Monday, May 9, 2016

Wanderlust Wrap Up

Now that I'm home and have finally whittled the mountain of laundry down to a manageable molehill, I thought I'd go back through our pictures and share two islands I didn't get posted while I was on the ship.

First up, the pearl of the Pacific--Tahiti!

Captain Van Eerten juggled our schedule around so that we went to Tahiti before Mo'orea. It was an absolute necessity because the ship had to take on more fuel and supplies. I suppose this was because there was a typhoon swirling over Fiji and we might have had to skip Mo'orea and make a run for San Diego. But the storm only swatted us with its outer arms.

Tahiti is the largest island in the French Polynesian chain with the highest peak. This gorgeous place is home to most of the inhabitants, almost 200,000 of them. The interior of the island still pretty inaccessible. People live in the capital city of Pape'ete and along the single road hugging the reef-sheltered coasts.

We took a bus tour along that route and stopped at a beautiful botanical garden. It was drizzling for most of our jaunt through the rain forest, which made it difficult for my DH. He was wearing my portable oxygen concentrator on his back. It was both heavy and hot, but he didn't complain.

God bless the man!

The flowers were gorgeous, though I can't tell you their names, and small crabs scuttled across the path as we pushed through the greenery. It felt and smelled very primeval.

The path was nicely graveled, but as humid and hot as it was, it felt like we were going uphill both ways! 

Forget the umbrella. Not a single square inch of me is dry. 

But finding this secluded waterfall was well worth the slog into the rainforest to get there. 

We visited the Museum of Tahiti and learned about the volcanic birth of the islands and how their reefs were formed. Polynesian culture is fascinating and I'm still in awe of the courage it took to head out in double hull canoes with only the navigational skill of their Wayfinder to guide them. These ancient wayfarers used the stars, weather patterns, sea birds, and changes in water color and direction to point them toward land.

Much was said about the time French Impressionist Paul Gaugin spent in Tahiti. None of his canvases remain on the island, but I can certainly see why he found the place inspiring.

A mere 12 mile ferry ride away lies the enchanting island of Mo'orea. The movie The Bounty (with Mel Gibson & Anthony Hopkins) was set on these shores, When I stepped out onto our veranda shortly after the Westerdam dropped anchor, the sheer beauty of the place made the back of my throat ache. I was so grateful to be there, to see that grandeur, to breathe in that moist green air. It made me weep. Even in drizzly weather, it is truly the most beautiful island I've ever seen. 

We took a "round the island" tour with a strange little bus driver named Albert. He told us he had 3 wives (all at the same time!), 12 children and more grandkids than he could remember. The highlight of the trip was this lookout point about 3000 ft up the mountains looking down on the twin bays. You can barely make out the Westerdam at anchor in the mist.(It's that rectangular object in the water.)

In the early morning, the island is awash in shades of slate and gray.

As in the southern part of the US, pineapples mean welcome!

The vanilla flower, sweet, simple and difficult to pollinate. 

The influence of French settlers is easy to see.

A giant in the mist...

At the end of the 30 days, we weren't tired of the ship, but we were missing our family, our pets and our own bed! It was a wonderful experience and we feel so blessed to have been able to celebrate our 40th anniversary in this way.

But, we're not the sort to rest on our travel laurels. We've already booked cruises to the western Caribbean in January 2017 and then we're off to Alaska in September of the same year. Then in 2018, we'll try Cunard for the first time and take the 21 day sale out of New York to Norway and back on the Queen Mary 2!

Wishing you safe journeys and a snug harbor, my friends...

Monday, May 2, 2016

Morbid Much?

So now we're home from the wonderful trip to French Polynesia. The cruise was amazing and I feel so very blessed to have been able to make the voyage, even with all my O2 equipment in tow.

However, not everyone who steps onto a cruise ship walks off. I'm not talking about the sad incident where a mother of 4 fell off the railing on a Carnival Cruise recently and was never found. I'm talking about those who die of natural causes on board.

I'd never thought about it much until we had lunch one day with a fellow and his wife who brought up the subject. He was telling about a different cruise where they'd been struck by how often the fresh flowers that decorate the dining tables, common areas and staterooms were changed. They'd never seen so many arrangements on board before. When they asked a crew member about it, he admitted that they'd had more people die on the trip than they'd planned for so they had to make more room in the cooler for the extra bodies.

Planned for?

