Thursday, November 29, 2012
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Why I did it
Why I was happy I did it
How I did it
What I packed
How did this differ from how I usually pack?
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Our trekking guide from Mamasa to Tana Toraja was a Mamasan man named Domingus, which he told us is derived from the word Sunday, "Domingo" in Indonesian. The Mamasa region is known for being staunchly Christian, but because Indonesia is a very Muslim country and this is what both Emre and I were used to, we were more drawn to the fact that "Domingus" sounded Latin, not necessarily religious. Our guide however proved to be much more of the latter.
Domingus was as clean cut a guy as you could ever hope to lead you on a trek. He had a big, round, smiling clean-shaven face, perfectly trimmed short hair with a few strands of distinguished grey and he wore brown dress slacks, a long sleeve button shirt and a guide's vest with an official looking emblem on it. Over the next three days he would wear this exact outfit every day and never get so much as a smudge of mud or a wrinkle in it. He never smelled bad or had a hair out of place. Emre and I would come out the Toraja end of the trip covered in stains, feet encrusted with dirt and hair flying in every direction. I have no idea how Domingus stayed so well put together.
On our first night we saw him put up some political posters around the village we were staying in. He explained that he was a major supporter of the Indonesian Christian party and while he was on our trek he was going to spread the word about his favorite candidate to all the small villages who didn't get much news. That emblem on his jacket - ends up it was for his political party, not a guiding organization.
It's interesting to visit Christian areas in Indonesia because the locals immediately assume that white people have the same beliefs as them and therefore, they feel a certain kinship with them. Domingus and all the families we met made this assumption with me. As minorities in their own country (where they often feel discredited and mute) this kinship can be stronger than you might expect. Our group however was a little off kilter because Emre is Turkish and was brought up Muslim. I wasn't brought up anything but because I'm American no one ever bothered to ask me about my spiritual leanings and just assumed I was as Jesus loving as the Mamasans. This suited me fine. Domingus however was immediately a little suspicious of Emre and quietly brought me aside a few times to ask me about how strong a believer she was and if this was going to cause us any problems. Everything ended up happy and peaceful but it was interesting to feel what in Indonesia would be considered a sort of reverse racism. Here I was sticking up for my "Muslim" (Emre is slightly more Muslim than I would call myself Christian) friend in a country where most women wear veils. Emre later confided in me that as a Muslim she often gets preferential treatment in Muslim countries, even getting offered special discounts etc. This was the first time it ever really hit me how different we all get treated in foreign countries because of our perceived religion.
It soon became clear that even though Domingus was a perfectly good guide and knew the area well, his main goal was to spread the word about politics. Luckily, the Mamasans seemed happy to get any news or visitors at all and welcomed the news by promptly posting Domingus's posters all over the place. In fact, they seemed to genuinely respect our guide for bringing them this information. There were a few earnest conversations about the exceptional nature of the Christian candidate but for the most part the villagers were more interested in hosting two exotic white people in their homes than talking politics.
The children had no interest in politics and followed us everywhere. From our first homestay two kids followed us a good half our before the returned home. At the second homestay kids came from all around and hung around trying to keep our full attention from the time we arrived (about 5pm) to nightfall. It was pretty exhausting trying to entertain all those kids after trekking all day uphill through a jungle but they were so sweet and had such good senses of humor that it was well-worth it. Plus we got some great photos and this video:
That night we stayed up till the un-Godly hour of about 10pm in our one room shack drinking sour-sweet palm wine with Domingus, the owner of the house and our horseman (who is worthy of a whole other blog post I'll probably never write). Then to bed on our thick quilts that were supposed to be mattresses but fortunately some warmer blankets this night. We slept well.
Then the next morning it was off again but this time downhill through rice fields, tiny one-room churches on ridges and villages of small wooden shacks on stilts.
