Sunday, October 29, 2006


I knew before we left on the trip that I would suffer from mosquito bites anytime we were in a locale in which these creatures are endemic. I am, for some reason, irresistible to mosquitos, so much so that they will ignore my mosquito repellant-free husband and find the one spot on my exposed skin that I failed to slather with DEET. I don't even bother bringing mosquito repellant from home when we travel- the 15% DEET I can buy in the U.S. is too wimpy. I wait until I can buy something that is at least 20%, and preferably 30% DEET. So what if it melts plastic and those fancy modern fabrics? It keeps the mosquitos away.

When I get bitten by a mosquito, I don't just get a little red bump. It starts out small, but soon swells to the size of a nickel, or even a quarter. Then it slowly fades, passing through a mottled spot phase that is so ugly that I often feel compelled to cover it with a band-aid, lest passers-by think I am afflicted with a strange, potentially contagious skin disorder. Some bites even leave lasting darks spots, that fade only over the course of months or years. It is now almost November, and I still have a couple dark spots from the bites I got in Malaysia in February. Despite my best efforts with DEET, I have been bitten in every place I have ever visited in which mosquitoes are common, except Cambodia. I found my lack of mosquito bites in Cambodia amusing, since this was the one leg of our big trip that was to a location considered malarial, and we had to take Malarone while we were in the country, and for several days before and after. Maybe Malarone changes how I smell, and makes me less attractive to mosquitoes. Or maybe the government of Cambodia has run a successful mosquito-eradication campaign around Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat, Regardless of the reason, I certainly wasn't complaining about the lack of bites. For one thing, Cambodia also has dengue fever, and there is no prophylactic or treatment for that. You just have to suffer through the disease that is called "break-bone fever" in some places.

Given my known mosquito-drawing nature, it was no surprise that I found mosquitos to be the most annoying pests on our trip. I may even have complained about my bites enough to cause my husband to share that sentiment. I expected the strange and disturbingly large creepy-crawlies of Malaysia and Thailand to be the second most annoying pests. I was wrong. The only large and freaky bugs we saw in Malaysia were in cages or other controlled environments. The only annoying bug in Thailand was a large cockroach who refused to stay in our bathroom and away from our sleeping quarters in the little hut we had on Ko Ngai. This ruined my sleep while I was there, and, not wanted to suffer alone, I duly ruined my husband's sleep. Don't feel sorry for him. He could have killed the thing and made us both happy. He apparently missed the bit of the wedding vows where he promised to squash large bugs for me and insisted on trying to reason with me about how harmless the cockroach was and how it was more scared of me than I was of it. I thought that if it was so scared, it should leave my room. It probably thought the same about me. I was paying for the privilege of being there, so I decided to stay put. Besides, there were probably cockroaches outside, too.

The second most annoying pest of the trip was not in the tropical climes at all. It was in Australia, in both Canberra and Sydney. Anyone who has spent any time in these cities can probably guess the identity of the mystery bug. It is the common fly. The Aussie flies are the most annoying fly I have ever encountered. They are incredibly persistent and unafraid of harm from humans. They will land on you while you are moving. You can swat one away, literally making contact with it as you push it aside, only to have it turn around and fly right back at your face. They are also disturbingly numerous. Whereas you might encounter one or two flies on a stroll here in San Diego, you will probably encounter one or two hundred on a similar stroll in Canberra. I do not think I exaggerate, and if I do, it is only because the flies that I did encounter insisted on accompanying me for my entire stay outdoors. They follow you whenever you go outdoors. I was constantly surprised that there wasn't a little black cloud around my husband (in a nice change from the mosquito case, these flies preferred him to me) . Ten minutes outdoors in Canberra was enough to make me understand why the stereotypical Aussie outback hat (as worn by the philosopher Bruces in the Monty Python sketch) has corks tied to it. The corks would keep the flies away, and really, looking a little silly is a small price to pay for relief from these pests.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Trip Story: Melbourne

One theme of our visit to Australia was that we never had enough time to see all of the things in a particular area (never mind the vast majority of Australia's land mass that we didn't even attempt to see on this trip). This pattern was already apparent even at our first stop, which was Melbourne. We had only two full days in Melbourne, and during the first one, we were a bit groggy from having to get up before dawn to catch our flight from Wellington.

We managed to pack in quite a bit of sightseeing in our two days, but if I'd known about the nearby colony of fairy penguins earlier, I would surely have lobbied to add a day to go see them! As it was, I had to limit my wildlife watching to finally seeing an Australian possum in the wild (ok, in the middle of the city, but at least it wasn't in a zoo). These antipodean possums look nothing like our Northern hemisphere rat-like creatures. The Australian possums are cute and furry, and you can actually understand why someone decided to introduce them into New Zealand to start a fur industry. When I first heard about this, my reaction was disbelief, because I was envisioning the fur of the Northern hemisphere creature and wondering what sort of wacko would want a coat made out of that. To be fair, my husband was equally ignorant of our Northern hemisphere possums. The first time he saw one, he came in and calmly announced that he didn't want to alarm me, but there was a giant rat on our steps.

