Tale of the God Fish

What’s in a name? Plenty enough to bring a dose of hilarity to something as boring as a conference on marine resources in the middle of nowhere. And thereby hangs this tale:

I was at this international conference about oceanic stuff on one of the Pacific Ocean’s beautiful emerald paradises. One of the speakers was a Japanese fishery expert whose name was Masayoshi. Everyone addressed him as Masa. How appropriate his name would have been in Mumbai, I thought. For in the local Marathi lingo, ‘Masa’ means fish!

At tea between sessions, a photographer was going around getting people to stand together for group shots. Some of the delegates too were clicking away. One of them appeared to be of South Asian stock.

Waiting for a break in my conversation with the Japanese gent he approached me and glancing at my nametag asked if I was Indian. I nodded. “Well Dev has to be Indian. Where from?” From Mumbai, I said. “Me too. You understand Marathi?” I sure do, I said.

Then pointing to Masa’s tag, which he’d obviously noticed before, he let out a loud guffaw. “Dev-Masa” he said. “You know that means whale in Marathi, eh?” Of course, I said. Devmasa is indeed Marathi for whale. (‘Devmasa’ can loosely be translated as “God Fish”).

The session after the tea break was about whaling in the Pacific!

Suspicious in Singapore

Dev Nadkarni

“If you see a suspicious package or a suspicious person please contact the train officer through the intercom near the exit,” says the electronic voice in my Singapore MRT railcar. It’s 8am on a Saturday and I’m headed downtown from Changi Airport, groggy after an all-night flight.

The alert repeats every once in a while in between announcements of approaching stations and cautioning us to mind the gap, London Underground style. But no one in the packed car is looking for anything – they’re all peering into their handhelds. Neither is anyone listening to the announcements – headphones and buds plugging their ears.

As the stations come and go, I notice there’s no exchange of glances. No acknowledging nods. No smiles. No hellos – humanoid silos of great ethnic diversity. This is the age of social media, you see.

I survey the faces lost wide-eyed in the world that is the brightly lit screen in their palms. Some smile. Some look slightly worried. Some are whispering into their pinhole mikes. Some are playing games as the train cruises on straight stretches when the other hand is no longer needed to hold the handrail.

A young woman facing the door seems to be chewing on her earphone cable. No, she isn’t. She’s perfected the art of holding the wire between her lips as she speaks softly, softly into the wire-embedded mic while blankly staring at the blackness outside, as the rake trundles through the city-state’s bowels.

Left to their devices this MRT ride, their destinations, the world itself may as well not exist.

“If you see a suspicious package or a suspicious person please contact the train officer through the intercom near the exit,” that deadpan electronic voice goes again. A chilling thought crosses my mind: what if someone spots me not peering into a device, instead exchanging a glance with them or simply looking around? I might be reported for suspicious activity.

I quickly reach for my iPhone and power its screen to life.

Farm to table – the Tao of Kai

Having raised the profile of Samoan cuisine to dizzying heights, chef Robert Oliver is transforming traditional foods at the grassroots.

Dev Nadkarni

Award winning chef and author Robert Oliver is not one to rest on his laurels. The two-time winner of the world’s most prestigious cookbook awards for his Pacific-themed cookbooks (see box), the celebrity chef who grew up in Samoa and Fiji is passionate about leveraging this success for Samoa and other islands of the Pacific.

Robert Oliver with volunteers sorting organically grown veggies to be delivered to participating hotels of the farm to
Robert Oliver with volunteers sorting organically grown veggies to be delivered to participating hotels of the farm to table programme in Samoa. Pic: Dev Nadkarni

“The awards have sparked a genuine global interest in Pacific cuisines,” says Mr Oliver, who will be showcasing some of these at a major event on the margins of the SIDS conference. “Cultures around the world take pride in their cuisines. Take French cuisine, for instance. People travel all the way there to try it out. That’s what we need to do in the Pacific – make cuisine a sought after part of our tourist offering.”

Oliver is not just a chef and author. He is also a thinker and philosopher. While talking of the importance of packaging Pacific cuisines as a part of the general allure of Pacific destinations, he also values the role of local produce, smallholding growers and their traditional methods of farming, which are inherently natural and organic. He is also deeply concerned with the alarming incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Samoa and the Pacific.

“Cuisine is about people, identity, health, nutrition, livelihoods, the economy and of course the well being of the community,” he says passionately. “Many foods have deep traditional significance, which is also related to specific stages in the life of men and women. There is a whole of list of foods that facilitate lactation, rejuvenation and so on. We are in danger of losing that knowledge.”

The chef is working intensely on a project that touches all these aspects of food and cuisine. Along with the well-known Samoan NGO Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI), he is working with a range of organic farmers to grow and supply produce to popular hotels and restaurants around Samoa. He is also working with chefs of five of these establishments to develop unique recipes inspired by traditional Pacific cuisines. “The idea is to get tourists to taste local, organic produce prepared traditionally with a twist that appeals to international palates,” he says.

The ‘Farm to Table’ project is gathering steam. More establishments are joining in the run up to the SIDS events. “It’s about building enduring relationships through the value chain,” he says. “From communities, to farmers, to chefs, right through to the consumer. Ultimately it is the whole country that benefits – not just in terms of realising tourism potential but also healthy eating and cultural pride.”

‘Samoa arrives on world cuisine stage’

“I didn’t win the award. Samoa won the award,” Oliver said when his second book based on the cuisines of the Pacific islands, ‘Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes from the Heart of Polynesia’, won one of the world’s most prestigious awards earlier this year.

