Thursday, February 9, 2017

Quick hello; "A Cutting"

Hi there! A break from my break in posting because I'm very excited to have just had some writing published in Switchback Magazine, an on-line publication of the University of San Francisco. At the moment, if you click here, you can scroll down to the nonfiction section and then click on the title of my piece, "A Cutting." (It's a throwback to the Madagascar years!....) Not sure how long it will be until they put up a new crop of pieces, though so hopefully this link will work long past when my name disappears from the homepage. :)
Thanks for reading, and hope you like it!

Monday, December 12, 2016

See you back here soon...

...when more international adventures ensue at some point down the line in 2017! Probably not until March or April. In the meantime, I'll be soaking up the family-and-friends time Stateside. Enjoy the rest of 2016 and the start of the new year!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Nuku'alofa / Tongatapu

When it was time to head back to Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga (and the capitol city of Nuku'alofa), I decided to take the 2.5-hr ferry ride rather than the 10-minute plane ride. It's a fraction of the price and a cultural experience in and of itself, which was really fun. People with good memories and a fondness for obscure international news may remember that in 2009, there was a tragic ferry sinking in Tonga that took several hundred lives. The only upside of that sadness is that ferry maintenance/safety came under a lot of scrutiny afterward, and now the ferries are quite safe. So with about a hundred other people. I waited for the 'Onemato to be off-loaded and reloaded and all of us herded aboard....


...and off we went to Tongatapu. It was so much fun to see the Tongans move into that ship as if they were going to be living on it for weeks. They spread out floor mats that they'd brought with them, and blankets (recalling one of my favorite things in Tonga: watching people dressed in faux-leather jackets and other unbelievably warm clothing dramatically wipe the sweat from their faces), and those who didn't just lie down and sack out for the whole ride eventually got out picnics and decks of cards and had a grand old time.


And as the sun sank low, we made it safely back to Nuku'alofa, the capital city of Tonga. I've saved Tongatapu (the island Nuku'alofa is situated on) pics for my last post since I ended up spending time here at the beginning, middle, and end of my trip but don't need separate posts for all. (That middle stint was not planned, but Real Tonga Airlines can cancel my flights anytime they want since they're apparently willing to then put me up in one of the nicest hotels in town--WAY nicer than anything I'd book for myself! Which was especially nice because that was a day/night of extremely heavy rain the likes of which they only see a few times a year, it sounds like. The sound of it on the roof of the hotel was overwhelming! SO much water, for hours and hours!! But I was cozy in my nice--and free!--room.)

This isn't exactly a one HORSE town...but on the other hand, there sure aren't many stoplights, and this is as close to a high-rise or a busy street as you're going to see anywhere in the island nation of Tonga.


The first time I was in town, I stayed at a B-and-B type place owned by the local gentleman on the left in this picture, who is a real character. On the afternoon he was going to show me around town, he ended up having to go to a meeting so roped a Danish expat friend of his (see right) to show me around instead, and afterward the three of us had to-die-for iced coffees and chocolate cake at Escape Cafe.


Among the sights on the Dane's tour of town were the royal palace (which to me looks like something that belongs on Prince Edward Island, no?):


And the royal tombs:


But after my year on ice, I was more taken with the fruit and veg stands all along the main road into town. Mouth-watering, I'm telling you.


A Tongan playpen?


I did get a bit outside of Nuku'alofa to one of the main points of interest on Tongatapu. Along the beautiful cliffs of the southern coast of the island...


...there are these great blowholes giving command performances with each set of waves that comes in.


Tongatapu might not be the most physically beautiful or quiet/relaxing of the Tongan islands, but has great restaurants and nice people and is a great spot for starting to get to know Tongans and their culture. 

Finally, some overall, end-of-trip thoughts: When I was planning my trip here and collecting info/opinions from a few friends who have been here, I got really mixed reviews. While a couple really enjoyed it, I also heard feedback that Tongans aren't very friendly and that there's not much going on here. So I arrived with modest expectations and have been WAY pleasantly surprised. My I’ve-only-been-here-10-days-and-have-little-basis-for-offering-an-opinion opinion is: I agree that if you are looking for endless activities and/or luxury, Tonga is not the place for you. And Tongans do not pander and are not solicitous. But in day-to-day interactions, I found them to be profoundly, genuinely friendly. Tongans just are who they are, and I kind of like their "take me as I am" attitude. They don’t seem to be a particularly ambitious lot, either, and as one of my hosts at the beach camp at Uoleva explained to me, most Tongans just want to enjoy life and be with their families and relax. (And in the heat of mid-day in early summer inside the Tropic of Capricorn, what kind of maniac wouldn’t want only to sprawl supine in any shade available for as long as possible?) For a tourist, that means that few people here are going to act in the polished, formulaic way that Westerners expect to be treated in a hospitality situation. And cancellations and delays and complications in a Western-style itinerary are probably going to be more reliable than anything that is supposedly scheduled. (Hence both of the domestic flights I took here being cancelled/altered!) And not many Tongans are seem particularly concerned about a visitor having a delay or not getting to do some activity the visitor wants to do, because Tongans are not concerned with that themselves, and this is Tonga, and their attitude generally seems to be: When in Tonga, do as the Tongans do. And the more I tried to abide that standard, the more I enjoyed myself.

