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.