Dear self-proclaimed “da craterman, world famous in Samoa”,
It’s been a week since I returned from Las Vegas and I’m still not sure what to tell people when they ask me how it was. I don’t want to sound whiny and ungrateful and it’s also not true to say I hated it. But it’s fair to say I won’t be heartbroken if I never return. I guess it didn’t help that I was there for work and it is winter so days are short and I hardly saw any sunshine during that week. That said, with a good amount of money and super low expectations, I can see myself having fun there again. So anyway, here are 10 random facts about my week in Vegas and some random photos from the trip as well.
1. Flying business class is the shit. I know it makes me sound like Karl Pilkington (the one who didn’t want to fly to China and eat toad in case he liked it and couldn’t get it back in the UK) but the problem with being flown long-haul in business class (on someone else’s dime) is that economy class is now forever ruined for me. Seriously, having your own bed on the plane is amazing. Also, unlimited wine. Enough said.
2. When I landed in Vegas and got out of the plane and into the terminal, I saw at least 100 slot machines before I could spot the sign for the bathrooms. Priorities there are just a little bit screwed up.
3. I have apparently become too used to the small scale of things in New Zealand. Everything in Vegas seems built for giants, from the size of the buildings to the size of their drink glasses.
4. It is way safer than I imagined. Having watched about 34,560 episodes of Cops, I was expecting to have guns pointed at me. Missed out on that American experience, clearly, and met some really nice people instead.
5. The noise of the slot machines can get really annoying really quickly.
6. I’m now pretty used to getting electric shocks every time I touch my mousepad or call an elevator. Static electricity also meant I couldn’t wear my hair down without looking like I’d been sticking my fingers into power plugs.
7. I am terrible at packing for a trip on my own and will forget the most basic of items.
8. Some people’s stomachs can handle getting drunk early in the morning. Not mine.
9. I get why people talk about the fountains at the Bellagio so much. I’ve got no photographic evidence of having seen them at night but it’s okay because I remember it well and it was pretty damn cool.
10. It is possible to function with only a very limited amount of sleep for days in a row. But then you’ll fly back home and crash and want to sleep for two weeks straight. With that in mind, nap time!
When I got on that small propeller plane from Port Vila to Tanna, my only purpose for the 26 hours I would be spending on that island was to go up to the top of Mt Yasur on New Years Eve. In fact, going up to the top of that volcano on New Years Eve was pretty much the main purpose of my entire trip to Vanuatu. Anything else, I thought, would be bonus. Standing on top of that volcano is still one of the best experiences I have ever had and certainly a highlight of my trip to Vanuatu. And then, on the morning of the first day of 2012, we asked Tom, the Ni-Vanuatu that built the bungalow we were staying at on Tanna, if he would help us get to a kastom village.
I had done a fair bit of reading on kastom villages in Vanuatu and on the previous day, taking the long way round to the volcano, we had stopped at the main John Frum village for a few brief minutes. We wanted to find out more about these tribes and their fascinating way of living. Tom got his 4wd truck and drove us to the highlands of Tanna. We went as far as the 4wd could go and then hiked a little over 1km into the jungle to get to this tribe, completely isolated in the highlands.
To say we were amazed by what we experienced with that tribe would be an understatement .As the only two white people visiting them at the time, we felt like we had made a great group of friends (who, apart from two girls, didn’t even speak our language).
Speaking of that, as an aside, one of the things that fascinated me the most about Tanna, being a bit of a linguistics nerd and all, was the fact that the whole island is only about 45km long (so, really, quite small) and yet there are apparently five different languages spoken by the different tribes. Languages so different that different tribes cannot understand each other. Our drivers on the previous day had to stop to ask for directions and had to use Bislama (the Pidgin English from Vanuatu) to communicate with the guy they were talking to (the guy was holding a machete but thankfully communication was successful and no one got hurt). It is quite amazing to think that some of those tribes, living so close to each other by our standards, never even cross paths, never communicate. That’s how isolated they are. Isolated from the western world, isolated from neighbouring tribes. That isolation leads to truly special things like the survival of those different languages – how amazing is that? But anyway, enough with the linguistics nerdgasm.
We were welcomed to their common area and, among other things, one of the women tied a grass skirt around my waist – I should have remembered that I’d read that above the knee shorts were not appropriate attire for a woman visting a kastom tribe. Oops.
