Archive for November, 2012

Bon Voyage on the Paul Gauguin

November 21st, 2012 7:41 am by Dave from here

Saturday we headed to the Paul Gauguin, docked 40km up the road in Lautoka. We were on this ship in 2005 for the eclipse near Pitcairn Island. This time four of Ray’s college buddies and their spouses were with us. We settled in, and the ship started a slow cruise westward as we finished dinner. Sunday and Monday we were at sea, and there were many lectures onboard. Many were about eclipses: what to expect, how to take pictures. Some were about the sun. Some were about fish, and some about birds. We were happy that Mark Eddowes, who had been on the 2005 trip, was on this one as well. He has spent the last 30 years as a cultural anthropologist in the South Pacific studying the history and migration patterns of the entire area. He talked about how the areas we were visiting had been settled, and had another lecture a few days later about the occasionally gruesome history of Fiji.

Tuesday we visited Ile des Pins, a small island at the southern end of New Caledonia. We were there for only a short time in the morning, and went to a very cute little pool for snorkeling. It was completely protected from ocean waves, and was very still, though it was distinctly cooler than the water off Port Douglas. There were little bits of coral, and plenty of interesting fish to see. My favorite were pipefish, which are related to sea horses. They look like seahorses which have been stretched to be completely linear. There were many small giant clams and urchins.

Wednesday was Eclipse Day. The eclipse was early in the morning, with first contact at 7am and second contact just after 8am. Everyone was up on decks 8 and 9 watching it, including much of the crew. A bank of clouds awaited to the south, so the boat turned around shortly after 7am and pointed north so it could avoid them. The eclipse was quite beautiful. Since the sun is headed toward its maximum activity in its 11-year cycle, the corona was quite symmetrical, with streamers out in all directions. There were very noticeable prominences at the bottom. We could only see Venus with our naked eyes, but I picked out Saturn and Mercury with the binoculars. Ray saw faint but unmistakable shadow bands — I was looking for the sweeping shadow, but as usual I didn’t actually see it. There were a couple of people next to us on the deck with a very elaborate setup of cameras and telescopes mounted on gimbels with coke bottles full of water as counterweights. Shortly after third contact, there was an announcement on the PA that this eclipse had not two but three diamond rings — this couple ended up getting engaged with an imaginative black ring of some nano-anodized metal with a diamond set at one edge, the third diamond ring. It was incredibly cute.

Thursday we visited Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia located on the main island, Grande-Terre. We had been there in 2010, so we didn’t need to go back to the Tjibaou Cultural Center (amazing architecture, very interesting historical and artistic exhibits). But we did go back to Le Chaumière (for lunch) and we intended to go back to Chez Toto for dinner, where we’d been then. The dinner reservation got confused: they couldn’t seat us until 7:30 yet we had to return to the boat at 9. We threatened to return to Le Chaumière but they insisted we went to another restaurant in the neighborhood which while not quite as good was still “adventurous” and a good time for eight of us. (Apparently there is some talk in the travel industry of Low, Medium, and High adventure travel, the last being where you might get killed. You could probably google them for the technical definitions but the internet connections are few and far between and I’m not working on finding them.)

There was another enormous cruise ship at the maritime terminal in Noumea, part of the P&O line. We supposed that meant “Pecking Order” because we had to tie up a little further from downtown around the corner. Some of the folks on our ship talked to some of the folks on that ship and found out that it, too, intended to see the eclipse, but only got a 99% eclipse because the travel day before the eclipse was based on the assumption that by going at full speed from one place to another you’d get there on time. As it actually turned out, they didn’t arrive in the zone of totality in time. (We arrived there five hours before the eclipse began.)  There’s an enormous difference between a 99% eclipse and a 100% one — only in the latter do you see the corona, shadow bands, prominences, Baily’s beads, diamond rings, and the incredibly weird lighting conditions that come with totality. They probably got a nice temperature drop, some less weird lighting conditions, and a view of Venus. Plus they never got to set down their eclipse viewers. So perhaps a better interpretation of the acronym is “Pissed Off”. Maybe someone will sue.