Friday, June 8, 2012
I move around fast when I'm researching for Lonely Planet but every now and then there's something I want to do so badly, I'll slow down and make time for it. The trek between Mamasa and Tana Toraja on the culturally-overloaded island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, was one of those things. There are two ways to get to Tana Toraja from Mamasa: a 13-hour barf-inducing bus ride over pot-holed mountain roads, or a three-day hike through a region of boat-shaped roofs, terraced rice fields, isolated villages and jungle mountains. Walking it seemed like the obvious choice.
Traditional Mamasa houses
Unfortunately for my travel buddy Emre, the long, long trip began straight from the airport. Her flight from Turkey arrived in Makassar, Sulawesi's capital, in the early morning and I hadn't been able to reach her via email to tell her the plan, so at 5am I met her at the gate, explained what we were doing (in hopes she was OK with this which fortunately she was) and took her directly to a bus station. The minibus from Makassar to Mamasa was a rickety, non-air-con tin can of a rumbler that was soon jammed packed with clove cigarette smoking locals, big boxes stuffed with food supplies and two giant television sets. It took over 14 hours to get to Mamasa, and half that time was spent bumping over the last 60km on a rutted dirt road that wound like a coil up into the mountains.
It was dark when we arrived so it wasn't until morning that we awoke to the green-hills and cool temperatures of Mamasa Village where we had a day to explore by motorbike. The traditional roofed houses here are similar to the famous, dramatically arched ones of Tana Toraja but are less curved and shorter so they don't pack such a punch. The biggest difference however between these oft-compared regions is that Mamasa has hardly any tourists. So while popular Torajan villages are swarming with photo-snapping visitors and insistent hawkers, in Mamasa families invite you in for tea and everyone wants to chat. We saw no other foreigners and were welcomed everywhere like royalty. It was magic.
The lunch crew - near Mamasa Village
We spent the night before our trek began in a traditional house where we soon discovered the reality of what we were in for. There are no mattresses in Mamasa, just thick quilts on the floor and a synthetic blanket to cover you. It was so freezing that first night that Emre and I ended up under the "mattress" to keep warm. The floor with or without this light padding felt equally hard. Dinner had been noodle soup with hunks of home-butchered, gamey-tasting pork floating in it, that tasted as if it had been sitting in storage (no refrigeration) a bit too long. Emre puked hers up in the middle of the night. Dogs howled and a mosquito kept buzzing in my ear even though it felt far too cold for them to survive here. Neither Emre or I got more than a few hours of sleep.
Our house the first night
But rest or no rest, we were up by six, breakfasted on sugary tea and omelets, said good bye to our smiling hosts promising we had slept marvelously, and were off to theoretically walk up hill until the end of the day. We had no idea what we were going to encounter and that was just fine.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
If you're worried about looking like a dork abroad, know that not dressing appropriately in a conservative country is worse than looking silly, you'll also be acting like a jerk. I'm talking about most of Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Asia, Morocco, Tunisia, small villages in Central and South America and more - in other words, those parts of the world that maintain a modest dress code without requiring something more hardcore like a burqa.
Figuring out what to wear while maintaining some style dignity can be hard for travelers, especially women, who have to cover up much more than men and who are more closely scrutinized. The question is, how does one dress conservatively, look a little nice and avoid overheating at the same time? After over 20 years of travel in these parts of the world and looking pretty awful through most of it, I've finally acquired a few key pieces that I feel keep the balance between comfort, appropriateness and fashion.
Here are my top 5 essentials:
The peasant top
Try to find one in a feather-weight, crinkly cotton that's not too see-through. Three quarter sleeves are best and make sure if there's a tie at the neck the keyhole part doesn't show any cleavage. Avoid mid-weight or heavy fabrics and any tight elastic. Think, breathable and keep it simple without a lot of flamboyant embroidery or other standout features.
Here's a current favorite of mine from Old Navy.
