Sunday, February 28, 2016

Restful Days in Rarotonga

Rarotonga, about a 10-hour flight from Los Angeles, is the capital of the Cook Islands and the largest of the 15 islands that make up the nation. A self-administered territory of New Zealand, the Cook Islands use the New Zealand dollar, although coins are minted that are unique to these beautiful islands.

Taken from the deck in front of the swimming pool at the cottage we stayed in.

Just down the breach from us.

We liked Rarotonga. The island is not large: you can ride a bike around it in about 3 hours. Of the 13,000 people in the Cook Islands, 10,000 live on Rarotonga. A few islands are very remote, with supply ships reaching them only every two or three months.

Some guidebooks have described the island as “like Hawaii used to be,” and it does have the flavor one associates with a Polynesian land—coconut palms, sandy beaches, lush vegetation, and friendly people.  More than 18 international flights land on Rarotonga every week, but there are fewer tourists here than in either Fiji or Tahiti. 

The island has no stop lights, and scooters are the preferred mode of transportation for locals (including entire families on one bike) as well as for tourists. The two buses that circumnavigate the island are labeled (sensibly enough) Clockwise and Anti-Clockwise. We bought a 10-ticket pass for the bus, which served us for the week.

The little cottage we stayed in at Manea Beach Villas was just about perfect for our needs. Simply furnished with wicker furniture, it had a bedroom with air-conditioning, a small, but efficient, kitchen, and a deck overlooking the pool and the lagoon beyond.

­­We were within walking distance of two small grocery stores and the wifi store. Wifi was very expensive ($19 NZ for 200 megabytes, about $12 USD), but we realized that we were lucky to have Internet access at all, given how far we were from any mainland. 

 The view from our deck made it a favorite spot for relaxing.

 Our cottage was right behind the boat house.

While the lagoon lay just beyond the pool.

We had a TV with two channels,­­­­ one in the Maori language. One channel was from New Zealand, but I couldn’t tell if the Maori channel was local or also from New Zealand. (The Maori languages in both places are similar, which is not surprising, since the original inhabitants of New Zealand came from the Cook Islands.)

One day, when I was trying to tune in the TV looking for news, the rabbit ears fell off and one broke. I reported this to Rachel, the manager. “Did you notice any difference when it broke off?,” she asked. “Well, no, I can’t say that the picture was any better or any worse,” I said. “Welcome to our world,” she replied.­­­­­­­­­­­  (I simply propped the rabbit ear against the wall, and I was never charged.)

We spent our days mostly lazing around the cottage.  I snorkeled in the lagoon and swam in the pool. We read a lot and guarded our rapidly depleting megabytes of Internet usage. I had wanted to finish my blog entries for Morocco, which I had failed to complete at home, because I was sick when we were there for the holidays. But in Rarotonga, both the cost and weak signal kept me from making any blog posts, forcing me to relax. 

And why not, when we had the lagoon to explore?  We could walk over to the motus (small islets) when the tide was low.

We enjoyed our brief forays into town, where everyone was friendly. 

The other tourists were mostly New Zealanders and Canadians. We had some good chats with the Canadians, including one woman, slightly older than I, who said she was thrilled that Justin Trudeau had been elected the new Canadian prime minister. She said, “We saw him grow up. And most of the women my age think of him almost as a grandson.”

I loved the fact that while there are a few large hotel complexes, there aren’t many.  Even the larger ones are nestled into the vegetation, and none is taller than the coconut palms.  Many resorts are small mom-and-pop operations, like ours, which had only about six cottages.

We sampled the local cuisine very cheaply. Four nights a week there was a night market just down the road from us, where we could buy local specialties from the stands.  Mostly, they were dishes of fish, chicken, or pork with rice or couscous, but most were quite good. Kevin even made a friend.

Flowers were everywhere—lining the roads, and in the hair of the local women.  It seemed to be the local style, not something done just for tourists.

In town, we visited two sad little museums, one a local one associated with the library, and the other, which we think was a state-sponsored museum. Both were sad little places with not many exhibits, because the best artifacts from the Cook Islands are in the British Museum or elsewhere. But a talk with a woman (the director?) at one museum explained that Rarotonga does not have the money to properly care for rare pieces (humidity control, for instance). She told us about one of the newer exhibits that featured modern fashions using traditional materials. The prize-winning costume had been financed by a grandfather, who was born in Rarotonga. Yet he had wanted the costume to be exhibited in Papua New Guinea, because he knew the facilities there could preserve it.

While we appreciated the charm of Rarotonga, we were also aware that times are often tough for the local people. The community is small, and they help each other, but jobs can be hard to get, and the profits from the resorts, especially the larger ones, go primarily to New Zealand and Australia, where the investors live.

