RTW Travelog

The Sky Is Crying

Posted on: Monday, February 26th, 2001
Posted in: RTW Travelog, Blog, Los Angeles | Leave a comment
  • Los Angeles.

By 1 in the morning on Saturday, we were flying away from the Cook Islands. By noon the same day, we were in L.A. Kirk’s aunt met us at the airport, and also brought the news that Kirk’s grandma had passed away the day before.

Death happens, and there’s probably no good time for it. But when e-updates started hinting that Grandma was failing, I said, in a moment of strange and selfish faith, “I think she’ll wait ‘til we get home.” As if punctual until the end, she died hours before we hit American soil. Naturally, that put a damper on our California visit. And the sky responded in-kind with rain the whole 48 hours we were there.

We pursued some low-key activities nonetheless—eating seafood, driving around the charming neighborhoods of Long Beach and points south, and visiting the aquarium. But the sky cried so hard that Pacific Coast Highway 1 became flooded. So we mostly took it easy, and saved sightseeing for sunnier times.

Grandma’s passing provides a timely reminder why, despite obvious costs, we indulge in temporary retirement now and then. Because even if you live long like she did, life is short. Because you have little control over when it ends. And because, for the most part, the world is a radiant place full of people who want to meet you. So it doesn’t hurt to get up, get out, and get away while you can.

Grandma was gregarious. Even in her final years, all she needed was a public bench and she’d likely have an acquaintance within minutes. That kind of old-fashioned openness and trust may be fading in a rushed and anxious era. But maybe not. As we traveled, we found that whoever was our new neighbor usually became a new friend. We rarely (never?) had to feel lost or lonely. And even when we didn’t speak the language, a greeting usually got one back.

So while we were intimidated by our own ambitious itinerary, there was little else to scare us out there. We encountered no holdups, thefts, or prejudice. Heck, only one airplane was late—less than an hour, and we lost no luggage. The only bad vibes we can recall, in fact, were three honks at Kirk’s campervan driving (and he probably deserved many more).

We’re not pollyannaish. And this trip could have gone 100 other directions. But it didn’t, and we had a world-class quest. Meanwhile, we also created this weblog, wrote a book, discovered some sweet places, and rediscovered how much fun time together can be.

We could go on—in our travels, about our travels, and about Grandma too. But it’s time to go home. First, though, we have one more trip that wasn’t on the original itinerary: to the prairies of South Dakota to say good-bye to someone who could make you believe that, oh yes, you can go around the world. A robust spirit who was always an inspiration is now a guardian angel.

Then it’s back to Minnesota, back to work, and back to other symptoms of normalcy. That includes anonymity. So to whatever extent our lives have been on display (should anyone be watching), we now close the curtains.

Thanks for joining us. Wherever you may be headed, happy travels. And Godspeed.

Ending with a Whimper

Posted on: Saturday, February 24th, 2001
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  • Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

As we share travelogs and photos, we try to tell it like it is. We strive not to write like some photocopied Christmas letters that rave, brag, and boast—and instead endeavor to describe what we see over how we feel. (After all, the snowbound, the overworked, and the vacation-deprived probably don’t want to read about global gloating.) But for the most part, we have had a wonderful trip. So forgive us if it appears we got lucky, played our cards right, or received good karma from the travel gods. But if you think we’re incapable of dirtying our rose-colored glasses, read on.

The list of minor snafus on Rarotonga made up for our good fortune elsewhere. And while we liked the place a lot, we’re not entirely sure it liked us. Here are just a few of our misadventures.

