Thursday, January 1, 2015


And Then I broke my toe.  My big toe. on my right foot.
Luckily I had done my whale-swimming and my snorkeling, and biking, and really anything that needed any physical activity at all, because pretty much everything was impossible at this point.

This was on Thursday night.

The exciting version of the story is that I was being initiated into a Tongan tribe, and the rite of passage is that they grab hold of your toe and just break it.

The truth is nothing like that.
I was going to try to find "Mike" to relay a phone message. He was possibly staying at the same place as me, so I went outside in the dark to see if he was upstairs (you have to go outside to go upstairs). It was completely dark outside, no outside lights, and as i was going down my 2 steps to the main porch, I realized there was people sitting on the stairs that continue down off the porch (and are quite large and jagged), so I tried to stop quickly as I wasn't sure exactly where these people were and didn't want to fall over them down the main stairs. As I stopped short, I went up on my right toes, but my foot slipped forward off the step, landing in a pointed position, and then the rest of my body collapsed down directly onto my heel, thus making my big toe curl underneath me farther than any toe has ever curled before. And for everyone else's sake, I hope it is farther than any toe will ever curl again, because it was incredibly painful...

The people on the steps in the dark apologized. I asked if the guy was Mike, and he said no, so I limped back to the phone, announced that Mike wasn't there, and just limped back to my room. The people from the steps came to talk to me, but as we chatted, I could just feel my foot swelling. So as soon as I convinced them that everything was fine, I spent the rest of the evening lying on my bed with my foot propped as high as I could get it. I had no ice, but I did have an ibuprofen in my toiletry bag.  So that was my treatment for the night.

Next morning, I wedged my foot into my tennis shoe, and headed to the airport to catch a flight back to the main island group of Tongatapu.
Once I finally made it to my next resort, it ended up being way nicer than I had imagined, and was very relieved to see this room waiting for me:

With this view:

My beach bungalow for the weekend:

After a quick limp around to briefly check out the grounds, I parked it on a beach chair, and didn't get more than 500 yards from it for 48 hours.

I tried to put on a happy face

Which wasn't actually too hard, considering that I was sitting in paradise:

If I got tired of that view, I would hobble over to a different chair for a slight change of scenery:

On the way from the airport, their shuttle driver informed me that I should stop and grab some food as this place is pretty far away from town, and that they don't cook on sundays. Unfortunately, the place we stopped at for food had a bunch of snacks instead of real groceries. So my Sunday diet consisted of cookies and chips and soda. That's it. All day. And if  you think I"m complaining, I'm not. The little store did have some Paracetamol (tylenol), so that was pretty good.

So between the Paracetamol and the incredible weather, I was able to distract myself from the pain.

There were even times I tried to go exploring out on the cliffs on each end of my beach, and once even waded out to the reef edge. These expeditions usually lasted about 5 minutes before i gave up and then had to walk backwards up the sandy beach to get up to where the chairs were. Walking forward involved my toe having to move, whereas if I walked backwards on my heel, I could get through it.

One really cool thing about Tongatapu is that for several miles along the coast, the small barrier reef forms some pretty incredible blow-holes. I was located kind of on the very end of where these start, so there were a bunch of small blow-holes that would blow with each crashing wave. One of the major attractions of the island is to go to the spot where the blowholes are largest, and the water explodes really high into the air with each wave.
These are some of the blowholes in action.

Here's the damage. It doesn't look too bad here, but the bruising was still developing and I kept it propped pretty high most of the time I was there.

Forced relaxation isn't the most relaxing type of relaxation, but I made the most of it.

Here's another pic of the beach.

Needless to say, my elaborate plan of borrowing a traditional waist-wrap from my hotel staff and obtaining an audience with the King (or ambushing him at church) didn't happen. I felt like I needed to be pretty fleet of foot to make that project happen, and I just didn't have it in me to be up and about that much. I did this instead:

Here are some pics from my journeys to the edge of the beach:

It was a really beautiful place, and it was really hard for me to not go running around on all the cliffs and out in the beach more, but the rocks were so uneven and jagged that I just couldn't do it. So frustrating!  (Which ended up being the primary emotion this injury brought to my life for weeks to come...)

