Monday, December 6, 2010

Twilight in Forks For a Non-Fan

It was a weekend adventure on the lush Olympic Peninsula and my first trip to Washington State. Our plan, in American family road-trip-style, was to wander aimlessly and see what we discovered. We spent the first day sledding and in awe of the high mountains, evergreens, deer everywhere and the glistening of icicles. Then I saw it on the map, Forks - yes the town of vampire fame - and even though I only got through book one and thought it was the worst load of crap I'd ever read, I desperately wanted to go.

Upfront I'd like to say that I hold nothing against people who love the Twilight series - I know lots of intelligent people who can't get enough of them, but I am not part of their club. What made me want to go to Forks was the dramatic old-growth forest scenery in the movies and an obsession with all things trendy in the tourist world that surely comes from my job. So we went, with an OK from my husband and son and full support from my teenage daughter who knew the visit would give her lots of street cred with her friends back in Tahiti.

Highway 101 winds through never-ending pine forests covered in moss, clear blue lakes and, unfortunately, clear-cuts. I was hoping the forests would get taller and thicker as we approached Forks, but no, it was all pretty much the same and beautiful in a new-growth sort of way. Right as the "Welcome to Forks" sign came into view a bald eagle swooped across the road and landed in a nearby tree. This seemed to bode well for the town.

My pre-Twilight Lonely Planet guidebook describes Forks as a "one-horse logging town," and that's a really nice way to put it. Flat, treeless highway 101 is the main drag that's bordered by basic 50s-era necessity shops, a couple Americana diners and now three Twilight shops: one for the vampires, another Native American-run one for the werewolves and another that is the office for three-hour Twilight tours of town and beyond.

We didn't have time to go on a tour but we did stop in a diner for a meal. The food was good as anything is when slathered in cheese and mayonnaise, and the place was full of locals who all smiled at us. On the door was a long list of Fork's men currently away fighting America's wars and when I asked the waitress about it she said there were pages worth that weren't even on the list. Since Forks has a population just above 3,000, that's a huge percentage of the town's men who are off risking their lives in the army. And it's that kind of town: not pretty at all, but down-home, very American and you can feel that it's filled with the kind of people who drink beer, go to church and play lots of board games in winter. I like Forks, it's a real working town and vampires probably wouldn't want to live there.

Next we decided to check out La Push on the coast and by doing so accidentally wandered into werewolf territory. We passed through lots of very shabby trailer communities, tract homes and clear-cuts, then into new growth forest that led to the coast. Where Forks has got sort of into the whole Twilight thing, the Quileute Tribe has embraced it completely. I had no idea, but this tribe really does exist, they are probably the most ancient inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest and legend says they were fashioned from wolves. So on every building is a red and black native stylized painting of a wolf - they are the wolf tribe and always have been, long before Twilight came around.

Just before the coast someone has put up a sight saying "No Vampires Beyond This Point," and in La Push is "Jacob's Java" coffee shack. My daughter and I were hoping for buffed shirtless men running around but again, no, La Push is a near ghost town on a Sunday. The beach is loaded with driftwood and looks out over basalt islands along the coast. It's a beautiful, quiet tribal town, a little rubbish-clogged around the edges, and it made we wish we could stay there a night or two to really feel the place out. There are a bunch of other nearby beaches and hiking trails leading along the coast.

And then we had to move on because of course, we were on a road trip. The highlight of the return to Portland was a drive through Aberdeen, hometown of Kurt Cobain - it's a depressing, industrial concrete mass that makes Forks look like a resort town. I feel I understand Kurt's angst much more now. We blasted "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and bombed home to our new home city where vampires are much more likely to exist than anywhere we'd been that day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Pearl For Passports With Purpose Round 2

I can't believe it's been a year already but here it is, November again and for the second year Passports With Purpose is organizing their creative and inspired drive to raise money for a cause; last year they built a school in Cambodia and this year the goal is to build an entire village in India, brick by brick. Here's how it works: bloggers like me procure a prize, blog about it and spread the word. We hope our readers will go to the Passports With Purpose prize page and make a donation. Each $10 you donate will put you in the running for a prize of your choice and there are some great ones from plane tickets to travel gear and stays in resorts. Each $10 you donate also goes directly to building the village in India so it's a winning formula all around.

Once again my contribution is a Tahitian pearl, generously donated by Kamoka Pearls, where I worked for years and it's still run by my family. Last year I entered a silver toned round so this year I'm upping the ante as far as my own tastes are concerned and am offering this gorgeous A-grade teardrop peacock green 10.5mm gem in the photo. This pearl comes from my private collection of some of the most beautiful pearls the farm has ever produced. Retail value is probably around $250 but really it's worth more than that - it's rare to find a pearl this pretty on the market anywhere. It would make a stunning pendant.

Note: the black in the middle of the pearl is just a reflection of the photographer, not a blemish.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Last Fortune Teller of Jonker's Walk, Melaka

I stop at the fortune teller's curtained off street stall to ask how much a fortune costs, not because I want to learn anything about my future. I'm intrigued that there's still a booth here at all amongst the fridge magnet and watch sellers of Melaka's increasingly commercial Jonker's Walk Night Market. But before I can even open my mouth, a middle aged Malaysian man whisks me over to sit at a table; unless I rudely get up and walk away, I'm suddenly committed to paying for whatever it is he's offering.

“It's 15 ringgit,” he tells me in a friendly voice as he shuffles a worn, damp looking deck of cards.

Fifteen ringgit (about US$4.50) is kind of steep for Melaka – that's two meals, or a tourist T-shirt and a half back out in the market - but, I'm already sitting here so I'd better make the most of it. Bring it on.

“Pick a card”

I pick one, it's the nine of spades.

He spreads the other cards out in a circle and grabs a photocopied form with some charts on it. At the top I read his name: Ah Chan Koon (Master). He scribbles five numbers down a column then writes down months to which they correspond. He works fast, time is money and he's on automatic pilot.