Rarotonga faces another problem.  In the last few years, it has been battling an algae bloom in its lagoon, and if that issue isn’t solved soon, tourism will rapidly decline. The algae, which is like a seaweed that attaches to the bottom of the lagoon, is all around the island.  It is caused by sewage effluent flowing into the lagoon and, I think, is exacerbated by warming waters. The officials have threatened to shut down some resorts by April, if they don’t bring their septic systems into compliance with the law. Also, owners have been told to remove some old fish traps that have kept the lagoon from flushing with the tides. 

In spite of the difficulties, everyone in Rarotonga hastened to add that the lagoon was safe to swim in, and the water that is not affected by the algae is crystal clear. But the need to snorkel around the bloom detracted from the beauty. (The dark patches in the water are algae.)

We did not go to Aitutaki, an island about a 50-minute flight from Rarotonga, which still has a pristine lagoon.  With fewer tourists and little infrastructure, it is said to be the remote island paradise of one’s dreams. But it would have added significantly to our costs to make that excursion, so we decided to stay on Rarotonga.

We hope Rarotonga can solve its algae problems. It should be possible. After all, our own Lake Washington in Seattle was once so dirty that swimming was unsafe and its fish were dying. It was the first large lake in the U.S. to be reclaimed from pollution. So Kevin and I will hope for the best for Rarotonga. We liked its people, its beauty, and it’s lack of glitz. We savored its laid-back lifestyle, including the goats--and the stray dogs and chickens who paid us daily visits.

 A beautiful spot. Don't you agree?

Addition:  We were amused that the blast zone where the jet-wind from takeoffs is at its highest is marked on a map of Rarotonga as a fun place to be! (See center top of map.)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Our Moroccan Odyssey, Part Three

Kevin outside the medina in Fes. There are no cars inside the medina.

Fes (or Fez) was founded in 789. Its walled city (medina) doesn't just look old, it feels old. The antiquity almost seeps into your bones.

We loved the riad, or guesthouse, we stayed in. The rooms were arranged around a corridor on the second floor, which looks down onto the interior courtyard, where we ate breakfast.

(There are dars and riads, and at one time the definition was distinct. If I understand correctly, a dar might have a simple patio, while a riad was a house with a central courtyard, which was large enough to have a garden or a few trees. Today, however, the terms are used somewhat interchangeably.)  As soon as you enter the guesthouse, a staff member offers you a place in the courtyard and serves you  mint tea and perhaps some cookies, a welcome treat.

Although I had read about the labyrinth of streets in the medinas of Morocco, I was always taken aback when entering a door from the dusty walled streets and arriving at a cool, restful place like our riad or a lush, green garden. How magical!

Our riad put us in touch with Idris (ee-driss), a guide who took us through the medina. How appropriate! The founder of the city was named Idris.  We thought we had photos of him, but we were sad to discover we did not. Dressed in a long black robe, Idris, who was probably in his 60s, introduced us to the many nooks and crannies of the old city, and its merchants and artisans.

We saw, but could not photograph, the city's iconic dye pots for its tanneries, because the medina is being refurbished, and we had to crane our heads around the corner of a building, just to get a glimpse of the colorful pots. We did smell the tanneries, though, and the odor was so strong and unpleasant that I began to breathe through my mouth.

And there were food items. Snails, anyone? These were so fresh they were wriggling.

Kevin got his Swiss army knife sharpened by a young man who ran the sharpening wheel with his foot, while he moved the edge of the knife across the surface, pouring water on it to keep it from getting too hot. Kevin paid about 40 cents, and it was sharp!

Donkeys transport goods around the town.

At one shop, where they sold camel meat, Kevin took a photo of a young boy underneath a severed camel head. While it is a striking photograph, I found it a bit disturbing, so I'm not including it here. I realize my reaction is that of someone from the highly sanitized Western world, but I can't help that! It was a fascinating contrast, however.

Now, do know what kind of shop this is? Do you see the keys?

This is what a realty "office" look likes in Fes!

The metalworkers in Fes produce some impressive pieces.

Because we were ill, we only saw about half of the places in the old city. We had to return to our riad to rest.  As we were leaving Fes the next day, we saw a man walking carrying four goat (?) legs and hooves, all tied together with a rope handle. We did a double-take. It put us in mind of all the office workers at home carrying a briefcase in much the same way as he was carrying the goat's feet. (Sorry, we only have a mental picture of that encounter.)

Soon we were on the train to Casablanca. But you will find no photos of Casablanca on this blog. When we reached that big modern city, we immediately grabbed a taxi to a Western-style hotel, where we ordered hamburgers and fries from room service! We washed them down with a bottle of red wine. Settled comfortably into our king-sized bed, we watched a silly movie in English. Yes, we may like the exotic, but when you are sick, there's nothing like the familiar!

We felt a little better the next day, so we jumped aboard the train to Marrakesh. I'm not sure if they still refer to that train as the Marrakesh Express--but we rode it with the Crosby, Stills and Nash tune playing in our heads.

We had booked a hotel in the medina of Marrakesh too, liking these ancient cities and finding each riad more luxurious than the one before.

