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Taking Part in a Maritime Tradition — South Pacific Style

When a ship calls on a port for the first time it is customary to have a Plaque Exchange Ceremony. Normally the ship provides the port authorities with a plaque and the port authorities present the ship with a plaque. You can often see posts on the HAL Blog about these ceremonies and they are usually quite official looking. On this particular day, Zaandam called on Lifou, New Caldonia, for the first time and in keeping with tradition, we exchanged plaques. This ceremony was a bit different, however. Instead of a stuffy presentation we had the honor to participate in a unique ceremony with several of the local tribes.

Preparation began a few days before our call as we had to prepare the plaques. In keeping with our Dutch Heritage Holland America Line ships always give a plaque with a Delft tile featuring our company logo. A brass plate is engraved onboard to include our ship’s name and the date of our call. We were also asked to provide gifts for the local children as a gesture of goodwill. When our hotel manager Kees got the message, he knew I would be excited to participate and he asked me to get involved. Working with several departments onboard I was able to source some fun HAL Rubik’s cubes from ClubHAL, Zaandam lapel pins, postcards, pens and the ubiquitous Holland America Line tote bags. As we rode the tender ashore none of us had any idea of what was to come. We arrived and the ship’s agent introduced us to some of the chiefs and instructed us in the order of the ceremony. Suddenly a trumpet-like sound summoned us to the clearing in front of the main hut. It was one of the chiefs blowing a conch shell. The ceremony began.

A Chief blows the conch to signal the start of the ceremony.

Hans presents the plaques and I present the gifts.

Our Environmental Officer, Hans Crijnen, was to present the plaques and I presented the gifts for the children. Hans walked up to the straw mat laid out and did as he was instructed. He laid out a sarong-like material on the mat and placed the two plaques on it with a small amount of New Caledonian currency. I placed the gifts beside the plaques.

Hans was then asked to make a small speech. One of the chiefs called Hans back to the center of the clearing to present him with some indigenous fabrics and a hand-carved wooden model of an outrigger canoe. Some of the ladies from the tribe then came to us and placed leis around our necks and hand-woven hats on our heads. The dancers then began dancing. They presented an exciting show of tribal dance while somebody narrated to tell us the meaning of each part. It was quite a sight and the guests who were gathered around enjoyed the display. When the dancing ended Hans was asked to speak again — this time to say, ‘thank you’ or rather, ‘merci.’ The ceremony was over and we were led by the signing tribe to a smaller hut where we were offered local beverages and fruits.

Crew Officer Roby receives a hand-made hat (and a double-kiss!).

One of the dancers.

The singers and rhythm section.

Dancing.

I couldn’t help but imagine a similar ceremony taking place so long ago as the first explorers to this region came ashore to see what life was like on these little islands in the Pacific. I do not usually have a chance to be a part of plaque ceremonies in the normal course of my duties so it was truly an honor to be a part of this very special one. I was grateful to our hosts for sharing a little of their culture with us.

Hans receives gifts from one of the chiefs.

Hans thanks the performers and thanks the people of Lifou for welcoming us.

Hans, his wife, me and Fikar, my clerk, pose with the performers.

Roby and I showing off our hats.

Later in the day I was able to return the favor and share a little bit of our life onboard Zaandam when I led a group of locals on a tour of the ship. They were excited to see the ship and especially enjoyed a private concert from the band organ in the atrium. Today was one of those days when I say to myself, “I can’t believe that I get paid to do this!”

The locals on their tour of Zaandam.

Want to know what it’s like to live and work on a ‘dam’ ship? Contact me with your ideas for future posts at anthony@hollandamericablog.com.

Anthony Garofalo is Zaandam’s human resources manager.

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