“November is very good,” he says. “January and February are very good too. Don't go diving in October and December is OK. When's your birthday?”

I tell him and he takes out a book to find my Chinese sign.

“Ah yes you're a mountain pig, very good. You're good at IT or you could be a nurse.”

I'm technology-challenged and I get queasy at the sight of blood.

He writes down more stuff on my chart including lucky numbers and colors then reads my palm. I'm happy to learn I'll live to 100 but not so happy that I'll have six children.

Lastly, he asks if I have any questions. This is surely where I could get my money's worth but my mind is blank, probably because I never wanted to know anything about my future in the first place. So ask him what I really wanted to know: is he the last fortune teller at this night market, where just a few years ago geomancers such as him were such a hot item?

“Yes, it's just me now,” he says.

This makes me a little sad and I thank him, pay him and ask if I can take his picture. He's happy to oblige and we smile and shake hands as I leave.

I weave my way back through the throngs of Singaporean and Malaysian tourists, the occasional Western head popping up through the crowd, past the trinkets and knock-off Crocks vendors that extend almost twice as far as they did the last time I was here a year and a half ago. The night is lit by bright lights coming from the stalls and the neon of shop fronts, it's hot and muggy and the air smells like fried food.

I don't feel like I know much more about my future but looking at how this place has grown, I can't help but forebode that Melaka's quirky seers, artists and antique dealers will increasingly be pushed out by all these plastic sandal and potato chips-on-a-stick sellers. Ah Chan Koon (Master) might not have told me a fortune that I find useful, but if my 15 ringgit helps to keep his booth on the night market strip and preserve the soul of this town, my money is well spent. Hopefully though my predictions are as flimsy as his – there's no way I'm having six kids so let's hope that it's equally unlikely that Melaka will loose its last signature fortune teller to cheap gadgets and quick commerce.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Cool People Met While WWOOFing: Lee The Dish Fairy

Yesterday I took part in Travelers' Night In (#TNI) on Twitter where travel folks around the world chat about a topic for about an hour and a half. This week's topic was volunteer tourism and that subject is the inspiration for this week's post.

Way back when I traveled as a WWOOFer (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) through New Zealand working three days a week on organic farms in exchange for food and lodging for the week. Traveling this way is one of the best ways to meet locals - fellow workers tend to take you to parties or bars after work or maybe hiking and picnics over the weekend.

Fellow WWOOFers however can also be a highlight. While a friend and I were working at the Welleda medicinal herb farm in Havelock North our one other fellow WWOOFer was a guy named Lee from South Korea. Lee was one of the happiest and most pleasant human beings I have, to this day, ever met. He spoke about 20 words of English and was WWOOFing in New Zealand as a means to learn more. He carried around a little notebook and wrote down every new word he learned; he listened to Neil Young non-stop and could sing all the lyrics even though he didn't know what they meant.

When we were out weeding in the fields he would look up blissfully and exclaim: "I love weeding!"

At night we'd get back and I'd cook us dinner then Lee would do all the dishes. Some other WWOOFer before me had taught him to say "I am the dish fairy!" Which actually when Lee said it (and he said it often) came out as "I em dee deesh failley!" Every time he said this it was with pride, perhaps of his amazing English phrase or just the huge stoke he got from doing dishes.

But my favorite memory of Lee is when we went on a walk one day and he eyed a big healthy looking black lab. His eyes popped and he grabbed my arm and exclaimed something in Korean very excitedly. Then he explained to me "Dog like this velly expensive in Korea. I just say 'Bring out your dogs!' because that what dog man do. Then we cook, very spicy in summer. Dog like this velly delicious."

From then on we would both yell "Bring out your dogs!" - Lee in Korean and I in English- every time we saw a fat meaty dog. Then we'd both laugh. It's amazing how funny someone can be even when you barely share a common language.

Lee gave us his address when we left but it was all in Korean and so we never wrote. I would love to know what happened to him and I hope he now speaks fluent English. I also hope he got to eat a dog as tasty as the ones we saw around Havelock North - in summer with lots of chili - as long as it was not someone's beloved pet [or raised in an evil cage see my Sulawesi market post].

Friday, August 6, 2010

Masquerading as Americans: Post-Ex-pat Beginnings

I'm not sure how many of you are aware of this, but two weeks ago my family and I moved to Portland Oregon from Tahiti, French Polynesia. I've been living away from the US for 17 years, my husband Josh has been away for 18 years and my kids have never lived in the US.

The trouble is that while we look and sound American, we have all these weird ticks: my 14 year old daughter is afraid of escalators, my 12 year old son has to ask lots of language question like "what's a hippy?" Josh pretty much goes everywhere shirtless and shoeless (all of us feel confined and uncomfortable in shoes) and I stumble on credit card slide machines, keep trying to bag my own groceries and just generally feel lost.

The pleasant thing about Portland though is that it's OK to be weird. In most cases I just explain to people: "Hey, I'm sorry, I have no idea what I'm doing. I know I seem like an American but I've been living abroad for a long time and a lot has changed."

In most cases people just ask where I've been and then explain whatever it is that I'm lost about whether it's how public libraries work in the Internet age or what Netflicks is - then they ask why I look so cold when it's 75 degrees outside.

Monday, July 26, 2010

5 Telltale Signs You've Been Traveling Too Long

Sometimes it takes months and sometimes only a week or two, but eventually even the hardiest traveler breaks down. If you are guilty of any of the following, it might be time to unpack your bag and stay somewhere awhile:

1. There's an amazing cultural event going on or you are mere blocks away from a major sight but you decide to stay at your hotel and watch Dumb and Dumber for the third time instead.

2. You are confused by all the emails clogging your inbox that seem to have come from another time space continuum. Bosses? Friend's relationship problems? Dogs dying? I think they're serving dog at the restaurant next door . . .

