Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sunset Over the Bay of Fundy

I took this picture on Friday June 25th -the night of the full moon- from the Cape d'Or Lighthouse.

I was on my normal high-speed Lonely Planet mission to cover as much territory as I could in a day when Darcy, the owner of the little B&B in the lighthouse quarters at Cape d'Or (who had no idea I was working for Lonely Planet) talked me into taking it slow for a change. He had a few extra rooms and his server was off that night so he gave me a deal in exchange for helping out in the kitchen - since his place is in one of the most beautiful spots in Nova Scotia, this was an offer I couldn't turn down.

With hot Balieys and decaf, Darcy, the other (very fun) guests and I watched the sun set over New Brunswick while a giant full moon rose behind us from Hall's Harbour Nova Scotia. The Bay of Fundy stretched, wildly crashing with white caps below the cliffs. This was truly a magic moment and I'm so glad I slowed down to enjoy myself. I caught up the next day and was a much happier human being.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Brier Island Bob and Other Roadside Attractions

Everywhere you go there's always that guy or lady who sits at the cafe in the middle of town and soaks up all the happenings. In tropical countries they tend to be more free range, perhaps with a beer along the beach, but they're all the same person, the local character who you go to when you have a question about a place or want to hear some good local stories. In my travels I've met Rupununi Pat and Samui Steve among others. Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Brier Island Bob.

The scene was a small seaside cafe at the boat ferry dock of Brier Island, Nova Scotia. When I walked in there were two old guys at the bar and three full tables in the cramped restaurant area. No one was talking. "Killing Me Softly" was playing on the stereo. I went in and sat down anyway. By the time I'd finished my meal the other restaurant guests had left so I decided to ask the waitress a question about a tortoise I'd found earlier that I'd moved from the middle of the road.

"I don't know anything about tortoises," she said. "Let's go ask Brier Island Bob."

I had taken a bunch of pictures of the tortoise so up we went to show them to Bob. He was in his late 70s, wore a big hearing aide and was eating a bowl of chowder.

"There aren't any turtles on Brier Island," he said. "But that sure is a nice picture. I never heard of a tortoise on Brier Island."

"Do you think then maybe he was somebody's escaped pet?"

"Could be. You can come back and stay with me at my house and we'll conduct a turtle study."

"Can I bring my husband and kids?"

"Oh sure, bring 'em all. They can have the guest room."

And so it went, as these sorts of conversations do. After talking about Brier Island's wildlife - land, sea and Bob - Bob tried to sell me his house then asked for my card so he could get in touch with me about things I'm still not clear on. I wonder if he writes what he'll say. I still have no idea where the tortoise came from but meeting Bob was more fun than good answers.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Last Taco in Paris

The last time I was in Paris I was three months pregnant with my first child; I was twenty-three years old. You couldn't yet guess that this skinny, teen-age looking American was pregnant, but although my belly was flat, I had terrible nausea that made all that fabulous French food taste wrong. While my husband ate thick creamy sauces and downed croissants, all I could handle was fresh fruit and - bizarrely - raw oysters.

On our last night before flying home, we decided to blow the last of our minimal cash on dinner out. In order to do this, we would have to forego the taxi to the metro station the next morning (to get to the airport) and hoof the three or so kilometers with our backpacks. Since we were young and energetic, albeit pregnant, this didn't sound like a problem. Our budget severely limited our choice of restaurants and finally we decided on a Tex-Mex place since beans and cheese didn't sound like they would make me puke. How wrong I was.

It was really more of a cafe than a restaurant with simple Formica tables, dim lighting and big glass windows that looked out over a busy square. There weren't that many customers but the specials sounded good and were cheap enough that we could afford to get dessert too. I ordered plain, pregnancy-fussy bean, chicken and cheese tacos and Josh ordered some sort of extravagant plate with all sorts of vegetables, seafood and toppings. As soon as our food arrived Josh started eating his with gusto; we had eaten few big meals on the trip since we left his family's home on the coast and he was making up for this. I was hungry but my food seemed to smell strangely tangy and I couldn't tell if it was just my weird pregnant taste buds or if something was really amiss. I had Josh taste a bite and he told me it seemed OK to him so I tried to eat more. I managed to get down maybe ten bites before I started to get queasy (which happened a lot at the time anyway) and gave up. Josh finished his then grabbed mine to finish it. After about two bites he made a face.

"You're right this doesn't taste right, the chicken is weird."

"Do you think it's rotten?"

"Maybe not rotten, but it smells kind of funny."

He ate a few more bites then pushed it away.

Since I wasn't hungry anymore anyway we decided not to make a fuss over the bad chicken. Josh ordered some flan for dessert then we walked back to our hostel to get an early night before the flight home the next morning.

