Thursday, August 4, 2011

Our final aloha - Sunday, July 31, 2011

We left Waikiki at 5:00 AM for the beginning of our 11 hrs. of flight time home. Hawaii is invigorating and peaceful, at the same time, offering relaxation and unlimited opportunities to either separate oneself from ones money or to “party ‘til the cows come home“! It’s a place full of choices.

After checking our baggage, we bid our farewells to David,our excellent Honolulu guide, and proceeded to the gate for our early flight in the hopes of making our LAX connection in time. FYI, American Airlines does not serve any food whatsoever on their flights, including those of extended duration. So, we fortified ourselves with bagels and boarded the plane. Branden, another veteran friend from the waiting area, told us he has never left Honolulu on we waited. Naturally, Branden and Mater became fast friends!

Lo and behold, the children sitting next to us on the first flight are playing with…drum roll, please… none other than…MATER and some of his friends! I struck up a conversation with the mom explaining our travels with Mater and asked permission to take some photos. She loved the idea and, as the very active children sitting behind us joined Tyler and his trucks, I took some photos to add to Mater’s memories. It’s simply serendipitous that our little tow truck companion is among his peers once again - a reunion of sorts, really! - as his human companions also return to family and friends who have never left our hearts and minds and whose familiarity brings warm comfort to our hungry, wandering souls. Tyler had a hard time saying goodbye to Mater but, in the end, all was well!

While the hosts and hostesses on the flights were less than friendly and accommodating, this first leg of our two flights home was uneventful and, as expected, barren of nourishment. We left Honolulu @10 minutes early, much to Branden's shock, and arrived in LAX with limited time to race to our next departing gate, treating everyone in the airport to a “Home Alone” run of urgency s0 as not to miss the last available flight home. We arrived at the gate in time to board the plane and get settled in our seats. But Jamie was hungry and was determined to get a meal so she approached the steward telling him that unless they wanted her passed out from lack of food, they had to allow her to get a meal to take on the plane. After all, it was a long time without food and what were they thinking not offering food or stocking enough on the plane for purchase?! He informed her that she had exactly 9 minutes and she took off in pursuit of the “spot-on” “last supper“. According to Jamie, she tore through the terminal toward Burger King yelling, “Coming through! Excuse me! Excuse me!” and finally hit her mark. Running to the front of the line and relocating those already in line a bit further back, she informed the BK employee of her situation and ordered hamburgers and French fries for all of us! Thank goodness for some understanding patrons! Grabbing the bag, she repeated her pleas of “Coming through! Excuse me! Excuse me!” to those in her way, finding more aggression in herself than she realized she had and returned to the gate agent in…8 minutes! Meanwhile, I was counting people and knew I had seen Jamie board the plane but couldn’t find her now. I was not concerned because her daughter’s seat was next to her and she did not seem concerned of her mother’s absence and then we saw her…Jamie busily working her way down the aisle triumphantly carrying bags of Burger King with burgers and fries for us all! What a welcome and generous surprise she offered! We greedily consumed our gifts as the passengers around us simply oozed with drooling envy! Leftover French fries were offered to our group and with no takers (after all, we were full now!), Jamie announced their availability to the entire cabin. While I am certain most of those hearing this wanted to take advantage of the offer, none did until I spotted the young man sitting behind Jamie with a longing look. When asked, he happily accepted them and all was right with the world. Thanks, Jamie for your heroic and entertaining efforts!

The LAX to JFK flight went quickly for me while chatting with friends remembering our adventures and reviewing the blog and photos. Such wonderful memories we all have!

We arrived in NY on time, collected our luggage and found our driver to take us home, but not before meeting Heather‘s daughter, Jocelyn. Heather’s husband, Chris, was picking her up to take her home to CT and brought their little treasure to welcome her mommy home. Jamie had the bonus of a short reunion with her granddaughter and well…Does it really get any better than that?! It was yet another moment to remember! Animated conversation accompanied us on our trip home. Karen and Ken left us first and we went on to join our cars that would take us home.

