January 22-26, 2015 – French Polynesia

Polynesian BBQ

Polynesian BBQ on the Lido Deck

January 22: Nuku Hiva.

When we got up this morning, the ship had anchored, and we could see the island. I had expected a flat island with lots of sand and palm trees. Nuku Hiva is not like that. It’s made of tall, rugged mountains instead, which are covered with lush green vegetation. Our view from the ship was animated by the shadows of passing clouds, flocks of land birds, and cars and pickups slowly moving along the surface roads. The tender ride to the dock took about 10 minutes over a calm sea, which the local authorities had informed us were full of sharks – so no swimming today! We were greeted by drummers, singers, and vendors selling their island products. We found our tour bus (really an extended cab pickup) and took off in a caravan of such vehicles for our tour of the island. The paved road, which was barely wide enough for two vehicles, wound up and over the mountains, including many switchbacks and wide views of the island and the ocean beyond. Our caravan stopped occasionally for pictures and commentary about what we were seeing. As it happened, our driver was the leader of the tour, so his English was good enough to answer all the questions we had for him about island life. His name was William; he was born on the island and his parents still live there; island children attend school through junior high and then go to Tahiti for high school; he has 7 brothers and sisters and 2 children; he has been to France, which he didn’t like because it was too noisy and crowded, and to New Zealand; he speaks French, island dialect, and English (at least); he is both a trekking guide and a tour guide; and his other job is as an architect. A very interesting and personable guy.

We saw such a great variety of plants along the drive. Many of the flowering plants, such as the bougainvillea and hibiscus, were brought in from Tahiti, and the nuts from the large number of coconut palms are used today as a major export crop. Fruit trees are growing everywhere along the road, and William told us that the fruit is free for anyone who wants it. Papayas, mangos, breadfruit, and bananas were some of the plants we recognized. All the animals we saw were familiar to us: horses, cows, goats, dogs, chickens. The houses were generally simple and seemed well suited to the island lifestyle, with lots of windows and outdoor space. Care seems to be taken to make the natural beauty of the area even more pleasant for the inhabitants.

The end point of the drive was a meeting space set up near the ocean with a shelter for vendors and a fresh island-fruit table for the tour guests. We could sample local fresh coconut, papaya, breadfruit, tapioca, and fresh and fried bananas. Everything I had was delicious, especially the coconut, which was so moist, compared to any that I’ve ever had elsewhere. Before we returned to town and the dock, we made two brief stops. First was a church with an appealing indoor space, very open and airy with lots of natural wood and stone. Second was a reconstructed archaeological site which is used today for local community gatherings. Back at the dock, we found an internet café, where we ordered a cold Perrier and Denise called her sister Susan. We were happy to board the tender and return to the ship to get out of the heat and away from the crowds.

January 24: Papeete, Tahiti.