3. One or more items of your clothing is being held up or held together by safety pins, duct tape or dental floss. Bonus point if one of these items are your underwear.

4. You no longer speak normal English but say everything very slowly, enunciating simple words in un-grammatically correct sentences so that everyone will understand you, even when talking to other English speakers. You say "very" a lot.

5. You look anything like the above photo and think you're normal. Yes, that's mud on my face and a snake in my hand. When you start to act like jungle Jane (or George), it's probably time for a break.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Experiencing Halifax Pride at the Annual Dykes Vs Divas Softball Game

Being from San Francisco, nothing makes me like a city more than a good gay pride event. I'll only catch the first few days of Halifax Pride Week, the third biggest in Canada but lucked out by being here for one of its highlights: the Dykes Vs Divas softball game where butch lesbians are pitted against drag queens.

I know nothing about softball and baseball other than the fact that I'm bad at it so it was a treat to see a game where the players were as clueless and un-talented as me; add high heels and wigs on the Divas and it was pure comedy.

The divas began by setting up a hibachi grill at third base and a make-up station at second. As outfielders many chose not to use mitts but to try to catch the balls with their handbags instead (and it worked once). The highlight for them was obviously before the game when they got to pose for pictures and sell and sign their own signature baseball cards. All the proceeds go to local charities.

Once the game was in full swing it was obvious the divas were going to get obliterated by the dykes. The dykes, being nice girls at heart started giving extra innings to the divas and a couple of them even went out and played outfield for them while their macho sisters were at bat. Soon though the tables were turned when the divas discovered if you're hurt by the ball you gain a base so they would just let the ball hit them, drama up some pain then sexy-saunter up to first.

A picnic got set up in the outfield and the Divas kidnapped a dyke and forced make-up on her at first. The very camp MC was getting progressively drunker and no one could remember the score. On a few good plays "Heidi" dressed like the St Pauli Girl, slid into base loosing her wig. The comically skanky "China White," started loosing her shorts nearly exposing her "mangina" much to the horror even of her own team. The ball jokes were degrading and the idea that that was supposed to be a family event was loudly questioned.

At around this point I was getting brutally sunburned so I left before the game was over. Perhaps this was journalistically unprofessional but no one else was taking themselves seriously so why should I? I have no idea who won but it didn't seem to matter. The point was to generate an audience and create an event where a diva could change costumes numerous times. The dykes seemed happy to just play ball.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Loveliness and Ugliness of Anne

Never in my travels have I been to a place that is so personified by a fictional character. Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada's smallest province, is as sweet and red-headed (thanks to iron oxide in the soil) as Anne Shirley, the lively heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series. Cavendish, Lucy Maud's home and the setting for the books, is now the province's biggest attraction.

Anne fans from around the world make the pilgrimage to Cavendish looking for the down to Earth country spots described in the books, often with Anne's made up place names like "The Lake of Shining Waters," and the "White Way of Delight." The irony is that nearly every place in PEI lives up to these dreamy expectations of bucolic bliss except Cavendish. Sure all of Lucy Maude's old haunts are there from her birthplace and home to her grandfather's house - and these are lovingly restored to be quaintly beautiful - but somewhere in time, tourism went wonky and someone decided to set up a tacky tourist strip not unlike San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Spread out along a well-spaced out strip of highway there's a Ripley's Believe It Or Not, an Anne theme park, a water park, amusement park, indoor blacklight mini-golf and a wax museum to name a few. In between are the charming houses of yesteryear filled with old photos and small town stories of a talented woman who loved her island for its simplicity and natural beauty.

Lucy Maud's love of her natural surroundings inspired her books, her books have inspired possibly millions of young girls, many who come to visit, and the visitors inspired tourism to pave the whole damn place over for tour bus parking. It's a common story I suppose and really Cavendish isn't as garish as I'm making it sound, it could just be so much prettier. I hope that at some time the area will develop more towards what Lucy Maud loved and wrote about that inspired dreams of simple happiness to generations. I'd love to see a botanical garden theme park with real flowers and lakes lit by the sun and the rain with cute little benches, rose bushes and weeping willows, all animated by real happy children running around and playing in the dirt. I'd bring a picnic and Lucy Maud I think would smile at us.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Moose-Jam on the Cabot Trail

Ah, Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Highlands National Park: long stretches of winding road, few cars and pristine pine forest in all directions. But all it takes is one moose on the side of the road and suddenly the Cabot Trail forms a traffic plug.

I may sound like I'm heckling but I am no better than the RV, car-camping crowd. I stopped, ran over to the other side and got my prize photo of the moose's rear end.

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

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tomohon Sulawesi: Home to the World's Most Macabre Market?

How strong is your stomach? I used to think mine was made of steel but Tomohon's market in Sulawesi Indonesia broke me. It was a horror movie brought to life.

The Minahasans of North Sulawesi are known for cooking up critters from rats to bats and the local joke is that they'll eat anything on four legs apart from the table and chairs. Tomohon's market is a Minahasan center where folks come to from all over the region to buy food and other goods. It wasn't yet in the Lonely Planet and several people had told me I had to see it. I love markets and weird food so I was very excited to go.

The market is conveniently located right next to the mikrolet (mini bus) terminal. Josh and I got off our sweaty little tin can of a bus and wandered through the clothing and toiletry vendors and on to the food starting with piles of fragrant spices, baskets full of chilies and all sorts of bumpy, un-identifiable vegetables. But we browsed these areas quickly, having heard that the highlight was the butcher section.

We smelled the meat before we saw it - a mix of metallic sharpness and old sour stench. We could hear dogs barking, growling and fighting with each other and the humid air quickly became thicker with flies. The pig vendors were the first to greet us, beckoning us to check out their pork legs and heads. Pig heads are of course pretty creepy with their claymation-looking, pale floppy ears and dead eyes, but we'd seen plenty of butchered pigs before living in Tahiti, so they weren't shockingly gross to us. The vendors were friendly, in a hardened merchant sort of way, and we chatted with them asking about what other kind of meat was on sale.