A good cut here is key. I hate boxy shirts that add a few pounds to my look but too tight is a no-no. I go for the lightest cotton possible that's still opaque, sleeves that are longer than a cap sleeve but shorter than three-quarters and loose enough to breath. Also make sure it's long enough that you're not going to bare any waistline when bending over etc. I personally like a mellow-colored print like ikat or tie-dye stripes to hide stains.
If these go out of fashion again I may die. Mid-calf in a lightweight sturdy fabric is a must. A drawstring waist is another plus since you'll be able to adjust them so they'll stay up properly without a belt through all the stretching and washings and un-washings they will surely go through - as well as any waistline changes travel may bring to your midriff. I have a pair right now that are my all-time favorite: they have good button cargo pockets and are made of a fabric that looks like cotton but is actually a 100% silk weave that's cool, soft and sturdy. Go for dark colors. I like fairly low-waisted styles because these look better on me, but if you can pull off the "natural waist" look without looking like you were on a $2 budget at Goodwill or got a bitchin' Christmas gift from your grandmother from Royal Robbins, then go for it.
Here are my favorite capris from Hei Hei but unfortunately they don't make them anymore.
Mid-calf length skirt
I actually don't pack these anymore since I find they're not practical for anything remotely active but if you're going to be hanging out in a city a lot or plan on needing to dress nicely at night, this can be an essential. Again, find a lightweight fabric that won't need ironing and don't get a skirt so full that it may get blown up by wind and give the conservative world a peek at your underpants. Length should be mid-calf.
In general, I only wear long pants for insect protection, cold or because they're the only clean thing I have left to wear. I also wear them on the plane so they need to be stretchy enough to sleep in and look nice enough that if by some miracle of fate I get upgraded, I won't look too sloppy to sit in business class. I like light, soft cotton or Tencel with something elastic-like in the waist that won't pinch or stretch. Again, I think "natural waist" is a sin, but that's a matter of taste. Straight leg works best; anything with a flared leg will get caught in stuff and provide a tunnel for bugs to crawl up and skinny pants will be too sexy and cling to your humid skin like soggy plastic wrap. Go for dark colored. I'm partial to slate grey.
Bonus Piece: Silk scarf
Find the biggest one you can find that can compress into the smallest folded square. I keep one in my purse at all times on the road in case I need extra arm coverage or something over my hair for religious temples or particularly conservative places. It also can be used as a real scarf to add a little flair to your outfit (think: business class) and can provide warmth in unexpected air-con disaster areas like buses and cinemas.
Friday, April 13, 2012
It's Friday the 13th today so I thought I'd dig up some pictures from the depths of my (mostly unused) photo archives, of kids on islands frolicking, not worrying about bad luck and superstition and generally having a blast. I actually didn't take the first and second photos - these two were snapped by my husband Josh Humbert who is much more of a pro at this photography stuff than me. Both were taken on Bunaken Island off of Northern Sulawesi, Indonesia. I love that in the second one these kids look like they're about to land on a bunch of rebar - don't worry, they didn't.
I took this next photo on Ko Phayam in Thailand in around 2008. I went back last year and this kid is now a great big tall man but I still recognized him. Unfortunately, I didn't see the dog. Hopefully the burying him in the sand thing didn't get out of hand. He told me at the time that the dog liked be buried because it kept him cool.
It was just me and these three kids hanging out on the wee island of Namu'a in Samoa for a few hours. We spent at least an hour of this taking silly pictures and after each one they'd shout "Wanna see! Wanna see!" I wore out my camera battery flipping through all of the pictures. It was really fun.
Here is my son gracefully leaping off the oyster platform at my family's pearl farm in Ahe, French Polynesia. Speaking of kids growing into big tall men, this was taken a little over a year ago and now he's my height.
You may remember this scene from another post a few weeks ago. These boys in American Samoa were leaping into this pit of spiky lava with a huge and powerful swell heaving in and out of it. Danger was everywhere but they couldn't have given a flying and of course no one got hurt.
