Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cook Islands Part 2: Aitutaki

On the way back from French Polynesia, I stopped again in the Cook Islands, for a slightly longer visit, still of only a few days. I arrived early in the morning and had already arranged an afternoon flight to one of the outer islands: Aitutaki. With just a few hours in town, I walked from the airport to the capital, Avarua two looking around the town and decided to just take a local bus around the whole island,, and did a bit of shopping/browsing. I spent an hour or since it only takes about an hour and costs about $3. Everyone here tells you that the bus will stop anywhere, so I waited in a nice shady spot and tried to flag it down when it approached, but apparently I found the one small stretch of road on the island where the bus will not stop, judging by the driver's reaction. Luckily, the anti-clockwise bus comes 20 minutes later, so I just turned my hand the opposite direction and the island tour was on. Affording some nice views of the mountains and the coast, the bus dropped me back at the terminal with about 45 minutes to get to the airport and catch my next flight. I knew I was cutting it close, but it's a tiny airport, so I figured I'd be fine. I started walking the 2 or 3 miles back with my bags, but it was very hot and time was winding down quickly, so I changed my plans and started looking for a ride, all the while with my hamburger lunch in one hand, small backpack on and duffel bag in hand. I consolidated just enough to be able to stick out a thumb and luckily got a ride after about ten minutes.

As I suspected, the airport only took about two minutes to check in, and the boarding pass was actually smaller and less complex than some fast food receipts that I've received. The five of us, along with the stewardess, walked out onto the tarmac, boarded our tiny plane, and we were off.

As with Bora Bora, the descent into the lagoon of Aitutaki and its surrounding islands was incredible. Since we had so few people on the plane, we had to stay in the front to keep the weight evenly distributed, so we couldn't get any great pictures without the propeller in the way, but we were willing to compromise a safe landing for a few more pictures. I think it was a good choice. Aitutaki consists of about 15 islands forming a triangle around what is described by some (most likely the Cook Islands Tourism Board, among others) as the most beautiful lagoon in the world, and I think they may actually have a good claim for it. Again, the powder blue water is incredibly clear, consisting of many reefs and tropical fish and, for the most part, is only between 5 and 15 feet deep, stretching across an area of probably 3 miles by 4 miles. We flew in late in the afternoon, and I got a ride to my room at Paradise Cove, one of the few budget hotels on the island, after being greeted again by some musicians at the airport playing a little guitar and banging on an empty water jug as a drum. This music actually sounded really good, so I quite enjoyed listening to them before they ran off and jumped on the plane just as it was leaving. One more random fact about Aitutaki: there are no dogs, as they were blamed for a leprosy outbreak maybe 50 or so years ago, and every one of them was killed. This was touted as a highlight, since there would be no barking, though the roosters still come out in full force in the morning (or afternoon or whenever they feel like it).

I was looking forward to actually having a room to myself and perhaps even a nice one, but in spite of paying twice as much as the hostels (still only about $25-30), this was my first disappointing night of the trip. First, my reservation was lost, not that it really mattered, though, since there were only one or two other guests. Then, as the suspense built and a few words in the local language back and forth, she opened one of the doors, and I saw my room. It was tiny, very hot, featured a good bit of ants and a few geckos and two of the most uncomfortable single mattresses ever, pushed together under a large sheet to appear as a queen bed. Fortunately, the half-broken fan in the corner did provide a bit of relief, but I quickly decided that I wouldn't be spending too much time in the room. I was there for the island anyway, not the room, so it really wasn't a big deal.

I lathered on some sunscreen and prepared for a hike up to the peak of the highest hill on the islands, as it was supposed to provide a nice view of the lagoon and surrounding area. The hike started at someone's driveway, curved around behind their house, turning into a clearing for a tract of powerlines, then sort of disappeared into the tall grass, but it was still slightly visible, so I made my way up to the top in only about 15 or 20 minutes, so this wasn't quite the trek that I thought I was preparing for. The top did have some nice views of the outer islands and the water, along with the greenery and grasslands of the main island. I got back to the hotel and went to the only available restaurant in the area which was actually just a big deck in someone's back yard, and I had to interrupt the family's dinner to try to find a menu, which wasn't quite accurate. From a list of about 2 choices, I went with the fish and chips, which was actually very good, in between batting away the flies and mosquitoes.

