Viva Mexico City – 2004

Every so often I go back into my way-way back machine and pull up a travelogue from my past.  Back when I traveled on the cheap, I usually sent back travel stories to friends and family.  I am slowly going through them, editing them, and posting them on my blog. 

In early 2004 I was selected to take part in an assistantship through my graduate school.  Each of the participants would be working at a different international organization; I would be heading to an organization in Honolulu.  Beforehand, we all would take part in a three-week pre-departure seminar.  I decided to jet off to Mexico City to feed my travel bug in between the seminar and the assistantship. 

The weird thing though is that this trip is one of my least remembered.  Only a few photos from the trip remain, but they capture so little of my memories.  There are none of Frida Kahlo’s house, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Palacio Nacional, Xochimilco, the Templo Mayor, and many more major sights, in addition to the Zocalo, the subway, and other every day scenes.  Its unusual for me to take so few photos.  I searched through my old diaries, but I wrote not a single entry during the trip or even any about the trip later.  At least I sent out an email story.

Me and the Pyramids

Me at Teotihuacan

I was a bit hesitant to come to Mexico City.  After years of media reports on the dangers of Mexico, especially the capital, and the floods of job stealing migrants (ha!)  I had been subconsciously developing a latent fear and apathy towards Mexico.  Also, everyone and their brother warned me of the terrible dangers of taking a taxi from the street.  The guidebooks.  My aunt.  The man sitting next to me on the plane.  The hostel driver who picked me up at the airport.  It seemed a constant mantra drummed into me.  I wondered though if there were actually any danger left anymore, with so many people warned off this potentially disastrous act.

Still, I love the taxis, the traditional model of Volkswagen Beetle in bright green with a white top.  I recall hearing a story from a few years ago that although VW was discontinuing its production of the Beetle, it would continue to make the car in Mexico.  I see VW bugs all over the city, so it seems to be true.  Bright new Bugs zipping through traffic with sometimes terrifying velocity.  It might just be a good thing to avoid getting into one for reasons other than crime.

Another fear building up inside me in regards to Mexico City was the pollution.  I was under the impression considering the altitude of the city and the ring of mountains and volcanoes which surround the one-time lake – now Mexico City – trapped the pollution, leaving it hovering over the city.  I imagined asthmatic self, gasping for breath, perhaps falling by the wayside on some heavily polluted street making fish out of water type mouth movements as my lungs fail to suck in enough air for me to go on.  At the very least I expected a smoggy dark overcast sky greeting me each day.  I expected the air pollution to be visible and tangible, heavy, oily.  And yet, for the most part, each day has greeted me with beautiful blue skies with white fluffy clouds.  I have hardly used my asthma medicine, and I have not once been winded.

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The Dance of the Flyers

The city is amazing!  Mexico City is a vibrant, exciting, culturally and historically, rich metropolis.  Its wide boulevards seem to manage the tens of thousands of vehicles traversing the streets daily.  I have hardly seen a traffic jam.  The metro is a wonder; nine lines of clean, orderly and efficient underground trains zipping some five million people a day across and around town.  Considering the city was built on a lake by the Xochimilco people more than a thousand years ago, then built on top by the Aztecs, then on top of those by the Spanish, and is gradually sinking as the lake seeks to reassert itself, that there is an underground metro at all is quite amazing.  On top of the millions of people who daily (yes, millions every day) squeeze themselves into the of often overcrowded cars, yet the stations are kept quite clean and the system is easy and efficient to use.  I am very impressed.

I suppose I could wax on and on about this, but I have done more here than simply breath the air, avoid taxis, and enjoy the fantastic metro!

On my first day in the city I strolled through the huge market which encompasses the Calle Moneda (Coin Street) in front of the hostel and the surrounding streets, with vendors selling just about every possible thing one might need, from socks and CDs to underwear and sodas, to tamales and batteries, and handbags and electronics.  I figured if I were to move to Mexico City, I would not need to bring a thing and could buy everything I need on a long day to this amazing daily market.  Then I headed to the Palacio National, just across from the hostel, but facing the Zocalo, or main square, cattycornered from the imposing, but beautiful, facade of the Cathedral Nacional.  Inside the Palacio Nacional are the unfinished murals of Diego Rivera portraying the history of Mexico.  He planned to paint murals of the entire Mexican history, but due to illness, never completed past the arrival of the Spaniards.  A German girl from the hostel and I managed to procure a free guide who told us the history and symbolism of the amazing murals for a full hour!  I was entranced.

In the afternoon, I made my way to the Tower Latin America, what used to be the highest tower in the region.  My plan was to go to the top, but the building seemed so fantastically ugly to me, I felt repelled to even think of going inside.  Instead, I crossed the street to the opposing beauty of the Palacio Bellas Artes.  That evening, I walked further up the avenue to the Plaza Garibaldi, the haunt of the mariachi players.  I knew I was heading in the correct direction as I followed a man in tight black pants with silver down the pantleg sides, tall white socks, a short bolero jacket, and a guitar slung over his shoulder.  The Plaza was full of mariachis biding their time waiting for someone to commission a song from them.  Most were dressed in black, but a small group in magnificent green played to a couple in a small corner.  I imagined couples driving about the city, when the man suddenly decides a song would woo his sweetheart and he furiously heads over to the Plaza and wins the heart of his woman with a paid song by a smartly dressed mariachi band.  There did seem to be classy cars turning into the Plaza like a drive-thru serenade stop.

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Me standing with the stone sentries at Tula

On my second day I joined a tour to the Church of the Virgen of Guadalupe and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.  The huge church was built on the site where a local named Juan Diego saw a vision of the Virgen of Guadalupe, who told him to build a church in her honor.  Like many buildings in the city, the church is sinking, and one side more than the other, giving it the appearance of almost falling forward.

The Pyramids were amazing.  How to describe them?  They are not like the Pyramids of Egypt, as these have steps to climb up, as they were steps to take the priests to the temple located at the apex of the building for rituals.  They were not tombs, but are solid inside.  The Temple of the Sun is the third largest Pyramid in the world.  They were not actually built by the Aztecs but by a tribe of people who came perhaps 500 years before them, but used by the Aztecs when they arrived to their promised land.  Most of the buildings facing the Avenue of the Dead, the main drag down Pyramid row, were places for the higher personages in the society, though little remains of them.  I wanted to try and imagine the spectacle of this city as living and breathing, but the stark ruins and the dry countryside made that difficult for me.  Besides, the Aztecs were a rather cruel and brutal society, and I am not sure I would want to imagine the trains of people lined up for human sacrifices, their hearts ripped out of them in order to appease the Sun God thus ensuring the sun would rise the next day.  There was apparently one time when in the city of Mexico before the Templo Mayor (Major Temple) some four lines of sacrifices, stretching for three miles, awaited their fate to die for the Gods.  Though the Aztec art and architecture are indeed beautiful, much seems borrowed from earlier groups, whom the Aztecs admired and claimed as their ancestors, particularly the Toltecs.  The German Girl said she did not find the Pyramids impressive because of the lack of scenery surrounding them, but I still found them amazing.

On my third day I headed first to the Templo Mayor, a major Aztec temple now in the center of Mexico City.  In the early seventies, some electricians or city water people, or someone doing some sort of digging, stumbled upon a huge disc, several tons in weight, carved with Coyolxauhqui, the God of the Moon.  And this is how the temple was discovered.  I opted not to tour guide here and soon my head began to hurt attempting to translate the Spanish placards.  Mostly, I just walked the excavated portions and then through the museum.

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The healer shaman

My next stops were Mexican artist Frida Kahlo´s house and the final home of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  I enjoyed visiting Frida´s lovely blue house in a well-to-do neighborhood in the southern part of the city, but I found it odd there were few of her paintings on display.  I wanted to buy a postcard of a particular painting of hers, but it was not to be had.  In fact, there was not a single postcard of Frida´s paintings on sale at her house.  There were a few of her husband’s, Diego Rivera, and some photographs of Frida and Diego, but none of the paintings.  Leon Trotsky, who found asylum in Mexico at the insistence of Diego Rivera, an ardent socialist (he often painted Marx, Stalin, Mao into his pictures as well as industrial utopias and the famed ideal proletariat), came to Mexico in the late 30s.  He even had an affair with Frida, whose own home was nearby.  He was also assassinated in the house.  The first attempt left bullet holes in the bedroom wall across from the bed, the second, successful assassin employed the use of an ice pick.  I left the two houses with a thirst to know more about Frida, Diego, and Leon and the times and society in which they lived.

