As I post this blog from Mindoro Island, Philippines, we are thinking of the people in Vanuatu who were hit by tropical storm Pam. Many are without homes, water and electricity now. Subsistence farmers will struggle for a long time if crops were wiped out, as I know they were in some places. Y ——————————————————————
Have you seen Al Gore’s movie, AnInconvenientTruth? I remember being glued to the screen when I first saw it, and troubled by its powerful message. When John Hardy saw it (John is a transplanted Canadian who moved to Bali and created a successful jewelry business with his wife Cynthia), he was deeply affected. He felt that the solution lay in education and decided to do something tangible to help train young people who can lead the world towards a more sustainable future. He was also inspired by Alan Wagstaff’s design concept called “three springs” (a model for a quality living community with a school at its ‘heart’). Hardy and his wife sold their shares in their jewelry company and founded the Green School of Bali in 2008. The vision was (and is) to create a “natural, holistic, student-centred learning environment that empowers and inspires students to be creative, innovative, green leaders”. And what an inspiring place the Green School is! I think the four of us would have been quite happy to drop our bags and enroll on the spot!
Green School attracts students from all over the world who are looking for an alternative style of education, involving a positive and deliberate focus on environmental stewardship. I was impressed to learn that many families relocate to Bali, either temporarily or permanently, specifically to send their children to Green School. It offers programs from preschool to grade 12 and has about 400 students coming from something like 30 different countries (we met a few Canadians during our visit). And the administration tries to maintain a percentage of local Balinese students (presently it’s 8%).
The first thing you notice about Green School is the phenomenal bamboo architecture. John Hardy, the founder, is an artist and has a bit of a love affair with bamboo — it really is an amazing, fast-growing, strong, flexible, and beautiful building material. And in Bali, it’s locally grown, too! The school is a collection of buildings on a piece of land that has a river running through it. The central structure, known as the “Heart of School” has a phenomenal, double-helix shape and no walls. The ‘no walls’ part is central to Green School philosophy. The Heart of School houses some classrooms, open office space, meeting space, the library, and the area where students and teachers eat.
Other classrooms are scattered around the campus and have a similar airy, open, and bright feel.
But Green School is not just a collection of cool buildings, it really seems to be a community. Parents are visible on the campus and some have started businesses there such as a coffee shop, a raw food counter, and a shop with environmentally friendly, locally made products.
On their campus, there is also a project run by the Begawan Foundation to help breed and release the critically endangered Bali Starling, an endemic bird that has been almost wiped out by introduced predators. When well-known personalities such as Dr. Jane Goodall or Mr Ban Ki Moon (UN Secretary General) visit the Green School, they’ve been involved in releasing pairs of starlings. Why does Green School get attention from such celebrities? Well, it was recognized as the “Greenest School on Earth” in 2012 by the US Green Building Council. Since then, it has gotten a lot of publicity and they actually run tours each day to accommodate everyone who wants to see it.
However, we wanted more than just a glimpse at the campus — we wanted to meet some of the teachers and students, and felt we had something to offer them as well. So after some email exchanges, we had an appointment to meet Glen Chickering, the head teacher of the middle school. He saw the link between the theme of our travels and their upcoming unit on energy. We were invited to kick off the unit with a presentation. Glen then gave us a tour of the campus and shared some of his experiences with the evolution of this unique school community (he has been involved since year 1).
So we knew we’d be coming back to Green School in 2 weeks. During that time, Kaia would often remind us, “Our presentation is in 8 days — we need to get started,” or “The presentation is in 5 days, we need to work on it!” Thanks to her insistence, we actually started early and gave ourselves enough time to put it together without much stress. I need to transfer this technique to other aspects of my life (specifically report-card writing!)
Anyway, we divided our presentation into 5 sections: ecotourism (Cam), ocean health (me), sustainable transportation (Kaia), invasive species (Jake), and green energy (Cam). We showed pictures and spoke about the issues and solutions we have encountered in our travels during the past 6 months.
The students were a receptive audience and had many great questions for us. One boy asked us if we had used public transportation to travel from country to country and we had to admit that we had only done that a couple of times in Central and South America. Otherwise, we have traveled by air (leaving a massive carbon footprint in our wake). We then learned that that boy had traveled overland from the UK to Bali in order to avoid taking an airplane. It took him and his dad 59 days! Wow. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. I bet they have some stories to tell about that one.
While preparing my piece on ocean health, and in particular, the problem of plastics accumulating in the oceans, I learned that a couple of middle school students at the Green School have started a “bye bye plastic bag Bali” campaign and have convinced the governor to take initial steps toward reduction. These young ladies are definitely showing the leadership that Green School founders were hoping to encourage. Anyone can sign Melati and Isabel’s petition at http://www.avaaz.org/en/bye_bye_plastic_bags_on_bali/.
As expected, we learned a lot during our visit to Green School and were inspired by what we saw there. I hope to apply some of those ideas to my life and teaching as well! A description of our visit appeared in their middle school newsletter: http://www.greenschool.org/weekly-newsletter/feb-26-2015/one-year-one-family-one-world#.VP0fZ_mUede . Yvonne
Some of our Canadian readers may recall a TV ad for Molson Canadian that ran last spring, during the Stanley Cup playoffs. In it, a couple of guys painstakingly traveled with a fridge full of beer to surprise their friend, Morgan, whom they “hadn’t seen since he moved to the Gili islands in Indonesia”. If you haven’t seen it, have a look here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Py-lAL7PniY
Well, we also went to the Gili islands, but did not meet the famous Morgan, nor did we play hockey on the beach. But we were carrying 4 large backpacks, one of which is probably as heavy as a fridge. Gili actually means island in the Lombok dialect, so it’s a bit redundant calling them the “Gili Islands”, but they are well-known by that name. Although the Gilis were more or less uninhabited until the 1970s, they certainly are a place where you could find yourself extending your stay indefinitely. We met several people who gave some version of, “I planned to stay for three days and ended up staying two weeks!” Although the commercial suggested that it was an epic journey to get to these islands, it really wasn’t too bad, and only took about an hour by “fast boat” from Padang Bai on Bali.
