Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bula, Fiji!

Wild welcome in Suva, Fiji!
Bula is an all-purpose Fijian word, much like Aloha or Namaste, used to express hello, goodbye, and cheers -- it literally means life or health.  Everywhere you go on Fiji, “bulas” fill the air when you encounter one of the local denizens! 

When we disembarked from the ship in the city of Suva on Fiji, we were met with quite a welcome: “warriors” (natives in full costume) greeted us and a band played lively island music. Outside the terminal, we were overwhelmed by locals yelling bula and trying to sell us their tours.  Luckily, we had already arranged a tour and eventually found our tour guide whose name was Mala.
Lush villlage compound near Suva, Fiji
Mala’s tour company is actually a whole village of about 150 people who put together what they call the “Jewels of Fiji Tour” that included a boat trek up the Navua River, waterfall swim, raft ride, and traditional island meal.  About a half hour west of the capital city of Suva, we pulled into a village compound with beautiful tropical foliage and many charming buildings each designed for a specific use: a kitchen building, meeting house, sleeping quarters, etc.  Mala described this as an idyllic life with lots of playmates for the kids and plenty of adults to take care of household work and wage earning.
Ready to board the long boat for our river cruise
Almost immediately, we were escorted down to the river, where we donned life preservers and hopped into a wooden longboat with our river guide Jack.  The longboat was just that – an old-ish open boat, with an inch of river water in the bottom of the ribbed hull; the sleek but decrepit, long and narrow wooden craft sported a new 25 horsepower Yamaha outboard motor fastened to the transom.  At the back of the boat, Captain Thai was busy bailing out the water from the bottom of the boat with a makeshift scoop (not confidence inspiring), as we boarded the shaky vehicle with nervous trepidation. 

Captain Thai and our river guide Jack
In spite of our initial reservations, the longboat adventure up the Navua River was absolutely awesome with so many shades of green in the lush landscape on either side of us.  The movie “Anaconda” was filmed on this river, and Jack eagerly pointed out one of the waterfalls used in the film; it formerly had a lengthy Fijian name, but now they call it “Anaconda Waterfall.” 

Captain Thai was a bit of a hotdog as he steered our longboat along, but he did a great job of avoiding river hazards as we sped along in the shallow river rapids.  Boulders, tree trunks, stony shoals, and even hunks of unexplained metal (probably from the nearby quarrying operations along the river) were protruding from the river bottom, but our young 25-year old captain skillfully dodged the potentially damaging obstacles.  Our trusty boat even skipped very nimbly over some pretty choppy white water rapids!
Running the rapids in our trusty longboat
Eventually, Captain Thai pulled over to shore where we all disembarked and hiked off the main river back into an innocuous-looking hidden alcove where a gorgeous waterfall revealed itself to us.  And best of all, we had the place all to ourselves. 
Hiking up to the waterfall
The basin of spring water below the falls was cold, but Anne was undaunted and took a quick dip (more like a wade).  Just like Hedy Lamarr as Tondelayo, Anne has acquired bragging rights for swimming in the jungles on Fiji.  What an incredible South Pacific adventure!
At our "secret" waterfall
On the ride back, we traded our longboat for a bamboo raft.  Jack guided our simple craft with a long bamboo pole for the true traditional experience showing us how the indigenous peoples operated on the river before the invention of the Yamaha. 
Rafting the river, the old-fashioned way
We wondered how the raft would handle the rapids, but Jack assured us that we would return to the longboat well before we encountered any rapids.  As we floated along the river, Jack told us some great cannibal stories.
Jack tells us cannibal stories as we float down the river
Years ago, some missionary met a local chief who sported a full Afro with a big comb sticking out of the top of his head.  For some reason, this foolish missionary pulled the comb out of the chief’s hair.  Here is a cardinal rule to remember in the South Pacific: never touch someone on the head.  The head is considered sacred, and touching it is a major faux pas.  

