Sunday, April 17, 2005


Waved Through Customs

We're in LA, our 2:15 AM to 2:00 PM flight having left 15 minutes early and arrived 45 minutes early -- Immigration and Customs were super-fast, and we were actually on the curb ready to be picked up at the time the plane was scheduled to arrive.

The security in the Papeete airport had been much stupider -- maybe they're mad at the US for all its stupid restrictions and so now they get back at them by making everyone go through the metal detector twice, once before checking luggage, and again on the way to the gate. (I don't know if Brazil ever similarly followed through with their stated intention to fingerprint and photograph only US citizens when they come to visit.) Fortunately the Papeete security didn't insist on unwrapping the Marquesan spear we bought, and I successfully avoided mentioning that the hotel packed it for us (instead of us doing it ourselves). The airport is stupid just generally -- the only air-conditioned area is the rental car office, so we hung out there for two of the four hours we waited for our flight.

The last three days were our first snorkeling opportunities since the cruise began. Thursday we were on the atoll of Fakareva, in the Tuamotu group. It's basically a rectangular coral reef with a lagoon in the middle.

Friday we were on Moorea, and we went on an Underwater Walk. This basically consisted of walking down a ladder off a boat, and putting our head in a weighted helmet with air coming in the top. The air pressure kept the water from filling up the helmet (except when this one large lady fell over backwards) so we could basically breathe normally underwater (we had to pop our ears every foot of depth or so). The instructor had made friends with a barracuda, a moray eel, and several sting rays (by feeding them every day, of course). It was interesting to feel the rough upper surface and velvety lower service of the sting rays, but they were pretty attention-demanding and were constantly swimming between us and the other fish we might have been trying to watch. It had the feel of a petting zoo. The barracuda had some cute blue-green fish cleaning its gills; the instructor pointed out that sometimes he lets them clean his teeth, without eating them. On Moorea we also had a nice conversation with a Dutch painter who's lived there 40 years, and who'd sent a guy a few paintings and gotten nine crates of New Guinea artifacts in return, many of which were on display, some for sale. At another hotel, we were happy to notice that a spear half the size of the one we bought at Hiva Oa was three times the price on Moorea.

Saturday they kicked us off the ship in the morning. We rented a car, and explored the Tahiti Museum (which explained how atolls are formed: a volcano rises up, then collapses over a long time, and leaves an outline in coral of its original size). The friendly owner of Pension Te Miti where we'd stayed two weeks earlier pointed out a beach where for $3 we could park, and swim and snorkel. It was Saturday, and hundreds of locals had descended on this beach -- particularly cute were some kids taking their puppies in the water, and several women swimming topless in the typical French manner. You could stand up in the water 50 meters offshore, and just beyond there were some little reefs with several pretty fish we hadn't yet seen. The evening was spent at the stupidly expensive Beachcomber hotel that had bad service and an uninspired buffet they wanted $90 for -- snorkeling had been a vastly better deal.

This pointed out the variety of experiences you can have at $500 a night. For each thing that was annoying about this hotel (where we were only eating, not staying), there was an aspect of the cruise that was extremely pleasant. The ship and the crew were all very nice -- besides the superb packing job, everyone was very helpful and positive all the time (the entertainment was perhaps a little too sparky, but we just ignored it). The itinerary of this particular cruise was great -- besides Pitcairn and an eclipse, there were visits to remote parts of French Polynesia, not just the tourist traps of the Society Islands. The archeologist on board not only tied together all the cruise stops, but also made aspects of our visits to Fiji, New Zealand, and Rarotonga make more sense. And we learned that this was the last trip on the Gauguin for Captain Gilles Bossard, who has led it since it was built in 1997, so he was happy to be able to end up with a special itinerary.

Now we'll have some cheap Chinese food, hopefully a good night's sleep, and tomorrow I'll get to drive my own car to my own house. And stay there for awhile.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


Luxury Goes Exploring

The motto of Radisson Seven Seas Cruises is "Luxury Goes Exploring". It's actually a pretty apt one. This is definitely a luxurious ship. It's the nicest place we've stayed this entire trip, except the Dossor's house in Wellington which is in the league of Actual Taste, in which hotels do not compete at any number of stars because it would be unmanageable. The stateroom is large and nicely laid out. The shower has nice pressure, easily controllable constant temperature, and a nice spray. There are premium shampoos (which tell you so right on the label so you know they are premium and leave your hair smelling like toothpaste) and they give you mints or truffles every night. There are plenty of drawers and closets to put your stuff, a TV/VCR, a free minibar with glasses and wine glasses, and lots of mirrors.