We only spent a couple of hours with them but they were filled with special moments. They showed us their traditional dances, hitting their feet so hard on the ground it almost shook beneath us again like we were still on top of the volcano, they showed us how they attack other people with bow and arrows and darts(and I showed them I’m a total loser when it comes to handling all of those), we planted kava and taro with/for them…
At one point, C. was invited to drink Kava with the tribe chief and went away while I stayed with the women. Women aren’t allowed to drink kava with men. I thought I wouldn’t be allowed to try it at all (and I can’t say the thought of not trying a drink made from roots of a plant that a group of boys chewed and then spat out was bothering me). But a few minutes later, while one of the two girls of the tribe who could speak English was explaining me that she had to walk a full day each time she went to English lessons on another part of the island, a little boy came and handed me half a coconut shell full of kava. I took a sip, my mouth went numb to the point when I couldn’t tell whether it was open or closed, I remembered that I was drinking what the kids had been chewing and handed him back the shell. C. later told me that the kid took my shell back to the men group and the tribe chief drank the rest of it as well as the rest of C.’s shell in one go. Respect. To minimise the effects of the kava, the chief then offered us taro and coconut he had cooked on the fire. I committed another faux-pas by looking at the chief in the eye as he handed me the food. He didn’t seem to mind too much, which was lucky because I saw how good those guys are with the bows and arrows.
One of my favourite moments was when, probably influenced by Kava (I’m kind of a lightweight when it comes to that sort of stuff), I decided to join them for some of the dances. The kids immediately held my hands and guided me through the different moves. They looked up at me every now and then and smiled and I smiled back and the fact that we couldn’t communicate with each other verbally was not a problem. In the end, every single person in the tribe shook our hands. A couple of the girls decided to hug me and touch my face with theirs so I got some of their traditional pain on my face. It was a gesture of friendship, I didn’t need to speak their language to understand that. I replied with the only Bislama I knew and just said “tangkyu tumas”.
What we got in those two hours was a unique glimpse into a way of living so different than ours, it is hard for me to get my little western brain around it. It is a way of life that has not changed in centuries and, judging from how happy these people are, is not likely to change anytime soon. In fact, from what I read and could gather in Vanuatu, it’s not like these tribes are unaware of western civilisation or alternative ways of living. They know other ways of life exist, they know about TV and other western inventions. They want nothing to do with it. And when you look at the size of their smiles, you realise they don’t need any of that to be happy. And you leave wondering why you do.
We layered up just as we had been told to and set on our walk pretty early in the morning (from memory, I think it was about 7AM when we started).
We had 19.4km of a World Heritage Site ahead of us and we’d been told to be prepared for a tough walk. I don’t want to say it was easy because, well, it wasn’t and I also don’t want anyone to read this, get the wrong idea and go completely under-prepared. If you’re reasonably fit and you’ve done a few long hikes before and you’re used to uneven and sometimes difficult terrain, then you’re probably ready.
The first 3km are flat and maybe even a little bit boring, compared to what’s ahead. Around 5km into it (distances may be slightly off because I suck at judging distances), we got to what people call “the devil’s staircase”, a steep uphill climb during which I wanted to die about 23 times. But I didn’t die and we made it to the top and it wasn’t long (relatively speaking) before we reached the Red Crater and I got all excited about life again.
We walked and walked and walked, much slower than I’d hoped we would (because super idiotic girl had injured her foot the day before – and yes, I’m talking about myself in third person). Then we got to the Emerald Lakes and the way I verbalised it may have even included some swear words but it was something along the lines of “oh dear, those are some very pretty lakes”.
The lakes are about halfway along the hike and we decided to stop there to have our lunch. Not a wise decision, unless you don’t mind eating with the smell of sulphur that comes from the lakes. For lunch that day, I had ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches with a side of sulphur fragrance. Yum. Still, it was pretty much the most amazing place to have lunch.
The second half of the hike is much, much easier. It’s pretty much all downhill and, even though it seems to go on and on forever, it gets really pleasant past the Ketetahi Hut, once you get into the bush.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing (the “alpine” was added to its official name in 2007 to point out to people it’s not just a stroll in the park) is the best day hike I’ve ever done. It’s wild enough but not too wild, hard enough but not too challenging, long enough but not too strenuous. And boy is it gorgeous! It’s no wonder it is rated as the best day-hike in New Zealand and constantly ranked in the world’s top 10.
We’ve done it one more time since this first time (which happened a couple of years ago) and battled some really nasty weather on the second time. So terrible I don’t even like remembering that day because I don’t want it clouding the memory of the first one. The weather wasn’t perfect on our first visit (as you can see from a couple of these photos) but it was certainly not as life-threatening as on the second time. Now I have to go back when it’s sunny so I can get some proper photos.
Remember that, even though it’s only day-hike, it is a hike through quite challenging terrain in a mountainous area. If you’re going:
- Layer up! No matter what time of the year you visit, you’ll experience a wide range of temperatures while you’re there. Wear waterproof clothing but also don’t forget your hat and sunglasses. It gets freezing up there… and then it gets stinking hot.
- Take plenty of water and food. You’ll be walking for anything between 6 and 8 hours so stuff those snack bars in your backpack. And yes, that Mars bar can go too.