The next day I woke up, got my $20 deposit back for the tiny lock they provided me for the door and jumped on the shuttle for the lagoon cruise, supposedly the highlight of the islands. About 25 of us boarded a pseudo-Polynesian boat that had set of tables and chairs underneath a covered deck, and then we started our tour...well, we actually went out a bit, got a call on the radio and realized that we had forgotten to pick up two more passengers on an outer island, so we had to turn back, but then we got going. The water in the middle of the lagoon was almost a glacial powder blue, clearing up in spots where you could see the reef and whenever you got near shore. We pulled up to our first island which one of the islands on which a recent Survivor series was filmed. This was another of those tiny islands surrounded on most sides by white sand with some palm trees hanging around the sides and thicker vegetation in the middle. After exploring a bit, the captain blew on the conch shell, indicating it was time for us to move on. Our next stop was the pearl of the lagoon: One Foot Island. This island is incredible, and it is the focus of almost every person's visit to Aitutaki. It has beautiful green water around, pristine white sand, tons and tons of palm trees, and a tiny post office where the worker can stamp your passport with a One Foot Island stamp, though I didn't get one. Excitedly, I was the first off the boat and was sent into a picture taking frenzy by the astounding scenery. I took pictures from the water, the beach, the water, the beach...everything looked so amazing. I've been to quite a few tropical beaches, but this definitely ranks near the top in terms of scenery.

The story of the island is that a local villager and his child were being chased by two men in canoes from a rival tribe. They chased them around the lagoon, and the man pulled up to One Foot Island. Now, the story diverges, but either: he had his son walk ahead of him on the beach into the woods and followed directly in his footsteps, leaving only one set of prints, or he put his son on his shoulders and walked into the woods, leaving only one set of prints. Either way, when the attackers came, they only saw one set of footprints, so they eventually found and killed the villager, but they didn't look for the son hiding in another tree, since they though only one person was on the island. The son survived and brought the story back to the village, and the local name means One Footprint - then translated to One Foot Island. kind of looks like the shape of a left foot from the air. Either way.

Whatever the story, the island is unbelievable. We spent about three hours walking around the island, taking pictures, relaxing in the tropical sun and eating lunch. One side of the small island is covered with shells and coral, and since I had given my sandals to that guy in the Tahiti airport, my bare feet forbade me to go much farther past the white sand part of the island. All in all, it would still probably only be about 20 or 30 minutes around the island. The glistening water was nice and warm, and a few fish could be seen every few minutes, just surveying the intruder into their paradise. I can't describe enough how beautiful this place is, so hopefully the pictures will do it justice. Also, our lunch was excellent - some marinated tuna (eventually a lot of it), salad, star fruit, fried bananas, sweet bread, papayas and more. I've also been doing well this trip in eating a lot of seafood, since I wasn't a big fan when I left, and this fish was great. This cruise also featured some local music by the workers and an instructional session on the different ways to tie a sarong, with the obligatory jokes as he tied the sarongs delicately around some sensitive areas of the amused tourists.

After we headed back across the lagoon, I headed straight for the airport and was able to get on the earlier flight back to Rarotonga. This was good in a sense, though I still had six hours to kill at the airport before flying back to Fiji. I walked around, found a hidden outlet to recharge my iPod and just sat around for a while. The airport has some nice benches with grass and open air in the middle, so I spent a lot of time staring at the moon and the stars as a pleasant breeze came through, making an almost perfect night, other than the large plane landing next to you (but that only happens about once a day). I also tried to work my magic on getting onto one of the computers available for the internet, but I couldn't quite crack the password. I tried Rarotonga, Cook Islands...everything. It must be something cryptic. Luckily I checked in a few hours early, as there were definitely some problems with my booking. This was the last leg of my island flights, and I had booked those separately from my main flights to New Zealand and Australia, so there was a problem since the system didn't recognize that I had an onward flight from Fiji. Many of these islands won't let you enter with just a one way ticket, and I didn't have the printout of my other flight receipts with me, so eventually I was just asked to climb over the conveyor belt, around the counter and into the back room of the Air New Zealand office. A group of guys were gathered around watching some rugby on tv, and I was put in front of one of the oldest looking computers ever and told that maybe I could find my reservations on email. Of course this computer wouldn't be able to use email, so I moved into the office and plush leather chair of one of the managers. Unfortunately, their computers are filtered, so I couldn't access my email or my itinerary. After many searches and assuring them that my flight to Auckland was on March 5, one of them finally found the booking in their antiquated system, which was under another listing, since I booked those flights separately, something I had mentioned to them a total of about 10 times. After 30 minutes in the back room, I was cleared to go, so I went back and waited for the ride back to Fiji. It was certainly a short stay, but the views of the Cook Islands and Aitutaki will definitely be unforgettable.(The musicians at the tiny airport - basically one big room with two stands on the side)(Approaching One Foot Island on the boat - slightly crooked, but still excited)(Me on the beach with the boat in the background, sporting some bare feet that would be both slightly sunburnt and slight cut up from the coral)(The other side of One Foot Island and the beautiful water)(My favorite view of the island, just meters away from where the boat was docked)(One last look while leaving the sad)

