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Stories from Month 3

Honolulu, HI, USA

Aloha Spirit

michelleToday is our last day in Hawaii. In fact, we leave in a couple hours for Independent Samoa. It has been an exciting two weeks of family, food, and beautiful scenery.

Oahu Canoe

Tim and I have enjoyed soaking in the Aloha spirit of the islands. We basked on the beaches, snorkeled with turtles, and ate poke (raw fish).

Michelle in hula skirtAlthough I haven't lived in Hawaii for 17 years, when I visit I always feel I have returned home. I love the bright sunlight, the tradewinds, and how the fragrance of flowers surrounds me. I love the abundance of fruit, colorful fish when snorkeling, and relaxed attitudes. But most of all I love my extended family for their generosity, sense of humor, and kindness. My father was born and raised in Honolulu and I am so thankful that Hawaii is part of my heritage. top

Surfboards for rent in Waikiki. Waves crashing in the Lanai lookout, Oahu, Hawaii. The bow of an outrigger canoe, Oahu, Hawaii.

Apia, Independent Samoa

Samoa.net Internet Cafe

tim"Need sleep" I think, stumbling through Samoan customs at 7 a.m. The night flight was not kind to me; I fought hard to fall asleep and lost.

But outside the airport, the bright light of morning wakes me up. The sky is unusual. Pillar-like clouds build the horizon into a puffy cityscape. It is winter here in the South Pacific and the low sun produces long shadows and casts a warm golden color to the landscape.

We hop a bus and ramble down the coast to our budget guesthouse in the capital of Apia.

Passing through several communities along the way, I'm impressed by how clean everything is. Neatly trimmed hedges, colorful flowers, and painted rocks surround lawns tidy enough to impress any homeowner in middle suburbia. The architecture of countryside homes opens a small window into the Samoan community. Traditionally, families live in thatched roof shelters without walls called fales. Several families' fales surround a large communal fale and make a village. We pass by the newer style fales, some with tin roofs and some with private walled areas. Once in the town of Apia, nearly all the homes we pass are western-style with four walls and regular windows.

We arrive at the guesthouse, stow our bags, and head out for a walk. Samoa seems about as laid back as any place can get. We walk slowly. Men and women pass by us wearing light sandals and colorful lavalavas (wrap-around skirts). Most of them say hello and smile. In the center of town, we walk through the maketi fou market area. It's a busy place. Samoan vendors sell taro root, bananas, baked goods, koko (cocoa Samoa), crafts, and many vegetables that I can't identify. Over in one corner of the market, a large group of men alternatively laugh and moan over an excited game of dominoes.

We buy bread and walk home to nap. top

Beach Tour

timThe Samoan Outrigger Hotel is an enjoyable place, by backpacker travel standards. The large white house was voted one of the best budget hotels in the South Pacific - but that was a few years ago. The windows of the large open room in front face towards the ocean and let in a nice breeze. The casual furniture laying about invite you to sit down and read. Like every hotel in Apia, the Outrigger is very busy now. The coup in Fiji has scared many travelers out of Fiji and towards Samoa. After all, that is why I am here with Michelle.

Today we took a tour to the south beaches of Upolu. While the weather was beautiful all day in Apia, heavy rain and wind followed us through two different beaches. We moved on to a two-tiered waterfall where, on nice days, one could jump from pool to pool. Today the rough water would have sucked us under faster than a turd in an aircraft toilet. So we moved on to another waterfall. This one was said to have a spectacular view, but the fog prevented us from seeing.

Not to be defeated, we ended the day attending a fiafia at a local hotel. Although this celebration of song, dance, and food has roots in traditional Samoan life, what we attended was definately a product of the tourist trade. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the chance to hear wonderful Samoan voices singing together. Like the young Christians singing through the streets of Apia trying to attract youth to prayer meetings, the performers' harmony just made me happy to listen.

After the show, we dined on traditional Samoan food for the first time. I bit into a pile of seaweed. Though it looked like a miniature bunch of sweet grapes, my mouth cringed to the incredibly salty taste. I didn't care for the the sea slug either. I have a hard time describing what it was like, though the thought of it still makes my mouth water in a really unpleasant way. But I was thrilled to try the rest of the food. I had to go back for seconds on taro leaves filled with coconut and breadfruit. All the while we sat next to a head chief's birthday celebration. The performers sat near our table singing happy birthday in Samoan and other Samoan songs.