We didn't spend much time looking for wildlife (the possums were actually easily spotted in the park near our hotel at night), so we filled the educational portion of our time with a trip to the Melbourne Museum and the Melbourne Gaol. The museum provided an interesting view of the coming of the settlers from the perspective of the indigenous people. The exhibit was created in consultation with representatives of the aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Since I have never gotten around to reading The Fatal Shore, I lacked the settler's viewpoint and the major historical context, so found the story a bit disjointed. However, it was interesting to have my first real introduction to a colonization story be from the viewpoint of the indigenous people, since my school age introduction to the American colonization story was of the "brave, hardy settlers" variety. The truth, I'm sure, is somewhere between these extremes, and I hope that some day, we will be able to tell it. For now, it is only fair that the pendulum has swung to the indigenous people's story, and it is the settler's turn to fell like their hardships and sacrifices were overlooked and their ancestors painted in a rather one-dimensional way. The Melbourne museum's exhibit did include some stories about settlers who tried to treat the aborigines fairly, but often without much context. Perhaps this context is common knowledge in Australia, like our Wild West stories are here in the US. Sadly for the aborigines, I think the preponderance of stories about less egalitarian settlers probably reflects history more than any oversight on the part of the curators.

Our visit to the Melbourne Gaol the following day provided some of the settler's history, and also gave insights into the harshness of the times and conditions. The gaol was the final home of the infamous Ned Kelly, an Australian outlaw/Robin Hood figure. He was hung here. This was interesting, but I found the stories of some of the other inmates more touching. The women, in particular, often seemed to be more victims of their time than cold-hearted criminals. There was almost no legal way for a woman to support herself and her children if her husband deserted her or if the father of her child refused to marry her. Some women killed their children so that they could work as a domestic servants. Others turned to "baby farming", which was essentially operating an unlicensed (and often very overcrowded) day care center. If anything went wrong at a "baby farm" and a child died, both the proprietor and the mother, who was probably working as either a domestic servant or a prostitute, would be held responsible, since it was illegal to leave your child in a baby farm. You could see how one mistake, or worse, the irresponsibility of her chosen husband, could doom a woman to a chain of events that led to being incarcerated or even hung at the Melbourne Gaol.

Despite this gruesome past, the Gaol is apparently a popular place for events. The day we were there, a wedding was taking place in the courtyard next door, and the bridal party was getting pictures taken in the Gaol. They had opted for a 20s gangster style dress theme, so I guess it all tied in. Certainly, they will be striking wedding photos!

One of the other highlights of Melbourne was strolling by the riverfront at night, when they shoot giant jets of flame from sculpture/fountain like structures along the bank. The flame is so big that you can feel the heat even if you are viewing the show from across the water (as we did on the second night), It is not a very energy-efficient feature, but it is definitely an experience that we won't forget.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Trip Story: Porangahau

The stated purpose of our visit to Porangahau was to allow me to sample the "traditional New Zealand beach holiday." Apparently, many New Zealand families spend a week or two in a small beach town every year. I had been told about how relaxing this was, and was looking forward to experiencing it for myself. In theory, Porangahau was an excellent place to do this- it is a small town far away from the big city and has a big sandy beach. In practice, it had some flaws: no dairy (the New Zealand term for a small corner shop, which was to be our source of the ice creams I'd been told we would eat daily) and no bakery (which was to be the source of our daily meat pie lunch). In their place, there was a tackle shop that also sold the afore mentioned essentials as well as the equally essential bottles of beer. The pies were mass-produced frozen things that were reheated in a microwave and/or pie warmer and the ice cream selection was limited to prepackaged bars and cups. Neither the pies nor the ice-cream were bad, but they didn't quite live up to be pre-trip hype.

The other problem with Porangahau was the weather. It turns out that "Porangahau" roughly translates to "a big wind" (at least according to Hubby's aunt, who lives there). It certainly lived up to its name. This meant that it was usually too cold for me to consider going into the water, and often too cold for me to sit on the beach without long sleeves. To be fair, we were there a little before summer truly hit, and it is definitely a beautiful beach- long, wide, and mostly empty. You could easily find a swath to call your own and avoid any worries about anyone overhearing your conversation (not that this is usually a big worry in New Zealand; see the previous post). We did, however, have to worry about being run over by kids on bikes, both the motorized and pedal powered variety. Apparently, the large stretches of mostly empty sand are too tempting to resist. The bike-riding kids made me nervous, but we never saw anyone get run over. At least we didn't have to contend with the larger version of these toys, i.e., the tractors the locals use to tow their boats into and out of the surf. The fishermen went out long before we made it to the beach, and came back in well after we had packed up for the day. I could see the practicality of using large-wheeled tractors to tow the boats across the sand, but I still found the sight of a row of tractors parked on the beach pretty funny.