"Too bad you're not here on Saturday," they told us. "That's when the snake butchers come in from the villages. But just over there are the bats and the rats."

Sure enough, across from the pig vendors were tables full of hairless black rats and bats impaled on sticks - their toothy jaws wide open with an expression of dead terror. The butchers behind the tables were preparing more specimens by burning all their hair off with a blowtorch. This gave the animals a smooth charred skin and the whole zone smelled like burning hair. The butchers explained to us that the rats and bats were raw and the hair was removed to make them easier to cook up at home.

"Just slice them up and fry them with onions and chilies," they chided. "And watch out for the little bones."

Meanwhile I noticed that the constant dog barking was coming from small cages near the pig butchers. These wire cages were literally stuffed with some of the mangiest dogs I'd ever seen. They were so tightly packed that the dogs were constantly fighting with each other for every centimeter of space and all of them were as wounded as they were skinny. A few of them looked at us with pleading, sweet canine eyes. It was one of the least humane things I've ever seen; I thought I might cry.

All the heavy smells were starting to make me woozy and I had serious fantasies of freeing the dogs. But to what end? So they could die on the streets? Just then a customer pointed to one of the dogs in the cages so a butcher dragged him out; the dog was yelping and scared but had a slight look of hope in his eyes. With a big wooden bat the butcher whacked the dog two or three times on the back of his head, killing him while all his old cell mates watched silently just inches away.

I looked at Josh.

" I think I'm going to pass out," he said. He'd been taking photos and getting a little too up close and personal with all the dead stinky things.

"Me too," I replied.

Silently we left the butchers. As we walked back through the market the smells changed from dead flesh to rotten onions and human sweat - we breathed it in like perfume. By the time we reached the market's fruit section back near the mini-buses we may as well as been in Shangri-la. I've eaten a lot of strange things in my life but after Tomohon I don't think I could ever eat dog.

Friday, May 21, 2010

An Unlikely Family Adventure to Hammam Mellegue, Tunisia

Hammam Mellegue, near the Central Western Kasbah city of Le Kef in Tunisia, sounded too amazing to miss; it's a remote hammam in an 1800-year old Roman bath very far off the tourist track. To get there, my family and I had to hire a 4WD with a driver and rumble over bad and very dusty dirt roads out of Le Kef for about 45 minutes. As usual, we had little idea what we were really getting ourselves into.

When we got to the crumbled outpost on a shallow river, we were all a little disappointed. Sure the Roman ruins were there but the site was strewn with litter and the only structures besides the base remains of the baths were made out of tin roofing and a hodgepodge of recuperated building materials. It looked more like a slum than anything else. Still I was excited to go inside.

Josh and my son went to the men's side and my daughter and I went to the women's side. Inside the women's baths were four or five older, overweight and mostly toothless Berber ladies sitting in the meeting room-sized ancient stone pool that was dimly lit from above by a small hole in the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The sand-colored, ferrous-red tinged stairs into the baths were worn smooth by literally thousands of years of feet. Trying to imagine who and how many people had walked down these exact steps was like trying to understand some extremely complicated mathematical equation. Magic. I strolled right into the hot ankle deep water while the women looked at us obviously surprised to see foreigners; my daughter, still half-dressed looked at me with a pleading look from the side.

"It's OK," I said. "You don't have to come in if you don't want to."

The youngest looking Berber woman spoke some French and we all started to chat. They offered to help wash my hair then gave me some water direct from the spring that they told me was healing. It tasted like rotten eggs but I managed a few gulps. My daughter eventually came over and sat with us but passed on the water. I didn't blame her; it smelled bad. The very large woman at the door of the hammam came over and asked if I wanted a scrub, which I did, so I went through the classic and obligatory rough and painful body brush that removed as much skin as is humanly possible without making one bleed.

Back in the pool again we all started having a pretty good time gossiping and laughing; another very old and skinny woman came in, sat in a corner and stared silently at us. Then the large scrubber woman at the door came in and told my daughter and I we had to leave. I didn't understand.

"Your husband," she said. "Wants to leave."

We dressed, and went out into the very bright outdoors. There was Josh and my son hanging out with a group of young guys.

"Let's get out of here," said Josh. "This place is creepy."

"Mama it smelled really bad in there," said my son.

In the car on the way back Josh explained that besides the smell being unbearable, everyone they talked to was sick. Apparently people came for the healing waters and wouldn't come all this way unless they had a relatively serious health issue that needed attention; particularly rheumatism and tummy troubles. True, none of the ladies in my bath looked particularly healthy, but no one was hacking, farting or had any visible sores or anything either. We had talked about children and beauty secrets, not our ailments. From what Josh had to say though, there were some obviously ill guys on the men's side.

"Lets get back to our hostel and have good showers," said Josh.

We did smell like sulfur and the dirt from the ride back had settled right into our slightly damp skin. I hoped we weren't going to catch any bizarre digestive or skin diseases from marinating in hot water with sick people for that hour or more but overall I was still spinning about how unfathomably old and utterly un-glossed and real the baths had been. To this day, it's one of my more appreciated travel experiences. And luckily none of us got sick at all.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My Big Tahitian Dance Show: A Video

I did it! On Saturday night May 15th I made a sort of right of passage: I was in a Tahitian dance performance at To'ata Amphitheater, Tahiti's biggest venue and the premier stage for Tahitian dance. Most Tahitian girls dream of performing at To'ata and many of them do it. Dance is an enormously important part of society and is one of the joys of being a Polynesian woman - not that the men mind it either. It was an incredible experience of female bonding, dancing, sweating, sewing, stressing, practicing in the cold rain and laughing with an incredibly diverse range of girls, women and old ladies.