Another smile for the camera before the long hobble back to my chair.

I read a book that was set in Tonga, specifically about a mile from where I was sitting, so that was pretty entertaining. It talked about the blowholes a lot, and helped pass a lot of time sitting around.
That bowl of fruit was a bonus gift from the staff at the hotel who felt really bad for me. They were really sweet. The Tongan people are very kind people. They kept coming by to check on me. Saturday evening, a few of them came over together and brought me the bowl of fruit. That was really nice of them, and I was able to hold some of it over for the next day, so I actually ate cookies, chips, soda, and a couple of bananas that day...

There was such a large dining pavillion, but I honestly saw about 3 other travelers there the entire 3 days I was there. I pretty much had the beach to myself aside from about 4 hours the whole weekend. I couldn't believe it.
I was glad, though, because then I could try to limp around and walk backwards up the sand dune and lay in the water and pull myself along the rocks to get out to the reef edge to get this picture:
The water was really shallow for most of the way, only spotted with random deeper pools every so often that made nice little individual swimming holes.

Hoping the ocean has healing powers.

The lagoon.

pretty nice place!

I promise it felt way worse than it looked.

So on Monday morning, the same taxi shuttle driver came to take me back to the airport. He asked if I took any tours or went to see any points of interest, and I told him I really just sat there all weekend because I couldn't walk very far. He felt bad for me, so he drove me by the big blowholes on the way back to the airport so I would 'get to see something good'.  So thoughtful!

So here's what it looks like between the waves:

And then:


So those are the famous blowholes of Tongatapu!  I wish I had more interesting things to talk about from there, or stories of how I got to meet the Royal Family, but things don't always go as planned, and I still think I left Tonga with plenty of memories that I will not be forgetting anytime soon.

By some Miracle, I was still able to stuff my foot into my unlaced tennis shoe, and somehow I ended up with an entire row to myself on my flight back to NZ, where I gathered my luggage, and headed back to the US! By a second miracle, I also had the row to myself on my long-haul flight from Auckland to Los Angeles (and the flight was quite full. there were a lot of people eyeing my spacious row.). The second the plane took off, I propped up my foot and just went to sleep, and stayed that way the whole time. Sorry everyone on the plane, but if you had a broken toe, I would let you have your own row.

And that completed my year abroad!
It was incredible. Indescribable. Irreplaceable.

So thanks to those of you who have been reading along. Thanks to those of you who were a part of the experience. It was quite a ride.

I don't know exactly when I'll be back to NZ, but I will be back. Talk is already starting about a visit. All the good people of Otautau have staked a claim in my heart, and the culture and landscape of this amazing country have made a pretty significant impact on my lifestyle and ways of thinking. I will always feel a connection with this far-away place, and that will keep me coming back for more. I don't know when it will be, but I do know that I am very much looking forward to spending Another Day In New Zealand.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A little Tongan Flavor

One thing I enjoyed about traveling by myself was the complete freedom to just go with the flow without having to think twice about anything.
The day of my snorkeling trip was a good example of that.
I was offered a ride to town that morning by the owners of my hotel. The plan was for them to pick me up right before 9.  At about 7:30, I hear someone calling for me down the hallway. The plan had changed.
Me: Sorry, I'm not ready. I thought we were going to town at 9.
Him: Yea, I need to go pollinate some vanilla and thought you might want to come along and I can drop you in town after. If we leave in 10 minutes, we should have plenty of time to get it finished before your boat leaves.
Me: Sounds great!

And that's how I got to learn all about Vanilla, and how to pollinate it.
So a little before 8, we arrived at one of MANY vanilla fields on the island (it's a booming industry, spear-headed by my hotel owner) and  the vanilla plantations are set amidst the jungly bits on the island. 

Not exactly what we typically think of as a 'field', but that's it!  Vanilla plantation!

And did you know that Vanilla is actually a type of orchid???  I didn't. Very interesting.  so it is a vine that you grow on a host plant that it can drape itself all over.