Plus, Tongan culture is very family-centered, and the country has relatively low-crime rates. Like every other non-Western country I've been to, Tongans have that word in their language that technically means "foreigner" but for practical purposes means "whitey" (here, it's palangi) but I never heard it said with resentment or malice. And there was very little sexual or foreigner-related harassment happening. (Though now I'm thinking: maybe I'm just getting old and I'm not very harrassment-worthy anymore; there's a nice benefit to aging!) 

I kind of hope that if I ever get to come back here, Tonga hasn't changed too much, as I've really loved it here. Even as I was walking outside to board the plane back to New Zealand and then start heading home to the US for real, the sky at dusk over Tonga seemed to be calling to me, "Come back soon!..."


Friday, December 9, 2016

'Eua

When I was planning this trip, realizing that I could only realistically visit a couple islands other than Tongatapu, I tried to find two destinations as different as possible. My choice to complement Uoleva was the hilly, rainforested island of ‘Eua, where all reports promised fantastic hiking and all kinds of daytrips into remote forests and beaches and caves, all of which sounded great to me. 'Eua is also geologically distinct from the rest of the country, as it is a volcanic island much older than the coral atolls that comprise the rest of Tonga.

So, a day later than planned due to my unscheduled night in Tongatapu I got on a plane to ‘Eua. I saw several pieces of literature claiming that the flight from Tongatapu to ‘Eua is the shortest commercial flight on the planet. I’m not sure how true that is, since I saw varying reports on how long it is (ten minutes? Or eight? I didn’t time it, myself) and I think there must be some stiff competition for that superlative. (For example, I was on a flight from Levuka to Suva in Fiji that was just 12 minutes long, and there must be many others similar around the world.)

But in any case: short flight, and I was on ‘Eua! At a sweet seaside, Tongan-motel-style lodging.




After I got settled in and started on my first of many cups of "Tongan green tea" (lemongrass and lemon leaves)... 


...I started asking the employees about tour options and ran smack into my own expectations like a brick wall when reality didn’t exactly match up with them. To my surprise, as on Uoleva, I was the only person staying at the accommodations I’d booked. And while I’ve gotten a nice kick out of having all these places to myself so early in the off-season, that does unfortunately mean that there was no one around to help me meet the minimum number of participants in all the tours and hiking adventures. I even asked the manager of the place where I stayed to call around to some of the other accommodations to see if they have any guests who are going on a group tour I could tag along on, and she reported back that I was pretty much the only tourist on the island, apparently. Crazy!

So, my options were to pay a not-insignificant amount of money to meet the two- or three-person minimum in order to take a guided trip, to do one or more self-guided tours (which still involved some steep transport charges), or just cave in and let go of my expectations and just enjoy my time on ‘Eua for what it was and see what developed. I decided to go with a mix of the second and third options. But on my first day, I stuck with the going-with-the-flow option rather than the self-guided tour in hopes that a plan-B might present itself. The self-guided option made me nervous since on my first afternoon on ‘Eua, the manager pointed me down a path into the woods and said the beach was just five minutes’ walk, an adventure which resulted in me getting completely lost among the thick trees when the trail petered out into something totally indistinguishable and coming face-to-face with several enormous, evil-looking spiders who had spun yellow webs—so strong they made a frightening snapping sound when I would walk into and accidentally break one—across the path and the non-path areas I was bush-whacking through. 


When I gave up and tried to turn around and retrace my steps, I just got even more lost. So I was having serious doubts about my ability to safely navigate a self-guided route anywhere.

Thus, on the first of my two full days on ‘Eua, I taught a couple of the little girls (whose moms staff the place I was staying) to play Go Fish. We had fun doing that, plus I got to learn how to say “ace,” “king,” “queen,” “jack,” the numbers 2-10, and “do you have a…” and “Go fishing” in Tongan. Interestingly, the number 7 is identical in Tongan to what it is in Malagasy, and several of the other numbers are very similar between the two languages. I was not totally shocked by this, since I know that linguistic historians have shown the immigrants to Madagascar that ended up being the dominant settlers must have made the trek from Malaysian Borneo (check out a map; that part is truly amazing) since the language spoken on Malaysian Borneo is more closely related to Malagasy than any other. But it was still cool to be on the other side of Borneo and have the linguistic fabric still woven so tight. It was also really fun to realize that we were playing this game of Go Fish in Tonga with a deck of “the sights of Milan” cards I’d used frequently at South Pole over the past year, but which I’d purchased in Italy prior to that. 