The Gilis are a mecca for backpackers, honeymooners and divers. Speaking of mecca, the local population is predominately Muslim so there are mosques on each island. Our guest house was quite close to the largest one, and the 5am call to prayer felt like it was being broadcast into our room! With the help of some ear plugs, we got to the point that it didn’t really bother us, though.
There are 3 Gilis off the northwest coast of Lombok: Gili Air, Gili Meno, and Gili Trawangan. They are tiny islands, surrounded by beach and reef; each with its own personality. The climate, food, and pace of life on the Gilis are so pleasant that you find yourself just not wanting to leave! There are no motorized vehicles on any of them, but plenty of bicycles, horse-drawn wagons, dive shops, and beach-front restaurants.
We started on Gili Air (“air” means “water” — go figure!), which is pretty laid back, but still has a lot to offer. One of the first things we realized was that, despite its name, Gili Air does NOT have good water (we purified some tap water but found in totally unpalatable — way too salty!), so, for the first time on our trip, and with guilty consciences, we had to rely on buying bottled water.
Our first morning on Gili Air, we hired a boat to take us to 3 snorkeling sites, to Gili Meno for lunch, and then drop us off at Gili Trawangan or “Gili T”, as it is known among travelers (who struggle with the multiple syllables in the Indonesian place names). Gili T has the most tourist infrastructure…and the most tourists! We heard there was great snorkeling right off the beach and that we’d be able to find cheap accommodation. Both were correct. But there are also lots of boats and the place is quite busy, even though this is the low season.
One of our goals on Gili T was for Cam and Kaia to complete their scuba certifications. We found a good dive shop (staffed by French dive instructors) that was very flexible about offering exactly what they needed. Cam had to complete 2 more dives, and Kaia needed a pool refresher as well as her 4 dives. Things were going well: Cam overcame his problems equalizing and Kaia completed her pool session and first dive. Jake and I went for a scuba dive at the same time.
Unfortunately, that night, Kaia came down with a fever and was not well enough to dive the next day. Or the next. This was when we realized the true value of the location of our accommodation — not the proximity of the mosque, but the fact that our room was located directly above a medical clinic! The doctor had concerns that Kaia could have dengue fever, so he suggested a blood test. As luck would have it, he was heading back to the main island (Lombok) the next morning, having completed his 1-week shift at the clinic. So, at about 6:30am, he knocked on our door, took Kaia’s blood sample, packed it in ice in a cooler, and headed off for the ferry. A few hours later, he called us with the result: negative! And the doctor who took over from him brought us the paperwork. Most convenient health care I’ve ever experienced! It did cost about $90, which we can hopefully recoup from insurance.
A few doors down from our guesthouse, was the “Sweet and Spicy” Indonesian cooking school. They offered daily classes, followed by a shared meal. Since we’ve really been enjoying Indonesian food, Cam decided to sign up. He had a great time learning how to make tempe, dipping sauces, gado-gado, mie goreng (fried noodles with vegetables) and a coconut dessert.
We had many nice meals on Gili T, and especially liked the “night market” that was set up in the central square each evening. There, you could choose fresh fish and they would barbecue it right in front of you.
There is quite a happening nightlife on Gili T, which we didn’t partake in too much, except for listening to the live band that played across the street from our room.
We rented bicycles one afternoon (2 singles and a tandem) and rode around the island, stopping to watch the sunset on the other side. Cam and Jake had a great snorkeling outing during which they were competing to see who could spot the most sea turtles. Jake: 3, Dad: 2.
With so many tourists, there is obviously a lot of environmental pressure on the Gili Islands. We caught up with some people volunteering with the “Gili Eco Trust”, ( giliecotrust.com/fr/ ) a group that has been working on several issues:
-unsustainable fishing practices
-waste management and recycling (yikes — all those water bottles!!)
-animal welfare (referring to the horses that pull the wagons)
When we saw the volunteers, they were working on a “biorock” which is a type of artificial reef; a metal frame on which corals are encouraged to grow because they run a small electrical charge through it (this causes minerals from the sea water to attach to it, which in turn, helps the coral to take hold). They have been installed at several locations around the island and are helping the reef regenerate.
There is also a turtle hatchery on the island, where they keep the hatchlings for about 8 months before releasing them into the ocean, improving their chances at survival.
So our days on the Gilis were a much needed “down time”, allowing us to relax, get sick and recuperate comfortably, and have some fun as well. In the end, we found that leaving the Gilis actually was quite difficult: our boat was 2 hours delayed with no explanation, forcing us to spend an extra night in Kuta before leaving for our next adventure: Flores Island and Komodo Park!
As Kaia mentioned in the previous entry, our main motivation for a 10-day stopover in Cairns, Australia, was to visit the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Having heard reports of its beauty and diversity, as well as its decline due to many factors, we wanted to see for ourselves how tourism and other economic activities are affecting it.