On my fourth day, together with a Romanian woman from the hostel, I visited the Museum Antropologica.  We spent more than four and half hours in the museum!  And I did not see it all as we spent so much time in the Toltec, Aztec, Maya and Oaxaca sections of the museum that by the time we got to the Mixtec/Oaxaca section we just blew in and out.  We stepped outside just in time to watch the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). While at the Pyramids, the guide had explained a number of favorite Aztec games and this Flyer was one of them.  A long pole is set up, let’s say 100 feet into the air.  At the top perches a man who will play the haunting Aztec flute.  Four other men, dressed as birds, climb to the top of the pole, wind four ropes around the pole, and then tie the end of the ropes to their feet.  A platform at the top rotates and off the platform the four men go, flying around and around the pole, arms outstretched as they are slowly lowered to the ground.  The version we saw seemed harmless enough, but from what I have learned from the Aztecs, I can hardly believe they just flew down and nothing happened to them.  Surely someone had to die?  Surely someone was sacrificed?  The other Aztec “games” do not appear so innocuous.  But this one was fun to watch…

The following day, I headed out to Tula, again with the Romanian woman.  Tula is another Aztec site about 70 kilometers to the north of Mexico City.  It too has a pyramid, though it’s in poor condition, but it’s the six magnificent Atlantes, 4.5-meter-tall carved stone statues of Toltec soldiers, which previously held up the roof of the sacred temple, which people come to see.  But, boy, was it an effort to get there.  First, there were seven metro stops with two changes, then a 15-hour bus ride, followed by a 10-minute mini bus ride, and then a 100-meter walk.  And through it all the Romanian woman regaled me, against my will, with the story of her recent tragic love story.  The weather was cold and a little dreary, having rained in the morning, and with continual dark clouds threatening to do it again.  The setting was lovely, though it would have been more so had the sun been out, but the dark skies and the purple mountain and what seemed like an extinct volcano in the backdrop gave the place atmosphere, though it was all overshadowed by the trials of a failed Romanian romance.

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I may not remember much of my Mexico trip, but this necklace, my one souvenir, reminds me

On my final day I headed to the Xochimilco, the floating gardens, remnants of the original innovative means early settlers employed to create islands and finally the land over the lake, providing the foundations to build this amazing city.  At Xochimilco the gardens and homes are crossed by canals.  I had imagined flowers everywhere, something of what I had seen at Lake Inle in Myanmar, but I was disappointed.  Today Mexico City got to me.  The canals were choked with garbage, and I felt the strangle of poverty.  Though many of the homes were pretty nice, most had dogs, there was something dejected and dilapidated permeating the place.  Maybe it was just my mood.  I took a small launch for one hour.  Mariachis played on another boat; the sellers of sweet potatoes and tamales and roasted corn floated by.  It sounds idyllic, but I felt cold and disappointed, but most of all defeated.  I felt a great weight.

On the way back to the hostel, I saw more and more.  I saw traffic jams.  I noticed the presence of the hawkers on the subway cars.  I had seen them before, but today there appeared legions of them, a never-ending chain of them boarding every car, one at a time.  They would board, hawk their wares, CDs, children’s books, candy, crossword books, maps, tool kits, etc, ride one stop and then off they went to the other side to try another car.  A blind man boarded and sang on his karaoke machine.  Two youths perhaps 13 or 15 dressed in shabby and dirty clothes, who lay on glass shards.

I changed my larger money and began to give out small change to just about everyone I passed.  The pretty young girl in gold earrings selling bubble gum for one peso.  The old man with his fiddle, not playing too well because he is bent over and it seems a strain for him to play.  The old woman in a nondescript brown dress sitting in front of a church, her one leg bent at an odd angle.  The smartly dressed organ grinders.  The mother with two very small children bundled up in a blanket awaiting the night chill.

I headed toward the large market in front of the Zocalo and my hostel.  The crowds choking me.  Before, I had not been too impressed by the crowds, I have been to other countries with crowds to rival, but on Saturday the masses swelled.  The drums on the Zocalo reserved for the evening practice of headbanded people dancing to old Aztec steps had burst to an all-day frenzy of dancing with costumes.  I saw a shaman of sorts.  A bare-chested man with rough cotton trousers belted with a red sash, and a headdress of feathers cascading down his back, was exorcising the bad from people.  With a grey stone cup with a design of some sort, a person or an animal, with steam or smoke rising from it, he passed the stone and the smoke, whispering some words to the devotee.  The line grew to go through this ritual.  I jumped into line as well, and for a donation of five pesos I had my soul, or whatever, purified, receiving a small pink pebble in return.  Afterwards I did indeed feel better.  A placebo perhaps, but my heart felt much lighter for it.

Another great trip already at an end.  But my rusty Spanish improved slightly, I saw some amazing sights, and I have been cleansed.

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Six: Circling Savai’I and Completing the South Pacific Sojourn

The sixth and final installment of my short, but amazing trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, and Samoa.  I finally squeezed in some sightseeing in Samoa in spite of my continued transport challenges.  All part of the journey.  

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s house at Vallima

My first true morning in Samoa, I needed to confirm my ticket back to Pago Pago.  This was always a risk, as I had only four days in Samoa (including my arrival day) and a plane to catch back to Honolulu from Pago Pago.  But I thought much of my trip thus far had been relatively “safe” and what was travel without a little risk?  Pale, the Polynesian Airlines guru, worked his wonders.  He booked me on a Polynesian Airlines flight at 7 PM on Wednesday arriving in Pago Pago before 8 PM, giving me a comfortable margin to check-in for the 10:30 PM Aloha Airlines flight back to Hawaii.  The flight was even departing from Faleolo Airport, the large international airport on the Western end of the main island of Upolo, rather than the small airport just minutes from Apia called Fagali’i.  This would make it possible for me to go over to the island of Savai’i and return by boat and encounter less hassle to go to the airport, as Faleolo is just a few minutes down the road from the ferry port.  I should have realized I was taking far too much for granted – but more on that later.

In the afternoon of my second day I headed to the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  Incredibly, due to his often-poor health and his doctor’s advice to seek other climes, he and his family left Scotland in 1887, traveled to America, and then onward the following year for many adventures in the South Pacific, eventually buying land and building a home in Samoa.  Ultimately, his mother, wife Fanny, stepchildren Lloyd and Belle, and Belle’s son’s Austin too settled in Samoa.  Stevenson was popular among the Samoans and when he died there some four years later he was accorded rites fitting someone of great stature and is buried not far from his home.  I could not help but think of the incredible travels Stevenson and his family, and other literati of the period like Melville and Twain, undertook.  I did not have the easiest time getting to Samoa, but it was certainly easier than their trips would have been.  I became quite entangled in these thoughts while enjoying the Stevenson house and photographs on display.  I think I was most impressed by Robert’s dourly dressed mother making the long journey.

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View of Apia Harbor on my flight to Savai’i

Again, in writing it appears I did very little, but I felt the day quite full and pleasant.  I had lovely meals in waterfront restaurants, wrote some email, and arranged my tickets back to Pago Pago and onwards to Savai’i.  I also arranged for my bag to take a tour of Upolo Island and meet me at the ferry port to go to the airport, as I was notified my six-seater plane to Savai’i would take only five kilos.  At first the thought of abandoning much of my belongings for a day and a half threw me, and then I felt oddly liberated to have only the small pack with me.  In fact, I found I had no need for anything I left behind.

Early in the morning of the third day, I boarded the small jet for the 20-minute flight to Savai’i.  I checked in at 6:30 for the 7 AM flight.  About five minutes before 7 an airline official approached me and asked if I was going to Savai’i.  When I said yes, he told me it was time to board.  He stepped over to an open door and then proceeded to take my boarding pass.  It turned out I was the only passenger.  Yes, it was just myself and the pilot on this flight.  And my five kilos of luggage.