As punishment for this transgression, the tribe roasted the missionary in an underground pit/oven and ate him from head to toe.  They even tried to eat his shoes thinking they were part of his body.  Jack told us that a museum in Suva displays all that was left of the missionary -- a Bible and one shoe sole (with teeth marks)!
Jack explained that cannibalism did not result from food shortages, but because the chiefs believed that eating people would make them more powerful.  A chief had a fishing tribe to fish for him, a warrior tribe to fight for him, a farming tribe to grow produce, and a food tribe.  Anne thought the food tribe prepared the food, but Jack told us that the food tribe was the food!  If you were born into the food tribe, you knew that you would eventually be eaten, and it was considered a great honor to be eaten by the chief.  Older people in the food tribe were considered to provide the most power when eaten, so at least you got to live for a number of years before you became the chief’s main course!
Villagers prepare to share the kava ceremony with us
Back at the village, we removed our shoes and entered the meeting house for a meal with members of the village.  At this point, we were joined by about 50 or so other people from the ship who were on the group version of this tour (we were so glad that we got the private one). 
Preparing the kava
Our meal began with the sacred kava ceremony which is the traditional Fijian welcome.  Kava is a favorite Fijian drink made from the roots of a type of pepper plant.  The drink contains no alcohol, but it is a mild narcotic that gives you numb lips and a fuzzy tongue.  Jack loves the stuff – in fact, he told us he drank 56 cups of kava the night before (and slept really well).  He also told us that after many cups, your entire body becomes numb!  Needless to say, we were a little concerned that our well-being had been in the hands of a 23-year old who could down that much kava and still function!!   

Serving the kava
That issue aside, back to the kava ceremony.  A quantity of pulverized kava powder was placed in a 2-foot diameter bowl on the floor in the center of the meeting room, and water was poured from an elaborately decorated bamboo pole into the bowl.  Next, the kava and water combo was hand-mixed to a muddy brown appearance, and strained with a cloth.  Some words of mumbo jumbo were chanted, after which each visitor was handed a coconut cup of kava to drink.  When the brew was consumed (preferably in one gulp), the villagers would clap sequentially 3 times. 

Drinking the kava
In case you want to know, the taste of kava to the Supsics was nothing very special or desirable; it was actually kind of bitter and unappealing, but we did get the numb tongue and lips for a few minutes.  It felt like a shot of dentist’s Novocain. It also reminded us a lot of the cocoa tea that we drank in Peru a few years back, designed to alleviate the effects of altitude sickness.  A very similar flavor and effect as this kava. 

Frank’s only question was “where did they get the water to prep this stuff?”  This remote village has no freshwater wells that we know of, and no bottled water containers that we saw; but it does have a big ol’ river that runs right thru the village.  Hmmmmm…
What a feast!
Next, the women of the village put out a remarkable spread including green curry chicken, a beef noodle dish, taro, fresh fruits, desserts, and soda or water to drink. 
Our cannibal fork!
After the lunch, the women displayed their handiwork for sale.  Anne bought a bookmark and a cannibal fork, a cool wooden 4-pronged gadget designed to push into the victim’s chest and pull out his heart (couldn’t pass that up).

Mala with his little boy
This was one of our best days on the cruise, giving us tremendous insight into life on these remote South Pacific islands.  Our new Fijian friends will be remembered fondly for a long time to come.