We woke up to a rainy morning, but it gradually cleared, and we were dry but overcast by the time we arrived in Papeete, Tahiti, around noon. As in Nuku Hiva, the terrain of this island surprised me. It’s mountainous, not flat and desert-island like. It’s certainly more populated, and multi-story buildings are the norm. The houses march up the mountain sides just as they do around any valley I’ve ever seen. But leftover rain clouds obscured the mountain half-way up. We slowly eased into the port, which was typically industrial, not tropical. One description called it “gritty.” We left the ship, stopped at the tourist information building (where we were informed that the only fabric store in the area was already closed), and started a walk along the main waterfront street, a busy two-lane road. Picking our way over the poorly-maintained and badly-constructed sidewalks, after a few blocks we turned inland for a block and found another busy road to walk along. We passed a few vagrants resting on the sidewalks, some open-air restaurants, tourist shops, small grocery stores, and even a McDonalds. We didn’t really have an agenda, other than to find an internet café with free WiFi. We did stop at McDonalds, which was very busy and set up for ordering just like the ones in the U.S., but it didn’t have internet, so we left there. Next, we entered a small grocery store. It was very neat, with a small but varied stock of what seemed to me not very practical goods. I guess the store was really for tourists. There, we bought 3 bottles of sparkling water, which we stuffed into our backpacks. Soon after that, we found the town market, which is lodged in a two-story open air structure right in the downtown area. Many vendors had already closed for the day, but several were still open, especially fruit sellers and a few souvenir stands. As we strolled by their stations, almost everyone offered a friendly bonjour. On the second floor was a restaurant with internet, so we stayed there a while to retrieve emails, and Denise called her brother Jonathan, not without difficulty because she kept losing the call. We continued walking a little further but by this time were weary of the traffic, the heat, and especially the humidity. We returned to the ship quite exhausted and spent the afternoon in the room reading and napping. It was Polynesian BBQ night for dinner, and we met our normal tablemates by the Lido pool instead of in the dining room. There was a roast suckling pig as well as other island foods for dinner, plus normal cruise-ship vegetables and desserts. At 9:30 was a special Polynesian dance and music extravaganza, which we thoroughly enjoyed. How those ladies swing their hips so skillfully is a wonder. The drumming was a bit too loud, but I guess that’s part of the charm of the show.

January 25: Papeete, Tahiti.

We got up to rain again today, and this time it continued all day. Our tour was a drive entirely around the island, with several stops, and a truly informative guide. His English was a little rough because of his French accent, but he talked to us throughout the trip and provided the following kinds of information: political relationship between French Polynesia and France, school system, political parties, best surfing beaches and why, plants, animals, types of fish, island history, Gaugin, the French military presence, nuclear testing, cost of living, health care system etc., etc. While he was talking, the ocean was on our left and on the right were communities, homes, and natural areas full of lush tropical plants (duh!). Things generally didn’t look particularly prosperous, and many buildings were in need of major maintenance. This observation actually applies to everything we have seen in the South Pacific.

The first stop on our tour was at a lighthouse with some history attached. We walked around the grounds next to the ocean and came upon a surfing beach, which was full of surfers, despite the rain. The second stop was at a restaurant named for Gaugin where we were offered mango juice, restrooms, and an opportunity to walk on a pier bordering pens populated with several different kinds of big, colorful fish. At this stop, the clouds parted, and Denise was able to get some pictures. Back on the bus for only a few minutes, we got out at a botanical garden next. The guide started walking down the path and explaining plants to us, but then the rain started up again in earnest, and our group broke up. I and a few others continued following the guide around the garden, but Denise and several others decided to stand under a shelter for a while. The rain never let up, so we all eventually got soaked. The garden had a waterfall, many interesting and unusual tropical plants and flowers, gravel paths, and ponds with water plants. Too bad the weather was so awful, but I enjoyed the walk anyway. Our fourth stop was at a surfer beach on the west side of the island. The bus driver pulled into the parking lot, but none of the passengers wanted to get out of the bus to look at it. Too wet and tired at this point. So we then drove back to the ship. Denise said she would have gone out again, but the rain and the closed stores (it’s Sunday) were good deterrents.

January 26: Bora Bora.