  • That’s sick. One of us caught a—cold? Flu? Both? It lasted for days and made one of us a suffering nuisance. Another of us got the “Bali Belli,” the type that sends your vacation straight to the toilet. That same person, he who loves to snorkel, then took on a double ear infection with side effects of deafness, orneriness, shots in the bum, and fear of flying.
  • Wild weather. When the hurricane and/or cyclone wasn’t rocking the island, the heat and humidity were unlike anything we’ve ever experienced (and A.C. is as rare as snow shovels here). Afternoon activities were best left to seeking shade and a fast fan. What do you expect in the tropics in the summer? Guess we never asked.
  • Transportation funk. It’s possible we could have had worse luck with catching (missing) busses, being left behind from tour groups (including at 2 am), and biking in the rain—but it’s not likely.
  • Ants, the true story. Amazingly, there were few mozzies, sandflies, cockroaches, or the other usual insect suspects. That must be because they all got eaten by the little red ants. They invaded our hut by the millions so relentlessly that, eventually, we gave up fighting them. And yes, they bite.
  • Attitude adjustment. For the most part, the Islanders are beatific, beautiful people; if you ask a stranger for directions, her smile can make you melt. Conversely, though, often when you ask a receptionist a simpler question, you got the glare, the stare, or the snarl. It’s understandable: A career of serving itinerant sun-worshipers would burn anyone out. But it got tiring for those of us who’ve never been here, and were just trying to find our way.

There’s more, but you get the picture. We don’t feel terribly defeated. And we would still recommend this lost-in-time slice of the South Pacific. But when on the move, you need to find a groove. And here, it seems like we were too hot or tired or sick to sustain one.

Travelling with Children, The Gripping Conclusion

Posted on: Friday, February 23rd, 2001
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  • Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

It’s nearly time to go home. On some level, we’re all relieved. (Slightly.) After four months without serious incident, snafu, or illness, there’s little need to push luck anymore.

Not to mention, one tires of reading guidebooks’ travel warnings, disease descriptions, and local etiquette suggestions. Back home, we either know all that stuff or live happily oblivious to it.

Speaking of oblivious, that’s certainly been one of the dividends of travelling with a child. He who turns four the day after we get home frets not that his countless scrapes could invite infection. He cares less that the mosquitoes who love his tender flesh could carry dengue. He hardly notices when planes are delayed, mountain roads get slippery, or a hurricane catapults coconuts at the hut in the middle of the night.

The lesson here is obvious. But when travelling, one can’t learn it enough times; there’s still this terrible temptation to try control the fates. Children don’t. And yet they can sense your tension as easily as your smile. Thus with a kid along, you pursue the only sensible response to getting stuck in an airport: You break out the Legos, hop on the floor, and start constructing spaceships (that are always on time and never break down). Pity the people who pace, paw at their face, and spit demands at flight attendants. Their spaceship may never come in.

So we have adopted “No worries” as a travel mantra—the NZ version of “No problem.” The youngster says it the most convincingly. And when you look at the situation through his eyes, you realize he’s probably right. Even if he’s not, what good does worrying do, anyway?

He also deserves credit for taking us to most friends we’ve made. Early in the trip, he learned to introduce himself, and did so at least a hundred times in dozens of places. If a game of any kind was in progress, he’s say, “Can I play too?” The answer was always affirmative—which proved to be a bit startling when he took to playing soccer with a gang of pubescent, cig-smoking teens. But they didn’t seem to mind. And his confidence continually reminded us that if you don’t reach out, you miss out.

Yet with him as our family ambassador, we hardly needed to. It was he who made acquaintance with the bloke who took Kirk fishing the next day. He made first contact with the family who later hosted us in Auckland. He quickly befriended our Canadian neighbors in Rarotonga, which led to hours of front-porch socializing. And he started the sandcastle with the Danes who were so much fun that we rewrote our itinerary to enjoy a few more days with them.

In that case, their boy and ours played happily together for hours on end—allowing all of us parents to hang out and have fun too. The boys spoke different languages, so they created their own or relied on the language of laughter. And that has happened with families who speak German, Dutch, Maori, and more. It’s happened with kids whose parents were covered in tattoos, long hair, and religious garb. If you wonder whether we’re all really the same deep down, just look to the children. They don’t know that the DNA that differentiates people is less than two-tenths of one percent. But they act like they do.

