Monday, July 18, 2011

South Pacific - Rotorua and the Waka Village

The morning dawned frosty and crisp.  We had a wonderful breakfast buffet... more muesli for me and then out to take a look at the hotel grounds in the morning.  The sun was sparkling on the crunchy grass out by Lake Rotorua

It's hard to believe that it's the midst of summer back home and our family is sweltering as we slip on the icy boards walking on the protective boardwalk to the lake. 

We were warned that if we go out to the lake, we should not leave the safety of the boardwalk and venture out onto the unstable rocky ground.  The lava runs very close to the surface of the grounds all over the Rotorua area and people have been known to crack through the thin surface from time to time and it's not good... That warning was good enough for me but we did see some people walking out onto the rocks.

This day is for touring and our first adventure is the Duck Tour.  We were herded aboard this 1948 WWII amphibious vehicle whose top speed is a rollicking 30 mph for a tour about town.

It's an open air vehicle with roll-down window coverings similar to those on sailboats.  We were all shivering and blowing smoke clouds as we went.  We were all given duck toys that made ridiculous duck noises which we blew whenever we encountered people.  This always brought a new wave of giggles from the kids.

Our first "step" into Blue Lake was a bit disconcerting...  One second we're on the road, and the next we're in the water and miraculously.... puttering right along.  The lake is a bowl shaped volcanic crater.

We made a loop out onto the lake with rolling commentary about the history of the area to keep us entertained.  There are very expensive homes and vacation properties dotting the shore in some areas, but it is mostly undeveloped leaving nature's beauty for all to enjoy.  The water is very clean and crystal clear.

Upon leaving the water, the driver stopped and got out to check the undersides of the vehicle for lake weeds.  Evidently there is a problem with growth of a particular type of water plant that the ecologically conscious Kiwis wish to keep from spreading to other lakes.  We were banned from entering Lake Rotorua due to it's weed problem.  Our next stop was lake Okareka.

We had the opportunity to get up close and personal with a beautiful Black Swan.  I've never seen one before and was fascinated by the grace and beauty of this bird. He/She? paddled right up to the shore, probably to see if we had any handouts... sadly we did not. I fell in love with the ruffled bootie.

Next stop... the Waka Village.  Or to be more specific....Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao.  Yeah we're sticking with the Waka Villiage for short! 

We walked across a bridge over a narrow running stream and into a world unlike any I've ever seen. 

Within this tiny village, there are about 65 or so people who live very strange lives.  They live around and among thousands of vents that emit a continuous fog of sulfur smelling super heated steam. 

The ground is very thin here and there are many areas fenced off where it is too dangerous to walk.  It was a cool day but almost balmy here in all this steamy fog.

A native Maori woman was our guide.  As she took us through the village, she explained how the people use what, to most people, would seem to be a disadvantage... they've turned it into a way of life.  Scattered among the homes are boxes built over the smaller vent holes.  Inside the boxes, they have placed grills on which the villagers can place foil packets of food.  They leave the food for 2 hours or more and when they return, it's done!  Whole meals are prepared in this way.  The good thing about it is that if you leave the food for more than 2 hours, it is just as good.  Moist, flavorful and healthy without being dried out. 

Every morning and evening the villagers gather to bathe in the super heated spring water.  There was once a pool where the mineral springs collected, but there was a shift and a huge crack opened up and the water all drained out leaving only mineral deposit formations on the rock bed. 

What is a villager to do?  They routed the spring water to fill four rectangular pools where they can come and soak away the worries of a villager's life.  They fill these tubs each morning and evening.  They come and soak using no soap, but depending on the properties of the waters to cleanse them. Their simple way of life was charming, although I could see myself skipping a bath or two if I had to dash from my home to the warm pool in this cool air.

We continued up the hillside through the center of the village past the tiny church.  The cemetary is there beside the church with all of the graves being above ground due to the underground activity.  I guess with a population of only 65 people, you don't need a very big cemetary.

The youth of the village are moving away leaving only a few of the more traditionally minded to live the old way.  There weren't many people out and about in the streets.  Everything was clean and orderly, kind of like a modern day Western.

We stopped to see one of the many bubbling mud pits scattered about the area.  It was fascinating to stand and watch the steady blup blup of the gasses rising up through the thick mud.  They made ever widening rings.  There are mud baths in the area but this was too hot for humans.  They say that the mineral infused mud has many beneficial properties.  We'll see...