The dance schools aren't as lithe and flashy as the pros but still have some amazing costumes, choreography and an ambiance that's literally on fire. Part of my troupe will go on to compete in the singing and dancing competitions at the world famous Heiva I Tahiti festival (again at To'ata) in July but I'll be out of the country so will miss it unfortunately.

As I said in my last post about my rehearsals, the big story is getting published elsewhere so I don't want to blow it here, but here is a video sampler of the show. My daughter filmed this from the stands and I'm in three of the dances in this clip. I'm not going to give you any more hints except to say that I'm the fourth dark figure that walks on stage from the seating area in the first dance. You can also hear my daughter say "Oh mon Dieu! Eh Maman," at one point during the first dance. Hopefully it was because I was busting a great move . . . but probably not.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Raimana's Big Happy Teahupoo Tube Ride

I rarely write about surfing - even though I happen to live in Teahupoo, home of one of the most famous and scary waves in the world - because honestly, I don't really know what I'm talking about. I leave the surf stuff to my husband Josh Humbert. Still, every now and then I get really impressed, like I did when Josh showed me this video footage his friend Gen took (with our camera) of local boy Raimana Van Bastolaer riding what could be the biggest and best wave of the season, nearly getting swallowed and then miraculously making it out. I love how it looks like he got eaten by tube then comes happily shooting back up over the top - I also love how humble and nice he is when he comes back to the boat. That's real Tahitian class. Raimana won the Billabong XXL 2010 Tube of the Year award for this ride! This whole sequence makes me happy. It was on March 17th 2010.

For more photos of that day check out Josh's slideshow.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

World Travel With Lonely Planet's Brilliant Bloggers

You may have noticed the badge on my sidebar happily proclaiming that I'm a Lonely Planet Featured Blogger. I've always been proud to be part of this elite group who get our blogs posted on Lonely Planet's website but recently we've independently banded together - as a group we cover an impressive chunk of the world and are an impressively talented blogging force. Check out the World Travel Squidoo lens recently put together by Brandon at to find the blog descriptions, links and top posts of these excellent blogs.

So many people in this group have helped me promote my blog so now I'm devoting this post - quite different from what I usually write about on Coconut Radio - to give them a shout too. If you're into world travel, you'll be happy I told you about them!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tahitian Dancing My Life Away

You may have noticed that for the last few weeks I've been blogging about older stories and general thoughts, not what I'm up to here on Tahiti. The reason for this is that I've been dancing - sometimes up to 20 hours a week - preparing for a huge show I'm going to perform in this Saturday, May 15th. This is my first year taking Tahitian dance classes but by a mix of circumstances I have now committed to dance in five acts of a huge show at To'ata Amphitheater, Tahiti's biggest and best venue; everyone from UB40 to the dancers at the massive Heiva I Tahiti festival perform here. I've been so wrapped up in wood percussion rhythms, graceful ukulele and making my five costumes out of leaves, shells and beautiful Tahitian fabrics, that I've hardly had time to eat.

The good news is that you'll all be able to catch up on the story soon. I have a three-part series that's going to be run by a venerable, soon-to-be-named travel site in the coming weeks and I'll make an announcement here when the first story is up. Till then, here's a video I filmed at last Saturday's all-day practice session. It's just a teaser. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Travel Before the Internet: An Ode to Post Restante

A little over ten years ago, before nearly everyone in the world was connected by Internet and cell phones, people traveled across continents, to remote islands or even just to a resort in Florida for a week without touching bases with their friends and family beyond an occasional phone call. On long journeys travelers wrote letters and postcards home and could receive mail at any post office in the world via Poste Restante. You can still get mail this way: anyone can address a letter to you at Poste Restante, your local post office.

Getting Poste Restante letters in random places around the world was magic. One of my best memories is ruffling through boxes and boxes of mail in Kathmandu and miraculously finding three letters, filed wrong, from my boyfriend who was living on a remote island in French Polynesia. The letters were months old, but without the daily bombardment of communication we get today, the words were golden. These letters were tucked inside my travel pack and read over and over.

But what I loved most about only being reachable by Poste Restante was the sense of freedom it gave me. Today when I'm on the road I have to let everyone know where I am every day or so or someone will get worried. Knowing I was off in the wilds of some foreign country relying only on my own wits was a rush. But like riding in the back of a pickup truck or biking without a helmet this little freedom is now denied to us - what everyone seems to think is most important is that we are safe.

I'm imagining an adventure travel book of the future: Around The World Without Internet. Can he/she manage the world's dangers without being connected? Will our hero get swept away in a tsunami or political chaos that they didn't read about online? Can someone survive day to day with only human interactions? And imagine the trials of booking all those transportation tickets in person!

I'm honestly tired of being so safe and of seeing my daily interactions with people slip more and more away from the real world and into the cyber zone. The irony of course is that I'm writing this on my blog. To keep up and to keep working I have to be online but I'd much rather be on a Himalayan mountain top reading a hand written letter for the tenth time over a cup of yak butter tea.

Has the Internet taken away some of travel's romance? I think it has but that's certainly not going to stop me looking for other adventures. Through email, Facebook and Twitter I can share my experiences with others more than I ever have. But like taking too many pictures, sometimes the best way to savor what travel has to offer is to set aside the social lens and enjoy the experience wholly, personally and in the moment.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Getting Kidnapped in Costa Rica

One of my best girlfriend adventures was to Costa Rica with my good friend Bibi. Bibi is a flight attendant on Air France so as a Christmas present surprise, she and my husband organized the trip for the two of us girls using her buddy passes. It was the best Christmas present I ever got. Unfortunately, as far as my family was concerned, it was the worst trip I've ever taken.