From your bed, you can turn on and off one light near the bathroom, all the lights in the room, or your positionable reading lamp. Another switch near the door lets you turn off all the lights at once (while leaving on things like battery chargers plugged into the two US and two Euro outlets). I can only think of one awkwardness -- the shower deposits lots of water in the soap dish -- this could be solved by drilling some holes so it drained. Also, it'd be nice if you could turn on less than glaring bathroom lights at 3 AM when you need some water after drinking all the free wine at dinner.

The food is also pretty luxurious, in quality as well as quantity. The main dinner restaurant has a completely different menu every day, and you can order as many things as you want (each day has 4 appetizers, 3 soups, 2 salads, 2 sorbets, 7 or 8 main courses including vegetarian, pasta, and low-carb, the cheese trolley, and 4 desserts); all the food and non-alcoholic drinks and house wine are free (I mean "included"). They are very accommodating to individual requests - we ate last night with a couple who ate no dairy, sugar or red meat, and they tweaked several menu items for them. It's all quite good, but you can sense that 10 days into the cruise there's no more fresh fish (it's all frozen or smoked) and certain vegetables and fruits have run out. There's also a French restaurant ("inspired" by the chef of a two-Michelin-star restaurant Apicius in Paris) which has the same menu the entire cruise, and accepts no alterations "to preserve the Apicius experience". Breakfast never varies, but lunch is different every day - there's been Italian, French, Greek, Mexican, Spanish. On Sunday there was a brunch which seemed to parody Cruise Ship food, with elaborate watermelon sculptures and piles of profiteroles.

The exploration part is also in evidence. We've mentioned the resident archaeologist, Mark Eddowes, who gives great lectures about Polynesian culture on the ship and tours on the islands. We spent Monday in Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, which have the best-preserved archaeological features in French Polynesia. In the afternoon we went on a tour of a restored site where a village would have various ceremonies, perhaps demonstrating their war skills to a neighboring village (possibly including cooking one of the captured warriors from that village) or just sacrificing some of its own residents to appease its deified ancestors, who speak to its high priests in dreams. On Tuesday we visited Nuku Hiva and the valley of Taipivai, where Herman Melville was taken care of while injured, and where he researched his novel Typee, one of the earliest European works to present the exotic cannibalistic Polynesian society in a non-judgmental way.

Yesterday's daily newsletter also mentioned that RSSC has a cruise ship that goes between Argentina, the Falklands, and Antarctica.

But time is too short in these places. Just as travel is a bad parody of life, so packaged tours and cruises are a mean-spirited parody of traveling. What would Paul Gauguin do with a half-day in Hiva Oa? Or an hour on Pitcairn? Go shopping, I guess, there's nothing else to do. Even Justin couldn't meet a villager in that amount of time or situation.

You have probably heard attributed to various hippie philosophers that the Journey and the Destination are the same. This is a lie invented by the cruise ship companies. Of course the journey and the destination are the same when you are on a cruise ship, they never let you off the damn thing, just sit you down and fatten you up and every couple of days you swipe your electronic stateroom key through a little card reader to indicate to the boat's computer model that you aren't at the moment to be found on board and travel in a herd off onto a smaller boat and then around in a shopping mall which has been done up by the locals to celebrate the arrival of a cruise ship in port. There are some great trinkets in the Marquesas and we bought some but I guess I'm just mad because no young warriors have tried to get to know us, and take care of us for the rest of our lives so they can make headwear out of our beards when we die. This whole custom has devolved with the accession of Christianity into shouting "ZZ TOP!" from passing 4x4's.

Friday, April 08, 2005


Things in Front of the Sun

The central condition of eclipse meteorology is that the air starts to cool about halfway between first and second contact, and the weather suddenly starts behaving as if it's the late afternoon. So do the animals, but there aren't many animals we can look at near S 21° 19' W 123° 23' in the South Pacific ocean. I think somebody saw a tuna a couple of days ago.

This means that if the air is cloudy and wet, clouds start to form even more. So whatever kind of weather you had in the morning, and however much it started to dry out with the rising sun, it's going to get worse again.

