A Delightful Transit Lounge, and the Long Flight Home

August 5th, 2010 1:48 am by Dave

We only had a 18-hour layover in Tonga, from about midnight to 6 pm.  Compared with sitting in a transit lounge for a few hours, it was quite a nice time though much too short.  It would be nice to go back to Tonga sometime and to check it out in much more detail, including some other islands.

We spent the night at Keleti International Resort, a humble beachside string of bungalows about halfway from the airport to town.  The shoreline here is absolutely stunning, a series of overlapping cylindrical rock formations that extends about half the south shore of the island.  They look like Mammoth Hot Springs, except they’re about 10 meters off the beach.  As the waves crash into them, water jets up from various nooks and crannies.  The effect is even more intense at high tide.

We had a day to explore Nuku’alofa before our evening flight back home.  It was mostly a shopping opportunity with various souvenirs and some bright shirts.  Dinner back at our little hotel was delicious, the last raw fish and coconut milk of the trip, as well as some cooked fish served with some native leaf (grown at the chef’s house) with taro as a starch (the other hotels generally never served that).  It was nice to have a little more actually local food.

The flight back was a little annoying.  The plane arrived about an hour late, and then everyone arriving from New Zealand deplaned, regardless of whether or not they were continuing on.  Finally we boarded and flew the short distance to Apia in Western Samoa.  Once again we were all herded off the plane so that we could go through security and that they could check the empty plane cabin, which apparently is required before any leg ending in the United States.  After another wait, we got back on and flew to Los Angeles, about a nine-hour flight.  The inflight entertainment system on the Air New Zealand 767 was definitely the most advanced one I’d ever seen, with the largest widescreen displays and random access to 32 movies (several old ones included) and scads of music, New Zealand television shows, and games.  It functioned quite well (except for one gentleman a few rows up from me:  I saw a little penguin at the top of a screenful of text, presumably some version of Linux completely rebooting).  The flight-tracking map application was a little stupid, though — a system which was otherwise that good should have had a map with fewer flaws and much more configurability (language, what views to see, etc.).  Arriving at Terminal 2 Border Inspection at LAX took 40 minutes in line before reaching the passport guy, but things went very quickly after that.

Now we’re spending a few days in LA, so far mostly around Venice.  Maybe we’ll see the Getty Center tomorrow; we got close this afternoon after using a real laundromat washing machine for the first time in a while, but $15 for parking for two hours seemed a little pricey.  We’ll try to spread it over more hours tomorrow.  We felt a little baited and switched, because its website says the museum is free.

Return to Fiji

August 2nd, 2010 7:29 pm by Dave

When we stayed in Fiji in 2005, we struck up a friendship with a young member of the staff of our hotel. He has been quite a good correspondent over the years, and we arranged to spend time with him as we passed through Fiji this time. He met us at the airport. Our late arrival was further delayed because the record of our car rental was in their notebook, but the actual car wasn’t there, and it took about an hour to round up another car from someone else. We climbed in the rickety little station wagon, and drove to the Outrigger resort near Sigatoka, arriving just after midnight.

These resorts are a lot like cruise ships which don’t move. There was a special rate on Expedia, stay two nights, get the third free, which would not have happened if there wasn’t a global economic downturn hurting tourism just generally. But once you’re there, everything is an opportunity for additional charges: the restaurants are expensive, the Internet is expensive, the shops are expensive. In general, we’ve found the fancier the hotel, the worse the breakfasts, and this is no exception. Our dinner here was all right, particularly the appetizers. There’s a spa. Mostly, we’ve just spent time relaxing. We haven’t snorkeled in the lagoon because it’s been windy but today we will anyway; at least it’s sunny and anything out there will be well illuminated. And snorkeling is free (though the extra four hours of delayed check-out time aren’t).

A highlight of the trip was when we took our friend back home to Nadi so that he could get to work at 7 am Monday morning. He lives near the beach with his family in a cluster of four houses (his father’s, and one for each of his three uncles). Currently his house has four rooms for five people; he shares a room with his brother; he’s working on building a room for himself. The entire house was ruined last year by neck-deep water when Fiji had the worst floods it had seen for a long time, but they’ve made it quite livable since then. His living room was full of relatives and neighbors drinking kava. We had a few bowls of it ourselves, with no adverse effects. Normally, they’ll drink for a few hours, and have a late dinner. Since we had to get back to Sigatoka, we had an early dinner with our friend around 9 pm, and what a dinner it was: absolutely delicious home-cooked Indian food that was better than anything we’ve had anywhere this entire trip. A spicy chutney and an onion chutney; rice, rotis, and dal; green beans; a dish with some kind of not-hot peppers; and delightfully spiced beef from a cow that had been slaughtered that morning. We ate all we possibly could (Ray ate it correctly with his fingers; I was lazy and used a fork) and then said our goodbyes. With the late kava-drinking, I don’t know how our friend makes it to work at 7 am.

It really validates the Young Lonely Planet philosophy: if you want the best possible food while traveling, it really is worth the trouble to meet some locals and get invited to their house for dinner. (Rich locals don’t count, because you’ll likely end up at restaurants with them.) Especially if they’re Fiji-Indian or Romanian. Maybe not so much if they’re from California.

Today we woke up, snorkeled a bit in the reef by the hotel which was really too shallow at low tide to snorkel in, and saw very little live coral and very few fish — it seems you have sign up for a tour to some little island off the coast to see Fiji’s famous spectacular sea life. Then we got into the rickety rental wagon and drove across the island through the traffic of Suva, the South Pacific’s largest city with a population of 200,000, and to the airport where the guy was waiting for it to drive it back to Nadi. A 42-seat turboprop awaits us for the two-hour flight to Tonga.

Guadalcanal Diary, Days 3 and 4

August 2nd, 2010 7:25 pm by Dave

Honiara is just not that interesting a place. Nobody ever said it was, but you usually think there is something to do.

