Our Fiji Makeup Trip 2016

In our last episode, the beginning of the eclipse voyage to Micronesia was itself eclipsed by Hurricane Winston, which did an immense amount of damage and killed many people on some of the smaller islands of Fiji, and incidentally resulted in our flight out to Solomon Islands via Nadi being cancelled. Cancelled flights traditionally result in credits toward tickets; and after I spent probably 8 hours talking to Fiji Air, we got the money applied to a new ticket to Fiji. They resisted the idea. Not so much resisted, they just didn't know. Every agent you talk to at Fiji Air, every single time, has a different story. And so do their managers.

The On Hold music at Fiji Air is "Go Solo", by a singer-songwriter named Tom Rosenthal. He is reachable on the Internet in the way that celebrities are. I wrote him a funny letter toward the end of the process, saying I hoped he was getting rich on royalties because I was really getting to hate his song because it's the ONLY song Fiji Air play. He wrote back the next day and said, I had no idea. Maybe someone will be getting a Cease and Desist letter soon, unless they claim that truly horrible sound reproduction constitutes a derivative work.

The ticket to Fiji had to be used by September 30, which is why we took the vacation now, before the house painting job is finished. And as with all vacations, curious events began to accrete to it.


The first addendum was a Laurie Anderson Philip Glass concert at Carmel-by-the-Sea. Our friend Harvey told us about that. It required no persuasion at all to get us to buy tickets. So, on Friday afternoon (September 23) we loaded the car with our stuff and our friend Kent and drove through awful traffic to Monterey, stopping briefly at a ruin in Santa Cruz called the Kitchen Temple, a complex of outsider art that may some day be restored and opened to the public. At the moment, you can't go inside, but a group of artists was painting in water colors and sketching in ink the gate and facade. Every Friday afternoon they find a place to sketch, in Santa Cruz County.

The concert was hypnotic and beautiful. It was preceded by an idiosyncratic lecture on Urban Planning by Philip Glass and a friend of his, meditating on the fall of cities.

The next day was Poodle Day. The Poodle Parade is about as far from any normal human experience as you can imagine, outside of any day in Central Florida, and so it's a fitting vacation destination. 700 poodles from all over America come to strut with their owners down the center of a mall in Carmel, lined with folding chairs, and an announcer and booths selling poodle related knickknacks. The poodles generally matched their owners in the Winston Churchill/Bulldog sort of way. I learned a lot about poodles that morning. Most of the cultural cliches have been formed around the purple-haired toy poodles with their blue-haired ancient owners in Miami Beach and Las Vegas, but in fact they are quite a serious breed. They were developed centuries ago as a water retriever — they are strong swimmers — and are generally measured to be the second most intelligent breed of dog, after Border Collies. Harvey was there with Olive, the standard poodle he often poodle-sits for. It was an accretive vacation for him, too.

Then we drove to Los Angeles, via Lompoc, where lives a college friend of Kent's and mine, who is the only person I know who has ever been to Christmas Island. He is a dentist by profession and does dentistry for charity there. It also helps that he is a surfer. He had a few comments on our planned trip, mostly of the sort, "You're doing it wrong." This is always the case.

In Los Angeles we had a faboo dinner at "Lost At Sea" in downtown Pasadena with our friends Paul, Donna, and Darin. When I went to Cal Tech, you pretty much couldn't walk into that area after dark. Now it's the most happening place. You can't go home again.

The next day, Sunday, we visited an old Opcode employee and also two cousins of whom I never see enough. Kent dropped us off at LAX and drove the car back to Woodside; we boarded a plane for an uneventful eleven hour flight to Nadi. We arrived on Tuesday at 6 AM.

Fiji and Tonga

Our friends in Fiji are about as different from us as you can be without owning a poodle. We spent a week there, traveling for three days to Tonga with Siral just to show a bit of the world. Dave picks up the check but when you've known somebody 11 (or 34) years it doesn't feel totally like charity. Our friends who are vastly more successful than we are do not bill us for rides in their private planes, either. Besides, Siral's wife is nearly as good a cook as his mom, and eating at their house is the best meal of the trip, every time. The fish is always caught that day by the man next door, in his boat.

Tonga is a tough place for tourism. There aren't signs. The maps are crude and the major sights are not on Google (we did have data there). We saw the Trilithon, which they are trying to get UNESCO to recognize, but missed the best of the Terraced Tombs complex because there are some ruined ones and you think you've seen them and then later you discover that there are better ones....somewhere...this is what happens when you rent a car instead of hiring a taxi tour. The blowholes that line the whole south coast are always spectacular.