And it did. Captain Gilles Bossard, together with his consulting astronomers and weather mavens on the ship and on the Internet, had gone due north from Pitcairn and then turned and set a heading directly back along the central line of totality. There were three minor weather systems surrounding this point at a distance; one didn't want to get north of the 21st parallel in order to stay in what passes for dry air down here. And in fact, the morning dawned like all the rest: puffy clouds at about 2500 meters and scattered stratocumulus at 5000. The navigator, Rodin Tomislav, told me early on that he estimated cloud cover at 35%. The wind seemed to be coming out of ENE about 20 knots while the Paul Gauguin was going SW at what seemed about 10 knots which gave the effect of the clouds following us and drifting overhead at an annoyingly slow rate. But all of this was hard to appreciate because the main effect in this weather in this part of the world is the formation and dissolution of the clouds — a whole section of sky would disappear behind a cloud in two or three minutes. And again, it could open up.

It seemed for much of the time, and I suppose this is subjective, that we were proceeding along the track directly under a stripe of clouds which had formed just about first contact (10:25 AM local time) as the ship was turning onto the eclipse track, and was getting worse and worse, while on the sides it seemed there was relatively clear weather.

Some time about 11:15 the weather seemed to stabilize a bit, and we had probably twenty minutes without any serious looming clouds. But about 15 minutes before totality, a mass of clouds caught up with us on the track and stayed there as the clock ticked down. Clouds had come and gone all morning, and it wasn't until the sky got very dark and persistently cold, that the sense descended over the 9th deck that this one might not go away.

But it did, finally, giving one last, brief cause for hope. It blew past about 11:53. This was about three minutes before second contact. Yet there wasn't any cheering, because even as we glimpsed the crescent (which was shrinking fast), we saw and felt also the darkening and the chilling as another, lower, cloud, moving faster than the first moved in and closed off the little patch of blue the way one might cut off a car on the Mass Pike. At that point it was unfortunately all over because there is no way that a cloud of that size was going to blow past in the next two minutes.

We heard later that the captain was on the deck outside the bridge — bet you didn't know that you can steer a modern ship with a remote, but that is exactly how it's done. Usually he does that when he's pulling up to a dock and just wants to see if he's parallel parking correctly. In this case he was looking at the sky and fiddling furiously with whatever he uses for a joystick.

We got a tour of the bridge yesterday. The navigator, being polite, said that he thought the engine control program was written by engineers who hadn't actually ever been on a ship, but at least it wasn't Windows. There aren't any mission critical tasks dependent on Windows; they have to be certified by too many agencies in Europe and America for that (even if they are of Wallis and Futuna or Bahamian registry).

There's also a stabilizer. Big water wings. We can hear them creaking at night. "If you were on a cargo ship, you'd be feeling this a lot more," he said of the seas which were recorded as "moderate" in his (paper and pencil) log book. And speaking of paper, did you know that he is expected still every night to measure the angle of a star using an actual sextant and not just jotting down what GPS says in their redundant non-Windows -based GPS navigation systems? What a mix of tradition the art of sailing is.

Anyway, there we were waiting for second contact and a giant cloud over the sun. I haven't been clouded out very often (the annular eclipse with Mark Lacas in Palos Verdes was the worst; if only McCovey had hit the ball two feet higher!) and since there was a lot of blue sky everywhere but where I was I figured I would check out the approaching shadow and the sunset colors (of which there weren't any, so short and annular-at-heart was this event) and other things which you often miss when you are so intoxicated on Corona. And moreover, the anthropology of depressed astronomers (well they shouldn't have tried to do the pendulum experiment on shipboard.)

The lower cloud, being lower, was fairly racing across the sky, on account of trigonometry. But nobody was hoping for anything.

The guy on the loudspeaker started to count down the seconds until second contact. His voice had been crackling and excited and nervous all morning; now he seemed on a sterile upbeat autopilot, like Thomas Ellison may have sounded on the eve of his execution in Mutiny on the Bounty.

At "10" the sun, what was left of it, was completely invisible behind a darkened cloud.

By "7" the cloud had completely cleared the sun, partly through motion and partly through dissolution, the wisps evaporating as the last tiny crescent dissolved and broke and there instantaneously was the brilliant corona and a couple of souvenir prominences and about four solar diameters to the east, Venus glinted a sterling outrigger to the diamond ring which appeared forthwith and it was over.