Thursday we went to the US War Memorial, a small park atop a little hill with a good view of Honiara and the adjacent islands (if it’s not too cloudy). Several granite walls detailed the various battles in the Guadalcanal Campaign. One wall listed the names of the US ships sunk or damaged, and the number of Japanese ships sunk or damaged. The taxi driver pointed to a little white spot atop a nearby hill, and said that was the Japanese memorial. We had him take us there, and saw that it was basically the remains of a monument which had been destroyed about ten years earlier in an ethnic conflict in Honiara; not much to see except the local style of graffiti.

We proceeded to the central marketplace, drank some coconut water, bought a starfruit and a doughnut, looked at 100 identical stands selling variations on the same few vegetables, including the vast multiplicity of bananas we never see in America, and talked to a few folks about life in the Solomon Islands. Since the ethnic tension, the cruise ships stopped coming, and very few other tourists come, which is too bad; things seem fairly peaceful now, and tourism is something that could bring in a lot of extra revenue for the islands. Even though conflict is gone, corruption remains, and no one expects that the government can make effective use of what money it gets. The conflict is kept in check by a police force from Australia.

There was a one room museum with a few WWII relics, some skulls and pictures of fauna, and various carvings and illustrations of traditional life on the islands. We had to find the lady and get her to open it for us. In front of the museum, a political rally of some kind was taking place, the kind the State Department tells American tourists to avoid. It was quite formal and British, however, candidates stepping up to the microphone to answer questions from the audience. Really much more genuine than the American process of dueling trash TV campaigns; American corruption happens so far behind closed doors that we forget it even exists since we don’t have the opportunity to pay policemen to fix tickets; and Transparency International has been heavily bribed not to include political campaign contributions in their definition of a democracy debased beyond recognition. We tiptoed around the back of the rally to get to the museum. After we were done there, there really wasn’t anything else to do besides go back to our hotel, which we got to early enough that we were able to convince them to cook us a late lunch / early dinner so we didn’t have to go back out.

On Friday, we tried to visit another little war museum the tourist office told us about on our way to the airport for our flight to Fiji. It was located inside a lumberyard and was closed: they said “give us twenty minutes and we’ll open it up” but we didn’t want to miss our flight. We could have probably taken them up on their offer, because our flight turned out to be three hours delayed, getting us into Fiji at 9 pm instead of 6 pm.

Guadalcanal Diary, Day 2

July 28th, 2010 2:16 am by Dave

We decided to stay at Raintree Cafe, despite its problems.  They offered to do our laundry, the primary thing we needed lots of water for.  They found a way to turn on the hot water, though it takes the duration of a shower to show evidence of heat, and it’s still just a trickle.  However, we are at 10 degrees south of the equator.  Mostly, who wants to spend precious vacation hours negotiating a new hotel which is not known to be better, and crappy businesses live on that laziness.  Lonely Planet writes that this is the best in its price range.  Gee, what if they are right?

We were introduced to the interesting walking tour guy.  We decided to go on an easy 3-hour walk to a small limestone cave instead of a difficult 5-hour walk to a larger cave filled with flying foxes and guano.  We were accompanied by three additional people from his village, which is about a mile down the road; a friend who seemed to be a little more familiar with the species of flora and fauna on the island; a young man who fetched a machete from his garden to clear the last half-kilometer to the cave, which hadn’t been visited recently, and another kid just along for the walk.  And eventually, and even littler kid, of an age for drawing on himself with a ball point pen in imitation of the elders.  Even the youngest of these fellas speak more languages than we do and can survive in the bush for much longer than anyone reading this could.

The cave was kind of hokey.  Nobody was prepared to go far into it.  We had only a headlamp and a small flashlight given away as part of a swag bag at the Gay Film Festival by the Steamworks Baths in Oakland, which provides just enough light to guide yourself into the correct hole but not really to do serious spelunking.  The guides hadn’t brought any lights at all.  There’s a great variety of professionalism in guides in the world, from the Archaeology PhD who took us around Benares, to the kids who accost you at the temples of Siem Reap.  And ruling all, Pilatwe Manga of Okavango Wilderness Safaris in Maun, Botswana.

But I digress.  The journey (about 5 km each way) was the fascinating thing, seeing the vines and spiders and the little manioc gardens out in the middle of the jungle, checking out what Christopher was playing on his mp3 player, watching Francis wield his machete against the encroaching wild ginger and vines.  Watch out for the Wild Taro: some kinds sting like a nettle.

The walk wore me out, but I bounced back quickly enough to make it to the Telecom building to clarify the username and password which will grant me access to the Internet I still haven’t connected to yet.  Some PhD students from the University of Texas at Austin were there, finding out that non-AT&T SIM cards just don’t work in iPhones.  We asked them if they were there surfing (one wore a surfing t-shirt) but they said that they’d been in Vanuatu for a couple weeks and were here for a couple more to visit caves (and coral reefs) to collect samples which could be used to derive the rainfall history for the last several millennia — apparently some complicated scheme can be applied to a stalagmite from a cave which involves differentials in the decay of various isotopes of uranium and thorium, which yields the rainfall information.

Afterwards a woman running a junk shop in a mall told us where two good Chinese restaurants were close by but we couldn’t find them.

There are almost zero restaurants on the main drag of Honiara.  That’s just weird.  We walked down it for a long time and ended up eating in the Chinese restaurant of the same “Honiara Hotel” that we ate at the French restaurant of last night.  It was very good, as was last night’s meal.  We had sizzling squid which was not sizzled at the table in the American custom, and salted fish and chicken fried rice, and began with a preserved vegetable and julienned pork soup in a very nice stock.  Salt and water are what you need after a day in the humid sun.