The book, along with its associated television cooking show, Real Pasifik won the Gourmand Award for Best TV Chef Cookbook In The World 2013 at an award ceremony in Beijing. The globally sought after accolade is considered the Oscars of cookbooks, coming from the well-regarded house of Cointreau, the family that brought to the world the famous Cointreau liqueur, as well us the Cognacs Frapin and Rémy Martin. “It signals Samoa’s arrival on the world cuisine stage,” he says.

For Oliver and the Pacific, winning this award was a bit of de ja vu. For in 2010 his earlier tome titled Me’a Kai, the Pacific Island Cookbook was named the Best Cookbook of the Year at the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris. The European media called it the gastronomic upset of the year. “We’d won the big one before so this year’s award was wholly unexpected,” says the passionate chef.

The book beat 187 participating countries. Of a shortlist of 94, 61 made it to the top three. Finalists were from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Winning the award a second time in such a short period of time only means there is something special about Pacific Island cuisine.

Natural ingredients, simplicity of preparation and cooking processes and a range of clean, subtle flavours directly reminiscent of the origins of the ingredients – the ocean and the pristine land – have proved a winning combination for the chef and Pacific cuisine.

– DN

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, September 2014

Spare a Tala for grassroots wisdom

Apia Diary

Dev Nadkarni

The longish drive from Faleolo Airport to downtown Apia is always a great opportunity for a grassroots view of the goings on in Samoa – especially when your driver, even if loquacious, is eloquently so. Views from the street are more often than not strongly biased toward the hoi polloi but they’re straight from the heart and valid opinions nonetheless. The cabbie barometer is one of the best tipping tools a scribe can ever have anywhere in the world. It’s always perceptive, even philosophical.

“From New Zealand?” asks chatty cabbie. Before I even utter ‘yes’, he continues: “Lived there a few years ago. Very nice place, nice people, nice roads, nice houses, but I came back in a year.” “Too cold?” I ask. “No. Cold is okay. Too expensive – you pay for everything, for eating, drinking, you need money for everything. Not like here. In New Zealand, no money, no life, no good.”

No need for money in Samoa? Not so much, he says. He lives in a nice ancestral home. There’s plenty of family, extended family and friends for support. There’s a patch to cultivate vegetables and fruit. There’s lots of fish. And it’s free. No money needed for day-to-day living. “Then how do you pay your bills?” I persist. “Sell the extra veggies and fruit by the side of the road, work a few hours, don’t work when you don’t need to, no pressure. See? Not like New Zealand.”

Come to think of it, all island societies – just like indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world – have not just survived but thrived without a monetary economy for millennia. And they’ve done so sustainably, without polluting, without taking more than what they need. They’ve grown food naturally and organically, without making a fuss of it or clamouring for some sort of expensive certification. They’ve treated ailments with traditional remedies and dealt with day-to-day problems with collective wisdom.

We first world slickers call that ‘subsistence living’ as though it were some lower form of existence. We desperately want to bring ‘up’ those living standards with ‘development’. Paid for by aid and cheap loans so that they may better participate in the modern global economy. So that they can pay for cheap, unhealthy high fat-salt-sugar-laden processed food and drink, which their digestive systems are scarcely attuned to. All of it produced in factories that belch carbon into the air, pollute the water and use questionable chemicals to prolong shelf life.

So, maybe the measurement and yardsticks of development ought to account for the harm it does to the traditional, natural lives that indigenous people have lived so well for a thousand years and more. Maybe Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, whom I meet and chat with later, is right about development yardsticks being seriously flawed, though his reasons might be somewhat different.

The worryingly high incidence of non-communicable diseases like type-II diabetes, a range of coronary ailments and runaway obesity rates are all consequences of development and of aligning with a modern, globalised economy. And then you find fault with ill equipped countries like Samoa, which also have inadequate human capacities to deal with these problems, of not achieving goals according to a one-size-fits-all standard that’s set by some ‘expert’ in some faraway ivory tower.

As we trundle along newly resurfaced roads to welcome some 3000 visitors from every corner of the world for the region’s biggest jamboree, I ask what he thinks of the event. “Very good for Samoa. Everyone will know Samoa. We learn from them and they learn from us.” What does he think ‘they can learn from us’? With a reflective glance over the endless ocean and with an ever so slight smirk he rather haltingly says, “If everyone lives like how we have always lived, everything will be all right.”

So earthy, so practical, so straight from the heart: but is the world listening? As it squabbles about how to prevent half-a-degree’s rise in temperature while fiercely arguing who will spew out less carbon, the still, small voice from the grassroots stays unheard.

Apt sobriquet

I quite like Samoa’s ‘model state’ sobriquet. It’s stable socially and politically, has reformed its economy slowly but in sure, small steps and has performed reasonably well in the development indices, though some might have a different view on this last bit. I often wonder what might be behind Samoa’s stolid social stability, unlike, say, that of Fiji’s, where things always seem to simmer beneath the surface.

As I meander through one of Apia’s bustling markets on a crowded Saturday morning I can’t help but notice the sheer diversity in facial features. Some are decidedly oriental. Some are completely Pacific island. Some are a bit of this and a bit of that. But unlike in other multiethnic melting pots anywhere in the world, everyone is called Samoan. There is no hyphenated, double-barrel description. Like Fijian-Indian or Indo-Fijian or Italian-American. There are no labels like Chinese-Samoan or German-Samoan in common parlance. Everyone is Samoan. Period.