The view was beautiful; I cannot begin to describe it.  Like the other islands of the Pacific, Samoa is the product of volcanic action.  Though smaller than the Hawaiian Islands, it was most certainly larger than Rarotonga.  There was the low flat area along the coast, a wide lagoon encircling much of the island, and then sudden sharp peaks in the interior.  And although I heard deforestation is a major problem in Samoa, the islands of Upolo and Savai’i seemed very, very green.  We flew across the channel and saw the two small islands there and the ferry steaming across to land in Savai’i port.  The airport was a very small wooden building with a single airstrip surrounded by a jungle of palms.  I felt very much I was flying somewhere far from civilization, but there was indeed a road, and soon my tourist van picked me (and my five kilos of luggage) up to begin our tour.

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At the Taga Blowholes

We picked up a passenger at the seaport, but deposited her soon at her accommodation and the Savai’i Circle Island Tour became T—-‘s personal Savai’i tour.  Much of the Circle Island tour was simply driving around the island.  It took quite some time as Savai’i is the largest island in Polynesia outside of Hawaii & New Zealand.  Yet despite its size it is sparsely populated, only a two-lane road circling the island.  No roads in the interior except those that lead to plantations.  Very small villages hug the road at intervals.  But there are stretches absent of population, often around lava flows where the land is simply hard solidified lava.  I waded with sea turtles and viewed the rainforest from a 30-foot high suspended forest walkway.

The best stop was at the Taga Blowholes, the largest blowholes in the world.  That day the waves were hard and high, and the blowholes then shot water high into the air, maybe as high as 50 feet.  There was a tremendous “Whoosh” sound as the pressure in the holes would build and the sea water was forced into the air.  Standing some 50-feet away, I was still dusted with a salty spray.

Though the tour was to also include a visit to the only waterfall on the island and a historical site, those were off the itinerary because, as my tour guide told me, there was an active court case involving the land.  This was disappointing as these are supposed to be two of the best sites on the island, but there was little I could do about it.  The weather was turning, the sky darkening, and some rain falling; I was tired and happy to go to my guesthouse.

I stayed at the Lagoon Chalets; a place that had come well-recommended.  I paid nearly US$25 to stay in a two-mattress shack.  This shack came with four walls, a roof, a floor, a shelf, and a bare light bulb.  I was told the light was a special touch not often found in such places.  The $25 also included two meals, though there was a limited menu to choose from.  Actually, there was no menu–you just ate what the manager and the assistant were having.  And it consisted of rice, taro root with coconut sauce, shredded cabbage, carrot, and beet salad, and fish of the day or noodle soup.  It was okay for one night; I could not imagine having taro root with coconut sauce day in and day out.  I had an early night in my room, reading by my bare light bulb, then falling asleep to the lapping waves.

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Wading with sea turtles (they like mango)

I tried some more lazing about the next day.  I was to be on the 2 PM ferry back to Upolo and the ferry terminal was a 20-minute walk down the road.  I woke up and lazed in my chalet/shack.  I had a simple breakfast of eggs, tea, and toast.  I went down to the mini dock, and read a book while sitting on a picnic bench.  Then I simply lay on the deck in the sun.  I moved back to my chalet/shack.  Back to the dining area.  Back to the dock.  And so on.  I could never laze in one place for too long and there were only so many lazing places in the guesthouse area.  The hours until 1:30 dragged.  Then suddenly it was time to go.

I caught a ride with two other guys heading for the ferry.  I bought a water and a Baby Ruth bar before jumping on the ferry.  I did not want to have too much in my stomach on this boat.  I embarked, took my motion sickness tablet, some water, plus a fruit leather and half a small bag of walnuts.  In less than ten minutes after the boat was underway, I regretted having eaten anything at all.  The boat was listing heavily from side to side.  It seemed we were moving more back and forth than we could possibly be moving forward.  There was a great heave and a creak as we listed left and then a pause before we rushed back to the right.  Despite being next to the overworked air conditioner, I began to sweat.  I needed to make a decision:  either remain immobile the entire journey, laying prone on the front bench by the air conditioner, breathing heavily, and trying to keep my stomach down – or find a restroom quickly and be rid of anything that was sloshing about my stomach.  But I knew once I stood up, the time frame to find the restroom was going to be limited.

I bolted upright, scanning the room.  The cold sweat beading on my upper lip.  I saw nothing but seats.  The act of moving my head to look around was extremely unpleasant.  I felt a rise in my throat; I took a deep breath.  I stood and began to walk to the stairs down into the car area.  My balance was off terribly.  I stumbled around like a drunk.  Nothing appeared to be downstairs.  I could see several people laying as still as possible, eyes rolling into their heads, most certainly feeling much the same as I did.  I continued my search for a restroom, groping at benches as I was thrown from one to the other.  I tried to keep the panic down.  I found the restroom.  It was pitch-black, the only light coming from when the door would rapidly swing open on a list.  Inside the restroom was like a boiler room.  The air was humid and stagnant.  I was sweating profusely.  It was as if I were in the height of a malarial fever.  In the dark I found the stall, and well, you know.  I felt weary and slightly disoriented.  After maybe ten minutes I clumsily made my way back to the front bench in front of the blessed air conditioner, the television was screening the movie “Free Willy 3;” I lay down.  I rest quietly immobile for the rest of the hour and 20-minute journey.  Disembarking made me very happy.

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Rainforest walkway

Then came yet more of the Samoan transport waiting game.  My bag, having completed its tour of Upolo, joined me at the ferry terminal.  Once reunited, the driver dropped my bag and I off at the Faleolo Airport three hours before the 7 PM flight.  Despite being the Samoa International Airport, there was almost nothing there.  There was a bank and a restaurant, but locked up tight.  There were also terribly uncomfortable plastic chairs, an ATM, and a restroom.  Luckily, I still had a book to read.  I chatted with a Spanish couple.  I tried various positions to comfortably read my book in those plastic chairs.  Eventually time moved forward and the check-in officials arrived 30 minutes before the flight.  By 7:30 PM we were all waiting for immigration to open.  Once through immigration (in record time), an announcement comes on informing us the flight had been cancelled due to a broken plane.  No one moved.  The announcer tried again.  This certainly elicited reactions.  Lots of swearing and declarations of “no way” and “you have got to be kidding” from the Westerners.  The Samoans and the family from Tonga weren’t happy, but they had more resigned reactions.  We all filed back through immigration, received our departure tax money again, and then went to wait at the check in counter.  There would be no more flights until the next day.  I would miss my connecting flight to Honolulu.

I accepted hotel accommodation in Apia offered by the airline.  The next day I had to return to the Apia airline office.  Despite having been told all flights to Pago Pago were full, an agent managed to get me on a 2:25 PM flight and rebooked me on an 11:30 PM flight to Honolulu.  After five and a half pointless hours at Faleolo airport the day before, I also had the grand opportunity to spend a further eight hours in the equally thrilling Pago Pago airport.

Looking back, I did not see as much of Samoa as I would have liked, but in the visit, I was happy and busy, even considering the long and frustrating transport waiting times.  Overall, I accepted that things just move on their own flexible schedules in Samoa and the people are very kind.

 

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Five: Samoan Hospitality and Making the Most of the Journey

More on my three-week trip to three Polynesian islands – I arrive at my final destination, Samoa, and proceed to…get nowhere fast.  Another gentle reminder that in the South Pacific you cannot do anything but slow down, take your time, and smell the flowers.

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Quite possibly the best part about American Samoa

I dislike arriving in a new country at night.  There is the confusion associated with trying to find your way around a new place when the landmarks and signs are cloaked in dusk or darkness.  There is also the very real possibility of being ripped off.  In my experience it is far easier to be taken advantage of in a new place in the dark than when I arrive in the day.  The banks, information booths, transport stations and the like are closed or running on far more limited schedules.  I have more confidence I can thwart would-be advantage takers when the sun is shining.  Whether it is truly the case or I have simply psyched myself up to believe this as truth I cannot say.  But on this trip, I could hardly avoid arriving after dark.  I suppose the Polynesian Islands are less frequently visited and therefore airlines can place those routes on the backburner, or rather on the less popular times.  If you want to go to Fiji or Rarotonga or Samoa, you will have to be satisfied with arriving at 2 am or 12:30 am or 9 pm or simply not go at all.