I, for one, take from my wanderings the gratification of exploring new places and discovering bits and pieces of the human spirit (including my own) that was previously unfamiliar while having made some new friends along the way. These are memories that have become part of who I am along with friends who have enriched my life. No worries, no regrets, hakuna matata, kaore he aha ki a au, 'A'ole pilikia.

Welcome home, my friends.

Luau and Aloha - Saturday, July 30 … July 31st

Our final full day was spent in Honolulu with our group pursuing personal interests ranging from shopping to helicopters to recuperating/rejuvenating on the beach. It was an excellent day to unwind, perhaps even reach nirvana! - not terribly difficult in this Hawaiian Paradise, mind you - and prepare for our final flights home. Thanks for these photos from your helicopter tour, Jamie!

We had an awesome luau on Paradise Cove for our last dinner together. Paradise Cove is an area of almost 100 acres that includes beaches, canoes, Hawaiian crafts, live performances, shops, and temporary tattoos painted on by scantily clad Samoan men (this line went on forever...mostly women, mind you!). After more than an hour or so of taking advantage of all there was to offer, we were seated for dinner with the main performance by the Paradise Cove dancers backed up by a Hawaiian musical group that played typical Hawaiian instruments and sang. It’s pretty impressive what these young people can do with their bodies, conjuring up some fond memories for some of us! They did dances from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand, and, of course, Hawaii. It was fast moving and, often times, told a story that was all based on traditional ceremonies and ancient history. Audience participation enhanced the experience for us all , as audience members got on stage to learn a traditional dance and interact with the performers.

While standing on line for our grease pencil tattoos, we met a very confident and well-spoken 6th grader. He was going to get a "tattoo" and then send a picture of it to his dad in Puerto Rico to try to "freak him out". He was so excited to be playing this little joke on his dad (with his mom's permission, we found out), to be enjoying all there was to offer at the luau, and to just be here and then the source of all his joy showed up - his mom. She was dressed in a beautifully beaded long white dress with a megawatt smile and twinkling eyes that matched her son's. There was no question where this young man got his looks and open personality and that he and his mom shared a very special bond. He introduced us and then casually told us that his mom had just gotten married, hence the white dress that I thought looked suspiciously matrimonial! Her new husband was there and so, of course, Mater had to get in on the action and photos were taken. Their wedding photographer took photos as well so there is a good chance that Mater will end up in a wedding album to boot! More happiness to add to this beautiful evening!

On our way into Paradise Cove, we had pictures taken as a group or individually. There was a young Marine from Alabama right behind us in line and we spontaneously adopted him for the night as he readily joined in our group photo therefore becoming our “cousin”. Everyone in Hawaii is a cousin, if not by blood but my the mere fact that they live in Hawaii, or at least Waikiki, or are simply mahini, or tourists. Our new relative, Matt, managed to go onstage, thoroughly in line with his personality! He was outgoing and friendly with the gift of southern gab and a willingness to share that immediately endeared him to us. He loved being a part of our “family” enjoying the camaraderie and uniqueness of being the African American cousin to our lily white Caucasian group! He was the perfect new friend to make on our journey through the South Pacific.

The luau food was appetizing and plentiful, we were all happy with our photos and, all in all, we enjoyed another flawless evening. It was a meaningful way to end our journey together, accompanied with unfettered laughter and camaraderie and created more memories of our shared adventure.

We returned to the hotel @11:00 PM to get a few hours sleep before meeting in the lobby at 4:45 AM four our 5:00 AM airport departure. While we are satiated with our travels and happily exhausted, it will be good to get home to our families and familiar routines.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Aloha, Hawaii: Friday, July 29, 2011

As we approached Honolulu, the sunrise created a color rich horizon of reds, oranges, and deep blues that changed and brightened as we got closer. When we arrived in Hawaii, we were greeted with a rainbow! How could this possibly be a bad sign?!

So, we are in yet another Paradise here in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu. We are in the Ka’a’awa Valley where towering palm trees, turquoise skies, and crystal waters provide the background for the last days of our wanderings together.