French Polynesia: Bora Bora

(Or Bo-ha Bo-ha in French)
The third and final island of my quick tour of French Polynesia would be the highly acclaimed Bora Bora. I caught a 45 minute flight from Moorea and, along with the rest of the passengers, I was glued to the window as the island appeared out of the clouds. It is a truly spectacular sight: a central green peak surrounded by a few beaches on the main island then a powder blue lagoon around the main island and finally a ring of thin islands that nearly create a complete circle around the island. The airport is actually located on one of the small islands, so, in true decadent Bora Bora style, a luxury yacht takes passengers on the 20 minute ride across the lagoon to one of the tiny towns, consisting of a few homes and a few shopping centers. With only about 5,000 people on the island, tourism is the focus of the economy and most everything on the island. Of course I found the cheapest place on the island, a hostel in a small house for about $36 a night. As in Moorea, my hostel was strategically located near one of the top luxury resorts on the island, The Intercontinental (no, not that annoying Christopher Walken sketch on Saturday Night Live fortunately). On another guest's recommendation, I simply walked into the resort and asked if I could look around, so then I stayed in high style for about an hour, admiring the white sand beach, overhanging, manicured palms and overwater bungalows with a view of the glistening green lagoon backed by the two peaks of the island. There were many honeymooners at the hotel, and it was easy to see why. This really was a tropical Eden, but you certainly had to pay the price, again with rooms in excess of $1,000 a night for the ones near the water. Across the tiny peninsula from the hotel, a group of people gathered to watch the wonderful sunsets over the West side of the island. To top off my great day in paradise, I finished with an amazing dinner: an overflowing plate of spaghetti noodles and pesto sauce, bought at the local market and cooked in the hostel for about $4, as opposed to much smaller portions at a tourist restaurant for 5 times the price. It doesn't get much better than this.

The next day, I wanted to see more of the island, and with a lack of public transport, a bicycle seemed to be my best option. The circumference of the island and coastal road is only 32 km (about 20 miles), so despite the heat and humidity, it was definitely feasible to ride around the island in half a day or so. After a late start and a lazy morning, I took off around the island around 10:30 or 11:00. Every turn of the road offered unique and beautiful views of the interior mountain and the surrounding lagoon, providing many photo opportunities and chances to take a break from the unrelenting sun underneath some of the surrounding palms.

Halfway through the ride, I found a nice bench overlooking the lagoon and decided to have some water and eat my massive lunch consisting of one apple. Just as I was finishing and warding off a few mosquitoes, a big truck pulled up and four people emerged. They all were staring at me as they got out, so I feared that I might be trespassing on their property or something. One of the bigger guys cam up to me, shook my hand, and said something to me in an interesting mix of French and Tahitian, of which I only understood the final word: mauruuru, meaning thank you in Tahitian - something I picked up on the flight over during the safety instructions. Then a young, very Aryan-looking guy came over and started speaking English. The young man, not more than 20 or 21, had a nametag reading Elder Jones, as he was apparently a Mormon on his mission trip for 18 months in French Polynesia. He spoke to me briefly about a few trivial things, but it was clear that he was still early in his missionary career, as his skills in keeping a conversation going were less than stellar (and this assessment of social skills is coming from an actuary). Next the good part: they were carrying plates of food to offer to the people they met, so I got a free lunch of chicken, potatoes and two rolls. Just as I started eating, something in French was said, and the group had to move on. Elder Jones finally mentioned 20 or 30 seconds about the Mormon church, gave me a card with a picture of Salt Lake City and the website, and that was it.

Following my fortuitous lunch break, I moved around the Northern tip of the island, still a bit hot and sweaty but cherishing every moment of this amazing ride. Nearing the end of my trip, I found a surreal bay with a nice pier and a tiny hut, so I spent some time cooling off in the shade and even took a swim in the serene water, which is a big step for those of you who know about my (lack of) swimming prowess. The water was too incredible to resist, though. I eventually made it back to the hostel, a little hot, a little tired, a little sore, but it was definitely a memorable ride. As a side note, whenever I ride bikes for a long time, I remember that they aren't the most comfortable things in the world and some of the biking adventures in my mind might not be as great as they seem.

For my last day, I basically hung out at the tiny beach behind the hostel and relaxed before my evening flight back to Tahiti. Even after seeing the island for a few days, I was still amazed by the incredible natural beauty as I flew back to the main island of Tahiti. Not wanting a repeat performance of the airport fiasco, I was able to get in contact with a hostel - the same one I tried before who apparently didn't receive my email until the night after my requested stay, so they picked me up, and I listened to the many travel stories of the other guests at the hostel and their round-the-world trips. Thus far, there have been many Brits and Europeans but very few Americans, which has been kind of nice.

(Flying into Bora Bora)

(The amazing boat ride to the main island.)