Monday, October 21, 2013

It's a Dam Good Life

On the highest deck of the M.S. Volendam
We are cruising on the Holland America Lines this time, and for those of you who do not know a lot about that line, all their cruise ships have “dam” in the names (Volendam, Amsterdam, Rotterdam etc.).  We loved this phrase.  It is used regularly by the Holland Cruise folks and is printed on many souvenirs in their gift shop.  It really is a dam good life here on the Volendam; it’s a pampered lifestyle you can become accustomed to very easily.
Dinner in the lovely Pinnacle Grill dining room
For breakfast, we prefer room service.  We just mark the menu card each evening with what we want to eat in the morning, and it arrives at the chosen time.  On previous cruises, we had a set dinner time at a table with the same people every evening.  Worked out fine, but this time, we chose “Anytime Dining”. 
As the name suggests, we could eat whenever we wanted between 5:00PM and 9:00PM, and we sat with a different group of people every night.  As you can imagine, we had some memorable meals and met some fun people.
Thanks to our travel agent Paulette, we had two special meals at The Pinnacle Grill, one of the ship’s fine dining restaurants.  Great meals with fabulous service in an intimate space decorated with Murano glass made in Italy.
Of course to offset the wonderful food, we have been walking the promenade on a regular basis.  Anne even attended a couple early morning stretch classes.
Towel animals every night
The Daily Schedule offered all kinds of fun activities every day including brainteasers like the Daily Quiz and trivia games and programs covering everything from beer tasting to astronomy.  We particularly enjoyed a series of programs by an astronomer named Alan Wright.  He certainly made everyone consider many different possibilities, especially about the Big Bang theory and whether our currently expanding universe might one day begin to contract until another Big Bang occurs and the process begins all over again.  Rather like the theory of reincarnation for the universe!
Every evening, the ship provided a different type of entertainment.   We got to see some very talented performers including a pianist, a flutist, and Frank’s favorite, a crowd-pleasing Latino singer named Elvy Rose.  Anne was quite smitten with a fabulous opera singer named Joshua La Force who did all the great tenors proud with his renditions of “Nessun Dorma”, and “Con Te Partiro”.
With so much to do and every need taken care of, this cruise reminds us of summer camp for the over-55 crowd! 
Sunset over the South Pacific

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pago Pago on the Remote Island of American Samoa

Our ship arrives in Pago Pago on American Samoa
Our next port was Pago Pago (pronounced pongo pongo) in American Samoa where our ship entered what is recognized as one of the most beautiful harbors in the South Pacific.  It was a hot sunny day in Pago Pago, and it looked like a great day for us to explore this strange new territory.  As soon as we disembarked, the bright colors of the island were on display in a makeshift souvenir market.  (American Samoa does not get many visitors, so the arrival of a cruise ship is a big deal!)  The dense and poignant jungle vegetation covering the hills of the island were a testament that American Samoa was a true island paradise out here in the Pacific. 

Our tour guide, Lau, in Pago Pago

Outside the market, taxi cab drivers were lined up hoping to be selected to chauffeur tourists around the island.  We chose a smiling older woman named Lau, and after conversing with her for several minutes, we decided that she would be our guide for the day; it was a bit of a crap shoot, but after negotiating with her for the terms of the tour, we hopped into her slightly beat-up Toyota taxi cab driven by Lau’s boyfriend, Sandale (pronounced: Sandelli).  Sandale was a giant of a young man, sporting a colorful Hawaiian-like shirt, and the physique of Sumo Wrestler.  He seemed to have limited English language skills, but at the same time, he displayed an “island gentleness” that made us comfortable (somewhat) around him. 
Beautiful American Samoa
These two were far from professional tour guides as we found out, but they took good care of us, and we loved their friendly personalities.  A true highlight was when Lau asked Frank to sing a song; instead, Frank whipped out his harmonica to play her a tune, while Anne sang in accompaniment.  Lau and Sandale were in utter hysterics with the fun and laughter in their cab.  We asked Lau to reciprocate, and this resulted in Lau and Sandale singing a lovely island ballad accompanied by Frank on the harmonica.  You don’t get these precious moments on any organized ship tour!    

The famous ""Flower Pot" in Pago Pago harbor 

This island of Tutuila, largest one in the country, is a lush paradise with gorgeous views and tempting beaches. Pago Pago also has a booming (and smelly) Starkist Cannery, and that worldwide symbol of American culture: a MacDonald’s fast food restaurant (surrounded by palm trees).