The Hawaiian language has only 12 letters in their alphabet: the vowels “a, e, i, o, u“ all pronounced as they are in Spanish and their consonants, “h, k, l, m, n, p, and w”. There is also an 'okina, a glottal stop in pronunciation that helps to differentiate words. You pronounce all the letters individually, barring some exceptions, and it is all sounds very melodious and singable. “Aloha” can be used as a hello, a departure, or simply a greeting. “Alo” means “face to face” and “ha” is “breath of life”. So much of this culture is about connections with others, through their language, their actions and their general approach to life, something we have found throughout this journey. While Hawaii is a part of the continental US, it is the most isolated island in the world with a decidedly different philosophy than the east coast of the continent. Not better - not worse - but definitely different. It is so gratifying to get to know more of our own country and our countrymen…and women!

We were met at the airport by David, our Honolulu guide and proceeded to our hotel where Jane and Ken finally got to play golf on the most difficult course in the United States, Ko'olau Golf Club. Talk to Jane and Ken about their games! ...and that 's Gilligan's Island just right of the top center nearest to the coast...a 3 hour tour!

The weather was questionable but ultimately cooperated (as it has done throughout our trip!) as the rest of us went to Pearl Harbor. Here we found displays on the history and chronicles of the attack which depict the events through the eyes of both the Japanese and the Americans. There was a movie about the series of events leading up to the attack and it was a very sobering moment to be reminded so graphically of the horrific surprise that met our soldiers on that December morning not so long ago. From the film, we were ferried out to the memorial to the SSS Arizona. It was here we could honor the list of names of the victims of this pivotal event in WWII. It was here we could smell the oil that still leaks from the wreck swirling in oily rainbows among brightly colored fish and slow, innocent sea turtles. It was here we saw veterans of all ages honoring their comrades. With our flag waving above us, it was a sobering visit.

I met Daniel and his friend from Michigan who were there to find the name of a friend’s father. They were veterans, as well. I struck up a conversation, took a photo of them with Mater (of course!) and they asked me to photograph the name of their friend, as well. I happily took the pictures and promised to send them to Daniel's email. (I did just that!)

While at Arizona Memorial I saw a young man with two prosthetic legs wandering around the monument alone. I knew he had to be a veteran, as well. He confirmed that he was a veteran and offered that he had lost his legs in Afghanistan. I thanked him for his service and sacrifice and he happily agreed to a picture with Mater. This is one of Mater’s favorite pictures!

We proceeded to a tour of Honolulu and went up to Nu’uanu Pali, a lookout that offers a view of the valley, the golf course, the water, the site of a number of movies (Mighty Joe Young, included!) and…Gilligan’s Island! The theme song from that show has followed us throughout our trip so it was particularly fun that we could see the place where it was filmed. Ken even knows all of the words to the song, BTW! In reality, it is actually called Coconut Island. The view was beautiful, it was incredibly windy and we found lots of wild chickens and baby chicks living there, as well.

Tomorrow is our free day in Waikiki and then...the luau!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tuesday, July 26, 2011: Jade, Steam, and Living on the Edge!

Another very busy day! We started out by visiting the jade cutter, Nick, learning about the origin and types of jade (nephrite and jadeite) and walked away with some beautiful and meaningful pieces. BTW, Nick loved "Travels with Mater" and helped me take some photos! I love the significance of shapes and designs that help to tell the story and beliefs of the Maori people. The nature of each design is representative of a character trait, worn for protection, or to help fortify or support a relationship. Strength, determination, prosperity and good health are included, along with courage, harmony and growth, to name a few. The promise of safe passage over water or a meaningful relationship is important in these patterns, as well as protection from evil. They have fascinating and unique names, such as heimatua, koru, toki, and manaia, and everyone in the Maori community seems to know them all. The Maori are a naturally spiritual people and they are all connected to each other, either by blood or by life force.