Despite Rarotonga being such a small island with a small airport, the late night (or early morning, depending on your perspective) arrival was very pleasant.  The terminal seemed to suddenly light up, a beacon to the weary travelers.  The light joke regarding the single baggage claim area brightened everyone.  The cheery ukulele music struck up as soon as the first person set foot in the terminal was welcoming.  There was even a small board with traveler information – from resorts to backpacker – available to the late arrivals.  And someone from the hostel was waiting for me in the arrival area to sweep me into a van and off to the hostel with no fuss and no worries.

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This was long among my favorite pictures from Samoa

Not so arriving in American Samoa.  At 9 PM in the evening there were plenty of people inhabiting the waiting chairs, and standing in check-in lines, but there was very little else to do.  The vending machines were on, but no banks were open, no changing money facilities – not even an ATM that I could see – no restaurants, no tourist information booth, or even an information kiosk were available to the evening arriver.  This to me only heightens the confusion and immediately sets the traveler ill at ease.   There hadn’t been a shred of food available on the two-and-a-half-hour flight from Rarotonga; I was ravenous.  There was no one to ask about a good hotel or hotel rates.  I simply asked a security guard, and he told me the closest hotel was the Pago Pago Airport Hotel.  As my greatest ambition in American Samoa was to find the quickest way out and on to Western Samoa, I thought closest would be best – even at US$85 a night.  Though that may sound high, it is actually in the low range of accommodation costs in American Samoa.  Welcome to America.

My brief stay in American Samoa seemed as typically American as one can imagine.  I stayed in a relatively expensive hotel, watched CNN and Jay Leno and several other shows I cannot remember, I could not walk anywhere and thus had to be transported to the hotel in a taxi (in fact without a car you are pretty much stuck in American Samoa) and I had McDonald’s for dinner – the only restaurant still open when I found myself getting settled at the hotel at almost 11.  The proprietor of the Pago Pago Airport Hotel was a large, friendly Samoan woman who drove me to McDs, and arranged for my taxi back to the airport the next day (and even paid for it) – but this was about as Samoan as the experience got.

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Friendly Samoan cops

The next day I headed to the airport around 10:30 as the first flight to Apia in Western Samoa left at 11 am.  I had no ticket.  As there were no airport staff around except for one check-in agent, and a few other random people who flanked the agent whose role was unclear, the only way to find out information was to stand in line.  This was the first time I have ever tried to check in to a flight on which I do not have a ticket.  But I gather that although this might be odd for me, it is not too terribly unusual in Samoa.  Quite a number of activities seem very flexible.

At the counter the agent told me to wait, someone would be along to help.  The agent would be right back; there was another foreigner also waiting to do the same.  And so, we waited.  Some friendly Samoans hanging around the counter engaged me in conversation.  A ticket agent arrived, told us to meet him in the Polynesian Air office, then immediately disappeared.  It took myself and the other foreigner some 30 minutes to find the office.  Tickets were sorted out; however, only outbound flights could be guaranteed; we would have to set the return in Apia the following day.  At least I had a ticket to Apia for 1:45 PM.

Back in the line, my new Samoan friends said they would take care of my bags while another woman took me to the local Cost-u-less store for some lunch.  One might think this an odd decision on my part.  My bags were out of sight with perfect strangers while I drove away with another one.  But really all they said they would do happened.  My bags were untouched where I left them and the woman drove me to the store.  Later, as I sat in the airport snack lounge (Cost-u-less was closed) the ticket agent asked for my ticket.  He trotted off and had me checked in and my bag taken care of within five minutes.  Samoan hospitality!

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Downtown Apia

The hospitality did not end, but it turned out I was everyone’s new friend and thus needed to reciprocate.  An airport security officer thrust an open can of Mountain Dew in my hand, telling me to deliver it to my friend.  My “friend” being my new check-in helper and bag watcher I had only set eyes on an hour before.  I found myself wandering around the airport gingerly carrying his open Mountain Dew in search of him.  I must have looked terribly lost because another airport official approached me to ask me if I needed help.  I explained what was surely a bizarre story about searching for the owner of the Mountain Dew, but the man did not blink an eye and joined me in my search.  We found Mr. Mountain Dew at the immigration counter, where I handed over the can.

Now I had Mr. Customs to help me.  Noting that I still need to pick-up an order at the snack bar, he tells me he can take my passport and complete all the immigration paperwork for me while I am in the restaurant.  This seems one step too far on my trust-o-meter so I decline.  He decides instead to join me at the restaurant.  He sits at my table, orders a beer (despite being on duty), pays for my lunch, then takes my passport and completes my immigration departure forms.  HE waits for me as I eat, accompanies me back to immigration, then stamps me through.  There he tells me to wait, he will give me a letter to give to his friend in Apia.  I can hardly believe this is happening.  I look around, I am dying to share this bizarre situation with someone, but this must be completely normal in Samoa.  He returns with a letter I am to give to Gary at Polynesian Airlines in Apia, then gives me his telephone number in case I ever need help again in American Samoa.  Then he walked away, and I headed for the plane.

One would think this could not get stranger, but it does.  As I sit down in my seat, 1A, the pilot suddenly turns around and says “T—-, your friend Brian told me to tell you not to forget the letter for Gary.”  How did I get on a first name basis with the pilot and who the hell is Brian?  Brian told me he was the Prime Minister of Anu’u.  The pilot asks me if Brian explained how I was to know Gary when I saw him.  I said no.  The pilot tells me it won’t be a problem as Gary will most likely be the biggest guy I have ever seen.  And off we go to Apia.

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Sunset in Apia Harbor – worth it!

Landing in Apia some 40 minutes later, the pilot reminds me again to give the letter to Gary.  After clearing immigration (which took all of about one minute) I find Gary quite easily.   He is a short but extremely stout man, perhaps as wide around as he is tall.  I say “Gary, I have a message for you,” and hand over the envelope.  Gary shuttles me and the pilot to an office with combination locks on the door.  I am told to sit in the chair by his desk.  I feel I have done something wrong.  He opens the letter, reads it, then barks at me “Who is this woman?”  There is obviously a woman mentioned in the letter.  I say “I don’t know.”  The pilot asks me “Didn’t Brian tell you about this letter?”  I say “No, I just met Brian 20 minutes before the flight.”  They decide the letter has nothing to do with me and I am free to go.  Welcome to Samoa.

Given all the work I put in just to arrive in country and settle in to the guesthouse, it is no wonder I spent the rest of the day doing very little.  I went only on a short self-guided walk around Apia town, the country’s capital and main port.  But I felt very accomplished and happy.

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Three: Arrival in Rarotonga

The continuation of my three-week Pacific Island travels in the summer of 2004, just after completing a research assistantship in Honolulu.  From the Big Island of Hawaii, I would head 3,000 miles due south to the small 15-island nation known as the Cook Islands.  Named after British navigator Captain James Cook who “discovered” the islands in 1773, the islanders are now considering changing their name to one that better reflects their Polynesian nature. 

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Kia Orana or “hello” in Cook Islands Maori – how lucky to find the #1 license plate

The regional jet departed Honolulu full to the gills.  Many of the passengers were Samoans who would disembark at Pago Pago in American Samoa.  I would continue on to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.  Most of my second leg fellow passengers appeared to be locals, and they all seemed to know one another.  At landing at 12:30 in the morning, the flight attendant announced, “Checked luggage can be found at Carousel 3… Mind you, we have only one carousel.”  This made everyone on the flight laugh.  We needed something to wake us up.  As we stumbled toward the terminal, it suddenly came to life.  The lights were made brighter, a ukulele player began to play and sing, and the two immigration officers opened for business. To get the 22 of us through took only ten minutes.