The infamous Star Mound
One of our goals was to visit a Star Mound, a rare prehistoric site built of stones that Anne had read about in Lonely Planet.  Well, it seemed that Lau and Sandale knew nothing about star mounds.  Plus Lau had forgotten her map (luckily, we had one with us that we had received back at the port).  However, even with our map, Lau still had to ask passersby several times for help to find this supposedly “renowned” site.  Called Tia Seu Lupe which means “earthen mound to catch pigeons,” the site had clearly fallen on hard times.  The informational signs were covered with mold, and the wooden viewing platform was literally and dangerously falling apart.  Anne gingerly climbed to the top for a better look at the crumbling star-shaped structure.  As nearly as we could tell, these stone mounds were once part of the popular sport of pigeon-catching favored by the island chiefs.  Unfortunately, current residents seem to have no knowledge of this part of their history.  We found this site in the jungle behind an apartment building; it was completely unmarked and not visible from any vantage point out on the road.
American Samoa is an American territory and even the neglected star mounds had some vestiges of typical American tourist signage even though they were deteriorated and hard to read.  The island has many U.S. government buildings -- Lau proudly pointed out the building where “you get your food stamps”.

The priceless $2 Beach
With that dose of island culture, we headed for the beach!  A gorgeous little strip of sand called $2 Beach (the price of admission) beckoned.  This beach was a perfect little slice of the South Pacific dream.  We donned our snorkels and swam out to ogle the colorful fish hanging out at the nearby reef.

Snorkeling at $2 Beach
As we drove around the island, the missionary influence was also quite apparent. We had never seen so many churches in such a small area.  Lau said that every little village had at least three or four churches of varying denominations. A more recent influence comes from Asia.  Lau told us that most of the shops in Pago Pago are owned by either the Chinese or the North Koreans (weird and a bit scary).

Idyllic coastline of American Samoa
This idyllic island is not without other dangers as well.  Billboards instructed what to do in case of an earthquake, and buildings destroyed by the 2009 tsunami still stand abandoned and rotting.  Lau told us that so many people died in the tsunami because the warning alarm came only 5 minutes before the tsunami hit (and the single alarm could not even be heard outside of Pago Pago leaving the rest of the island with no warning at all).  So, even paradise has a dark side!

Turbulent ocean in an area feared
by superstitious locals
We got back to the ship by early afternoon, and after boarding the ship, we intended to come back out and do some shopping in the town of Pago Pago.  But Mother Nature had other ideas.  The rains hit with a violence, seeming to come down at the rate of about 1 inch per minute at times.  We never saw rain this heavy!  It made returning to the town virtually impossible.  We thought we’d wait it out, but it continued to rain for the rest of the afternoon.  We pitied the other ship patrons who were still out there touring the island; they were obviously getting pounded with this rain.  But then we were all warned that Pago Pago is one of the rainiest ports in the Pacific. 

More pics:

More of the American Samoan beaches
Rainmaker Mountain,
ther highest mountain on American Samoa
View of American Samoa from the bow of the Volendam

Monday, October 14, 2013

Aloha Hawaii!

Onomea Lookout near Hilo, Hawaii
After five days at sea, we were ready to step onto terre firma in our first port of Hilo, Hawaii.  We had planned to visit Volcano National Park, but of course, the park was closed due to the government shutdown.  Our ship is comprised primarily of Aussies and Canadians, and many people were very disappointed that they were unable to see this park (and also the Arizona Memorial in Honolulu, our next port).  To be honest, we felt embarrassed at the ineptitude of our government.  This situation has led to myriad political discussions comparing healthcare plans and governing styles.  We noticed from our discussions with the Aussies and Canadians that the rest of the world is watching us very closely, and everyone is quite worried about the impact of our actions (or inactions) on the world economy.  They are worried primarily that if we go down, so will they.
Back to the happier subject of our day in Hilo.  We had arranged to rent a car, so we hopped on the Enterprise Car Rental shuttle at the pier, and we were soon behind the wheel of a new silver Nissan Altima.  It was great fun to be tooling around the Big Island again, as we had done once before in 1994.  We visited several waterfalls (Rainbow, Akaka, and some unknown falls), and drove along scenic routes though rain forests and past gorgeous beaches. 
Hiking through the jungle near Akaka Falls