It started around midnight and I'm sure you all know the drill: bubbles in the gut followed by increasing abdominal pain and a final sprint to the bathroom. To this day I can't remember ever vomiting for that many hours straight. It lasted till morning and we finally had to leave at 6am no matter how bad I felt or we'd miss our plane. Fortunately Josh was fine. We strapped on our packs and started the long stagger to the station but by the time we got our tickets and were waiting on the platform I couldn't hold back any longer. The Parisians gave me a wide berth and eyed me with disdain as I spewed in a corner near a garbage can. Meanwhile Josh panicked about how dangerous it was for a pregnant woman to throw up so much and ran off to find the metro station's first aid crew. Within five minutes a group of five skinny, crew-cut French guys in fluorescent orange jumpsuits and big medical backpacks came sprinting down the platform to my rescue.

In French the leader of this Orwellian looking group urgently asked me, "Mademoiselle what can we do to help?"

My mind raced. I just wanted to get on the plane and go home. What did I need? "Do you have some tissues and some water?" I asked weakly.

By this time the crew had unloaded their backpacks and had so much equipment that it looked like they could perform a triple bypass on me right then and there had I needed one.

They looked at each other blankly. "We are sorry Mademoiselle, no water, no tissues."

Then the leader had an idea, "Where are you two going? The airport?"

We told him yes and that we were now running quite late.

"I will accompany you myself then on the next train," he said with a smile, his tense shoulders dropping in relief. He seemed very happy to have something to do and to escape his jumpsuit brigade.

By this time we had missed two trains but our new, chatty medical technician friend seemed to think we'd be fine.

"Which airline are you on?"

"Tower Air"

"I don't know this airline. What is the terminal?"

Josh dug into his pack to look for the tickets then began opening another compartment then another.

"Do you have the tickets?" Josh asked me.

"No they were on the table at the hostel. You didn't grab them?"

Our French friend had just sat down on a newly vacated seat and was looking increasingly calm. Smiling he said "Ah, they'll let you on anyway but you'll need to know the terminal."

We asked around a few people on the train if they new the terminal for Tower Air but no one had ever even heard of it. We arrived at the airport, got some hearty good-bye cheek kisses from our friend in the orange jumpsuit and exited the train. Now I was so worried about making our flight and getting on without tickets that my body seemed to have forgot it was food poisoned.

We asked around which terminal was used for Tower Air, and after a surprisingly long search we were told a name that sounded unusually complicated. We had the woman write it down on a piece of paper. We showed the driver of the airport bus the name of our terminal and he looked at it blankly before waving us back to move on and sit down. It felt good to settle into our seats although I was really thirsty. The airport was huge and after about 45 minutes we realized that, not only was our plane leaving in a half an hour but that we were going in circles.

Josh got up and walked up the jostling aisle to the driver who gave him a disdainful glare. He showed the driver the piece of paper with the terminal name on in and asked if the driver knew where this place was.

"Go back to your seat Messier," the driver said coldly.

"We're going to miss our flight," Josh nearly shouted at the man. "I'll sit down if you tell me that you know where we're going."

The driver put on the breaks far too aggressively and pointed to the door.

"Here. Get out."

Now we were somewhere that looked like it was between terminals, more like a small parking area. I sat on my pack, exhausted, dry-mouthed, weak and exasperated to end up with no money lost in a French airport without our tickets. Josh ran over to what looked like a service entrance to a large building to ask for help. In just a minute he ran back.

"It's here!" He said.

We lugged over our packs and sure enough there was a small desk in a cramped hallway with a simple "Tower Air" sign slapped up on the wall.

"You are just in time," said the perky ticket agent. "The plane will wait for you."

"But we lost our tickets," I groaned.

"It's OK, you're on the list now you'll have to run!"

One of the agents accompanied us as we sprinted, me with reserves of energy I didn't even know I still had, to the gate. They whisked us through with our last minute boarding passes and we entered the plane.

It looked like everyone else had been sitting on the plane waiting for us for ages. Tired, grouchy faces all looked up at us from their seats as we passed to our places at the back of the plane. We were obviously an enemy of the people but I couldn't have been happier to be there - or more parched.

We sat down and I immediately asked the flight attendant for some water.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I can't serve you anything till the fasten seat belt sign goes off."

image by

Hiking Tahiti's River Valleys

Tahiti is riddled with waterfalls; drive along the coastal road and you'll see literally hundreds of skinny chutes tumbling down the deep, steep valleys. A few cascades are found right on the roadside but getting to the more magical, isolated ones requires adventuring far off the beaten track and hiking up a river.