One reason might well be that unlike Fiji Samoa doesn’t have to bear the cross of British colonialist legacies. Three powers fought over its territories in history – Germany, America and Britain. Fiji was ruled solely by the British, who left behind their toxic divide-and-rule legacy in many parts of the world: Fijian versus Indian just as in India it was Hindus versus Muslims. Which these divisions to this day continue to threaten havoc, both in Fiji and in India and in other former British colonies. Samoa was spared of that.

It’s a true melting pot. Chinese and European legacies are valued and celebrated but in the Samoan way. Absorption, accommodation and assimilation are the unique attributes of the Samoan way. But there is a new wave of immigrants that seems to be hitting Samoa’s shores and I notice them in bigger numbers during every subsequent visit. There are more Chinese coming in as businesspeople, traders, workers. Some Samoans are worried. They are unsure how this escalating influx will affect the Samoan way in the decades to come.

Meanwhile, everyone is excited about hosting the biggest show the country has ever seen. No one clearly knows what it all means and what benefits it will bring Samoans in the long run. When I ask the vendor selling fresh albacore and yellow-fin tuna in the Apia market, she does not quite know what SIDS is. Or how it will benefit her and her family.

But she thinks it will be good for her country that so many people are coming – she hopes they’ll take back good memories of Samoa with them. And pointing to the bright new twin cab van that roars into the parking lot says, “Maybe we’ll have some good sleep now on.” It’s the dog control van fresh from New Zealand that’s been in the headlines all morning.

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, September 2014

Grim forebodings as discontent simmers

Dev Nadkarni/ Bangkok Diary

It takes me four hours to fly from Mumbai to Bangkok. Then five hours in a taxi from the Thai capital’s swishy Suvarnabhumi Airport to a hotel in the city – and that’s not even the hotel in which I am booked to stay for the next few days. It is impossible to reach that hotel today or even tomorrow, I gather from the taxi driver’s heavily Thai laced English emphasised by jerky gesticulations, which I seem to understand better than the words and sounds I hear.

We are ploughing our way through a citizens’ protest. Aerial pictures on the front pages of newspapers the next day show masses of people thronging the city centre’s Democracy Monument – the kind of picture of a sea of humanity we see at the funeral of a popular leader in the world’s more populous parts. The police say there are 150,000 people. The opposition says there are a million. Some media reports say half a million. Anyway, there are enough people to make a 40km drive from airport to city last five hours.

The protestors want Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Government to step down. They say the Government is actually run by proxy by her brother, controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They accuse it of corruption. The immediate reason for the protests, however, is outrage at a proposed new Amnesty Bill, which was passed by the ruling party on November 1, which the Senate turned down 11 days later.

The Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed constitutional amendment is illegal, which the Government rejected saying the court had no jurisdiction over it. It’s a classic case of the legislative and judicial arms of a democracy clashing. So far the executive has steered clear. But the protestors are about to force its hand, too. They are storming Government offices, cutting off power and water supply to them, blockading public access to administrative services – and as the latest reports say, they are asking the country’s armed forces to pick a side: either pro or anti Government.

When similar protests took place a few years ago, the country went into lockdown for weeks. The airport was blockaded for weeks with international tourists stranded for days, sleeping on the floors of concourses. My taxi inches past swarming crowds. They are all smiling and waving flags and plastic palms. Many are whistling intermittently. Whistling has become a signature of Bangkok protests through these past years.

Motorists and motorcyclists appear to have infinite patience. They wave enthusiastically at the pedestrian protestors, smiling all the while. They don’t seem to mind that they are being delayed in reaching their destinations because of the hordes of protestors. In all these four hours I hear no honking. Not a single honk or toot – just whistling and lots of smiling and waving. My cabbie seems to be full of sympathy for them. It comes as a bit of a surprise when I later read that some 50 people died in violence during the last protests. For now, I can’t imagine how such disarming chumminess between the blockers and the blocked could lead to violence.

I am here to attend the UNESCAP hosted Asia Pacific Business Forum, which was originally supposed to be held in Sydney but was shifted to the organisation’s headquarters in Bangkok. Among the reasons cited for the shift was the raging bushfires in New South Wales I remember reading in one of the emails. Access to the UN offices in Bangkok is blocked. So the venue is changed. Again. It is now in a hotel not far away from mine. But it’s a challenge even to get there.

On the morning of the first day of the meet, my hotel concierge says the new venue is out of bounds for any form of transport. A colleague who has got to the venue texts advising me it’s possible to get there only by motorcycle taxi. ‘Get your hotel to write down the address in Thai. The drivers don’t know English,’ his text says. I call for a motorcycle taxi. But I can’t sit astride the pillion, nursing as I am a painful meniscal tear in my knee and a brace between thigh and calf – and armed with a walking stick to boot! I give up.

But I am able to get to the venue on day 2, though what’s normally a 10 minute cab ride takes me 70. I walk into a presentation about productivity. I wonder how much of productivity this country is losing because of the protests.

I gather a Pacific Islands team has made an impactful presentation on day 1 of the forum, which is about putting the ‘P’ (Pacific) back in APBF. Though the forum is not new, the islands have tended to be glossed over in past years. This year, the islands are purposefully involved with the presence of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s trade arm Pacific Islands Trade & Invest’s Trade Commissioners from Australia, China and New Zealand. Representatives from Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Micronesia are also present and interact with business leaders and Government representatives from ASEAN countries.

Presentations at the meet outline both the opportunities and challenges that the Pacific Islands face while dealing with Pacific Rim countries and ASEAN members. While, it is great to see the emphasis put on island nations as being an important part of the larger Asia Pacific context, what becomes evident is how much of catching up the islands region has to do in order to do business seamlessly with Asian nations. For instance, the ASEAN will be a single market in 2015. While this presents great opportunities, it also puts forth administrative and logistical challenges.