And last, I love this boy. What a character and I hope you can tell from this photo. This is in Ovalau, Fiji. I stayed in a homestay and "Billy Boy," besides cracking jokes and constantly getting into trouble also knew how to drive the boat, fix the motor, cook, clean and sing loud and clear at church. He's a great kid. He's 12 years old.
Sunday, April 1, 2012
I'm not easily surprised by weird accommodation. Tree houses, cave dwellings and undersea lairs tend to make their way into my travel literature if they haven't made it in to my real life, and in most cases I'm in a country to get out and do things not hang out at my hotel. But Samoa's fale not only astounded me, they won me over so much I will confidently say that they are my favorite type of holiday lodging. Period. They are part of the Samoan experience as much as eating the food or seeing the sights.
I'd read about fale before I got to Samoa. The Lonely Planet said they were traditional style, simple open-air structures on stilts. This is exactly what they are but the simplicity of the description didn't get into my head and form an image of what a fale might actually look like. They sounded rustic, that was all.
After a few days at a mediocre hotel in Apia I set off to drive around the island. On my first night I decided to stay on a small private island called Namu'a that got rave reviews. On the way I drove past several of the most colorful villages I've ever seen, and all of them were made up mostly of the traditional-type fale I'd read about. These family-sized fale are elongated gazebo-like structures rounded at the edges with a semi-octagon shape and are usually about 20ft long by 10ft wide; palm thatched louvers are the only walls and these can be lowered or raised depending on how much ventilation or privacy is needed.
All the structures are painted the brightest greens, pinks, blues and yellows and are surrounded by gardens of flowers, tropical fruit and ornamental greenery. You can see right inside them where the floors are covered with woven mats, there is minimal furniture and usually a few people lounging inside. Still, it didn't occur to me that these were the same types of houses tourists would sleep in.
It wasn't till I reached the beach of Namu'a in my host's tiny aluminum outboard boat that it hit me. There on the most perfect, palm-lined white sand beach you can imagine were about ten small, unpainted, palm-thatched roof fale on stilts. Mine had been prepared for me with a mat on the floor as well as a mattress and a mosquito net. And that's it. The highlight of course is that sleeping in these is like camping in the open air without having to actually camp, and the fale are usually only steps from 80 degree clear blue water. At night, after a tasty meal of fresh fish, I was given an oil lamp -- the perfect light by which to drink a beer, gaze at the stars, play guitar and revel in the bliss of the moment. It's not fancy, it's not expensive, but even the most luxurious accommodation in the world cannot compare.
As I continued around the rest of the main island, I found family fale operations everywhere, usually on the very best beaches. Every one is owned by sweet local people offering meals (average price to stay is about US$35-50 per person per night including breakfast and dinner). Some fale are a little fancier than others and may include waist-high walls, whole walls or even electricity; some are out in the middle of nowhere while others are clustered together in beach villages. Valuables can be often kept in safes but the family is almost always there watching so, as long as the place was run by good people, I never felt like my stuff was going to be ripped off or that unwanted guests would come into my fale at night. Bathrooms are shared in most cases and showers are cold.
There's something about sleeping and living outdoors that raises happiness levels. Add the sound of the surf all night, always knowing the phase of the moon and feeling familiar with the stars and energy levels skyrocket - not necessarily in the way that makes you want to get up and run around, but in a way that makes you like everyone and makes them like you too. It's a natural high I suppose.
I admit that after a few days it felt good to sleep in a hotel again with a hot shower but if I had my choice of a resort or those fale on Namu'a I wouldn't even have to consider - it would be those budget fale on Namu'a every time.
Sunday, March 25, 2012
I had low expectations of American Samoa. By all reports it was full of fast food chains and everyone was fat and unhealthy. I had images in my head of unsmiling people with most of their culture over-run by mini malls. I have never been so wrong about a place.