Shortly after New Years Bibi and I set off for Central America from Tahiti, immediately rented a 4WD in San Jose and off we went: two girls, a truck, a boogie board, minimal luggage and a sense of adventure. We tackled the West coast, forded rivers that sometimes went up to our vehicle's windows, went way off the beaten path to the far South and trekked in the jungle. Towards the end of our three-week trip we ended up in the North in the dusty surf town of Mal Pais, where we surfed, zip-lined and attended some pretty wild beach parties. There wasn't much Internet, or maybe we were just having too much fun to think about writing so neither of us wrote home for a day or two. Then we left for the long drive to our last stop in the country, Monteverde.

We arrived at Monteverde in the late afternoon, checked into our friendly and frilly homestay then went to check email. About a minute after logging on we both looked at each other in shock. Both of us had pages of emails from worried family who were sure we'd been kidnapped.

Here's what happened on their end:

At some odd hour in the middle of the night Bibi's mother in France received a phone call from a girl who sobbed for help for a few seconds then hung up. Now this detail is a bit vague, but being sure it was her daughter's voice and already being worried about her little girl gallivanting around Central America, she called the phone company who apparently traced the call to Costa Rica. She then called Bibi's sister Marina on Tahiti, freaking out, to see if she'd had any news from us. Marina said no she hadn't and called Bibi's boyfriend Andy in hysterics. Andy, worried out of his mind called my husband Josh. It was about 5am in Tahiti at this time. Josh, trying to remain calm, called my dad in the States and my dad called the American consulate in Costa Rica. Amazingly within a few hours they tracked us to our guesthouse in Mal Pais who told them we had left suddenly without saying where we were going. My dad booked a ticket to Costa Rica - if he'd had Rambo gear he'd have packed it.

It was just a few hours before my dad's flight when Bibi and I checked our email in Monteverde. We immediately called everyone to let them know we were OK and to tell my dad he didn't need to pull a Harrison Ford for us. Everyone was relieved but they were all so shaken up by this time that it quickly turned to anger.

"But we didn't do anything!" we pleaded.

All anyone could say was, "You have no idea what we went through."

In all, it was an interesting exercise on how easy it is to track someone down. Now I do call and write more often and I do properly fill out all that annoying passport info when I check in. I used to be paranoid that filling out all that stuff would somehow make me more easy for The Man to find me - but if that man is my dad looking for me, I'm OK with that.

To this day I can't really talk about that wild and crazy Costa Rica trip with the people most close to me but shhhh, I had a really good time!

Friday, April 30, 2010

I Can't Feel the Bed Bugs Bite

Really, I can't feel them gnaw on me and their bites don't make me itch or cause a bump. I found this out the hard way.

On my first research trip to Malaysia for Lonely Planet I did a bunch of pre-research, trolling the web for comments about hotels and hostels around the country. When it came time for me to book a cheap backpackers for myself in Kuala Lumpur I was hit with a terrible realization: nearly every place I looked at had bed bug complaints. Now at this point, as far as I thought I knew, I had never slept with a bed bug and I really, really didn't want to start, not ever in my whole life.

All parasites gross me out but bed bugs are the worst - I mean, is anything more disgusting than having bugs crawling over you all night sucking your blood? No, there isn't. A little mosquito buzzing in your ear, micro-bugs surreptitiously living on your scalp or even a quick working leech, they are all parasitic ladies and gentlemen compared with the invasive and crafty bed bug.

So I booked the only place I could find within my budget that didn't seem to have a bed bug problem. It was depressing, windowless, next to the bus station and a few notches below mediocre, but that all seemed OK as long as there were no bugs. I was so tired from traveling when I arrived that I went straight to my room to go to sleep. But wait . . . . what's that in the corner?

It was a tiny beetle-like bug and I was sure it was evil. This was a bed bug, maybe - or maybe not. I had seen computer terminals in the guesthouse lobby so decided I'd bring out the little beast and see if I could ID him online. I'd been traveling for about 30 hours at this point, was dehydrated, hungry and could hardly keep my eyes open but I tried my best to compare the little squirmy guy I had in a napkin with an online picture. He kind of looked like a bed bug and kind of didn't. So I brought him up to the front desk and asked the guy at the counter.

"No," the guy said. "Not a bed bug. We don't have bed bugs here."

OK, cool. So I went to bed.

Now you're probably waiting for the punchline here about how I got brutally mauled during the night, but that didn't happen. I slept peacefully then spent the next two years traveling back and forth to Southeast Asia without incident. During that time I saw dozens of people with severely bitten arms and legs - but I never got bitten, not once. I began to think I was charmed, miraculously getting all the bed bug-free rooms from riding on some groovy travel Zen.

But then it happened: I was on Tioman Island, once again in Malaysia, in a perfectly OK room on the beach. I'd been in the room two days already but the last morning I had to get up in the dark, early morning to catch a boat out. My alarm went off and I turned on the light next to my bed. Bed bugs were everywhere, crawling around the bed, trying to escape up the mosquito net and under my sheet. I almost threw up. I checked myself but I didn't have a single bite. I had slept soundly and hadn't been disturbed by them at all until now.

There was nothing I could do. I quickly wrote a note: "You have a severe bed bug problem in room #4!" and left it at the front desk then went and caught my boat. I felt violated and dirty. While on the boat I called my favorite author buddy Brandon in Borneo who icked and eeewed with me. He decided I just had some weird travel writer gene mutation that made me impervious to bed bug bites - this made me laugh and feel better. When I got home I burned my (luckily old and falling apart) backpack and all my (luckily old and falling apart) clothes.

Who knows how many times I've slept with bed bugs? I now have a permanent case of the creepy crawlies and an annoying habit of waking up at 3am just to turn the light on to make sure the bed is free of blood-suckers.

The new Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei guide has a whole boxed text dedicated on how to avoid and/or deal with bed bugs - I seriously rallied for this addition. There is also some great info on the web including a very well-informed blog post from Health Conscious Travel that inspired me to write this story. Check it out. Even luxury hotels get bed bugs and it's better to follow protocol than to bring bugs home - the ultimate bug nightmare!