In a globalised world, the importance of ICT and connectivity cannot possibly be overstated. That’s where great opportunities lie for the islands. Opportunities in back office support operations, call centres and other related services. This becomes evident at the presentations. Tongan Call Centre operator ProComm Services makes a compelling case for such business initiatives through its Managing Director Sisi Fine – showcasing Pacific Island capability both in terms of technology and human capacity.

The forum is great exposure for the islands. A calling card that spells possibilities is placed in the lair of the Asian Tigers. The trick will be to stay engaged with those countries and develop business and trade possibilities over the coming months and years. The possibilities are indeed tremendous and very real. It’s a matter of how well the region rises to the occasion.

As I leave the venue, my thoughts are on how long it will take me to get to the airport. It took me five hours the other day. I still have six before my flight. I ask a few people how long it will take me to get to the airport. I get differing replies – from 1 hour to 4 “depending on mob,” everyone says. I decide to play it safe and hop into a cab a full five hours ahead of my flight. I get to Suvarnabhumi in an amazing 45 minutes – leaving me four hours to scour the duty free shops in the comfort of my wheelchair.

Meanwhile, the unrest in Bangkok is simmering away, with all the signs of coming to a boil.

First appeared in December 2013 edition of Islands Business magazine

Sinking under a sea of humanity

Tarawa Diary

By Dev Nadkarni

Four and a half years ago, as I drive down the one single road that connects the line of thin, long atolls in Tarawa, Kiribati – a country that’s tipped to be consumed by the ocean because of rising sea levels – I can’t help but get that sinking feeling.

Last month, as I drive down that same single, much more potholed 30-km long road, that feeling of grim foreboding returns. But it’s not because of the rising waters of the calm, spectacularly blue-green Pacific Ocean. Rather, it’s because it looks as though the fragile atolls are sinking beneath the weight of the sea of humans that’s engulfing Tarawa faster than the increasingly frequent king tides.

Along with the far greater number of potholes and even more unmarked speed bumps that I can remember from my previous visit, the only change I notice is there are far more people, particularly young boys, girls and little children milling about on both sides of the long thin road that services what appears to be just one long unbroken, continuous settlement.

Migration from the outer atolls, erosion and encroachment by a rising tideline and the natural growth in population have conspired to make South Tarawa the densest place in not just the Pacific. Population density on Tarawa is more than twice that of Auckland or Sydney – almost equal to that of London. Paradoxically, it’s one of the world’s most isolated places, reachable only from Fiji, three hours’ flight away, just twice a week, barring a flight or two that turns up every other week from Nauru and Brisbane.

Kiribati has been the focus of dozens of TV shows in the past decade because it has been designated one of the most vulnerable islands to sea level rise caused by climate change. Tarawa’s highest point is just a few metres above sea level. Higher tidelines have caused erosion of the shoreline and flooded coconut groves, the increased salinity making any form of agriculture extremely difficult.

Changing weather patterns bring in irregular rainfall, the residents’ only source of freshwater other than meager groundwater reserves that are tending to taste increasingly salty with the rising tideline. Poor sewerage systems also cause seepage into the groundwater system making it unsafe for drinking without chemically purifying and boiling it. Most people store rainwater in tanks provided by aid agencies.

While the threat of climate change is real and the bulk of funds are targeted at mitigating its effects and adapting to it, the tiny nation’s other more pressing and perhaps far more serious problems are not receiving the attention they so urgently deserve.

Overpopulation and overcrowding are clearly the country’s number one problem. And that is the source of a range of other compounding problems that the country faces – but somehow, all these seem to play second fiddle to the climate change and rising sea levels frenzy that the global media has whipped up over recent years.

Ask the average i-Kiribati and they’ll tell you the problems of overpopulation, crowding, jobs, scarce food and water besides healthcare are far more serious and immediate than the prospect of becoming the first country to sink under the ocean because of rising sea levels.

The pressure on space is so great that ghettos reminiscent of Sao Paolo and Mumbai are beginning to form at many spots along the long thin road. Dwellings are starting to be built on stilts along the waterline in some places. There appears to be little planning if any at all and so sanitation, particularly around these burgeoning new dwellings are an obvious issue.

In an environment that has almost no infrastructure for industry or even a modest business other than retail, unemployment is sky high. One expatriate professional manager says it might be as high as 80 percent, though a government official puts it about 60. Of the 20 percent who are in the workforce, 80 percent are employed in government jobs.

Shipping connections are few and extremely unreliable, as in some other parts of the Pacific. A restaurant hand tells me that the country sometimes runs out of rice and other food supplies for four weeks at a time. Recently it ran out of cooking gas for several weeks. Occasionally, it also runs out of fuel. No wonder I find so many petrol stations – curiously, all of them unbranded – closed.

With no tourism industry – all tourism centers around the distant Kirtimati Islands, which attracts US nostalgia tourists interested in the island’s many intriguing WW-II relics – Tarawa has severely limited accommodation options. The only hotel, the state owned Otintaai, is in a pathetic state of disrepair but an Australian entrepreneur has apparently bid to partner with the government in restoring it back to health. No one I speak to is sure of the timelines though.

The only foreigners that descend on Tarawa and crowd out the overpriced, motel style accommodation are laptop, tablet and smartphone wielding aid agency types who stare at their screens and patter away at their keyboards in between morsels at the motel’s three-items-on-the-menu eatery. Not that smartphones work anywhere outside the accommodation areas. There is no mobile roaming in Tarawa, no television, no fancy places to hang out, no cinemas, no pharmacies (except at the hospital), not even a place to take a long walk except or some stretches of beach at low tide.

