Sunday, January 3, 2016

Over the Rainbow: Bora Bora

"Ever since happiness heard your name, 
it has been running through the streets trying to find you."


Happiness and I definitely had a meaningful encounter in Bora Bora.  

Like eating a good meal with a fine zinfandel, I wanted to savor fully this trip before writing about it. I had many delightful first impressions of Bora Bora, and it lived up to everything I had ever read about it. But of all the ports I visited, the Bora Bora afterglow—the memories and the euphoric feelings they evoke—has remained the longest.

Bora Bora, located about 160 miles northwest of Tahiti and approximately 2,600 miles south of Hawaii has long been the muse for artists, poets, authors, movies, and lovers. To say it is beautiful understates the truth. And, its charm emanates from a more sensual place, like a subtle perfume that conjures memories and hooks you into creating new ones.

So much beauty forces you to pay attention to every detail: the rich colors of the hibiscus; the turquoise blue waters of the lagoon that surround the main island; the waves that crash against the reef so intensely you can hear and feel them on the shore miles away; and the sun rising behind the famous volcanic mountains. 

The main island and its smaller siblings, completely surrounded by coral reefs, form a natural aquarium with some of the most spectacular snorkeling and diving in the world.

You can ride the 33 miles around the entire main island by bicycle. At many points I had the view all to myself; on the windward side of the island I basked in the sun as the slow lap of the waves seemed to whisper the wisdom of silence. In another spot a man burned hibiscus trimmings [not a great smell], and at another a man fished. Interestingly, the main island only has one sandy beach, so throughout the island boats are kept on elevated rafters away from the shore [see photo above]. On some parts of the main island, and also on the smaller ones, a few resorts have the famed over-water bungalows that look like mushrooms from a distance.

Music is as much a part of the Tahitian lifestyle as the ocean. One afternoon I joined a small boat tour given by a local named Mata and his son. As he drove us out to a private island he played the Tahitian ukulele while his son played the drum. The fast tempo of the Tahitian songs matched their positive attitude and playful energy. As we sat on the private beach eating fresh coconut and papaya, a rainstorm came in, threatening to ruin the day. We piled back in his boat to journey out toward the reef where the massive waves could be heard [and felt]. 
As we crossed the lagoon and I looked at the peaks of the main island, a rainbow magically appeared between them. Then, as if scripted, one of the group members started playing the ukulele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The magic of that moment became permanently etched in my memory.

Despite the chill the storm brought to the water and air temperatures, I decided to swim with the lemon sharks in the lagoon. The visibility in the clear water allowed us to watch the sharks as they appeared to glide through the water. Although I have done shark dives in the past, this experience felt more relaxed and casual, with each moment filled with gratitude more than fear.  A little while
later our group swam with manta rays, which seemed just as playful as our guide. The ride back into the lagoon, singing songs and watching the sun set, felt like a dream. I have so many more magical memories of Bora Bora, and I hope my pictures tell the story in a way that words cannot.
Barbecue Bora Bora style

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Tonga Tonga Tonga.

Nuku’alofa, Tonga

Big Mama’s Beach Bar has a sandy floor, feral cats, and coconut shells inscribed with signatures of visitors past and present. From the wooden deck you can see yachts and sailboats anchored in the lagoon, along with the partially submerged shipwrecks memorializing a few hurricanes that visited the Kingdom of Tonga over the years. Big Mama’s sits on Pantai-motu—a little islet full of mangroves and tide pools that you can completely circumambulate in about 20 minutes. The only other structure on this motu is Big Mama’s house. To get here our small group kayaked some choppy surf over coral reefs, but Big Mama herself greets us with grilled fresh fish and even fresher tropical fruits and fresh coconut water.

The water feels chilly from a recent rain shower. It is the end of winter and we have missed whale-watching season, when tourists can actually swim the whales that migrate through Tonga from June to October.

Nuku Ľalofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, lies on the north coast of the island of Tongatapu, in the southernmost island group of Tonga. Nuku’alofa, “Abode of Love” has the sleepiness of an island harbor-side town, with the buzz and activity of a commercial center. The town center has hardware stores, the Reload bar boasting to be the best [and probably only] bar in Tonga, a royal palace, and a market. Compared to other South Pacific islands, the produce lacks in quality, quantity, and reasonable prices. Still, this place has bragging rights as the only Kingdom in Polynesia.

In addition to the amazing fragrance of gardenia that seems to hover in the air, the endless sound of drums seems to match the intense heat of the sun.

One unique aspect of Tongan culture involves the artistic mat weaving. These mats, treasured possessions in Tongan households, are traditionally presented at births, weddings, funerals and other special occasions. Some Tongans wear these mats like an apron, known as the ‘ta’ovala’, as a respectful form of dress in the Kingdom. Apparently, this custom originated in ancient times when men returning from long sea voyages at sea would cut the mast sails of their canoes and cover their naked bodies prior to appearing before their chief.

The “fabric” of these mats is made from the bark of the mulberry tree, known locally as hiapo. The bark must be beaten to soften and lengthen it into a fabric for weaving. Some of the ta’ovala’ are also made from woven coconut fiber, shells, and ribbon.