If you're still curious, here's a short video on the bed bug's horrific come back from the perspective of an etymologist and an exterminator cowboy:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Punu Pua'atoro: Spam of the Gods

Poisson Cru, a delicate and healthy raw fish salad, is the star of French Polynesian cuisine and most visitors think of it as the country's national dish. Tahitians do eat lots of poisson cru but beyond restaurant menus and within family kitchen walls, the most popular dish in the country is by far Punu Pua'atoro, canned corned beef and Tahiti's answer to Spam.

Chock full of fat and nitrites, Punu Pua'atoro is deliciously salty and addictively tasty. It's also very easy to prepare. At home most folks fry it up in a pan with onions and serve it with roast breadfruit. At picnics the Punu Pua'atoro tin is heated directly in the fire next to a charring breadfruit. In fact, the meat is so linked to breadfruit that I've heard stories of doctors who have told local diabetics and cholesterol sufferers to stop eating breadfruit - they know that if people don't eat breadfruit, they won't eat Punu Pua'atoro either. It sounds nicer to tell someone to stop eating their fruits and veggies than something meaty and yummy.

Punu Pua'atoro in the no-nonsense Tahitian language literally means "horned pig in metal." Even though most people are now aware that salty canned meat isn't really good for them, a near mystical, back-to-the-roots aura surrounds it as a distinctly Polynesian dish. If you eat Punu Pua'atoro you're a local; if you turn your nose up at it, you're kind of an asshole. It's the cool kid thing to bring along on picnics and everyone will nod in approval and take a little whether they like it for real or not. It's ironic that what has become a symbol of island cuisine is made from an animal that hardly exists in Polynesia, doesn't even have it's own real Tahitian name and makes so many people sick and overweight. But there you have it, like smoking cigarettes, sometimes being hip and sensory enjoyment takes priority of over reason.

I happen to love Punu Pu'atoro but eat it only a few times a year, mostly at picnics with my cool back-to-the-roots Tahitian buddies. Yeah, I admit, I care a little about my image but I also do love the salty, fatty taste when sopped up on a piece of hot, chestnut-like breadfruit. I don't buy Punu Pua'atoro and it makes me feel sick every time I do eat it, but I relish those moments around the fire pit, eating just cooked yummy food to the sound of ukulele.

Friday, April 23, 2010

When Fear Causes Bad Decisions: A Scary Border Crossing Story

It sounded easy: take a short taxi ride from the village of Lethem, Guyana to the Takatu River, hire a boat to cross the river, then wait for a bus on the other side (Brazil) to go to the Bonfim bus terminal with connections to Boa Vista.

I took the taxi and hired the boat, no problem. On the Brazil side of the river there was a graffiti-covered plywood bus shelter with a crowd of greasy guys and presumably prostitutes hanging around. They all glanced at me when I arrived and wearily put down my pack, but no one said hello despite my hopeful smile. A taxi driver came up and gestured if I wanted a ride. No, I said with confidence, I was waiting for the bus. Soon two men arrived by boat from where I'd just come from across the river, got in the cab right away and drove off.

About twenty minutes later I was still waiting for the bus and was now feeling the gaze of several of the men on me as I uncomfortably sat alone, the only foreigner and obviously a tourist. I smiled at the prostitute sitting next to me and asked her if she knew when the bus was coming. She said "soon," very reassuringly and patted me on the knee. Meanwhile several more groups of men crossed the river from the Guyana side and snagged taxis that were arriving regularly, about every 15 minutes or so.

After about an hour a thought crossed my mind: "No one knows I'm here. I'm at a dodgy border in no man's land all by myself. If some threw me in a car and drove away right now no one would ever know."

A guy who had been hanging out by the taxi area seemed to read my mind and came over to me.

"The bus should be here soon," he said in English. "The one that was supposed to be here an hour ago didn't show up but that happens sometimes." He was friendly. This made me feel better.

So I waited another hour. It was the afternoon now and I still had a long trip ahead of me. Plus I was starting to feeling scared. There were some pretty sleazy people at the bus stop and I knew that I was looking more vulnerable by the moment.

I started planning what I would do if it got too late to get to Boa Vista. I'd have to go back across the river to Guyana but I wasn't sure they'd let me back in without a Brazil stamp in my passport. What would the border guards do with a lone woman at sunset who had nowhere to go and was not legally in any country?

Just then the boat guy who had taken me across the river saw I was still there and came over looking concerned.

"The last bus to Boa Vista leaves at 4 pm!" he said. "What are you still doing here?"

I explained that I was waiting for the bus. He told me to wait a minute then went and talked to several people by the river.

"There's no bus," he said. "The border guards are blocking it from coming in so you have to take a taxi to the border patrol office then hopefully catch a bus from there."

It seemed obvious to me now that I should have just taken a taxi like everyone else and wondered why I had waited so long. Sometimes fear makes us act dumb - I had been in a semi-paralyzed state not speaking the language and being in a spooky part of a new country. Out of my daze, I got a taxi to the border office for an easy $2 and got stamped into Brazil; the bus arrived within minutes and whisked me to Bonfim. At the Bonfim terminal, I managed to hop on the last bus to Boa Vista just as it was pulling away.

The guidebook and all those helpful people had given me the wrong information. At the border office I talked to the guards and found out that the bus was often blocked there and sometimes it didn't run at all. Luckily, I was re-writing the guidebook and was able to change the details in the book. I guess it's my job to find out all these things the hard way - hopefully my bad decisions in the face of fear will save many people the trouble and desperate questioning I went through that day. As for me, I hope I never get stuck at a bus stop like that ever again.

Note: This picture is of the Essequibo River, not the Takatu River. I was too worried about my safety to take out my camera and take a picture at the border! Still, it looked kind of like this but with more people, more boats and a ghetto bus stop.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Diane Mc Turk: Savior of Giant River Otters & the Coolest Woman I Have Ever Met

If you haven't noticed by now, I really love Guyana. Every day I spent there was an unbelievable adventure, but meeting Diane Mc Turk, an ageless woman who has devoted her life to saving the Amazon's endangered giant river otters, was a highlight.