Yes. Cruise lines plan for everything. After all, people have been dying at sea for millennia and not all of them have been buried at sea. Admiral Nelson's body, for example, was brought home after the Battle of Trafalgar in a barrel filled with brandy.  Now cruise ships estimate how much refrigerated space they'll need to return deceased passengers to their home port.

In the Q&A session with the captain, he admitted that during the 111-day Round the World cruise, they expect 4 deaths. Given the demographic of passengers who can afford such a cruise and have the leisure time to take it, I'm not surprised.

And I'm not sad either. We all have to die somewhere. Why not shuffle off this mortal coil while you're having an adventure?

If I have anything to say about it, I'll finish up a cruise in a refrigerator someday. And I'll smile down from heaven while everyone else enjoys the extra flowers...

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Shared Experiences Make Fast Friends

We were assigned to a dining table for evening meals at the beginning of our cruise. This is always a crap shoot. Sometimes you get compatible and interesting table mates, like the time we were seated with a pair of WWII vets. Sometimes you get people who try to coerce you into their interests, like the fellow who was obsessed with something called "pickle ball" and wouldn't rest until the DH met him on the sports deck for a game.

This time we were fortunate to be placed with Bruce and Judy from California. 

Between the four of us, we've solved the world's problems over dinner several times and often linger over our desert for the joy of continuing our pleasant conversations. So we decided to meet on Nuku Hiva, our last port of call, for a walk-about together.  

I was a little leery about this island because of its head-hunting past and not-so-distant incidence of possible cannibalism. (In 2011, a German tourist went missing and was later found dead under very mysterious circumstances.) But I was pleasantly surprised when we stepped off the tender. The islanders were friendly and the town of Taiohae clean and well-kept.

Still, we kept within sight of the Westerdam...

But this was mostly because it was so very hot and humid that walking too far in those conditions was difficult for me. My portable oxygen concentrator has to work overtime to provide the support I need when there's so much moisture in the air. But we managed to make it far enough down the beach to find a monument to French sailors who died in a battle in those waters in the early 1800's. They must have felt like they'd come to the end of the world. I know I feel a fresh appreciation for the monumental size of the Pacific and I have the benefit of a state of the art cruise ship under my feet instead of a 19th century tall ship.

The waterfront is dotted with numerous carvings. They're so primitive, they appear strangely modern. 

And since I started this post talking about dinner companions, I'll end it with a pic of one of the unique entrees I've enjoyed on the cruise. This is Nasi Goreng, an Indonesian dish. It's pork satay, spicy chicken and beef Sumatra on a bed of fried rice. It's garnished with scallions, red onion, cucumbers and a julienne omelet. The thing that looks like a fried pig's ear is actually a prawn cracker. Yum!

If you haven't already, let me invite you to sign up for my author newsletter. Once I get home, my newsletter readers will be receiving a number of recipes I've collected from the Cuisinary Arts Center on board. I'll also be sharing more pictures from our trip once I'm back on our home wifi. 

It takes F-O-R-E-V-E-R for photos to download here on the ship. 

Thanks for coming along with me on the voyage!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sacred Spaces

As long as humans have lived on this planet, we've looked up into the night sky and longed to talk to the One who made the stars. Like Jacob, who set up a stone after he dreamed about a ladder reaching to heaven, we tend to mark certain places that have given us a sense of special connection to the divine.

Since it's Sunday, I thought I'd share a few pics of this sort of place from several of our very soggy shore excursions. We'll be island hopping a bit.

This first picture is of St. Benedict's from the Big Island of Hawai'i. The church structure was built around 1899 and then a Belgian missionary priest painted the interior scenes (with house paint of all things!) There are idyllic scenes of creation and, in stark contrast, a truly nightmarish depiction of hell on the opposite section of the walls. All the painting has been recently touched up, except for the view of the underworld. Evidently, its purpose is fulfilled without additional embellishment.
Belshazzar's feast--Note the handwriting on the wall...

A closer view of the altar (without anonymous heads in the way!)

Jesus rejecting the temptations of Satan

Hell (Sort of needs no explanation, doesn't it?)

The church is still in use by an active congregation. There is a a sweet stillness about it and the green gardens around it add to the peacefulness of the place.

Also near Kona, there is a special place of refuge called Pu'uhonua o Honaunau. If someone broke a kapu, such as letting your shadow fall on the chief's land, there was no trial. The ancient Hawaiians had no prisons. The punishment for any infraction was death.