The view of Bora Bora from the ship was a lot closer to my idea of a South Pacific island. There were still tall mountains, but at least we could also make out lots of palm trees, beautiful blue water, and white sand beaches. Even though the sky was threatening rain all day, we didn’t get any until we were back on the ship. We tendered to the dock, looked briefly into a handicrafts shop, then started walking to the right. This was not a wholly satisfactory experience: there were no sidewalks, many rain puddles with lots of mud, and a poorly maintained road with a lot of traffic – a lot of very slow-moving traffic. We stopped in a couple of stores, some of which had high-quality goods. Of particular interest to me was a hand-made bed covering fashioned with reverse applique and incredibly even and well-formed stitches. The clerk told me that “mammas” do this kind of work in Bora Bora. It was exquisite. My first fabric purchase of the day was a pareo of many colors – good for a shirt, I think. Looking for internet, we ran into our new friends Ernie and Jim in the post office. Deciding to scrap the internet search for today, we left Ernie in the post office and continued with Jim down the street in the opposite direction. By this time, we were quite hot and wondering whether walking in this heat was a good idea. Fortunately, we found a very nice restaurant with a bar next to the water. It had a sand floor and a thatched roof – very authentic. It was a great place to sit and savor our bottle of sparkling water. Jim and Denise enjoyed speaking French with the proprietor. After our break, we were refreshed and started back towards the dock. Along the way, we found a local store with a ton of fabric. It’s the same fabric that I’ve seen elsewhere in Polynesia made up as curtains and table coverings, so I feel like all the new shirts I’ll make are going to be good souvenirs for our trip. It’s not high-quality fabric, and it was made in China, but if it’s good enough for the everyday Polynesians, it’s good enough for me. We were glad to be back on the ship, where it was cool and uncrowded.

Bora Bora Bar

Bora Bora Bar

Tahiti waterfall

Waterfall in Tahiti Botanical Garden

Gaugin Restaurant

Gaugin Restaurant in Tahiti

January 14-21, 2015 – Days at Sea

on deck

Relaxing on Deck

We have spent the last eight days on the ship, never seeing any land, let alone walking on it! We didn’t know beforehand how we would like being confined to the ship for so long, but we have not found it to be a problem. As a matter of fact, we have loved this time. We have kept busy and engaged with our chosen activities, and we have met a n

formal night

French Dinner Formal Night

umber of people whom we are happy to spend time with as we run into them during the day. Here are some of the things we’ve been doing:

  • Both Denise and Susan: attending informative lectures about Latin America and Polynesia, doing the laundry, walking almost daily several times around the promenade deck, taking a tour of the ship’s kitchen, enjoying the nightly entertainment in the show lounge (especially the singers and dancers), attending social get togethers with some of the other LGBT passengers
  • Denise: attending classes in line dancing and technology, meeting with secular humanists and the ship’s rabbi, spending hours and hours on her family photos project, swimming in the Lido pool
  • Susan: attending the daily drawing class, studying English novels and Shakespeare (usually sitting on the deck), watching the antics of the flying fish which seem to be accompanying our ship, keeping our travel journal and composing the blog text

One of the problems which we did anticipate was the poor quality of internet access – not to mention the expense. Sure enough, during several days the internet was hardly available at all. After a couple of days, the captain announced the source of the problem. The signal between the ship and the satellite above South America was being blocked by the ship’s funnels, so he decided to change to a zigzag course so that the signal could be available at least part of the time. He anticipated, correctly, that the signal would be stronger as we got closer to the Pacific satellite. Denise has been able to download our emails and look at some bills, but service has remained very poor.

One of the highlights of our eight days at sea has been the fun we’ve had with our dinner table companions. We have great conversations at night and enjoy running into each other around the ship during the day. We can make jokes out of everything – the Panama hats, the leis, the tin foil palm tree decorations, the waiters’ drawn-on French moustaches, etc. For my birthday, they and the dining room stewards sang to me, and Juliana and Roger sent a bouquet of flowers to our room. One night, one of the ship’s engineers joined us at our table. He was from Holland, a very personable young man, with good English, and great willingness to share his expertise about our ship.

Not only did we enjoy our eight days at sea, we now know that we can look forward with pleasure to the remaining sea days on our cruise.

 

January 9-13, 2015 – Latin America

mola

Mola from San Blas Islands

January 9: Santa Marta, Colombia.

Our excursion today was to Tayrona National Natural Park, which is about an hour’s drive from our port of Santa Marta. Leaving the port, we drove through a fairly depressed area. There were ramshackle hou

Panama Canal

Panama Canal

ses made of mismatched boards, corrugated metal, and occasional walls of concrete bricks, with lots of litter (or garbage) and some graffiti both near the houses and alongside the road. On the other hand, some houses were painted in bright colors. Some had attempted decorative touches, like metal fences or potted plants. But almost every house and business had some kind of outside space for s

colorful fishing boats

Colorful Boats at Fishing Village in Ecuador

itting and socializing. In addition to cars and trucks, methods of transportation were by foot, by motorcycle (frequently with multiple riders), or by horse- or mule-drawn cart. Street vendors were plentiful, often in what seemed to me to be unsafe locations (like right next to the highway).

