I’ll give all amateur Balinese art aficionados around the world the benefit of the doubt in the future.

Two views of the Asian Garden at Naples Botanical Gardens.

My commandos in Naples (left to right) Nyoman Suwita, Dewa Matram, Dewa Sucita, Ketut Batu.

•    •    •

From Florida I travelled home via Houston, Texas, to see an exhibition on “Indonesian Gold”.
Now, Americans, for the most part, think that Indonesia is “somewhere in the South Pacific”, but occasionally their museums do put on great shows.
This show at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, was ravishing: about one hundred exquisite examples of ornamental and ceremonial gold objects — from kris daggers to funeral masks — from across the Indonesian archipelago.

A golden ‘skull cap’ from a 10th century Javanese Buddha statue at the Houston Museum.

The items were well displayed by region, with excellent descriptive texts.
Lately Indonesians have been crying foul that “foreigners have stolen their heritage”: all I can say is: Thank the heavens someone did, or there wouldn’t be any beautiful collections like this one!!

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