It was a great way to end the day. top

Cindy's Caberet

timTonight we attended what I must call the "Best Drag Show in the South Pacific."

Cindy's Caberet is the last thing I expected to see in this otherwise conservative country. Men in drag with glittery costumes danced with shirtless buff men in lavalavas. The crowd loved the old showtunes, the Polynesian music, the mannish Tina Turner, and the disco dancing at the end of the show.

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Faga, Independent Samoa

Sailing

michelleBrillant turquoise water lay before me as white spray splashed my face. Tim and I had been graciously invited by the owner of the hotel we were staying at to spend Sunday afternoon on his catamaran.

As we flew along the reef I was struck by the beauty of the island Savai'i. Although less developed than Upolu, it is equal in charm. The coast was covered by a sparkling white sand beach and lined with swaying palm trees.

Along the reef, a fair distance from shore, we tied the boat to a large rock and jumped in the clear water to snorkel. The fish were small but brilliant in color. Blue, orange, and yellow colors swam by. As a bright blue school of fish passed me, they changed direction and suddenly became a glowing green. Purple blue star fish dotted the sand below.

Heading back to shore I thought, "This is what paradise is all about!" top

Music

timWe've had the opportunity to listen to music all over Samoa. Tonight at Si 'ufaga, a few men were playing at the restaurant. Lolani Solitua, Isaia Akoa, and Liae Talamaifuga were nice enough to let me record a few songs. View the Sounds page under "Samoan Trio" to listen. top

Driving

timThe last five days have been rejuvinating. Our cabin by the water at Si'ufaga Beach sports a small kitchen, so I've been experimenting with coconut rice, fresh bananas, Samoan cocoa, and canned food. My eyes are blurry from reading too many books. My only real excitement turned out to be the huge tarantula I found next to the toilet. Needless to say, Michelle wasn't as excited as I was.

But it is a good day to leave the house and look around the island of Suvai'i. So we rented a car from a guy named Otto.

Suvai'i is one of the largest islands in Polynesia, but circling the island's well paved coastal highway only takes 3 1/2 hours at a slow pace. The style of our Korean-made diesel 4 wheel drive was similar to a classic jeep. Although the car itself was not old, the spongy brakes, broken windshield, fishy steering, and bald tires made me feel like I was driving a true classic. At least it ran well.

Samoa ChurchWe headed up the east coast of the island looking to complete a counter-clockwise loop. The eastern coast of the 50 000 person island is the most heavily populated, so we passed through village after village of colorful fales. After the lava fields of the north side, we entered the Falealupo Peninsula. An old Catholic church lay there in ruins, destroyed by a terrible cyclone almost 10 years ago. Continuing down the west coast, we passed tall rocky sea arches and stop in the Taga Blowholes.

The Taga Blowholes shoot a huge blast of misty air and water every minute or so. It is said to propel coconuts hundreds of feet into the sea. I couldn't help thinking of myself shooting up through it like a human cannonball. I wasn't equipped with a crash helmet and jumpsuit, so I decided not to try it out. Maybe on my next visit.

Our circle complete, we returned the car, hitched a ride from Otto, and made some strange stew with canned mackerel. top

Bright yellow plants against the blue South Pacific Ocean, Samoa. Beautiful Samoan smiles.

Manase, Independent Samoa

Fiafia

timIt is fiafia night at Tanu's Beach Fales where the whole family comes out to dance and sing. Listen to them sing in the Sounds page under Samoa.

Fiafia Night
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Sunset

timFrom the north side of the island, south of the equator, we can see both sunrise and sunset from our little beach fale.

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A Bus Ride

michelleAs the colorful wooden bus makes its way down the road, the sights out the window will be the memories I keep of Samoa. Manicured lawns dotted with chickens, pigs, dogs and an occasional cow. Brown bottoms of toddlers as they play in the dirt. Fales painted brightly with reclining figures inside. Blue ocean, coconut groves and green hills whiz by.