This is the flower. We had to pollinate them using a twig. You have to get in there inside the flower, sneak under a little flap, then use the twig to gently flip a flap up, then squeeze down and press two specific parts together...  It took some practice, but I had it down by the end. The tricky thing is that you only have about a 24 hour window to get the flowers pollinated, which has to be done by hand (except in Mexico, where a species of bee has been able to pollinate it).  So this is a very labor-intensive process, which is why vanilla beans are so expensive. And the plants are slow-growing if I recall correctly.  

So after my tutorial, we wandered through this field, looking for flowers to pollinate. You could tell the ones that had already been done because you basically crush the flower to pollinate it. I felt a little bad just going around looking for flowers, then smashing them... but it was the task at hand.

About 30 minutes in, I was warned to 'not get bit by a mosquito' because I could get Chikungunya Fever, which is allegedly VERY uncomfortable.   Luckily, I escaped the Chikungunya.

More beautiful vanilla orchids ripe for the slaughter.

So after we had pollinated about 150 flowers, it was time to head back into town so I could catch my snorkeling tour, which I've already written about - saw a shark, dove in caves, was always slightly terrified, but survived).

Then after the tour, I was invited to the Coconut oil factory for a tour. The 'factory' is also owned by my hotel owner, and it is right across the street from my hotel, and they live right there as well. They are quite the entrepreneurs, and have done well for themselves down in Tonga (originally Aussies), and they have set up a completely waste-free facility on their property.  Each project has led to waste product, which they then have turned into another project, and the chain has continued until they have been able to close the loop entirely.  It was a fascinating tour, and kind of an inspiration to just keep dabbling in things. Their operation was really cool. I'll try my best to recount the details.

We'll start with the coconuts:  They come from EVERYWHERE on the island, and lots of local 'growers' sell their coconuts to this factory:

So they all have to be shelled.  That guy could peel a coconut in about 20 seconds. I can peel one in about 5 minutes if I stretch, get a practice run, and have someone 'loosen' it for me.

Coconuts everywhere.  Once peeled, they go inside where someone processes them a little more, then they go into a big grinder and the bits are kind of sent through a huge juicer and the coconut milk comes out a spout and the flakes come out in this pan:

Or maybe the one above is just a shredder, and then the wet flakes are pressed and the juice comes out down here and the dry flakes go in this pan:
So then the juice goes into large vats, where chemical reactions or temperature changes or something happens, and you get Coconut oil!  Voila!  I should have taken notes.

So now to discuss some of the 'no waste' aspects. What do they do with all those coconut shells?  fire kindling..   Coconut flakes?  Feed it to their pigs.
Pig manure? Dump it in a crab mud flat they are building
Crab shells? feet it to the pigs and chickens

Their goal is to provide lots of local food items under the Taste of Tonga name, and provide as many Tongan local organic foods as possible while remaining waste-free.

They also run the vanilla business, so a lot of the coconut shells go around the bases of the host trees to the vanilla vines in the plantations, which provide mulch and structure to the soil in the fields. 

They are also working on several other projects, but you'll just have to go visit because the details were so intricate that I"ve forgotten how it all fits together. But it was impressive.

Back to the vanilla, real quick.
They walked me through the processing of the vanilla beans...
Beans are graded based on their size, color, and imperfections.
Once you get ripe beans, you collect them, and start the drying process, which is elaborate. Here's where they work on processing all of it:

The Beans go on racks to dry.  At some point, you have to bundle them up while a little moist (?) so they ferment themselves, but don't rot... so you have to inspect the bundles often to make sure they aren't molding.  Then they dry again, then 'sweat' again.  and the process continues...

These beans are probably half-way through the process.

There were racks and racks of them
It turns out, vanilla beans take a few years to produce from start to finish (plant to mature processed bean), which is why they are expensive.  An operation like this can be quite lucrative, which is how it became such an industry in Tonga. There was a big storm in Madagascar a while back that destroyed a bunch of vanilla plantations, so there was a gap in the market, so lots of other places pounced at the chance to break into the market with hopes of competing for a slice of the pie by the time Madagascar recovered from the storm. (remember it takes years)

So this storage crate holds what will probably sell for a few  hundred thousand dollars' worth of vanilla beans...

so after the tour, I thought I was going to just go to town and eat by myself and go to bed early.... Turns out, the hotel owners showed up at the restaurant I was eating at, and invited me to join them and their friend. We had a nice dinner, then they said I HAD to go to the Fakaleiti show that night. They'd drop me off. It was a MUST.