I spent quite a bit of time one day standing in the shallow water, watching little fish swim around my ankles. There were at least three different varieties, but all suffered from the same tendency to get caught by surprise when a wave receded, causing them to suddenly swim like mad back toward the deeper water, occasionally jumping out of the water in their haste. I found this hugely entertaining to watch. At one point, while chasing after the panicked fish, I realized I had gotten the true New Zealand beach holiday experience despite the sub-standard pies and limited ice cream selection. The most essential part of the New Zealand beach holiday is the long stretch of days with nothing much to do except sit on the beach, walk on the beach, or, in my case, stand in the water and watch little fish get surprised by the way receding waves make the water suddenly get shallower. Our trip to Porangahau had been a success.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Frame Shift: New Zealand

No matter how often I travel, somehow I am always surprised by the mix of familiar and foreign I experience when visiting another English speaking nation. In "Pattern Recognition", William Gibson calls this same but different phenomenon "mirror world ". I think of it more as a frame shift- we are all working from the same cultural genome, but are transcribing it differently. Sometimes, the shift is minimal (parking lot becomes car park). Other times, it is more profound (self confidence becomes arrogance). Together, all of the shifts remind me that while I can speak the language and understand the more fundamental cultural assumptions, this is not home, and I am a stranger here.

Given a number of times I've visited New Zealand, and the fact that I live with a New Zealander, you might think that New Zealand would no longer have this effect on me, but it does. I have not lost the feeling of frame shift, but I am losing the ability to name the differences that cause the feeling, since they are becoming so familiar to me. Before I lose them all together, I'll write some of them here.

1. It is not until you travel that you truly appreciate how accustomed you are to a particular type of toilet. Even in countries with largely similar toilet preferences, the differences between the strange new facilities and those you are used to back home are immediately apparent. In fact, given the length of the flight you probably endured to reach the new country, these may be some of the first differences you notice. There are two principal differences between American toilets and New Zealand ones. First of all, the doors on public toilets are different. Except in the fanciest of hotels and restaurants, American public toilet stalls have a gap of at least a foot between the door and the floor, and usually a small gap between the side of the stall and the door as well. I have heard that these gaps can be quite disconcerting to visitors used to the more sturdy doors found on New Zealand toilets. New Zealand public toilet stalls almost always have a full door, similar to the bathroom door in your home. This prevents you from using the American trick of peering under the stall door to ascertain if the stall is empty. The New Zealanders provide a much more civilized method of determining this: the lock on the door is connected to a sign on the outside of the door that indicates whether the stall is vacant or occupied (similar to the door lock on an airplane toilet).

The differences don't end at the door. The toilet itself is different, because, instead of a familiar single handle with which to flush the toliet, you are presented with two buttons. After some experimentation and a bit of discreet questioning, I learned that these are for the full and half flush, the half flush being a rather obvious water saving feature once you think about it.

2. Another thing I never thought much about before traveling is roofing material. Many New Zealand homes have corrugated iron roofs, something which is not common in my part of the United States. The only California homes with metal roofs also have wheels. My husband was surprised by my surprise at this choice of roofing material, because it is extremely common in New Zealand, and certainly not limited to any particular level of housing.

3. You don't expect to have trouble communicating in a country that speaks the same language you do. Sure, there might be some amusing differences in word choice (let's just say you shouldn't call that bag around your waist a "fanny pack" anywhere outside of the U.S.), but by and large, you expect to be able to have friendly conversations with the locals. This is true, but there are surprising differences in conversational style that can quickly make the traveler feel like a rude tourist. Anyone who has traveled at all outside the United States has probably noticed that Americans are a relatively loud nationality. Conversations that would be lost in the hubub at home reverberate through the entire restaurant abroad. If I could give only one piece of advice to an American setting out on his or her first trip abroad and wanting to avoid offending the natives it would be "shhhh". Whatever you want to say, chances are, the person on the other side of the room doesn't want to hear it. Unless you are alerting everyone to a fire, lower your volume by a few notches.

Kiwis are as quiet as we are loud. When in New Zealand, I often find myself straining to hear the person seated next to me, and have embarrassed myself many times by smiling and nodding when a more expressive response was expected. I sometimes think New Zealand is a nation of lip readers, because New Zealanders have an extraordinary ability to hold sotto voce conversations in noisy pubs. I find my normal speaking voice far too loud for New Zealand, and when I return from a trip there my American friends must constantly ask me to repeat myself.

New Zealanders also do not talk over each other. It was only when I began to hang out with a lot of Kiwis that I realized how often Americans do this. No one thinks anything of a group of friends in which two or three are speaking at the same time. In New Zealand, this almost never happens. I spend my time in New Zealand biting my tongue, waiting for my turn to whisper some contribution to the conversation. New Zealanders in America, have it far worse. They never get a word in edgewise, and when they do, half of the group doesn't hear them!