On our way back down the hill, we stopped at the village lodge.  It was a traditional meeting place where the villagers hold ceremonies.  All of the little spots you see on the totems are made of carved abalone shell.  We were not allowed to enter this sacred place. 

This carved totem shows the tattooed face that is a symbol of status among the Maori people.  This is still practiced in NZ today and we saw several people with tattooed faces.  Only the elders and people of high social status are allowed to wear the tattoos. 

We left the Waka Village and continued on our tour of the area.  I'll stop here and continue the day in a new post.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

South Pacific On to New Zealand

We had a 4:30 wake up call scheduled but I was awake before 3:30 am.  Time Travel is tough...We dressed and joined Vic and the kids for a VIP smooth trip to the airport.  We did some last minute duty free shopping in the airport at the very favorable Fijian exchange rate then hopped aboard a flight that would last just over 3 hours.   Next stop... New Zealand!  Once on the ground, we met up with the other groups that would be our companions for the rest of our journey aboard a posh tour bus for about a three hour road trip to Rotorua.

While our eyes soaked up the beauty of the lush green rolling hillsides, Vic filled our minds with endless facts and stories about New Zealand.  The Lord of the Rings was filmed here and there is currently another movie being filmed, The Hobbit, at a top secret location.  Gasoline costs $8.10 per gallon at the unfavorable NZ exchange rate.  With all of the grazing land, lamb is huge here.  Seafood is also big.  Meat pies are found everywhere and highly recommended and Asian food is also common.  New Zealand is made largely up of the North Island and the South Island and numerous smaller islands.  We stayed on the North Island, where Auckland is the largest city.  New Zealanders are called Kiwis. 

The movement of two tectonic plates here causes a lot of volcanic activity.  The country moves 1.2 inches towards the equator each year. This picture shows the puff of smoke drifting upward from the land as evidence of the subterranean activity.

The Tasman Sea lies between Australia and NZ and is often called "the ditch".  Cook Strait lies between North and South Island.  We will see these later in our travels.  NZ is largely agricultural with wool, mutton, beef and dairy being the dominant exports.  Bats are the only indigenous mammals here and there are NO SNAKES in New Zealand.  The Brushtail Possum are a problem here as they multiply rapidly and threaten agriculture.  What to do?  Combine their fur with silk and Merino wool to create a very warm and soft fabric! Possum Silk!  I bought scarves, gloves and socks.  Everyone should have a pair of Possum socks!

The people of NZ are very aware of the damaging rays of the sun this close to the equator.  The whole country is very conscious of the risks of skin cancer.  The slogan: SLIP (on a shirt)- SLOP (on some sunscreen)- SLAP (on a hat) is heard everywhere.  The government has created laws to protect it's citizens.  Companies must supply employees with PPE's or Personal Protection Equipment if it's workers are exposed to the sun.  Long sleeved shirts, hats and gloves...  School children are taught at an early age how to identify changes in moles that could signify cancer.  The social conscience here is refreshing. 

We arrived in Rotorua (second lake) and my eyes darted everywhere trying to soak it all up.  It's very quaint with a "European" flavor.  Lots of buildings that look like we've arrived in Germany instead of a town in the South Pacific.  Strange wafts of smoke rise from the ground everywhere and the smell of sulphur permeates the air.  Our hotel looks like a ski chalet and is nestled up to a beautiful serene lake with black swans cruising lazily around.  Did I mention that it's WINTER HERE? 

We checked in and were given our room keys... yes Room Keys.  The hotel Sudima.  I loved the place instantly.  You can "feel the 50's" here.  Our room has a dilapidated radiator for heat which was definitely NOT working.  We had to get some space heaters which warmed us up nicely.  It was nice to relax with a hot cup of coffee after a long day of travelling. 

Dinner was at 6:30.  Many of our group gathered before dinner in the hotel lobby where there was Internet access.  But for that, the place looked like something out of an old Dean Martin movie.  We were invited to dinner by the Chief and villagers who would later perform for us.

Dinner was a buffet consisting of authentic local dishes including the sweet potato called kumara.  It's very different from our sweet potato.  The dinner was strange and while Michael embraced it, I was not so sure...

Vic had given us the heads up about the desserts so I was saving my appetite.  I was not disappointed!  There was the heavenly Pavlova!  OMG it was good and I stuffed myself.

Just as we were finishing our dinner and chatting with our Canadian companions, the natives came back in with a rush of guttural sounds.  Its time for the Haka!