That’s today’s update.  Now I’ll type in the username and password which have been written down by someone in large enough lettering for me to read, and I’ll see if I can actually connect to the Internet.

Guadalcanal Diary, Day 1

July 28th, 2010 2:12 am by Dave

We went early to the airport and took a 737 to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands on the north shore of Guadalcanal.  A vaguely islandy-looking guy with a US passport was seated nearby on the plane and I struck up a conversation with him.  He’s not actually islandy at all — he’s from the Southern US, most recently living in Washington, DC.  But right now he and his two traveling companions have a pretty fun-sounding job:  they’re working for Coca-Cola, visiting in a year all 206 countries in which Coke is sold, asking people in each country what makes them happy (#1 answer:  friends and family.)  You can see the footage they’ve filmed at http://www.expedition206.com (and by looking for “expedition206” on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube).

We’ll be able to see it too when we start the two-hour clock running on our little wireless card that we bought downtown at the Telecom office.  When we arrived here, we had the information desk call the place we had tried to make a reservation (at some point they kind of dropped the ball and never responded) and found that they were full.  We found room at the fourth place we tried, the Raintree Cafe, which is a little ways out of town, and has issues.  The water main was broken, that’s why there’s no water pressure.  Despite posted hours of 7:30 am – 10 pm, this afternoon and evening there’s been nobody around to ask questions of if we have any problems.  It does have kind of a nice breakfast and pizza menu, if we can find someone to serve us.

Downtown, everyone was super-friendly, asked us where we were from and if we were rabbis (no Papa Noel, no ZZ Top).  Many of them had the bright red teeth characteristic of betel nut.  After buying stamps and the wireless card (and checking out a backup hotel if we decide to move) we headed towards the Botanic Garden (because it stayed open the longest).  Immediately it started raining.  We waited 10 minutes or so; it stopped, and we resumed our visit.  It’s basically just a little urban forest — there aren’t any signs naming any of the trees or anything that you normally would expect in a Botanic Garden.  The map showed a “cultural village”, which we kind of expected to be a bunch of typical empty houses that some culture would have lived in before the arrival of Captain Cook.  We went there just as the rain started up again, and the village turned out to be fully inhabited.  Some people waved us under their house to get out from the rain; the owner came down and talked to us.  He’s a principal at a school on the south side of the island, and is hoping to study in Hawaii next year.  We talked, for quite a while, until the rain slowed a little, and then walked back toward the road back to the hotel.  Transport during the day is super-cheap:  you get in minivans and go anywhere for 40 cents US per person.  At night you have to take a taxi, which is still a comparatively cheap 80 cents US per kilometer.

I don’t know what we’ll do the next couple days.  We had fantasized about snorkeling over some of the sites that fringe “Iron Bottom Sound”, the burial ground for many WWII ships involved in the recapture of Guadalcanal, but many of them are scuba spots and there are a lot of other things to do.  There’s an interesting walking tour advertised at our hotel, but no one around to book it through.  Maybe we’ll rent a car and just drive around, on the left side of the road.

From Tanna Tuva to Tanna, Vanuatu

July 28th, 2010 2:10 am by Dave

My mother would not have enjoyed this trip.  Mostly, it’s hot and humid, and there hasn’t been a lot of air conditioning (the A/C worked great in the hotel and rental car in Noumea, and was somewhat muted in Papeete).  She would have enjoyed seeing the lush vegetation, the poinsettia hedges in the resort where we’re staying, the palm trees, the colorful birds.  She wouldn’t have gone in the water to see the fish and the coral.

We spent a night at the Hideaway Island Resort near Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, located a couple degrees north of New Caledonia.  There’s a 14-person ferry that shuttles you between the shore and the island.  Its attraction is an underwater post office box, where you can deposit waterproof postcards.  It’s kind of far from the town, so we ate at the hotel restaurant, which was just fine.  In the morning we went into town to get stamps and a disposable underwater camera (name brands were $27 and up, but “Dolphin” brand was $16.  They’re all made in China anyway.  We haven’t tried it yet.)  The town was pretty crowded and not exciting aside from an interesting market. We bought a giant slice of banana bread for 100 vatu ($1) which wasn’t as good as the banana bread at home, either.  The banana situation in general was vibrant.  There are more different kinds of banana for sale at the Port Vila market than anyplace I’ve seen.

We went to the airport and got on a small plane for our ultimate Vanuatu destination, the island of Tanna, home to Mt. Yasur, a continuously erupting volcano (there’s a post office box there, too).  The plane seated 17.  No flight attendant: the pilot just announced that we should fasten our seat belts when we took off and nobody to instruct us how to put on the life vests.  No need to turn off electronic devices, as the plane was flown by two guys, one of whom was reading a paperback most of the way.  No door between the cabin and the cockpit; we had fun watching the pilots and all the controls.  The plane, like the underwater camera, was made in China; it’s a Harbin Y12.  It has been mostly localized, although the Exit sign is also in Chinese.

We spent four nights at Tanna Evergreen Bungalows, a very cute little resort kind of far from Tanna’s largest town, such as it is.  We’ve been eating dinner here every night.  The food is so far all good.  Evergreen Bungalows is located next to a turtle conservation area, though we haven’t seen any turtles, either in the ocean or on the menu.  why would a sea turtle come to this place?  I thought they liked to lay their eggs in sand.  I have yet to see exposed sand in Tanna; and only a smidgen at the deepest parts of the reef channels and holes.  There’s a shelf of rock which is exposed at low tide, and under two feet of water at high tide — there are coral and fish where this shelf drops off.  Low tide has been in the morning:  it’s easy to walk out on the rock, but a little tricky to find a place to climb from the deep water back up onto the shelf.  High tide is in the afternoon:  it’s tricky to swim out in two feet of water, but you can pull yourself hand over hand along the rocks.