Friday we visited Maré Island, in the Loyalty Islands east of the main island of New Caledonia. I’m not sure if we were the first cruise ship to visit, or if it was merely our ship’s first time. In any case, everyone got bussed down from the landing village of Tadine to the nearby village of Wadao, where there was some kind of welcoming ceremony. The captain gave a life preserver to the chief of the village. There was a fabulous spread of local food, including a pig, the best variety of cooked bananas I’ve ever had, and several other large collections of root vegetables and chicken cooked in banana leaves. Another purple yam was cooked in coconut or pig fat or something and was very tasty as well. My favorite dessert was passion fruit juice. Many of the tours’ buses didn’t show up: some people blame it on our captain mentioning the beautiful island and water but not mentioning the beautiful people during the welcoming ceremony. Whatever. In the afternoon we eventually found a ride to a beach and did some decent snorkeling — Ray saw a turtle.

Saturday we visited Lifou Island, another Loyalty Island just north of Maré. We hadn’t signed up for any tours, and were hoping to rent a car, though there didn’t seem to be anyone at the landing actually offering that service. We ended up walking about 2 miles to the next village which had a post office where we could mail all of our New Caledonia-stamped postcards, and we hitched back. That afternoon I felt too lazy to go back snorkeling, though Ray returned to the island to see a cute church on a cliff.

Sunday we stopped at Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, a small archipelago north of New Caledonia. We were there in 2010 as well. We had signed up for a trip on a “sailboat” which said it would see some turtles and go to a snorkeling beach. In fact, it did that, but the sails never got raised — the whole thing was on the motor and it had the appointments of a tramp steamer. You sat on a platform on the deck. I would have enjoyed the feeling of being propelled by the wind, but at least the snorkeling was nice. There were lots of “tabletop” coral, and a few very cute triggerfish, Picasso, white striped, and some I didn’t recognize with chevrons.

Monday we sailed back towards Fiji, the whole day spent at sea. We went speedily, covering the same distance in 36 hours that was covered in 60 hours on the way out. Mark Eddowes had another presentation about Melanesian and Polynesian art, the fish lecturer had a lecture about biogeography, and there was a slide show of the best pictures taken by people on the ship. My favorite picture was of the eclipse pretty much as it actually appeared, which cannot be taken directly by a camera but which must be made up of several different exposures, artfully combined into a single image. There are people who will be working on this Photoshop problem in the next few weeks, so that by next year it should be possible to see an image that roughly approximates what we remember. Until very recently the only good representation of a solar eclipse was a mural at the Boston Science Museum. There are still no cameras that can record the range of light that your eyes perceive unconsciously when they sense the detail of the streamers from the surface of the sun all the way out three or four solar diameters. There are expensive analog filters made to try to correct for this, but the best solution always turns out to be software.

All of the dinners on the ship were spent as a party of at least eight, usually ten. We were quite a clique, keeping pretty much to ourselves, except for the two smoker/drinkers in the group who did a good job meeting all of the other smoker/drinkers on the ship. It’s always nice having PR people. These two had one of the most deluxe cabins on the ship, and they graciously hosted happy hour in their room about half of the nights, where we could get pre-snockered before the bottomless wine glasses that come with dinner. Most cruises that one goes on one is paying for every sip of alchohol. On this cruise, there are several wines and beers which are “included”, plus the cocktail of the day, so you can get pickled and primed without getting nickeled and dimed. It’s pretty nice. With the constant motion of the boat, we concluded that “it’s socially acceptable to stagger down the hallway on a cruise ship”, without considering whether the staggering is caused by waves or drink.