They also know how to adapt—and learn—much faster than we stubborn oldsters. The things the young man has picked up would make a long, long list. It would include that, although he can’t swim, he can snorkel (without fins, even) for a half-hour in waters way over his head. He knows no laws, but understands that you stand still when going through Customs and Immigration. He can’t read a map, but he tries—and he knows where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going next.

That’s home. There, it’s just a short walk down the hall to the room where all his old toys await—and leisurely beach strolls in search of the perfect shell will fade into reminiscence like high tide back to the sea. There, the kitchen and pantry will get restuffed and ready to feed us—since walking to the village for a fresh peach and scone is no longer an option. There, daycare and preschool can again lend necessary support—but they’ll also remove the chance to nap together every afternoon.

Still, away we go. To that place that, on the beachball globe, is the same place we started. It seems silly now, though, to call it “home.” Because home is hardly a specific state or structure. Nor is it where you lay your head. It’s wherever you and your loved ones are, especially if you’re healthy, happy, and at one with the world around you.

As the boy exclaims after we finish doing something fun, “Can we do that again someday?!” The answer, as usual, is yes. Yes. Someday, yes.

Speech Impediments 3

Posted on: Thursday, February 22nd, 2001
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  • Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

We’ve gotten used to saying “Excuse me?” now. Although English is spoken most anywhere, the permutations are endless. Humor is particularly hard to render, as I found one evening in Malaysia, when Miss Esther (a kind and omnipresent hotel employee) was advising me on what to wear before heading out for the evening.

I was in shorts, and sensing that she might think that inappropriate (never mind the oppressive heat and humidity), I asked her if she thought shorts were all right. “Well, if you’ll be in a restaurant, long pants might be better, Mr. Horsted.” Sorry I’d asked, I responded, “Well, okay, I’ll change. But I have found that even when I’m in shorts, people will still take my money.” Apparently, she understood that only literally. She looked shocked, then sadly demure, and then turned away. I put on pants—and attempted no more humor. Or humour, for that matter.

Here in the Cook Islands, the natives definitely run the place—but most can speak an English similar to their sister nation, New Zealand. There are still variations and, of course, and some Maori words for which there are no substitutes. So you even learn a few Maori words over time. Not to mention, they speak mostly Maori to each other. (When I asked a bartender to call me a cab, he grabbed a friend to translate, called me a cab, and then had the friend tell me, “Five minutes.”) We’ll spare you a Maori lesson. But here are a few more examples of English in action.

  • Stuffed up (Finished, ruined)
  • Talkback radio (Talk radio)
  • Upmarket (Upscale)
  • Anti-clockwise (Counter-clockwise)
  • Pushbike (Bike)
  • Motorbike (Motorcycle)
  • Canoe (Kayak)
  • Ginchies (Underwear)
  • Mozzies (Mosquitoes)
  • Maths (Math)
  • Lolly (Candy)
  • Return (Roundtrip)
  • Migrants (Immigrants)
  • “Hey?” (“Huh?”)
  • Brolly (Umbrella)
  • Hoover (Vacuum cleaner)
  • Floor (Ground)
  • Hardly (Hard)
  • Bum (Butt)
  • Hooligan (Bum)
  • Takeaway (Takeout)

Happy Hurricane!

Posted on: Tuesday, February 20th, 2001
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  • Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

The last thing one wants to endure in the tropics is a hurricane, but we got a taste nonetheless. For about three days, rain and wind made life in paradise appear pretty unpleasant after all. Then, after a day of hut-shaking, ear-breaking gales, the news came down: Hurricane Oma was only 180 miles southwest of our island, and we were caught in its tail—and a cyclone was wagging within it.

Thatch blew off the roofs, which leaked from every angle and soaked every towel. Palm trees went sideways, and threw coconuts around like so many popcorn kernels. Then the seas grew great waves that began washing over roads throughout the island. Next, naturally, came downed trees, electricity outages, closed roads, wrecked boats, and the loss of one of two radio stations that provided warnings and updates. Somewhere in the middle of all that, the “adventure” part wore thin. Even the most intrepid tourists who ventured out on motorscooters during breaks in the rain would return moments later with far less sense of humor.