Rose petals floated in the fountain, and the air was perfumed with their scent (aided, I think, by some potpourri).  The riad featured a roof terrace with a plunge pool, though it was too cold to use. We had a lovely room, complete with a flat-screen TV and a light breakfast included in the rate of $60/night.

All this beauty lies tucked in behind the medina walls.

The first evening in Marrakesh, we visited the famous square, Jemaa El-Fnaa, a UNESCO heritage site. Entering that vast space, I was tempted to utter, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."

Everything was wonderously strange and edged with a little frisson of fear, because we were alone and so far out of our element. We smelled meat cooking on barbeques, and, at one point, we made our way to a circle of men who were shouting to see what they were looking at:  it was a boxing match between two young boys not more than ten years old. The men were cheering them on, and possibly betting on the outcome. Strange indeed.

We ate pizza at a restaurant overlooking the square. It was our Thanksgiving meal! (Now you know how far behind I am, but I'm determined to catch up soon.) The pizza wasn't that good, but it was familiar, and we took comfort in that, and we were thankful for our good fortune.

The next day we returned to the square. This time it was filled with hucksters, orange-juice sellers, and tourists. 

At first, I was fascinated with the snake charmers.

I expected the snake charmers to treat their snakes like the man in Singapore, who charged a fee to let you photograph his golden boa. He took good care of the snake and treated it gingerly.

But the handler in the square began to kick at the cobra to get it to spread its hood.  That upset me. No creature should be mistreated.

I got up to leave. After telling us we could pay what we wanted to photograph the snakes, the handler then insisted we pay him the equivalent of $20. Kevin gave him the equivalent of $10 instead, which was still too much, and we walked away as he harangued us. 

Sometimes in developing countries, we mind getting mildly taken advantage of, but the snake charmers left me with a bad taste in my mouth and a sense of guilt for having subsidized them.  (Some say the snakes have been de-fanged, but I  read about a Marrakesh snake charmer who died last year after having been bitten.)

I especially felt sorry for the Barbary apes, whose owners paraded them around the square, also seeking tourists to pay to have their photos taken with those animals. A sad business all around.

Marrakesh has an attractive modern downtown, too, with wide, sunny boulevards and teeming traffic. (Worse for pedestrians than Rome--and that's saying something!)  We went there for a great Italian dinner one night, and it was so good we returned for lunch the next day. A nice change from cous-cous and chicken. 

Again, because we were not well, there were sights we did not explore in Marrakesh, but we did manage a visit to the Saadian tombs, which date from the late 16th century. Buried for centuries, they were re-discovered in 1917, with their elaborate tile work and carvings.

And then it was time to bid farewell to Morocco.  After a thorough pat-down at the airport (Morocco had been threatened by ISIS because the country had helped France and Belgium identify the terrorists who had attacked Paris), we flew to London.  

There, our great friend Shirley nursed our colds and fed us, and (above and beyond) let me watch the final season of Downton Abbey, which she had recorded, from her comfy sofa in her elegant London flat. (Did I feel special, seeing it before anyone else in the U.S.? You bet I did!)

After a few days of rest, we returned home to Seattle to see our family--whom we really missed--and to heal. Unfortunately, because we were still recovering from the virus, we did not get to visit all our family and friends, but we did get to spend Christmas with Aaron, Amanda, Aidan, Avery, and Matthew. After nearly nine months of travel, spending Christmas with them was all we really wanted!

(Next up: We continue our adventure in Rarotonga.)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Our Moroccan Odyssey, Part Two

View from our hotel balcony in Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen is known as the "Blue City" for the large number of blue buildings in the town.  Supposedly, Jewish immigrants started painting their houses blue when they came to the area in the 1930s, and then others adopted the practice.  It has made this old city, founded in 1471, into a tourist attraction.

The residents also claim the blue color deters mosquitoes, but I'm skeptical about that! We saw no mosquitoes when we were there, but then it wasn't a warm part of the year. We shivered the first night in our hotel room until we could get the heater to finally warm us up.

We were surprised by how green this part of northwestern Morocco is.  Spread across a hill in the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen is much higher than Tangier. The city kept getting more picturesque, the further up the hillside we walked.

We ate lunch at a pretty cafe.

And met a traditional musician.

If I don't look very animated, it's because the Barcelona Virus (note the caps) was beginning to take its toll on me.  (No, there is no official Barcelona Virus, but that's where Kevin and I caught the miserable colds that were to plague us for over two months.)

The dyes in the marketplace added more intense colors to the Blue City.

We stayed in Chefchaouen for two days, and then it was time to move on to Fes (Fez). Because the bus ride to Fes was a long one, we rented a car and driver for that trip. I wish I could report our driver was friendly, but he really wasn't! He spoke hardly any English, but that usually isn't a deterrent to striking up some sort of rapport. In this case, however, we never managed to connect, which is a little sad.

We left the green valleys of Northern Morocco for agricultural land that resembled Eastern Washington.

Soon, we would enter the fascinating ancient city of Fes.