There are far more differences than I have listed here, but I don't want to deprive you of the chance to discover some of the frame shifts on your own. New Zealand is a wonderful place to visit. Just keep your voice down, and be careful to choose the correct button when flushing the toilet.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Mt. Bruce Bird Sanctuary

I had been living with a Kiwi for four and a half years before I finally caught sight of his avian namesake. It probably says something about the national consciousness of New Zealanders that they chose a nocturnal, flightless bird as their national symbol. I think it has something to do with their love of the underdog- this is a country that manages to spin its rugby team as the underdog in most contests, despite the fact that the All-Blacks are currently ranked number one and are almost always ranked in the top three. The kiwi bird is definitely an underdog. It is singularly ill-adapted to compete with the mammals man has introduced to its native habitat: it can't fly, doesn't see well, and produces a large (and presumably tasty) egg that is up to 25% of the mother's weight. Still, the kiwi has not gone extinct. It is on the endangered list, but fights on, and, thanks to the help of the human Kiwis, has even made a comeback in some areas.

This is not to say that the kiwis are plentiful enough that you can hope to see them in the wild on the main New Zealand islands. They are still a rarity. Therefore, my first bona fide kiwi sighting came in a kiwi house, which is an enclosure that is kept dark so that the kiwis' internal clocks are reversed and visitors can see the nocturnal kiwis during the day. I did not enter this kiwi house with much hope: I had been in many other similar enclosures before, and never had any luck in spotting a kiwi. However, this time I was in luck. I saw not one, but two kiwis. They are extremely unbirdlike, and also a bit comical. Their vestigial wings are completely hidden under their shaggy brown "fur", which is of course actually feathers. They do have a beak- a long, thin thing they use to forage for grubs and other insects- but it is also rather unbirdlike, in that it has nostrils on the end of it, which allow the kiwi to sniff out food. In other birds, the nostrils are at the top of the beak. The kiwi also has a Monty Pythonesque silly walk. It bobs up on one leg and seems to swing the other leg forward. Still, I found the kiwi a bit cute.

Clearly, I was not the only one who thought the kiwi was cute. The male kiwi took a fancy to the female kiwi, and I think we saw kiwi sex. Or perhaps we only witnessed a grooming routine. I am not an ornithologist, and my web searches on the subject have done little more than demonstrate that there are porn sites dedicated to New Zealanders. Anyway, one of the kiwis (presumably the male) hopped on top of the other, who seemed completely unperturbed by this and continued foraging for food. A short while late, the other kiwi hopped back off, and resumed foraging, too. If this is indeed their mating routine, the fact that their eggs and young are a favorite food of so many of the introduced mammalian predators might not be the only reason they are on the verge of extinction.

My kiwi encounter took place during a visit to the Mt. Bruce Bird Sanctuary in New Zealand. We had spent Christmas with my in-laws, and were heading to a small beach town to experience a true New Zealand beach holiday. We stopped at the bird sanctuary on our way. In addition to the kiwis, we saw the kakariki (a bright green parrot that is often kept as a pet), the kokako (a bluish-grey bird with a bright blue throat), and the kaka. The kakas were my second favorite birds (after the kiwis, of course). They are not brightly colored, but they are still a lot of fun to watch. They have a strong beak, which they use to crack open tree cones to extract the seeds. They also use their beak a bit like a third leg. We watched them maneuver around the chain link fence separating their area from the wild by biting a link in the fence in the direction they wanted to go and then swinging their legs around underneath them again. They are quite adept at this, and could move along very quickly.

All of these birds are endangered in the wild, because they have not fared well in competition with the mammals man has introduced to New Zealand. Before the Maori arrived in ~1000 C.E., the only mammals on the islands were two species of small bats. The Maori brought the dog and the rat. The Europeans later brought cats, stoats, possums, and more dogs and rats. These introduced species compete with the native birds for habitat and in some cases eat the birds. For instance, the kiwi chicks are particularly vulnerable to predation, and it is estimated that stoats and cats kill 95% of kiwi hatchlings each year (see the NZ Department of Conservation website). New Zealand is now fighting hard to protect the kiwi and its other native birds. They have set up bird sanctuaries on some of the smaller islands, after painstakingly eliminating all non-native animals. The difficulty of this effort is underscored by a recent experiment performed with a single male rat. "Razza" was fitted with a radio collar and released on an uninhabited island. He settled in, and then managed to elude all attempts to recapture him for the next eighteen weeks. In fact, at some point around week ten, he showed up on a neighboring, previously rat-free island, swimming across ~1300 feet of open ocean to get there. The native New Zealand birds are indeed up against some stiff competition.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Trip Story: Easter Island

I expected Easter Island to be one of the highlights of our big trip, and I wasn't disappointed. From the moment we boarded the plane, I felt like a lucky member of a privileged group, and I suspect quite a few of the other passengers felt the same way. Certainly, there seemed to be a larger than usual interest in the view from the plane windows as we touched down.

What makes Easter Island so special? The obvious answer is the moai, the giant stone statues with exaggerated heads that some believe consumed so many of the island's limited resources that the ancient Islanders nearly perished. These are indeed magnificent, but there are other reasons the island is a special place. It is one of the most isolated places on earth, and receives far fewer visitors than its spectacular history and beautiful scenery would draw in a more easily reached locale. Despite the relatively few visitors, tourists still outnumber locals. Therefore, it is easy to forget to how isolated the island is-at least until you notice that a can of beer costs the same as a can of soda, which costs the same as a bottle of water. This is because the price of these items as set by transport costs, and they all occupy a similar space in a container ship.