A few stats about the GBR:
348 000 = the number of square kilometres it covers (making it the world’s largest coral reef system) 8000 = age in years of the coral systems we see today (they are growing on top of much older reef platforms) 1770 = the year Captain James Cook ran aground on a portion of the reef in his ship the Endeavour 1500 = number of fish species that live in the GBR 400 = number of coral species 4000 = number of mollusc species 240 = number of bird species (there are about 600 islands of various sizes within the GBR) 250 = how many km it extends off the coast of Queensland 1981 = the year it was named a UNESCO world heritage site for its outstanding universal value 2 000 000 = the number of tourists who visit annually 5 000 000 000 = dollars generated annually by tourism to the GBR
Getting out to the reef is an undertaking that requires at least a full day. We were looking for something that would allow us to get to a section of the outer reef for a combination of snorkeling and SCUBA diving, and chose Reef Magic, a locally-owned company that uses catamarans to carry people out to a reef platform. Sounds pretty high-impact, doesn’t it? Actually, the platforms, or stationary pontoons, cause less damage due to dropping anchors on the coral since it is anchored once and permanently. However, there is certainly a lot of localised human impact around the pontoon since about 150-190 people visit it each day.
The trip out took 1.5hrs and we were going to have 5hrs on the platform (including a buffet lunch). Jake and I had decided to do 2 dives and Cam and Kaia were going to snorkel and perhaps take advantage of the semi-submersible or the glass-bottom boat. During the trip out, we got a briefing about the dives from Josh, our divemaster. There were also a series of short and very informative talks about snorkeling techniques, introductory diving opportunities, underwater photography, and aquatic animals. By the time we got there, both Cam and Kaia had decided that they wanted to give SCUBA another shot by going for an introductory dive. If you’re on the GBR, might as well make the most of it!
The seas were a bit rough on the day we were out there, so the glass-bottom boat and semi-sub weren’t really working. Luckily, we were planning on spending our time under water!
Even in our limited experience on the reef, we saw an amazing diversity of corals and fish. We came face to face with clownfish and moorish idols, we saw sharks (small ones) and clams (big ones!) Cam and Kaia both had great experiences with the diving.
Unfortunately, the reality is that there are significant threats to Wally’s world. Tourism can be seen as a plus and a minus: money generated from daily park fees is mostly used to manage the marine park (monitoring the status of the reef and enforcing laws and zoning areas), and tourists leave with a better understanding of the reef. But all these tourists need accommodation, food, water, and transportation, not to mention the social and cultural impacts for a region that receives 2 million visitors each year!
So, adding to those GBR stats, I guess I can list…
6: major threats to the health of the GBR
— coastal development that often involves loss of wetlands,
— agricultural runoff that can add nutrients to the water (corals thrive in low-nutrient environments),
— rising sea surface temperature as well as acidification (more CO2 in the atmosphere means more dissolved CO2 in the ocean which means more carbonic acid H2CO3),
— more frequent extreme weather events (such as flooding and cyclones that cause sediment plumes to enter the ocean as well as increase the occurrence of dugong and turtle strandings)
— overfishing (or the residual effects of overfishing),
— dredging of the seabed to keep shipping channels open. This is a biggie. The cruise ship terminal in Cairns alone requires 9 million tonnes of dredging and dumping! Kaia described the attractive and well-used Cairns waterfront. Apparently the shoreline has undergone many changes over the years due to depositing sediment. At low tide, it was better to have one’s back to the ocean (large tidal mudflat).
On the suggestion of the marine biologist onboard our Reef Magic catamaran, Cam and the kids paid a visit to CAFNEC (Cairns and Far North Environment Centre: cafnec.org.au/ ). They do a lot of monitoring and education about the reef and according to them, it is in trouble.
While we were in Australia, Queenslanders were in the final days of an election campaign (held on Jan. 31), and conservation of the reef was one of the key issues (alongside privatisation, mining, health, and, believe it or not, “bikie” gangs). In fact, CAFNEC had organized an all-candidates meeting to specifically discuss the reef. One of the main concerns is where to dump the dredge spoils — either into the ocean where it affects water quality and clogs organisms, changing the habitat significantly (very unpopular among voters) or dumping it into wetlands (where it has the same effect but on different organisms — more acceptable to voters). A lot of reef protection has to do with concentrating the negative effects on a few areas. The platform we visited would be one. However, it is certainly in Reef Magic’s best interest to educate their clients on reef conservation (which they did) because their business depends on it! If they allow their section of reef to get damaged, it’s unlikely that they could get access to another.
A couple of things about the Queensland election surprised us. First of all, we were shocked to see people campaigning right outside the polling stations on election day.
And secondly, we couldn’t believe that the results were not available the next day. The voting system used in Australia is quite complex and requires voters to number each candidate in order of preference. The ballots are then counted, but if no candidate receives at least 50% of the vote, they drop off the candidate with the least votes and redistribute his or her ballots to the remaining candidates (based on whoever was marked as preference #2). Sounds complicated and time consuming, but allows for more sophisticated voter input than our system. Actually, it is now Feb 11 and it appears that the Labour Party won (taking over from the Liberals), but the final election results are still kind of up in the air! I really hope that the new government makes the GBR a priority in their planning and legislation so that this awesome and ancient ecosystem can survive. It truly is a wonder of the world.
p.s. One more stat to add to the list: 4: very satisfied Canadian visitors who marvel at the complexity and beauty of the Great Barrier Reef and are concerned about its future.
After finishing the Abel Tasman track, we were pretty tired. By that point, we had camped at 15 different places in the 17 days we’d been in New Zealand — that’s a lot of setting up and taking down — so we wanted to “stay put” for a few days. So “wwoofing” does not refer to our exhausted grunts each time we picked up our backpacks, it stands for “willing workers on organic farms” and is a network of landowners who practice organic gardening or farming and who are willing to host “workers” in exchange for some labour. Wwoofing stints generally last between a week to several months, but Carolyn, the owner of Te Miko, responded to our email enquiry and was OK with us coming for just a few days. Her property is located on the west coast of the south island, near Punakaiki National Park.
I don’t know if we really managed to help Carolyn very much — we did some weeding, harvesting of beans, and levelled a new spot for her old henhouse.
