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.

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Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Four: Cook Islands Trekking, Dancing, and Flying

The fourth installment of my edited stories of my three-week trip to three islands in Polynesia.  My South Pacific pattern begins to be clear — it takes the first few days to get my bearings and then I can get down to the sightseeing and soaking up the culture.

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The view of the magnificent Te Rua Manga

On the morning of my third day on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, I joined four others from the hostel on the cross-island trek, a popular three-to-four-hour walk across the north to south spine of the island with views of Te Rua Manga, or “the needle.”  To have a guide costs some NZ$50, but to do it on our own was free.

Rarotonga, though the largest of the Cook Islands, is just 18 kilometers lengthwise, and 32 kilometers in circumference.  Most people live on the flat coastal areas.  Being a volcanic island, the land rises quickly to sharp green covered hills.  We would be walking this.   Though at the beginning most of us were huffing and puffing up the sharp incline, we were good once we reached the Needle, the large sharp bare outcropping in the middle of the island.  Then it was mostly downhill.  Not easy mind you.  But downhill.  The view from the top was breathtaking, the ocean could be seen on all sides.  Hardly any sign of town could be seen, just the lush, green forest.  It was almost as if the island were uninhabited.  Except for the pesky wild chickens.  They were there, even on top of the highest point on the island.  I felt pretty good after doing the trek.  I felt strong and relatively fit.  Especially as three of the other hostellers were all in their early twenties, and they were huffing and puffing too.  At the end of the trail we hitched a ride back to the other side of the island in the back of a pick-up truck.  We all felt triumphant.  Tired, but elated.

cook islands 11That night I joined the other hostellers in a trip to a local dance spot/bar.  I was a wee bit reluctant to go (I am neither a drinker nor abar fly).  They were all playing drinking games to prepare for going out.  I read a book.  But I decided I might as well go.  While there, I started to feel a bit old.  Though there were certainly all ages in the crowd, I would say most were in their early twenties, and most were very keen on drinking as much as they could.  Still, the place was going to hold a dance contest, and I like dancing.  I start dancing with Jay, another guy from the hostel.  After the initial dancing was over, I was just standing by the side when the judge came up and asked me who my partner was.  I pointed at Jay.  The judge says, okay, you two are the final couple in the contest.  Our mouths hung open.  It turned out to be a contest of foreigners dancing to Cook Island music.  Basically, we had to dance like Cook Islanders.   We danced our little hearts out – I tried to remember anything from when I studied Polynesian dance as a child.  We came away as runners up, winning a case of vodka drinks.  Ha!  Just what a teetotaler who rarely goes to bars wants – Jay was pretty happy though.  I felt pretty impressed with myself.  I trekked for four hours AND danced away in a manic Cook Islands dance contest in the evening (along with two hours more of dancing) – maybe I was not that old after all?

Except for the next two days I did nothing.  On the following day, I slept in, lay around, read a book.  And relaxed, something I often have trouble doing.  I must have gotten the hang of it, because I did the same thing the day after as well.  Thank you Cook Islands!

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Ready for take-off

On Thursday morning, I joined a biking and kayaking ecotour.   The tour guide was a true Cook Islander, whose 97-year-old grandmother is a traditional medicine healer.  Out guide told us all about the medicinal benefits of plants around us, such as the salve found in the stem of a frangipani flower – good for hornet stings.  And how the juice from the noni plant helps people live longer (his grandmother drinks it every day).  He claimed two papaya seeds a day works as a natural birth control.  We saw papaya, banana plants (several kinds), taro fields, and noni – the major agricultural exports of the Cook Islands.  The guide also told us about Cook Island history – past and present.  About the tribal government, and the feuds they still have today.  He pointed out the traditional palace for his tribe.  A campaign promise by the current chief head (a woman) was to restore the palace.  Although she came to power in 1991, the palace still lies below overgrowth, barely discernable beneath the grass.  Her reign is being challenged by her sister.

Following the biking portion of the tour, we hopped into kayaks and paddled ourselves across a beautiful lagoon, then up a small tributary.  Several land crabs were brought to our attention as they scurried about.  Then back to the pristine lagoon.  We rowed against the current to see a traditional fish trap, built of rocks in the water, which during high tide channels fish into a stone pen where they are caught at low tide.   Then we lazily sat in our kayaks as the current pushed us back to our departure point – and we watched fish swim beneath and around our boats.   What I remember most about the kayaking was just watching several frangipani flowers floating across the surface of the sparkling water – so clear it was like a swimming pool. 