We headed over to Whakarewarewa (remember the full name you’ve been practicing?! How’s it going?). This thermal Maori village gave us a personal insight into the lifestyle of the Maori that reside there. Overall, I found them to be deeply respectful of their elders and their history and this seems to help guide their current lives and the decisions they make. The hot springs, boiling water, bubbling mud, and sulfuric steam all play an influential and meaningful role in the every day life of the resident Maori. They bathe in the naturally hot water, heat their homes, and cook their food using the energy provided by Mother Nature. Throughout the village were four recessed underground communal “ovens” where the village residents cooked their food using the heat from the earth’s steam. Meats, vegetables, and breads were all included and the ovens were shared by one and all. Wrapped in foil or in pots, food was placed in these “ovens” and cooked throughout the day with the family retrieving their meal when cooked to perfection! There were spots where you could feel the heat through your shoes and where the ground was quite warm and, of course, the sulfuric smell was never far away!

We walked through the village to a spot where we could witness the geyser erupt into the blue skies, at times being obscured by the steam that accompanied it. While not the magnitude of Old Faithful, it is still a powerful display of earth’s capacity to slowly change its face as minerals and other colorful elements spew into the air slowly leaving their mark on the rocks and soil surrounding it. Naturally we waited for it to erupt and, collectively, took an obscene number of photos!

We then went to Mt. Ngontongaha, taking the gondola to the top where we rode the luge (some more than once) partially down the mountain. We were treated to a panoramic view of Lake Rotorua and its surroundings as we stopped for lunch in the café enjoying the view. I have to say that we have been incredibly fortunate in regard to the weather. While the temperatures are a bit chilly in the morning and evening here in New Zealand, the sun has been shining in Rotorua and the snow and icy conditions have stayed in the South Island.

Agroventure was our next stop today where we were able to take advantage of some risk-taking, adrenaline producing endeavors! There was the Shweeb, Free Fall Extreme, the Agrojet, Swoop and Bungy. Shweeb is a human powered monorail that you pedal while sitting in a pod racing another “shweeber”. Apparently, you can reach speeds up to 45 mph but we don’t know that for sure because none of us did that! Brendan and Billy did Free Fall Extreme where they were suspended on a giant column of air flying up to @12 feet off the ground. Our group “superheros” loved every minute of their weightlessness. They also did the Swoop free falling towards the ground at 130 MPH, pulling 3 G’s on the way after being cocooned inside a harness before soaring through the air. Lots of us did the Agrojet. This is a 13 ft. sprint boat powered by 450 HP engine that pumps through 11,000 liters of water per minute! They strap you in, buckle you up before taking off in a jet sprint boat that reaches 100 MPH in just 4.5 seconds! Our driver, Matt, was excellent and provided us with a ride of screaming and laughter as he treated us to a 360 degree Hamilton jet spin! That guy has a great job!

Anja suggested we stop at Ogo for some more fun! This time, Anja, Heather, Brendan, and Billy took on the Zorb, a huge ball within a ball that is filled with water and sent hurtling down a hill with a human inside of it! Keep in mind that the temperatures hovered near 50 degrees F. Even though warm water was put into the ball and its occupant emerged soaked to the bone, they loved their rocking and rolling down the green, green hills of New Zealand!

We returned to the hotel and went to the Hangi dinner, a traditional Maori feast complete with music that accompanied the time-honored Maori dances and performances. It began with a customary greeting and accepting of peace between the clans, in this case the Maori and the audience. Our “chief” was Bradley, chosen from the men in the room. It was also an audience participation event and many of us ended up on stage along with the performers and a good time was had by all. I left the evening believing that the Maori are a happy people, even though they shared with us some traditional warrior customs. Listening to the music, one can hear a Hawaiian influence (or vice versa with the Maori influencing the Hawaiian songs!), and seeing their joyful smiles as they perform, I left the performance feeling that perhaps it is the simple lifestyle the Maoris live that makes them so happy and content. Either way, they are a joyful and satisfied people and it is a delight to spend time with them and to get to know them and their culture better.

This is a visual test. Can you pick out the genuine Maori native?