As the bus rumbles along, it passes through one village after another. Each village has a large white cement church in its center. The churches are by far the largest buildings on the islands and a focal point of life in the village. Children wave and adults smile as we pass and I am struck at the friendly and open lifestyle these people lead. top

Salelolga, Independent Samoa

Photos

timPhoto check-in. top

The colorful wooden buses of Samoa - where it is not uncommon for passengers to sit on each other's laps on a crowded bus.

Apia, Independent Samoa

Kava!

timWe walked around the vegetable market on our last full day in Samoa. On a whim, I purchased a carved multi-legged wooden kava bowl. Once I bought that, I decided to buy some kava to match. I picked up something that I found out later was definitely NOT kava and asked the quiet man behind the counter, "Is this kava?" In the true Samoan way of pleasing he simply answered, "Yes."

I brought it back to the hotel, held it in the air, and asked the Samoan woman that worked there how to make it. She choked and almost laughed herself to death at what I thought was kava - apparently the straw-like substance is used to make coconut cream and is used as a loofa. I'm quite sure her whole village knew the story about the stupid American by nightfall.

The drink made from ground kava root, or 'ava as they say here, is used in Samoan kava ceremonies. In a traditional ceremony, men seat themselves in an oval and place the specially made bowl at one end. A ceremonial virgin then filters the ground cumin-looking powder with water until the chief signals that the brew has reached its proper strength. At that time, the chief dips half a coconut shell into the muddy looking water and passes it to each participant. The ceremony can be a brief ritual before a government meeting or an hours-long ritual of a boy meeting his future father-in-law.

Kava has several active ingredients and according to the Lonely Planet guide, "...is both an anaesthetic and analgesic, high in fibre, low in calories, and serves as a mild tranquilizer, an antobacterial and antifungal agent, a painkiller, a diuretic, and appetite suppressant." In case you are wondering, it is legal to use in both North America and Europe.

I eventually bought the "right" kava in the market and hosted a makeshift kava ceremony at the Outrigger. Unfortunately, the wood stain on my kava bowl ran down the sink when I washed it. The bowl still looked fine, but we decided the neon yellow plastic salad bowl might make a safer alternative. Of course, we filled it with bottled water! After our Samoan friend at the hotel stopped laughing, she helped us prepare the rest.

We poured the kava powder into a cloth and wrapped it into a golf ball sized tea bag. After repeatedly dunking and wringing the kava by hand, the clear water became muddy enough to drink.

We gathered around the white picnic table in the kitchen and placed the yellow bowl in the center. Using a coffee cup I found in the sink, I solemnly filled five wine glasses full of the brackish brew. We all yelled cheers and drank the bitter root down.

In a good faith effort to explore and describe the effects of kava, we had a few more glasses. Well, many more. And how did I feel? I had a slightly numb mouth and I felt a little spacey, but the effect was short lived and was no stronger than the effect of drinking a beer.

The things I do for TheTravelYear! top

Auckland, New Zealand

Hello Auckland!

michelleOur flight from Samoa to New Zealand was only four hours, but in crossing the international date line, we lost a whole day. It's like the 8th of August never existed. It is strange to be in a winter climate after such a long time in the tropics.

We've been in Auckland less than 24 hours but I loved it from the minute we arrived. Auckland is a typical cosmopolitan city with plenty of shopping, bars, and with lots of interesting characters walking the streets. Most people here wear black. If you know me well, you would understand why I feel right at home!

Last night we stayed in a huge backpacker hostel that sleeps over 300. Walls covered in bright murals, halls filled with fellow travelers from all over world, and an atmosphere filled with energy made it a fun first night in NZ. Based on the flyers for bungy jumping, skydiving, tramping, and skiing, I can tell it's a land for adventurers!

Today we are heading south to Rotorua. It's a town with bubbling mud pools, hot springs and a large Maori population (the original inhabitants of NZ).

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Rotorua, New Zealand

Darts

timRotorua is the most heavly touristed city in the north island of New Zealand. No doubt, it also the smelliest.

The smell is caused by the incredible thermal activity in the area. You notice it while taking a walk though Kuirau Park, where pools of boiling mud belch sulphury steam. You notice it in the Polynesian Spa, where you bathe in pools of sulphury "health-giving" waters. You even notice it in your hotel's lobby. But you get used to the smell, and eventually you start to find it comforting.