You could theoretically hike up any river valley in Tahiti but a few are well-known and easier to tackle. Papenoo Valley is the most famous and you can drive up several kilometers with a 4WD then hike up the steep but manageable road all the way to Lake Vaihiria in the center of the island then down the other side. Mahaena Valley on Tahiti's Eastside is another relatively easy hike along the riverside; a small river from Papearii (Westside) leads to some natural slides and a river in Vairao (Tahiti Iti) leads to a stunning natural pool surrounded by basalt cliffs.

But this last Saturday my family and I decided to blaze our own trail by hiking up Teahupoo's river. This hike is a little more complicated than the popular routes simply because there's no trail; you have to walk in the river most of the way. We'd been up this river several times before about an hour or so to a serene little beach and swimming hole, but this day we wanted to find out what was beyond. We were not disappointed.

About 20 minutes beyond our swimming hole we came to a first waterfall that tumbled down a steep volcanic face with what looked like upsidedown rock steps running up it. Just across the river was another bigger waterfall behind a big flat area full of thick brush. I decided to try and get through the brush to see if there was a pool at the foot of the falls and clambored through the purua (Beach hibiscus) trees, ginger flowers and miconia (an evil but beautiful invasive plant with big green and purple leaves). The rotting ginger made the forest smell like human bad breath and after all my work I was rewarded with a murky, shallow pool filled with old rotting branches. I went back to report my findings and we decided to continue on.

As we walked the ecology started to change and we began seeing trees, mosses and flowers we didn't know. Eventually the valley opened and seemed to nearly flatten out like we had reached the top of a mountain and could soon peer over the side. We weren't actually anywhere near the top of the island, but the valley that spread out before us was something out of a fairytale. Waterfall after waterfall shot down cliffs that were backed by more cliffs and more waterfalls shaded in a million shades of green like some cheesy New Age painting.

One waterfall had so little water it only misted - so we called it a mistfall instead of a waterfall. Another had a bubbling spring coming out the bottom and another was strong enough to hurt your neck if you put your head under it. This was waterfall paradise.

After eating some passionfruit and chocolate (the perfect food for such a place) we turned around to head home. The hike up river had taken us about two and a half hours. The hike down took an hour.

Being the gear-less people we are, we all did the hike in our flipflops. I only slipped once (and have a big black thigh bruise to prove it) but for comfort's sake I would do this hike in better shoes next time. Another problem was the gnats who were so thick in places we must have looked more like we were break dancing up the river than walking at times as we waved our arms and shimmied around trying to keep them out of our eyes, noses and throats. A hat with some bug netting over it would have been marvelous.

Here's a panoramic video of the magical waterfall spot we reached:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Papeete's Green Revolution - Watching Tahiti's Capital Become Beautiful Again

Papeete is Tahiti and French Polynesia's capital city and for years it's had a bad rap of being a polluted, grungy embarrassment to the rest of the stunningly beautiful country. This is changing. I live an hour and a half away from Papeete and go there about once or twice a month so I've had a real perspective on how vastly the city has changed over the last year or so.

The metamorphosis is almost entirely from new landscaping along the waterfront. Several years ago Papeete's lagoon-side road was nothing more than a traffic-clogged concrete strip with fading 1960s architecture on one side and a view of a polluted port on the other. The only saving graces were some graceful old trees that grew in the road divider and the sailboats that docked along the main drag. There were a few dark years during this decade when many of these trees were chopped down and the sailboats were told to dock elsewhere, but luckily this was followed by some brilliant urban planning that has completely changed the face of the city.

It all began with the building of To'ata Amphitheater right next to the lagoon ten or so years ago. A walking area with brick patio stones shaded by frangipani trees was built around this prime theater and a few good restaurants sprung up in the water-view pedestrian only area. A few years later the Vaiete Roullotte area at the other end of the waterfront got a facelift with a little gazebo for live bands, more paved areas, trees and some great public restrooms. This was followed by the building of a fancy new tourist office (with more great public restrooms - much needed in Papeete) and a little crafts market near the Moorea Ferry docks.

But the biggest changes have been recent. The area between To'ata and Vaiete has seen the return of some (but not all) of the docking sailboats and an ever-growing landscaped garden park that includes an enclosed child's play area as well as some lovely spots to sit and watch outrigger canoes glide in front of the setting sun. There are trees, winding grassy areas, paved areas for bikes, trees and flowers. As someone who's seen Papeete through it's worst years, it's hard for me to admit it, but the city is looking very pretty these days.

I hope that the new look will soon spread into the city's interior, which still is crammed with shabby architecture and peeling paint, but the waterfront is where the city's charm was always meant to lie. Now, for the first time in several decades, Papeete is living up to its exotic reputation.

Note: Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme


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