Wed., July 27, 2011
Lots of steam, a nautical rodeo, from Thailand to la Dolce Vita

Ok, people…RUN, don’t walk, to the nearest opportunity you have to visit White Island, a submarine volcano, off the coast of Whakatane, New Zealand! Not kidding! So inconceivably awesome! It was like walking on the moon with giant spewing fumaroles and steam puffing out of holes and fissures on this barren landscape almost devoid of vegetation. Here are some words from our group to describe today…almost all of them referring to White Island: amazing, gaseous, unique, outrageous, yellow, stunk (in reference to the sulfur smell, which was quite strong at times!), thought-provoking, volcanic, steamy, eerily breathtaking, sci-fi, serious, caldera, sweeeeeeeeeeet, rock-n-rollin”, and “craterrific”!… and then there was "abduction" and "conspiratorial" but more about that later - and fattening - later!

We loaded onto the boat this morning where we received some safety tips along with the location of the life jackets…just in case, you know! We then started our almost 2 hour trip out to White Island in the Bay of Plenty through choppy waters and large swells. White Island, New Zealand’s only active volcano, is believed to be between 150,000-200,000 years old It was once the site of sulfur mining activity but in 1914 an eruption killed 10 men when ash and a lahar collapsed the building they were in (no trace of them was ever found) and mining was finally curtailed in 1923. BTW, a cat named “Peter the Great” survived. Legend has it that he sired all of the cats in Whakatane today! But men did come there to work, especially during the Depression when employment was almost impossible to find. This is the kind of place that you either love or hate. One man came for 2 years and stayed for 8 while another, upon seeing the island, climbed the mast of his ship, tied himself to it and refused to come down until the ship was on its return journey away from the island! Apparently he had a different idea of an island in the South Pacific!

Just before arrival at White Island, the crew took out yellow hard hats and gas masks for us to wear during or visit , a real fashion statement for sure! We left the boat and climbed into an inflatable dingy that took us to a crude ladder which we climbed to a landing and then navigated our way across a garden of boulders to the beach. More safety tips here as we were informed that today was the 11th anniversary of the last eruption but not to worry. They had plans - sort of - just in case - and that as soon as our boat had a chance to return safely from fleeing the falling ash and debris from said explosion, it would be back to pick us up. Of course, since it was already so awesome to be there, we ventured forth and never looked back! Seriously, the pictures tell it all and just as soon as I have an internet connection, I promise to share them with you but suffice it to say, “IT WAS AWE-INSPIRING!“ The power of the earth is not to be understated.

So much color in the rocks here. The sulfur, gypsum, and iron ore all contribute to the rainbow of hues that can be found, as well as the sun, rain, and cloud cover. Again, Mother Nature, thank you!

Ever heard of a nautical rodeo? Me, neither, but we experienced all the bucking and excitement of a land rodeo cowboy on our return trip to Whakatane. The captain told me he expected it to be windier on this trip and his prediction did not disappoint. While he thought the swells were only about a meter high, the water was consistently washing over both the lower and upper decks of the boat and the windows, blocking all visibility. Being a passenger on this boat was like riding a bucking bronco and was yet another example of how powerless humans really are, despite their belief of just the opposite! I loved every minute of it and it the perfect end to a flawless excursion! There were times that the waves we encountered, washed over the TOP deck of the boat! Some of us were invoking the protection of a higher power!

As I was getting ready to meet everyone in the lobby for dinner, I realized that Mater was missing! I tore through my pockets, my camera case, my suitcase and then my memory trying to remember when was the last time I saw him! Good grief! What will I tell Liam if I can’t find our lovable little tow truck?! I realized that he must have fallen out of my pocket either on the boat or on the bus and now my mind was in full blown problem solving mode! When I told Anja she volunteered to call the boat company and send him home if that was where he was but assured me he must be on the bus. Donna and Branden were shocked at Mater’s absence and Jane appropriately expressed her dismay, as well. The rest of the group joined in my anguish, as well,which, as it turns out, was all an act! .. and then…on our way to dinner…I was called to the front desk of the hotel and was given a note…FROM MATER! It read: “NuNu - Awhina! (Help!) Kia Tupato! (Be careful!) You forgot me! You will be “towed” what to do. Mater”…then on the bottom was written: “Kitonu tak waka topaki I te tuna.” I will ask Richard, our bus driver, for a translation tomorrow. (My hovercraft is full of eels!) This is where “abduction” comes into play. Poor Mater! He must be worried that he will be left behind in New Zealand but not me! I know he must be well cared for and will patiently wait for his return while doing whatever the notes tell me to do! Stay tuned…..