A visiting biologist tells me the potential health risks that the i-Kiribati face are extremely serious. With a mere semblance of a healthcare system, any serious outbreak of a serious contagious disease could large swathes of the population at great risk, he says. But the unrestricted imports of processed, canned foods laden with high salt, sugar and fat has already catapulted non-communicable diseases (NCDs) to endemic proportions. Obesity seems to be becoming the norm – particularly among young and middle aged women.

Food and water security are clearly the nation’s biggest issues followed by healthcare, early childhood and job creation. The country has a sizeable nest egg thanks to a fund created by proceeds of the sale of phosphate on the outer islands. But over the recent past, the government has had to dip into its principal for meeting its budgetary needs. It needs to watch out for fear of going its neighbour Nauru’s way.

Later this year, the United States plans to commemorate an anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa, when I believe it will help restore some of the rusting WW-II hardware on Betio at the southern end of Tarawa hopefully sparking some tourist interest.

As my plane takes off for Fiji, I can’t help but look at the receding line of atolls in the middle of the Pacific as a spectacular failure of aid and donor agencies around the world, most of whose efforts seem to have sunk like a stone to the bottom of the ocean while making their assortment of fancy consultants richer in both money wise and in terms of been there done that bragging rights.

Sydney’s ‘buried’ Pacific treasures

Sydney Diary

By Dev Nadkarni

When the coordinator of Maketi Ples, the annual show of Pacific island arts and crafts in Sydney, invites me to accompany about a dozen Pacific island artists to visit the Australian Museum I’m delighted. Because she tells me the museum has one of the biggest collections of Pacific artifacts – some of it dating back hundreds of years.

In my mind’s eye I begin to think of the collections at Te Papa displayed tastefully in Wellington and the Auckland Museum’s considerable collection showcased in the huge, high ceilinged halls of the splendid edifice, with excellent lighting and explanatory plaques. And of course the many interactive displays that are such an increasingly common feature of modern museums.

But I am decidedly underwhelmed when the group is ushered into one of the three basement like levels of the Australian Museum. I assume we’re being taken into the museum through a back entrance because we are a largish group. I am wrong. These three levels with rack upon storage rack haphazardly crammed with all sorts of artifacts and objets d’art is where we will be spending the next couple of hours, I gather.

This is where the Pacific collection of the Australian Museum lies like buried treasure. “Unfortunately, there isn’t room for displaying all this in the main galleries,” a museum staffer tells me. “They think not too many people are interested in looking at this sort of Pacific stuff,” says another, who later turns out to have a pretty intimate knowledge of all the Pacific stuff under her care and whence it came from – and a lot of passion, too. I wonder who “they” is. I decide not to ask.

Indeed, the main galleries, as I later discover, are full of dinosaur reconsturctions and other natural history stuff along with glimpses of Australia’s geological and paleontological phenomena and records. The three levels of storage that house all the Pacific artifacts are loosely divided into Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. A lot of the stuff is ancient and fragile. We are allowed to touch them albeit with gloved palms. OK to take pictures, we’re told and the artists go about the narrow aisles wide eyed, cameras at the ready, looking for objects of interest.

A lion’s share of the collection comes from Papua New Guinea, classified province-wise: there are weapons, armours, headgear, pots and pans, masks, objects of rituals, textiles, fabrics – everything. It is indeed a rich, varied collection and undoubtedly invaluable. Unfortunately, all tagged with an alphanumeric museum code and no description or date, though some have approximate dates of when a specific object came into the collection.

Then there are things from Vanuatu, Micronesia, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands as well as Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands. I discover that some of the toughest ancient reed armours were made in Kiribati. I’d never known they were a warlike people that were sought after around the region for their fighting skills.

Suddenly there’s a delightful moment in the somber, night-at-the-museum type environment when one of the accompanying artists discovers her own work of art in the labyrinthine racks of the collection and is clearly pleased to bits. She is all over it with child like glee and poses endearingly as her colleagues’ cameras go pop, pop, pop, capturing this memorable slice of life.

The museum has acquired some of the Pacific artists’ work over the past couple of years, I am told. Simple and unassuming, it scarcely bothers them that their works of art are stacked in a musty, dark backroom that nobody visits.

How does one access the collection? I ask. Upon request and a payment of A$150 a pop, one can have access. But happily, for indigenous visitors, the fee is waived and natives of Pacific island countries who want to their forebears’ creative works, they can hope to view them for free.

I also discover that Fiji is classified under Polynesia among the collection racks. How so, I ask. “Yes, a bit politically sensitive, eh?” says an accompanying museum staffer. “But we’d better leave it at that.” I notice that there is no Fijian artist in the group – there were meant to be, but not unexpectedly, they had visa problems.

As I pore over this yellowed but rather well preserved 88-year-old issue of the Fiji Times dated April 25, 1925, I wonder if the editorial staff that put it together could ever have had an inkling of the shape of things to come.

Global warming on hold, top expert admits

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) head honcho R.K. Pachauri is in the country (in Melbourne) on a day’s whistle-stop visit speaking on climate change, as he continually increases his carbon footprint while jetting across the world.

Rising temperatures have actually been on hold, he admits, alluding to increasing scientific evidence that global temperatures have not risen in nearly two decades. Studies show they won’t rise at least until 2017. Dr Pachauri tells an audience at Deakin University that people have the right to question the science no matter what their motives are.

But, says the scientist, that doesn’t mean global temperatures are not rising – they have over the past 50 years and they will. He now gives more credit to natural factors for causing warming rather than stressing on anthropogenic causes, contrary to Al Gore’s populist-alarmist messages.