We were treated to an informative story and dance about the origin of this traditional Maori dance, complete with loud grunts, wild eyes and tongues out!  Oh and don't forget the body slapping!  The purpose of all this was to appear scary to the enemy.  It works for me!

There was a crowd participation opportunity and our Michael joined others of our group to learn some Maori moves...

Melissa got in on the action as well, with a lesson in the use of the traditional Poi Balls.  These women really know how to wield a ball...  I would probably have knocked myself in the head!

We were all released to do as we pleased after the show.  Some went to the hot springs pool while others spent the evening surfing the Internet and updating their Facebook.  Of course I went off to dreamland with every expectation of another action packed day with an early start. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

South Pacific 2011 Fiji

I was already awake when our 6 am wake up call came in.  I felt refreshed in our Bula and ready to meet the day.  We had a lovely buffet breakfast poolside with lots of choices.  I had Muesli and fruit with plenty of strong hot coffee and real cream.  We had a half day excursion into town planned but the kids couldn't wait to get back to the resort and play in the pool.  I was also looking forward to a little down time...

Lydia took us all off on a bus with several stops in mind.  While we travelled, she told us about her home.  Fiji is a commonwealth of the British crown.  The average person here makes about $8,000 per year in Fiji dollars while Lawyers and Doctors make between $30,000 and $40,000 per year.  The average person pays 50cents for a stay in the hospital, 10cents for vaccinations and rides public transportation.  Drs and Lawyers have private cars and health insurance which gets them preferential treatment in the private health care sector.  Children go to school in their villages through grade 8 where they learn English, math and science along with a native language like Fijian or Hindustani, but to move to the next grade level, they must only pass English.  Over grade 8 is college then university.  Students may study to be Drs, Lawyers, Teachers, Engineers and Nurses in Fiji.  All other professions are learned in New Zealand or Australia.  Big companies pay scholarships in return for years of service. 

Tourism and Sugar are the major industries in Fiji.  Sugar cane grows for 6 months per year and the harvest lasts the other 6 months.  We passed people working in the fields and Lydia stopped our bus so that we could get out and get some pictures.  I felt like it was disrespectful to take pictures of these people at work and asked Lyda how the workers felt about it.  She said that the workers on the islands know that tourism is important to their economy so they don't mind.  She also said that the people of Fiji feel that it is a good thing that their likeness travels with us to counties that they will never see. 

The men waived as we boarded our bus and continued on our way.  There are tiny railway tracks on which equally tiny trains carry the cut cane to the processing plants.  They connected the far reaches of the countryside.  Luckily for the workers, even though it is mid-day, it's still very nice out in the sunshine and fresh air. 

Lydia pointed out a landmark here on Viti-Levu, a mountain range called the Sleeping Giant.  We were on our way to our first stop at the base of the mountain where we would visit an orchid farm. 

The Orchid Farm was named appropriately...

You might wonder why anyone would want to visit an orchid farm. 

Well I did too, but was glad we did.  I had no idea that there were so many types of orchid. 

There are more than 240 growing in this garden.  These Dancing Ladies were my favorite! 

The gardens were lush and rich with all kinds of tropical plants.  We walked the boardwalks and marvelled at the beauty while breathing in the sweet moist air.

The trails led from sunshine back to the dense shadow...

 and alongside Lily strewn ponds.  We could have spent hours here watching the way the changing sunlight touched the dewy leaves in silence, but we had to be on our way.  After a quick glass of fresh juice back at the park pavilion, we boarded our bus for the next destination. 

Our bus climbed up a steep hill where we were all treated to a private view belonging to the owner of EF Tours.  I guess that's a perk of being a travel company owner... you get to pick the best place to settle down.

Lydia introduced us to some of the native fruits growing in the garden here.

There were breadfruits and bananas, lemons and limes... Really big limes... YES LIMES!

We posed for a group photo.  All of these are Melissa's students and a parent.  We had the tour all to ourselves in Fiji.  Three other groups would join us in New Zealand but this was an add-on to the South Pacific Tour. 

We were treated to a fruit snack, all things grown here on this mountaintop plantation.  I enjoyed the tiny little banana.  It tasted just like a real banana!  But it was so CUTE!

I looked out over the water and saw a cruising sailboat lazily motoring along.  I really missed Bruce at times like these... I want us to hop on that boat and head out to paradise.