The beds in the staterooms have a cover which says “Welcome” on one side, and “Bon Voyage” on the other. I suppose they fold it so that neither message shows on all days other than the first or last. But it seems like “Bon Voyage” would have worked for both the first and the last, right? We were unceremoniously booted from our rooms at 9:30 Tuesday morning.


The White Ghetto

November 21st, 2012 7:16 am by Dave from here

Tuesday we returned to Fiji (we were there earlier this year). I knew it would only be a three-hour flight leaving at 9am, but I forgot about the three additional hours of time zone change (one of which was Fiji’s daylight savings time), so we arrived around 3pm. We rented a beater car, and went to Siral’s house. We are helping Siral’s family build an elevated addition to their house which was indundated by floods twice this year, and once a couple years ago. Hopefully this new section built on stilts can be a refuge for them when climate change makes the floods keep coming in the future. The rainy season starts this month. They have made much progress on it — the stilts were all up and anchored in the ground, and the floor joists were all there. We left for the 2.5-hour drive to Rakiraki on the north side of the island. The drive wasn’t fun — the road was rough, it got dark before we arrived, and the headlights of the car pointed off to the side instead of onto the road. But finally we found the hotel, it fed us, and all was good again.

Wednesday we took it easy, relaxing with Siral, before the insanity of the eclipse cruise with eight other friends. We went into town, met Siral’s cousin who lives nearby, and bought postcard stamps. We all drove to the end of a road on the shoreline, and had a nice conversation with a guy who operates a small boat which hauls stuff out to an island where a resort is being renovated. Then we went to Siral’s cousin’s house. It turns out his cousin is a kava farmer, so we bought two kilograms of kava roots for a yaqona ceremony on Friday. Then we went to a nearby resort and had lunch. Not much happened the rest of the day.

Thursday we drove back to Nadi, with the assistance of sunlight. Siral and his uncle cleaned the dirt off of the kava. They explained that the powdered kava you get in the markets doesn’t have the dirt cleaned off, and it doesn’t taste as good. At Siral’s house, we had another of his mother’s Indian lunches, putting all hotel meals to shame. As usual, there was way more food than we could eat, but the construction workers would help later on. In the previous two days, the flooring had all been laid. After lunch, we went to a local kava pounding business which turned the roots into powder. The roots were put in a steel trough, and two large steel poles were alternately lifted and dropped onto the kava. The machine made quite a delightful rhythm, which was added to by the sound of the stick the attendant was using to stir the kava. We continued on to a hotel on Denarau Island, which is a resort ghetto of golf courses, very large hotel resorts with perfectly trimmed lawns and foliage, and a marina. It looks quite out of place in Nadi and Fiji. We stayed there because our eight friends joining us on the eclipse cruise were also staying there. After dropping off our bags in our room at the Westin, the porter with the electric cart gave us a ride over to the bar in the Sheraton where all our friends were — Westin and Sheraton are functionally all the same enormous hotel.

Friday we walked around Nadi town, looking for souvenirs, and touring the colorful Indian temple. In the afternoon two of the other eclipse guests joined us for a trip to Siral’s house, where we had a kava ceremony in the new shaded area underneath the construction, presided over by his Fijian “brother”. The kava itself doesn’t do much, but it was a most pleasant afternoon, and an opportunity to hang out for a few hours with people from an entirely different culture.

There Are Only Ten Days Like This Each Year

November 21st, 2012 7:14 am by Dave from here

Indeed, the rest of the day in Singapore was spent looking for interesting food. Our walk started out in the rain, where we put on impossibly warm Antarctica jackets to keep dry. After finding a post office to mail postcards, we made our way further downtown, discovering an underground network of shopping malls which allowed going to a food court we picked out near an interestingly designed performance space, the Esplanade. The food court turned out to be closed for renovation, the rain stopped, and we walked back to the hotel, stopping at another food court for Singaporean prawn noodles and rice soup. I suspect it’s possible to see most of Singapore without going outside any more than you are forced to go outside in the Honolulu airport.