(Me at the bungalows of the Intercontinental - taken by a Japanese guy after some quick advice on how I'd like the picture framed...a little shady, but not bad)

(Stormy skies after I left the picture, though the rain was very, very brief and light)

(The inside of my hostel - my room was upstairs behind those curtains)

(The pier and view from my final break during the bike ride around the island)

(The sunset from the beach across from the Intercontinental - everything is better there, even nature)

(A final, sunny picture of the same area - I liked that palm tree)

French Polynesia: Moorea

So, after a sobering and unrestful night at the airport, I boarded my morning flight to Moorea, just 7 minutes away by plane. Normally, I'd opt for the option of the cheaper boat ride, but my island flights were cheaper when booking an island pass, so this part was included, and it saved me from having to take a bus or taxi to the dock. Also, it allowed me to stay in the airport long enough for the cafe to open where I chose two dark chocolate filled pastries and some mango/orange juice. Tres bon. Despite the rough introduction to French Polynesia, Moorea quickly turned my whole attitude around with its stunning landscapes.

Within 5 or 10 minutes from the airport, the transfer bus rounded the corner, revealing Cook's Bay, of course named for the British sailor who explored much of the area. The deep blue water sparkles, surrounded on both sides by thick green vegetation and unbelievably steep, looming green mountains. Even after seeing hundreds, maybe thousands, of pictures of this during my years of travel research, it was so much more impressive in person to get the feel of the magnitude and natural beauty of the place. I can't imagine the overwhelming awe that one must have felt upon discovering a place as magnificent as this. I continued on the ride, and luckily I found my hostel for the night to be friendly, surprisingly nice, and, most importantly, available for the night. The hostel has a nice view overlooking the water halfway between Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay, a similar bay about a mile or two from Cook's Bay. I started the day fulfilling one of my many lifelong travel dreams: kayaking in Cook's Bay. The hostel had a few kayaks that were free, so I grabbed my camera and immediately headed out. Initially it was slow going, as the water is quite shallow and there are many reefs reaching up to the surface that must be dodged. Then, for a second, I was happy to be moving into some deeper, darker water. This sensation didn't last long, though, when I realized that Moorea is one of the places that people visit to do shark feedings, so not only are they around, they are accustomed to going near people for food. I picked up the pace with my paddling and soon rounded the corner of incredible Cook's Bay. I sat in the bay for a while, marvelling at the scenery, taking in the fact that I was truly there, paddling through the blue waters. Deciding not to stay idle for too long, I headed back to the pension/hostel for my next adventure of the day.

I set out on foot towards Opuhonu Bay, to see how it compared and, of course, to try to get more pictures. The tropical sun and humidity are apparent the moment you start walking, but how could I not explore a place like this? My first stop was the Sheraton Hotel for a nice tour. Everything about the place is luxurious, from the pool to the thatched hut restaurant on the beach to the overwater bungalows. I acted like I fit in and took a nice tour of the facilities for about an hour. Pictures of these overwater bungalows have always enchanted me, so another goal of mine was accomplished by actually seeing them in person...staying in them might be a different story, as the prices are astronomical - some of them started at about $1,100 per night. After my brief stay in the paradisiacal hotel, I returned to reality and continued walking.

I found a nice little place service pizza and sandwiches or a decent price according to their outdoor menu, but there were no workers to be found. Further on, I found a good local cafe that served chow mein, rice and bread, all for about $7, which is a great deal in this expensive area. I was even getting full during the meal, but I definitely wouldn't leave anything on my plate, since I knew I'd be hungry later. I found my way to Opuhonu Bay, and it was almost as impressive as Cook's, though not quite as grand. Palm trees lined the shore and despite the lack of beaches on most of the island, people were still everywhere, playing in the water. The interior of the island features a jagged peak known as the shark's tooth, and it was another familiar image that I'd seen over and over in pictures but was finally able to see the real thing. After that, I headed back to the pension and relaxed for the evening after my long walk. I was joined in the dorm room by a French couple and briefly by a French mother and daughter who apparently found me unbearable, as they changed to a private room just a few minutes after checking in. They couldn't get away that easily, though. The next morning as they were leaving and despite a language barrier, I managed to talk my way into a ride to the airport. Even though they were only going part of the way, the French lady drove me the whole way, which was quite nice. Merci boucoup. It's amazing how things always seem to work out when you're travelling. Divine intervention, providence, luck, skill...any of the above. Except when your things get stolen at the airport, then not so much.

(The upstairs hostel room in Moorea, taken from my bed - the opening overlooks the water.)