Turns out, Fakaleiti's are boys that are raised as girls. There are a lot of Polynesian cultures that do this. Many families will have enough boys, but will need more help with the indoor 'female' tasks, so they decide that a boy will be raised as a girl. I don't know why they don't just treat them like a boy and have them set the table or something, but it's their culture. So it is pretty common to see a fakaleiti anywhere in town, which is just a man dressed like a woman. Often, they are more overtly feminine than the average woman. They are sometimes considered a third gender in some countries. Some just consider them women. (they are called different things in the different polynesian cultures that have this).  and by the way, Fakaleiti is generally pronounced 'Fuckalady', which is almost too much to believe.
... So back to the Fakaleiti show. Apparently every Monday at a local bar is the Fakaleiti show, and it's a huge deal. I saw more people there than any other single spot in Vava'u.  It was a major event, and apparently every Monday is the same. They basically just put on a drag show, and the people love it. It was pretty entertaining, I have to admit. The crowd participation was impressive. One of the most involved crowd members ended up being my whale swimming guide the next morning!  We talked a lot about it the next morning. He was Australian as well, and said that it is accepted/expected to be very participatory and supportive of the fakaleiti's of Tonga. He said they are generally very well-treated and there's no stigma of dressing in drag for them, whereas I feel like there is still quite a bit of stigma associated with that type of thing in the States. But as I said, it is a commonly accepted third gender and the families choose to have one of their boys raised this way, so they would obviously be pretty content with the idea. It was very interesting. I talked to a girl at the 'ticket table' at this place before the show, and she told me all about it. I don't think it is quite as common as it used to be as gender roles all over the world have blurred slightly, but many families will still have a male child raised as a fakaleiti. 

So that was my day of just going with the flow. You  NEVER know where the day might take you. One minute you're in bed, then you can be pollinating vanilla orchids in the jungle, then snorkeling the reefs, seeing the inner workings of a coconut oil factory, and then BANG: fakaleiti drag show...  All in a day in Tonga.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Deep Sea Adventures

The biggest attraction of Vava'u is the ocean. The crystal clear, super-deep ocean full of enormous whales. after my biking day, I had a day of snorkeling and a day of swimming with whales booked. That's right: you can just swim with humpback whales.

But first the snorkeling trip:
This is how bright the water was.

We spent the day bouncing around from reef to reef, and stopped at several sea caves to explore.

All these little tiny islands are just clumped together, and along the edges of the islands you have a rim of coral that is bursting with color and fish. However, within about 30 feet from the cliff edges of the islands (they are mostly cliffs, very few beaches), the seafloor just plummets straight down into a cobalt abyss. It was pretty, and scary. some would say pretty scary.

I didn't have a waterproof camera with me, which is a real shame, so I apologize for not having more exciting pictures of the snorkeling adventure. Here are some highlights from the day though:
1. I could dive down and while I was swimming under water, I could hear whales singing in the distance. At one point it got so loud I felt like they were going to just swim right by the underwater cliff edge I was on. It was unreal.

2. I basically swam with a shark. A shark that could have probably killed one of us if it wanted. Luckily it just swam by and left. I have to admit that this wasn't as scary as I thought it would be. It was more of a sensation of "oh that's cool! A shark!", which is not the reaction I thought i would have. I'm always a little afraid that I"ll be eaten by a shark, but not afraid enough to avoid these situations.