The culture on Easter Island, both current and past, also makes the place special. The current Islanders are warm, friendly, and very welcoming. They never made us feel out of place, even when we turned up at a restaurant only minutes before the high-school graduation dinner guests arrived. We were seated at a prime table, with a view of both the water and the evening's festivities. The high schoolers were as boisterous as you would expect from their age, but were also great fun to watch. It was a small class, with perhaps 30 students, so they all knew each other and, at least for the night, were friends. They talked, laughed, and took quite a few group pictures. We couldn't resist trying to capture a picture of our own, to show the wide range of fashion on display. Most of the boys wore Island print shirts and light colored trousers. The girls' attire, however, ranged from slinky modern dresses to a beautiful island print full length gown. We weren't quick enough with our camera, though, so we'll just have to hope and the memory stays with us.

A more conventional cultural highlight was the island dance night we saw. There were certainly similarities to dances we've seen on other Pacific islands, but there were clear differences as well. The costumes used feathers, which we had never seen before. The men's dances involve more leaps and twirls, and the women's dances used a wider stance, which made the characteristic Polynesian hip sway more pronounced and also more gentle. This was also one of the happiest dance troupes we have ever seen, and despite the suboptimal setting the for the show (several rows of chairs around a room, so the only the first row got a clear view), it was one of the most enjoyable shows we've seen.

Another fascinating cultural feature is the way Polynesian culture has been adapted to this island, and blended with the influence from South America. The original Islanders are thought to have come from the Marquesas Islands. They brought various crops with them, but found that the tropical plants did not fare well in the drier subtropical climate. They came up with an ingenious solution to this problem. They built short circular stone walls, a bit like above ground wells, which concentrated the humidity and allowed their crops to grow. The South American influence is prevasive, but subtle. It is most obvious in the restaurants, many of which serve empanadas and other non native foods. The provenance of the ceviche is less clear, given its strong resemblance to the raw fish dishes found in Polynesia, such as Tahitian poisson cru and the Cook Islands' ika mata.

The natural beauty of Easter Island also contributes to the feeling of specialness. If you can forget that the island should have more trees, the rolling grasslands are quite beautiful. The sharp contrast between the flat green ground and the tall stone moai is striking and wonderful, particularly when an Islander riding a horse crosses the scene, as happens not infrequently. However, my favorite natural feature was the color of the surrounding water. It is the usual tropical deep turquoise in the shallower parts near the shore, which in and of itself would be beautiful, particularly since the lack of coral reef means that there are actually turquoise waves crashing on the shoreline. It is the contrast with the deeper water that elevates the scene to the sublime, though, and unlike other islands that have coral reefs to separate the shallow from the deep, the water here transitions from tropical turquoise to a deep indigo blue with no barrier in between. I have never seen water the color of the deep water around Easter Island. It is neither blue nor purple, and the best I can describe it to say that it is roughly the color of the ink in a cheap blue ballpoint pen. This description does not do it justice, and I will forever associate this indescribable color with this island. The water was beautiful from shore, but was even more amazing when we were immersed in it. We went snorkeling on our second day on the island. The snorkeling itself was nothing special. The water was too deep and our snorkeling skills too limited to allow us to see many fish. But the beauty of the water made the trip worth it. My husband also got to see a flying fish during the boat ride to the snorkel spot. I was looking the other way, so only caught a fleeting glimpse, but he saw the fish in full flight, and swears it banked like an airliner.

Of course, none of this is the reason most people, myself included, come to Easter Island. The real attractions are the giant stone moai and their cautionary tale about the potential for our deepest beliefs to lead to our destruction. Whether or not the ancient Islanders truly depleted their supply of trees to assist them in moving the moai from the quarry, at which they were carved, to the ahu, or platforms, from which they oversaw their villages, the idea that this might have happened should give all of us pause. The islanders believed that the moai wore their ancestors. Once moved (by a now mysterious method) to the ahu, the moai were given eyes. Once the eyes were in their sockets, the moai was believed to have mana, or power, which protected the village. One can easily imagine how, given this belief, the Islanders would have continued to carve and transport the statues even as they descended into inter- village warfare, most likely caused by competition for scarce resources. As the fighting intensified, the Islanders would have wanted even more of the powerful moai to protect them. Sadly, the moai did not protect them. By the time European explorer stopped at the island, the moai were all toppled (pushed over by rival villagers to destroy their mana) and the Islanders were nearing starvation.

Many people now doubt that the need to transport the moai was the cause of the resource scarcity- overpopulation is more likely. Still, the story lives on, perhaps because of its irresistible resonance with some of the issues facing us now. Whatever the reason for the dwindling supply of trees, it is clear that at some point someone cut down the last tree. It is hard to imagine how that could happen until you visit the island and realize how big it is You cannot see from end to end. Therefore, it seems likely that what happened was that several people independently cut down the last remaining tree in several different locations, each unaware that others were similarly depleting the trees elsewhere. And so otherwise reasonable people brought their culture to the verge of extinction. To me, this is the true message to our times.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Our Favorite Gear

Like many people, I find planning for a trip almost as much fun as taking one. Luckily, my husband agrees. It is no surprise, therefore, that we spent a good deal of time researching and choosing the gear to take with us on our big trip. Of course, some of our purchases were more successful than others. Since several people have asked me about this, I decided to post a short list of some of the best gear we took with us.