The above photo summarizes what I saw in American Samoa: A Polynesian island with beauty to rival Bora Bora and a culture as alive as in independent Samoa next door -- but with a touch of the USA. Yes there are some fast food places but these are overshadowed by the silky water of Pago Pago Harbor, the green jungle-covered mountains that frame everything and the blue water that you can see from almost everywhere. Kids like these in this picture aren't inside playing video games, they're launching themselves into a current-filled pool of jagged lava for fun. That's cool.
The most blatantly American thing about American Samoa I saw is their love of US football. The nightly news showed clips and results from the high school teams and when the NFL playoffs were on (as they were when I was there), a conversation couldn't be had without a few words about which team you were rooting for. This picture wouldn't have been what it is without that kid in his helmet.
Monday, February 6, 2012
"There's no place like home," but if I had Dorothy's ruby slippers they'd have to take me apart and bring me to several places. I imagine myself more like Great Oz himself fumbling around in a hot air balloon, wondering where I'll land.
When someone asks where you're from, they expect the answer to be a static place, not a long complicated story. So I have a hard time answering the question without a stammer - as I imagine many others do who aren't fixed to a map point. I don't know where home is. I'm not thinking about Kansas
My family and I have lived in Portland for a year and a half, mostly so the kids can go to high school here, and the region still feels foreign to me. Yet this is where we rent a house, where my father lives and where my children are so when people ask me where I'm from during a trip abroad, I'll probably tell them "Portland, Oregon," even though I'm not from there at all.
A few months ago I spent the Christmas holidays down in Marin County, California where both my husband and I grew up. We stayed at my mother in law's 1920s-era house that's set between oak trees and has a view of the feminine silhouette of Mt Tamlpais. This is the house I've come back to as a base for the last 20 years since I met my husband, began traveling and eventually moved to French Polynesia. It's my favorite house in the world but it's not mine and one day my mother in law will sell it and retire.
I can name every little sub-district in Marin County, scarcely have to think when driving anywhere and run into people I know on hiking trails and in supermarkets. Every place here holds a story, like that pasture land named after a horse that my dad used to know as a kid (he grew up in Marin County too); or darker, that stop light that was put up after my friend's little brother was hit by a car there. Marin County is where I'll always feel I'm coming home when I visit to no matter where I actually live. But I haven't lived in Marin County for 20 years and chances are I'll never live there again (not on a travel writer's salary anyway).
The place I've spent the largest chunk of my adult life is French Polynesia where my husband and I own a house that we designed and built, and where my kids grew up. This is home, the family base and the biggest asset in my family's economic hat. It almost hurts renting it out and thinking of other people living there but it would be worse to let it rot and loose the rental income. We will probably move back there someday but I don't know when. Despite how much I love the house, the land, our neighbors and the tropical splendor, we will always be thought of and treated as foreigners in Tahiti and I'm not sure I want to live with that forever. The locals ask me about my "home" in the US, and although they don't mean it badly, they will never see Tahiti as a place I should call my own.
To complicate things more, I lived in England until I was nearly five and that's still where I have the largest concentration of family. I go back regularly and my aunts and uncles have all lived in the same houses since before I was born - right now I could describe each one's pleasant, homey smell. But I can't say I'm from England, my Yankee accent makes me come off as a fake.
So when asked where I'm from I cheat a little and pick the best answer depending on who's asking. "Portland" is the easiest as a conversation stopper (most people outside the US don't know where it is) and "Tahiti" gets me the most street cred particularly in places where it's not cool to be American (less of the world nowadays - thank you Obama). "San Francisco" (near enough to Marin County to work) is my answer when I feel like giving people what they want: something familiar.
I'll admit to feeling a little hip not being able to come up with satisfactory answer to the question "where are you from?" But deeper down I envy the people who can answer in one word without even thinking about it: "Quebec," "Wichita," "Berlin." It would be lovely to be able to have a home, that place where history, family, friends and a house collide without explanation. In my dreams there would be a golden retriever in the yard and veggie garden out back. But for now at least, life feels like a hurricane spinning us around in the air and despite how nice it would be to be on solid ground, Kansas or wherever home is, is about as real as Oz.