The included continental breakfast is a delightfully large plate of fruit (grapefruit, oranges, tangerines, bananas, papayas, and pineapple), delicious toast.  And both Vanuatu resorts have served coffee in French presses, a wonderful respite from the Nescafe-based drinks we had in Polynesia.  Perhaps it’s even Vanuatu coffee.  On the first morning, a chap from New Zealand spotted a small pod of humpback whales swimming south just offshore, perhaps on their way to Antarctica where people can see them from cruise ships in December.

The first day we went on three of the tours sponsored by the hotel.  First we went to the Kalagia custom village (or is it costume village?)  It’s about a half-hour drive towards the center of the island, and the residents have decided to protect their culture and do things pretty much the way they always have.  They’re happy to dance for tourists according to their customs, wearing their costumes, which are various kinds of shredded bark.

When we arrived, there was nobody around.  Apparently the hotel forgot to phone ahead.  However, some kind of jungle telegraph involving a small plastic box that doesn’t have a touch screen was invoked, and after about twenty minutes came sauntering down the road a woman in a modest grass skirt.

Her name is Lorine.  She is a nurse at a small clinic built out of concrete blocks up the road.  The clinic was built by World Vision International.  It offers traditional and Western medicine.  She doesn’t wear a grass skirt at work; she does for tour guiding to blend in with the village people.  She grew up in this area; she was one of the ones who went to school.  (At one point someone explained about the society that usually the parents will send a couple of kids to school and the rest stay home to carry on the Custom.)

Lorine took us around and showed us all the plants they use for food:  taro, manioc, banana, coconut, hibiscus leaves, onions, etc.  She also showed us a coffee plant, whose small fruit tasted slightly sweet, and contained two coffee-bean-shaped seeds, which didn’t taste very coffee-like when we bit down on them.  We hung out with the women and children for awhile — first they gave us a snack of a roasted piece of taro and a roasted plantain with some shredded coconut (they use a seashell to shred the coconut meat out of the nut).  One woman grated a plantain on a stick over some hibiscus leaves which in turn were on top of a large banana leaf.  Another mixed in some coconut milk.  After awhile they folded up the mixture, tied it up, and put it on the fire.  We watched several little dances and games while waiting for the lap-lap to cook.  After it was ready, they unwrapped it, sliced it with the seashell, and served it — it was quite yummy.  (There were plates of lap-lap with chicken wings at the Port Vila market, but I’m sure it was much tastier fresh.)  We then headed up to an area around a massive banyan tree (with a treehouse) where the men were hanging out.  We talked to a few of them (the guide translated) and they showed us how Their People Make Fire.  How many kastom village males does it take to make fire?  Most of them, as it turned out.  That whole business about rubbing sticks together looks great in a Boy Scout manual but how many times have you actually seen it work?  To their credit, the men of la-Kalangia did make fire, without having to resort to butane lighters, which are childproof now anyway, easier to bring fire back from the volcano.

Then they danced.  It was a delicious and informative tour.  I bought a drawing on a piece of bark paper.  I’m not sure what the USDA thinks about wood products but paper is easy to hide.

By the time we got back, it was almost time for the next tour, to the volcano (the Vanuatu weather service, accessed the night before when the electricity was on, picked this day as having the best weather).  It’s about a two-hour drive, in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.  After driving down to the main town, we headed up the main road across the island which was your basic dirt road.  Much of it was in good shape, but there were many places where we slowed from 50 kph to 5 kph to go over a rock or rut.  Fortunately the drivers know every inch of the road.  Louis (our driver) said he’d driven to the volcano 700 times in the last 5 years.  As we approached the eastern shore, we took the road to the volcano.  First we saw ash dunes.  Then we drove across a vast ash lakebed which had been a lake as recently as 2000 until it washed out the ash dam that had been holding it in place, and still floods during the rainy season (which isn’t now).  The road went around the back side of the volcano (where a guy we met today had gone ash-boarding, like snowboarding but much dirtier).

Finally we ascended to the viewing area, after picking up an Australian volcano expert who’s been to 150 volcanoes (and has been to this one 150 times!)  He’s well-connected enough that he managed to get to Iceland four days before the large explosion there.  He said.  I want to verify all stories I hear from Australians.  We got there just before sunset so we could see the crater of the volcano.  The main viewing area is a bit back — you wouldn’t want to walk to the rim to see the pool of magma sitting in it.  Every three minutes or so, Yasur throws up a bunch of glowing blobs of lava with a great boom.  With the clouds over the crater and the humidity at 100%, the booms were often followed by a visible shock wave of condensing water in a rapidly expanding sphere.  Then the lava shoots up past the rim and several hundred feet in the air and hangs there, the blobs changing shape the way liquids do wen experiencing drag (remember the retro fixtures are called “lava lamps”) and drifts down like the last shot in “Koyaanisqatsi”.  People who are staying at the hotels near the volcano say the shock waves rustle their mosquito netting.  We stayed until well after dark (sunset is around 5:20 here, in the dead of winter), which made the eruptions appear much more dramatic.  There’s an official “danger level” which determines how close you can get to it, but the volcano guy said that’s completely ridiculous — it can have any size eruption at any moment.  The level was at 1 or 2, this evening.  They curtail the visits when the Threat Level reaches Orange.

We returned, had dinner, and proceeded to our third “tour”, a “Jon Frum village” meeting, which happens every Friday.  The Jon Frum believers are a cargo cult which met Mr. Frum many years ago, and is anxiously awaiting his return.  We didn’t actually see any evidence of radio worship while we were there — really it’s so arrogant for Americans to call any other society on Earth a Cargo Cult, when you consider the prodigious amount of goods and services we consume in the hope of a better life.