So I spent the day enjoying the smells of Rotorua. But in the evening, I decided to check out another less touristed smelly attraction - the final round of the New Zealand Darts Championship.

I knew I had arrived to the correct location when I heard the boisterous screaming and smelled the bar-like smokey atmosphere. Yesterday, the sports complex housed a quiet basketball court. Today, the auditorium pulsed with the energy of a bowling alley on league night. Large metal ashtrays filled with cigarette butts lay strewn about. A row of white partitions parallelled the filled grandstand. Each partition sported a carefully lit dartboard, a scribbled on chalkboard, a uniformed scorekeeper, and four burley competitors.

The audience seemed to know the competitors well. I'm quite sure I was the only spectator who wasn't dating or related to someone throwing darts. A few of the players wore jackets or shirts with their team logo on the back, many of them had tattoos, and most of them possessed a pendulous beer gut. I wouldn't be tempted to call these people athletes, but they were certainly skilled with darts.

I watched several teams play the game "501" against each other. The object of this game is to get up to exactly 501 points - fairly simple. For those of you who don't play darts, a dart board is segmented into 20 pie shapes with points associated with each "piece". The highest number is 20 which sits on the top of the board. The board also has 2 rings circling the pie, which when hit, double or triple the points of each shot.

Players constantly shot for the triple ring of the 20 point. This is rounded area on the board less than an inch long and as wide a pencil. Most of the players were able to hit 2 triple 20's with each turn, and I saw several players hit only triples. You know these competitors are good when the shot to see who goes first becomes a contest to see who can shoot a better bulls-eye!

I watched for a while, until the natural smell of the sulphur springs outside seemed a good trade for the smokey indoors. top

A carving on a Maori meeting house, part of the indigenous culture of New Zealand.

Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch Winter Festival

timWe flew in from Christchurch yesterday on a twin engine prop plane from Rotorua.

As it happened, we arrived at the end of the Christchurch Winter Festival just in time to watch the nighttime City of Lights Parade. Chinese dragons, clowns on stilts, dancers, and other community people marched through the streets wearing glowing necklaces and bracelets. Fire dancers carved arcs of flame to the beat of music. A hot air balloon basket carried by a flat bed truck blasted 20 foot flames through the air. To the delight of the small kids watching curbside, the balloon's flames reflected eerily from the windows of the tall glassy buildings surrounding the street. After the parade, a makeshift stage featured performances by parade groups, then fireworks were launched above Cathedral Square.

The parade was a nice suprise last night. But today, the Christchurch Winter Festival continued with a dog costume contest on the grounds of the Arts Centre. Dogs were dressed in all sorts of outlandish costumes. There was a pirate, a ballerina, a skier, a bride and groom, a cowboy, and a bumblebee. Michelle was in heaven. I had to leave - I didn't enjoy watching small dogs being dressed up as much as the little old ladies in the audience, so I found a walk through the market at the Arts Centre a much better alternative.

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Mount Cook, New Zealand

Southern Alps

timYesterday morning, we picked up the campervan we will be using for the next two weeks. It has heat, a bathroom, hot water, a fridge and microwave, and lots of cool extras. Couldn't ask for more!

Though I struggled with driving on the left and using using a stickshift with my left hand for the first time, we eventually made our way out of the east coast plains and down to the snow covered New Zealand Alps. The mountains are jaggy and tall. The vegetation is sparse. Only bushes, evergreens, and sheep dot the landscape. We passed by a beautiful lake around sunset, just in time to watch the sun fall behind the historic stone church that sat on the shore. Soon after sunset, we arrived to Mount Cook.

Mount Cook is the tallest peak in New Zealand. The area offers several "tramps", but many require serious mountaineering experience and equipment. To impress upon visitors the dangers of hiking, the Mount Cook Visitor's Center displays a book of the dead. This book details the hundreds of people who have lost their lives in the mountains. Each person in the book has a page with a bio describing his or her interests, backgrounds, and cause of death. The book is thick and sobering.