(Kayaking in Cook's Bay - note the stylish towel protecting my neck from sunburn and adding a tropical feel)

(The bungalows and beach of The Sheraton, taken from one of the walkways to more bungalows.)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

French Polynesia: Tahiti/Faaa Airport (yes, three a's)

Another late Air New Zealand flight delivered me to the outskirts of the capital city, Papeete at 12:30 in the morning. (they stop flying to Tahiti in April, so I got lucky). Again, I had contacted a hostel via email with no response, so I was hoping for a pleasant surprise at the airport, but I was certainly disappointed. First, it took me five minutes to get through customs as the officer apparently didn't understand my outgoing ticket until talking with his manager. Then I found only representatives from a few luxury hotels and a not-so-aptly named information booth that was of no help. A fellow backpacker was also looking desperate, and I mentioned to him that I might just sleep in the airport. After seeing a few others laying out on the floor or benches, I decided my best option was to find a place to sleep for a few hours and then take an early flight to one of the other islands, since Papeete is certainly not touted as an interesting or attractive city. Also keep in mind that this is not a nice carpeted airport with air conditioning - it's an open-air building with tile floors and hard metal seats, so sleeping at the airport was already not going to be as luxurious as it initially sounded. I also didn't know the policy on sleeping there, so I didn't want to pick an obvious spot that would get me in trouble. Around one corner, I found a spot with a few rows of seats and some open space that was already being used as a sleeping area by two men that appeared to be homeless. I decided against laying on the hard, dirty floor, so I picked a chair, locked my bags together and wrapped them around my leg and propped my head up on my arm. I had heard of certain airports being dangerous to sleep in, but Papeete never seemed to make it on that list. Even so, I was a little worried, but I clutched my bags between my legs and hoped to get a little bit of rest. Just before falling asleep, I saw the other backpacker, a 20-something traveller from the German part of Switzerland, place his sleeping mat on the floor directly across from me. He then wedged his huge backpack between the wall and a row of chairs.

I finally fell asleep about 1:15 am, but the 'sleep' was far from restful. Every 20 or 30 minutes, a combination of paranoia and uncomfort would awaken me, drifting just far enough into consciousness to open one eye, take a look around, feel for my bags, realize how much my neck hurts due to the sleeping position, check my watch, then fall back asleep. Right around 3 am, I did my obligatory scan of the surroundings, and I noticed that something looked different. Not only had the Swiss traveller changed sleeping positions, something else was different. I opened both eyes long enough to realize that his bag was no longer behind those chairs. I immediately tried to rationalize the situation, thinking that he may have laid it down next to him out of sight, or he found a locker in which to store it, though I know that both of those hypotheses were quite unlikely. Next, I checked for my bags, and they both seemed intact, though I still didn't have the awareness to check the contents. Despite being locked and between my legs, the zippers could still open partially, and they were accessible from the opening under the chairs behind me. As I fought feelings of sleep, I tried to think about what to do and finally found that all of my belongings were still with me, though I had a horrible feeling that wasn't the case for the other guy. About five minutes later, I saw him turn over, glance up where his bag should have been, quickly pop up and check around the other sides of him, then the look of panic/disbelief came over his face, in what would have to be one of the worst feelings of his life. I felt so incredibly bad for the guy as we sat on the bench and talked about what to do.

He flagged down a cleaning lady and told her his story in somewhat broken English, since neither of us speak French. She went off to get someone else, while he and I stayed behind, scanning the area, hoping to find some clue or remnant. He told me about his previous time in New Zealand, upcoming two weeks in Tahiti, then four month stay in the US and Canada. We were trying to figure out how it would work, since everything: his clothes, shoes, tent, camping gear, fishing pole, wallet, credit card, passport, 20,000 Swiss Francs, camera...everything was gone. He mentioned how he had his money and id cards and passport in a travel pouch around his stomach, but he took them off and put them in his bag before going to sleep. He had taken off his boots and placed them on top of his bag. He had thought about tying a rope inside his bad around his stuff and his arm, but he decided not to do so, since he felt his spot was safe enough. Now, he was left standing there at 3 am, barefoot with a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, the sweater he had used as a pillow, and the sleeping mat from his camping gear as his only possessions. That was it. I still felt so bad for him, but at a point like that, there is really nothing much to say, so I mostly just sat back and listened.

Soon after, an airport official came by and told us that sometimes there are "steal guys"(thieves), and that they'd be looking into it. He did seem to care and tried his best to help, but there was not much to be done. Also, our area was one of the few without security cameras, though we convinced him to check the tapes of the nearby cameras to see someone walking off with the bag. Next, they would contact the Swiss Consulate, but that wouldn't open until 7:30 am, another few hours away. Wishing I could do something to help, I sat there with the guy for a few hours and gave him my second pair of shoes/hiking sandals, but I wished I could do more, realizing how much something like that could completely ruin and turn around a trip. Also, he'll have to buy some of his replacement gear in Tahiti, which is definitely not a cheap place. A little scared and a little shocked, I went to the Air Tahiti booth when it opened and booked my ticket to Moorea, Bora Bora and back to Tahiti to complete my four day trip.

(Greeters playing traditional music at the airport.)