A dumb travel day followed: 9:15pm seven-hour four-time-zone flight to Brisbane, customs, transfer to domestic terminal, two-hour flight to Cairns, picked up rental car, one-hour drive to Port Douglas, checked in at the Port Douglas B&B where we’d spent the first night in July. Between the International and Domestic terminals in Brisbane, a man spoke to Ray, saying “Didn’t I see you in Iceland last week?” This is the point at which the population biologist in all of us pipes up to remind, that statistically, for all the apparently peripatetic geography, we are moving around a distributed city with a few hundred thousand inhabitants.

A nice dinner, a long sleep, a day of doing nothing except a drive just across the Daintree River to have ice cream and walk in the rainforest, and another nice dinner at Salsa were enough to recover from our accumulated jet lag and sleep deprivation, preparing us for our next morning’s early wakeup call. Of course the folks at Salsa remembered us. They are selected for that quality and it’s only been a few months. I correctly remembered that the food is really good there. It’s the most real restaurant in Port Douglas. The rest are bistros.

Saturday we got up just before 7, had another of Frieda’s most excellent breakfasts (presspot coffee, a platter of exotic fruits, toast, yogurt, and cereal), and reported for our snorkeling trip on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. All thirty spots on the modestly sized boat were claimed, and we motored out for almost two hours to Opal Reef. The day was perfectly beautiful — the water above the thirty-meter-deep shelf under the reef was completely flat, and the sun was glorious. You could look off the side of the boat and see the bottom, as well as several large fish swimming around. One of them had a name — Angus — because some other boat has been feeding him and now he shows up at the mooring to greet the tourists. We stopped in three spots, for an hour each, and looked at the coral and fish glory that is the Reef. Having learned the trick of using Vaseline to seal masks against mustaches, and my using a floatation noodle, snorkeling was quite comfortable. I saw a few reef sharks, and we all saw dozens of species of beautiful tropical fish darting around about dozens of species of beautiful corals and anemones. The turquoise-colored giant clams were especially interesting. We didn’t have an underwater camera, but I was happy not taking pictures; the marine biologist on the staff took pictures, and they sold DVDs of the day’s pictures afterwards. We bought one.  The guy at the desk says that days like today maybe happen ten times each year.

Sunday we again got up just before 7, had another most excellent breakfast, and got picked up again by Del Richards, Queensland bird expert. Before we even left the carport at the Port Douglas B&B we’d seen a bird, a sunbird who had built a nest on a hanging decoration. And in the tree by the driveway, a rainbow lorikeet. We drove around town to see the usual urban suspects, including the red-footed scrubfowl gathering material for their enormous nests, masked lapwings strolling around the golf courses, miners (Australian for mynahs) and magpie larks, and several waterbirds on a golf course lake. We then drove up into a less-dense rainforest than the one in which we had walked, and saw dozens of other species. The metallic starling colony was spectacular. The Brahminy Kite has a sleek beauty which rivals that of the Bald Eagle. The Pale-Breasted Paradise-Kingfisher was ultimately elusive (two of us just saw the long white tail, another just saw the orange beak) but we did see a platypus paddling around a farm pond nearby.

On Monday we got up later, drove back to the Cairns airport, and flew to Brisbane, this time staying overnight to check it out, instead of just transferring terminals like we had twice previously. We didn’t have a lot of time — two hours walking up one side of the river (including a beach they’ve installed on one side of a municipal swimming pool), through downtown, and through the Botanic Gardens to Two Restaurant, a very fancy tasting-menu sort of place, which was very good. Ten courses, with a split wine pairing, left us very full and pretty tipsy. The best were the lamb course and the dessert which featured “apple snow”. We stayed at someone’s airbnb house, and didn’t see her until 5:30 the next morning as we prepared to leave. The building was being painted and was somewhere between under construction and falling apart, and had the feel of a genteel squat.