In the afternoon I decided to take a microlight trip.  Soon enough I found myself hopping into a two-seater mini plane.  We took off like a regular plane, barreling down a grass runway adjacent to the airport’s regular runway, but we took off quite quickly.  Up we went to 3,000 feet where I had a view of the entire island.  It was so amazing.  The island was such like that out of King Kong or Jurassic Park.  And the lagoon waters could clearly be seen against the darker blue of the Pacific Ocean, with not another island in sight.  Thirty minutes was just the right amount of time to see the island.   The only thing was the plane was open, and it was much cooler with a strong wind.  My nose was running like crazy and my ears were cold.  Well, also the pilot turned off the engine as we were cruising high over the lagoon and pretended it had cut off and he could not restart it.  It was funny, but also not funny.  In a way though, that brief sense of terror while looking down at something so breathtakingly beautiful, made the experience all the more special.

 

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Rarotonga from the sky

Although the Hawaiian Islands are supposed to be the most isolated in the world in terms of their distance from other land, these days they are not truly that remote.  The other islands in the chain are relatively close, the islands are larger, and well connected to the U.S., Japan, and other countries.  Tourism is huge in Hawaii.   Although there are some similarities with Hawaii, I did feel much further removed from any mainland while in the Cooks.

Another great thing about Rarotonga that puts Hawaii to shame is the public transport.  On the Big Island of Hawaii, which takes some five hours to drive around the island, there is only one bus per day going in each direction.  Rarotonga, just 20 miles around, has a bus going in each direction every hour from around 7 AM to 5 PM, and also less frequent night buses.  Three cheers for public transport in most places outside the U.S.

Thursday night I attended “Island Night” at the Staircase restaurant in downtown Avarua.  This is a night of food and island dance.  I was feeling cheap and only paid for the dancing.  The show was a full hour, though the last bit was more about making people in the audience look like fools with the dancers than anything else.  Still, I love Polynesian dancing.   Frenetic hip swinging for the women.  Knee knocking for the men.  What a workout.  I love the music.  The hollow wood drums make the most incredible sound.    The unfortunate thing about the show was that there were these beautifully dressed dancers in traditional grass skirts, leg adornments, headdresses, and coconut bikini tops.  They looked fantastic.  But the dancing was in a small area at the front of a restaurant, with a disco ball twirling on the ceiling, rather than on a beach at sunset with tiki torches.  Despite the small, even corny venue, I managed a few decent photos.

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Cook Islanders know how to shake it

I caught a cold sometime Wednesday night (the nights were surprisingly chilly) and I expect the microlight aggravated it, so I had a sore throat and the sniffles on Friday.  Oh well, another day to chill out on a tropical island.  I just hung out and walked about town in the morning.  Yet, I found out coincidentally that festivities would begin that day in the lead up to Constitution Day on August 4.

A parade was to begin at 1 PM.  I arrived at the market grounds at one on the dot to find no parade whatsoever.  It was 2:30 before there was any parade activity.  Ah, island time!  The government officials arrived in fancy cars.  The Prime Minister’s car being the most obvious, with the license plate – PM.  There were dancers on grass covered floats, interspersed with civil and religious groups carrying banners.  The floats of dancers were the best because they were colorful and lively, beating drums signaled their arrival.  I enjoyed seeing this slice of local life.

On Saturday morning I rented a bicycle and rode the entire way around the island.  It took me nearly three hours, including a 20-minute break to eat an apple and read a little in my book at the half way point.  It was an easy flat ride.  Very enjoyable for the morning.  I could hardly understand why there are so many cars on the island at all.

My flight left at 8:30 in the evening.  Around two I returned to the hostel, made lunch, watched a movie on the tv, then gathered my backpack for the walk to the airport.  Yes, walk.  I can think of few places where I could simply walk from my hotel to the airport (not counting those expensive airport hotels).  It took me only about 20 minutes to make my way along a country road winding by grazing cows.  I was sad to leave.  It struck me my short holiday was more than half way over.  I really wanted to be heading on to Fiji or Tahiti or New Zealand like the others in the hostel.  I love traveling so much.

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.

 

Malawi Elections: Politics Front and Center

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The stage is set for the third and final Presidential debate

I generally do not blog about my job.  Not that I do not have an interesting one, I do, but my blog is instead about myself, my daughter, our travels, our life abroad.  And my job enables much of that, but its not all I am about.  One thing I like to write about though is what I see around me, the everyday of Malawi.  And right now my job and the everyday are one and the same.