Best Luggage
We liked our travel packs, but the hands down winners in the best luggage category were the various packing cubes we used to organize our clothing in gear inside of our packs. Eagle Creek makes packing cubes in a variety of sizes, as do some other companies.

Best Clothing
My best clothing find for this trip was the Macabi travel skirt. I searched extensively for a good, versitile travel skirt before eventually settling on this one. I never took advantage of its ability to clip into shorts or pants, but I did love its practical fabric, reasonably flattering fit, and excellent pockets (in addition to deep regular pockets, the skirt has a discrete zippered pocket that I found perfect for my wallet). I bought the long skirt, thinking it would be more appropriate for our time in Muslim Malaysia. I was wrong, but that's another blog entry. If I were to purchase this skirt again, I would definitely buy the regular length. In fact, I may do just that before we take another lengthy trip.

My husband's best clothing purchase for this trip was a pair of Dockers hidden cargo pants. I think they are the Iconic Khaki style, but there is not enough info on the Dockers website to be certain. These pants have a large internal pocket with a zipper, which gave him the ability to carry his wallet or our camera in a secure pocket while still looking moderately formal. They also wore extremely well. He wore them frequently during our four months on the road, and he is still wearing them now that we have returned. This is not just because he doesn't like shopping for new clothes: the pants still look good. We never attempted a truly formal look on this trip, but you can get an idea of how good these pants look by the fact that when he got a new job that requires slightly more formal attire than his previous position (to which he could wear shorts and flip flops), my husband went out and bought another pair of these pants.

Best Medical Kit Component
Given my background in biomedical research, it is probably not a surprise to anyone that we had a variety of antibiotics and other medicines with us on this trip. I did use some doxycycline in China to cure a sinus infection, but most of our fancy medicines thankfully went unused. The oral rehydration salts we had in our medical kit were a godsend, though. We both got a nasty case of food poisoning in the Chiang Mai, Thailand, and were incredibly grateful for the rehydrating and nourishing properties of our oral rehydration salts, and also for the fact that we could get something with these properties without straying far from our toilet. In fact, I was on a diet consisting solely of Sprite and the oral rehydration salts drink (you mix the salts with clean water) for the one day I spent incapacitated from the food poisoning.

Luckily, we only needed the oral rehydration salts once. However, given their low-price and small size, I may never leave home without them again.

Best Gadget
We took my iPod, a handy radio that also served as our alarm clock, and the modern traveler's usual assortment of cameras and phones. Our favorite gadget during the trip, though, was definitely my husband's GPS. We used it at every stop. I wrote our latitude and longitude in my trip log, and we also to take "latitude pictures" such as this one of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Best Toys
We were packing light, so didn't take many toys. The decision to use some of our precious pack space on our snorkels and masks was definitely a good one, though. Not only were we ensured a perfect fit whenever we went snorkeling, we were also able to have some very cheap days in Thailand. Having our own snorkels with us meant we could spend the day snorkeling for free-and there is some excellent snorkeling in Thailand!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Trip Story: French Polynesia

The first stop on our big trip was French Polynesia, specifically Tahiti and Moorea. Since we didn't visit the most spectacular Islands in French Polynesia, we can't really judge its merits fully. However, nothing we saw on this trip give us any reason to prefer French Polynesia to the Cook Islands. The Cooks are just as beautiful, a little less hot, a lot cheaper, and have much better beer. Still, our stay in French Polynesia was nice enough and not a bad way to start the trip.

We arrived in Pape'ete surprisingly well rested given the long overnight flight. We had decided to start our trip on the beach, so we went directly from the airport to a ferry to Moorea, only stopping for breakfast along the way. The ferry ride was our first introduction to how things can go not quite as planned on a trip like this. We decided to take the slowest ferry, thinking it would be a pleasant ride to Moorea. The ride was pleasant enough, but the slow ferry is the only ferry not met by a bus. We spent several hours at the ferry terminal waiting for the next ferry to arrive and the buses to come to meet it. Luckily, it was a pleasant place to wait, with a nice view and a decent cafe, at which we had lunch. We finally arrived at our bungalow after two in the afternoon. We had booked into a place called Fare Manuia, and we were pleased by what saw. We had the front bungalow on a nice beach. Janine, our host, was nice as well, and drove us into town to allow us to purchase groceries at the shop.
Our bungalow in Moorea
We probably would have enjoyed Moorea more had we spent more time at our lovely bungalow. Instead, we decided to spent the majority of our one full day on the island taking a walk to one of the fancy resorts at the other end of the beach. This was not necessarily a bad idea, but was made less pleasant by the surprising lack of beach along which to walk. We walked half of the way to the resort picking our way around palm trees and avoiding very non-island like guard dogs. We had to wade in the water at several points. Eventually, we gave up, and walked the rest of the way to the resort and all the way back on the road. Our discomfort level was increased by the fact that it was quite hot and humid, a condition to which we would acclimatize later on the trip, but still found unpleasant on day two. However, we did have a very good lunch at the Hotel Inter-Continental and my husband got to try the local raw fish dish, poisson cru. We were more than ready for a swim by the time we got back to our bungalow. I remember this swim in particular because while floating/sitting in the warm, shallow lagoon water, I had a moment of great happiness when I thought of the four months ahead of us and the amount of time we would spend like this. It turns out that I was not quite right about how we would spend our next four months, for although they were wonderful, we didn't spend all that much time swimming. Still, the joy of that moment is one of the best reasons to take a long trip like this.

