One of the great things about travel is meeting people from different cultures who see things differently than you do. Often though, as "westerners" we so stubbornly (if unconsciously) defend our view of the world, that we miss it when someone we are listening to gives us a window into how they see things. We also expect people to be able to explain their world to us with terms, and explanations, and illustrations that fit our way of seeing and comprehending. But sometimes it all works, and we are able to get a glimpse of the way that someone who grew up in a very different environment and culture from us sees the world. And sometimes the situation allows it to work in reverse as well, and your local friend is surprised to be presented with a new way of seeing their home. This is what happened to a fortunate group of us the other day and I want to tell you that story. But first, it reminded me of a famous, and undeniably more dramatic story from Cook's first voyage to Tahiti.
Captain Cook visited Tahiti for the first time in 1769 when he set up an observatory on the shores of Matavai Bay to view the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun. There are of course many many amazing tales to tell of this voyage, but one that always sticks with me is that of the Tahitian navigator Tupaia who went with Cook when he left Tahiti. It is fascinating to try to imagine what it would have been like for a both of these guys to have ended up sailing the Pacific together. Cook's arrival marked only the third European vessel that had visited Tahiti, and the differences in culture could not have been more marked. On the other hand both men were intelligent, commanded respect, and were accomplished seamen. Cook was an excellent cartographer, and as such was constantly imagining the places he passed through in plan form - how to describe this coastline, where to place this island in relation to the others - and he had instruments that allowed him to make detailed measurements and a global grid to record it onto. Tupaia was a master navigator who knew how to get to virtually every island in the Pacific. But for him the islands were not laid out in plan form, to be found by tracing a course on a grid. Rather they were situated out beyond the horizon, to be found by following a constantly changing matrix of celestial and environmental signposts. If he had a "map" of anything in his head it was of the positions of the stars (it was reported by Forster that "he always pointed to the part of the heavens where each isle was located."), and the patterns of ocean swells and currents. So it is not surprising that when Cook asked Tupaia to draw a map of all the islands that he knew of, it came out very different than what we westerners are used to and doesn't match at all our present day maps. Tahiti is in the middle, and he put the Society Islands and
some of the Tuamotu in roughly correct positions, and what seem to be the Marquesas also in the right general area. But the Australs and Cooks are shown northwest of Tahiti and there are a bunch of islands to the south that just don't exist there. I'd venture to say that Cook didn't actually use this map to navigate by, but rather stuck with just asking Tupaia on a daily basis which way to go, and they happily threaded their way through to New Zealand (which as far as I can tell is not on the map at all).
Yesterday Hinano and I were out in the TE zodiac with Papa Mape, his son Bruno, the Biocode botanist Rava Taputuarae, the Environmental Editor for National Geographic Digital Media Tasha Eichenseher, and photographer David Liittschwager. The first part of our morning was recording Papa Mape, who is in his 80's and is an expert on the natural history of the Moorea, especially the marine world. He was describing the coast of Moorea in relation to the lagoon and bay, and talking about where different fish were found at different times of the year. This is all part of an ongoing project by the NGO Te Pu Atitia to record traditional knowledge and use it for educational programs for the schools and community. When we were finished with that, but still out on the water, David and Tasha pulled out a copy of the February issue of National Geographic Magazine which features David's One Cubic Foot article.
There is a fold out picture of most of the organisms he found in one cubic foot of coral reef on Moorea, and it is a truly astounding collage of fish and invertebrates and algae. He fit pictures of 409 organisms (out of 600+ total) onto the page and necessarily had to adjust the scale of each individual organism. The idea was to film Papa Mape assigning Tahitian names to the different organisms since this is being done formally as part of the Ethnocode Project. Papa Mape had not seen this picture before and he was quite intrigued. It soon became obvious though that he was a bit confused and tentative with his identifications. It wasn't that he didn't know his marine organisms (in fact I doubt there is anyone that knows the marine fauna of this island better), but it was hard for him to recognize them when they were out of context and not represented to scale. He repeatedly asked where this worm or that crab was found. Some of the fish were adults and some were juveniles, but roughly the same size in the picture, so it threw him. It was as if we had given him a massive test to do, in front of us and and on camera, and it was laced with trick questions. Contrasting ways of viewing the world clashed. It was like Cook asking Tupaia to draw a map, or maybe more like us now being given Tupaia's map and asked to identify the islands, only some of which are in the right place, all different sizes, no lat and long, etc. The great thing was that eventually as we discussed all of this and added context, and David described sizes, Papa Mape got more confident and really began to get into it. He was in fact thrilled to have this portrait of his lagoon and asked if he could take it home with him to study. He said that he would work with his son to name everything in the picture.
It wasn't exactly on the scale of Cook and Tupaia, but our little group bobbing around in the zodiac in the lagoon managed to share with each other different ways of seeing the world, focused on one cubic foot of Moorea's reef. The Biocode Project pinched samples of the genome off each and assigned scientific names to all of those organisms, and now Papa Mape after he adds the environmental context will assign names to them in Tahitian. At one point yesterday Papa Mape joked with Hinano and wondered if we had considered what the sharks call all these animals. Well, for now anyway, we will have to stick with sharing world-views with our fellow humans.
Note: While looking around online for this post I found that there will soon be a book out all about Tupaia. You can find out more about it here.