Carolyn is also an artist and has a glass bead studio on her property. Since her business is slowing down and the local public radio station was looking for a new home, she offered her studio as a part-time headquarters. Thursday nights are the big “radio night” when two DJs bring their CDs (and red wine), and broadcast an eclectic show. Many locals show up for the ‘party’ as well. It was well-attended the Thursday we were there (almost 20 people showed up) and I was surprised to meet a woman from Montreal — now living “on the road” as the artistic director for Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem” show that is presently touring Australia. She had some time off as the show was being moved from Sydney to Melbourne, and was visiting a friend in Punakaiki! The theme for the radio show that week was the letter L (they are working their way through the alphabet), so we heard some Lennon, Ladysmith Black Mombaza, and a variety of music by artists and bands that start with L. The two DJs are huge fans of two Canadian artists: Leonard Cohen and Neil Young.
On Cam’s birthday, it poured rain almost all day, so we had a quiet, indoor day. Birgit and I had made an apple cake for the occasion. At one point, Kaia went to get some fresh air and reported that our tent had collapsed! Indeed it had, which meant a trip to the laundromat to dry out sleeping bags and clothes!
Continuing south down the coast, we enjoyed the magnificent coast, and stopped at the Franz Josef Glacier town.
We spent a rainy night in the tent, but this time, properly pegged and tied with guy wires, it performed very well and kept us dry! Unfortunately, all the rain meant that the paths to the glaciers were closed (due to the threat of rockslides) so we didn’t manage to see either Franz Josef or Fox glacier.
We checked out a cave/tunnel not far from the town. It had been dug to supply water for a gold sluicing operation and later used for hydro power.
We gained respect for how big the South Island really is, as we drove towards Mt. Cook, our next destination. We joked that had we been in the Andes, there would have been a road going right over the mountain range. In Norway, there would have been a tunnel blasted through. But in New Zealand, there was a long road circumventing the mountains (with lots of little one-lane bridges along the way!)
I was excited about returning to the Waitomo Caves because I remembered them as a highlight of my trip to New Zealand’s north island 23 years ago. That time, I totally splurged and paid $90 for a full-day “Blackwater Rafting” trip that involved innertubing through a cave. I loved it! Well, 23 years later, it seems that the number and type of cave adventures one can choose from have multiplied (there is now abseiling, bouldering, climbing, and whizzing down a flying fox) and the prices have increased by about 500%. So… we opted for a more sedate “dry feet” family package that allowed us to tour the Glowworm and Ruakuri Caves.
The artificial entrance was dug to gain access to the cave following the resolution of a land dispute between the government and the Holden family. Due to a Maori gravesite being close to the natural entrance, it could not be used for tours.
Besides the beautiful flowstone formations, the main attractions are the glowworms. We learned all about these critters at the wonderful cave interpretive centre. They are the larval stage of a fly that spends most or all of its lifecycle underground. As larvae, these little worms (actually maggots, but “glowing maggot” doesn’t have the same appeal as “glowworm”) spin sticky threads to catch prey, which often tends to be adult members of their same species. To attract prey, they can make their rear ends glow green. When there are thousands of these little guys on the roof of a cave, the effect is quite spectacular — it looks like a star-filled sky. The last part of the Glowworm Cave tour was in a boat; we glided along silently in the dark, under glowing green constellations.
Some days later, we saw this poem painted on the side of a rental van:
I wish I were a glowworm, for they are never glum. It’s hard to be unhappy when the sun shines out your bum!
New Zealand is a country that captured my imagination as a CEGEP student when I took a course called Geography of Tourism. I learned a lot about the island nation that term, and made a point of visiting it en route to and from Australia back in 1992. The landforms are reminiscent of Canada, but in a much more compact area. It’s a place where you can see mountains and glaciers on the same day as you drive through rainforest and relax on a beach!
Our friends in Fiji had given us the “heads up” that the New Zealand quarantine officers at the airport are very thorough in their search for biohazards or invasive species. As an island nation that has already been ‘invaded’ by many introduced species, they are serious and cautious about any possible new additions. So we made sure we declared absolutely everything: camping equipment, footwear that could have dirt in the treads, shells, and food (I think I only had some powdered milk, but I said ‘yes’ to having dairy products). We had to do a big unpacking job at customs, and they took our hiking shoes and tent for cleaning. They were returned to us about half an hour later, wet but sanitized. And we avoided the possible $400 fine for not declaring.
One of the things we were looking forward to about New Zealand, was cooler weather (especially night temperatures that would allow us to sleep more easily!) Our Canadian metabolisms had been severely challenged by the South Pacific heat! So, we were happy to walk out of the airport terminal into sunny and comfortable 22 degree weather. (Right now, however, we are in northern Queensland, Australia, and it is stinkin’ hot again!)
Without firm plans (as usual), we picked up our rental car in Auckland, and started looking at a map. We had arrived right smack at the height of tourist time; the week between Christmas and New Year. That is when many New Zealanders are on holiday themselves, because of course it is in the middle of summer vacation! We started driving north and soon realized that many others had already done that, as the campgrounds were full!
Some European travelers (who were also looking for somewhere to camp) told us about a free app we could download called “Campermate”. It turned out to be a great tool for finding campgrounds. All you do is zoom in on the part of the map you want, and colour-coded icons appear. We tended to go for the green ones since they are places where you can camp for free! Sometimes near a lake or river, and always with some form of a toilet, but not much else. There are also “DOC” sites (Dept. of Conservation) that cost about $6 for adults and $3 for kids. Having the car was really going to pay off by allowing us to access cheap accommodation. Many tourists travel in rented vans that have a built-in kitchen and bed — smaller than the RVs we normally see in Canada, but very practical for NZ.