Later it rained. That made the astronomers feel less ungracious about packing up before it was officially over. The ship’s band played Doors covers under an awning. But not Cat Stevens. It wasn’t much of a rain anyway, the kind that always happens, as if to say, this is the South Pacific, it rains, why such a long face? But we were having lunch by then, and taking pictures of ourselves with strangers and crew (who have opined to each other in Tagalog that we look like certain named characters in Lord of the Rings, which cognates can't hide in their secret language which everyone in the world except native speakers of English has for private communication. Those of you who went to Cal Tech may be amused that 35 years later I am once again being fed by Filipinos.)

I decided, about fourth contact, that this eclipse looked like pictures of eclipses. Remember that the moon was exactly the size of the solar disk; off the coast of New Zealand and in Panama this event was annular. So, it was very bright. Just looking at it, I didn't see any of the long coronal streamers that so distinguish actual eclipses from the ones depicted on film.

I didn't notice any shadow bands but nobody was looking for anything; we were all in a state of shock at having seen it at all. We shall see what photos end up getting posted from the Paul Gauguin and the Discovery. It's all so very modern, the tourists asking each other how their pictures came out when the solar disk is still 70% obscured. And, I think this is the first eclipse I've been to that was so extensively photographed with cell phones. But not to worry, the geeks were on deck with their Celestrons and gyroscopes and size-is-everything lenses as well.

Lunch was a lot more relaxed than breakfast. The food on the Paul Gauguin isn't half bad, considering all of it has to be refrigerated for two weeks and Jesse Cool can't phone up the hippies in Santa Cruz for an afternoon delivery of mizuna. There won't be a Bounty themed meal. We're signed up to take a galley tour on Sunday at 4:30 PM. Meanwhile, we're on a course bound for Hiva Oa in the Marquesas and some more fabulous extemporaneity from the anthropologist Mark Eddowes (the other night he talked for two hours straight about what really happened on the Bounty). It was Mark's first eclipse. He was surrounded by the dancing girls, chatting away with them in Tahitian, and I think by his demeanor that he must have channeled four thousand years of of exquisitely delineated archaeoastronomy into one ecstatic and singular moment.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


Island of the Christians

Yesterday we arrived at Pitcairn Island. We circled the island looking for suitably flat seas, and stopped on the west side. About a half-hour later a boat containing forty people (the population of the island is fifty-six) came alongside and they all climbed onto the cruise ship and came up to the sun deck carrying their bags of souvenirs. The cruise ship wasn't quite prepared -- they didn't have nearly enough tables and the cruise director wasn't very accommodating to them; it probably would have been nicer to set up in the Grand Salon auditorium, but he dictated that they set up on the deck. It did rain once or twice, but generally it all turned out OK. It also turns out that lots of people on Pitcairn are named Christian. All of the carvings we bought were signed by a Christian, and we met several of them over the course of the day. They've had a pretty insular existence for the last 200 years, but now seem to be making a little more contact with the world -- the last wedding between two Pitcairners was 20 years ago; most marriages since involve at least one outsider. The captain of our cruise ship and the mayor of the island decided that the seas were calm enough to attempt letting passengers visit the island. They worked out an arrangement where four groups of 30 of us could go for an hour. To go, you had to be really motivated, to the point of getting on a list of people, finding out that you had to go somewhere at some time to get a yellow ticket, or in our case, just being persistent and hanging around until they let us off the ship and onto the Pitcairner's boat.

You also had to be fit enough to climb up and down the rope ladder on the side of the cruise ship -- they rejected a few people they didn't think would make it. (There are lots of canes and walkers on board.) The loudspeaker overdramatized considerably to cut down demand, as the majority of people were not going to be able to go in any case. All about this terribly dangerous Jacob's Ladder you had to descend for some unspecified distance from deck 3, making it sound like you had to sail an open launch to Timor. Very much the same tone of voice the astronomers upstairs were using to caution the Pitcairn salesladies and their kids not to look at the sun no matter how dark it gets (the eclipse will be about 96% on Pitcairn, an amount that will ensure a lot of eye damage and nobody has done much outreach and education around this, it seems.) We used the same tone of voice ourselves, and I gave Andrew Christian my set of Absolut Eclipse goggles.