(I was sleeping in the chair two to the left of the green guy, and the Swiss guy was laying on the floor in between the chairs and the guy on the phone)

The Cook Islands: Rarotonga

Kia Orana,
A three hour flight on Air New Zealand brought me to the island of Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands. Unfortunately, Air New Zealand has developed the idea that late night flights are a good idea, so after crossing back over the Date Line (just barely) and then another two hour time change, I arrived at 10:40 pm, the day before I left, and I didn't even use the flux capacitor - take that Doc Brown. (Come on, this is an easy'll be embarrassed that you didn't get it) I had emailed a hostel on the island and asked for a transfer from the airport, but I never heard back from them, but I still had hope that they might just show up, as this is a laid-back island culture. Cook Islands Time. Hahaha. Cute. As we exited the plane and entered the tiny airport, an old man in a straw hat and Hawaiian shirt greeted us with his guitar, drum machine and a few typical songs as we waited to get through customs. (They also had a group of three musicians welcoming us to Fiji in a similar manner when I arrived there.) After customs, there were a few booths for the hotels/hostels, and I saw the name of my potential place, yet that booth was empty. So, as the other tour buses were leaving, I quickly joined another group and went blindly to their hostel. When I awoke, I got a better view of the hostel, situated on the foothills of the main mountain on the island. It has a few rooms built on different levels and circled around a swimming pool with various wooden platforms, patios and such thrown together, creating a very interesting look, all overlooking some thick vegetation of mostly banana trees and offering a distant view of the Pacific. At about $15 a night, it wasn't a bad deal at all. Also, the spastic kitten kept me company by attacking me, my book, the overhanging plants, the railing on the stairs and anything that moved or appeared to move. As with most of the hostels, there is no A/C, so windows and doors are left open, meaning that mosquito bites are pretty common on any legs that happen to sneak out from under the covers during the night. Quite a dilemma - to stay a little hot and under the sheet or cool off and risk the onslaught that you may regret in the morning.

After a few of the free bananas, I went down to the main road to hitchhike my way to Muri Beach, what sounded like a nice beach with a few offshore islands (motu). After a long wait and missing a bus during the 1.5 minutes that I went to talk to a gardener, a teacher from NZ gave me a ride halfway. The 32km road around the island hugs the palm-lined coast and has some magnificent views of the beautiful water. After another 20 minute wait, I caught a ride with a retired Aussie who began travelling at age 24 and never returned. (anyone see any parallels here?) He dropped me at the beach, and I helped him carry his boat to the water before looking for some lunch. I quickly found a restaurant with a covered patio overlooking the surreal lagoon, white sand and surround palm covered islands. After lunch, I wandered around the beach, taking pictures every couple of minutes, as each view seemed to be the perfect one, and I stayed at the beach until a little before dusk, when it was time to catch the bus back to the airport. Accompanying/entertaining me along the way was a middle-aged American couple that epitomized over-packing and bickering. Upon boarding the bus, they literally had to make three trips to get all of their bags (6 large ones, I believe), and they sauntered down the aisles, banging knees and elbows as they went, complaining and responding with the short, irritated "Yes, dear. I know." Watching them made me really glad that I had arranged to leave most of my bags and cold weather clothes at the hostel in Fiji, so hopefully that's still there when I get back. And, yes, despite laughing at them on the inside, I did help them with their baggage when we got off.

Despite only being there one day on a stopover, I was very impressed with the Cook Islands, both the beauty and laid-back attitude, which was a nice change from the Fijian city that can seem a little pushy. Following French Polynesia, I'm back here for two more days, taking a trip to one of the outer islands that surrounds what is described as the most beautiful lagoon in the world. I just hope it doesn't rain. It is the rainy season here in the South Pacific, but I've been lucky to feel nothing more than a very slight sprinkle. Hopefully my luck will continue. The other good part of that means that the hotels aren't overbooked and the beaches aren't crowded, though the temperature and humidity are higher, and the bugs are all around.

(My hostel in Rarotonga, overlooking the pool and the forest - and through a screen door)

(One of the motu and a boat off the coast of Muri Beach)

Pictures to Come

I'll be uploading some pictures when I get back to Fiji and hopefully posting them with the appropriate stories, as long as I can figure out how to do it correctly. Should be two days from right now...start the countdown...


In Fiji For A Few More Days

After a day or two roaming the main street of Nadi and catching up on some sleep in the hostel, I made a day trip with my Dutch friends, Nathan and Hans Van Dam. Feel free to laugh at him and his last name; I certainly did. We took a local bus 40 minutes down the coast to Natadola Beach, reputed to be one of the best beaches on the main island. On the final road to the beach, we flagged down a ride with two Germans, Yannis and Daniel, and their tour guide. The beach proved to be a bit disappointing, though we were some of the only ones in sight (good thing for Hans and his Speedo). After just an hour or two, we rejoined the Germans and negotiated a cheap, quick trip back to town. On the way, we did see a military roadblock with guards armed with semi-automatic weapons, though they didn't seem to be doing anything other than look imposing. For those of you not up on your Fijian current events, you should be ashamed of yourselves. If you were, you'd realize that there are high racial tensions between the native Pacific Islander landowners and the many Indians who own the majority of the shops, restaurants and other commercial entities. In the preceding year, the military overthrew the government and has instated an interim leader, though they claim that the coup had the peoples' backing. Either way, I think the takeover was bloodless, so it wasn't too bad. Maybe.