- Dust off the sturdy hiking boots and maybe throw in a walking pole for extra comfort (I find that my walking pole really helps on the uphills)
- Wear gloves. My hands were freezing both times even though I was wearing gloves. I don’t want to think what I would have felt like if I didn’t have them.
- If you possible, stay the night in the area after the walk. Your legs will thank you for not cramming them inside a car for hours right afterwards.
- Remember that you’ll be walking through exposed volcanic terrain and that the weather can change quite quickly and unexpectedly. Winds can get really, really strong up there and visibility can be reduced to pretty much zero (flashbacks to my second time on the track). Don’t underestimate it.
We only had one day in Apia (the capital of Samoa, on Upolu island) before catching the ferry across to Savai’i so the list of things we could see there had to be very limited. On top of that list was seeing the house where Robert Louis Stevenson had lived, as well as the place where he was buried, on top of Mount Vaea.
With no time to waste, we landed in Samoa, picked up our rental car, dropped our bags at the hotel (which we chose partially due to its proximity to this particular attraction) and headed straight there. We didn’t make it into the house (now a museum) but accessed the bush track that leads up to his tomb through the museum grounds anyway.
It was an incredibly hot and humid day and our bodies, still very much used to winter, weren’t coping very well with it. The hike is not long but it is fairly steep so we were glad we had taken plenty of fluids to keep us going. You can choose the short and steep track or the long and supposedly easier one. We chose short and steep because, really, we just wanted to get up there and be done with the hiking part of it.
After a brief moment of panic, when we had to stop for me to regain my dignity and stop crying because I’d seen a big black lizard staring right at me (remembering it now still makes me a little shaky, if I’m honest), we started the steep climb.
Having what felt like a hundred mosquitoes choosing me as their dinner for the day on top of the hill meant that we were only there long enough to take a few photos and admire how lucky RLS is to be forever resting facing those views from the top of the hill (and he didn’t even have to climb it himself!). He loved Samoa and Samoa loved him back – and still does. The name Stevenson is everywhere, proving he’s still a very important part of Samoa’s life.
The day was cloudy and we even got some much welcome rain on our hike back down so I can only imagine how much more spectacular those views must be on a clear day. Not a bad resting spot, Robert Louis. Not bad at all.
The Alofa’aga Blowholes in Savai’i are one of the coolest things to see in Samoa. The whole visit takes only a few minutes but the blowholes are pretty impressive, even on a calm day like the one when we visited, last Saturday.
I’m no expert on these things but the internet says these blowholes are among the most impressive in the world and who am I to doubt the internet, right? We didn’t have much time and had to make a short list of the shortlisted things to see in Samoa but I’m glad we included a visit to this place.
We visited the blowholes during my Saturday of doom – I was sick the entire day (and by sick I mean I felt like I had gone to Savai’i to spend my final day). It’s surprising I even remember seeing these, since I don’t actually remember everything from that day.
Still, I marveled at how high the water goes when it roars through the lava tubes and, most of all, I marveled at John’s braveness as the old Samoan villager threw coconuts into the blowhole, only to have them spat out in his direction just a second or two later. His timing was impeccable and he always moved to the right place, which makes me think he’s quite experienced at it.
The blowholes can be accessed through the village of Taga, in South Savai’i. You will pay a small access fee to one of the villagers and can then park very close to the blowholes.
We had the company of some village kids who no doubt see this phenomenon all the time but still stood near us while we watched it.
…and it was equal parts terrifying and divine. But mostly divine.
In any case, normal blogging should resume now. I’ve got a handful of posts I want to write about the three and a half days I spent exploring Samoa but, for now, I’ve got to save my words for NaNoWriMo, which I desperately need to catch up on. I haven’t written a single word for it in over a week (which, yes, is making me rethink the whole thing). I logged onto the website for the first time in days today and the little dashboard thing told me that, at this rate, I’ll be finishing my novel on January 13, 2012. Boy, do I have a crap load of writing to get done in the next few days!
I also didn’t run at all while I was in Samoa and had a pretty pathetic excuse for a run today – the final run before the half-marathon this saturday. I had the best intentions and took all my running gear with me to Samoa but sunday was the only day when I actually had free time to go for a run (after feeling sick as a dog on friday and saturday) and I was told jogging/running was not recommended on sundays as it is a rest day in Samoa. I’m not one to offend anyone’s costumes and beliefs (at least not intentionally) so the running clothes came back to Auckland untouched.
Stress levels? Pretty much back to really freaking high. I’m a lot less fit and a lot more unprepared for this half-marathon compared to the last one (and this is a very objective statement) so I can only count on the track and the weather and the running gods to help me out on the day.
And to think that it was just yesterday that I was taking the photo above…