I am a political officer, so my job is to understand the political situation in a country – how the structure of government, the methods of decision making, the form of representation, the formation and implementation of policies come together to shape the country and its domestic and international relationships.  As a traveler, I have always been intrigued by more than just the tourist sites, but also the interplay of history, politics, and culture.  Elections brings politics front and center and give one a fascinating peek into the character of a country.

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Makeshift voting booths in a school courtyard in the October 2017 by-elections

Malawi will hold its general elections on Tuesday, May 21.  Ten days from now, Malawians will go to the polls to elect their President, Parliamentarians, and Local Councilors.  This will be their sixth democratic election.  And I am here to see it happen.

Actually, this whole shebang has been unrolling since I landed in Malawi.  Within weeks of my arrival in August 2017, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) held six by-elections for parliamentary and local councilor seats that had been vacated.  Already, the rivalries for 2019 were on display.  Like the good ole U.S. of A, Malawi starts campaigning real, real early.

With my observer identification, I had an opportunity to visit several polling sites to observe the process.  Although I have voted in a good many elections in the U.S., I have almost always, by nature of my nomadic overseas lifestyle, done so by absentee ballot.  On only three occasions have I voted in person and two were small local elections.  In 2008, I voted in person in a presidential election.  At the time I lived in Washington, D.C., and I found it thrilling to stand in a line that spilled outdoors and around a corner.  For the first time I truly felt the thrill of exercising my right to vote.  Watching Malawians do the same was at least equally exciting, perhaps more so given how much more Malawians have to go through in order to vote.  There is no early voting, no absentee ballots.  Polling stations are often at schools, many in poor shape.  October is hot and dry, there may be little or no shade.  Though these were just by-elections in a few constituencies, and turnout was not high, I was nonetheless impressed, even moved, by those who made the considerable effort to vote.

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Seeing election fever first hand (from left to right) Democractic Progressive Party youth supporters; dancers open up the People’s Party convention; United Transformation Movement supporters show off the new party clothing

As the pre-election season continued I attended many election-related events.  The MEC launched its electoral calendar; I was there.  Some government events turned into political rallies; I was there.  After April 2018 by-elections in the southern district of Mulaje turned violent, the Multi-Party Liaison Committee, a district-level conflict management group made up of district election officials, traditional chiefs, political party representatives, local police, and more, met to hash out what happened; I was there.  When the current Vice President defected from the ruling party to launch his own; I was there in the crowd.  And when the People’s Party held its convention and re-elected former Malawi President Joyce Banda to lead the party again, there I sat, just one row behind her, the only mzungu (“white person” in Chichewa) in the audience.

As the country moved into its voter registration exercise (prospective voters cannot register whenever they want but only during specific two-week timeframes in their respective constituency), I too had the opportunity to observe the process.

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I was thrilled to be in the audience at the final Presidential election, the signing of the national peace pledge by presidential candidates, and attend the National Prayer Breakfast held at State House, the equivalent of the U.S. White House.  I have met in person two of the presidential candidates (the President of Malawi and the leader of the Malawi Congress Party), the former President Joyce Banda, and the wives of the Health Minister and the current Vice President (both accomplished women in their own right).  Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

There is so much excitement and pageantry in Malawian elections.  While in the U.S. we have a two-party system, in Malawi there were 52 registered parties at the beginning of this election season.  In reality, many of those are small “briefcase” parties, but there are seven running for President (one Independent) and 14 contesting parliamentary seats.   Supporter clothing is vibrant, and often in traditional fabric called chitenje; its so much more than just red and blue.

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The three main contenders — get these to hang on your rear view mirror

I feel incredibly privileged to be here in Malawi at this time, to watch a young and vibrant democracy in action, in a country that serves as a model in the region and the continent.  It is of course my job to cover these issues, and as such I have had greater access than most, but my interest goes beyond my career.  This is history in the making and the outcome — no matter who wins (and its anyone’s game at this point) — will shape this country for years to come.

 

Namibia: Superlative Spring Break Part 2

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Heading up the Spreetshoogte Pass — sometimes the best view may be behind you

After our visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund we headed west to the seaside town of Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast.  Leaving Cheetah View Lodge we picked up a mother and son hoping for a lift to Otjiwarongo, the closest town.  On our trip we had already seen at least a handful of people standing by the side of the road hoping for a lift.  Though later we also saw quite a few no-hitching signs, at this point we had not yet.  I would not pick up a single male or a group of males, but a mom and young son, dressed in his school uniform?  There was little along that dirt road and they could be waiting quite some time.  Along the way we chatted.  The mother told me their lift had left them behind and she needed to get her son to town to complete some paperwork before school resumed after the Easter break.   She asked me what I thought of Namibia so far and I raved about the great roads, which, to my surprise, she responded that many Namibians complained about the state of the road system.  This really made me think of relativity — sure, there were places with more paved roads, but in comparison to the roads of Malawi, Namibia seemed a road paradise.

road to the coastWe dropped them in the center of Otjiwarongo and then headed southwest.  This road too was paved and in good shape, but I had miscalculated the distance and it took us an hour longer than expected.   As we approached the coast the green scrubs gave way to desert, and a fog descended, the clouds swallowing up the blue sky.