The next day, I made my first trip to one of the outer islands around Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. These outer islands are the idyllic images of outcrops of sand and palm trees surrounded by clear water that are conjured up when one thinks of Fiji. I decided to take a day cruise to Tivua (Mystery Island), partially a conscious decision and partially a de facto one, since a few of the other day tours decided to take the day off. It's ok, they're on Fiji Time. Haha. Cute. Now stop saying that all the time.

After picking me up at my hostel, the bus took us to the port and awaiting sailboat/cruiser. The dock turned out to be a great people-watching place with a blend of eclectic Asians, Germans, Aussies, Brits and a few Americans, all of varying shades of red, depending on how long they'd been on vacation. As we gathered on the boat, the crew got together and grabbed two guitars to enchant us with some typical island melodies (quasi-Hawaiian sounding). The cruise also included a breakfast (toast and tea) and a few juices. Outside the boat, the towering green mountains of the mainland looked quite impressive as we hugged the coastline before turning off towards our own private island. Completely encircled by bright white sand, reefs and crystal-clear water with a hint of green, the island immediately lived up to the image on the brochure. While some of the other passengers were lured away by the prospect of snorkeling gear rental, I seized the opportunity to move to the front of the boat and get a few pictures of us arriving at the island. I was also able to squeeze my way onto the first shuttle boat to the island from the lagoon, which was a huge move. Once on the deserted island, after a few key karate maneuvers directed at the old folks and infants and a challenging, moreso than expected, footrace with some Baby Boomers a little past their prime, I got my spot in the last covered chair under an umbrella on the island. My skin will thank me later for that.

The center of the island was full of palm trees and vegetation along with bathrooms, some tables for lunch and a volleyball court. To begin the tour, the workers selected a chief and a bodyguard for the day, a Canadian and Brit that certainly weren't tribal warrior material. In fact, if cannibalism still existed in Fiji, I don't think their juicy frames would have lasted the day. As a part of the ceremony, they made the traditional drink, Kava, which was implied to be safe, all-natural and alcohol free, despite it being a somewhat hallucinogenic drink very popular among the locals. It just herbs - it can't be bad, can it?

Apart from the brief insight into the tourist re-creation of the local customs and a BBQ lunch consisting of sausage, chicken, fish, potato salad, salad, bananas, papayas and a roll, there was very little to do on the island, which is exactly the point (of course I had to try at least a bit of each food, just to make sure it was ok for the other guests). I took a few walks around the island, each one only taking about 15-20 minutes and mostly sat back and contemplated life and other trivial topics while staring into the beautiful lagoon.

After about five hours on the island, we gathered our crew and headed back to the mainland. We were again accompanied by some traditional music and a rousing, "clever" rendition of "Oh When the Saints" including marvellously witty verses such as "I want to be in the number when...the rum makes your bum numb...the brandy makes you randy...the whiskey makes you frisky...the kava makes you (some incomprehensible, suggestive word that probably rhymes with kava)." Maybe someone recorded it on mp3 for everyone to enjoy. If not, sorry.

It's been really hot and humid here, so I'm thinking that I might try my luck with a Fijian haircut in town. Hopefully they don't mind sweaty American hair - how could they? Then I'm off for a quick trip to the Cook Islands on the way to French Polynesia. I'm a little worried because I haven't made any plans and have heard that French Polynesia is very expensive. Obviously not worried enough to do anything about it, though. Oh well.

(The boat ride over to Tivua)

(On the isolated beach of Tivua)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Fiji First Impressions

Bula! (hello)
So, after 25 or 26 long, convoluted hours of traveling, I've arrived in my first destination: Fiji. To save money, I found a flight that went through DC and LA on the way to Fiji. I could have either connected through DC or Chicago, and luckily I chose DC, as it had less of a chance of being snowed in, which was exactly what would have happened if I had gone with that option. Many people routed through Chicagowere canceled or delayed and were roaming the airport. In LA, I saw a crazy group of New Zealanders (Kiwis) with spiky bleached blonde and purple hair, a frightening amount of make up and some retro 80s clothing that would have even been considered extreme 20 years ago. A few of the employees were laughing at them, and then, ironically, they sat next to me on the plane and were laughing at a European in front of us that found it necessary to come on the plane prepared for a blizzard, complete with a matching white outfit and jacket, earplugs, headphones, two sleeping masks, huge wool socks and more. Also, he was completely oblivious to his surroundings and hit his head at least three or four times on the overhead compartments and was quite startled and confused when the flight attendant tried to give him his dinner, as he was half asleep, perhaps dreaming of the Arctic vacation for which it seemed that he had prepared. Flying out of LA, I could see streams of lights, multi-lane highways, suburbs stretching into the horizon in every direction, and I realized that it would be quite a contrast from my upcoming adventures.