I had reservations at the Tiare Village Hostel, located just behind the airport.  I made these reservations frantically by phone from the Honolulu Airport when I realized that very morning that booked accommodation was a requirement for entry into the Cook Islands.  Although no one actually checked, I was happy to have someone picking me up at the airport at nearly 1 AM.

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Cooks Corner — downtown Avarua

The following morning, a Saturday, I woke up early as I was told the hostel manager would drive newcomers into town on the first day for “orientation.”  It turned out to be quite informal with the orientation only consisting of the manager just pointing out the market, the banks, the information center (closed weekends), and the center of town.  The tour took just a few minutes.  Taking advantage of the lift into town, I ate lunch at a busy cafe/pizza/ice cream joint in the center of town near the roundabout (the only one on the island), then wandered about town for a bit, bought groceries, and walked back the 30 minutes to the hostel.  As I was quite tired from the flight and early morning arrival, I spent the rest of the day lazing about.

The Cook Islands are a group of 15 islands in the South Pacific.  They are divided into two groups, the Southern and the Northern.  The Northern Group is quite isolated and made up of smaller islands, generally accessible only by yachties.  The Southern Group is the more populated.  The total population of the island nation is about 15,000 with around 8,000 living on the main administrative island of Rarotonga.  The Cook Islands are a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand.  It has its own government, parliament, and prime minister as well as traditional government districts.  There are eight traditional tribes on Rarotonga, seven of them are led by females.  But more Cook Islanders live outside of the nation than in, mostly in New Zealand and Australia.  The islands use New Zealand money, though they also mint their own, including the very collectible three-dollar bill.

cook islands 10On Sunday morning I attended church at the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC).  The service was mostly in Maori, the traditional language of the Cooks.  The local patrons were dressed in their finest – with women in colorful flower-patterned dresses and traditional straw hats; the men in flowered shirts.   The pews and beams and pulpit are made of a warm reddish medium wood, while the walls are a white stucco and the ceiling painted an aquamarine green – the kind popular in the sixties.  Though it seemed an odd color in and of itself, it worked in this church with its simple stained-glass windows.  Those sitting in the center section were clearly the most serious of church goers.  They stood up first for songs, sang the loudest, and sat down last.  They were also the best dressed.  Those on the lower section’s outer seats seemed the second tier of church goers.  Maybe they had not arrived quite in time to claim the middle seats for the day, but they were still dressed in their colorful finest and sang the hymns with vigor.

I sat in the upper section, which just might be the area for those who treat church more as a social occasion than a religious one.  There were many children up here, in bare feet, fidgeting.  Many simply ran around.  One boy scooted his way across a pew on his stomach.  We moved our feet to let him scoot by.  The boys on the opposite side seemed intent on poking each other as much as possible and looking at some cards they had brought with them to pass the time.  Two young, mischievous girls sitting in front of me played with their rubber bracelets, each other’s hair, and whispered things to each other and giggled.  A young teenage girl to their right sat with her mother or aunt – a very serious churchgoer who seemed to choose the upper section as a perfect vantage point to carefully watch the congregation, maybe so she could gossip later about those she felt were not properly pious.  Her daughter too gave the giggling girls a hard stare, though it was more for her mother’s benefit I think, as she looked as if she longed to join them.

The primary reason I attended the service was to hear the congregation sing, as they are famous for their harmonies.  Indeed, it was lovely.  Maybe, in part, because they sang in Maori?  But also, the men and women sing different verses almost the fashion of a round.  Most of the time the singing was pretty much in tune.  At times, it did seem the words and tune were getting away from the singers and the reverend seemed to stare at the ceiling, on to heaven, willing his flock to find their way back to the harmony.  It was a very enjoyable hour.  Afterwards, the reverend invited myself and the two other hostellers to tea and we might have joined if we were not scheduled to attend something else in the afternoon – Piri Puruto III’s great show!

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Piri Puruto III lecturing us

Piri Puruto III is a 60-something-year-old man who performs his show most days of the week.  On Sundays he includes a traditional Cook Island lunch and dinner prepared in the umu – the underground oven.  We picked leaves for our plates, large leaves for the lunch, and then we weaved our plates for the dinner.  Piri believes everyone should participate in the cooking to truly appreciate the food.  I had to fetch a whole chicken from a bucket of saltwater, stuff it with local spinach, wrap it in noni leaves, then wrap the whole package with larger leaves, tying it together with the spine of the leaf.  After all the food was prepared, we placed it in the umu, and covered with many leaves, with Piri yelling orders at us like children with short attention spans.  He asked us to call him teacher.  He would yell at us, “students, get the leaves!  Get them!  Hurry.  Why are you moving so slow?  Teacher tells you do something, you do it!”

Then the show began.  Piri Puruto III climbs coconut trees.  We all sat in a circle while Piri prepared.  He had changed from his tank top and sport shorts to a tanned leaf skirt, bare chest, and coconut husk helmet.  He chanted in Maori as he entered the circle and began to tell his life story.  Born on one of the other islands, as a child he witnessed the last inter-tribal war.  He moved to Rarotonga as a teen, and then went on to Auckland to participate in boxing tournaments – winning his first title in 1959, and holding on to that title until 1964.  And now he boxes coconut trees.  We all follow him down the rocks in his backyard to the beach, and across to the beach to a magnificent palm, I don’t know how high – maybe 50 feet or more.  He makes some speeches.  Tells us that when he climbs, we must be ready to take pictures.  When he tells us “Students, prepare your cameras!” Then we are to do so immediately, or else miss the picture.  The guy was a complete ham.  But climb the tree he did.  With a rope binding his feet together, he spit into his palms, wet his toes, and scurried up the trunk, high into the air.  At the top he made his way into the fronds, stood atop the palm, picked a coconut, yelled at us to get our camera’s ready, and threw the coconut into the air.  Then he checked we indeed had taken a picture.  On the way down he did some acrobatics, skirting the trunk of the tree, holding the trunk and throwing his feet out to the left and to the right.  He all clapped as we were certainly expected to!  It was all shameless attention, but good fun to watch for sure.  He made his way back down and we headed back to the house for dinner.

Before we could eat though, we had to make fire!  The traditional way.  From the coconut tree, Piri had brought back a coconut, as we needed coconut fiber #1, coconut fiber #2 and coconut fiber #3 to do this properly.  I was a lucky one to help with the fire making, as my spit was used to roll together coconut fiber #2.   Then the men were to help with the logs, and we all had to chant following Piri’s example.  He told us the making of fire was like the act of making love.  The whole circle had a good laugh at this, and he said, “no don’t laugh, I’m serious.”  He said he would translate our chant in English.  It went something like Bang 1.  Bang 2.  Bang 3.  Bang 4.  Bang 5.  Bang 6.  I am man.  You are woman.  Fire!  And he furiously rubbed some bark against the log.  And a spark started.  Coconut fiber #1 is used to catch the spark.  It is then burrowed into coconut fiber #2.  Then the whole thing flamed with coconut fiber #3 and we had a big flame!   The dinner of baked chicken, potatoes, fish, and lamb, with local spinach, coconut and bananas was ready for the eating.  It was all in very good fun.

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One phase of sunset in Avarua harbor

It is fascinating to go back to my diary and stories from this visit.  I remember little of the things I wrote about, but I recall other details.  For instance, standing in Avarua harbor to watch the most incredible sunset I had ever seen.  With the quiet pace of island life, a 30-minute walk to town is not only exercise but an enjoyable activity.  So, one afternoon I strolled from the hostel to the center of Avarua, the Cook Islands’ capital and administrative center of the island of Rarotonga.  I stood marveling at the late afternoon light bathing the green volcanic hills rising behind the Avarua fishing harbor.  Then I turned to face the other direction and my breath caught in my throat.  Even to this day, I have not seen a sunset that equaled the extraordinary beauty of that one.  The sky changed from daylight blue to yellow, then orange, pink, purple, and finally to blue.  Standing alone in the shallow, rocky waters of Avarua bay at low tide just waiting and watching the sun and its light slowly sink below the horizon might be one of the most magical moments of my life. 