After lunch on the following day, we took the ferry back to Pape'ete. Pape'ete is definitely not the stereotypical Polynesian beach town. It is a big city, and I found it interesting to see a big, cosmopolitan city Polynesian style. We spent one afternoon sitting on the outdoor patio of a little restaurant called La Terasse Api, watching the city go by. We particularly enjoyed our location when it started to rain, as it often did during our stay in Pape'ete. Our table was undercover, so the rain didn't bother us at all. In fact, we appreciated its cooling effect on the air. We watched the city's inhabitants and visitors go about their business, some scurrying to get out of the rain and others completely unconcerned by it. There were people from all over Polynesia, with the women often in traditional flowered dresses. There were also a range of Asians and Europeans. On the whole, the Asians looked far more comfortable in the climate than the often red-faced and sweaty Europeans did. Some of the Europeans looked so miserable that you couldn't help but wonder why they were in Pape'ete.

Our hotel, the Royal Pape'ete, was nothing special, but did enjoy a central location near the waterfront. Also lining the street facing the waterfront were several bars. We were lured into one of the bars by the oddest musical moment of our trip: the sound of "Midnight Special " done island style, complete with ukuleles. We sat down at an outside table and ordered two Hinanos (the only beer available in Pape'ete), hoping to hear some more fantastic island interpretations from the jukebox. Sadly, the music never approached the initial level of surreality again.

One of the other highlights of Pape'ete is the food. We could not afford to eat at the fanciest restaurants recommended by our guidebook. However, we still had some very good food. We ate one dinner at local pizzeria called Lou Pescadou's, which is apparently a bit of an institution. Its walls were decorated with old newspaper ads, some of which were quite funny (assuming we translated from the French properly). We ordered the Pizza Royale, which was topped with tomato sauce, ham, cheese, and an egg. The egg was on the runny side of sunny side up. The pizza was actually quite good, but not something I'll be asking for at a local pizzeria here in San Diego. The highlight of the restaurant, though, was the chef, who whistled and hummed along with most of the cheesy songs that were playing on the sound system.

Our favorite meals were at the mobile cafes that parked in the central square and night. These vans are called roulottes, and they serve surprisingly good food. We ate at the roulottes on both our first The roulotte creperieand last night in Pape'ete. We had crepes the first night and both enjoyed them greatly. My husband also enjoyed his dinner on the last night, a large and delicious steak frites. My chicken gingembre was certainly edible, but was far from my favorite meal in Pape'ete. The truly great thing about the roulottes, though, was the atmosphere. The square was full of people of all ages, locals and tourists alike, enjoying the cooler night air, the food, and the company. On our last night in Pape'ete, there was even live music on the outdoor stage next to the square. After dinner, we went over and enjoyed the music and watched the local children running around on the large cement "dance floor" in front of the stage. Eventually, some teenage couples began to dance, demonstrating that the Polynesian dancing skill goes beyondLe Truck, Tahitian public transport traditional show dancing. We had not tired of this show when we had to leave. We collected our bags from our hotel, caught "Le Truck", the local public transit, to the airport, and spent the next several hours waiting for our flight to Easter Island.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Happy Dogs

Everyone is happier on an island, even the dogs. We first noticed this in Catalina, where we saw a very contented looking dog and cat napping at the local mini golf place. We were fairly relaxed, since this was our second day on the island and we didn't have anything more pressing to do than play a round of mini golf. However, this dog and cat were clearly far more relaxed than us.

The neighbor's dog during our second visit to Rarotonga increased our suspicions about the relative happiness of island animals. We were staying in a lovely beach front cabana. The dog that lived next door quickly adopted us, sleeping on our patio and following us when we took walks on the beach and even when we went for a kayak in the lagoon. In fact, Toyoa, as we learned she was called, seem to particularly enjoy frolicking in the lagoon, as this picture shows.