I wasn't able to sleep much on the flight, though I did have a chance to read a great book, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, from cover to cover. The story revolves around a young man following his dreams and traveling into the unknown, so there were certainly a few poignant parallels. I also did a bit of reading on my destination, but I didn't have time to decide upon a place to stay before I arrived. Luckily, there were some brochures and a free phone in the airport, and I think I chose my hostel well. Mama's Tropic of Capricorn truly is like a family. Mama and Mary take care of you, remember everyone's names, ask all kinds of questions, provide travel advice, cook breakfast (including some great pancakes and all the toast you can eat - which is quite a lot), and much more. The rate of F$15 per night, about $10, is not bad at all. I'm in a dorm room with 10 beds (5 bunks). I've also met some interesting people staying along with me. Dale and Steve - an Australian set of brothers taking a two month holiday during their break from Uni (University). Clive or Clyde - a somewhat bitter backpacker from England that was a bit disillusioned with the island, due to the fact that nearly his entire stay here coincided with one of the biggest storms in the past ten years. Parts of the main city were flooded waist-deep, so people were basically stuck in their hotels. Andy 1 - a friendly German on his way home after a year of travels. Andy 2 - an Australian pilot from New Zealand that is working here for the past 8 months and is counting down the days, hours, minutes until he can go back home. Brian - a Canadian pilot in a similar situation who has bought a 70s motorcycle for local transport. Hans - a well-travelled Dutchman that is in the beginnings of his round the world trip. Nathan - a young Dutchman about to go to college who seems to know or pretend to know a bit about everything, though he's not bad.

Today, after a late start, we took advantage of the sun's return to the island by taking a bus and taxi ride to Natadola Beach, about 40 minutes from our town and supposedly the nicest beach on the main island. I was accompanied by the two Dutchmen, so we boarded our open air bus and got a nice tour of the countryside, verdant hills, thatched huts and simple concrete houses along the way. Once at the junction to the beach, we flagged down a driver taking two Germans, Jannis and Daniel, around the island, so we negotiated a cheap taxi fare to the beach. Surprisingly, we were the only five people on the beach for most of our time there. Stretching for about a mile in a crescent shape, the beach was not bad, but it certainly wasn't a postcard worthy picture that would inspire awe and jealousy. Hopefully I'll find one of those beaches soon enough. We negotiated again with the driver and actually ended up getting back to time more cheaply and much more quickly than we would have been able to do on the bus.

Back in town, we visited a strange Hindu temple, requiring use to remove our shoes before entering, but once we got in, we figured it wasn't worth the F$3.50 that they wanted to charge us per person, so we turned around and left. Suckers - we saw most of it from the outside anyway, since it's open and two sides. Then, for the second night in a row, we ate at the local Indian supermarket that has a tiny restaurant on the side. For about $2.50, I got a plate of rice, some curry sauce, a side and a drink. Last night I went with the chicken curry, but that was quite a bit of work pulling the never-ending bones from my teeth, so I opted for the vegetarian option of chutney today, and it was a much easier eating experience. Now, I'm back in the internet cafe, struggling through some old operating systems and shabby spacebars on the keyboards, but I'm not looking for sympathy; I think I'll be alright.

Tomorrow should be my first glimpse of the true paradise conjured up in the mind when the word Fiji is mentioned. I'm taking a day cruise on a very large sailboat to one of the nearby islands. The boat features a glass bottomed viewing area for the manta rays, sharks, coral, or whatever else awaits. The island is a small one, with lush vegetation in the middle and completely encircled by a swath of white sand. It is actually quite close to the islands on which they filmed the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks. I'm sure my impressions will go over well with the locals, as they've never experienced something that witty and unique, considering the movie was only about 8 years ago and the island has been nicknamed Castaway Island. On the island, we'll be served breakfast and lunch before returning just before sunset. Thus far, my pasty white skin has remained true to its description, but this should be the first test for it.

The next day, I may try a quick trek into the highlands to see some of the mountains or rivers, and then I'm flying out to the Cook Islands that night. After a day there, I move on to French Polynesia/Tahiti for four days before two more days in the Cook Islands and eight more in Fiji. Once back in Fiji, I think I'll try to spend a few nights on some of the secluded islands to the Northwest.

Anyway, the Dutchies are outside smoking, waiting for me, so I need to go. This is my first posting here, so hopefully it works.


(A view of the Tropic of Capricorn - my great hostel)

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