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!


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