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.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Lupin Weekend

I am starting to get things checked off the "want to do" list for while I'm back down here.  The weekend before thanksgiving I was able to get up to see the wild lupins again!  If you don't like flower pictures, turn back now, because the whole plan for the weekend was to try to get the best lupin pictures I could to send back to Rebecca and Cole.  It was nice to go on a solo trip and get out of Otautau for a bit.  The plan was to go through Queenstown, over the pass to Wanaka, up to Tekapo then home...

Not ten minutes down the road, the sheep farmers had their "sheep crossing" signs up and sure enough I ran into the herds, had to negotiate myself through them a bit.  The lambs are starting to get big!  They put paint on them to help with sorting.

First stop Queenstown on the shore of Lake Wakatipu.  Cloudy days but the mountains didn't care, still a great day to be out and about.  All the rain was still turning into snow above 600m or so, so still some white peaks.

The gorse had completely taken over the hillside.  Its a weed that's taking over.  I think its pretty, but what do I know...

I seem to take this picture every time I go to Queenstown, but I can't help it.  With the snow on the craggy peaks it is one of my favorite spots....

Onward over the pass... I stopped at the famous Cardrona hotel for a quick bite.  Here were the first signs of lupins.  They grow on a "weedy" looking base.  Some people plant them in their gardens for the nice flowers, others think it is a weed and pull it aggressively.

Steak, cider, fire and a book.  Doesn't get much better than this...

I hung around and read a little out back finishing my cider and enjoying their gardens before heading down the road a little further.  How old am I again?...

I spent my first night in Wanaka.  The next morning I took a look at the lake.  Usually giant peaks here, but the clouds were rolling in.  Rain was breaking through regularly.  Pretty nervous if the weekend was going to get rained out at this point, but I came this far so I carried on...

Heading out of Wanaka I stopped at the bridge crossing the Clutha River.  Some baby lupins trying to grow with some other small orange flowers here...

Around the corner was a better vantage point over the river... Rain coming and going, but the day is holding together so far.  Not many lupins to be seen thus far, but the search area is further down the road about 2 hours anyways...

And Eureka!  I found them in a valley near the clay ciffs outside of Omarama.  There were a few here last year, but this early in the season this looks like the epicenter...  Right in the valley with the Ahuriri River...  That doesn't look like it but I was standing on an embankment over the river there.

Across the river was absolutely covered in them!  Or as the Kiwis would say, it was "chockers!" (full up)

I found a narrow path that I could maneuver down to the river edge and get some close ups of the lupins on this side of the river...  They came in all colors... Some nice early pink ones here...

Purples and blues looking the other direction...

They can grow to tower very tall.  The tall flowers must be nearly two feet tall...

Gosh the river was full and raging... lots of rain keeping in muddy.  I didn't get any closer than this, no one out here with me to pull me out... :)

Tall ones standing guard over the river...

I pulled my self back up the embankment... they view across the river was crazy.  I might have to print this one out and hang it on the wall when I get home...

I hiked a little bit down stream and found another area where I could sneak down to the river.  The river had broken into smaller more manageable streams around here.  Still to high to venture across, but more views.  There were lupins as far as you could see...

They grow upwards with green fresh growth on the tops...

I wish I could describe to you the sweet smell you get from fields of lupins!

The rain kept coming and going.  Somehow I didn't mind.  Standing in the rain enjoying to flowers.  The water just made everything seem fresh and new.

Back on the road I found another large patch in a river valley under a bridge...

Chockers... :)

The new spot had the full range of colors.... Nice baby blue ones in the middle that you don't see very often...

All stages of growth her too...

Bright reds!

And pinks!

And purples!

They got really tall!

Back on the road I headed up towards Tekapo where we ran into our big lupin find last year.  Little did I know they weren't out there yet.  I thought there may be bigger fields yet to find, but most of the lupins were now behind me.  I took the opportunity to pull off the main road and drive up to lake Oahu.  It's one of those places we always pass but never go to because you are always on your way to Mt Cook.  But with no schedule I wanted to finally check it out.  There were massive hillsides going right into most brillant blue water from the glacial melt typical of the area.

The hillsides were full of sheep, happy as could be.  They don't see many people visitors up this way very often I don't think.  They were talking to each other enjoying the sun while it lasted...

The colors didn't seem real.  I got the feeling again I was staring at a painting again.  Awe-inspiring...
I drove around the lake enjoying the view before heading back towards tekapo...

I passed lake Pukaki, on a clear day you can see Mt. Cook from here, but this was not a clear day.  The water looked dark from the overhead clouds instead of that nice blue, but the nearer hills looked great.

You couldn't see Mt Cook, but some of her neighbors were out.  The clouds made everything grey with only an occasional sliver of bright blue water where the sun shone through.

I made it to tekapo, and the outskirts were barren.  There were fields full of early growth, but none of it was flowering yet.  Looks like I was about 3-4 weeks too early this year for tekapo!  Luckily I saw all those great ones earlier, and there were a few young ones out by the famous church of the good shepherd on the rocky shore of lake Tekapo.

Lots of colors here too.  This area is very popular from the tourists though, hundreds of people around and the ground is heavily beaten.  Hard to get any quiet or good pictures without a bunch of them...

These ones had some red tops on them...

If I fiddled with my camera I could get the mountains in the distance over the lake...

I stopped by to check out the hillbillies on the way home for Cole and Rebecca's sake.  Sorry guys, it was closed.  If you haven't seen that whole experience click through these links for posts on the whole bizarre story!  Hillbilly Video

Time to head back to work...  One last glimpse of the lupins on my way out (in the sun!).

Pip was in Queenstown and had a house for a nice long week on the lake so I "called in" (stopped by) to visit for a while.  Not a bad view.  Had some lunch looking at the Remarkables mountain range before heading home.   Another nice weekend in the books.

Only three days now before I head back to the United States for good.  Mixed feelings.  Can't wait to be home, and yet never want to leave.  It will be nice to be home for a real family Christmas.  Have not had a family holiday for a few years now.  I just missed Thanksgiving at home too... but you won't believe the doubtful sound trip that I took for Thanksgiving.  I will post that next (crayfishing and dolphins!).  Stay tuned and see you all states-side soon!