Reports of the most recent northern winter seeing record accumulation of ice in the polar region hasn’t received as much press as reports of the record melts of last northern summer. It is increasingly becoming clear that natural factors play a huge role in climate change though their effects might well be exacerbated by human factors. But by no means does anyone believe anymore that humans are the exclusive cause of the so-called global warming.

In his address in Melbourne, IPCC’s high profile chief also said his organisation was yet to finalise estimates of sea level rise owing to melting ice sheets. With such unpredictability, it is unlikely that we will get a definitive answer to these continuing questions. None of which should detract us humans from doing whatever bit we can do for the planet in no matter how small a manner.

Canberra Diary: Capital letter

Dev Nadkarni

Like most major national capital precincts around the world, Canberra, too, has that geometrically clinical, imperiously distant quality about it. The straight and wide avenues that connect the centres and symbols of power, the manicured gardens and artificial water bodies that structure the agoras seem carefully designed to overawe, employing the scale, immensity and grandeur to convey in no uncertain terms the collective greatness of the people of the country and its place in the scheme of things in the modern world. Australia’s capital turns 100 next year.

Australia’s billion dollar parliamentary complex in the capital’s heart is undoubtedly one of the finest modern buildings anywhere. It is a fitting symbol of the country’s enviable successes in so many diverse fields. But unlike such building complexes around the world, Australia’s seems strangely welcoming and accessible. The security is minimal and unobtrusive – the corridors of power are not guarded by gun toting soldiers or slick, prying plainclothes security personnel – admittedly though, the houses aren’t in session during my visit. There don’t seem to be any no go areas and the guided tour is excellent.

Among details of the workings of Australia’s bicameral parliamentary systems, the articulate guide lets us in on many interesting tidbits about the building and the precinct. One of these creates little eddies of excitement in the group: There’s free wifi in the building. People reach out for their smartphones and are clicking away.


Kilroy was here

It’s too hard to resist the mobile, digital version of ‘Kilroy was here’ – especially when you don’t have to pay eye-watering data roaming charges. How very easy it has become to let the whole world know of what you’re up to – even if you are at one of the most politically sensitive places in a country. All you need is a little device. And, of course, a network to transmit.

Which, on an entirely different level, worries countries like America and Australia. Both are extremely wary of doing business with Chinese networking giant Huawei. Both want to block its multi billion dollar plans to join local partners to build broadband networks in their countries. Their fears seem to border on paranoia. But on the other hand, those fears might be justified. We don’t know yet. It’s as though both Australia and America want to build the Great Wall of China in their own countries to keep Huawei out. Huawei, in this modern version of trade warfare, has employed some very high profile people to fly its flag. For instance, former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer is a director in its Australian arm and champions its cause in the country.

But none of those fears come in the way of my posting a couple of pictures instantaneously on my Facebook page. Within minutes, friends from halfway across the globe are laughingly joining the dots between my visit to the Australian parliament and Julia Gillard’s now famous ‘trip’ in New Delhi just the previous day.

The Australian Prime Minister’s accidental stumble and fall on her way to an official engagement in the Indian capital is somewhat symbolic of the stumble in the relationship between the two countries after the spate of bashings that left several Indian students in Australia injured and even a couple of them dead last year. The incidents have apparently seen a big drop in the number of students from India coming into Australia for tertiary studies and technical qualifications, causing a dent in that significant revenue stream. Then there has been the uncertainty around the supply of uranium ore for India’s huge nuclear power generation programme.

But Gillard has played her cards well. She has aimed well to find India’s soft spot and announced during last month’s trip that Indian cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar will be presented with the Order of Australia. While this has sent positive vibes throughout Tendulkar’s considerable fan world, not all Australians have been impressed. And in all probability that’s not because Tendulkar is not Australian. It is because it is hard not to dub the move a political stunt to mollify the 400 million strong Indian middle class and its huge buying power. There is little doubt that the gesture will go some way in mending perceptions in India. Whether that translates to runs on the board as regards fresh waves of students coming in remains to be seen. Time will tell if Gillard hit a six or just played the ball for no run.


Scribes no more

We catch up with Ed, one of my former students at the University of the South Pacific’s Journalism Programme. Ed lives with his wife in Canberra. As it happens, like many of my former journalism students, Ed isn’t a journalist anymore. We discuss the old times over some delectable Thai food. Thanks to social networking most of Ed’s class is in touch with one another despite a decade that separates them. And within seconds, thanks to it again, they know we’re having dinner in Canberra. Almost none of that batch is in journalistic jobs, Ed tells me.

Being a scribe doesn’t pay anymore. It’s a great stepping stone to other far better paying communication jobs, though – especially in the government and development sectors. So a great number of my former students are spinning tales for their employers for our consumption through the media and getting paid much more than they would have had they stuck to reporting on stuff like what goes on in places like the splendid building I visited that morning.

We discuss how the big Australian media houses have been culling journalists for a while now and how newsgathering and reporting are changing because of social media propelled so-called citizen journalism. Coincidentally, one of the big headlines of that day is that one of the world’s high profile newsweeklies, Newsweek, is to cease production of its print edition and will be available purely in the digital format. How exactly the Fourth Estate will eke out a survival from an increasingly digital world is pretty much up in the air right now but there is no doubt that some sort of revenue model will emerge at some stage.