Our little car and tent did us well (especially at the gas pump where the price was almost $2/litre). Our first indication that NZ prices would be higher than in Canada was at a Dunkin Donuts on the first day — one donut cost $2! And, in general, a cup of coffee cost about $4. So, needless to say, we shopped at grocery stores and cooked our own meals on the camp stove.
Some initial observations about New Zealand and its people (kiwis):
1. The roads follow the landscape and are very windy, and they haven’t wasted any money on bridge-building or paving shoulders.
2. There are a lot of sheep! OK, I guess we already knew that, but there are a lot of sheep!
3. Primary schools are small, tidy, and seem very inviting.
4. The New Zealand accent seems to be a case of “promoting” short vowels to the next one in the alphabet: a becomes e, e becomes i etc. We noticed this when ordering “fosh and chops”, looking for a “bid” for the night, or when we asked fellow “trikkers” how they were doing and got the answer, “Nut bed!”
5. We also noticed that many Moari words are very commonplace in New Zealand English. This speaks well, I think, for inter-cultural understanding. The only words I remember are “pakeha” which means “white person” , “waka” = canoe, and “marae” which refers to a gathering place (some marae are run as campgrounds, and we stayed at one near Raglan.) In fact, Maori is taught as a second language all over New Zealand. The Maori are of Polynesian descent and arrived in Aotearoa (the land of the long white cloud) in the 13th century, which means that New Zealand has the shortest human history of any country. Europeans became aware of its existence in the 17th century. The Maori are still very connected to their “iwi” (tribe or people), their “hapu” (sub-tribe), their “whanau” (family), and the land. Most place names in New Zealand have Maori names only.
So, all in all, our first impressions of New Zealand were that it is a welcoming and comfortable place to travel with lots of opportunities for outdoor adventure.
Today is Cam’s birthday and we are spending a quiet, rainy day near Punakaiki on the south island of New Zealand. We are ‘wwoofing’ here for a few days on a beautiful property overlooking the ocean, hosted by a lovely woman named Carolyn. We’ve had some great experiences here in NZ, but are still trying to process and write about Vanuatu.
Our trek in and out of Marakai and the day we spent with the people there will not soon be forgotten. Of the experiences I have had in my life, this is among those that leave the strongest impressions. Trying to put it into words is daunting!
It all started with the recommendation of our friends George and Erica who did this trek with their 2 daughters about a year and a half ago. They wanted to see and experience a custom village where people are still living a traditional lifestyle and thriving without western influences. In fact, in this particular case, the villagers have very consciously rejected the ‘trappings’ of western society. George gave us the contact information for a woman named Mayumi in Luganville who operates a travel agency called “Wrecks to Rainforest” and organized his family’s trek. So Cam emailed Mayumi from Fiji to let her know that we were interested in doing this 5-day, 4-night hike into the wild interior of Santo Island. Mayumi responded that it was certainly possible to do, but not always easy to get hold of her regular guide, Riki, who lives in a remote community. We had not even considered this complication, but, of course, Riki lives in a village with no electricity, so when his cell phone battery dies, it doesn’t get recharged until he comes into town. Mayumi said that she usually hears from him every few weeks, but sometimes months can pass without any contact. The Marakai trek is not one of the more popular excursions and only gets booked about once a month. We had a good laugh with her as she compared us (planning everything very last-minute) with George, who had contacted her almost a year in advance! Luckily for us, Mayumi is well-connected in the area and knew other options for guide and porters. It sounds strange to have to hire porters to carry our stuff. We, who are accustomed to backpacking in Canada, carrying all our food, tenting and cooking equipment for multiple days. Here we were, going out for 4 nights, only having to carry a few clothes, sleeping mats, and our lunches (since 2 meals per day would be provided by our hosts). We didn’t even need to bring a tent. Anyway, suffice it to say that there is NO WAY we could have done this trek without the porters!! Our guide (Thomas) and the 2 porters (Anatol and Anagle) were from a community called Namourou, in south Santo. It is a community serviced by a French school, so besides their native language and Bislama, they all spoke quite good French. This was fantastic for us as it allowed us to communicate directly with them. Mayumi, who knows how to organize successful trips, also sent along one of her employees, Esther, who speaks Bislama and English. Esther is a niVan from Banks Island in the north who is studying tourism at university and has been working for Mayumi at Wrecks to Rainforest. She was an excellent cultural interpreter to have along, and this would be her second visit to Marakai. The trek would involve a 6-hour hike in to the village of Fortunel where we would stay the night, then a shorter hike (2 hours) to the village of Marakai where we planned to stay for 2 nights. Then we’d hike out towards the south, again staying at a village along the way.
Our trip started with a 2-hour drive along rough roads to a ‘village’ called Sele (I did not actually see more than a few huts there). Along the way, we saw abandoned and half-buried American quonset huts from WW2.
We started the hike at about 11am, and the walking was quite easy at first (especially since we were only carrying small daypacks!) However, after about an hour, Thomas (our guide) seemed a bit perplexed as the trail was not as he remembered. He asked a local woman who explained that, due to some conflict between families, a certain trail was no longer being used and we would have to return to Sele to take an alternate route. A bit disappointing for sure, but we were still fresh enough to “take it as it comes”. We took a break for some lunch and fresh coconuts, thanks to our porters who could easily climb up the palm trees with their machetes!
We retraced our steps and started off along the correct path. Guide and porters were barefoot, and had made the comment “les souliers sont pour les Blancs”. We were all wearing our hiking shoes and strapped to the packs were our rubber boots (the ones we’ve been carting around for 4 months and only used in Costa Rica!) I explained to the porters that we were only bringing the boots as a gift for our hosts in the first village. But after hearing that footwear is only for whites, I questioned our choice of gift. However, Anagle assured me that they would be appreciated. Mayumi had arranged and sent along the proper gifts and payment for our accommodation, so the boots were going to be an extra. I was glad that the porters wouldn’t have to carry them the whole time, and I’m sure they were too!