The genuine happiness and friendliness of the Tongans is contagious. There is a generosity of spirit and hospitality in their smiles and conversation that felt as warm as the sun. Tonga certainly lived up to its reputation as the “Friendly Islands.”

Neiafu, Vava'u, Tonga Islands

The island of Vava’u in Tonga reminded me of some popular sailor havens in the Caribbean. Tucked into a snug deep-water harbor, the Port of Refuge, Neiafu’s steep roads lead up to scenic vista points adorned with colorful flowers and warm, gentle breezes. As the ship entered the harbor it passed several uninhabited islands. (Only 21 of the 34 islands in the Vava’u group of Tongan islands are inhabited).

The little town of Neiafu has bars, restaurants, a church [of course], and little b &bs all within walking distance. As you head up toward Mount Talau, you are treated to a crystal-clear view of the harbor. School children in their colorful uniforms sneak cigarettes and hold hands as they sit by the water. In the harbor you can see the anchored sailboats and the buoys anchoring the pearl farms.

Neiafu has a unique tranquility. You can sit by the water and sip some kava taking in the white capped waves on the royal blue water. This is a water-lover’s paradise infused with peaceful, zen-like atmosphere. 

What more could you need from a vacation spot?

Fa’a—The Samoan Way: Apia, Upolu, Samoa

A visit to Western Samoa feels like the first date that is going so well you wish it would never end.

Author Robert Louis Stevenson must have felt the same inspiration because he built his home on a botanical paradise with a view of Mount Vaea, where he was eventually buried.
RLS House

Driving around the island reveals the typical scenery of a tropical paradise. Gorgeous beaches with swaying palms and grass huts. Check. Lush mountains with water falls. Check. Endless varieties of mango, papaya, breadfruit, and coconut. Check. 
What enhances the beauty of Western Samoa from other places, though, is its people, their hospitality, and the concept of Fa’a—the Samoan way of relating to elders, family, community, spirituality, and the environment.

Samoa has about 362 villages, each with chiefs. As you drive through the villages on the island of Upolu, you can see the distinct colors for the local school, and the village’s unique symbol or crest on a banner or tied to a tree. Dogs, chickens, and young children roam freely, and brightly colored laundry flutters in the breeze with the palm trees. In some places people are napping in open-aired roadside huts, fale, or selling produce. 

The smoke from earth-ovens fills the air, along with the fragrance of flowers. Little platforms crafted from palms or wood keep the garbage off the roads. People smile, wave, and say hello, as if they always saw me on those roads. Even as a visitor, I feel more like family than a guest.

Several stops included secluded trails to waterfalls and swimming holes; a few had vistas of the mighty surf crashing against the lava rock formations off the shore. By far my favorite was to the Piula Cave Pool, on the north coast of Upolu and east of the main port city of Apia. Located on the grounds of the Piula Theological College, the cave pool is a few yards from the ocean. The slippery rocks that lead into the cold pool contain shells that glisten in the sun. You can swim into the cave that has underwater entry points to other caves. Perhaps it was phosphorescence or fairy dust that made the water appear to glow as I swam into the cave. Regardless, it felt like another world, and I half-expected to enter Rivendell at the other end of the cave.
After the cold dip in the pool, I decided to try the ocean, which was much warmer. You could spend weeks here exploring the caves and tide pools, hiking the mountains, cycling the island, kayaking, sailing, diving, swimming, surfing, or just lounging in a hammock. Visiting the villages had that laid-back feeling of a good summer vacation. Keeping this type of vacation “after-glow” is the quest I continue to explore.

The port town of Apia has a more modern pace and architecture. A two-storied Mc Donald’s has free wi-fi with purchase and the bars, banks, and municipal buildings have the markings of a city.  The local open-air market had the bustle of a flea market, similar to those I have seen in Asia and would continue to see throughout Polynesia. Some stalls had fresh produce, flowers, fresh-caught fish, and desserts [always with coconut]; others carried hand-crafts and textiles. The food stalls had monochrome fried foods that resembled dumplings and samosas, baked goods, and fruity concoctions. One vanilla, mango, and coconut drink came in an aptly named “Love” cup. Between the banter and bargaining was the distinct beat of drums and the constant, comforting ocean breeze. Along the waterfront of Apia, with its black-sand beaches, stands a magnificent church that can be seen as you enter the harbor. Inside has an ornately carved ceiling and marks the harmony with which the Samoans blended Christianity with their own spirituality.

Before ending my “date” with Upolu I spent an hour at a secluded little beach called the Palolo Deep Marine Preserve. After walking through some shady Australian Pines, I came to a small rocky beach. A short swim out through the waves led to a nice coral park with visibility so clear I did not even need a mask. I could float around in what felt like my own private ocean listening to the waves tickling the stones on the shore. 

I reflected on my day exploring this beautiful place, and felt the essence of Fa’a and the Samoan equivalent of Don’t Worry Be Happy: Fai Fai Le Mew. The language, like the people, sounds friendly, upbeat, and welcoming. If you remember your Fa’amolemole [Please] and Fa’afetai [Thank you] and you don’t confuse your po po [coconut] with your pao pao [canoe] you can relax and Ataata [smile].