We got there later than we were supposed to, owing to overstaying at Yasur’s farm and having dinner.  The Jon Frum adherents seemed a little annoyed by our presence.  Maybe they were about to quit, or maybe they wanted a private moment (no other tourists were there at all), but it seems our driver slipped them a bill or two and we sat down on a bench and the music resumed.

In the center of a hut without walls were five seated guitar players and a drummer playing a series of short, upbeat, songs, all similar.  They did not have the feel of hymns, even of the gospel persuasion, but more of tiki hootenanny.  Outside, people danced: men on one side, women on the other.  The fluorescent light in the roof allowed us to see the legs of the dancers but not the faces — the light was blocked by the eaves.  A couple guys near us were incredibly exuberant and had very fancy footwork, and were fun to watch.  After some time, a guy said to me: “Last song.  Where’s your driver?” which, you decide what level of invitation to scram that is.  I’m not really sure whether they wanted to get rid of us before going home to sleep, or before getting on with the part of the evening where they burn a cardboard washing machine or whatever we Westerners think is unutterably weird compared with dog psychoanalysis and Botox injections.

[Ray:]  There was one person in the congregation who might possibly have been old enough to remember Jon Frum when he visited Tanna in 1936.  None of the rest of them were even our age.  I can’t really imagine the psychology of religion even when everybody in your country believes the same one; and it’s quite beyond me, the mechanism by which splinter belief systems survive and propagate in a society with dozens of splinter belief systems and the usual franchises (LDS, JW, Catholicism-Church of England-Science).  The residents of Tanna must feel no compulsion to be like anyone outside their immediate family.  No one from a society of followers like America would admit to waiting for Jon Frum unless you starved him on a Rajneesh Commune with no internet connection for years.

Maybe Mr. Bernoulli can explain the interesting hydrodynamics of the shower in our room.  First you turn on the hot water all the way, which produces a dribble of very hot water.  When you turn on the cold water, even by an amount epsilon, you get warm water in the expected proportion at first, but then it gets colder and colder.  Turning on the cold first and then the hot sometimes leads to hot, which then fades to cold.  To take a shower, you’re constantly turning the cold on and off and on again, and exploiting the brief interval of warm water each time.  I can’t even imagine designing a system which would exhibit that particular behavior, let alone breaking one.  We asked them to look at it but I doubt it’s possible for them to fix without dramatically increasing their water pressure, hot and cold.

** later.  I don’t think it can be done with fluids.  The heater is a gas-powered battery-controlled tankless device; I think something about touching the cold water faucet causes the heater to shut off.

The second day we recuperated from the massive amount of touring by doing basically nothing.  Ray went snorkeling in the morning, but spent most of the day writing postcards (I added “+ Dave”), and I continued to read my book (Cryptonomicon, which has some scenes in the Solomon Islands).  We watched the cute birds and butterflies around the hotel grounds, especially the White Collared Kingfisher and a Green Winged Ground Dove; but most of the effort has gone into the fish.  The bird book in the dining room was not very comprehensive and didn’t include the little yellow and green birds nor the little gray birds with the red heads.  My headache continues to subside, but it’s still kind of there — an aspirin a day has been enough to make it tolerable.  Some folks coming back from the volcano tour reported having been clouded out by fog or light rain, so I’m really happy we went the first afternoon, even if it did add up to a 14 hour day of touring.

The third day started out kind of cloudy, but it was possibly my last chance to snorkel at low tide, so we walked out, found a good place to sit down and spring off from the edge.  The sun came out enough to illuminate the walls of the dropoff, covered with large amounts of a great variety of coral.  There weren’t really a lot of fish, for some reason.  I was fascinated by two tiny fuzzy creatures on a rock, one of which retracted into its shell when I touched the rock nearby.  Some clownfish hung out in some tubular anemone-like creature, a pretty classic pose.

On our walk back we saw a fully exposed blue starfish, and three little shells which looked like little raviolis, so we went back to the room, exchanged snorkels for camera, and walked back out and took some tidepool shots.  California has different stuff in its tidepools, but I’ve never seen such a large flat area there.

After lunch we went on a little walk with young Adam from Sydney, checking out the rocks near adjacent resorts (which turned out to be fairly similar to our own) and walking up the hill to “the plains”, where there were some cows grazing and some allegedly wild horses wandering around, trying to stay cool under the trees and to stay out of any pictures we might try to take of them.  Eventually four children showed up and grabbed at our beards in the custom of this planet.  Sensing without any useful amount of common language that we wanted to take pictures of wild horses, “Albert” ran off across the savannah and returned in about three minutes riding a “wild” horse which he had bridled with a piece of rope.  The horse was chewing what looked like mango leaves.  Albert had his t-shirt wrapped around his head like Peter O’Toole.  One of the other guys held a machete and had dangling on a necklace a home-carved slingshot, which his friend said was sandalwood and they shot flying foxes with it.  “Wild Boys” is more like it.  William S. Burroughs would make them right at home in his worldview.

After that the all the clouds went away and Ray and Adam went back out through the high tide to get one last look at the fully illuminated coral.  Folks visiting the volcano Sunday afternoon had excellent weather.

The dinners here have by and large been really good.  There are lots of “curry” dishes — the lobster curry and Thai green chicken were awesome, but the Thai red fish curry was primarily peppery and had large amounts of oil pooling on the plate.  The garlic prawns and the lobster Thermidor were also quite nice, as was the tender beef fillet in garlic sauce.  But it’s all tourist food, and though it uses local meat and fish and root vegetables, it’s far from what the islanders eat most of the time.