 

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Two: Big Island Sightseeing

The continuation of my “last hurrah” whirlwind three week trip to three Pacific Islands.  This is the second part of the Big Island — when my German travel companion Carmen and I finally stopped screwing around, finally figured out our transportation issues, and started to actually see some of the sights.

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Rainbow Falls

As Carmen and I drove back up from the lava coast, the clouds descended around us again, and dusk descended.  We drove to the small town of Volcano, a lush rainforest oasis of deep green ferns and dark red flowers engulfed in a light mist and chilly fog.  We planned to stay the Holo Holo Inn but had no map with it on, and with the growing dark and fog it was difficult to see the road signs.  We stopped in the small general store to ask directions.  The store had a very small town feel to it; a real general store stocked with just about every necessity.  Not a huge selection mind you, but enough for the artists who live in the area to not have to drive far for groceries.  I asked the woman behind the counter if she knew where I could find the inn.  She said she didn’t know.  But the tall white-bearded man who had just made his purchases, and was on a first name basis with the woman, told her she surely did.  He said it was just off the road near the Japanese school, and he says some Hawaiian road names.  She disagreed and said it is off another road.  He kindly tells her she is wrong and proceeds to tell us how to get there.  The woman good-naturally laughs at herself for not knowing the location.  The whole conversation had that warm feeling that comes from people in a small town knowing each other well, of regulars and long-time store proprietors joking with one another.

As Carmen and I drove up to the wooden house next to the Japanese school, it seemed dark.  The front driveway was littered with all kinds of garden and mechanical tools.  Carmen took one look at the place and said maybe we should just go.  It did seem almost deserted.  But when we rang the bell, the door was opened by a small blonde boy followed by a young Asian woman with delicate features.  In heavily accented English she welcomed us inside and showed us around.  The place was really beautiful.  All made of rich warm wood.  Wooden floors, walls, and ceilings.  Though it was chilly outside, it was a nice temperature inside, enough for bare feet upon the floorboards.  Our wooden bunk beds topped with heavy warm blankets.  The kitchen had a high ceiling, with large Japanese paper lamps hanging from the ceiling over a wooden table.  The cupboards were well stocked with beautiful Japanese ceramic plates, bowls, and cups – all for the hostelers use.  It felt very homey.

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Lava Trees State Park

On my fourth day on the Big Island we drove the rest of the way around the stopping to see many sites along the way.  The weather outside of Volcano was gorgeous.  Warm, crystal blue skies.  We drove first to Lava Trees State Park.  The lava “trees” were formed when a volcanic eruption some 200 years ago swept through the forest.  The lava climbed up the trees burning them but then hardening in the shape of the former tree trunks- making hollow lava cones of varying heights.  The drive, once we found the tricky turn, was gorgeous.  Huge trees on both sides dusting the two-lane road with leaves, and just a touch of sunbeams filtering through.  It felt a bit more like a drive in New England than in Hawaii.  The forest itself seemed almost primordial with tall, old, moss-covered trees.  A short circle trail led us around the ghostly lava trees.

We headed next to Rainbow Falls just outside Hilo.  The falls were absolutely beautiful – perhaps one of the best falls I have ever seen.  They were tall and thick, falling into a lush pool at the bottom, with a large cave behind them – supposedly the one-time home of the goddess Maui.  At the top of the falls, just before the water gushed over the edge, there was a large boulder which split the falls into two ribbons of water.  In the early morning or afternoon, if conditions are right, there is often a rainbow across the water, but unfortunately, we were not there at the right time.

On next to Akaka Falls State Park via a 4-mile scenic drive.  At the falls we were rewarded with two falls, much taller than Rainbow falls, though thinner as well.  At the top of the trail to the falls we sat at a picnic table and had our lunch of bread and cheese and fruit.

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Waipo Valley lookout

On next to Waipo Valley lookout.  The drives were not long, perhaps an hour here or an hour there, but very pleasant.  At the Waipo lookout we stood on a cliff above the Waipo Valley and the sea, with a tremendous view of the undulating cliff coastline, the sparkling sea, and the beginning of the low valley.  There are some good treks and horse riding in the valley but they are costly, so we did not have anything planned.  But seeing the view was worth the drive.

We then drove through the town of Waimea with a magnificent view of Mauna Kea rising in the background, it dwarfed everything else on the island, rising quickly to its height of 13,800 feet.  The road ended at the town of Hawi, where the original statue of King Kamehameha the Great, the first king to unite the Hawaiian Islands – born on the Big Island – stands. (And in one of those amazing coincidences of life, I happened to be watching Hawaii 5-0 while editing this story, and the episode happened to be one in which they feature this original statue.  I was thinking, I just read about this…in my own story!)

Then we drove along the coastal road another hour to the Pineapple Park Hostel to the town of Captain Cook (where the famous navigator who discovered the Sandwich, or Hawaiian Islands, met his end).  Carmen and I stepped into the reception area of Pineapple Park at 8:30 pm.  The office was closed but there was a sign saying to ring the bell for after-hours arrivals.  Unfortunately, on the other side of the shuttered reception window was another sign indicating the hours were 7am to 7 pm and that THIS IS HAWAII – WE ARE NOT OPEN AT ALL HOURS.  The sign did not inspire confidence as I hesitantly pushed the bell and cringed.  A Japanese woman came from the hallway behind us, saying in a decidedly unwelcome tone “What do you want?”  I explained we wanted to stay.  “How many of you?”  The two of us were standing right in front of her…Of course, she made a point of telling us the usual hours are 7 to 7 and made such a case out of it as if we were really being a bother and she was being tremendously nice to let us stay.  I had a hard time not rolling my eyes.

On the wall of our room was a list of the hostel rules.  Some made some sense, some I found a bit humorous (copied word for word):

  1. No abusive- belligerent or disruptive behavior tolerated (must fit in)
  2. No drugs of any kind – alcohol in moderation
  3. Must be a traveler and have a picture I.D.
  4. Quiet hours 10 pm – 6 am; kitchen, TV, up stairs lounge closed after 10 pm
  5. Must have clean clothes and no offensive smell
  6. Must clean up immediately after using kitchen
  7. Five minute shower
  8. Do not take others food or drink

You will be asked to leave on the first violation – ALOHA

I had to crack up at the “ALOHA” in capital letters at the end of the list.  I hardly felt the Aloha Spirit emanating from this hostel.  What would happen if I haven’t had a chance to do laundry (i.e. have dirty clothes) or I do not fit in with the others?  And the five-minute shower?  Well, without the lock or even being able to close the shower door completely, I imagine I will be taking the quickest shower ever.

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Hanging with some Hawaiian tiki friends

On the morning of the fifth day, Carmen and I woke up early to head out to swim with dolphins.  There was a small bay a short drive away where dolphins were often spotted swimming.  I did not really feel comfortable swimming with dolphins, but I thought it might be nice to see them.  Besides, I knew in the water I would not have my glasses and would probably not see a dolphin at all.  At the bay, a man pointed out some dolphins in the water.  I didn’t see any dolphins, only human beings floundering about in the bay.  But I took his word for it.  We entered the bay from a rocky shore; I am talking about mini boulders.   They made it difficult to get in the water.  We nearly fell a couple of times.  Carmen pulled on her snorkeling mask and paddled off.  I stood waist high in the surf, feeling the pull of the waves as the water rushed back to the sea.  It was a strong pull, nearly pulling me off balance.  The crashing in of the waves was also strong.  I tried to stand my ground.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a large wave knocks into us both.  I was tumbling underwater over and over.  After some 20, 30 seconds, I do not know how long, I stood up.  I called out to Carmen to see if she was okay, she was also calling for me.  Her flip-flops floated by.  Even my strapped sandals had been ripped off forcibly by the wave.  I think my hair was standing straight up, matted with sand.  There was sand in my ears.  Later I found a pound of sand pushed into the top of my swimsuit.  Carmen and I both agreed our little foray into the ocean was over for the morning.  We violated the five-minute shower rule back at the hostel.