Diane owns Karanambu Ranch, a cattle ranch, wilderness preserve and eco-lodge at the north of Guyana's Africa-like Rupununi Savannas. Getting there requires either flying or driving overnight from Georgetown then taking a few hour-long boat ride. While visitors are lodged in comfortable, brick and thatch bungalows, it's still not for the faint hearted - the entire time I was there a snake was coiled in the rafters above my bed.

"Hope you don't mind not having the place to yourself," laughed Diane's nephew when he showed me to my room. "Don't worry, he's not poisonous."

Before seeing Diane, visitors usually get to meet her orphans, the playful giant river otters who wiggle around the grounds like happy dogs. Diane often shows up at meal time with the air of a teenager who'd rather be off with her wild and crazy otter friends, but once she starts talking in her documentary quality voice, she gets as carried away by her charm as everyone else and starts to enjoy herself. By the end of a visit most folks have heard wildlife tales that only a lifetime in the Amazon could produce as well as some surprising stories about Diane's 30 years in England when she worked as an actress and at London's Savoy Hotel.

"Men fall in love with her and women want to be her," Diane's niece who manages the ranch told me. "She is irresistible."

It's true, Diane with or without the otters emanates free spirit and a child-like magnetism. She stands as straight and slim as a fashion model and manages to look elegant as she pulls a canoe through the murky, caiman-filled river, feeds dead fish to her otters or wrestles the critters with her strong, apparently bite-proof arms.

Through her un-countable years of work Diane has rehabilitated over 40 otters and her ranch has been used as a research center and springboard for the animal's protection. But nothing beats getting out into the water with Diane and her "kids," Getting to play and frolic in the water with the otters was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.

Here's a short video I took of Diane and her posse while I was at the ranch:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Guyana Tales: Getting Friendly With the Neighborhood Caiman

After an over-night bus ride on a pot-holed dirt road through the Amazon jungle my father and I arrived at Iwokrama Field Station, hot, encrusted with dust and exhausted. The river, though opaque and brown, looked incredibly inviting.

"Is it safe to swim?" we asked our guide.

"Yes it's very safe," he assured us. "Just wait about twenty minutes because I have a few things to do before I can watch you."

"Oh we're good swimmers we don't need to be watched!" we said. We're both pretty intrepid travelers not used to having a guide so, although we appreciated his gesture, being babysat was not a cool idea or necessary.

"No, no, please just wait and I'll be down as soon as I can," he insisted

OK, we thought, no need to rock the boat on arrival.

Twenty minutes later the guide accompanied us down to the river. We swam around in the murky water, stretching our bus-stiffened muscles for about half an hour while our new friend watched vigilantly from the dock. Afterwards, we went back to our rooms, showered and went to dinner.

We were served by an absolutely lovely Amer-Indian woman who asked us about our day.

"I hear you went swimming," she said with a sweet smile. "Did you meet Sankar?"


"Yes Sankar, he's our eight-foot caiman."

My dad nearly choked on his manioc.

"Um, no we didn't," I said nervously as my dad gulped water, his face turning red. "Uh, is he friendly?"

"Well I'm not sure really," our friend said in her sing-song voice. "I like to feed him scraps of meat."

And with that she went back to the kitchen.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How I Stay Sane and Keep Writing: My Waterfall Horse Valley Run

I love travel writing but what people tend to look over is that over half of the job is spent sitting in a chair typing (or, more realistically, gazing blankly) at a computer. Hours and hours of this takes massive amounts of self-motivation stamina and I've found that the only way I can hack it is to get out of the binding chair and exercise daily.

We don't have a gym or anything way out here in the Teahupoo sticks but there are plenty of ways to get the blood pumping. My easy-out especially when I'm on a deadline, is a jog straight out my front door and through my friend's private, gated waterfall valley. It's not just the movement that ignites my brain cells, it's the incredible natural beauty of the place and the local livestock characters I get to meet along the way.

After walking down the main road and saying hello to whatever locals are hanging out by the beach and at Teahupoo's local cafe, I turn into the secret valley. The real beauty starts at a fruit-tree planted area where about 10 horses roam free. I then cross a little river (that can get un-crossable when it rains) and through another gate into a second horse valley. This area is planted with lemon trees and the owners also keep bees here. The horses in this valley are more wild and because of that, I like them more. There are about four foals right now and, although foals are usually skittish there's one that has started being my friend and nuzzled me today with his soft warm nose. There's also Chocolate, the only pony who often comes over to see if I've brought him anything to eat (he's the brown and white guy in the picture).

The only valley animals I am not friends with are the cow and the pig who, it can be said have a "special" relationship. There used to be two cows and two pigs but I think the owners killed and ate one of both. Now the remaining cow keeps a low profile and the pig has decided to act as the bovine's bodyguard. If I see the cow I know the pig is nearby. Our relationship was forever changed for the worse when I surprised the pig once at a bottle-neck between a cliff and the river - the pig charged me. I managed to scramble down the bank towards the river to get out of his way but the "I'm going to fuck you up" look in the pig's eyes is something I'll never forget. The cow (who must weigh hundreds of pounds and has big horns) just watched on disdainfully.

So, once I've passed the cow and pig hurdle I get to the end of the valley where my bravery is rewarded by a waterfall tumbling into a glass-clear stream. Sometimes I stop here and just absorb the energy for a few minutes before turning around to affront my livestock nemeses again for the return.

With all this action I admit, my run is pretty wimpy. I walk a bit, I jog a bit and I stop to pat my horse friends on their noses. But it's an hour of movement, out of my uncomfortable chair and blissfully away from the human world. After this I'm as ready as I'll ever be to tackle the day's work, sit in my uncomfortable chair and stare at a computer screen for hours.


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