We returned to Port Vila on a larger plane on which we were asked to turn off our electronic devices.  We used intermittent appearances of the sun between the clouds to look once more at the cute fish swimming around the Hideaway Island lagoon, then went back into town.  By the post office we met Clement, a man from Tanna who we’d said hi to a few days earlier.  We told him about our Tanna trip and he told us he thought we did it all wrong.  We both had a good time there but maybe next time we’ll ask him how to get the “island experience”.  We asked him and a few other people if there were any restaurants with Vanuatu food.  The answer was basically “no”.  So we went to a vaguely French place which had as its house specialty a dish of braised flying fox (which is a polite way of saying “fruit bat”).  It tasted pretty gamy, but that’s kind of what you would expect of a creature that eats real vegetable matter instead of the cardboard or grass or grain fed to cows or chicken or geese that make up the meat we usually eat.

Privy Privacy

July 20th, 2010 4:06 am by Dave

One thing which I’ve always considered normal for a hotel is for the bathrooms to be somewhat private — you can do your business without being seen or heard.  This trip has had a variety of instances where that wasn’t always the case.  It hasn’t been a problem, but it’s kind of interesting.

In Huahine, our hotel was definitely not fancy — it was somewhat hostel-like.  In our private room, the walls of the bathroom didn’t go up to the ceiling.  And the door was basically a shower curtain.

On the boat, the bathroom was perfectly private.  Except that it had a window on its ceiling, and anyone walking on deck could look in.  Of course, we all averted our eyes over these windows.

In Papeete, one of the three rooms we were in had a latch on its normal bathroom door which was broken, and you couldn’t close the door from the inside.  Most of the time it would be pretty shut, but often it would just kind of open on its own.  They fixed it as soon as we brought it to their attention.

The winner, though, is our fancy three-star hotel here in Noumea.  Not only does the sliding unlockable door have diagonal slats which provide auditory sharing, but there is a large picture window between the bathtub and the bed, with perforated venetian blinds.  If the light is on in the bathroom and it isn’t in the bedroom, the person in the bathroom is essentially “on television” to the person in the bed, even if the blinds are closed.

Chilling Out in Noumea

July 20th, 2010 4:04 am by Dave

I appear to have spoken a little too soon about my progress battling my little fever.  It has hung on for four more days that we have spent mostly in Noumea, capital of New Caledonia, another French territory.  It is quite a bit further west than Tahiti (three time zones, and across the International Date Line), and it’s further south as well (making the winter just a bit more wintry, that is, having completely comfortable 70-ish days and 60-ish evenings instead of Tahiti’s 80-degree temps around the clock).  Actually, it’s pretty close to Australia — we saw it from the plane when we flew home from there in Jan 2003.  It’s surrounded by a reef and its lagoon is recognized as a World Heritage site.

I was thrilled to be able to connect with my doctor via e-mail (I’m here, he’s in Vienna right now) who assured me that it was nothing to worry about.  It’s your basic minor viral infection, but it’s hit me in the form of headache, aching jaw, and mild fever; I noticed that it actually came with an incredibly slight scratchy throat; a runny nose I had to blow twice total in the past few days; and about three coughs worth of phlegm.  All the normal stuff in vastly different proportions.

So we haven’t been doing as much.  The day we arrived (leaving Tahiti on Friday, getting here on Saturday three hours later) I just rested, after a six-hour flight, an hour-long bus ride into town, and another twenty-minute bus ride to our hotel.  Sunday and Monday were spent going to one museum each day, and this wore me out to an extent.  Today we rented a car and toured the south end of the island, including an hourlong walk, and I’ve felt reasonably good all day.  So now perhaps it’s finally fading.

The museum we went to on Sunday, the Tjibaou Cultural Center, was stunning.  It was designed by Renzo Piano, the architect who designed the Pompidou Center in Paris.  There’s a long building, and along the length of it are a dozen or so tall structures which echo the way a Kanak (Native New Caledonian) chief’s house is put together.  The first room we went into had totem poles carved by sculptors from all of the island groups in the area.  The pole from Papua New Guinea was carved by two of the same sculptors who came to Stanford fourteen years ago to carve a sculpture garden.  There was a great display of contemporary art by Kanak artists.  The center was dedicated to Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who fought for and won more rights and recognition for Kanak people in New Caledonia, and who pressed for New Caledonian independence from France, but who was ultimately assassinated by natives who thought he was selling out.

Our hotel is a block from the beach, in a section of town which looks like Fort Lauderdale.  We spent Monday downtown, which is a much more modest neighborhood.  Noumea might have Parisian restaurants, but the feel of the city is quite a bit more island-nation.  The Museum of New Caledonia provided a great education on traditional Kanak artifacts both from New Caledonia and other nearby Kanak island groups (Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya).  There was a small exhibit on the remarkable hats woven by a Polynesian woman, with diagrams showing each of the 60 folds that are necessary to create a particular pattern.  Another temporary exhibit displayed engraved bamboo poles with analyses of the engravings.

Today we rented a car.  Our efforts to shop around for better deals resulted in the cars that were available getting rented by others, and we ended up with a worse deal.  Oh well.  Gotta be more decisive.  Since I haven’t felt up to snorkeling, we stopped at the Aquarium of the Lagoon for an hour or so.  There were asymmetrical fiddler crabs, “rhinoceros” starfish which are whitish with red and black “horns”, hundreds of species of tropical lagoon fish, and lots of coral.  Some strange orange-spiked fingered creature which Ray had seen snorkeling turned out to be a starfish called Crown of Thorns, and it is especially reviled for its ravenous fondness for coral.

We drove out of Noumea and towards the south end of the island.  It was actually pretty bleak-looking — the forests were clearcut, there was an enormous nickel mine.  Vast areas without many trees.  We turned into the Blue River Provincial Park just after 2 PM, which is too bad because that’s when they stop letting people in for the day.  They let us look at the exhibits in the visitor center, but we couldn’t go further into the park.  They’re proud of their population of cagou, a threatened native white bird.  We listened to their calls on a little DVD exhibit, and after stopping the DVD I noticed that I heard exactly the same calls coming from outside.  Afterwards we went and saw a tiny waterfall, and walked through a tiny forest where we were taller than most of the trees.