If you could reach a pu'uhonau, you could be forgiven and after 3 days released without further punishment. Of course, this particular pu'uhonau was bounded on all landward sides by the chief's land, so there was no walking to it. An offender must take his chances in the shark infested surf in order to escape his death sentence.

When Christian missionaries came, most of the places of refuge were torn down, but this one survived fairly intact. Several members of the Hawaiian royal family are buried there.
More lava than sand on this beach

The carved posts guarding the place of refuge were fierce-looking.

Ancient double hull canoe

Between the surf, the sharks and the lava that would slash a swimmer's feet once he staggered to shore, finding refuge was not for the faint of heart. But the site was dedicated to life, so human sacrifice was not performed on the grounds.

The same cannot be said for other marae. We saw these volcanic rock open air temples on nearly every island we visited, but the one on Tahiti, the main island of French Polynesia, was the largest and most complex.

This marae was guarded by large male and female tiki figures. The statues are not worshipped as gods, but are thought to hold mana (power) during the rituals. The ancient Tahitians had many gods and the rites performed here were to placate them and urge them to aid the people in some special undertaking--a war with a neighboring tribe or a migration to a new island. Only men were allowed inside the marae, but lest we ladies feel put upon about that, remember that the person chosen for sacrifice was picked from those inside the stone walls.

Clearly, this was not a time to be on the outs with the priests!

Tiki figures were not worshipped. Instead they were thought to hold mana or power, which could be tapped into.  I'm sad to report that some of my fellow passengers made fun of the figures by taking pictures of themselves imitating the posture and expression of the statues. I had to wonder how they'd feel if a Tahitian visited their hometown, went to sites that were dear to them and laughed at their culture or beliefs.  

Now most Polynesians are Christian, about 80% Protestant and 20% Catholic. We were delighted to hear the same table prayer we use sung in Hawaiian. While we're loving this trip and totally enjoying the ship, I have to admit I miss my church. But God, a personal, eternal, omnipotent God, is here in the middle of the Pacific. And however imperfectly we understand Him, however inadequate our worship, He's already reached down to us.

He's just waiting for us to reach up.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Something Cancelled, Something Gained

This morning we learned that our Glass Bottom Boat excursion on Bora Bora was cancelled due to bad weather (read: occasional torrential downpours!) and poor visibility. However, we refused to let a little thing like that get us down. Who knows when or if we'll ever see this island again? As long as the ship's tenders were running, we were bound and determined to have an adventure!

On shore, we found a nice young man named Bruce who offered us a circle of the island tour in his air conditioned Land Rover. He was born on Vanau (the real name of the island of Bora Bora.) His father is an American who came here to run one of the fabulous resorts, and ended up marrying a Tahitian woman. Bruce speaks English, French, Spanish, and Tahitian. He's married and has two beautiful kids.

We learned that formal education ends at age 16 here in the islands and there is no university on Bora Bora. Many people used to work in the tourism industry, but since 9/11, the number of visitors has dropped considerably. There are easily a half dozen resorts standing empty and employing only enough groundskeepers to keep the vegetation from taking over the buildings.

Bruce says that other than needing to pay for water (which is provided by the French government through an expensive desalinization plant) and electricity (also through the government) many people have few bills. The government provides health care, including medications. The residents grow their own fruit and vegetables. They raise chickens and hogs. They fish in the abundant waters around the island. And, I'm sorry to have to tell you, they also enjoy eating wild dog. We saw dozens of these miserable creatures slinking around the island. But this is the culture and I can only thank God I've never been hungry enough to eat dog.

The island is spectacular, lush and heavily overgrown. Multiple waterfalls cascade down the steep mountainsides. The lovely, calm interior bay is actually an ancient caldera, the remains of the volcano that gave birth to the island.

During WWII, the US military had a strong presence in French Polynesia. There are still man-made caves that housed cannon to defend the harbor. And in what seems to us today an astonishing disregard for the environment, the harbor was made easier for destroyers to enter by blowing up part of the reef.  Of course, it also made it easier for our cruise ship to visit, too.

As wonderful as the scenery is, the people are even more lovely. We stopped at one road-side shop operated by a family. They offered us samples of fresh coconut, breadfruit and grapefruit. I passed on the grapefruit, but the breadfruit was amazing--like nothing I've ever tasted before. A truly unusual texture as well.