The seas were about three feet so if you were too low on the ladder there was a danger of getting crushed when the longboat bounced up. So each departing passenger remained suspended over the side of the Paul Gauguin until the guy in the boat decided that this was the moment of a crest of a wave, and then he snatched you and told you to let go and in one motion threw you onto the deck of the longboat like cargo. In fact they were a bit gentler with the cargo; Pitcairn being a dry island, owing to earlier unfortunate experiences involving the combination of guns and rum and it not being Christian to give up one's guns, the only way for the Kiwi and Ozzie guest workers to get grog is to cadge it from passing cruise ships, and they cradle it carefully back to the island.

The seas are pretty three-dimensional on a small boat near Pitcairn -- it achieved some pretty steep angles but never really took on more than the occasional splash. Landing there is quite a trick -- you have to time things just right and then surf in as a large wave breaks. The Bounty mutineers didn't have a nice port to tie up to like they have today, but the approach is still quite a challenge. They're planning on building a breakwater so that cruise ship "tenders" can dock there directly and they can become a regular port of call. As it is they get only a handful of cruise ship visits a year, and a supply ship every month or so. We only had an hour so we couldn't see much. It took awhile just to get off the boat and walk up the steep road to the top of the cliff where the "town" is. There was a small museum, various pieces from the Bounty (an anchor, a cannon, etc.), and various graveyards. Some of the more privileged of the group got to ride around on ATVs and go to the high points of the island and get some great views. It was still nice just to walk around and see the flowers and banyan trees (planted by earlier Polynesians) that greeted the mutineers. The captain of the cruise ship enjoyed jogging on the island, and later went for a little sprint in the ship's canoe after having been motoring at sea continuously for four days. (Captain Gilles Bossard is an athlete in his own right; he is on the ship's rowing team, which last week came in something like 7th in a field of something like 70 on the Tahiti-Moorea canoe race.)

This morning we sailed around Henderson Island, another in the Pitcairn group which has a completely different appearance. The volcanic part of Henderson wore away long ago, and left a coral atoll. A later upthrust in connection with other undersea volcanoes has lifted the whole reef about thirty meters out of the water, so the island appears as a big flat green patch sticking above the waves. The waves are violent against the rocks. The sea remains relatively calm today with widely spaced whitecaps, but against the rocks it splashes all the way up to the top of the island. There are beaches on the north side of the island but nobody lives there because there's no dependable source of fresh water; it's a World Heritage Site to prevent it being sold and converted to a cattle ranch.

Monday, April 04, 2005


The Internet Has Arrived

All of the literature about the m/s Paul Gauguin that we read before boarding described a very slow and expensive satellite-phone-based e-mail connection that charged $1 for each 2000 characters sent or received -- received messages would be printed and delivered to your stateroom.

They've just installed a new satellite-based system for full Internet access which is much less cumbersome. The bad news is that it is still expensive, much more so than Internet cafes on the land -- prices range from $24 to $60 per hour depending on how much time you're willing to sign up for in advance, compared to $3 to $12 per hour in an Internet cafe. The good news is that you can use your wireless laptop with the system, so that you can compose long messages like this at your leisure, and only use a few minutes when actually sending them. Of course, if you're sitting there and browsing news items, it can get quite expensive. As I write this, we haven't actually used it yet, but some people I've talked to said it's reasonably fast. Satellites can send data very quickly, but when there's a lot of back-and-forth involved, as is the case with loading Web pages, it can take awhile because it still takes the signal a long time to get to the satellite in the first place.

One is a captive on a cruise ship, so you have to put up with high prices for anything which is the least bit "extra". Besides the Internet, this includes shore excursions (the ship stops for 8 hours at each of 4 ports but you have to pay for tours at those locations), laundry ($1.50 to have your underwear washed and pressed, or $3.50 for your shirt), and any other than the evening's designated house wine. There's a store with $30 t-shirts and $90 silk shirts, and other indispensable items such as jewelry and perfume. And of course, there's a casino, which I haven't seen anyone in yet -- perhaps the astronomer crowd on this boat understand mathematics too well. And I don't think they are quite as excited by the dancing girls and schmaltzy cover band as the typical cruise customer. At least the cruise company can fall back on the Internet as this trip's cash cow.