Ed and his wife are just back from a month in Burma, which is where he comes from. Burma has opened up in the past couple of years and its most visible face, Aung San Suu Kyi, has begun travelling the world and is being feted by hordes of admirers and world leaders alike everywhere she goes. She’s a great symbol for the sea change that promises to sweep the country, despite the ongoing ethnic clashes that are being reported over the past several months. Ed strongly reckons adding Burma or Myanmar to my bucket list is a great idea. It’s absolutely fascinating he and his wife say proudly.

I hope to visit sometime soon and look forward to writing a Yangon Diary sooner rather than later.

First appeared in Islands Business, November 2012 

Rarotonga Diary: Leveraging the recession to print success

By Dev Nadkarni

In the years since the global financial crisis unfolded – and easy, cheap credit suddenly vanished – stories of new private sector investment have been few and far between. Businesses have been in survival mode for the most part refraining from making new investments, waiting for the first signs of the hitherto elusive turnaround.

Economies of the Pacific Island region have not been as badly affected as those in Europe partly because the Asia Pacific region has been largely insulated from the west’s financial troubles thanks to the momentum of their robust economic activity over the past few years.

But the ripple effects have been felt particularly in countries drawing sustenance mainly from remittances and revenues brought in by inbound tourism: job losses, wage cuts and a general tendency to put off non essential expenditure by people in the main tourist source markets has caused some decline in inbound tourist numbers and onshore expenditure.

It is therefore refreshing to see a private enterprise in the Pacific Island region building its business growth strategy leveraging on the recession.  John Woods, owner, publisher and editor of the Rarotonga based Cook Islands News saw an opportunity in expanding his business precisely because of the recession.

If it weren’t for the global recession, he would never have been able to expand his media enterprise with a fairly substantial investment in new machinery and equipment in one of the South Pacific’s most popular holiday destinations.

Like all industries ancillary to manufacturing, the printing industry also felt the ravages of the global financial crisis. As manufacturers round the world pulled back on production levels, the demand for print products and services including promotional and packaging material dropped. This was bad news for overleveraged suppliers in the print and packaging industry. With the result, the printing and packaging industry was awash with thousands of sophisticated printing and finishing machines at unbelievably low prices.

This is where Woods saw the opportunity – especially in relation to the situation in the tiny Cook Islands market.

Rarotonga, the Cook Islands’ capital and its most populated island has just over 10,000 residents. An additional 7000 tourists and visitors at any given time keep its economy ticking. Like in most island destinations in the South Pacific the costs of goods and services are high because of their geographical distances. Rarotonga’s businesses have to send out a considerable amount of their print and packaging requirement to facilities in New Zealand adding considerably to costs.

Highly capital intensive printing facilities were too expensive to invest in because of the small size of the market so far. But the global financial crisis changed all that. Woods was able to pick up a reasonably recent model of a four colour unit Heidelberg printing press from a used printing machinery warehouse in Auckland for about 15 percent of the price of a new one, he says.

Having acquired the machine, he flew in engineers from Heidelberg to refurbish and assemble the machinery in his Rarotonga facility. Besides printing the daily Cook Islands News, the press is beginning to prove a cost saver to a number of high quality print product users, who so far had no alternative but to get their runs printed in New Zealand and then shipped or air lifted to the Cook Islands, adding considerably to costs.

Woods’ press is on par with printing technology in New Zealand and uses the latest in prepress and offset printing technology. He also runs a digital printing set up for smaller runs and banner printing for signage and advertising, adding another set of services for the island’s small display, advertising and signage industry.

As well as running a live wire newsroom for the Cook Islands News with the latest buzz from the island, the region and the world, Woods has refurbished the paper’s website and is looking at a re-launch with several e-commerce options in the next couple of months.

Business plans for this foray into digital media are based on the fact that more than 100,000 Cook Islanders live and work overseas – mainly in New Zealand, Australia and the United States besides other countries. The biggest offshore population being in New Zealand, an Auckland print edition of the Cook Islands News is on the cards, too, Woods says.


Raro – the next movie destination?

Fiji-born New Zealand accountant and actor Anand Naidu – whose first film ‘Curry Munchers’ made waves in New Zealand, Australia and is now set to release in the United Kingdom (albeit under a different title, ‘Vindaloo Wars’) and who is now based in Rarotonga – is contemplating setting his next production in the Cook Islands. Not that the destination is new to the international audio visual industry: the popular ‘Survivor’ series was shot in Aitutaki some time back.

Naidu is now financial controller of one of Rarotonga’s biggest resorts – Edgewater – and is contemplating a reality television series and a possible film with collaborators from New Zealand and India.

‘Curry Munchers’ themed on the migrant experience in New Zealand did not do as well as he had expected it to in his native Fiji, says Naidu. He is encouraged by its relative success in New Zealand and Australia and its impending release in the UK and India.


Gearing up for the forum

New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade visited Rarotonga and Aitutaki last month accompanied by senior officials and Cook Islands based diplomatic staff on a recce ahead of this year’s annual Pacific Islands Forum summit. The forum will be held in the last week of August.

Cook Islands does not seem to have a single venue to host an event the size of the forum, given the ever burgeoning numbers of attendees from far flung nations thanks to the exponentially increasing interest in the region for both strategic geopolitical and natural resources reasons.

The Edgewater is likely to be one of the main venues both for stay and work. The leaders’ retreat will be held on the picturesque Aitutaki, a half hour’s flight away. Interest in this year’s forum is sky high. More than a hundred rooms have already been booked between the Chinese and Americans alone – another pointer to the ongoing race of the superpowers in the resource rich Pacific Islands region.

First appeared in Islands Business March 2012

Siem Reap Diary: Much to learn from the Mekong region

By Dev Nadkarni

Whatever it is that inspired the ancient Hindu and Buddhist kings to build the amazing temples of Angkor Wat and surrounds – now deemed wonders of the world, protected and in various stages of restoration – creating a thriving tourism industry a millennium later couldn’t have been a motivation.