Then I borrowed an umbrella and, harkening back to my days in Africa, used it as shade as I took a long walk on roads free of evil-looking spiders. Though there was no way to avoid the significant mud created from the past two days of downpour rain.


When asked, woman at the post/currency-exchange office recommended a particular road to follow that turned out to be really lovely, winding uphill till I had some nice views of the coast and Tongatapu in the distance. Mostly it was just really nice to watch Tongans doing their thing and getting to know what the most typical sights of life here tend to be.






On the way home, a man heading to a village past where I was staying offered me a ride and, when I told him I was American, told me there is a Peace Corps Volunteer living in his village. And thus, plan-B came into being. 

That afternoon, I walked down the road and only had to ask one person where the American/Peace Corps Volunteer lived, and two minutes later I was talking with newly minted volunteer J and her fellow ‘Eua PCV, N. And within a half-hour of chatting with them, we had plans to go hiking together the next day.

It was a really pretty (and really sweaty/uphill!) hike to the lookout point in ‘Eua National Park (the only NP in the country). Most of our walking was to get to (and from) the park, which stretches along the east coast of ‘Eua, whereas all of the villages of the island are on the west coast. As we approached the park, it was totally clear when we’d reached its edge, as there was a logging road with trees felled on the west (right, in this pic) side and the forest on that side clearly second growth, but the forest darker (and primary-looking) on the east (left) side. 


We kept hiking to the entrance to Rat’s Cave, which has no rats, but a comically small, tube-like passageway that dumps you out to a 7-foot drop onto a cave/ledge with a spectacular vista over the east coast and the trees of the park. WOW. (And good think J is really tall, as otherwise I'm not sure how N and I would have gotten up and down from that ledge!)




Then we hiked a bit farther up to the official look-out point over the forest. Birds were swooping and the view into the primary forest trees was spectacular.

I longed to take the trail down to the beach and get to walk through the forest and maybe get to see ‘Eua’s endemic red parrot. But since we’d walked all the way from the east coast of the island, our roundtrip was already 4+ hours and 10 miles, and the additional 4-5 hours that the hike down to the beach and back would have taken was a bit beyond us for the day. Next time….

Monday, December 5, 2016

Uoleva

Wow. I didn't think places like Uoleva Island still existed. Luckily I was wrong. And all you have to do (ha, ha) is get yourself to Fiji or New Zealand or Australia, and then take another flight to Tonga, and then take a domestic flight to the Ha'apai island group...



...(and if you're really lucky, Real Tonga Airlines will cancel your direct flight to Ha'apai, "forcing" you to take a detour to the Vava'u  islands en route to Ha'apai, which essentially amounts to a free flight-seeing tour and taking away the last of your regret that you did not plan time for Vava'u into your trip)...



...and then wade thigh-deep into the Pacific to board a boat that does not exactly look sea-worthy (yes, that one, there)...


...and then once you disembark after the 30-45 minute boat trip to Uoleva, prepare to be just wandering around slack-jawed in amazement and gratitude for the duration of your stay there.

There is no village here, just five or six “resorts” (in quotes because that term is used incredibly loosely). But I had all I needed: a bamboo hut (fale) with a hammock hanging outside (though you can't see that in this picture):


A mattress with mosquito net for ridiculously luxuriously long nights' sleep (and yes, that's a Sleeping Beauty blanket; you can't have it; it's mine):


Bathroom:


Amazing food prepared for me morning and night by the camp owners, who would tell their 10-year-old nephew to go get a fish and he'd run out into the water with a spear and come back less than fifteen minutes later with one big enough to feed everyone within hollering distance:


Lots of non-human company in the form of sand crabs...and I believe this to be a busy sand crab traffic intersection?:


And more beach than I could possibly use, all to myself. 


And I’m serious about that. In four days on Uoleva, I never saw another foreigner, except for on the last afternoon when I walked a half-hour down the beach to snorkel in front of another establishment and stumbled upon a English woman who was clearly shocked to see me; in fact, she interrupted the question I was asking her to say, “I’m sorry, but where did you COME from?” She walked away mumbling about how she's been there for days and had the whole place to herself, and seemed a bit put-out not to be the only foreigner on the island. But I could hardly take offense, as I was starting to think of it as my own private Tongan island, too. Otherwise, it was only a handful of locals attached to the “resort” (sorry; I can’t not put that in quotes!) who were around off and on. The whole time I was there, I did not put on a pair of shoes other than snorkeling fins or wear anything other than my swim suit and a wrap against the sun. I slept long, I snorkeled everyday around AMAZING coral reef right at my doorstep, walked on the beach, spent a truly gluttonous amount of time reading in the hammock, wrote, sat staring off over the ocean doing nothing at all…it was so exactly what I had been hoping for that I can hardly believe it was real.