There are "enrichment lectures" which have been interesting. We went to one yesterday about the settlement history of Polynesia. Apparently most of Polynesia and New Zealand wasn't really settled at all until around 800 or 1000 or so AD. It was interesting hearing the lecturer, an archaeologist named Mark Eddowes, explain the modern evidence, and also debunk several other popular stories, such as Polynesia having been settled by people from South America (they appear to have come from Southeast Asia, starting with New Guinea and the Solomon Islands), and Easter Islanders having died off because of deforestation (they did deforest their island, but they adapted to the new circumstances ingeniously; on the other hand they were mostly killed off by smallpox after having been forced to work in Peru). The Polynesians do appear to have traveled to South America, where they acquired one or more varieties of sweet potato known as kumara, today one of their staple starches.

Today there was a lecture by one Mike Reynold about meteors and meteorites, a science referred to as "meteoritics". (Ray pointed out that "meteorology" was already taken.) The lecturer gave evidence that buying meteorites can be very very expensive. A meteorite which is alleged to have splashed here from the moon will cost you $100,000 per gram.

We're steaming towards Pitcairn Island, a distance from Papeete of about 2000 km at 30 km per hour. We'll have all day Wednesday there -- I think the cruise ship "Discovery" gets to hang out there on Thursday (on its way to Easter Island and Peru). The eclipse centerline is less than 100 km away from it, which won't be an issue until Friday. Around 1:30 today we came within 30 km of Anti-Mecca, the point exactly opposite Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Mosques are carefully pointed towards Mecca anywhere in the world, and Muslims pray in that direction. Anti-Mecca is where their feet point. Presumably if a group of Muslims were on a boat exactly at the Anti-Mecca, they'd all pray facing outwards.

The cruise staff seems to be from all over the world, but a large part of it is from the Philippines, including the schmaltzy cover band. They are all very friendly and outgoing, which gets pretty tiresome after awhile. We haven't met very many of the other passengers yet, but Ray suggested to the leader of our group that they could have a contest for "most obscure eclipse t-shirt" -- we've seen a lot of them, and they've all been different from the ones we've collected. One commemorated an eclipse in Siberia.

Nobody has any weather prospects for the eclipse. The typhoon season has passed it seems; and what is left is South Pacific weather which is puffy clouds and blue sky and sometimes rain and the sea fairly calm at the moment, a few scattered whitecaps, Beaufort 2 or 3 they used to call it though I suppose there's some Metric measurement now. The archaeologist, who has spent his life out here, thinks that the weather will hold like this if a frontal system moving at the moment through the Society Islands doesn't decide to come check us out. Apparently the weather is afflicted with the same inertia and lassitude for which the South Pacific is famous for instilling in humans.

Anyway, it appears we will be posting and checking and sending e-mail on the cruise -- I'll sign up for the 100 minute plan, so let us know what's up. But don't send us big enclosures -- I forget who, but somebody was telling us a story about a girl who lived in Viet Nam at the time the government was the only ISP; and they charged a great deal, and some friend of hers overseas had decided that she was lonely and she would mail her a complete copy of the Sunday New York Times which the Viet Cong printed out on paper and charged her $800 for. I want you all to go look this up on because it sounds like an urban legend to me, too, but I'm not willing to expend the bandwidth to find out.

Saturday, April 02, 2005


French Polyne$ia

The last four days we've been on the island of Tahiti. While Ray was making all the bookings for the vacation, an actual person on the phone, not just a website, assured him that yes the Europcar rental counter at the airport is definitely open 24 hours a day for our flight which arrived at 1:30 AM. Of course, when we got there it had closed at 1 AM and we had to take a $50 taxi 15 km to our hotel. The next morning they did send someone to get me and take me to the airport, but still.

Pension Te Miti is a very sweet little place with backpackers and Swiss surfers and owners and customers that don't mind being woken up by dogs barking at 2 AM at other arriving customers. If you're ever in Paea, stay there.

We rented a Suzuki "Jimmy" 4 wheel drive jeep and drove up the Papenoo river valley to Relais de la Maroto, which was originally built to house workers making the hydroelectric projects up and down the valley. It was converted to a hotel at some point, and its wine cellar has 3000 bottles of 320 different wines. (Our old Lonely Planet said it had 6000 bottles, so maybe they're winding down.) When we got there they guy asked us if we wanted a drink, and I said, "No, we have reservations." He then showed us to the "suite", two large rooms with huge picture windows over the valley, and a hot tub. He didn't ask our name -- we were the ones with reservations. It was a little like The Shining, driving up a long way to an apparently abandoned hotel in the mountains. That night we had raclette in the wine cellar with another couple who was apparently spending the night as well, a local from France with a Tahitian woman he introduced as his "vahine". She didn't seem to like the wine or raclette, and adjourned up to the bar. We swapped tastes of wine, and the maitre d' opened an additional bottle for us to check out.