Our suspicions were confirmed in Thailand, though. We spent our first night in Thailand in a beach town called Hat Pakmeng. The next morning, we went for a walk on the beach. The Hat Pakmeng beach is not a particularly beautiful beach by Thailand standards- it has a long shallow bit that is not all that different from mud flats. However, it was our first day in Thailand after several weeks in Malaysia, and we were enjoying our walk. I was particularly enjoying the fact that I was wearing shorts, since I had been culturally sensitive and kept my legs covered during most of our stay in Malaysia. We were not walking for long before a local dog noticed us and came over to beg for attention. This was perhaps the most miserable dog I have ever seen. He was mangy, hungry, and covered in sores, the source of which became obvious after watching him for a couple minutes. The poor thing was infested with fleas. He scratched at them vigorously, causing new sores to open before our eyes. We felt sorry for this miserable dog, who was so pathetic I could barely stand to look at him, but we certainly weren't going to pet him. Later that day, we took a short boat ride to our true destination, Ko Ngai, which is a small island not far from the mainland. The contrast between the dogs we found on this island and the pathetic creature we had left in Hat Pakmeng could not have been more striking. The island dogs were happy, well fed, and free of fleas. They spent their days sleeping in the sand and their nights wandering through the beach bars getting petted by the equally happy tourists.

Indeed, it was not just the dogs who were happy on Ko Ngai. My husband has declared it his new favorite place on earth. We tourists were very content to spend our days snorkeling in the warm water and sleeping in the shade on the sand and our nights chilling in the excellent beach front bars. It makes you wonder why we only visit islands.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Hello, World

My husband and I have recently returned from a big trip. OK, we've been back for about six weeks now, so I guess the return is not that recent. However, we like to say that we've “just come back” from the big trip, because it makes us feel closer to that special time.

Our “big trip” was a four month journey around the pacific and Asia. We started in Tahiti, took a side trip to Easter Island, flew on to New Zealand for Christmas with my husband's family, then on to a drive up the east coast of Australia (more family). We flew from Brisbane to Singapore, then traveled overland (and sea) through Malaysia and into Thailand. We spent several weeks in Thailand, taking a side trip to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, before moving on to a two week “highlights of China” tour, followed by a visit to Macau and Hong Kong. We flew home via Tokyo and Honolulu, stopping fo a couple of days in each place. It was a wonderful trip. Our “real lives” back home are pretty good, but they can't compare to the constant string of cool sights and good times on the trip. Besides, we didn't have to get up and go to work every day when we were on the trip. When our alarm went off on our first day back at work, I honestly woke up thinking I'd have to pack up my backpack and go catch a plane or a bus. Travel constraints were the only reasons to set an alarm on the trip.

This is not to imply that life on the trip was some sort of perfect alternate existence. It wasn't: it was still life, after all. We got in an argument with the owner of our hotel in Easter Island because he forced us to move to a different hotel on our last night, despite our long-standing reservation, to make way for a group of travel agents. We got a nasty case of food poisoning in Chiang Mai, which reduced us to a diet of oral rehydration salts and Sprite, and left us lying listlessly on our bed watching weird TV shows on Arirang, the Korean international TV channel, because that was the only station broadcasting in English. I still got grumpy when I was hungry and/or tired, and by the end of our stay in Asia I had developed an almost desperate craving for decent cheese. The unpleasantness of these things fade in our memories, though, and they become nothing more than funny stories, while the obviousness of preferring a day lounging on a beautiful beach in Thailand over a day spent at work becomes ever more, well, obvious.

I have to admit that in Tokyo, our last overseas stop, I thought I was ready for the trip to end. I was tired of unfamiliar food, and feeling guilty about wanting Western food when I knew how much my husband wanted to try all of the Japanese dishes. He was talking about quitting our jobs by email and heading to India, and I was dreaming of a really good cheeseburger. Perhaps this is one of the things I learned about myself on this trip: I never thought of myself as so food oriented before.

Once we landed in Honolulu, I knew I was wrong about being ready for the trip to end. I recoiled from the size and noise of my countrymen and their cars. We'd seen one Hummer in Tokyo, one in Bangkok... and now there seemed to be one at every stoplight. After the thinness of the average Asian, the average American tourist in Waikiki seemed huge. Don't get me wrong- I love my country and like living here, but I was dismayed to hear all the complaints my husband used to make about America and her inhabitants coming out of my mouth. Worse than the culture shock of returning home, though, was the depression at the fact that our big adventure was over. We were back on American soil, and would soon be back in our own apartment. The comfy bed and dependable water supply sounded nice... but not as nice as exploring a new country. I had gotten so used to brushing my teeth with bottled water that it felt strange to use the tap water in our hotel in Waikiki. I had grown so accustomed to living out of my pack, with only a few shirts, two skirts, and two pairs of zip-off pants to choose from that the thought of having to dress myself from my full closet seemed a bit intimidating. Only our dwindling bank account and the good girl instinct to do what is expected of me kept me from calling United and booking a flight to somewhere other than LAX.

We came home as scheduled, and are settling back in to our jobs, which, perhaps surprisingly, were both waiting for us as promised. Sadly, it often feels like we never left. So here I am, writing a travel blog after the fact. It may just be a pathetic attempt to keep the fun of the trip fresh in my memory for a little longer, but I hope it also lets my friends and family read some good stories about our travels. And if someone else happens upon the blog and likes what they read, so much the better.