As I’m driven around the surprisingly wide and clean main avenues of Siem Reap on the ubiquitous tuk-tuk I wonder what Cambodia would have been like without these incredibly supersized ancient monuments that are a magnet for some 3 million tourists from all over the world spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the impoverished southeast Asian nation every year.

Or for that matter what it would have been like if the country would not have been able to put the horrible Khmer Rouge episode in its recent history behind itself so quickly, in less than a generation, despite the loss of nearly 3 million people in the surreal madness of the putsch (almost everyone you speak to in Cambodia has lost a dear one or a friend).

You can’t help but notice how Cambodia – especially Siem Reap, the city closest to the biggest concentration of ancient temples – is so finely tuned to the tourism industry. The efficiency with which every tourist activity is conducted is commendable. The tour operators are punctual, courteous and extremely professional; the government-approved guides are well informed enough to contextualise information to the tourists’ own backgrounds and cultures and are proficient communicators; the local transportation options available are clean, efficient and affordable.

There is much that the Pacific Islands tourism sector can learn from the efficient way the tourism industry is managed in Cambodia or for that matter collectively in the entire Mekong region. The relative ease with which you can travel to various destinations around the Mekong region is a bonus for multi-destination tourists – something that’s inherently difficult in the islands region because of its geography and lack of direct and affordable point-to-point air links.

Rising above the limitations

Every tourist destination has its own physical limitations. For instance, at first glance there appears to be little in Siem Reap beyond the ancient monuments. Similarly, in the Pacific Islands context, there seems little else other than sunshine, sand and sea. In fact, one of the criticisms of Pacific Island destinations has been the lack of avenues to spend time and money outside the precincts of a resort.

Though that is slowly changing in some countries like Fiji and Vanuatu, where entrepreneurs and tourism promotion agencies are beginning to offer variety by adding the likes of adventure and cultural tourism to the mix, for most destinations around the region there is little life beyond the resort – something which appeals to a certain kind of tourist but pretty much shuts out the large number that is after a more variegated holiday experience.

Siem Reap has overcome the ‘there’s little beyond the monuments’ perception quite impressively. There is much to do in the small but distinctive ‘downtown’ area after you’ve spent a hard day trekking up and down the forests around Siem Reap admiring and marveling at millennium old temples.

The sheer number of restaurants and variety of cuisines is so huge that you won’t have to visit a place twice even if you were to stay in Siem Reap for several months. Menu choices range from authentically ethnic to creative fusion blending several cuisines. The choice and range of watering holes combined with rock bottom pricing for tipples – a mug of beer on tap is just 50US cents – adds immensely to the allure.

The choices invite you to be adventurous with your palate. If you haven’t found your nirvana trudging through all those temples during the day, the gourmand in you can surely find salvation in Siem Reap’s food precinct around its famed Pub Street, which comes alive after dusk and buzzes on into the wee hours. It doesn’t get as raucous as Bali or Bangkok, thanks in part to the government’s efficient tourist police who make their presence felt tactfully – without being intrusive or intimidating – at all of Siem Reap’s busy night spots (there’s no sleaze in public areas and all post bar hopping activity seems discreet).

Other attractions are souk like markets, albeit enclosed, selling exotic Khmer artifacts alongside the usual Chinese made tourist tat. Shopping can be exciting: salesmanship is glib and bargaining is rife – it’s up to you to strike a good deal, of which there’s plenty to be had.

This is something that Pacific Islands tourist markets sadly lack, despite being great attractions for day tourists like those visiting on cruise ships. Cruise tourism is tipped for impressive growth this year as well as in coming years despite recent scares like the Costa Concordia. But nowhere in the islands is there a distinctive space for shopping or eating and drinking. It could contribute greatly not just to the holiday experience of tourists but also to tourist dollars earned in the destinations.

Opportunities for side trips around Siem Reap such as the unusual ‘floating village’ on the Tonle Sap Lake/river system offer a completely different experience from the mainstream ancient temples routine, adding variety to the holiday sight seeing experience.

Convenience, cost and connectivity

A large part of the growth in tourist numbers turning up in the Mekong region and particularly in Cambodia is because of budget airlines. Low cost carriers like the Malaysia headquartered Air Asia, voted the best low cost carrier in the world for the third consecutive year, have worked hard with tourist operators across the region to carve out incredibly low priced deals.

These comprehensive deals including travel, stay, ground transportation, local tour itineraries, tickets to destinations can all be bought in a pizza-topping style menu on a single website with an extremely user-friendly interface. The confirmations are instant and changes required are easily and inexpensively made. The packages offer a huge choice and price range and the mix and match options for activities and their scheduling all in one place on the web make it extremely easy and convenient to plan trips. This is especially useful for complex, multi-destination itineraries.

Unlike in most Pacific Island destinations, almost all the accommodation segments in Cambodia offer free internet connectivity for their guests. In fact, free internet connectivity is a draw card and is advertised as a top amenity, particularly in the low cost accommodation category. Every eatery offers you free wi-fi just as almost every hotel does. It’s easier accessing wifi networks in Siem Reap than it is in even in Auckland or Sydney, let alone the islands region.

Clearly, the success of the Mekong region’s tourism industry is because of a range of factors that have been made to work in unison with the tourism bodies of several countries working in close cooperation with the private sector comprising the airlines, the hospitality industry and local authorities to deliver a rich, variegated experience targeted at a range of tourist budgets.

First appeared in Islands Business, February 2012