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Swakopmund in sun, from the end of the jetty

Arriving in Swakopmund we were surprised to find it chilly.  Before coming to Namibia I had set my weather app for Windhoek, and had packed accordingly.  However, while the app indicated a wonderful 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Windhoek, it was hovering in the upper 50s in Swakopmund!  We checked into the hotel, headed out for a late lunch, visited the small museum, and then I purchased myself my very own souvenier fleece jacket (I had had the forethought to bring C’s jacket).

The following day we were up early and soon on our way to the Cape Cross seal reserve.  Cape Cross is so named for the cross Portuguese explorer Diego Cão placed in that location in 1485.  The seal colony is the largest breeding colony of cape fur seals (actually a type of sea lion), with numbers over 200,000 animals!

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Seals between us and the parking lot; surrounded by seals at the replica cross

The sky was an overcast grey, the fog thick, as we made our way out of Swakopmund north to Cape Cross.  Although friends’ had noted the gravel road could be rough, it had been paved in the years since they left the country.  Yet, the sand had blown over the road and soon everything from the road, to the sand, to the mountains, and the sky took on the same steely tan color.  Every so often there were small stands set up on the roadside with various sizes of quartz locals had dug up in the desert.  However, no locals manned the stands, instead the purchaser is on their honor to leave the correct amount in the makeshift plastic banks.  As we closed in on the reserve entrace, a lone jackal made its way across the sands; I was far too slow to capture it with a photo.

Seals as far as the eye could see!  Hundreds of thousands of noisy honking, snorting, seals lying around nearly every available surface, loping across the sand, and cavorting in the waves.  The parking lot was surrounded.  The smell…was, um, frangrant.  We made our way to an enclosed boardwalk, we had to hoist ourselves over to one wall as there seemed no entrance.  Once inside, we could get quite close to the seals hanging right next to the boardwalk.  In fact, towards the end  two seals, who had sneakily made their way onto the walkway, blocked our forward movement.  When we tried to have our pictures taken near the replica of the Portugese cross, one seal kept making aggressive lunges toward me.  I screamed and the laughed as hard as I have in a long while.

Back at Swakopmund the fog lifted and the sky shone gloriously blue.  We had another incredible lunch, then headed for a walk along the beachfront to the very small national marine aquarium, then to the jetty.   Finally we headed to the Krystal Gallerie — mostly a super fancy quartz jewelry store, but it also has a small museum, a little cave to walk through, and a “scratch patch” where kids can buy a small bag and then pick out as many stones as they can fit into a bag.  C LOVES this kind of stuff and a really great time picking out her own “precious jewels.”

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C horseback in the moonscape

Our third day began with an hour horse ride to the moonscape outside of town.  Okakambe stables set us up with a wonderful guide, Noah, who knew exactly how to give C the perfect ride.  Although initially they had us set up with Noah’s son who would walk holding C’s lead, I convinced him C had enough horse experience to do it on her own.  He trusted me and C did a great job.  But that was not it, Noah gave C riding tips, and made her laugh at silly things, like when his horse began wandering away on its own.  Afterwards he tasked her to help remove her horse’s tack, clean its hooves, brush its coat, and then lead him back to the field.  The whole experience completely made C’s morning.

We then drove over to Walvis Bay, as I wanted to see some of the flamingos that flock there each year.  We were able to catch sight of some (maybe there were close to a thousand?), far fewer than the tens of thousands that are there at the height of the season.  Back in Swakopmund we were met by our living desert tour.  With our guides we headed into the dunes just south of Swakopmund and with a miraculous eye they saw tiny trails — little footprints, slither marks, small indentions in the sand.  They found us a Namaqua desert chameleon, a Fitzimmons burrowing skink, a shovel-nosed lizard, a sidewinder adder, a horned adder, and a super friendly Gray’s lark.

17 living desertThere was so much more to do in Swakopmund I was reluctant to leave, but we were heading south-east, back inland, to the Namib-Naukluft Desert, the oldest desert in the world.