Off in the distance in this shot, you can see a marine volcano that is apparently predictable enough that they have resorts ("resorts"?) out there, too. Next time!


I mean, seriously: 


When can I go back?


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Heading to Tonga!

Said a (very temporary, this time--yay!) goodbye to my fantastic siblings...


...and the sweet munchkins...


...and embarked upon a couple days of just pure travel, as the way I've planned this trip is not exactly the most efficient air travel path ever taken. Oh well. Back to Christchurch via Sydney, a night in NZ, and then I got on a domestic flight to Auckland that doubled as an amazing flight-seeing tour of the South Island, as it was a brilliant day. What views!


That little spit of land you can see in the upper right of this photo--pretty sure that's Kaikoura, the city most profoundly affected by the earthquake that hit NZ earlier this month. No evidence of the destruction visible from our distance, though.


And the Queen Charlotte Islands, a favorite stop of mine on the Great New Zealand Tour of 2015, splayed out into the sea between the north and south islands...wow.


After that, the skies were cloudier, so no good views of the North Island till we were actually landing in Auckland, from where I got on another plane to the Polynesian island nation of Tonga. Officially: The Kingdom of Tonga.

It's been a long, long time--since Africa, I think--since I went somewhere completely new, by myself, just because. So this is a treat and I've really been looking forward to it. The adventure really started on the plane, which was a 180-seat jet and mostly full, but with only about 4 other Westerners on board and everyone else looking Tongan. (Though when we disembarked, many more than just us 5 obviously foreign folks went into the immigration line for non-citizens, so many of them probably were expatriate Tongans, maybe several generations removed, and perhaps identifying as Kiwi or Aussie or whatever.)

I had a window seat, the middle seat was empty, and then a Tongan woman, maybe 65-ish, was sitting on the aisle and cracking me up the whole trip. She got on the plane completely late--they had to hold the flight for her--and had in tow one of the largest winter jackets I've seen, which was apparently necessary for her summertime visit to NZ. Through the whole flight, she was sprawling farther and farther across the empty seat between us, her hand eventually just flat-out resting on my knee, until she got up to use the bathroom when the fasten-seatbelt sign was on and she got scolded by the flight attendants and came back to our row giggling like a teenager. Then later, when she got up to try again after the sign went off and I went too, we were both trapped at length in the social gathering that was the aisle of the airplane--everyone seemingly knowing each other, or just coming from a culture where you treat everyone else like you know them, and swapping seats and standing mid-aisle for chats. When there was finally a break in the chaos that would allow us to get back, my row-partner gave me a forceful shove toward our seats and ran playfully behind me up the aisle, laughing the whole way, as if we were co-conspirators who had just played a prank on someone. So even though the setting of the airplane was very developed/Western-feeling, the atmosphere was already hilariously non-Western and a great reminder of Peace Corps days and third-world travel and a great primer for the upcoming adventure. Made me happy.

The plane skirted the southern, cliffed coast of Tongatapu (the main and largest island of Tonga) before landing at an airport that reminded me of Madagascar: coming down off the plane into a humid heat that sticks around even at night, walking on the tarmac to the concrete airport, dozens of people leaning against a fence to watch the spectacle, a skinny cat skittering across the corrugated metal roof of the immigration office.

So here I am in Tonga! I will be back later with another post, but for now, here's the view from the porch of the guesthouse on the outskirts of Nuku'alofa where I'm spending my first couple nights, trying to adjust to the heat and getting to know the local family that runs this place.


More soon!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

More Oahu

The rest of our family Hawaii time was as blissful as the first half.

Nephew E chillin' with an ice cream as big as his face:


Niece E with her Uncle C:


The ever-present kite-surfers at Kailua beach and the state park in walking distance of our house:


My amazing dad, who at age 70 was out there boogie-boarding with the rest of us:



Sis K with her baby:


One day we took a short hike to a waterfall, guided by sweet (local) family friend N.


The most hilarious part of the hike was that niece E said she wanted to find the biggest walking stick she could carry, and I jokingly found her this beast...


...which she ended up carrying on the ENTIRE hike, mostly over her shoulder like she was some sort of lumberjack, even while she carried a smaller and more manageable walking stick to actually help her hike.

Thanksgiving dinner was delicious, and especially sweet since I've been at South Pole the past two Thanksgivings and am really happy to be back with my family for the holidays this year.



WAY too soon this time is over; I'm not sure any other 10 days of my life have ever gone as quickly as these past 10 did. Wish we could just start right over again with it all.

But, time to move on to the next part of the Great Thawing Out vacation. I'll be back soon with my next missive coming to you from a place completely new to me....