We were bustled back onto the bus for the drive to our next stop.  But before I could board, Lydia gave Melissa and I sarongs to wear over our shorts.  We would be visiting a village and women weren't allowed to wear pants in the village. Shoulders must also be covered but it is forbidden to cover your head.  Here I stand in the village courtyard where behind me, you see the chief's house.  The only building that is allowed to be higher up than the Chief's home is the church, also central in each village.  All other homes are built on ground level. 

These villages are true communities with everyone helping raise the children and bring in money.  They share almost everything.  There were some women selling trinkets that we were told would bring personal money but the husband's employment brought income to the community as a whole. 

We boarded the bus to travel to our next brief stop.  The Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Hindu Temple was very beautiful and fraught with rules.  Heathens that we are, we needed herding like kindergartners so that we did not do anything to offend the worshipers here. 

We could only photograph the outside from beyond the fence, but we were allowed to remove our shoes and silently walk through the temple. I was able to find these bootlegged pics and they almost do the real thing justice.  Here is one of my favorites depicting  Ganesh, "Remover of Obstacles" or God of Success!

We had a very heavily accented Hindu Priest guide us through the temple. He spoke quietly and we understood very little of what he actually said, but soaked up the feel of it all while gazing at these beautiful works of religious art. 

Next we collected our shoes and turned over our sarongs to board the bus once again.  Next stop, the market!  It was a typical open air market much like you would see anywhere. 

There were definitely some strange things you WOULDN'T see anywhere... These seagrapes for instance. Not today...  I'm sure I could find a recipe on the Internet...

The Market was sprawling and bustling with business.  Packed with fruits and vegetables of every imaginable shape and size. 

We hustled through the fish market, thankfully enclosed to keep the overpowering stench IN!

Michael brought up the rear having spent way too much time with the fish... what's that smell?  He purchased some fruit to take back to the Resort.  I think we ended up leaving it with Lydia without ever tasting it.

The last stop of the day before returning to the Resort for some long awaited R&R, was the town of Nadi.  We picked up some souvenirs and then went to the grocery store to get some sandwich stuff to feed the kids for dinner.  We would be at the resort and hadn't seen anything on the dinner menu that would interest the kids.  We had lunch at the deli where we found Indian food, mostly unrecognizable.  I learned that there are many different interpretations to the term "Roti".  It all worked out.

Melissa and I shopped at the meat counter for cold cuts which was quite the adventure.  The Nadi pictures were lost so I found these on the Internet but this is the place.  The deli meats were made on premise and looked like meat playdoh formed into patties.  I was skeptical that the kids would touch it but they later proved me wrong and ate the lamb patties up. 

We were redeposited at the Sonaisali Resort for the rest of the day.  Yay!  Some free time! 

We all split up and went our separate ways for a while.  Melissa and Michael took a romantic walk on the beach and had a little fun...

Finally Michael got his "alone time"...

I took full advantage of this time as well.  I found a secluded spot in a lounge chair on the water and caught up on my journaling.  I appreciated the silent beauty at my feet as I watched the sun setting over a distant island across the water.  Again I missed my husband as I felt the warm sun on my face...

Melissa and Michael came by and collected me to join them in the hot tub.  We found it more of a cold tub but it was very soothing to our travel battered bodies.

The kids were already at the pool when we arrived.  They really are the greatest group of young people I've had the pleasure of knowing. 

We had some deep discussions and some fun times too. 

We enjoyed the beauty around us and I felt it was the perfect time for an Island Sunset Photo to send back to my husband in the States...

We all watched as the last rays of the day disappeared with a sigh...

Dinner time!  We gathered poolside at the hotel dining room where Melissa handed out the sandwiches we had made from the afternoon's purchases.  They devoured them!  Amazing! 

Vic, our fearless leader suddenly stepped off into the pool and began looking up at the sky.  Soon... we were all standing shin deep in the pool looking up.  It was quite funny as other diners passed by and obviously wondered what we were doing.  Vic was giving us all an astronomy lesson!

The Southern Cross was the highlight for me as I've never seen it.  I've enjoyed sailing songs about it so this was a special moment for me.  I attempted to catch it on digital with mild success.  Maybe you can pick it out on the right.

After dinner I went off to bed while Melissa and Michael enjoyed the resort's evening entertainment show.  I'm sorry to have missed it but enjoyed their pics.

The serene image of the moon on the water was all I needed to cast me off into deep slumber after a full day.