Our next, and last, sightseeing stop was the Historical National Park Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (which means Place of Refuge at Honaunau).  This was an area where the Hawaiian ali’i (royalty) lived.  It was also a place where those who broke the strict rules of traditional Hawaiian conduct might find redemption – after swimming across shark infested waters.  In times of war, women, children, those unable to fight or wounded soldiers could also find refuge here.  In times of war in Hawaiian times all people were considered fair game in battle, and only those located in compounds of sacred refuge could be spared.  Sounds brutal.

hawaii 5Nowadays the Historical Park is peaceful.  The wall of the compound is all that still exists from traditional times beside white sand, a glittering sea, and reconstructed straw huts.  In one large boat house, an old native Hawaiian carves the traditional totem or Ki’i that guard the entrance to the landing lagoon reserved only for ali’i, and the site of some reconstruction, from evil spirits.  In the small lagoon a sea turtle swam around, another basked in the sun.

The following day I took Carmen to the airport and return the rental car; we said our farewells (though we remain Facebook friends to this day).  Later the same day, I embarked on my own flight away from the Big Island, leaving behind a magnificent view, but looking forward to the next leg of my journey….

 

 

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part One: Big Island Beginnings

Every so often I dip into the email stories I wrote during my pre-State department, pre-mom travels.  I review, edit, and re-package them.  In the summer of 2004 after completing my six-month research assistantship at the Pacific Forum-CSIS in Honolulu, Hawaii, I embarked on a three-week trip to the Big Island, Rarotonga in the Cooks Islands, and then Samoa.  After the trip I would participate in my assistantship final seminar, graduate from my Master’s program, and start looking for work.  I figured this trip would be my last hoorah for some time, as I would soon join the world of government work.  The trip would inspire me in ways I had not expected, and eventually led to my first published op-ed and my second published academic article, both on Chinese influence in the South Pacific.  My stories are sometimes far more about the vagaries of travel – the transportation hiccups, the interesting people one meets on the road, and unexpected adventures – than about the places themselves. 

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Carmen and I stop for a break from Volcano National Park on the way to Kona

My flight left Honolulu for Hilo, on the eastern side of the Big Island, at 10 in the morning and landed an hour later.  I was at the hostel by noon.  As it was a Sunday, there was little to do in Hilo, with most shops closed.  I only walked around a little, had some lunch, and did some grocery shopping.

I met another woman at the hostel who struck me as odd.  She was from north central England, with a thick accent I could barely understand.  What really struck me is her plans to travel around the world for a year.  When I asked her about restaurants near the hostel, she told me she did not know because, as she said, she “did not eat foreign foods.”  I wonder how she will ever survive her trip.  I would love to run into her a year from now and see how she faired.

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Lush green rainforest of Volcano National Park – Hawaii is not all beaches

On Monday I was up early, trying to figure out what I would do that day.  I was thinking maybe a helicopter ride over the volcano, but was still unsure I wanted to pay the price.  I thought perhaps I might rent a car and drive around on my own or to Mauna Kea, but I learned that to return a car to Kona, on the other side of the island (a whole 2.5 hours away), I would be charged an additional $85 for the drop-off charge; and one cannot drive to Mauna Kea in a rental car because the road is bad and the tour companies forbid it.  A rival hostel in town offered stargazing tours to Mauna Kea for the incredible price of $96, even though the stargazing program on the mountain is actually free!  The idea of them raking in nearly $1000 for 10 people with only the cost of gas there and back, perhaps $30 for a van, made me a feel annoyed and I was thus reluctant to give them a call.

On my first day I had met Carmen, a paramedic in the German army; she also wanted to go to Kona.   After two 6-month tours in Kosovo she was granted this five-month holiday.  She asked me what my plans were for the day, suggesting we could go to Kona together.  However, after the unfortunate news from the rental car agencies, we sat wondering what was best to do.  There is but one bus on the island that travels from Hilo to Kona once a day, from 2:30 arriving about 5:30.  It seemed I would have no plan for Monday and much of Tuesday would be spent on the bus.  I was beginning to think my five days on the Big Island would be a total bust.  Then in walked Sharifa – another woman staying at the hostel – doing her masters in Environmental Science at Yale and studying tropical plants, with field research on the Koa tree in Volcano National Park.  More importantly, Sharifa had a rental car, was driving to Volcano National Park, and then onto Kona to renew her car at the airport there.  And she asked if we might like to go along.   Carmen and I practically leapt to our luggage in a single bound to begin the frantic packing.  Sharifa said she would meet us outside in the parking lot across the street.  Packing was done in record time and soon Carmen and I and our bags were cozily ensconced in Sharifa’s beautiful black convertible and we were motoring down the road.

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I fancied myself quite the black and white photographer – this is one of my favorites –  ropey pahoehoe lava

Because Sharifa needed only to pick up a research permit at the Volcano National Park, we had only 30 minutes in the visitor center and a walk on a short trail overlooking one of the craters.   The rich volcanic soil and the high elevation create a lush rain forest atmosphere, and where there are rain forests, there is most certainly rain.  And it rained.  The clouds rolled in across the crater and it disappeared in the fog.  It grew cold and we huddled for some time with warm drinks near the fireplace at the Volcano Inn and looked at the photographs of magnificent eruptions, which lined the wood walls.  Sharifa needed to get her permit and be in Kona to renew her car rental before 5 o’clock and so we piled into the car and headed off.

Once we were some ten minutes out of the park, the sky cleared, the convertible top came down, the CD player was turned up, and we barreled down the road in high spirits.  On one side of the road dark grey glistening volcanic rock sloped upwards to the clouds heading for the peak of Mauna Loa.  On the other side the same moonscape rock dropping downwards towards the sea.  A fascinating landscape with sometimes dramatic vistas appearing before us of the dark blue sea alongside cooled coal-grey igneous rock.  At times it grew cool and would sprinkle some rain and the top would go up on the car.  The wind would pick up and we would feel chilly.  Not exactly the weather one might expect in Hawaii, but the Big Island temperature and climate is amazingly diverse.  In the winter, even the peak of Mauna Kea is covered in snow while the beachside with be basked in warm sun and temps in the 80s.

Hawaii 3As we bid Sharifa farewell at the airport, I made a reservation for my own rental car the next day.  This was a big deal for me as I could not recall the last time I had driven a car.  The Kona hostel, located in a residential area, was not easy to find because there was not a sign at all.   The manager had a weird laugh after just about everything he said.  He was young, around 30 years of age, and although he laughed, he did not seem pleasant.  Carmen immediately told me in the room she did not want to stay there another night.  I also felt bad karma from that guy.  The hostel was new and clean, but the guy made the whole thing feel like an episode of the Twilight Zone.  Carmen and I walked down to the supermarket to get fixings for dinner and spent an early evening in the hostel reading, showering, watching tv, and eating.

We were up the next day to head over the airport to pick up the rental car.  We were out of the hostel before 9 am; we did not say anything to the manager as we left.  The tricky part was getting to the airport.  Although just seven miles out of town, there is no bus because, of course, America.  We tried to flag down a taxi but the first one told us we had to have a reservation.  We asked if he could call in and tell a taxi to pick us up and he said he would, but 15 minutes later and two taxis had passed us in the opposite direction without turning around or stopping.  So, we walked to a gas station.  We asked the woman behind the counter if she would call for us and she did, but it turned out that one company was so busy they were not picking up their phone, the other said it might be an hour.  I thought of Mr. Weird Manager back at the hostel and kept checking my watch.  I had a feeling he would not like it if we checked-out AFTER the check-out time.  There was a man standing in line next to us and I asked him if he was heading by the airport and if he could give us a lift.  A minute later he signals us from the car a thumbs up and Carmen and I get in.

A line awaited us at the rental car counter.  We were back at the hostel by 10:15 to find the door to the hostel locked and neither of our keys working.  Suddenly Mr. Weird pops up from nowhere behind us and in an unfriendly tone tells us our keys will not work.  He opens the door telling us he had already removed our things from the room because of the 10 AM check-out time.  He makes an unpleasant comment about the amount of luggage we have, followed by his disturbing laugh.  He even helps us to take our luggage to the car, but not out of any kindness I am sure.  He seemed quite eager to be rid of us, and Carmen and I felt quite happy to pull out of the drive and see the back of that guy.