Here's the DH taking a sip of extremely fresh coconut milk. The natives use every bit of the plant, from fiber to weave into necklaces and use as tinder to fermenting the shells into coconut oil for use in skin treatments. We also watched the natives use flowers and other plants to create dyes for the sarongs the island women wear.

The welcoming committee

Bruce prepares fresh coconut for us.

WWII canon cave

This older resort was once owned by Marlon Brando!

There's a reason the island is so lush and green. Liquid sunshine falls in abundance!

We also visited Bloody Mary's Bar (think Rogers & Hammerstein's South Pacific!) and walked along a stretch of golden sand, letting the warm waters of the ocean caress our calves. The tour was so much better, so much richer an experience than riding in a Glass Bottom Boat.

Today reminded me that it's foolish to be upset if your plans have to change. Life is filled with moments when things don't go our way.

But it doesn't have to mean things can't be even better than we'd planned. We had a ball on Bora Bora!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Taking in the Local Culture...

Last night we tied up to the pier on Raiatea and for the first time in over 10 days, slept without the pitch and roll of our "water bed." This morning we wakened to a veritable anvil chorus of roosters--each of them trying to out-scream each other. Evidently, the birds roam freely, like on Kauai.

After breakfast in our cabin, we hurried off the ship to see what we could. Because of the rain and worsening conditions, ALL the Holland America excursions were cancelled. But that didn't stop the Raiateans from giving us a very warm welcome just a few blocks away from the ship. Part of the charm of travel is seeing how other people live, how they celebrate what makes them unique. Here's just a taste of what we experienced:

We were so glad we braved the rain! 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

In Praise of Travel Insurance

This is the first time we decided to buy travel insurance for our cruise. Even though we hope not to use it, I have to admit it gives me real peace of mind. Especially after what happened this morning...

We've been at sea for a number of days (Read: Since we left Kona, Hawai'i and breezed past Fanning Island without stopping, I don't remember the last time the floor wasn't rocking under my feet!) But as we came alongside the windward side of the beautiful island of Rarotonga, I didn't hold out much hope. There's no pier here, so the cruise ship has to drop anchor, lower the tenders (which double as life boats) and ferry passengers to shore in groups of 120 or so.

The captain did his best. He tried several different times to situate the Westerdam so she wouldn't drift in the rolling swells. The anchor wouldn't hold. The tenders were pitching so violently alongside, there was no way they could allow non-crew members to make the leap from the platform near the waterline into the open tender hatch. One misstep and someone could be crushed between the tender and the ship. So the captain cancelled the port of call.

However, the crew of the Westerdam put half a dozen tenders into the water to ferry in the donations the ship had intended to leave at Fanning Island. The Red Cross on Rarotonga was happy to meet them at the dock to receive the goods and promised to try to send some of it to Fanning. Then one of the passengers, who's medical situation was more than the ship's infirmary could deal with, was lifted carefully on a gurney and taken by tender to the waiting ambulance, and an emergency medical airlift to Australia. 

Let me be quick to say that cruising is one of the best ways for someone with health challenges to travel. There are a number of guests who, like me, require supplemental O2. There are many wheelchairs and motorized scooters on board. There are even a few blind passengers. The crew bends over backward to help. And the fact that there is a fully staffed medical center with doctors and nurses, x-ray machines and all sorts of bells and whistles, means they can take care of lots of things that come up.

But when they can't, the Holland American line moves heaven and earth to get their guests to on shore help. And that's where travel insurance comes in. 

If, God forbid, something happened that required Brian or I to need to be airlifted home, the insurance we bought will spend up to a million dollars to get us there. Since we're sort of in the middle of nowhere, (the Pacific Ocean is the largest geographic feature on the planet, after all!) emergency medical flights from here might just run up to that. It's comforting to know we've got it covered just in case.

So now we're on our way to Raiatea and real pier. It's almost time for another splendid supper in the Vista dining room and the show tonight is an Elton John impersonator. We should recognize a lot of the songs. 

Even if we haven't been able to walk the beaches on Rarotonga, life is good. And we feel very safe on the Westerdam. 

No day at the Raratongan beach

But it's all good. After missing two ports in succession, Holland America has offered us all a credit toward a future cruise equal to 15% of what we paid for this trip! The cruise line can't be held responsible for poor weather conditions, but they want to keep their passengers happy and loyal. So we're splurging on a Signature Suite for our September 2017 Alaskan cruise on the Eurodam

Hope you'll check out my North to Alaska! blog.