Luckily, the gales began mellowing that evening. And this hopping, little island encountered its quietest night of the tourist season, if not the year. As for us, we weathered it like everyone else: The first few days, we griped and groaned and swam and snorkeled anyway. But when the “H” word, the “C” word, and evacuation instructions became the banter of the day, we opted to lay low. Boil pasta; play Scrabble; and remind yourself that these things usually pass.

It did. The next day, Rarotongans young and old picked up the pieces with amazing speed and aplomb—and then set all the debris on fire, adding a layer of surreal smoke to the post-storm scene. Squalls continued, humidity soared, and the merciless sun returned. But we never complained about the weather here again.

Local Color—and Lots of It

Posted on: Monday, February 19th, 2001
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  • Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

Tropical islands rarely go for the earth tones that permeate the palette in Minnesota and much of the rest of the world. In fact, anything that’s on display needs to compete with flowers, lagoons, and the bright colors people wear.

That’s just the literal definition of color, or course. But the more metaphorical is equally flamboyant, as evidenced here.

Go to Church

Posted on: Sunday, February 18th, 2001
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  • Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

As we travelled NZ, people who heard we were coming to Rarotonga would say, “Go to church.” They say it here, too. So we did—never mind that services are in Maori. It was breathtaking. Our church of choice was 150 years old, yet wore white paint as new as the day. All youth were also in all white; all ladies wore large hats; and the men took turns preaching.

But the real attraction was the singing—rafter-raising stuff that the Maoris have been doing since long before the islands went Christian (and boy, did they!) in the 19th century. Hymnals were not to be found. Harmonies knew no bounds. And for two hours and twenty minutes, not one person in that packed church looked bored or out of place.

Island Night

Posted on: Saturday, February 17th, 2001
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  • Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

On Rarotonga, every night is island night. There are many traditional dancing troupes, plus fire dancers, drum groups, and musical bands. At first blush, one assumes that, on an island of only 11,000 people, most of these performances must be small, phony, or both. Wrong. This island may depend on tourism for income, but they depend on dancing for camaradarie and release.

The guidebooks state that THIS is the island to see Polynesian dancing; they take it seriously here, yet nothing else brings them as much joy. That was clear in their faces—from the one-year-old that kept wandering on stage to shake her nappies to the grandpa who pounded the drum all evening. We saw a few shows—including one that highlighted the children’s troupes. We, too, were left shimmying our hips and knocking our knees.

Saturday Morning Market

Posted on: Saturday, February 17th, 2001
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  • Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

When you can’t find lettuce on the island, everyone says, “Go to the Saturday market.” When you want fresh tuna steaks, same. If you’re after crafts and good photos, dittos. So we got up early and wandered along with other locals and tourists.

An occasional squall did little to dampen the spirits of shoppers and curiousity seekers. And we came home with armloads of the fruits of the tropics.

Arriving at Rarotonga

Posted on: Friday, February 2nd, 2001
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  • Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

After relinquishing our campervan in Christchurch, NZ, we spent another day airborne and flew off to Rarotonga, a volcanic reef-rimmed atoll in the South Pacific. En route, we crossed the international date line and instantly gained 24 hours—just when we had begun to get the go-homes and count down the days.

We’ve had to search the globe and go through 20 time zones, but it appears we’ve finally found the middle of nowhere. That’s an exaggeration, of course, since there are 11,000 residents and at least as many tourists here—plus cel phones, ATMs, and internet service. But there are also omnipresent wild chickens, miles of untouched reef, and a few tribes that still run things and haven’t agreed (or allowed intermarriage) for, well, hundreds of years. “It’s like Hawaii was 30 years ago,” say the experienced tropical travelers. By that, we assume, they mean it’s hot. It’s the peak of summer in the southern tropics, after all, so the island is like one big greenhouse, and we’re mere snow cones melting inside it. We’ll share some more sights soon after we cool off and explore. But here’s a first impression.