Since we did not want the hotel food again we ventured out to a local Thai restaurant. Excellent food (an opinion shared by most of us, anyway!) and lots of fun. Of course, I missed Mater but when I looked at the pictures on my camera….THERE HE WAS! Such a mystery! They had these little funky animals with propeller navels with clips sticking out of their heads that were used to hold the table numbers. One was a cow and I decided I needed to have it for Amy. The woman at the desk was a bit taken aback when I asked if I could purchase this little cow but I was able to broker a deal and left with the cow…but not Mater!

We then went to an Italian restaurant for dessert - la dolce vita! OMG! There was caramel chocolate cheesecake, Donatello fudge ice cream concoction, little chocolate covered pineapple cake pops, and it all was scrum-diddlee-umptious and quite beautiful to boot! All this food left us in a food coma! Good thing we’ve been doing lots of walking!

Tomorrow we leave for Auckland and then we are off to Fiji!

Auckland to Rotorua: July 25, 2011

Nau mai, Haere mai ki Aotearoa! Welcome to New Zealand! Kia hora! After a bit of a delay due to snow in the south island in Wellington, NZ we arrived in Auckland, NZ, the Land of the Long White Cloud. New Zealand is quite serious about their airport security and searched a number of bags in customs looking for whatever it is that threatens homeland security but also for food! It must all be claimed upfront. Meats, fresh fruits, breads are not allowed and dirty golf shoes that are not claimed could all get you a fine of $400.00! It’s the bacteria, etc. that could be in the food and the dirt on the shoes that could be carrying an environmental threat to this beautiful and pristine environment. Years ago they introduced possums to help rid the country of something else and now those possums number in the millions and the saying goes, “The only good possum is a dead possum!”. Being the inventive and creative people they are, the Kiwis have learned to use possum fur mixed with merino wool to create a soft, warm garment so those deceased little rodents don’t go to waste!

I love flying into this country with its rugged coastline and its lush green gently rolling hills and flowering plants, even in the winter! The North Island is not home to the glaciers and higher mountains but is the island with the bulk of the Maori population and history. It’s all beautif
ul with some of us commenting that it reminded us of Ireland or even Sussex County!

Richard, our coach driver and of Maori descent, took us to Rotorua, a trip of @3 hours and we were able to see more of the countryside as we left one of the only multi-lane highways on the island for a double lane road for most of the trip. Rotorua means “ 2 lakes” or “second lake”, with “roto” signifying “lake” and “rua” meaning “2” or “second” and is the spiritual home to the Maori. It was given this name by the Maori explorer, Ihenga around 1350 AD. Rotorua sits on one of the most active geothermal and volcanic regions in the world. This geothermal field contains 1,200 geothermal features including geysers, hot springs, bubbling mud pools and fumaroles, silica terraces and flats. The people population of New Zealand is @4 million. The sheep population is @40 million! So it was sheep we saw along with cows grazing on the hillsid
es as the sun set on our first night here and Richard told us a bit of New Zealand and Maori history. Rotorua is the center of Maori language and culture as well as an active geothermal area with the distinct smell of sulfur in the air. You can see steam rising out of bushes and in parks all around the area as we drove into town. Tomorrow we go to Whakarewarewa, a Maori village and geothermal park. "Whaka" is the shortened name for a very long one which is quite difficult to pronounce. If you just say every letter with “wh” sounding like “f”, you’ve got it! Go ahead. Try it! Let me know how this works out for you!

Here is the name in its entirety:


A couple of pictures from our hotel along Lake Rotorua:

Haere mai until tomorrow!