3. There were several sea caves we went to. This is one of them:
This one was very tall for its opening, and very deep on the inside, as in 60-80 feet? As we were swimming into it, it was getting a little dark, and I could see something HUGE way down deep in the water, and got a little freaked out, but it turned out to be an enormous school of fish down there in a big ball-like cluster, just slowly swirling around in the bottom of the cave. It is apparently a very safe, cozy place for them to hang out. 
Another cave was nearby, so we swam over to it, and it had a small side room that you had to swim under water to get to, but its ceiling was open, and it was fairly light in there, so I swam under. After 3 seconds of terror, I realized it was actually really cool. No one else in the group, including the guide, came with me, so I was swimming blindly through some water tunnel, which was a bit unnerving, but I was rewarded with some amazing views.
The third cave was the coolest. It actually only has an underwater entrance, and the whole room is sealed from above, so the air that is in there is just trapped. This creates for a couple of interesting features. Firstly, it is quite dark in there, but luckily the tunnel is fairly large, and the water is so clear that enough light pours in from under the water, that it puts a light blue glow in the cave. Secondly, every time a wave would otherwise be crashing on the wall outside the cave and the pressure from the rising water increases in the cave, the air is compressed, and it turns to fog. At this point, you feel the pressure build in your ears, then the water level drops, the fog disappears, and your ears are fine again. It was incredible to see the fog come and go every 30 seconds. 
I was also the only person from my group to go into this cave, so once again, I swam by myself into a dark tunnel under water. This one was a bigger deal. You have to go down about 6 -10 feet, then in about 12 feet. The guide said she wasn't actually able to ever make it, so she didn't try this time, and that scared everyone else from actually trying. I have to say I'm glad I did it though. Turning around to look back through the tunnel was amazing. It was basically black everywhere, then just a huge Bright blue beam of light that you swim through. Just ignore all the monsters that are lurking everywhere, and it's an incredible experience.

More people sailing the friendly seas.

And that concluded my snorkeling trip. (A post is coming soon to share with you all the events from the morning before and the evening after this snorkeling trip. Basically, there were a lot of 'suggested' activities from the locals that are worthy of their own post!)

Next Day:
Whale Swimming!!!

As I've mentioned before, this is where whales live. Luckily, they are nice, and lots of people can take you on a tour to swim with them. You can only get within a certain distance from them, you can't touch them, only 4 people can be in the water with them at a time, and you can't chase them. There are other rules, too, I'm sure.

But, you basically take turns swimming out to just lurk around some whales, and if they don't mind, they'll just sit there and swim around with you. If they do mind, they give around one tail flip and they're gone. We were luck enough to find a Mom and baby pair of humpback whales that welcomed our company for most of the day.

Again, I didn't have an underwater camera, which is a pity, because the pictures would have been epic. 

Here's our group.

Once we had located our whales, it was time to set out in shifts to swim out to them (just follow the guide and try to not splash around very much. )  Turns out, whales are HUGE. It's pretty intimidating, yet oddly comfortable being so close to these things. They are just so graceful. 

Here's the baby playing at the surface



He was very playful.

Sunning his belly!
The baby was easily the size of a van, and the Mom was the size of a bus.

At one point, two large males came to escort them around for a while. One of them and I had a moment. He swam up right under me, which was a little scary, but then he stopped and rolled over on his back and just laid there under water right under me and hung out there for a while. He started playing with us a little and our guide rolled onto his side and stuck his arms out, and the whale mimicked him!  Apparently if they are comfortable, they will mirror you and come closer. So that was a pretty cool encounter. Another time, the Mom came really close, and I had to swim away really fast to avoid getting hit by her pectoral fin (which is the same size as me), then her giant tail. 
A lot of places talk about looking into the eye of a whale being a cool experience. it's true. I thought "ok, that probably won't be that impactful", but it does, in fact, pack kind of a punch. It just feels like they know they're looking you in the eye and trying to communicate.

Here's my group coming in from another encounter.

I intentionally didn't ask how deep the water was the first time I got in because I just didn't want to know. So after about half of the day was over, and I had swam around out there for a long time already, I asked. The answer was 240 feet deep! Whoa!

So after lots of sessions with our whales, we ended up swinging back by the caves, which was a fun.

I should say it was fun until I went ONE MORE TIME (we were all swimming back and forth checking out the place) into the one cave where you have to swim way under water to get to (which was less scary because i had already done it, and other people went at the same time), then I'm pretty sure I perforated my right eardrum. I was basically deaf for the rest of the day, and I've had really gradual improvement ever since. Totally worth it, to be honest.

Cave entrance (the one with all the fish in the bottom, they were still there)

Pretty awesome place!  

So that's the recap of my underwater adventures in Vava'u!  If you want to see awesome underwater pics of the things I saw, google Swallows Cave Tonga, Mariners Cave Tonga, and Vava'u Whale swim. the places really look like all the google image pictures of these places. It was really incredible.