The trail was a dirt track that took us up and down slopes. Some parts were quite muddy and slick, and there were a few creeks to cross along the way. We stopped for swim breaks, coconut breaks, and water breaks.
As we were suiting up again after the swim, Thomas suggested that I get the headlamps out. And I thought we were just minutes away! We started the longest uphill section of the whole hike, and I was already feeling like I had done a 7.5hr stair workout. In a sauna! It was practically dark by the time we made it to Fortunel, Riki’s village, where we would stay the night. Riki’s brother had passed us on the trail near the creek and had gone ahead with the message that visitors were coming (otherwise, because of dead cellphone batteries, our arrival was unannounced).
Entering Riki’s house was a moment of culture shock. We were exhausted and hungry. The house was dark, smoky, and full of people (he and his wife have 7 children). We sat on the floor and were served taro (like a dry potato) and susu (a slimy green vegetable). Riki’s wife told us (through Esther’s interpretation) that her sons had gone to the garden that morning to dig up taro root, with the premonition that guests would be coming.
Breakfast was similar to the previous night’s dinner. Riki’s family was really lovely and it was amazing to be so welcomed and looked after on such short notice. We heard that one of the reasons Riki hadn’t been in contact with Mayumi recently was because he had been dealing with his father’s disappearance. Chief Lisa, who I believe had been the head of the village for several decades, had gone missing about 2 weeks prior. Apparently, he had stayed home while the rest of the villagers had gone to a meeting in Sele (walking to Sele is not a big deal for them — they can easily go both directions in a day!) Upon their return, one of the chief’s sons had gone to check on him and he was fine. Later, they heard him talking to someone, but since no one was in the house with him, they assumed that he was talking to the spirits. The next morning, they found his front door closed but the back door standing open and he was gone. However, there were no footprints leaving the house. A search party set out to look for him but could find no trace. They continued looking for about 10 days. It is believed that the old chief entered the spirit world and has been turned into a stone. A woman from a neighbouring village was going to come to help the family discover which stone he has become.
We packed our bags and presented Riki with the gifts. They seemed genuinely pleased with the boots! I hope they can be useful. The previous night, Riki had shown me a bad cut he had on his foot and I had given him some antibiotic cream and a bandaid. But I doubt he will start wearing the boots regularly as bare feet are generally more practical!
Riki’s house has a corrugated tin roof. We wondered how the pieces had been transported, and the answer was: 2 at a time, on Riki’s back! My “7.5 hr stair workout” from the previous day was seeming kind of lame. I honestly don’t know how he managed to get those huge pieces of tin up and down all those muddy slopes!
We got a nice tour of Fortunel, including the school (grades 1-4, built by a Korean group and staffed by some locals and a Solomon Islander).
Well fed and rested, and minus 4 pairs of boots, we continued on our way to Marakai.
George had said to us before we started, “You’ll be heading into the stone age,” and I really felt that he was right when we ran into a family on the path who were walking home from their garden (I presume). She was wearing a leaf skirt, carrying a baby in a sling and a load of taro in a basket hanging from a tumpline. He wore a loin cloth, was also carrying a load: 2 baskets hanging from a bamboo stick. Their little boy was curious about us and kept sneaking backward glances as we approached. Thomas and the porters speak the local dialect and taught us how to greet people. The greeting changes for morning, afternoon and night.
When we arrived at the entrance gate to Marakai, Thomas went in first to let them know we had arrived. Most of the villagers, including the chief, were out tending their gardens. However, we were invited to come in and were able to rest at their guest house.
Marakai is an amazing place that I am still trying to figure out (but never will!) It is known as a “kastom village” dedicated to preserving the traditional, village-centered lifestyle of the ni-Vanuatu people. It was established in its present location in 1980 by a group of people (the Nagriamel movement, lead by Jimmy Stevens) who were opposed to the creation of an independent Vanuatu as it is known today. They wanted the island of Espiritu Santo to be its own independent country rather than part of Vanuatu which is comprised of 83 different islands (with more than 100 distinct languages!!) They moved further into the bush precisely because they wanted to be far away from western influence. Even though they did not achieve the political independence they wanted (and their leader was jailed) they have achieved a very real independence by living in a traditional and totally self-sufficient way.
They have a cashless society. They wear simple clothing that is made from local plants, eat only what they grow themselves and harvest from the forest and river, build their homes from local materials, and use medicinal plants. Their children do not attend school, but follow their parents and learn the skills needed for survival in their environment. There are very few manufactured items in the village, but the men do have machetes, and there are several solar lights that charge during the day and are used in the houses after dark. Esther noted a few changes since her last visit 6 months ago: there were now some plastic buckets for collecting water, a few cloth diapers hanging on a line, as well as a clock! The clock was a gift from a French woman who has been spending one month a year, living traditionally in Marakai. We read with interest her entries in the guest book.
One thing we couldn’t quite figure out was why the people of Marakai accept, and even seem to like having tourists come and visit them. What is in it for them? If they are trying to avoid western influence, why accommodate westerners in their village? The answer we got was that they are confident and proud of their lifestyle and are quite happy to share it with people who are interested.
The guest house where we stayed was really nice. It was clearly built with westerners in mind as it had a large raised sleeping platform as well as a couple of smaller platforms, a round table and 4 stools, benches along the wall, and a window at each end (none of these things are found in any of the other houses).
Soon after arriving, we were offered a beautiful plate of ripe bananas and a thermos of hot water for tea (oh, a thermos — another manufactured item!)