The next morning we saw a small truck with his company name on it perched off the side of the road. A little while later we saw him in another jeep. He gave us some story of what happened but from what we pieced together it actually seems like he went up there with his employee's wife; the employee followed him up there the next morning, punched him in the face, and trashed his truck. We didn't catch up with him later in Papara, so we'll never know for sure.

Romantic intrigue aside, the relais is in the central volcanic caldera of the island, and the rainforest-clad mountain sides are stunning. There are waterfalls almost everywhere you look, and the landscape is constantly changing as the clouds drift past, casting sun and rain on different parts of it. There are also some archaeological sites where Tahitians lived, some of which are somewhat restored. We took a couple small walks to look at them and to admire the scenery and take pictures of the various plants. And the 4 wheel drive definitely came in handy.

Now we're back in Papeete, and our luggage is checked onto the Paul Gauguin for our cruise. We're in a little Internet Cafe spending our last few French Polynesian CFPs, it being about the last chance to use the Internet until we get back from the cruise in two weeks. Hopefully we'll send occasional dispatches from the boat.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005



We've been in Rarotonga the last three days. We snorkeled twice off a beach which might have had a lot more coral before a few weeks ago, when four cyclones hit the island, and are said to have caused lots of coral to break off. There were lots of nice reef fish, including some long cornet fish, some incredible picassofish, sunset groupers, some convict surgeonfish that are very inquisitive and swim inches away from us, lots of white fish of all sizes which blend in with the sand, and a few large fish of various dark colors. The rock crevices contained lots of pink-spined sea urchins and I saw some kind of clam which looked like a wavy iridescent blue-green opening in the rock.

The beach by the place we are staying is not quite so varied. There's a little island you can walk to without ever getting your shorts wet. The real problem walking out there is avoiding stepping on one of the thousands of sea cucumbers sitting there being sluglike on the sand. For variety, there are a few different species, but most of them just look like sand stuck to slime on a cylinder about 10 inches long. We did see a cute snake-eel which was white with brown spots, slithering about the sea of sea cucumbers.

The place itself, Aremango Guest House, is definitely "budget accomodation". The budget does not include fans that run all night -- you have to get up every hour and push a button to turn it back on. What are they thinking? The beds are pretty old, and you also have to close the window about 4:30 AM as soon as the rooster cacophony starts. And bring your own towel. However the people you meet at such places are often on much slower and more interesting voyages, or in the instant case, attending weddings which their friends from New Zealand have decided to have here. I am sure that the people at Kingsgate in Auckland have interesting stories to tell too, and probably even interesting investment advice, but you don't get to talk to them at all. Their rooms are air-conditioned and tolerable to be in.

Yesterday we took the cross-island walk -- the trail was also trashed by the cyclones. It started out along the road to the power station, but at some point abruptly became a very narrow steep track on which we pulled ourselves up by tree roots, just like our walk up Mt. Apo in the Philippines in 1988. Going down was not only just as steep and narrow but often confusing -- it wasn't always clear that when the trail appeared to ford the river that it continued on the other side. Fortunately, the picture we took of the map posted at the beginning of the trip came in handy and we found our way out of the rain forest. Once again we didn't take enough water -- when we got to a little store at the end we each drank 1.5 liters immediately. And a fruit smoothie.

If you're ever here, check out Sails Restaurant in the sailing club in Muri, which has lots of very nice food, and for something simpler go to That's Pasta, run by a couple from Milan who make their own pasta and sauces and desserts. Don't bother with The Flame Tree, reputed to be the best restaurant on the island at least in our guidebook -- it isn't worth it. Also the Pacific Resort has a roving thug in a Hawaiian shirt who sidles up to you in a laid back island manner and indicates that if you aren't staying there you shouldn't be there unless of course you are going to the restaurant but after such a reception you don't feel like it.

Renting bikes today has caused it to drizzle, but hopefully it'll stop before we ride back to catch our ride to the airport for our 10:20 pm flight to Tahiti, arriving at the convenient time of 1 in the morning.

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