Today we spent a while touring the area by car, but the cold rain prevented us from potentially being added to the book of the dead. Instead of hiking, we drove on to Queenstown. top

Far-off mountains are reflected from the flat surface of a quiet lake on the south island of New Zealand.

Queenstown, New Zealand

Gondola Ride

timA beautiful view of Queenstown from above.

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Milford Sound, New Zealand

Life in Our Campervan

michelleFor those of you who were wondering what it's like to rent a campervan and drive all over New Zealand, I thought I'd write a description of a typical day in "Life in Our Campervan."

You fall into a rhythm when you cruise New Zealand in a campervan. Rising early in the morning to frost, we are thankful for the van's heater. Tim, of course, immediately makes thick, black coffee in the coffee press. (Until his first cup of coffee he is not fully human.) We take turns showering in our miniscule shower, then convert our bed into a table and eat a simple breakfast of hot cereal. As we prepare for the day, we often bump into each other while contorting our bodies to share the small space.

Once we hit the road we enjoy a feast for our eyes. The scenery displays spectacular views of rolling green pastures, quaint small towns, and lakes reflecting snow-capped mountains.

While Tim drives I navigate and I am also in charge of reminding him to drive on the right side of the road. Luckily I don't have to remind him often!

We never have problems with bad traffic, frequently driving for hours and seeing few cars. Then we will round a corner and be confronted with hundreds of sheep in the road. We sit and wait patiently until they clear.

Often we drive 5 hours a day, stopping to hike, browse shops or eat lunch. Tim always has coffee, Diet Coke and gum on hand to keep him alert.

On this day we leave Queenstown in the rain and head to Milford Sound, a four hour drive to the fiord. Along the way we see lakes, waterfalls, beech forest, rugged mountains and go through a mountain via a long tunnel. When we get to the other side of the mountain it's snowing. All along the way there are signs not to stop because of potential avalanches.

Milford Sound is one of New Zealand's most popular tourist destinations. Rain is not unusual here. It rains almost 6 meters a year! But on this day it was cold and heavy snow is predicted. So instead of getting stuck in this remote area we decide to drive back across the mountain pass after taking a few pictures.

Towards evening we park at a campervan park (they are all over New Zealand), hook up our electricity, and make a delicious dinner on our tiny stove.

We have grown quite attached to the campervan...kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room, and transportation all in one! top

Wanaka, New Zealand

Snowboarding

michelleWhen I was 14 my church youth group went skiing. I had never been and didn't quite know what to expect. It turns out skiing wasn't my forte. In fact, I still consider that day one of my most embarrasing moments of my life. I will spare you the details but will share this one story...

I signed up for the beginners' class. The ski instructor had us line up in a row, skis pointing toward him, going up the mountain. Being very eager to learn, I jumped in line first at the top. As the instructor began to lecture us on the fundamentals of skiing, I lost my balance and proceeded to fall on the person next to me. This made him tip over and he fell on the next person. Soon the domino-like chain reaction that I started had toppled the whole class. Not one person was left standing. The class lay sprawled about, arms and legs flailing trying to get up. The instructor looked at me as the instigator and said spitefully, "This is going to be a VERY long day, isn't it?"

I am sorry to say it was a long day and it never got much better. I haven't attempted skiing since. So when Tim suggested we try snowboarding, I flinched with apprehension.

It had been snowing in the South Island for the last couple days so I knew there would be plenty of snow on the mountain. As we inched our way up the icy road towards the Cardrona ski lodge I couldn't help but fantasize about breaking a leg or doing something equally as damaging.

After renting ski jackets, gloves, hats and snowboards, we were ready for our class. Our instructor, Neil, was very patient and showed us over and over again the proper stance for snowboarding. As we learned to stand on the snowboard correctly I thought, "Hey! This isn't so bad!" But that was before we went up the mountain. Once the snowboard was actually moving it wasn't so easy!

Over the course of the morning, I spent far more time in the snow on my knees or butt than standing on the board. Being on the beginner's slope, I was surrounded by small children who would whiz by with confidence and agility.

All in all, I had a good time and enjoyed trying to learn snowboarding. I think it would take much more practicing before I could make it all the way down the mountain without falling. Luckily snow is soft. top

A view on the hike up to the Rob Roy Glacier, south island of New Zealand.