We haven’t really made any pretense of eating native food here — there will be plenty of chances for that in Vanuatu and Solomon.  We’ve pretty much concentrated on French food, and have had three wonderful meals.  One night we tried a Vietnamese place, and it really made me miss San Jose.

Tomorrow we head to Vanuatu, and getting to the airport will be much easier with a car.  I’m not so sure we’ll have quite as good an Internet connection as we’ve had here in France, I mean New Caledonia.

Eclipse on a Yacht

July 15th, 2010 10:44 am by Ray

We have spent the last six days aboard the Dalila, a 46-foot catamaran which normally goes on chartered three-hour-tours from Papeete.  It sleeps four couples in nice cabins; the crew sleeps on the deck and an inside table which converts cleverly to a large bed.  The tour organizer was never very specific about where and when to catch the boat; we got the impression from an e-mail or something that boarding began at 9 AM on the 9th of July.  We got there about 8:55.  Introductions all around: Christian was the owner of the boat, and pretty much spoke only French.  Clarita was the chef de cuisine par excellence, and probably would have preferred to speak Tahitian but otherwise only French.  Pierre, who introduced himself as Peter, is a French native who left Bordeaux at the age of 5 and has lived in Tahiti since he was 10.  I first took him to be the captain because he was always at the wheel, but Dave supposes that Christian was the captain; and that Pierre was everything else, like Mark Kuo was at Opcode in 1986.  As the primary English speaker, Pierre was the one to deal with all of us.  The other two guests present included Bob, a retired architect who went to Stanford just before Dave, who lives on the beach near Watsonville, and his girlfriend Linda, who lives in Phoenix.  The boat people were enthusiastic to leave at 9 AM, but we made up only four of the eight people who should actually have been on board.  The captain stopped waiting about 10:45 and the Dalila headed out; the others would have a chance to catch up with us via bus ($2) or taxi ($100) at our first mooring on the south side of Tahiti.

After about five hours of sailing, which included a lunch of raw fish in coconut sauce and a tuna gratin, we moored in Papeari, and Pierre took us on the Zodiac dinghy to shore so we could check out the Gauguin Museum before it closed.  Its admission price was halved due to “renovations”, but it was still a nice exhibit showing the history of his life, with good explanations in English, and reproductions of many of his works.  There was a model of the house in the Marquesas he lived in in his final years, and the sun was shining cutely on one of the sculptures shown in one room.  In 2018 we’ll get around to posting a picture of it.  One exhibit spotlighted influences from many Japanese artists, showing several examples of the same scene drawn by both artists side by side.  Paul Gauguin left France because he foresaw the stifling effects of Intellectual Property Law.

We returned to the yacht and as the evening progressed the other four guests arrived by taxi, having got different impressions of when the boat was due to sail.  The next morning we moved down the coast and moored off Tahiti Iti, next to a little surfing competition happening on a break at the edge of the lagoon about a mile from shore.  The waves weren’t very convincing.  When you’re sailing out on a small boat to the open ocean, you don’t miss the absence of pounding Maverick swells as much as the competitive surfers do.

We spent the day before the eclipse lounging, snorkeling, and as always, eating.  At 8 PM we headed out of the lagoon and into the ocean, and proceeded to the point where we would see the eclipse, about sixty nautical miles south.  The captain was not totally dedicated to getting to the center line because he wanted to get to Moorea the next day, starting right away after the eclipse.  The wind had been predicted at 30 knots and 4 meter seas, and his original plan would have had about a minute less totality, but the weather was calm enough we were able to go further and get close to the maximum amount.  It was steady from the east at about 15 knots, and as we were going directly south we were able to proceed to the eclipse site and back under sail.  Dave was lulled to sleep by the steady rocking of the boat and the soporific effects of the Dramamine; I don’t sleep that well the night before morning eclipses because in addition to the nightmares that regular people have their whole lives about not having enough credits to graduate, eclipse observers also have ongoing nightmares about sleeping through eclipses.  In a sense we did sleep through this eclipse: we didn’t book on the Paul Gauguin in time.  I got complacent about the failed world economy and thought it wouldn’t sell out by last year.  It did.  We ended up on a little boat with 6 other procrastinating astronomers.

I shouldn’t say that.  They were also people who really enjoy sailing, and the absence of Regent Cruise Lines glad handers, and the magic of seeing the sun flash out over the South Pacific, the silhouette of Tahiti barely discernable where the sky meets the sea.

It’s nice to experience these phenomena in a variety of ways, but one way I am less than curious about is the view-from-the-air option.  The plus is that you’re above the clouds.  The circulars we get about chartered jets that track eclipses feature this heavily, and then go on breathlessly about 9 minute totality and so forth, but for all you people who have flown on airplanes before, please consult your personal experience of window seats.  An airplane window gives you about what, 90 degrees of side view?  If you are flying along the path of an eclipse, the sun is either in front of, on top of, or behind the plane.  In order for the $9000 passengers to see it at all, the plane has to turn and fly perpendicular to the path.  On the morning of the eclipse, there were jets way up there making lazy circles to show the paying passengers the partial phases before proceeding to what must have been a neck straining main act, tacking along the path.  The parabolic contrails looked cool.

The sky was fairly clear the morning of the eclipse.  There were some little puffy clouds which occasionally obscured the sun.  First contact was at 7:16 or so, and as the partial phase wore on the clouds pretty much dissipated, just as Harry Otten says.  It didn’t seem to get particularly cold, but the special light you get when there’s only a little sun showing was unmistakable.  The clouds on the opposite horizon never acquired any sunset colors, just becoming dark gray.  Totality lasted about three and a half minutes, beginning with a prominence at about the 6:00 position, and ending with one about 9:30.  The corona looked appropriately enough like a sail, pointed at the top and spread out at the bottom.  Those sitting at the front of the boat saw shadow bands on the white hull just after totality ended.  We cheered and immediately headed north towards Moorea, where we spent Monday and Tuesday.