Rainbow Falls near Hilo, Hawaii

The delicious "Loco Moco!"
We ended our adventure at a diner called Ken’s House of Pancakes where we chowed down on a local favorite called the “Loco Moco,” a rib-sticking dish consisting of rice, gravy, meat (hamburger, or corned beef etc.) with two eggs on the top.  A simple fun meal served by fun-lovin’, local people.
Hula Girl meets her American cousin
The very next day, we pulled into Honolulu for an unusually long port visit (long for a cruise visit!) from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.  We really enjoyed the freedom of wandering the city, and had a ball on the streets of Chinatown which made us feel like we were back in Asia. 

Oodles of noodles at the noodle factory in Honolulu
A highlight was an invitation from a young noodle factory worker to take a glimpse inside the Yat Tung Chow Noodle Factory.  The place looked like a garage/warehouse combo, but it housed an active factory, with shelves bulging with sacks of materials, such as flour, spices, processed noodles, and many noodle-making machines.  There was a over-sized mixing machine turning out a wide and long strand of fresh noodle, a cutting machine to make smaller noodles from the large strand, and a set of sinks that acted as a washing station to rinse the processed noodles.  All those noodles were making us hungry, so we each had a rather large bowl of Udon Noodle soup at nearby Hong’s CafĂ©, a Vietnamese restaurant.  Besides noodles and broth, it also incorporated some delicious fragrant basil, sprouts, and bits of pork.

View from the Pali (cliffs)
In the afternoon, we took a tour of the eastern side of the island.  This brought back many memories of our visit to Honolulu with sons Ben and Keith back in 1994.  We enjoyed fabulous views of the steep vegetation-covered pali (cliffs) above Honolulu with deep-cut vertical erosion ridges, where waterfalls stream down the mountains when it rains.
Hanauma Bay on Oahu, Hawaii
We stopped to watch the swimmers and snorkelers at famous Hanauma Bay, and of course Diamond Head and Waikiki.
We ended our day drinking a few beers and eating garlic fries near the Aloha Tower and admiring the sunset over Honolulu’s harbor.  Back on board, we went out on the ship’s bow, and it felt as if our ship had plowed right in the middle of the city.  We were surrounded by the high rises of Honolulu, all sparkling in the night sky.  Fantastic!

More pictures:

Making leis in Honolulu's Chinatown

Floral array on the Big Island

In front of Akaka Falls near Hilo, Hawaii
Seaside Blowhole on Oahu

Friday, October 4, 2013

It's Time to Sail Away

The M.S. Volendam
The Long Beach Terminal was only a 15-minute taxi ride away, and as promised, The M.S. Volendam was berthed right next to the Queen Mary. 

Ship Terminal and former home of The Spruce Goose

We were amazed to discover that the Long Beach Terminal is inside the domed structure that used to hold Howard Hughes’ experimental plane, “The Spruce Goose.”  The “Goose” was so big and heavy (it was actually made of spruce) that it only stayed in the air for a few seconds, but at the time, it was the largest plane ever built.  Frank had seen The Spruce Goose back in 1988 and was intrigued to see how the big dome was being reused.

Anne on the gangway of the Volendam

We had a fast and easy boarding and loved the views of Long Beach, the domed terminal building, and the Queen Mary. 


Inside of room 3380, our stateroom

Our stateroom is surprisingly spacious with lots of closets and storage.  Hard to believe this will be our home for the next 3 weeks.

Frank proudly holding his stowaway booze

Frank was so happy that the “bootleg” scotch and wine that he hid in his suitcase made it safely onto the ship.  Booze is very expensive onboard, but now we have our own private stash!

Anne dances her way across the open spaces on the Bow
We are located on Deck 3, The Lower Promenade giving us immediate access to the walking track right outside our window.  We also discovered a wonderful, “secret” viewing spot at the very front of our deck. Situated right below the Bridge, this empty bow area was the perfect, peaceful spot to watch our first sunset.