It was Good Friday and as we headed south toward Walvis Bay, we were stopped in a long line of cars waiting at a police checkpoint.  Ugh.  There was nothing to worry about of course, but no one likes to wait in a police checkpoint.  And this one turned out to be absolutely nothing to worry about — they were handing out paperbags of Easter candy to motorists!  Another score for Namibia.

After Walvis Bay we headed into the desert and, for the first time, off the tarred roads.

road to solitaireMiles and miles of sandy gravel — stunning vistas but with few, if any, signs of civilization.  No houses, no gas stations, and almost no other cars.  It was exhilarating and also a wee bit scary.  This is where I was especially worried that I would blow a tire, run out of gas (although I had filled up before leaving Walvis Bay), or have some other car trouble, like run into an oryx that suddenly jumped out in front of me.  I had a long, long time to think, to daydream, and also come up with crazy stranded by the side of the road scenarios.  There were enough cars that should something happen someone would likely be along in about an hour, and we had plenty of water, but not something I wanted to experience with C on vacation (or ever).

166At long last we arrived at the town of Solitaire.  Well, town might be a bit of a stretch.  Solitaire is a gas station, bakery, lodge, cafe, general store, and mechanics at a t-junction, the only stop between the coast at Walvis Bay and the dunes at Sossusvlei.  The population is probably less than 100 souls.  The sandy yard around the settlement is littered with colorful and photogenic old rusting cars.  We stayed at the Solitaire Desert Farm seven kilometers away, down a sandy track towards some rocky red hills, that at sunset burned crimson.  The evening was still, with the exception of what I guess were jackals yipping playfully somewhere near our lodge.

We woke early, grabbed our pre-packaged breakfasts from the refrigerator and headed south to Sossusvlei before the sun rose.  This road too was gravel, yet rougher than the one from the coast.  But the hour drive went by quickly as watching the sun rise across the desert was truly magical.  We paid our fees at the park gate and headed straight for Dune 45.  There were some 30 people trudging their way up, a dozen at the top, and probably a dozen on their way down.  Whew.  Here we would go — a middle aged woman, not at her peak physical condition, and a seven year old child.  The climb, according to what I had read online would take 45-60 minutes; we made it in 35 and I felt really, really good about that.  No matter though the view would rejuvenate anyone.

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C heads back down Dune 45

Next we drove on to the parking lot at Sossesvlei where we caught a park shuttle bus to take us out to where we would walk out to Deadvlei.  Along the way we saw the results of stubborn people intent on driving themselves those last few kilometers — many a 2×4, and even a few 4x4s, tires spinning, sunk several inches into the sand.  Our shuttle picked up a few who were at least temporarily abadoning their vehicles in the interest of making the walk before the sun got too high.

We trudged through the now burning sand (we were barefoot for the hike up Dune 45, but now the sand was far too hot) a difficult 20 minutes to the white clay pan dotted with the skeletalized remains of 900-year-old trees known as Deadvlei (“dead marsh”), surrounded by some of the largest sand dunes in the world.

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C at Deadvlei

Whew, it felt like much longer than 20 minutes.  I snapped a few pictures as I caught my breath.  C never seems to need to catch hers.  We were both quite hot though, sweating despite the dryness.  I would have liked to have stayed longer had the temperatures been cooling, but with the heat seeming to rise several degrees per second, I was ready to get back to the air conditioning of the car.  Slogging back through the sand to the shuttle stop, I ended up in step with another visitor.  He seemed quite pleasant, a doctor from Australia traveling with his family.  Though when I think about it, I might have felt a bit more of annoyance when he expressed his surprise first that I might be a U.S. diplomat and then second that I could have ever run half marathons given my huffing and puffing across those dunes at high noon.  Luckily, I was a wee bit too tired to protest.

We drove back to Solitaire for another night, then the next day drove back to Windhoek, this time heading across the stunning Spreetshoogte Pass.  For a good two hours we  passed maybe a total of ten other vehicles, though at the top of the pass I took a picture of an American couple from Manhattan.  Back in Windhoek we had lunch then headed to our lodge for the final night, a room at the lovely Etango Ranch Guestfarm, conveniently located across from the airport, but which felt a world away.

Our road trip finished with 2,674 kilometers (1,661.5 miles) on the odometer.  It was a truly extraordinary journey to the north, west, and south of the country.  It was a journey of superlatives – the third youngest country in Africa, one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the oldest desert in the world, the largest fur seal colony, the oldest national park in Africa, the greatest concentration of cheetahs in the world, the most German of any of Germany’s former colonies…and some of the most stunning scenery anywhere.