Snorkeling opportunities have been reasonably plentiful but haven’t varied much from place to place.  Monday we went to a very easy snorkeling spot where you could stand on the sand, see cute fish and corals, and swim with black-tipped reef sharks and touchy-feely manta rays with their slimy velvet upper skin.  Later, we and the Watsonville people got dropped off on the shore to experience walking on Moorea while others snorkeled from the beach and reported an amazing variety of fish.  The fish are way better than the coral, every place we’ve been.  I guess the coral are dying, on earth.

Our immediate destination on land was any place we could mail post cards and get Internet access.  We were able to mail the cards at the Hilton, but they wouldn’t sell Internet cards to anybody who wasn’t a guest.  The cards are commodities; I don’t know what they have in mind by shoring up the eroded exclusivity of the Hilton experience with such comical snobbery.  I wonder what their occupancy rate is.

On the road we met Anthony.  Anthony liked our beard, and so did his out-for-the-afternoon picnicking friends, the Moorea Mahu Community.  It was nice to be able to extend sororal salutations across the ocean from San Francisco to Tahiti, especially since Gay Pride in the US has devolved into one long Budweiser Lite commercial.

The usual number of small children announced that we were Papa Noel.  A young man had on an I Love Mongolia t-shirt.  Dave bought an Internet card at the store and I chased a Bulbul around trying to get a useful photo of it.  The Red Vented Bulbul, like us, is an invasive species to French Polynesia.  Almost all the birds you see here are.  Almost all the birds you see here are either Mynahs or pigeons.

We’ve seen a couple of tropic birds.  Their very long tails are dramatic.  The best creatures in the air are the flying fish.  At various times on our sail, we would see flocks of them soaring over the waves.  The boat is not a bad place to watch fish from, anyway.  Spotted Rays ooze along the bottom in the morning (the Dalila usually parks in water about 3 meters deep) while puffer fish and flute fish graze and commute.

Tuesday morning was spent at the mouth of Cook’s Bay near a not-great reef just off the beach. It was too shallow.  Swimming there is like being in a maze.  Others went to one that they said was nicer, 300 meters from the boat out toward the reef.  They found giant iridescent lipped clams.  However, I saw the Creature of the Trip So Far where the reef by the shore drops off to the designated boat channel.  Imagine a couple of purple blobs about the size of small dinner plates, surrounded by fat brown fingers, and the whole affair covered with bright orange spikes.

The channels that boats go in, like the passes, are not man made, said Bob, one of the guests.  The fresh water coming off the mountains dissolves them, over time.

Tuesday afternoon featured rum punch and the usual beer and wine.  Dave had a little too much rum and a little too much sun, and now he has a little fever.  (Update:  the next morning, it seems to have passed.)

Wednesday morning, we motored to Papeete.  The wind was zero.  Papeete was also zero, because today is Bastille Day.  There isn’t money for miles of parades or fireworks, and every shop is closed.  We took a taxi to the hotel.  Dave is resting.

All in all, I am pleased with Pierre and Christian and the Dalila and their little company “Tahiti Voile & Lagon”.  Clarita did a really great job with the food.  Poisson cru, Coq au vin, duck confit, a super-tender leg of lamb, French salami and cheese and mustard, the list goes on.  (On the last morning the gourmet food ran out and there were individually wrapped American cheese slices, which had caused a scene in Mongolia, but we forgave them.)

Why did the Crab Cross the Road?

July 8th, 2010 8:18 pm by Dave

As we were biking a few days ago we saw something which seemed a little unusual:  crab roadkill, a crab which had been perfectly smashed by a car on the road.  As the day wore on, we saw hundreds of crabs burrowing into the dirt next to the road, on the far side from the lagoon.  Our host informed us that the road gets quite covered with them just after the sun goes down.  Ray was walking his bike along this road after the flat tire incident and noticed that at every step, a couple of crabs would dart into their holes.  They respond to footsteps I think.  Cars and bicycles don’t trigger the same reaction to hide.  They are everywhere, at all times of day.  The ground is covered with crab holes, at least anywhere near the ocean.

We had the opportunity to consume two of these crabs yesterday, in wild ginger cream sauce, at a restaurant on Huahine Iti, the smaller of the two islands which make up Huahine.  The bike renter had just gotten ten brand new bikes, and we gave two of them a 25-mile maiden voyage, riding down to the bridge, riding all the way around the small island, stopping for lunch, and riding back.  There were no problems with flat tires or broken brakes, but the indexed shifters needed some adjustment — the gears kept popping back and forth.  the bikes cost him 26000 Pacific Francs, which is actually not bad for a bike that will last him two years and rent for 1500 XPF per day.

Huahine Iti is gorgeous.  We passed many houses on rather large lots with really beautiful landscaping.  Much of the beach wasn’t developed at all.  And on the east side there was a wide swath of the the most beautiful shade of aquamarine blue water just inside the reef, separated from the shore by some darker deeper water.  As we biked we got a whiff of someone drying large quantities of vanilla beans.

The other part of lunch was a ceviche sandwich, which the French call “poisson cru”.  It apparently is the Tahitian breakfast of choice.  The French eat croissants and bread and jam, of course.  The confiture at the restaurant “Mahi Mahi” is a demonstration of resourcefulness.  We asked the lady what was in it, and she said it was the pulp of all the fruits that she squeezed for the juice.  Meanwhile, that same juice reduced and with vanilla added was the puree for the fish the night before.

Today we’re being kicked out of our room at 10:00, and later in the afternoon we’ll leave this small-island paradise for a night in Papeete before we go find the boat we’ll be seeing the eclipse from (we hope) and living on for six days.