We drove east toward the park on a busy two-lane highway through rugged mountains. Near the coast, the plants were more sparse and desert-like, but as we got closer to the park, there were many flo

jungle path

Jungle Path in Ecuador

wering trees and lots of tropical vegetation, such as palm trees, croton, and bougainvillea. The undergrowth was mostly vines and small palm trees.

Once inside the park, our guide related for us some of the creation myths of the indigenous people, who, by the way, were wiped out by the diseases brought by the European invaders. We then took a walk

cooking demo

Site of Cooking Demonstration and Tasting in Ecuador

Panama hats

Making Panama Hats in Ecuador

along a shady forest path while the guide stopped occasionally to explain the features of some of the plants and insects that we encountered. Eventually, we reached the ocean, where we could see pristine, uncrowded beaches in both directions.

We were a couple of busloads of interested tourists, but the park is evidently very popular with Colombians as well, especially young people with their camping gear, bikes, and food supplies.

January 10: San Blas Islands, Panama.

Our main reason for getting to these islands is to see the needlework of the Kuna Indians, who live here. I’ve known about molas (see picture) forever, but never thought I’d see where they come from. When we got to the island, the “architecture” reminded me of the medieval village life exhibit we went to in York, England, at the Jorvik Viking Museum: flimsy structures made of found materials, dirt floors and narrow pathways (they could hardly be called streets), litter and garbage everywhere. But there are also many signs of technology, i.e., cell phones, iPads, satellite dishes. A few men were around, and women were sitting in front of their needlework displayed on the walls of the buildings, but the majority of people present (aside from the tourists) were children. Many, many children. Lots of babies, too. People were friendly and willing to converse with the tourists, but the deep poverty was difficult for us to see. I bought molas from two different women, one for $20, one for $10. I picked the ones I did because I gave up trying to find the perfect one. There were so many to choose from, and the workmanship of the better ones was generally comparable. I’m amazed that so much work could be sold for so little money. I bought another one from vendors on the ship, so now we have three authentic molas and will have to figure out how to display them once we get home.

January 11: Panama Canal.

We got up before sunrise this morning to watch the ship enter the first locks of the canal. Once inside the lock, the ship was guided by cables attached to rail cars on each side. These cars didn’t pull the ship; they just kept it steady. There were about two feet of space on each side of the ship as we traversed the locks. In my ignorance, I thought the Panama Canal was a canal. But it’s really a 50-mile series of locks and lakes which bring ships up and over the Continental Divide which runs through the Isthmus of Panama. Building it was a monumental feat of engineering which cost thousands of lives but which has profoundly affected world commerce and communication. Its 100-year anniversary was in 2014, and construction for expanded capacity is expected to be completed in 2016. Our ship took 8 hours to go from Atlantic to Pacific, much of the time being spent in the aforementioned lakes, where what looked like impenetrable jungle came right down to the water. I didn’t see any wildlife, except for birds, but I’m sure the jungle is full of critters I don’t want to know about.

Later, we sat on the deck for a while to see what happens at the Pacific end of the canal. Aside from the locks like the ones on the Atlantic side, we were struck by the view of what seemed to be a huge modern city off to the left side of the canal. There were many, many tall skyscrapers and buildings of interesting and varied shapes. It was a surreal vision – these impressive white buildings seeming to arise out of the Panamanian jungle. We never did confirm the name of the city, although Denise thinks it was Balboa. As we left the canal and entered the ocean, we noticed that the water was considerably calmer than the Atlantic had been.