When the villagers returned from their gardens, they welcomed us with a song. Irene made a nice meal which was brought to us on wooden plates.
That evening, we participated in a kava ceremony and presented some gifts for the village.
The kava drinking continued for those who wanted, and Cam had quite a few bowls. Apparently he became fluent in French (or so he says) and had a great time chatting with Anatol and Anagle, the porters.
We went down to the river with Liston who was going to collect prawns. On the way, he caught a fairly large lizard which he immobilized (but didn’t kill) by scraping its neck. I realized later that it was still breathing. When lizard meat did not appear on our dinner plates, Cam said, “Maybe they noticed the look on your face.” Yes, I am a bit of a wimp that way! But I have the utmost respect for this young man, Liston. He is so in touch with his environment and skilled when it comes to survival in the Vanuatu bush. He’s probably the closest thing to “sustainability” that I will encounter on this trip.
But there is one thing that Liston cannot do, and that is speak Bislama, the official language of Vanuatu. Only the older generation in Marakai speak it, and they have obviously chosen not to teach it to their children. I really struggled with that one, knowing full well that I am coming at the issue with a MASSIVE cultural bias. Being a big proponent of bilingualism in Canada, I have always felt that it is important to learn your own language, but by all means to learn other languages too! Of course the people of Marakai have everything they need right there in their village and they can communicate perfectly with the people in neighbouring villages, but I just wondered… what if a mining company comes into the area some day and wants to extract minerals? Wouldn’t it be helpful for the locals to be able to plead their case directly? What if any of these children might someday want to travel to other parts of Vanuatu? But maybe learning Bislama is just part of the slippery slope of cultural erosion and it’s actually more valuable to have a group of people who are totally self-sufficient, living off the land, with no plans to adopt western practices. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to have worked for the tribes living in the Amazon, though, as their land is being harvested for wood, minerals and oil. However, I’m sure the people in Marakai would question my parenting choices too. They might say, “What? Your kids have reached puberty and they don’t even know how to forage food for themselves? Why would any parent teach their child to be so completely dependent on others?”
Visiting Marakai really blew my mind.
Kaia and I tried out the local fashion and walked around in leaf skirts for most of the day. I realized that no clothes = no laundry. Imagine that! Cam had adopted the local “malmal” (loin cloth) since we were at Riki’s. The first one he got was made of cloth, but in Marakai, even cotton cloth is too western! They gave him one made from the inner bark of a tree. It was a bit stiff at first, but after he swam in it, he said it softened up quite nicely!
With Irene, we visited one of the vegetable gardens and also saw an artificial pond that the villagers have stocked with fish.
Cam took part in another evening of kava drinking and socializing in the men’s nakamal (meeting house). This time it had the undesirable effect of making him nauseous and unable to sleep. I guess all the warnings about the kava being different in Vanuatu than Fiji were true. Too bad he didn’t heed them. So our walk out the next day started off with one very hurting guy! The village sang a farewell song (actually with English lyrics, composed by Jimmy Stevens!) and we thanked them for the amazing hospitality.
Luckily, after a couple of hours, Cam’s stomach started to feel better and he was able to enjoy the walk. But I hadn’t been too worried because I had total confidence that had he been too sick to continue, our guide and porters would have simply built a small shelter for us to stay in. Honestly, there is nothing they can’t do with those machetes! The trail was quite muddy as it rained on and off, and there were some very steep sections, both up and down. We stayed the night in the nakamal of another village, Tsarangatui. Our soaking wet clothes didn’t really dry, but we knew we were only a couple of hours from the end point of the trek. Once again, the local fashion would have been more practical!
During our trek, there were four languages being spoken among the 8 of us. With Esther, we spoke English; with Thomas and the porters we spoke French, but Esther and they communicated in Bislama. And the three of them (Thomas, Anatol and Anagle) used their traditional dialect. It worked beautifully.
From Namourou, John, the same driver who had taken us to the start of the trek, drove us back to Luganville. He has been able to buy a pickup truck because he works seasonally in the fruit orchards in New Zealand.
Life in Marakai reminded me of the Himba vallages we visited in Namibia; traditional and village-centered. The openness and generosity of the people reminded me of the homestay we did on the island of Amantani in Lake Titicaca. But in Marakai, I sensed a sereneness and a level of contentedness among the people that was unique.
Happy New Year everyone! 2015 is awesome. And for most of our readers back in Canada, you’ll just have to take our word on that. We’re 16 hrs ahead of you. In fact, we are in the 1st time zone to greet 2015 (well, 2nd actually but New Zealand is on daylight saving time, so we’re same time as the 1st).
We’ve ended up at a couple campsites in NZ with loads of young campers, and came to a free campsite last night right beside a lovely lake, so expected a pretty boisterous night – I had my earplugs ready in the tent. What we found here is a gem … not too crowded … older folks … it started raining around 11PM chasing everyone into their RVs so New Years was very quiet (we heard a couple of whoops from the RV closest to our tent).
There are birds EVERYWHERE here, so raucous birds are what woke us up this morning.
Our NY’s eve was brought in with a couple of drinks and a couple of card games in the tent. Kaia won our game of “onze” by a long shot, then we played “halv tol” – a Danish card game traditionally played at 11:30PM on New Years eve (halv is half, and tol is 12 … half 12 (11:30)). Kaia won that too – this must be a good omen for her 2015?!
We recounted stories to the kids of earlier years’ NY parties where we’d put back the clocks a few hours so the kids would think they were up at NYs. Kaia then told us the first time she stayed up till midnight was a NYs at friend Emma Booth’s house. She was disappointed to learn then that this was one of those moved clock parties :).