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Lava pouring into the sea

We headed back to Volcano National Park and drove around the crater road stopping to take pictures of the lava flow formations, of steam rising from craters, and sniff the sulfuric air.  The air was cold, the sky grey and overcast.  Light misty rain fell.  However, as we drove down Chain of Craters road towards the sea, the clouds disappeared and the blue sky and sea appeared below.  It was a beautiful drive.  The sides of both roads were covered with undulating hard lava flows from the past several decades.  The sight was almost surreal.  The ocean was the most incredible blue.  At the bottom of the road, alongside the sea we parked our car.  The road once continued along the ocean, but with the more recent lava flows it had been closed.  We walked over the hard lava on the road, occasionally coming across buried road signs.  At the end of the pedestrian trail, where visitors could proceed no further as the lava, though grey and cooled was nonetheless still molten under its crust and still inching toward the sea, we could observe the red-hot lava pouring into the sea.  Great billows of steam rose up as it dripped off the island into the sea.  Here I was standing just 100 feet from an active lava flow.  Incredible.

 

Summer 2003: Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part 6: The Finale

The final installment of my eight-week incongruous journey to three very different places. 

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The obligatory photo of the Little Mermaid

From the northern tip of Jutland I then turned back south to Denmark’s second largest town of Aarhus.  On the way there I stopped at a small town to see a Viking fortress located a few kilometers out of town.  I walked the four kilometers out to the ring fortress, stopping at a very interesting recreated Viking village and then back to town.  I would not be visiting the largest Viking ring fortress at Trelleborg, so I was glad to see this one, though it was a little hard to imagine it as a fortress.  Later seeing the layout in museums made it seem more real, but at the time looking at a raised ring of grass with a young man riding a rather loud lawn mower, without a Viking to be seen, it was hard to imagine.

Aarhus is a big college town, students make up approximately 10% of the population.  This makes it really young and lively.  Yet I wasn’t feeling very young or lively when I rolled into town, and I spent my first day locating accommodation, doing email, visiting the tourist office, finding food, and enjoying the main shopping street.  On the second day I joined a bus tour taking in the main sites, such as the Cathedral (the longest in Denmark) and Den Gamle By (the Old Town) for a really good price.  Den Gamle By is a man-made town recreated from a number of old historical buildings from around Denmark moved and restored in Aarhus.  Unfortunately, we had only 40 minutes there, but it was really lovely and reminded me of Colonial Williamsburg with people walking around in historical costumes, including the shoemaker’s wife making pudding for visitors.

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Frederiksborg Castle

I traveled out to the Moesgard Museum, which is full of information about the Iron Age in Denmark, before the Middle Ages and the Vikings.  The center piece of this exhibit is Grauballe Man, a “bog man” recovered from somewhere in Jutland.  The bogs, swampy misty areas, were places of worship and many riches were sacrificed to the bogs to bring good luck.  In addition, it seems people were often sacrificed to the bogs, though they did not go willingly, as they are found with their throats cut or strangled or beaten.  The interesting part is that all of this can be determined easily as the composition of the bogs almost perfectly preserved the people thrown in them.  The skin is tanned to leather and the skin is oxidized to red, but you can see the hair on their heads, and their beards perfectly intact.  Even the pores of their skin are still visible.  While it sounds rather macabre, it was still fascinating.  Only Grauballe Man was on display at the museum, but there were pictures of other bog people who had been found around Denmark.  Amazing that the man died 1700 years ago, and they can tell he was about 30 years old, had fractured a bone in his youth, and his last meal!  Really cool.

From Aarhus I hatched a plan to visit yet another Aquarium.  I learned there was one with a Shark center in Grenaa, in the same county as Aarhus.  I also found out there might be bus from Grenaa to Copenhagen.  Of course, this was the bus the tourist office insisted did not exist.  The Kattegatcentret was really cool, the shark center was amazing.  Unfortunately, I had to leave at 2 PM to catch the last bus back from the Aquarium to meet the possibly non-existent bus to Copenhagen.

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Hamlet’s Kronborg Castle

The bus did exist!  Interestingly the bus was loaded onto a boat, which then crossed the Kattegat from Jutland to Zealand for 75 minutes.  This was so more interesting than taking the train again.  I arrived in Copenhagen at 7 PM, and headed in search of a place to stay.  I found the loud, noisy, crowded City Public Hostel located in the perfect spot and surprisingly a great place to stay for four nights.

Copenhagen at last!  I had only a few days left and so much to see.  After gorgeous sunny weather for 10 days, it turned cold with on again off again rain.  The wind was very strong.  I bought a Copenhagen card, which gives free entry into a number of museums, and discounted entry on others, plus free transport on buses, trains, metro and harbor buses in North Zealand for three days.  In order to get the most of this it meant I had to run around like crazy, riding buses for fun, but it turned out pretty well.

On my first day I headed north to Rosenborg Castle.  Built over three small islands in a lake, the site is simply impressive.  Lucky for me it rained only when I was inside and then became sunny again when I came out.  I took a boat around the lake to get more views of the castle (and because it was free with my Copenhagen Card) and then sprinted to the train station so that I could get to Helsingør.  The tourist office told me there was another train.  Why I continued to believe the Danish tourist offices…the train only went halfway, and then I had a 30-minute wait for the next train out on a cold and windy platform, all by my lonesome.  The whole time muttering under my breath about how I was never going to trust the tourist office again.  Then to Helsingør, the famous Elsinore of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Kronborg Castle, where Shakespeare set his dramatic play, is built on a promontory, the closest piece of land between Denmark and Sweden.  The castle was built with defense purposes in mind, and for the collection of the unpopular government “Sound Dues,” a toll paid by all ships passing from the Baltic to the North Sea.  The weather was just rainy and cool enough to imagine how on a dark night Hamlet’s father’s ghost would have haunted the ramparts.

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View of Copenhagen from the spiral staircase atop the Church of Our Savior

The following day I visited Roskilde, the Viking capital of Denmark, where the Cathedral, a UNESCO world heritage site, contains the sarcophagi of 39 Danish Kings and Queens.  From Harold Bluetooth to the parents of the current queen Magarethe II.  Rather awe inspiring.  It was the Viking Ship museum that really interested me though.  Five Viking ships were raised after hundreds of years sunk in the waters of Roskilde Fjord.  Over the course of 10 years the wooden ships were restored and put on display in this amazing museum.  They are also in the process of building one of the war ships using Viking tools with plans to sail it to Dublin.

On my final full day in Copenhagen I ran around to more museums and more castles; the sun was back out again, no more rain clouds in sight.  I also met my friends from Singapore on their first day in Denmark.  Though I was to leave the following day we agreed to meet just one more time before I headed to the airport.  We decided to visit the Carlsberg Brewery for a tour.

This is where I should break in and preface this particular part of the story. First of all, I rarely drink. I am not a complete teetotaler, but I probably average two drinks a year.  Yet, I really enjoy factory tours and, for some reason, especially those associated with alcoholic beverages.  This also happened before I became a diplomat.  Actually, I just cannot bring myself to reveal the full story to all in this forum.  At any rate, it involved a rare drink of alcohol just before heading to the airport, a pocket knife, which I used solely to cut bread, cheese, and vegetables to make sandwiches while staying in hostels, a mistake placing said knife into my carry on instead of checked bag, a burly airport security officer, and a police report.  Every few years I get to discuss it again during my security clearance review.  Sigh.  I have not returned to Denmark since and I would love to do so with my daughter, so I hope enough time has passed so I do not have to spend some extra time explaining this particular tale at immigration. 

This is the end of the account of my Summer of 2003 travel extravaganza.  I really enjoyed re-reading my trip notes, though I regret that I do not have more pictures.  I did more and saw more than I remembered.  I could have seen more had I not been willing to take the slow route, less direct route to and from many places.  I am thoroughly impressed with the dedication I showed to the journey.   I used so many types of transport-planes, buses, trains, boats; I did a fair amount of walking.  This is not how I travel these days.  Not a value judgement, not better or worse, just different.  Always an adventure.