We went to a cultural show at a resort called Vakaloa. It appears on no tourist paper maps, their website has no directions, they are unknown to Google Maps; Apple Maps sends you to the Malabar coast in India (a lovely area, you should go there) and Tripadvisor gives only elliptical clues worthy of an English-style crossword puzzle. Happily I have some aptitude for that, and I am now in a position to reveal, Snowden-like, that their reception desk is at 21.07396 S 175.33804 W on Ikalahi Road in the village of Konakupolu. The crowd is more than half Polynesian in appearance. The MC speaks mostly in Tongan. The crowd noise increases when the band starts singing in Tongan. The drinks weren't stupidly expensive. The pineapple juice was from a can. The fish was frozen, the crab was fake, the salads starchy, the starch starchier. The pig is mostly fat but the skin is crisp. I liked the smoky flavor of the purple taro root. But I have the impression the selling point here is quantity. They don't push booze too hard. Lots of Mormons in the South Pacific. The music was pop and Polynesian. The light show was made of epileptically firing strings of LEDs. The floor show was basically South Pacific. The Drag Lady Gaga got the most tips.

The place we stayed in Nuku'alofa is Seaview Lodge. It is worth the trip just to meet Rosita, your Tongan hostess (The owners and the people at reception are actually of Swiss origin, but now in Tonga; it's not like this is part of the Mövenpick chain or anything.) A man in a truck came at dawn with plastic sacks filled with wriggling lobsters; we had lobster that night.

Back in Fiji, we had Sunday afternoon supper way way up in the mountains behind Ba, with Siral's sister's family. They slaughtered a goat for the occasion.

We visited the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, which was created by Raymond Burr (Perry Mason) in the 1970's. He and his boyfriend were orchid enthusiasts. The site is owned by a private company now but they keep it up, with the money from admissions and weddings and parties.

This is the season of the sugar cane harvest. You see the ultra-narrow gauge trains wobbling down the tracks with their dozens of toy cars loaded with cane, bound for the mills. You smell the burning slash as they ready the fields for the next crop. Burning things, from vegetation to plastic, is one of the key smells of the countryside in all but the wealthiest corners of the world.


On Tuesday at 11:59 PM, we took a 4 1/2 hour flight to Kiritimati, one of at least a dozen places known as Christmas Island, part of the nation of Kiribati. (All the "ti" are pronounced as "s". Another prominent Christmas Island belongs to Australia, just off the coast of Indonesia; it's the host of the popular .cx domain).

Kiritimati is the largest coral atoll on our water planet, about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. There are 4000 people living here; no one lives in the southern part of it because the British used it for nuclear testing in the 1950's. It is completely flat, much of it is a lagoon, and it seems a bit strange to see stands of pine trees. The predominant vegetation is Beach Cabbage, a hardy bush. Christmas Island lies at 2°N, 157°W, directly south of Hawaii. Despite it being the same time of day, they moved the International Date line in the 1990's so they would be the First To Celebrate The New Millenium. We bought stamps to that effect, at the post office. Apparently they didn't sell them all. It is such an obscure time zone (GMT+14) that it is not on our cameras or computers (though it is on our iPhones!) We will have to plan our picture taking carefully because Tuesday October 11 will occur twice for us, and STUPID EXIF metadata does not include a time zone.

Kiritimati is all about fishing. The customs people not only check your passport and ask what's in your luggage, they also sell you fishing licenses. The fish at the hotel is cheap and fresh. People come here for the sport of "bonefishing"; apparently bonefish are quite a challenge to catch, and after you do you release them because they are a protected species. There are many other large fish here which you don't have to release. Catch and release seems pointless cruelty.

We had noticed, when planning the trip, that the Tuesday night flight from Fiji to Hawaii stops here, and thought it might be a place to just sit for a week and catch up on our photo websites, on which we are 13 chapters behind. When checking out places to stay, they either did not respond to inquiries, or they were frightfully expensive, except for the Captain Cook Hotel, which is where we are. And it seems we are the only vacationers here. Another guest picked us up at the airport along with a business contact: they are both engaged in improving the water infrastructure on the island. We quickly noticed the need for improvement, as the water has stopped running on a few occasions since we have arrived.