We’re off to the volcanic hotspot of Rotorua today for some hiking. We’re looking forward to continued learning and adventure in 2015 and are sending our best wishes to our readers far and wide. 2015 is awesome but we won’t tell you what happens so not to spoil the surprise 😉
Our fantastic Fiji holiday was coming to an end, so we packed up the tent — it had been so nice to sleep in the same place for over two weeks! Henry hosted a final kava night and we had a lovely relaxed evening with him and his cousin Conrad. With help from Rhonda and Henry, we got booked on the “Y2”, a smaller (and cheaper) boat that makes the run from the Yasawas to the “mainland” once or twice a week. It is used mainly by locals, and those who traveled with us had many bags full of land crabs to be sold at the market in Lautoka.
Soon after sunrise, Henry, Rhonda and Ben took us across the channel in their boat, where we transfered all our bags (including a couple from the beach clean-up) onto the Y2. It left at about 7:30am.
The Y2 was certainly smaller, slower and louder than the Ocean Dreamer (the boat we arrived on), and when the sun hit, was it ever hot! We were served tea and crackers in the morning, and a lunch of chicken, noodles, and veggies. Apart from eating, we mostly rested during the 6-hour voyage, or tried to keep our eyes on the horizon to avoid becoming seasick!
About an hour out of a Lautoka, the passengers on a small boat were waving at us in some sort of distress. When I noticed they were waving gas cans, I realized they were out of fuel! The crew of the Y2 threw them a line and towed them into port.
Once in port, it took some persistence to get a rental car. It seems that most places (except for the big-name companies at the airport) will not accept credit cards! Since our insurance is dependent on us paying for the rental with VISA, we really couldn’t budge on that one. So, after having no success at Singh’s, we contacted Classic Car Rental who agreed to take payment on the credit card. We had decided to rent a car in order to see some of the countryside of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island (which is surprisingly big!)
We spent a couple of hours in Lautoka. First, we visited the market where we thought we’d buy a pineapple because the price looked so good to us. After paying, we realized that it was actually the price for a stack of 4 pineapples! The bananas and mangoes were cheap, too.
Jake had expressed the wish to spend some of his money from Gramma on a “bula shirt”, a floral-patterned shirt that is popular throughout the Pacific. Since every store had a different selection and Christmas deal, we ended up going into at least a dozen shops before Jake settled on which shirt he wanted to buy.
Then we drove out of town in search of budget accommodation (preferably near the beach, since we had become spoiled during our stay on Tavewa!) We found the Bamboo Hostel, and stayed in their dorm. They have a beach, restaurant, hammocks, wifi, and happy hour. What else could anyone need?
The next day, we drove down to Natadola Beach (like I said, we had become beach snobs). On the way, we passed dozens of little mango stands, many sugarcane plantations, and were intrigued by the small gauge railway that ran along the side of the road. Apparently it was used during colonial times to transport the sugarcane to processing facilities. Then it was back to Nadi to drop off the car at the airport and board our plane to Vanuatu.
What a fabulous introduction to island life and Melanesian culture we had in Fiji! Vinaka, vinaka to our wonderful hosts!
Just touched down in Auckland, NZ. The captions for the Christmas blog posted yesterday did not come through. They’re there now. We’ll post a few more stories from Fiji, then tell you about our fascinating time in Vanuatu.
Swimming and snorkeling were almost daily activities during our stay in Fiji. And there was no shortage of new reefs to explore right around Tavewa. The fish were plentiful and the coral was exquisite. Rhonda and Henry made sure we went out for a night snorkel with flashlights, and also got to see the large coral ‘bommies’ where she and Henry had their underwater wedding ceremony 10 years ago!
Rhonda, and especially Henry, have been involved with kayaking in the Yasawas for a long time. In fact, on their property is a storage shed full of kayaks and other equipment used by South Sea Ventures, a small company that offers guided kayak trips with stops in local villages. Their tourist season runs from about March to September. We were eager to get out on the water and planned an overnight trip to circumnavigate the island of Natacawa Levu (the one with the school we visited). Most of the island was, at one time, part of the Catholic Mission that ran the school as well as a coconut plantation.
Camp food was organized and packed, and we rolled up our tent and bedding to bring along. We set off after lunch on November 30th in a flotilla of 3 doubles and one single kayak.
We paddled to a lovely sand beach surrounded by thick forest.
One type of tree there drops “helicopter” seeds a bit like maple keys but with two wings — they were fun to play with.
Of course there was great snorkeling around the beach and Henry knew exactly where to take us depending on the tide. We saw beautiful table corals, soft corals that would change colour when touched, and a wide variety of reef fish. We didn’t manage to catch any, but luckily Rhonda had brought chilli for dinner which was heated over the campfire and enjoyed with a cold can of Fiji Gold!
We watched a spectacular south pacific sunset and fell asleep to the lulling sound surf.
Next morning, we went snorkeling again before continuing our circumnavigation. The last thing we did on the beach was to clean up the plastic bottles and shoes. Yes, shoes! I cannot believe how many flip-flops and crocs are washed up on beaches. The plastics are a terrible and growing problem for sea life. We didn’t have a good way to carry or dispose of the dozens of bottles we found, so I am embarrassed to admit that we burned them. With a bit of research later, we realized that that was not the best choice as lots of toxins are released if the fire is not at the ultra-high temperature of an incinerator. Anyway, after the kayak trip, we were motivated to find out more about recycling and disposal of water bottles in Fiji. Cam will write about that.
We stopped at a village on the other side of the island where Henry’s cousin (Mathias, I think?) and his family live.
We continued around the island, stopping every now and then to rest our arms, stretch our legs, and swim. Everyone we met along the way seemed to offer us fruit! We got back ‘home’ mid-afternoon. What a great way to get re-acquainted with sea kayaking, something Cam and I hadn’t done since our pre-kid days out on the west coast!