January 12: At Sea Day – Crossing the Equator.

The ocean today remained calm, as the name “Pacific” implies, but the air was hot and sticky. It even rained for a short time, which actually reduced the temperature to a more comfortable level. During days at sea, the ship usually offers interesting and timely lectures about points on our itinerary. This morning, we attended a talk about how the islands of the Pacific were populated. Evidently, Polynesians moved between islands with the advice of an individual called a Wayfarer, who knew where to go and how to get there based upon criteria developed over time: the positions of the stars, presence or characteristics of clouds, flight patterns of land birds, and ocean swell patterns. This knowledge of navigation was almost lost to the Polynesian people during the modern era, but efforts have been made to revive and practice these skills. The afternoon talk was about Spaniards who first explored the Amazon, killing as many natives along the way as possible. So disgusting.

The captain told us we would be crossing the equator early the next morning, so we didn’t feel the need to be up to witness that.

January 13: Manta, Ecuador.

The excursion today introduced us to several different aspects of Ecuadorian culture. We visited a fishing village, participated in a cooking demonstration and tasting, watched craftspeople make Panama hats, and observed the operation of a company which uses the nut of a native palm to make buttons, jewelry, and souvenirs. Each experience was informative and interesting, but in addition to what we learned about our various destinations, we experienced aspects of life in Ecuador which might not make the tourist brochures. First of all, we were struck by how friendly the people were. Where have we ever been where people always waved at a passing tourist bus? That was delightful, and we all waved back. We spent a lot of time driving between the different locations and got a good look at living conditions: homes and business buildings seem to be poorly constructed, there are unfinished construction projects everywhere, many large lots have been scraped off to the bare dirt and are sitting vacant, litter and garbage are everywhere. I think what bothered us most is that there seems to be no eye for design, no attempt to make the public spaces, such as roundabouts or road shoulders or front yards, pleasing to inhabit or even drive by. We never drove through areas with middle-class homes or business parks or shopping malls. Maybe they do exist, but we missed them.

 

January 5-8, 2015 – Days at Sea

Preparing to cruise around the world and leave our lives and families and friends for four months brought us a new set of challenges. In order to keep track of everything, we had enough lists, spreadsheets, and notes to start our own library. Thinking about the possibility of being without ready access to technology has been a particular concern. But here we are.

So what’s it like being on a ship again? It’s easy and very comfortable. We know where everything is and enjoy our familiar lounging spots, familiar types of crew people, familiar foods, having familiar experiences. The sea has been beautiful. But the weather and the water have changed every day. The sea and sky are always blue, with some whitecaps and puffy white clouds. But over the past few days, the temperature has become warmer and the sea has become rougher. Watching the waves break into rainbows has been a thrill. The sunlight and moonlight often put sparkles in the water. These changes are keeping us from getting bored and are giving us new experiences to share. We have spent a lot of time either sitting in lounge chairs on the deck or walking around and around the deck (3.5 times around makes a one mile). Doing this for the next 4 months will not be a problem.

Some things have surprised us, however:

  • That so many people have done this world cruise more than once. Some have even done it multiple times. We can see the appeal of being on a ship for long periods but want our travel plans to have more time on land.
  • That we remain at dinner talking with our tablemates for almost 2 hours every night. On other cruises, we have usually become friendly with the people at our table but acknowledge that it’s always a possibility that we won’t have good chemistry. This time, we’re lucky again, and we’ve enjoyed sharing our lives with these new people: Juliana and Roger of Martha’s Vineyard and Don and Judy of New Mexico.
  • That we have not been spending our time as we had planned. Denise was going to work on organizing her family photos, and Susan was going to make a hand-sewn quilt. Instead, we have been attending activities offered by the ship, such as lectures about South American history, high tea (which involves tea and scones with clotted cream and jam), and classes in drawing and technology. And we have spent a lot of time outside, either walking or reading or just watching the water and the sky. There’s still time to get busy, of course, but maybe we won’t want to.