The Captain Cook Hotel was the concrete-block British officers' mess from Operation Grapple, augmented with some thatched-roof bungalows built in 2003 to house a crew from England who were finally shamed into cleaning up the radioactive rubbish left behind during the Cold War. It is placed along the beach and surrounded by paved areas, which once were the foundation for housing for 4000 soldiers, who have now quietly died of cancer. Going outside the room we see a coral-lined beach, with regular waves but a surface so hard that the surfers find other places. The water is too rough for snorkeling. We did that in the lagoon. The room has its challenges. The shower, for example, has its lowest "hot" setting at Scalding; so you must modulate it with pulses to make the shower a reasonable temperature. Turn the heater on and off every several seconds. One hand on the switch at all times, to ensure a good connection between it and the wet metal shower pan through you, when the heater shorts out. The power was off for a long time one day: apparently someone doing some wiring work outside didn't realize we were there. It goes off every day for a few seconds or minutes. The restaurant's menu is extremely basic, and there are no other places to eat nearby. The Weetabix on the menu won't arrive until the next freight shipment, so if we want cereal we have a chocolate version of Kix (with Nestle acting as a codeshare for General Mills). Oddly, the 2% milk has the Hershey label, even though it isn't chocolate.

So, we have been Working on Content for apresmidi. The Internet is bad. The Internet is a distraction, even from itself, and you get a lot more done without a fast connection to keep you chasing down unnecessary facts.

It's convenient to not have a bunch of great food to eat: we eat great food at home, and we had great food in Fiji and Tonga (in Fiji it was all homemade Indian food, including two curries made with different parts of the goat). But it is disorienting going through pictures of trips in 2010 and 2011 that had many pictures of beautiful food from fancy places, and then having dinner in a concrete blockhouse. Can't complain about the big plate of fresh tuna sashimi, though! The prices here at the Captain Cook are indicative of the locale. Big plate of tuna sashimi: $3.50. The same with a half cup of canned corn: $8.00

Thursday afternoon, when the power had been out for awhile and our computers had run down, we went out for a walk (which was dumb, it was the middle of the day). We checked out this relatively large building with a high tin roof but no walls, which turned out to be under construction. It will be a new meeting place for a village. The lack of walls is a feature of the construction of the maneabas. One of the villagers came and talked to us, and we learned more about the island. Many Kiribati residents from other islands are coming to Kiritimati because it has a bit more opportunity than the ones they are on now, which are as far as 2000 miles away to the west: when our dentist friend first volunteered here 20 years ago, the population was more like 1000. The highlight of the visit was him showing us a pandanus fruit: we've seen many things made from the leaves, but never a fruit. He pulled off a couple of plugs from the outside of the fruit, and showed us what part to eat. It's a bit like sugar cane, in that it is completely fibrous, but if you chew it, you get flavor which quickly turns to sugar. Then you throw the remainder on the ground. And then we realized that this entire trip we have seen chewed pandanus plugs on the ground but we had had no idea what they were.

On Friday, we hired a Christmas Island Outrigger and a guide and motored out to Motutabu, a protected bird island in the middle of the lagoon. The bird population has been harmed by El Nino related droughts in the past, but it is still sustainable, mostly terns and noddies and some boobies. You don't see a lot of different species, but they are milling about constantly and the experience is of being in the middle of a flock. The birds bump into you. Our guide, not well trained in modern wildlife biology, picked up a red-tailed tropicbird and showed it to us. He also walked up to a Phoenix petrel nest and peered in. One must be very careful walking around as the sooty terns lay their eggs right on the ground and you can step on them if you aren't careful. The white terns lay their eggs on tree branches right at eye level and they hover at less than arm's reach in front of you to dissuade you. Our binoculars went pretty much unused.

Afterward, snorkeling at Cook Island. The coral at the beach where we stopped was mostly white. Not all bleached dead; some of it is plainly alive but just of a pale color. Lots of fish, including several Picasso Triggerfish, which I use as a guide to places that it's worth visiting. But oddly, they were too shy to take pictures of. As soon as I went back to the boat to get the camera, they disappeared entirely. Usually I find they are on the aggressive side, and in front of you.

This hotel, surrounded by its ruins, I find I am experiencing more with the passage of time as an archaeological site, rather than just a weird old hotel amid a bunch of wrecked foundations. Think of it. This is an abandoned, and partially reused, fort. So was Hattusas. So is Quebec. So are many of the places that tourists see (and if they aren't, they are done up to look like them, as Disneyland imitated Carcassonne). In a thousand years, it may be a UNESCO site. An Underwater Cultural Heritage site, like Port Royal ought to be.

It's now Sunday. The island has just run out of fresh milk, reports the head lady (waitress, reception, concierge). So no Nestle's Chocolate Kix today. I had pancakes instead. Krusteaz stays good. Guess it's time to depart the present and go back to sorting images from 2011.